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the stranger

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At first Derek thinks there’s a teenage girl staggering around the woods on the estate, all coltish limbs and elegant fingers and delicate rose-pink lips, and his heart leaps into his throat. But then the stranger’s hood falls back to reveal a buzz cut and, when he turns around, the beginnings of an Adam’s apple.

The guy doesn’t scream when he lays eyes on Derek. Derek chooses to count that as a good sign.

“Shit, I’m hallucinating,” the guy mutters instead, and collapses in the snow.

Derek edges closer. Did he… did he just faint?

He didn’t die, because Derek can still hear a heartbeat. But he’s just lying there on his back in the snow, eyes closed, mouth open. His left ankle, visible where the leg of his pants has ridden up, is swollen and slowly turning an ugly, mottled purple. No wonder he was walking so oddly.

God, humans are fragile.

He wakes up about a minute after Derek starts bridal-carrying him towards the house. Before Derek can say anything, the guy socks him in the face, then tries to crawl away on hands and knees while Derek’s doubled over, staunching the blood with his sleeve. Little shit.

Derek catches up to him in only a few paces but makes no move to grab him. He doesn’t want to scare the kid. Too much, anyway. It is pretty satisfying watching him crawling around clumsily in the snow; Derek’s nose is still throbbing.

“How far do you think you’re going to get like that?” Derek asks after a minute or so.

“Shut up,” the guy snarls. “And don’t touch me.” He’s shivering. Not surprising, really. He’s only wearing jeans and sneakers and the red hoodie that had first caught Derek’s eye through the trees.

“You’ve hurt your ankle,” Derek says.

The guy grunts. “No shit, Sherlock.”

“We have a doctor. Up at the house.”

“Sure you do.”

"Well, he’s more of a—a vet,” Derek admits, “but he’s better than nothing.”

Finally the guy stops moving and just lies belly-down in the snow. “Fuck everything. This is the worst day of my life. I’m not hallucinating and I’m going to get murdered. Murdered and eaten.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Well, of course you’re going to say that. That’s what you want me to think.”

Derek stamps his feet in the snow a little, trying to warm them up. “Of course it’s what I want you to think, because it’s true. Just let me help you.“

The guy sniffs. "No.”

Oh, for god’s sake. Moving fast so the guy doesn’t have time to kick him, Derek swoops down and picks him up in a fireman’s carry, then sets off again for the house.

Once the guy stops shouting and banging his fists on the small of Derek’s back, the walk is almost pleasant.

*

Laura and Cora—feather duster and flower vase, respectively—are sitting on the dining room table playing chess when Derek bursts into the room.

“Oh my god, what did you do,” Cora yells, leaping up so fast she scatters daisy petals everywhere. Which is about when Derek remembers he’s still spattered in blood.

“Nothing!” Derek says, hastily crossing his arms over his chest to hide the worst of it. “Nosebleed. It’s nothing. I’m fine. But—there’s a visitor—”

Laura’s practically quivering with excitement. “A girl? Derek, is it a girl?”

Derek shakes his head. “A boy.”

Laura slumps, her feathers deflating; Cora lets out a long breath.

“He’s in the library with Deaton. And he’s terrified of us.”

“Or maybe he’s just terrified of you,” Laura suggests as she hops down from the table. “I don’t think anyone could be terrified of me.”

I’m terrified of you,” Derek says, and he’s only half-joking.

“Har har.” Laura tickles the back of his ankle on her way past, and Derek jerks and smacks his elbow on the door.

Cora snorts. “C’mon, Der-bear, let’s go.”

*

“He’s a bit dehydrated, but that’s an easy fix,” Deaton says. “The bigger problem is, he can’t walk. Not for another four weeks, at least, and not without crutches of some kind. Of course, without access to an X-ray machine, and without any hands,” he glances down ruefully at his candlestick arms, “it’s hard for me to say for sure whether his ankle is fractured or just badly sprained, but either way, he’ll need to wait for it to heal.”

Derek glances over at Laura. She’s entertaining herself with tickling the arch of the boy’s bare foot. He twitches away and mumbles something in his sleep.

Cora huffs. “So we’re stuck with him, is what you’re saying.”

“For the foreseeable future, yes. In his condition, it would be most unwise for him to attempt the mile’s walk to the front gate, let alone however long he’d already walked when he stumbled upon the estate.”

Derek keeps his face impassive, but inside, he’s cautiously optimistic. Not counting this morning, it’s been almost a decade since he’s had a conversation with anyone who looks even remotely human. Even if this guy does hate him, it’s got to be better than talking to a veterinarian-turned-candelabra.

*

Derek can’t find bandages anywhere. Perks of being a werewolf, everything heals too fast to need them. In the end, he settles on ripping jagged strips of fabric from one of Cora’s old floral dresses with his claws.

“You asshole, you can’t do that!” Cora shrieks when she walks in. “That’s mine.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not like you’re going to be needing it any time soon, is it,” Derek snaps before he can think better of it.

Cora retreats in sulky silence.

*

The whole time Derek’s easing the kid’s shoe off and ineptly wrapping his ankle based on some frustratingly vague instructions from Deaton, the guy never stirs. He looks worryingly pale. Deaton assures him it’s nothing. Still, when Derek deposits him on the bed in the spare room adjoining Derek’s, he makes sure to tuck him in under all the blankets he can find so he’ll be sure to warm up.

The guy’s been carrying around a wallet in his hoodie pocket, which Derek knows because it fell out as Derek was carrying him up the stairs. Derek doesn’t feel even a little bit guilty about snooping.

According to his driver’s license, his name is Mieczysław Stilinski. Unfortunate.

He was born in 1997, which makes him… Derek has to count on his fingers. Eighteen. Three years older than Derek was at the time of the curse. Seven years younger than Derek now.

His address is listed as Beacon Hills, California, two hours away.

Derek strokes a thumb over the guy’s headshot thoughtfully. “What the hell are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”

*

Derek comes back again later, alone, with a tray of soup and sandwiches his mom helped him put together. She’s a kitchen knife, which is practical enough but not very comforting.

When Derek knocks on Mieczysław’s door, there’s a brief rustling from within the room and then silence.

“Hey, Mee-chess-slaw,” Derek calls. “Open up.”

“It’s Mee-uh-chez-waf, you imbecile,” the guy says. At least, that’s what Derek thinks he says. He pronounces it pretty fast. “But I go by Stiles.”

“Well, whatever you’re called, I brought you lunch.”

“Leave it on the floor,” Mieczysław—Stiles—orders. “I’ll get it later.”

“No,” Derek says, and kicks lightly at the door. “That’s stupid. You could forget and step in it. Just come get it.”

“I’m not stupid,” Stiles scoffs. “I’m not opening the door.”

Derek could kick down the door without breaking a sweat if he really wanted to. Not that he would; his mom would kill him. But it’s still nice to at least imagine scaring the bejeezus out of him. He sighs. “Listen, I can’t help how I look, but I’m not going to hurt you.”

There’s no response, but Derek can hear the guy hesitating just on the other side of the door, his heartbeat racing.

Finally, the lock clicks and the door opens just enough for Stiles to peer warily out into the hall. In one hand he’s gripping a brass candlestick like a baton.

Derek’s tempted to roll his eyes, but he manages to restrain himself somehow. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to hit me with that.”

“Don’t give me a reason to and I won’t,” Stiles retorts. He’s staring at Derek intently, and Derek knows just what’s caught his eye: the triangular fur-tipped ears, the vivid gold eyes, the fangs pressing a little bit into his lower lip. A monster.

Stiles tilts his head curiously. “Are you the one who bandaged my foot?”

“Yeah,” Derek says.

Stiles glances down at the tray in Derek’s hands, then back up at his face. He hesitates, then puts down the candle holder. Progress.

“I’m Derek, by the way.”

Stiles snorts.

“What?”

“I just… was not expecting that,” Stiles says.

“Why? Because I look like…”

Stiles doesn’t deny it, just shrugs and opens the door a little wider. “You can come in, if you want.” He gestures to his hurt ankle. “Save me from dropping food everywhere as I drag myself back to bed.”

So Derek does.

*

Once Stiles has accepted that Derek’s not going to kill, eat, or maim him, he can’t seem to shut up.

“Why’s it snowing outside?” he asks as soon as he’s cleared his plate.

“It always snows here.”

“But it’s July. It’s California in July.”

“It’s complicated,” Derek hedges, because his mom specifically told him not to say anything about the curse. Stiles is leaving soon; he doesn’t need to know.

Stiles rolls his eyes and digs his phone out of his pocket. It’s sleek and small with no obvious buttons anywhere. Derek has no idea how it works. The last time he left Hale property, it was 2005. “Okay, Mr. Mysterious, but tell me this. Do you guys have cell service anywhere in your giant mansion?”

“No.”

“Then I don’t suppose there’s any internet, either.”

“That’s right.”

“What about a landline?”

“No. Well, technically yes, but it’s down.”

Stiles makes a frustrated sound. “What, seriously? For how long? What if there’s an emergency?”

“Indefinitely. And Dr. Deaton takes care of emergencies.”

“You said he was a veterinarian. That doesn’t count.”

“He’s been my family’s doctor for more than a decade now.”

“Then why did you patch up my ankle and not him?”

“It’s complicated.”

Stiles sighs and pushes aside his now-empty tray. “Of course it is.” His eyes narrow. “Is all of this really just a ploy to kidnap me?”

It’s Derek’s turn to roll his eyes. “You think I’d want to keep you here? On purpose?”

“That’s not a no.”

“I promise you can leave as soon as you can walk out of here.”

“That could take ages! Why can’t you just drive me back to civilization? Like, today?”

“I don’t have a driver’s license, and I can’t leave the property.”

Stiles groans. “Why the hell not? No, wait, don’t tell me. It’s complicated?”

“You’re a fast learner,” Derek smirks, and stands. “I’ll take these dishes down to the kitchen for you.”

Stiles reaches out and snags Derek’s sleeve as he leans down to pick up the tray. “Derek,” he says, his face upturned, insistent. “I have to tell my dad I’m okay. I mean, he knew I was camping out in an area with shitty cell service, but eventually he’s going to start to worry. And he’s a cop, so he’s going to assume the worst. I can’t do that to him. I have to talk to him.”

Derek stares straight ahead, something cold and guilty settling in the pit of his stomach. “I’m sorry,” he says. He can feel Stiles’ hand start to tremble on his arm. “But that won’t be possible.”

*

Stiles keeps his door locked for a week after that. Derek leaves him his meals on a fold-out tray by the door. He tries talking to him but gets no response. He tries giving Stiles novels, old magazines, even a pair of crude crutches he made himself, but Stiles won’t touch any of it.

Finally, on the eighth day, Derek caves. “I’ll tell you why it’s complicated,” he says, and Stiles unlocks the door.

*

“So, let me get this straight,” Stiles says, pacing precariously up and down the library on his crutches. “You’re a werewolf—which, by the way, I didn’t even think existed until a few minutes ago, holy shit—but you’re stuck looking like… like that, because of a curse your bitter, secretly-a-witch ex-girlfriend laid on you. And your family’s stuck looking like a bunch of common household objects, à la Beauty and the Beast.”

“Yeah, I think that’s where Kate got the idea,” Derek says.

“And your sister’s a duster, your other sister’s a vase, your mom’s a kitchen utensil, your dad’s a teapot, your vet is a candlestick, and your uncle…”

“Is a batshit crazy grandfather clock stuck on the third floor because he can’t manage stairs,” Derek nods.

Stiles raises his eyebrows. “Okay, no going on the third floor, got it. Oh yeah, and most important for me, this curse is also the reason you can’t leave, or contact anybody. And to lift the curse, you’ve got to kiss a girl.”

Derek makes a face. “Fall in love with one. It’s different.”

Stiles rolls his eyes. “Yeah, idiot, I know it’s different. But I mean, to seal the deal, you’ve got to kiss her. Disney-style. True love and all that shit.”

“Exactly.”

“But you can’t go get this girl; she’s gotta come here on her own. By accident.”

Derek sighs. “Yeah.”

“Or, ooh, I could go get you a girl. Set you up an eHarmony profile or something. ‘Cursed supernatural creature seeks any woman who’s willing to come to his creepy castle and kiss him.’ That should work nicely.”

“Very funny. Even assuming you could walk more than a few feet,” Derek says, eyeing the sweat that’s beading on Stiles’ forehead just from walking around the library, “I’m pretty sure Kate did something to make this place next to impossible to find if you’re actually looking for it. You’re the first person to come here since the curse. I bet you won’t come back once you leave. You won’t be able to come back. I mean, maybe no one who knew my family was even a little bit curious when we disappeared, but on the other hand… maybe they just haven’t been able to find anything.”

“Or Kate magicked them into forgetting you even exist,” Stiles says. “You have to admit, if she can turn a werewolf into a sentient feather duster, a little memory wipe or two is not outside the realm of possibility here.”

“Yeah,” Derek says glumly.

Stiles drops down beside him on the settee and pats Derek’s knee. “We’ll figure something out, buddy.”

Yeah, that’s what Derek thought, too. Ten years ago.

*

They take to spending a lot of time in the library, searching out all the books the Hales have on spells, witches, folklore, fairy tales, anything that might be even remotely relevant. It turns out there are a lot of things Stiles considers even remotely relevant.

“I’ve already read most of these,” Derek protests from behind a towering armload of books. Stiles just gives him a look and drops another volume on the pile. “Okay, fine. Skimmed. But—”

“But nothing. I might see something you didn’t. And I’ll actually read them. Carefully.”

So Derek gives in and helps him search.

*

The thing is, Derek has gotten good at the way things are. He has a routine. He wakes at 7 AM sharp, pulls on his jogging clothes and makes a long loop of the property, down the driveway for a mile through the trees, then following the fence out to the pond and around the gazebo to the rose gardens and the greenhouses and up the gravel path to the back of the house. In the kitchen, his dad pours him a cup of tea to warm up, and then it’s up to Deaton’s office for tutoring until lunch, which he eats outside, sitting on one of the rocking chairs on the balcony despite the chill. He likes the view, the hint of summer green in the distance that marks the edge of Hale land. In the afternoons he gardens in the greenhouses or, if the snow’s falling too hard, naps on the cushioned window seat in Laura’s room. It still smells faintly like her, the real her.

But Stiles leaves him feeling unmoored from it all, never sure what to expect. Sometimes he sleeps until noon. Other days, he bursts into Derek’s room at 5 AM, full of frenetic energy, rambling about something in one of his books that might, just might, be the key to it all. He eats like a starving man and sends Derek down to the kitchens at all hours for snacks. He doesn’t like to be left alone, and he hates silence.

Derek likes it, though. Likes the way Stiles laughs, a full-body exuberance, the fact that he does it so easily. He likes watching Stiles when Stiles doesn’t know he’s looking: when Stiles is reading, biting his lip, his gaze intense, his fingers fiddling with the hem of his shirt or the corner of a page. And he likes lying awake at night, staring up at the ceiling and matching his breathing to Stiles’ on the other side of the wall. He likes knowing there’s another heartbeat besides his own in this big, echoing house.

What Derek likes most of all is sitting on his bed with Stiles, both of them reading, some part of their bodies touching: knees, arms, thighs… and one memorable evening, hands: Stiles’ coming to rest tentatively atop Derek’s, both of them holding their breath and then letting it go, relaxing into each other, Derek twining their fingers together without meeting Stiles’ eyes. It’s been so long since Derek touched anyone at all.

“You think he’s interested in you?” Cora scoffs when Derek goes into the kitchen to fetch a box of thin mints. (They’re Stiles’ favorite.) “You’re a freak to him, Derek. He’s never going to love you.”

The next day she follows him down the hall, screaming, “Don’t you dare fall in love with him! Don’t— don’t you dare do that to us, you selfish asshole.”

If she were still a werewolf, Derek thinks, she’d have him pinned against the wall, a clawed hand at his throat.

But as it is, she’s just a vase, and she can’t do a thing to stop him.

*

When Derek says goodbye to Stiles at the doorway to his room that night, Stiles glances down lingeringly, obviously, at Derek’s mouth before gently shutting the door between them. Derek lies awake for hours thinking about it. Thinking that Cora is probably right. Derek is being selfish.

But he doesn’t want to stop. He’s never had anything like this easy friendship with Stiles. His first and last relationship was Kate, and that was when he was only 15 and didn’t know yet what he wanted. He’s spent pretty much his entire adult life living like a monk.

And anyway, he tells himself, it’s not like Stiles is going to stick around. He’s got a family and a life, and Derek sees the way he gets restless sometimes, stuck inside this house all day every day. He sees the way Stiles pauses, gazing wistfully out the windows, like a caged animal. No, he won’t be staying.

Why does it matter if Derek lets himself feel things, just for a little bit, before he has to go back to the way things were before?

He’ll have the whole rest of his life to break the curse after Stiles is gone.

*

“Is this—was this—you?” Stiles asks one day, pausing in the hall outside the library.

He’s studying the yearbook photo of Derek and Laura and Cora, all of them standing around in their high school lacrosse uniforms just a few weeks before the curse. Cora was 14, a baby-faced freshman who’d just made the team; Derek was a year older and newly promoted from bench-warmer to midfielder; and Laura was team captain, enjoying the crowning achievement of her high school career.

“Yeah,” Derek says, stepping up beside Stiles. “That’s what I look like when I’m, you know, normal.”

Stiles glances appreciatively from Derek to the photo and back again. “Except you definitely have a lot more muscle mass now. And stubble.” His gaze turns more thoughtful. “Why haven’t I met your family yet?”

Because they see you as a threat, Derek thinks, but that might scare Stiles off. “They definitely know you’re here,” he says instead, “but I think they’re keeping to themselves. I haven’t told them I told you about the curse. I wasn’t supposed to tell you.”

“So they don’t trust me,” Stiles guesses. “But you do.”

Derek looks away; Stiles’ gaze is too intense. “Yeah. I do.”

*

Stiles’ ankle heals just as Deaton said it would. By the end of his fourth week at the Hale house, he’s mostly abandoned the crutches, and his limp’s only noticeable if Derek’s really looking for it.

On Saturday afternoon, he and Derek successfully walk all the way down to the pond and back. It’s a distance of roughly half a mile each way, down a gently sloping gravel path Derek shoveled free of snow that morning. They go more slowly than Derek would’ve if he’d been alone, but on the other hand, Stiles doesn’t even break a sweat. He never asks to stop and rest. When they reach the pebble beach that borders the water, Stiles tosses down his crutches and whoops. Derek tries to pretend he’s just as happy.

That evening, Derek sits at the top of the stairs and listens to the sounds of Stiles moving excitedly around his room. Pacing restlessly. Packing his things.

After dinner, they settle side-by-side on the rug in front of the fire in the library, Stiles’ hand in Derek’s, and Derek pours them each a glass of his dad’s special wolfsbane-laced brandy.

“So you’re leaving tomorrow,” Derek says, not really a question, when they’ve both drained their glasses.

“You know I have to.”

“Yeah, I know.” And Derek gets it, he does. If it were his family out there looking for him, wondering if he was even alive, then he’d leave, too.

“But, hey,” Stiles goes on, and he takes Derek’s hand, “I promise I’m going to come back, curse or no curse. Look.” He pushes up his sleeve. On his forearm, he’s drawn a rough map of the area in sharpie, marking the Hale property with a big red X. Under it, on his wrist, he’s captioned it Derek Hale, underlined twice. “Even if my memories go away, see, I’ll still have these clues. I won’t be gone forever.”

Derek reaches out and traces his name on Stiles’ skin. It feels like a claim, like Derek’s mark on Stiles’ body. He can’t look away. “If you were a girl, I’d kiss you right now.”

Stiles’ hand tightens in Derek’s. “I know.” His eyes glow amber in the firelight, fixed steadily on Derek, and Derek feels warm all over.

“You know what, fuck Kate,” Stiles says suddenly, a new resolve in his voice. He sways in a little closer, and Derek doesn’t dare breathe. “She’s made your life shit for years.” His hand slides up Derek’s arm. “You deserve something good for once. For one night.”

Derek shouldn’t. He knows he shouldn’t. But Stiles is looking at him, at his eyes, his mouth. Insistent and wanting.

Derek swallows. Closes his eyes. “Okay.”

Their noses bump. Stiles huffs out a soft laugh, right against Derek’s mouth, and then they’re kissing, tentative, careful of Derek’s fangs. A thrill runs through him. Stiles’ hands slide into Derek’s hair, tug him closer, closer, practically into his lap. Someone moans; Derek thinks it might be him. He’s never going to get close enough. He can’t decide what part of Stiles he wants to touch first, and ends up running his hands up and down Stiles’ chest and settling his palms against Stiles’ neck. He’s had a lot of thoughts about Stiles’ neck. Stiles’ pulse is racing, his skin hot under Derek’s touch.

Stiles opens his mouth just a little, teasing, and Derek surges forward, because yes.

Only, Stiles is pulling back, his fingers tracing Derek’s ears curiously, and then he’s not touching Derek at all.

Derek opens his eyes.

“Dude,” Stiles says. “You just shifted.”

It’s a long second before the words click in Derek’s mind, and then he’s scrambling up and stumbling out into the hall, over to the nearest mirror. A pair of startled hazel eyes stare back at him. He braces his hands on the wall and leans closer, angling his head this way and that. It’s the face he remembers from his childhood, but sharper, leaner, grown up. Human. Almost a stranger.
He’s tracing shaking fingers over the rounded edge of his ears when it finally hits him: He can shift.

He can shift.

Kate’s curse is—oh. His family—

“Holy shit, Derek!” Laura shrieks, and Derek spins around and nearly gets bowled over with the force of her hug.

When he finally pulls back, Cora’s standing just behind her. There are tears running down her face. “I’m so sorry,” she says.

Derek just shakes his head. “Me too.”

She stumbles forward on shaky legs, burying her face in his shoulder and clinging tight.

*

“I don’t get it,” Stiles says, much later, when the family reunion’s over and Stiles has called his dad and they’re finally alone again, lounging lazily on Derek’s bed. “I thought you said you had to kiss a girl.”

“I thought I did,” Derek says. “My whole family thought I did.”

“And I’m not a girl.”

“No,” Derek agrees, smiling, remembering the scrape of Stiles’ faint stubble against his cheek, his big hands, his wide shoulders, the heady scent of his sweat and arousal. “Definitely not.”

Stiles sits up. “Wait a minute. Did she actually specify a gender when she was casting this spell?”

Derek thinks back. “I don’t… I thought she said ‘she’ or ‘her’ somewhere in there, but… I guess I could be wrong. I mean, she didn’t exactly write it down for me, and it was a long time ago, and at the time I didn’t realize she could actually do magic, so I wasn’t listening very closely… And I had no idea I might be bi…”

Stiles smacks Derek in the arm.

“Ow, what the—”

“We could’ve been kissing! All this time, we could’ve been making out and not worrying about this dumb curse, if only you hadn’t been so fucking heteronormative.”

Derek shrugs and pulls Stiles down on top of him. “Well, at least I’m not being heteronormative anymore.”

“Definitely not,” Stiles says appreciatively, and Derek tugs him down into another kiss.