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the blood blooms clean in you, ruby

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I am in a room abandoned by language
You are in another identical room
Or we both are
on a street your glance has depopulated
The world
imperceptibly comes apart
                                            Memory
decayed beneath our feet
I am stopped in the middle of this
unwritten line

--Octavio Paz, “Trowbridge Street”

 

You don’t remember, anymore, where exactly you were when you found out that she was dead. This seems impossible, but your memory has always been inconsistent: weirdly sharp in some places, almost uncomfortably detailed; fuzzy to the point of erasure in others. You haven’t actually taken psychology yet but you’ve read what feels like most of Wikipedia at this point, so you rationally know that probably you’ve just repressed it, or some shit – one day, you’re pretty sure, that bitch of a memory is going to come roaring back to life and fuck you up even more than it did the first time. But for now, you have no idea. Your father must have been the one to tell you – you weren’t at the hospital, so it couldn’t have been a doctor, or a nurse. And anyway, you were only ten (almost eleven): they wouldn’t have done it without him, without your father.

You remember almost everything else about her dying, though. The clearest part, maybe, is the evening of the day of the funeral, after all of your meager collection of friends and relatives had left, and you were alone in the house with your father for the first time since her death, even Mrs. McCall and Scott gone, now, Scott watching you out of the back window of his mother’s car as she drove him away, back home, away from you. You had your face pressed up against the front window, and you didn’t turn around for ages after they’d vanished down the road. For once you were totally still, not even through an agonized attempt at self-control but because you just couldn’t move.

Your father had come into the room at some point, had sat down on the couch and was watching you. You know, now, that you were small for ten, though you couldn’t really tell then: you were just your own size. Sometimes you try to imagine what it must have been like for him, to watch you through that time, but it’s difficult: you’re still a teenager, still so far away from him. And anyway, you don’t want to feel the pain he must have been in then, watching your tiny, fragile body over which you had so little control, wondering what he was going to do with you. You know he’s still wondering that now, five years later. You wish, sometimes, that you could tell him that it’s not him who’s gone wrong, who hasn’t done enough: that responsibility has always rested with you, to be a better son; it’s you who’s failing. It’s not his fault that there was nothing he could have done better, nothing that would have made you a different person from the one you’ve become. You think sometimes that even without the madness of your life – the beatings you’ve sustained, witnessed, helped administer; the fact that you have set a man on fire and felt nothing as you watched him die – you would have been a disaster.

You turned around eventually, away from the window, but only after he said your name. He was watching you in the evening light, the summer evening light – you were an autumn baby and your mother’s was a summer death – and even if you never get back the moment he told you that she was dead, you’ll never forget the expression on his face when you turned around and looked and him and realized that he did not know what to do now that it was gone – now that it was all over – and maybe the reason you’ve forgotten him telling you is that that was the moment you really knew that she was gone, and that she was not coming back.

 

*

 

You’ve never been beat up before, not really – some of the older kids hit you once in a while when you were little, when you were a holy terror, but mostly they were just confused by you. You didn’t act the way you were supposed to. And your father was frightening – not the sheriff yet, but a policeman, and when you are six, seven, the difference is negligible.

It surprises you, how much it hurts, although it shouldn’t – you’re not stupid. But you’ve gotten used to watching flesh healing, the creeping progression of unbroken skin beneath blood that’s been shed, muscle that’s been ripped apart. You never forget that you’re not like them – not like him, not like Scott – but you’ve forgotten, maybe, what you’re supposed to be like. You’ve forgotten the alternative.

Your face looks battered for days after Jackson comes back from the dead, and because nobody knows about that, it’s you they keep looking at in school, it’s you they keep glancing at over their shoulders when you’re settling down to take your final exams. They look at you like you’ve broken some sort of unspoken code, the one that says that kids like you aren’t supposed to get into that sort of trouble – not because you’re too well-behaved but because there’s simply nobody who would care enough about you to hit you in the face – and now that you have, you’ve made them uncomfortable. You’re used to that, at least – making people uncomfortable – you’ve been doing it since you were five years old and in a classroom for the first time. But as the years have passed, they’ve stopped noticing you, and you’d grown used to it, almost, the way people’s eyes slip over you as though you’re not there. You never thought you’d miss that, want it back, but now they catch on your cheekbone, on your split lip, and you want to tell them that you’re not the only one who’s gotten beaten up recently, that you’ve got friends who break bones on the regular, and nobody fucking stares at them.

But you can’t say anything like that, so you just go to your exams, stare at your test papers, try to write down the right things, try not to go off-topic. You manage it mostly because you’re barely paying attention to what you’re writing: none of it’s real, anyway. Well, it’s real, but it doesn’t have anything to do with your life, and it’s not just irrelevant in the way that most teenagers think school is. You’re full of volumes of knowledge of things that you’ll never be able to write down anywhere for more than five or ten people to see. That’s what’s real, that’s your life – you want fucking credit for that, for all of the things you’ve learned, figured out, stuff you haven’t said to anybody, not even Scott. Instead you’re sitting here writing an essay about the Progressive Era and the gold standard and you couldn’t give less of a shit about any of it. At least you don’t have biology this year, don’t have to actually lie outright in your responses to questions.

In the days that pass after Jackson’s resurrection you begin to appreciate fully the fact that nobody tells you anything anymore. Maybe they never did – Derek certainly didn’t; he’s is full of information he’s not sharing – and now Scott, too, is laying down plans like railway track, charting the course as he goes and not telling anybody else what he hopes his ultimate destination will be. But you’ve been watching them all and you’re not stupid; you can follow the signs.

There’s magic in the earth and in the air of this town that nobody wants to talk about, that even Derek seems to pretend doesn’t exist, but you’re no fool. You’ve decided that this will be your summer project: figuring it out, figuring out how to use it – how to get back to that place, in your mind, where you opened your hand and closed your eyes and saw something happen, and it came true. That’s what you’re good for you, you figure, so: you’d better do it.

Nobody is going to hit you in the face again, and nobody is going to have to come rescue you. They didn’t, this time, and except for Scott they probably wouldn’t have even if they had known where you were and what was happening to you, what was being done to you. Allison’s gone off the deep end, Lydia hasn’t looked at you since you went off on her, Jackson would probably rather you get the shit beaten out of you, and since when has Derek Hale given two fucks about your well-being? But it bothers you, all the same – the idea that anybody might risk himself to come after you in some dark hole somewhere, and get hurt in the process. Scott heals faster than you do, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get wounded, and you know better than anybody that the more you disappoint people – the more you hurt them, the more you make them resent you – the more likely they are to leave you.

 

*

 

You were an unholy terror as a child. You know this now, and you knew it then – you knew, you knew you were trouble, but you couldn’t stop, couldn’t help it. There was too much inside of you that needed to get out and had nowhere else to go, and there was nothing you could do about it. You talked and talked and talked about everything and nothing and you broke things and hurt yourself because you didn’t really understand your body, yet, and you knew – you always, always knew – that some part of your parents despaired of you. All you wanted was to make that stop, to make them stop worrying, but you couldn’t. There was something wrong with you, that you couldn’t do that for them.

Your mother was better at handling you than your father, though except in rare occasions of undue stress your father didn’t really get angry, didn’t often shout at you. He just got confused. Frustrated, too – but mostly confused. He was baffled by you, is still baffled by you – baffled and disappointed. You were completely outside of his element. He knew boys, understood them, but it was impossible to play catch with you, when you were a little kid: you could stand it for maybe five minutes before a branch that had fallen from one of the trees in your lawn distracted you, and you started talking about all of the animals and bugs and bacteria that live inside trees, and in the ground, and eat leaves off of trees and bushes and what happens when one of the trees on the street dies and how the rest of them will probably die and how then the men with the trucks and the big saws have to come cut them down and leave stumps behind, does he think you could drive a truck someday? You don’t want to cut down trees because you like them and it feels mean even though you know they have to do that to keep the rest of the trees alive but you’d like to drive a big truck with stuff in the back and how do cars work anyway? What’s an engine? What does it mean when a car breaks down? Maybe you want to drive a train instead. Does he know when trains were invented? There are really fast trains in Japan, your teacher told you about that once. What’s Japan like? Can you go there?

Your father tried to answer your questions, if he knew the answers, but you could barely wait for his replies before your brain was somewhere else, and after a while he’d have to give up, let you keep going, and though you usually forgot to take your baseball glove off, you also forgot that it was there, and that you were supposed to be doing anything with it. Later, when you finally got on Adderall, you started playing lacrosse – you weren’t an inherently unathletic child, just a distracted one – and you got obsessed with it, but that had as much to do with other things as with the sport itself.

Your mother was the one who insisted you not go on medication – “Not until later,” she used to say, “not until he’s grown more, until we know it won’t do anything to him, mess up his development.” (She thought you weren’t listening, but you were usually listening to their conversations about you. The one time you managed to be quiet was then, when you needed to creep around the house to eavesdrop on them talking about all the many, many things wrong with you.) You were just on this side of truly disastrous, you guess, though it didn’t feel that way at the time – and as much as you drove your teachers up the wall, you also managed through some miracle of luck to do well enough on most evaluations that they couldn’t really force your parents into anything. So they didn’t – she never did, actually. You know she would have loved to put you on something, by the end, but she didn’t have the energy to make that happen. It was your father who took you to the doctor, late in the summer of her death, your father who couldn’t possibly deal with you by himself in your unaltered state.

But that was later. Because by the time you were in the first grade you were a little more under control at school, if not at home – and by then, you had Scott.

Your don’t actually remember meeting him for the first time, or how that meeting transmuted into a friendship – it was so long ago that it’s blurred into something hazy and ill-defined in your memory. You remember that initial feeling, though, of wonder that there was somebody who stuck around you voluntarily, who listened to you without turning away at some point, overwhelmed. It wasn’t exactly as though Scott was very popular back then, either: he was, in a word, stupid. You don’t think Scott is an idiot and you never really have, but he’s always been slow to grasp things, even if he usually manages it eventually.

Now it’s not so noticeable – he’s still a little slow, but not cripplingly so. Back then, in kindergarten and the first grade – all the way through elementary school, really – he had serious trouble. It took him ages to learn how to read, and math was pretty much a lost cause. He couldn’t say your name properly – it was too long and complicated for his slow-moving mouth and tongue – and so he named you, really, mangled your last name instead of your first, and it stuck. Probably the reason he was drawn to you, you realize now, was your speed: you were everything that he was not, to an extreme that was almost grotesque. Whether or not he actually got more than every fourth word out of your mouth back then was up for debate, but it didn’t much matter: he tagged along, blissfully ignorant, all the same.

He was under the perpetual threat of being held back, and probably would have been if his mother hadn’t charged into the school, metaphorical guns blazing, to ensure that didn’t happen. You helped him with everything as much as you could, made yourself focus for once in your life whenever there was a chance the administration might succeed in taking him away from you. You could not let him fall behind you; it was not an option. You were prepared to simply refuse to move up a year yourself. It didn’t matter to you that this was impossible: it was also impossible for you to exist without Scott.

Because the thing you do remember, vividly, was your mother’s relief when she realized that you had actually managed to make a friend. She may have been better with you than your father, but you wore her out just the same. She was always tired, even before she got sick, and it was your fault, and you knew it. And she looked at you like you were something wondrous and impossible when Scott came over to play for the first time and smiled doofily at you while you rambled and ran around and tried to amuse him, terrified that he might get up and leave at any second. But he just followed you, laughed when he was supposed to, and didn’t mind when you changed topics mid-sentence. Your mother watched you the whole time, from the next room or the window, and that night, after Mrs. McCall had come by to pick him up, she smiled at you like she was proud of you – like she actually, really was, and not just pretending.

She told your father you’d had a friend over that night when he got home from work, and he just stared at you like you were from Mars, like you were some other son, different from the one he’d been stuck with for six years, and then he smiled, too, and you thought you would break apart from it – from how much you wanted everything to always be like this, exactly, even though your leg was already bouncing, your mind racing to a million different things you knew you were going to let out, soon.

“I want you to call me Stiles,” you told your mother that night when she put you to bed. “That’s what Scott calls me. It’s better than my stupid name, anyway.” She snorted a little, laughing, and told you all right, they’d do that. Maybe, you thought, it would be different now that you had a new name; maybe you would be different; maybe they wouldn’t be so frustrated and tired anymore, because of you.

But when you woke up, it turned out you were just the same as you’d always been, and so were they.

 

*

 

Because Beacon Hills is a clusterfuck of a place where nothing goes right for more than five minutes, apparently, you’re only two weeks into the summer break before everything gets shot to hell once again. You’d tried to get a job to make your dad happy, but had been unceremoniously relieved of your position the day before by your haggard supervisor, who really did not appreciate your developing habit of telling customers just what, exactly, went into the fast food they were purchasing. You’d thought you’d gotten better at lying in the past few, creatures-of-the-night-filled months, but it turns out that’s pretty much all the lying that you’re capable of right about now, and anyway you didn’t really want the job in the first place: gainful employment doesn’t seem to go hand in hand with a life of dealing with the supernatural. You know how Derek came by the money he lives off now, but you have no idea how the Hales survived before burning up, and Chris Argent doesn’t seem to actually do that much in the way of gun retail. That’s for the underlings, you guess.

Anyway, you’re at Scott’s, playing X-Box, because that’s what you do when you’ve lost your job and don’t have homework to worry about. You should probably be studying all the myriad creatures that might descend on Beacon Hills at any given moment, but you’re still trying to figure out how to get Peter’s bible off of him without losing your life in the process, and frankly, you think you deserve a break.

Which is why, of course, Isaac bursts into the living room, barely out of breath despite having clearly run from somewhere – fucking werewolves, man – and says, to Scott and definitely not to you, “The alpha pack’s got Allison.”

Scott goes still next to you and then surges out of his seat on the couch like a man possessed – which he kind of is, you guess, though “man” is a questionable term.

“The what now?” you ask, because Scott clearly knows what Isaac’s talking about, and you definitely, definitely do not.

They both ignore you.

“Where?” Scott asks.

“The preserve,” he replies.

“What the fuck is an alpha pack?” you ask, without really hoping for a response, which is just as well, since you don’t get one.

“Okay,” Scott says, all business. “Where’s everybody else?”

“Already on their way,” Isaac says.

Scott nods, firm. He looks ludicrously grown-up, and you don’t like it.

“Okay,” you say, standing up. “I still don’t have a clue in hell what you’re talking about, but let’s get on it. The time’s a-wasting, as they say. I assume somebody has said that, at some point, before now.”

“You’re not coming,” Scott says, almost absently, and fuck that, you think; fuck that to hell.

“I’m definitely coming,” you tell him. “This sounds like a situation where some planning would be beneficial to your cause, and sorry, buddy, but planning is not exactly your forte.”

“We’ll figure something out,” he says dismissively. “It’s going to be really dangerous, Stiles. You’d get hurt.”

“I’m not that incompetent, okay,” you tell him, but he and Isaac have already turned toward the doorway. “Scott! Hey! The leaving Stiles behind thing, seriously not cool, dude –”

“I’ll be back later,” he calls over his shoulder, and then they’re out the door, sprinting down the street in the direction of the preserve. It’s no use following them; they’ll be heading off into the woods soon enough, and you can’t possibly catch up with them on foot.

“Fucking assholes,” you mutter, and turn off the television.

You run into Mrs. McCall on your way out the front door.

“Is Scott –” she asks, frowning a little, and you shrug.

“Out saving the world,” you tell her. “Business as usual.”

“God damn it,” she says.

“Yep,” you reply, and stalk out to your Jeep, slam the door behind you.

Like hell are you going to let him pull that kind of shit with you, so instead of going home you head out to the Hale place, which seems like as good a place as any to get some answers. You have a little trouble believing Derek would risk his life and limb for Allison Argent, anyway. Scott: yeah, probably. Allison? Not so much.

When you pull up, the house looks deserted, but that’s not saying much, because it always looks that way. You don’t bother walking in – it’s not like they can’t hear you from a mile away – just get out of your car and stand impatiently in front of the porch.

“Hello?” you shout after waiting for a moment. “Any werewolves present? Knock, knock? What big teeth you have, et cetera et cetera?”

Somebody comes to the door, and you start to say “Thank god,” until it opens at Peter fucking Hale is standing there, looking smug.

“Christ,” you mutter, and his smirk gets wider.

“Mr. Stilinski,” he says. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“I heard something about an alpha pack,” you shoot back. “I don’t suppose you’d know anything about that?”

“He hasn’t told you?” Peter says, gleeful. “That’s touching, Stiles, I really have to say. Touching.”

“What is it?” you grind out. You’re really, really not in the mood for this bullshit: you’re actually never in the mood for Peter at all, for the slimy quality of him, the vaguely rape-y way he looks at you, and Lydia, and frankly everybody except Derek and Scott. It’s not cute. It is extremely far from cute.

“The alpha pack?” he asks, playing dumb. “Why, it’s a pack of alphas, of course.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” you tell him, and he shrugs, unrepentant.

“Nevertheless,” he says. “That’s the answer to your question.”

“I guess you’ve probably got some information about it on that laptop,” you say, and he smiles.

“I do,” he says.

“At some point, you’re going to have to let me look at it,” you tell him, and his smile gets deeper, creepier.

“Oh, you’ll find that I really don’t,” he says.

“I’ll just ask Derek,” you say, reckless, and he outright laughs.

“Who do you think is so insistent on me not sharing anything with you?” Peter asks.

“Why does Derek even care?” you ask, baffled.

“You’re a little… human for that information,” he says, aping delicacy. “Pity you didn’t let me bite you when you had the chance, isn’t it?”

“Fuck off,” you tell him. “That goatee doesn’t look nearly as good as you think it does,” you toss over your shoulder as you walk back to the Jeep, but he just laughs at you. Asshole.

 

*

 

You don’t actually know if she had planned to do something with her life, besides take care of you – whether she’d wanted to be a working mom, whether she’d wanted a career. You know she went to college, but you’re not sure what she majored in – it’s got to be on her diploma, but all of her stuff is pushed away into one dusty corner of the attic, and it’s an unspoken rule between you and your father that neither of you ever touches any of it. You don’t touch her things and you don’t talk about her, and you haven’t since Mrs. McCall and Scott drove away from your house that day after the funeral, leaving the two of you alone.

But you think she probably did: she was smart as a whip, your mother; your dad used to say that you took more after her than him, back when she was still alive, and though you’re hard-pressed to come up with any way you’re like either of your parents, both of whom were wired perfectly normally, you guess this is probably true. Your father is sharp, observant, damn good at his job, but his intelligence is all about practical application. Your mother was quick. Not like you – you’re so fast it burns your brain up – but in a good way, an enviable way. She would probably have been a good teacher, not of little kids but of teenagers, maybe. She read a lot, even when she was busy with you – fat, old books, you think, but it’s hard to remember.

You’ve found yourself thinking a lot about this, recently – you don’t know why, maybe just because you’re surrounded by all these dead bodies, these dead families. The Hales, Allison’s mother, Peter (briefly) and Derek’s sister – Hales, too, but their deaths weren’t the same, and not only because Peter’s up and walking around again. Scott’s terrified for his mother’s safety now, you know, and you’re afraid for your father. You’ve always been afraid for your father, but it didn’t used to be like this. There was always the chance that something would happen to him on the job, but that would never have been your fault. If something happens to him because of all the supernatural bullshit going on in Beacon Hills right now, it will definitely, definitely qualify as your fault. You can’t be responsible for killing both your parents; you can’t do it. You won’t let it happen.

But anyway, you’ve been thinking about your mother more than you usually do. Over the past couple years, you got to the point where you could get through your life without thinking about her every minute of the goddamn day. There was a whole stretch of years before that where you carried her ghost around with you, years you spent in constant internal monologue to her, and tried to imagine how she might have responded. You pushed that down once you realized you couldn’t really remember what her voice sounded like anymore, once you realized she was crumbling and there was nothing you could do to stop it. You tried to erase her, instead.

The way you think of her now – it’s an ache, and it’s not new, but the fact that you’re aware of it – that’s different. You can see the totality of her life a little better now than you could when you were eleven, see the tragedy of it: that she married and had a baby relatively young, lost her chance to do anything else with her life except be a mom when it became clear that you required constant attention, and then died before you’d grown up enough to have a little control over yourself. There are so many things she should have gotten to do that you stopped her from doing, that her blood stopped her from doing when it turned against her, and that haunts you. She was twenty-eight when you were born, six years younger than your father, and that was it. That was the end. Thirty-nine years is not a long time to live, especially not when the last eleven are wasted.

But what happened to her, between twenty-two and twenty-eight? You have no idea, and you can’t ask your dad – you can’t – but you have to know. It’s starting to eat you up. So you wait until he’s gone on a long night shift and you go up into the attic, flashlight in hand, and you blow the dust off of the boxes and if your hands shake when you open them – well, nobody else is there to see them trembling.

You try not to look at anything too closely – you don’t want to deal with her clothes and all the other miscellaneous items that made up her life that are still here, a silent and hidden memorial to her life – and slam the lids back down on the first few boxes until you come to one that’s full of papers. This is safer: old, yellowing stacks of paper don’t kick you in the gut with memories of your childhood.

You do find her diploma, rolled up in a tube in the side of the box with a copy of her college transcript. She went to Davis – you did know that – and she did well, ridiculously well – mostly A’s, only a few B-pluses and one B-minus, in Physics 101. Physics for Poets, probably. She’d double-majored, English and psychology. Joint honors thesis, the transcript says.

You drop the papers back in the box, turn the flashlight off, and put your head between your legs for what feels like a very long time, although you’re not actually at all sure of how much time has passed.

After a long while you turn the flashlight back on, beam agonizingly bright in the darkness, and stare at the dust motes floating in the light for a minute before turning back to the box.

She wasn’t planning on being a teacher, after all – she’d been training as a clinical psychologist. All the paperwork is there – the initial acceptance letter, notices about tuition, hospital residencies, more transcripts. She’d been down at San Diego, and you remember all of the sudden your father telling a story, so many years ago, when you were so little, in the car on a long drive, about driving down the coast to see her, to see your mother, when she was younger, back before you were born, trying to convince her to marry him. She’d laughed, and he’d said something about the sunlight, the California heat, the ocean. San Diego. You don’t think you’ve ever been. You and your dad don’t go much of anyplace, now.

But you think you were driving south, in this strange recovered glimpse of something you were too small to understand: you think you were by the ocean, by the sea; you think you remember the smell of the salt in the water in the air that was whipping through the windows, think you remember telling them all about everything you knew about the sea and everything that lived in it, which was considerable. Your mother’s dark hair was tangled from the wind and she had her feet on the dashboard, and your father was playing some old awful soft-rock from the seventies on the radio, and you were watching the land and the sea shoot by so quickly you could barely keep up with them. You liked being in that position, for once. You pressed your face into the wind like a dog until your mother reached back and pulled you back into the car, but she was laughing even as she scolded you.

But she hadn’t finished her degree. She could have transferred, gotten the rest of her credits and residency hours at Berkeley, but instead – instead –

Clinical psychology. That makes sense. She used to crouch down to talk to you, look you straight in the eye, like you were an equal, a real person. It explains her patience, which sometimes felt more dogged than inborn, explains why she lost it, later. She must have tried to think of you as – as a patient – so that – that –

You planned to be out of the attic long before your father came home in the early hours of the morning, planned to have everything boxed up like it had never happened. You’re still up there, in a kind of stupor, when he comes home, staring at the papers in your lap. You’re not sure whether you’ve slept or not; you can’t remember. Everything is cloudy.

“Stiles?” you hear him calling, faintly, as if very far away, and then again, and again, increasingly panicked, but you can’t reply, can’t open your mouth or move your tongue. Eventually you hear his feet on the stairs, and then he’s staring at you, and you want to curl in on yourself so that he can’t see you, can’t see anything but that hard exterior you’ve perfected over the years. He says your name again, more quietly this time, and walks over to you carefully, as though you’re a bomb that might explode. When he puts his hand on your shoulder you can’t help but flinch. He doesn’t move it, though, just rubs back and forth over your shoulder, which is strong, now, almost adult, even though you feel like a kid again, feel like you’re in the backseat of that car, legs dangling off the edge of the seat, not even close to hitting the floor.

He wraps his arm around you and pushes your face into his chest, patting you on the back as though you still are that little boy, and you think distantly that you should probably cry, but you can’t work up the tears.

 

*

 

They get Allison back with no considerable trouble, it seems like, which you don’t find out until you’ve sent out a mass-text to all of them asking what the fuck is going on. Great friends you’ve got, clearly.

You drive over to the Hale house again the next morning (early afternoon, whatever; you’re a teenager, it’s allowed), because you’re going to have words with Derek about what you are and are not allowed to see, what information you’re allowed access to and what remains hidden. It’s bullshit, because you’re the smartest of all of them except Lydia, who won’t talk to any of you now, only to Jackson, and word on the street is that his family’s considering packing up their bags and fleeing the scene of the crime, as it were. You’ve pretty much concluded, over the course of the past several months, that Derek is bad at literally everything, and you don’t trust Peter as far as you could throw him (which is… not far), so you’d really like to be included in the discussions of how all this shit actually works. You can watch and listen as much as you want, but at a certain point, there are going to be things you can’t figure out for yourself. You’re not superhuman.

Derek shows up in the doorway even before you’ve gotten out of the Jeep, looking tense and defensive as per usual. Charming.

“Stiles,” he says, and crosses his arms. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, see, I happened to be at our mutual friend Scott’s yesterday,” you begin, conversational, “when a certain beta werewolf came charging in and told him something about the love of his life being taken captive by an alpha pack, which does not even make sense as a concept, but which apparently exists, so –” You wave your hand in his general direction, and he scowls. “If you’d like to tell me what exactly the fuck that is, that’d be great.”

“It’s a pack of alphas,” he says after a long beat, and you try not to scream.

“Yes, so I’ve been informed,” you tell him. “That doesn’t really help with, you know, why they are here, or what they can do that a normal werewolf pack can’t do – which I’m assuming is a lot – and how to go about, you know, stopping them. I’m also guessing that they have something to do with Boyd and Erica vanishing, and I would really like to get them back, because even though I think they both think I’m out of my mind, I really don’t think they deserve to die at the hands of psychopathic creatures of the night, do you?”

Derek’s face looks pinched. “I’m working on it,” he says, and you can’t help but snort.

“Yeah, okay, big guy,” you tell him. “I’ve gotta be honest with you, that’s really not all that reassuring.”

“Well, it’s going to have to be,” he says flatly. “Since I’m not telling you anything.”

“That’s the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard,” you snap, even though it really, really isn’t. “I can actually help with this stuff, you know; I’m not completely inept.”

“I don’t think you’re inept,” Derek says, maddeningly calm. “But intelligence has nothing to do with the fact that you’re slower, weaker, and in every way more physically vulnerable than the rest of us.” He steps forward, down the front steps, deliberately menacing. “I could rip you limb from limb right here and you wouldn’t be able to do a thing to stop me. I won’t,” he adds. “But I could.”

“Magnanimous,” you grind out, because clearly he’s trying to frighten you, but it’s not going to work: it’s just going to make you angrier.

“Thanks,” he says, because he’s an asshole. “But just because I won’t doesn’t mean they’ll be feeling nearly as generous.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, danger, Will Robinson, whatever,” you say, waving a hand in his face. “I know it’s dangerous, I’m just not about to let my friends put their lives in danger without doing something about it.”

“I don’t care,” he says with a shrug. “I don’t care what you want. I’m more powerful than you are, Stiles. You’re not in charge anymore.”

“Jesus Christ,” you snap, “who the fuck died and made you king, huh?”

You realize immediately that it’s probably the worst thing that’s ever come out of your mouth, which is saying something, but you don’t have time to feel guilty about the stricken expression on Derek’s face, the one that makes him look ten years younger and not even remotely scary anymore, just scared; you’re going to make your fucking point if it kills you.

“We were doing just fine before you came along, you know. Who the fuck do you think was taking care of us? I was. I was taking care of my dad, and Scott, because nobody else was doing it, and if you think you can just fucking waltz in and take all of that over just because of your – your fucking fangs and claws, you’re out of your fucking mind.” Because the thing is that you really do care about these people. You don’t care about everybody, aren’t burdened by Scott’s ridiculous hero complex, but you do care about your family: about your father, and about Scott, who might as well be your own blood, and about Mrs. McCall, whom you know finds you intolerable around half the time and who, miraculously, loves you anyway. You cared about your mother, and just caring for her wasn’t enough to keep her from leaving you, and you will be damned if you let that happen again, now that you’re old enough to do something about it.

“Things changed,” he says finally. He’s crossed his arms in front of his chest again, and the stricken look has gone, been replaced by muted rage. It’s relieving in its familiarity, though some small part of you thinks that’s a sad, sad thing to think about a person. “Scott doesn’t need to be protected anymore, and your dad’s more than capable of looking after himself.”

He’s not, you want to say. They still need me, you want to say, but the thing is, you’re not at all sure that’s still the case. You’ve been nothing but trouble for your father the past few months (your whole life, really, you’ve been trouble), and Scott’s – Scott’s a lot different, now, than he was a year ago. You don’t need Derek to tell you that; you know perfectly well that it’s true.

“Fuck you,” you say instead, and definitely don’t watch him in your rearview mirror as you drive away, shoulders hunched as he walks back up to the front door of his old, burned-out shell of a home, and goes inside.

 

*

 

It’s hard for you to remember, sometimes, the person your father was before your mother got sick, hard to reconcile the versions you know to the one you vaguely remember. You know, intellectually, that he is the same man he was then, know even that he is a better father to you in some ways now than he used to be. He’s a more determined, now that he knows he has to do everything for you, now that you no longer have a mother to love you.

But when she died, he became a kind of specter of himself, a pale shadow of a reflection of the person he had been. It would be a cliché to say that he died with her, or that a part of him died with her, and you don’t mean that, not exactly – it’s more that the part of him that loved her got out of his body and laid down in her grave with her, when they put her in the earth, and is just waiting for death so that it can be with her again. That part of him is not dead: it is lying down in the grave, under six feet of earth, eyes open in the darkness, and it is waiting. But it is not in your father anymore.

He was never an overly demonstrative person, was always a little wry – so was she, for that matter, although both of them made a point of expressing their affection to you, even when you knew they didn’t really mean it, were too frustrated to mean it. But sometimes your mother would say something sly that would make him laugh, big and open and vulnerable and so full of joy that you would start laughing, too, even if you didn’t understand her joke. He loved her something stupid. You understood this intuitively, even as a little boy. You were around for the last few years that Scott’s father was around, and you knew that the way the McCalls felt about each other was not the same as the way your parents felt about each other. You knew other couples, neighbors and acquaintances, friends of your mother’s who came over in the afternoons, sometimes, to complain about their husbands, and it wasn’t like they were all miserable, but none of them loved each other like you knew your parents did.

Mr. McCall used to do something outsized and outrageously romantic every once in a while, and Mrs. McCall fell for it every time until she didn’t, anymore, but your father never did anything like that. He just tried to do everything he could to make your mother’s life easier, and better, and he loved her. And she knew it.

You’ve always wanted to be like that, even though it ruined him, in the end. It’s been five years, now, and your father is a different man. He’s more tired, he doesn’t smile that often, and he never laughs the way he used to, when your mother was the one telling the jokes. You’re funny – you try to be funny, for him, and he smiles at you, laughs at you, but it’s not the same. It’s never going to be the same. You shouldn’t want to be like that – and maybe you don’t, not really; maybe that’s why you’re still in love with a girl who will never love you back. Maybe you love her because she won’t ever make you feel like that, like the way your dad felt about your mom, before she was dead.

But you don’t like that thought – you don’t feel old enough for it, somehow – and so you stop thinking it, let your ever-spinning mind leap forward to something else, something less painful and less frightening.

 

*

 

You figure Deaton is your best bet, now, for any kind of answers: you harassed Scott on Gchat and he didn’t exactly not tell you anything, but he sure was pretty fucking vague:

theres an alpha pack thats like crazy powerful
or soemthing
an their on a
like
quest
to get derek to give up his teritory
or whatever

When you asked him what he was planning on doing to stop them, he replied:

keepin an eye out for stuff
talking to allisons dad even tho he still hates me
its not very exciting
just
u kno
werewolf stuff

So you keep being reminded.

Deaton doesn’t look remotely surprised to see you when you show up at the clinic one afternoon, on a day you know Scott won’t be there.

“Hi,” you say. “I’m here because I figure you’re the best person to learn magic from in this ridiculous, fucked-up town, and my friends are all such idiots that they really, really need all the help they can get.”

“Stiles,” he says mildly. “No beating around the bush, I see.”

“Look,” you tell him. “That time, with the – the mountain ash, that – I did something, with that. I made it – go. Whatever. I did what you said, I believed it would work and… it did. I need to be able to do that again. Not, you know, that – specifically – just –”

“You need to keep them safe,” Deaton finishes for you.

Yes,” you say, deflating with relief that you are finally talking to somebody who understands what you have been trying to say for weeks and months without success.

He looks at you, thoughtful, head tilted a little to the side.

“Look, I don’t have anything else to do this summer,” you tell him, which is sadly, painfully true.

“Okay,” he says. “Come back on Saturday, at eight.”

You wish you could protest that you had somewhere to be – a party to go to, a date – but you don’t. So that’s how it’s going to be: Saturday nights learning magic at the vet’s. You guess it could be worse. It could be calculus.

Unfortunately, it turns out that Deaton is kind of a terrible teacher: you guess you shouldn’t be surprised that he’s more prone to vague, mystical statements than actual instruction, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating.

“Magic is irrational,” he tells you at that first meeting. “It is not a science. This is not Harry Potter; you can’t say a couple of words and expect anything to happen. Magic is highly dependent on any number of factors, including but not limited to your physical well-being, your emotional state, and your presence of mind. There are very few people who can wield it effectively with any consistency, and I am not one of them. I can teach you what I know, and you may even be able to apply some of it, but I can make you no promises.”

“Wow, dude,” you say. “Thanks, that’s super encouraging.”

You can feel him rolling his eyes, even though he doesn’t actually do it. It’s eerie.

He starts you off with smaller things, more manageable things, which isn’t to say that they aren’t difficult, because they’re basically impossible. Mountain ash, you can handle pretty well, probably because you’ve done it before: you can get it to cross the room, get it to make a circle around Deaton where he’s standing, but even that takes an enormous amount of effort, leaves you panting and sweaty and totally useless, and you can’t get much of anything else to work.

“God fucking damn it,” you say on the third weekend, when you still haven’t managed to work a single spell of protection, or in fact managed to do anything except move mountain ash.

“You’re too angry,” Deaton tells you, and you want to tell him that he’d be pretty fucking angry, too, if his friends were out risking their lives every night and there was nothing he could do about it. Scott comes by once in a while to tell you what’s going on, but his updates are so vague, they’re basically pointless. That’s his fucking savior complex, at work again. You don’t really have other friends: you’d been getting along with Allison all right, but now that she and Scott aren’t technically dating anymore you don’t really know what you’d say to her, and Lydia has maintained radio silence ever since the whole showdown with Gerard. You’ve been lying awake in bed at night thinking about her – in a decidedly unsexy way, thank you – not because you want to be but because you just can’t stop, and it’s been so long since you’ve laid eyes on her that the image in your head has become a kind of reflection, a painting, nothing like a real girl. You lie awake thinking about her because then you dream about her when you fall asleep, except that as the summer wears on, the girl in your dreams starts to look a lot less like Lydia, and a lot more like your mother.

“Well, there’s not really anything I can do about that,” you tell Deaton through gritted teeth, anger flickering beneath your skin.

“There are several things you could do, actually,” he replies easily, and you want to punch him in the face. “I recommend meditation.”

“Dude, have you met me?” you ask him. “Do you seriously think I would do well meditating?”

“It might be something that would benefit you greatly, in fact,” he says, and you really wonder whether Scott missed the fact that his boss is a condescending asshole or whether he just doesn’t care. Knowing Scott, it’s probably the former.

You just look at him, don’t even bother saying anything.

“You should talk to Derek,” he says a moment later. “This is one kind of magic, but there are – hmm, strange things about Beacon Hills –”

“Yeah, no fucking shit,” you mutter, and he ignores you.

“– strange things in the air, in the water,” he continues. “And you have a – a strange… quality about you. I can’t really articulate it, but it might be beneficial to you.”

“I have no clue what you’re talking about,” you tell him honestly. “What does Derek know about this? I mean, about magic, mumbo jumbo, whatever,” you clarify, waving your arms around.

“Family history,” he says, and won’t elaborate. Typical.

 

*

 

Nobody realized that there was anything seriously wrong with her for a long, long time. And you still don’t really know, now, when it began: after all, she was always getting headaches. You were an impossible child; you were loud and annoying and you gave everybody headaches. You’d gotten used to the expression on her face when the pain started to spread through her skull, but recognizing this didn’t make you stop whatever it was you were doing to cause it. You couldn’t help yourself.

So: when did the headaches turn lethal? When did they start being less about you and more about what was going on in her body, with her blood turning against itself? At some point, they did start getting worse. At some point, she started going into her room and lying down in the dark on particularly bad afternoons, and then you would be alone in the house, alone for the interminable stretch of hours between the end of the school day and whatever time your father got home. She always asked you not to disturb her, and as she got worse (sicker, you knew later – as she got sicker), she grew more and more desperate: she’d crouch down to look you straight in the eye, and plead with you to leave her in peace for just a few hours, just until Daddy came back from work. And you nodded every time, told her that you would, that you would be quiet and perfect and no trouble at all, and you meant it, but the oppressiveness of those empty hours defeated you every time.

If Scott didn’t pick up the phone, you always wound up creeping up the stairs to your parents’ room, torturing yourself with every step, trying to get yourself to go back downstairs, to be very quiet and very good, but you could never do it for very long. You always wound up opening her door and walking over to her bed, pushing at her shoulder a little, and she’d put her hand over her eyes before reaching out for you. You crawled in bed with her, even though you thought you were probably a little too old for that, and laid there, pressed against her warm, slowly-moving body, and you always tried to keep yourself as still as you possibly could, but you could never manage it for long. Your leg would start thumping, your heart racing, and the effort you had to exert to keep silent was gargantuan.

Sometimes, she spoke first, moved first, gave you the space to explode. And sometimes she didn’t, and when you let the torrent of words waiting inside you come roaring out of you, let all the stray energy gathered in your body engulf you, she put her hand over her closed eyes for one long moment, as though she might be able to erase you, if she tried hard enough.

 

*

 

You’re not particularly thrilled at the prospect of another heart-to-heart chat with Derek, but you’re trying to keep up the pretense that there’s nothing seriously wrong between you and Scott, so bothering him seems like the better option. And anyway, you’re not really afraid of him anymore – okay, well, maybe a little, but the fact that he’s failed to make good on his promises to inflict grave bodily harm on you, or people who aren’t actually sociopaths or killing machines, you’re not that concerned. You’re pretty sure you’re not a sociopath, and you are definitely not a killing machine, so chances are you’re in the clear.

Nobody comes out when you drive up to the Hale house. Unless Peter’s inside doing some skeezy secret magic ritual (which, frankly, wouldn’t surprise you), it looks werewolf-free. You sit on the porch to wait, and wish belatedly that you’d brought a book.

Instead of reading, you wonder about what goes on in the house, what goes on in Derek’s head, what Derek actually does all day. He’s probably the least employable person in Beacon Hills who isn’t also geriatric or legally dead (see: his uncle). When Derek leaves the house, where does he go? He’s given up the train depot, according to Isaac via Scott, and the house actually looks like he might half-assedly be trying to repair it, so that’s something, at least. You can come up with any number of things he might do to occupy himself here – hundreds upon hundreds of pull-ups, endless brooding about his dead family, and now home repairs, apparently – but once he leaves the property, you draw a blank. Does he just drive around in his stupidly beautiful car for hours on end? That’s probably what you’d do, if you had a car like that and infinity money to pay the gas, but you’re pretty sure you get a little more uncomplicated enjoyment out of life’s simple pleasures than Derek Hale, who seems to be the king of never-ending misery.

It’s not even that you don’t get that, exactly, that you don’t – well, you don’t like to think about it, you aren’t a brooder, like Derek so clearly is. You feel kind of bad for the guy, when you allow your mind to go in that direction (as though you have any say over what paths your wandering mind travels). You know what it’s like, is the thing: know how it feels to have your entire being ripped apart and never entirely put back together, know the feeling of not knowing quite what to do about that. You think you might have liked the person Derek was before that fire burned him out of himself, might have liked the surly teenager who probably rolled his eyes at his parents too much, has to have been on three varsity sports teams, and who was either a total stud or completely horrible with girls. If somebody had asked you that question a few months ago, you would have automatically answered that Derek had probably slept with around fifty percent of the population of Beacon Hills High, but now that you know him a little better – not well, just better – you think that’s probably not what happened. Derek, you’ve come to realize, has no fucking clue what he’s doing at any given point in time.

So, yeah, you might have liked that guy, but that’s tough fucking luck, because that’s not the person Derek is anymore. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. You’d probably like yourself better if your mom hadn’t died when you were ten years old, too, but she did, and you are the way you are. You fucking live with that every goddamn day; Derek can do the same.

He shows up after a while, and is already scowling by the time he gets out of the car.

“So I was wondering,” you say before you can stop yourself, “what is it you actually do when you’re not, you know, here?”

“What do you want?” he replies, which you think is a pretty inadequate response, but since you do actually need something from him, you decide – magnanimously! – not to push it.

“Deaton sent me,” you tell him, and he tenses immediately – you can see the muscles in his shoulder tighten under his t-shirt.

“Jesus, calm down, dude,” you continue hastily. “Not, like, sent me sent me, nobody’s fucking dying or anything, chill.”

He doesn’t look any less suspicious. Paranoid asshole.

“He sent me to ask, um – actually, it was kind of cryptic? He sent me to ask you some stuff about, like, Beacon Hills and… magic, or whatever. Um. He’s been trying to teach me some stuff, and I’ve had pretty dubious success thus far, but he said… you could help me out. So. Here I am.” You spread your arms wide, and realize too late that you’ve made yourself vulnerable, that he could probably rip your entire chest cavity open in a second, if he wanted to.

Actually, though, he looks considerably less murderous than spooked. He’s not looking directly at you, and his shoulders are hunched like he’s hiding from something.

“I don’t know anything about that,” he says stiffly. It’s… less than convincing.

“Wow, dude,” you say, giving him a slow clap. “That was some seriously impressive lying, right there. I totally believe what you’re selling. If there were, like, a lying Olympics, you would win gold in every event.”

He’s scowling again, which you find, to your surprise, is actually preferable to the alternative.

“Seriously, though,” you say. “Look, I – I need to know this stuff, all right? There’s clearly something going on, some reason why this town is suddenly, like, fucking catnip for the supernatural, and since I don’t think we’re actually located on top of a Hellmouth – although, frankly, that would explain a lot – it’s got to be some kind of wolfy-mumbo-jumbo that you are Peter aren’t telling us about.”

“I don’t know anything about it,” he tells you, and it’s slightly improved, the lying, but really not by much.

“Do you have any idea how fucking frustrating it is to know about all of this crazy shit and not be able to do anything about it? Look, I know I – whatever, when I said I, I took care of Scott, I mean – not, like, in a sappy way, I just – he’s my best friend,” you tell him, because it’s the only thing that seems adequate. “He’s my best friend, and I don’t – I can’t just sit around and know he’s out there and that he could die while I was fucking playing video games or jacking off or whatever the fuck, all right? Do you fucking understand that?”

He’s not looking at you, and you want to scream at him because you know he does understand, he does, he must – and he still won’t say anything to you. He just hunches his shoulders more, and it’s in that moment that you realize that he’s been afraid every moment you’ve known him, that he’s been terrified every single time any of you has spoken to him, not just when his life was under threat. He walks around terrified every minute of every day, and it’s the most tragic goddamn thing you’ve ever seen, because you? You should be afraid (and you are, you are), because you’re young and breakable and completely out of your fucking depth in this nightmare of a situation, but Derek – Derek’s older, he’s got power, he looks frightening, people – people should listen to him, even though you know they don’t, usually. And yeah, now he’s got Peter watching over his shoulder all the time, and Erica and Boyd are gone, gone, gone, but still, you can’t – Derek can’t be as afraid as you are, can he? He’s already lost everybody he had to lose. You haven’t, not yet.

“Deaton said something about – stuff in the water, in the air, I dunno, I can’t remember exactly,” you tell him. “I’ll tell you what I do remember, though: he said it was your family history, whatever that means.” Derek freezes, and you know, at least, that you’ve hit on something.

You choke down your words, hands fisted in the fabric of your shorts to keep them from jerking out of your control. You want to give him a minute, a little time. You want to give him a chance to help you.

“I had a – brother,” he says, and it’s like the words are being dragged out of him with a fishing line, hook savaging his throat and cheeks and tongue as he speaks. “He was – he could. Do things.”

Like?” you prompt, and he shrugs, hard and fast. Like you’ve hunted and cornered him, and the hook in his tongue just keeps tugging his mouth open, forcing him to spill out secrets.

“He could call the water,” he tells you, and he sounds empty. “Make the wind do what he wanted. And the – the earth.”

“How?” you ask, and it’s a fraction of everything you want to ask him, everything you want to know: you have no idea, you realize suddenly, how many siblings Derek had, where he was in the birth order, anything at all about his family except the fact that he had a sister called Laura who died, and an uncle who killed her, and died for it, and came back to life again. It’s paltry, is what it is, and it doesn’t matter that nobody knows jack shit about your family history, either: after all, you’ve always been more curious about other people than they’re allowed to be about you.

“I don’t know,” he growls, and you realize that his fists are clenched, but he’s not wolfing out, which is something. “I don’t – he didn’t talk about it.”

“Do you think –” you start hesitantly. “Do you think – I could…?”

“No,” he says sharply, without looking at you, without even thinking about it.

“Thanks a lot,” you snap, and get up. “See if I save your ass next time it’s in danger, Jesus.”

He doesn’t look away from the point he’s fixated on at his feet, not even when you walk right by him to get back to the Jeep. “Stay home, Stiles,” he says as you’re opening the door. “It’s not worth it.”

“Fuck you,” you tell him, and slam the door has hard as you can before driving away.

 

*

 

Your dad’s a good dad – the best, the best father anybody could want – but there was a period of time – was it months? could it possibly have been an entire year? – when he was not.

His grief, after your mother died, was such an all-consuming thing that you thought, in your small, eleven-year-old mind, that it might just eat him up, that you might wake up one day and he wouldn’t recognize you, not recognize anybody, not remember himself. You weren’t worried about him dying, exactly: you were worried about him being gone. His eyes weren’t the same as they’d been before, and he didn’t look at you the way he had before she’d died. What if – what if, one day, the, the thing inside your father that made him your father was gone? That could happen, couldn’t it? By the time your mother was at the very end of her life, her cheeks were sunken and her skin looked bloodless, and her eyes were empty of everything except pain. This was your mother, but there was nothing inside of her that you recognized anymore. That was what happened to people, and it could happen to him. It was possible.

At a certain point, your body just took over for your brain. That was all it was. Your terror was in your body and in the air and you imbibed it with every hyperventilated breath you took. Your limbs shook like parts of a machine that have gone wrong and you choked on your breath so hard you almost blacked out. The first time it happened was the first time after – after, that he didn’t come home on time. You were at a neighbor’s house, a middle-aged woman who was going to take care of you after school until you were old enough to stay home by yourself, and it was seven o’clock, and then eight, and he hadn’t called, and you didn’t know where he was, you didn’t know, and she didn’t seem afraid but what did she know about people disappearing, what did she know? People disappear all the time. And he was always home by six, lately, he’d stopped staying late because – just because, and what if he was gone? What if something had happened to him, what if a bad guy had shot him, what if he’d just left? What if he’d just driven away? What if he didn’t think he could handle you on his own and he just went away and you stayed here and then what would happen to you what would you do how would you what would and no and no and no – no – no

She found you in the living room, shaking and sobbing and choking on your own breath, and you’ll never forget her panicky hands on your back, like she thought you were the one dying, and the shrill sound of her voice on the phone with the station, asking where your father was, and then – and then – the sound of his voice in your ear, your father’s voice saying your name, and the slow collapse of your muscles in on themselves as you realized that you were not going to be alone.

He came over and picked you up in his arms like you were a toddler again, and carried your still-trembling body home and put you into bed himself, without taking off your clothes. He stayed there, sitting next to you, the whole night, and when you woke up in the morning, he was looking at you like he didn’t know what to do, and like he loved you, maybe, though not a fraction of as much as you loved him, because that was impossible.

 

*

 

You have visions, sometimes, of Scott showing up at your door, bruised and bleeding, but in the end, it’s Isaac who crumples over your threshold one night, clutching at his stomach, blood smearing down the side of your doorframe and over your floorboards.

“Jesus Christ,” you say, stepping backwards automatically to let him in, although upon reflection, you probably should have asked him if he needed help. He’s kneeling on the floor now, and you feel like you should do something for him, but you’re distracted by the sight of all that blood. You’re still not entirely used to this: you see them bleed often enough, but not so much. Usually they heal fast enough that the blood is cosmetic, more than anything, a red sheen on smooth skin, but this is not the same; this is not right; this is Isaac’s life pumping out of him and onto your floor.

“Wolfsbane,” he manages, and some blood slips out of his mouth, too, smears on his chin.

“Right,” you say vaguely, and then snap back to yourself. “Okay, right, we can – I can do something about that, I can – dude, there’s nobody following you, is there? Because let me tell you, I may be a cop’s kid but I do not know how to do jack with a gun.”

He shakes his head, or more accurately twitches it once, left to right. “No, Derek’s – keeping them – busy,” he says, or something like it, and for an instant you’re irrationally aggravated about that, about whatever self-sacrificing bullshit Derek’s pulling, like he’s the only one who’s allowed, but you ignore it and close the door behind Isaac, because for once you’ve actually got something to do.

“Stay here,” you tell him, though it doesn’t look like he’s going to be capable of getting up anytime soon, and sprint upstairs for the medical kit you forced Deaton to give you and have hidden under your bed. Mostly it’s full of various wolfsbane compounds and a fuckton of mountain ash, since what else do you know how to do, really? This’ll work, though; you’ll manage.

“You’re lucky my dad’s out tonight,” you tell Isaac when you get back downstairs, pulling out a vial of wolfsbane and unscrewing it. “He’s usually never out nights, this is only the second time in the past month and he only left, like a half-hour ago –” You stop, since Isaac looks kind of guilty all of the sudden. “Wait,” you say, mouth dry, “wait, is my dad – he’s not –”

“They should be – gone by the, the time he… gets there,” he croaks, and you remember that you’re the only one who’s responsible for him not dying, so you try not to think about all of the things that werewolves might do to your father and get back to opening up the wolfsbane and then putting it down to rip open Isaac’s shirt – which is actually much more difficult than it looks like, normally, in the movies, which presumably has to do with not being a fucking creature of the night. As soon as the wolfsbane touches the bullet hole, it burns blue, and Isaac’s eyes turn gold as he chokes back pain, but the blood stops seeping out and a little of the color comes back to his cheeks. He doesn’t totally look like he’s about to die anymore, which is something, you guess.

“Why didn’t you go to Deaton’s?” you ask, once he’s had a minute to get some of his breath back.

“We were at Deaton’s,” he tells you, still a little short of breath.

“Oh,” you say. The two of you stay silent for a while, you watching the skin of his belly close up again while his breathing slowly evens out and his eyes clear a little.

“Sorry about your floor,” he says after a long while. You look up at the blood drying on your doorframe and try to come up with any possible way you could explain it to your father.

“It’s fine,” you tell him, even though it’s not, not really. But he’s alive, which counts for something, you think, something a little more than your woodwork.

You stay up waiting for your dad to come home, trying not to think about what might be happening to him. You’re sitting in the kitchen when you hear something in the backyard, and crane your head around to look out the window. It’s a shadow, a person-shaped shadow, and you realize you have no way of knowing whether it’s one of yours or theirs, realize you have no way of ever knowing, now, whether you are safe.

The shape steps forward, into the moonlight, and it’s Derek, looking haggard and bloody but whole. You tap on the window and he turns to look at you, and just nods, exhausted, and you think it’s meant to be reassuring, so you nod back, and he leans his head back and closes his eyes, not to howl but to keep himself from falling over. You wonder if you should do something for him, like you did something for Isaac, but then he’s gone again, back into the darkness. You think about it for a couple of hours, more or less, until your dad comes home, and then you don’t have to think about anything at all. He’s so tired he doesn’t even notice the pink stains on the door where you didn’t totally succeed in getting the blood off, so tired that he just sort of staggers into the kitchen and leans on the doorframe, staring at you with bleary eyes like you’re the only thing he wants to be looking at right now, which makes you feel uncomfortable and unworthy and so, so good, so you get up and walk over to him and hug him as hard as you can, until you think his bones might break. He does the same thing back to you, hand fisting in the back of your shirt, and the little kid in you wants to cry, wants to sob hysterically, but you can’t do that anymore. You’re supposed to be the strong one, now.

“What happened?” you ask finally, face still mashed into his shoulder.

“Scott’s boss – he – died,” he tells you, and you wonder if he can tell just from touching you that all the blood in your body has run cold as ice.

 

*

 

Your dad tried basically every option for your afterschool care that he could think of before finally giving up and letting you come to the station. You were convinced that some part of him thought you were having them on purpose, the panic attacks, but you weren’t, you weren’t; you wanted nothing more than for them to stop, so that he would stop worrying about you. He had other, more important things to worry about – it was common knowledge that the then-sheriff was just waiting for enough time to pass so that he could be sure that your father’s grief wouldn’t impinge on his ability to do his job, to make sure he wasn’t still in mourning. You knew, of course, that he was going to be in mourning forever, that that part of him was gone, and that sometimes he came home after a long day and just sat on the couch and stared at nothing.

But you have never been in control of your body or your mind, and they did not stop, in fact got worse when you tried to stop them, and so you went to Scott’s house for around a third of the time – which was, Mrs. McCall told your father very frankly, as much as she could manage, with all the shifts she worked at the hospital (and also, you were pretty sure, because although she loved you, she had no idea what to do with you at all) – and the rest of your afternoons in the Beacon Hills Police Station, where, you were delighted to discover, your endless questions and ramblings did not annoy anybody. Most of the women working there thought you were cute, and said so, while the men thought you were cute, and said nothing, but gamely answered any and all questions you might have about crime scene investigation, how speed guns worked, how to use a bluelight to find traces of blood and dust for fingerprints, and so on and so forth. There wasn’t much crime in Beacon Hills back then – probably the worst single incident Before Werewolves was the Hale family fire, and they hadn’t been able to prove that that was arson, so it went down in town lore as an uncomplicated tragedy, not what it actually was, which was evil.

You still like the station more than most places, although you don’t spend much time there anymore. Even if you’re not a cute kid with a recently-deceased mother anymore, all the cops who’ve been there since then still can’t help but remember the way you were then, all big-eyed and spastic (you haven’t changed much), and though they roll their eyes at you now, more often than not, they’re still fond of you in a way that you’re too grateful for to really express. It sounds sappy and stupid but they became your family, in a way; they filled up your quota of attention and affection for the period when there was simply nowhere else for you to get any. Your father was not really capable, that year, of loving you in anything more than an abstract way, except on those nights when he came home to your fragile little body shaking apart, and sat with you while you slept, his big hand warm on your back. You didn’t blame him (if you blamed anybody you blamed her, you blamed her for dying – or, no, no, you blamed yourself, for killing her), but you needed them. And they did what they could for you.

You’re even more grateful, now, for all the hours you spent in that station, absorbing everything that went on as if by osmosis. You’re not some criminal mastermind, or a Sherlock Holmes-type genius, either, but you know how these things work – know specifically how these things work in Beacon Hills, or at least how they used to, back before everything went to hell. It makes it easier for you to lie to your dad about things. It doesn’t really matter if he doesn’t believe you, because he won’t ever be able to figure any of it out; you’re too clever for that, or you hope you are, anyway. Someday you won’t be able to manage it anymore. Someday, the blood’s going to lead him straight back to your door, and maybe it’ll be because you trailed it there, because you’re the one who’s bleeding. You’ve accustomed yourself, recently, to the idea that you might become a casualty, especially now that there’s been an actual casualty, and not a hypothetical one like Erica and Boyd. Now, there’s a body.

Deaton’s a corpse, now, in a drawer in the morgue, and you find yourself running your fingers along your skull, down the plane of your ribs, trying to understand how in so brief a second you, too, could become nothing. How quickly the synapses that fire so rapidly, so not-quite-correctly, in your brain could flare one last time and then go dark forever. There are cells inside of your skull that make you a person. This idea has always been terrifying to you, but less terrifying than the knowledge that Scott, too, is little more than a coiled mound of flesh inside a bone casing, that your father is meat and bones, too: that if his heart stops, the mere fact of the blood not flowing to that dark tangle of cells that make up his mind will end him. And nothing will ever scare you as much as the knowledge that your mother’s mind was slowly being taken over by something else did, that she had become nothing more than the clawing conquest of disease, marching ever forward.

Nobody is safe from this – except Peter, apparently; Peter who was comatose for years and then rose from the dead. But some part of you thinks – no, some part of you knows, in a deep, instinctual way, that Peter is not the same person he was before either of those events. You didn’t know him then, but you sense that he is nothing more than the same bare outline of a person, colored in differently.

What would happen to Derek, if he died and came back to life? You can’t conceive of Derek without the burden of his family, without that grief. You are your mother’s death and he is his family’s. It should be intoxicating, the idea of not having to bear that burden anymore – of erasing that perpetual misery, Eternal Sunshine-style – but it’s not. If you can’t bring back the dead, your grief is all you have left of them. And you won’t let anybody take the scraps of her that you have, that you hoard close to you, that you try not to think about too much, lest they lose their potency.

You wonder if it’s like that for Derek, too. Whether he lives in some sort of tunnel of grief, or whether his family are like shadows, flitting around his life, around the corners of his eyes. You wonder what he would give to have them back for just a day, an hour, and about how much he thinks about them. You wonder if his grief is like yours, and you think you’d have to pry it away from him, that he’d let himself be destroyed before giving it up. You think you can almost imagine the look of terror on his face, if that ever happened. For all that Derek’s older than you, sometimes he can look like nothing so much as a scared child, who is lost in the wilderness with no prospect of survival.

 

*

 

Nobody comes to Deaton’s funeral that you don’t know, and it makes the back of your neck prickle, like they’re watching you, all the people in his life who aren’t here right now. Deaton’s dead and the strangest, cruelest thing is that you can’t even bring yourself to care – not about him, anyway. His death scares you because it means that the rest of you could all die at any moment. You go to the funeral because it’s a sign of things to come, a definitive line in the sand you’ll be able to reference later, when everything has gone to hell (as you assume it must). It’s an omen, his death, and some part of you even manages to feel bad about that, to feel bad about the fact that a man’s mind is gone, a man’s soul is gone (not that you believe in a soul, really), and all you can think about are weapons, armor, the things you attack with and the things that keep you safe.

You sit there in the church and your mind goes to a million different things, a million different people you need to keep safe and a million ways you might do that. Scott’s sitting on the other side of the aisle, and he’s not looking at you, because you’ve already had it out with him about this, and for the first time in your long friendship he’s actively kept up not talking to you for days and days. He went a little crazy right after he got turned, but that barely registers as a memory anymore, even though you knew you were furious with him, furious that he’d kissed Lydia, that he’d touched her, that it hadn’t been you. What would you even have done? You think if Lydia Martin had ever shown any inclination to let you kiss her that you wouldn’t have known what to do with your hands or your tongue or your teeth, that your nose would have presented some kind of insurmountable obstacle.

Girls in general are mysteries to you. People in general, if you’re being totally frank: you’ve known for a while that the particular way you look at men, the way you notice them, is not exactly the same as the way most other boys do. It’s not even that you want them, exactly – Danny, maybe, if he weren’t so intimidatingly experienced – just that you notice, that you see the way the planes of their muscles bind and flow together, the angles of their bones, the broadness of their shoulders. You didn’t realize for a long time that everybody didn’t think this way, that everybody didn’t look at people and just see the beautiful ways that they’re constructed, but at some point you did. You’ve never said anything about it, to anyone – not seriously, not with intent. You’re not sure why; you’re pretty sure nobody would care. It just never seemed important.

This is a stupid, a ridiculous thing to be thinking at a funeral, but you can’t help it: your mind doesn’t want to think about what’s actually happening in front of you, this mostly empty church populated by things that go bump in the night. There’s you and your father, and Scott and Isaac sitting together across the aisle, and Chris Argent lurking at the back of the room. Peter can’t be seen in public, but Derek’s here, and you know he would have been the one lurking if Chris Argent hadn’t gotten there first, so instead he’s sitting two pews in front of you, shoulders hunched under his leather jacket, like there’s nowhere else in the world he’d like to be less than here. He needs a haircut.

You all endure the eulogy – given by a minister who clearly never spoke three words to Deaton in his life – and then trek out to the graveyard without looking at each other, without standing too close. Well, your dad tries to keep near you, and Isaac’s at Scott’s shoulder, but that’s all. These are your tentative alliances, you suppose: you and your father, Isaac and Scott, Derek and Mr. Argent each on his own. It’s useless – it’s an incredibly stupid way for everybody to behave, and you’re going to do something about it, because that’s what you do: you do what other people don’t want to, what they don’t recognize is necessary.

You shouldn’t have to be thinking about any of this; you know that. You’re sixteen, almost seventeen years old, and you should be worrying about normal things, about sports and your grades and whether the fact that you’re too smart for your own good will get you into a good college and make your father proud. You should be worrying about Scott nearly failing sophomore year; you should be worried about your father’s heart problems; you should be worried about when you’re finally going to have sex. You’re sixteen and it shouldn’t be your job to keep people from dying, but it is; it’s been your job to do that ever since you were ten years old and your mother died and there was nothing you could do to stop her. Life isn’t fair and it never has been, not to you. You’re not really expecting it to be, anymore.

“It’s a damn shame,” your father says on the way home. He looks tired and old – he hasn’t been sleeping. Nobody has quite been able to explain how Deaton came to be savaged in his office, how he came to bleed to death on the tile floor. Mountain lion attacks aren’t really cutting it as an excuse anymore, and the police station has been putting out that he was attacked by one of the animals in his care, but the simple fact of the matter is that nothing under that roof that night could have inflicted the injuries that Deaton sustained, that killed him. You know, of course, the answer to all of these unresolved questions, but like hell are you telling your dad what’s going on. Part of you feels bad about that – a huge part, wracked with guilt – but based on the strained look Mrs. McCall sent you when you were leaving Scott’s the other day, you’re really doing him a favor. He doesn’t know what it’s like to live with this burden of knowledge. Because even if you told him, even if you weren’t quite so alone with it anymore, the two of you wouldn’t be able to tell anybody else. It would serve no purpose but to make him miserable. That’s the simple reality of your situation. So you’ll keep him out of it; you’ll keep him safe for as long as you possibly can. Nobody’s come after him yet; he’s still not a threat – but he could be. You could make him one. And you won’t do it.

 

*

 

You didn’t tell Scott for a long time that she was sick, that she was dying (you didn’t allow yourself to think about that, about her death, until she was nearly there; until she was so skinny and fragile and pale in her hospital bed that you could finally, almost conceive of death), and if he could tell that there was something going on with you, he didn’t say anything about it. Of course, there were definitely things going on with him, too, things that he got good at pretending didn’t exist: his father had left the year before, and Mrs. McCall was still angry about it, still talked sometimes – angrily, while she made pasta for dinner – about what an asshole her ex-husband was, how they were better off without him, and Scott just nodded, went along with it, agreed with everything she said like he knew he was supposed to. You never thought about it much, back then; you were only ten, eleven years old. You knew Scott missed his father in the simple way you knew you would miss your father if he went anywhere for a long time, maybe forever, but Scott said he was fine and you left it at that. Mrs. McCall, on the other hand, was emphatically not fine, and the two of you walked on eggshells around her that whole year.

You don’t know what your dad told her to excuse your being at their house so often, but whatever he said must have been persuasive, because instead of finding you irritating she mostly just ignored you, let you and Scott get up to trouble up to a point, and stuffed you full of food. You knew that she didn’t really know what was going on because she would have been acting differently if she had; the few people who did know all acted differently when they found out, and you hated it. You didn’t want anybody to know – if nobody knew, it was almost like it wasn’t happening, or at least like you could imagine that it wasn’t, even if some deeper part of you knew better.

That was why you didn’t tell Scott, and – you understand all this better now – why he never talked about his dad to you, even when his mom did. She only stopped after your father told her about your mom, what was happening to her. This silent period felt like a long time to then, but you know now that he told her only a few weeks into the whole ordeal, maybe a month and a half – once she started treatment. But then, something had been happening to her for a long, long time before you knew that there was actually something wrong in her body. You’d been gradually staying at the McCalls’ more and more over the past few months, grateful for the escape. Now you knew why you were doing it; that was really the only difference.

Your dad brought you over one afternoon to play with Scott, and the two of you were busy trying to see how deep you could dig into the ground out in the woods behind the his house before the earth collapsed in on itself. When Mrs. McCall came out to find you a little while later you were both filthy and had the decency to look halfway guilty until you realized that she was covering her mouth and trying not to cry. Your father was behind her, lingering near the house and looking wrung-out, but he wasn’t crying. You could feel Scott’s confusion when he looked up from trying to wipe his hands on his pants and saw his mother crying. When she got to you and knelt down and pressed you both against her, you watched your father over her shoulder and hated him for doing this to you, for telling her, for bringing it to your private life where it had no business being.

“Stiles, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” Mrs. McCall was saying, over and over again, over Scott who was trying to get a baffled word in edgewise, and you didn’t say anything at all in response.

That night your dad came up to your room and tried to talk to you about it. Your mother was asleep, was starting to go to sleep early. You were being a terror that night, worse than you’d been in ages – you were ten then and you didn’t usually misbehave like you had at five. You knew you were still a nightmare most of the time, but you obsessively clung to the knowledge that you were improving, slowly but surely; that, someday, you might actually be bearable. But you had been getting worse recently, during dinner especially, now that your mother just sighed, picked at her food, and didn’t say much of anything when you misbehaved. That made you worse. Your father, for his part, alternated between snapping at you to stop whatever it was that you were doing,and staring vacantly at his plate to avoid looking at anything else.

He sat down on your bed and watched you for a while. You were curled into a ball in the dark, turned toward the wall and away from him, and you weren’t going to give him the satisfaction of acknowledgement, not even when he said your name. Your had your eyes squeezed tight shut.

“Stiles, we have to – we have to tell people,” he said. “We can’t – Melissa works at the hospital, it’s a miracle she hasn’t heard already. She was going to anyway, if I hadn’t said something. And it’s – people are going to know, Stiles. It’s – it’s happening, buddy. I’m – I’m sorry, I wish – I don’t want to – goddamn,” he finished, letting out a long, miserable breath, and you still hated him, and her, and all the doctors, and even Mrs. McCall, for knowing, for crying. You didn’t hate Scott, because he was always on your side, about everything, but everybody else was fair game. Even when your dad put his big hand on your shoulder, you hated him. You wanted him to go away, so you didn’t move at all, and he did, and then if you cried into your pillow, nobody had to know but you.

 

*

 

You thought you’d show up at the Hale place full of righteous fury, but mostly you just feel cold and detached and determined. You aren’t anxious about the decision, anymore; you’ve made it. It’s done.

Peter’s waiting on the porch when you drive up, like he knew to expect you somehow, like he could smell you coming from miles and miles away. Maybe he could; you have no idea what Peter’s capable of, now. He doesn’t get up when you get out of your car, just leans back on his rickety chair and smiles lazily at you.

“Mr. Stilinski,” he drawls, folding his hands over his stomach. “Whatever brings you to our fine neck of the woods today?”

“Fuck off, Peter,” you tell him, because you don’t have the energy for diplomacy, and anyway you know he likes when you act like an asshole, being such an inveterate asshole himself.

You probably need him for this, too, though you hate to admit it, even to yourself.

“Fiesty,” he says with poorly disguised glee, and then Derek appears in the doorway, glaring at him.

“Stiles,” he says, sort of growling, as though that’s really going to intimidate you at this point (it won’t). It might have even a week ago, just a little, but you’re just – you’re too tired for that, now. You’re honestly just too tired.

“So,” you tell him. “Deaton’s dead.”

You’re watching him, watching his face to see how he’ll react, and you wish you could see him better, wish that they had actually hooked up a fucking generator at this place, if they’re so dead-set against actually wiring it for electricity. He’s mostly a shadow, a hint of a frown where Peter’s just an outline of a face: a smirk, a smile. They can see you perfectly clearly, you know; they see easily in the dark.

Derek doesn’t say anything in response, just shifts his weight from one foot to another. Fucker.

“Scott won’t tell me what happened, exactly,” you tell him, which is the truth. You went over to his house the morning after, and his mother opened the door, looking like she hadn’t slept at all the night before, which she probably didn’t, and she gave you a hug, which hasn’t happened in – you can’t remember how long. You’ve been firmly in the “annoying pest” category for years, now, so you wondered what she saw, the night before, what Scott had brought home with him, how drenched he’d been in blood. He looked fine when you saw him, but that doesn’t mean anything anymore. Appearances lie.

And you asked him about it, about what had happened, whether your dad was in danger, what there was you could do, and he’d just shaken his head, too tired for sixteen, and told you that there was nothing you could do, that the alpha pack had killed Deaton for information he wouldn’t give up, that he and the rest of them had scared them off but that they’d be back, and that they were working on a plan, on a way to deal with them, but when you pressed him on what, exactly, that plan would entail, he refused to give you a straight answer, and you know – you know; deep inside of yourself, you are certain – that it’s because they have no plan. Derek’s hopeless as a strategist, and Scott – well, Scott pulled off the trick with Gerard Argent, but you’re pretty certain that Deaton was the brains behind that operation, and Deaton’s dead now.

“You need to tell me what the fuck is going on,” you told him, “because I can help, you know I can, just with information, with figuring out what to do – you guys clearly need all the help you can get, all right? I’ll behave myself and everything, promise.” Wheedling, charming – all this used to work on Scott, but it doesn’t anymore. You don’t know whether that’s because he can hear you lying or because he’s just outgrown it, outgrown you – you don’t have as much to say to him, anymore. Isaac’s got things to say to Scott, and to Derek; they all have this thing that binds them together, even if Scott doesn’t want to admit it. What can you say? You could tell him that you know better than anybody, maybe, what it feels like to have something clawing at the inside of your skull that you can’t control, know the amount of effort it takes to regulate something like that, all the while knowing that it could burst out at any moment. It’s been a few years since you’ve really felt that – felt it that acutely, anyway – but it’s going to be with you forever, that fear. It doesn’t matter that you understand pretty well how your brain works, now, even if you can’t always keep in it in check. You live in fear that something in you will snap and everybody will somehow be able to see the chaos that is the inside of your head, and turn and flee from you.

So, anyway, Scott: he’s outgrown you, and you’ve never seen it as clearly as you did when his face got hard and stubborn and surly and he told you that he knew you wouldn’t do what you’d said, that you’d put yourself in danger and in doing so endanger the rest of them, and that “We can handle it, okay? We don’t need you to – to save the day, okay, I don’t need you to do that. I handled Gerard without telling you about it, it’s not like I have to – to run everything by you, to, like, check it or whatever, okay? We’re going to handle it and it’s going to be fine, so just go home, Stiles, and – wait.”

How long, you wonder now, has Scott felt like that, resented you for being the smart one, the fast one – when did he go from being naively awed by the almost overwhelming speed of your mind, from laughing at your quick jokes and trusting you, from doing what you said, to being determined to separate himself from you? How long? Did it start with the bite, or has this been building for years? It’s your fault, you know – you loved it, having somebody who followed you around blindly, somebody who laughed at you, who made you feel smart and funny and necessary. You know you got off on it; you may be sixteen (almost seventeen, now, older and older), but you’re not stupid. The tragedy of it is that you’ve always known you were smarter than Scott, but you wanted what he had – what you were missing – you wanted to be nice, and thoughtful, and well-liked – because Scott may not have been popular, but he had always been liked, by just about everybody. You were not nice, and people did not like you – they were baffled by you, or annoyed by you, or found you actively repellant. Except Scott, and for a while that was enough, and sometimes you think it still would be, except that Scott’s finally seen you for who you are, is finally seeing you like everybody else does. Now that you really do have nothing, you’ve begun to realize how much you had before. It’s staggering, how much you had – or maybe not how much you had but how much it meant to you. You’re empty, now, cleaned-out, and it feels horrible.

Which makes what you’re about to do much easier, frankly.

“So,” you say to Derek, whom you think won’t quite look at you, though you’re not sure. Derek, whose strong arms are crossed over his chest, like he’s trying to protect himself from you, which is a ludicrous thought. “What happened?”

He shrugs, just a half-movement. “The alpha pack went after Deaton. They can’t get here and they don’t know why, and they thought he might – or they thought if they hurt him, they’d be able to draw us out, get us to talk.”

“They were right,” Peter points out, maddeningly pleased with himself.

“Deaton was dead by the time we got there,” Derek continues, voice flat. “When we realized, we all scattered; there was no point in trying to take them on together. Isaac got hit the worst; one of them had a gun. But the rest – they’re all alphas, but this isn’t their territory; they don’t know it as well as we do. And they’re not ready to break into people’s houses yet. They’ll avoid that at all costs, if they can; it makes too many problems for them. Scott just – went home, after. Peter and I came back here.”

“And Isaac came to me,” you say, and some part of you is enraged, now, but even that feels distant. You were expecting something along these lines. There are repercussions for bleeding werewolves showing up at your door in the middle of the night.

“Isaac went to you,” Derek agreed.

“Scott says this doesn’t concern me,” you say. “I’m trying to figure out in what universe that statement is even remotely true.”

Derek doesn’t say anything for a second. It’s Peter who answers you, in the end.

“It’s not,” he says frankly. For once, there’s nothing remotely smarmy about his tone; he’s cut his shit, and you appreciate it, even if it scares you. “You’re involved, and that Argent girl is involved, and his mother’s involved. You’re involved by virtue of knowing him. Hell, you’re involved by virtue of knowing us. If he’s still insisting otherwise, he’s lying to himself. Or just to you.”

Derek started to move partway through his uncle’s little speech, but stopped himself. You wonder what he was going to do. You wonder what he’s going to say, now.

“So, nephew mine,” Peter says, turning to look at him. “What’s your play here, exactly?”

Derek sighs. “You’re involved,” he says, and it sounds grudging, but more tired than surly, which isn’t exactly what you expected. It still seems wrong, somehow, that Derek Hale should be tired, should be anything approaching human. You know he’s not, but – well, he is in all the ways that matter. He maybe doesn’t think that, anymore, but it’s true.

“The problem,” Derek continues wearily, “is that getting you involved is only going to put you in danger. In more danger,” he amends, even though that’s clearly bullshit.

“Any danger is really not okay with me,” you tell him, “at least as long as I can’t fucking do anything about it. Is that seriously so difficult for you to understand? I don’t even – I don’t give a shit about myself, okay? I couldn’t give a flying fuck about what happens to me, I just –”

“You should,” Derek tells you, and you can hear the frown in his voice, even if you can’t see it very clearly on his face. “You should care.”

“Well, I don’t, so deal with it,” you snap, and your anger’s beginning to build beneath your skin, crackling through your blood. Your mother’s blood killed her but yours is keeping you alive, right now; your blood is scorching the insides of your flesh. “I care about what happens to my dad, who isn’t involved with this at all – none of this is his fault, okay, and I – I refuse to let it affect him, I just – I won’t let it happen. And I care about what happens to Scott, and Allison, and Lydia, and Isaac, I guess; I even care about what happens to you, okay? Even though you’re a world-class asshole, like, ninety-five percent of the time. You cannot – you cannot keep me out of this anymore. You can’t do it. I won’t – I won’t let you,” you tell him, taking an instinctive step forward. He steps back.

“You’re human, Stiles,” he says harshly, but he was the one who stepped back, like you were the frightening one.

“I don’t have to be,” you retort, and you could swear you can hear their hearts stop in their chests.

 

*

 

You’ve wondered – of course you’ve wondered – whether it could have saved her. Whether she would have taken the bite and turned, become something other than just your mother, become something deadly. You don’t think she would have liked it – you don’t think you will, either; you already have one thing inside of you, trying to break out, after all; you don’t really need another. But she would have been alive, maybe. She would be alive now, today, and your father wouldn’t be so lonely, and – neither would you – and maybe, just maybe, she’d be relieved by the person you’ve turned into, relieved that you’re not the maniac she left behind when she died.

You think you’ll take it – you don’t really have any idea how this works; you’ve just convinced yourself that it will – and that it will do something to you, something probably horrifying, but it might keep him alive. It might keep all of them alive, but him most of all. So you’ll take it, all the pain, the burden that will last forever. You’ll take it. You don’t really mind. It will be worth it.

 

*

 

“No,” Derek says, a moment later.

“No?” you ask. “Seriously, your answer is no?”

“Derek,” Peter says, cautionary. This was why you didn’t go into the house. It’s going to be useful, just like you thought, having Peter here.

“No,” Derek repeats. “I’m not doing it. We’re not doing it. It’s not happening.”

“It really, really is, dude,” you say, more conciliatory than you feel. “There is no way in which this is a bad thing, for you. Your pack gets stronger, you get me in on whatever sad-as-fuck planning sessions you’ve got going on right now, I help defeat the alpha pack with my brilliant mind, nobody dies, done, the end.”

“No,” he says again, like a broken fucking record.

“It might be worth –” Peter says, looking up at him from his seat, and Derek jerks his head to the side, so he stops.

“You know we can’t –” he starts. “Not until –”

“We don’t know how any of that works,” Peter replies. “What if –”

“We can’t,” Derek says, firm. “We can’t, it’s not –”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” you interrupt. “Do you mind telling me what the fuck it is, exactly, that you’re talking about?”

“Yes,” Derek says churlishly, because of course.

It’s chilly out tonight and you’ve got a long-sleeved shirt on, so you yank it up to bare the flesh of your arm, shove it toward him. Peter’s head lazes toward it and Derek growls at him, but he’s staring, too. You wonder what you smell like, to him – do you smell willing? Will you be able to smell all of these things, too, once you’re – like them? You’re afraid of the sensory information more than anything, of overloading on it – but Derek doesn’t have to know that, Derek doesn’t have to know anything except that you’re here and you want the bite and that he’s basically duty-bound to give it to you.

He reaches out and puts his big hand around your skinny wrist, and he feels like he’s burning up. You always forget that, somehow, about werewolves – that they’re like furnaces. Every time you touch Scott, throw a companionable arm around his shoulder, you’re reminded. You don’t know why this is the one thing that doesn’t stick in your memory, but it doesn’t. And now Derek’s holding onto your wrist with his hot hand and you don’t know what it is, exactly, that’s making you this uncomfortable, because it could be so many, many things.

“Stiles,” he says, and he sounds almost – kind? Can Derek sound kind? “I can’t.”

“You can,” you tell him. “You can, you can, you have to.”

“I’m not going to,” he says, and runs his thumb over the bone on the outside of your wrist, the one that he could break in an instant, if he wanted to. “I can’t do it.”

“Fuck you,” you tell him, ripping your wrist out of his hand. “Fuck you, okay? What gives you the right to tell me that? He wanted to do it once, you know,” you tell him, pointing at Peter, who looks utterly unrepentant, from what you can see of him. Derek goes tense, turns to stare at his uncle while you keep going. “Fuck you for telling me I can’t keep my family safe, okay, just – fuck you, am I seriously not good enough for you sad excuse for a pack? Isaac Lahey is good enough for you but I’m not? Jesus, Jesus, I’m – I’m actually smart, okay, and I’ll – I’m the only one who does all the shit nobody else wants to do, and you think – you think –”

“You don’t understand,” he yells back at you, really angry now, “you don’t fucking understand, Stiles, this – this is not something you can reverse next week, this is your entire life. Do you understand what I am telling you? You make this decision, that’s it – you’re over, you’re done, you get caught up in this shit for the rest of your goddamn life. You are sixteen years old. You don’t get to make that decision for yourself.”

“Fuck being sixteen, I need to –”

“It’s not your job to keep your father safe!” he tells you. “It’s his job to keep you safe.”

“Yeah, well, he can’t exactly do that, can he, since there are werewolves running around –”

“So tell him about us,” Peter says, interrupting, and you stop, practically panting from rage. “It’s not an incredibly difficult solution to this pickle in which we find ourselves.”

“I – what? No,” you reply, off-balance. “No, I can’t, he wouldn’t –”

“He wouldn’t believe you?” Peter asks. “You’ve got lots of people available for demonstrations.”

“No, I mean – he can’t – he’ll just be in more danger, then,” you tell him. “They’ll come after him, and –”

“Look, Stiles, I know you think I’m a sociopath,” Peter tells you as he gets up from his chair walks over to you.

“You are a sociopath,” you interrupt, because you can’t help it.

“But I’m also an adult,” he continues, talking over you. He’s just shy of uncomfortably close, and you can feel Derek staring at both of you. “And let me tell you, if you give your father the choice between you doing this to yourself for him, and him getting hurt, he’ll pick getting hurt every damn time.”

You feel like he’s punched you in the stomach, like you can’t breathe, and the worst part is that he looks almost sad for you, almost compassionate, like he’s capable of that – like you’re worthy of that, of pity. You can’t deal with that, can’t deal with him like this; you want to be able to think of him as nothing more and nothing less than a monster.

Derek steps forward, puts his hand on your shoulder, but you wrench yourself away, because you don’t want to be here anymore, don’t want to have to look at him if he won’t give you this, if he thinks so little of you. So you turn and you try not to run to your Jeep, although you want to, although you want to run into the woods and keep running until you’re so far away from here that you don’t have to worry about this anymore, until you’ve escaped, until you’re gone.

You get in your car and slam the door behind you, and can’t help yourself from looking at Peter and Derek standing on the porch, leaning toward each other, talking – talking about you, Derek running his hand through his hair and Peter shaking his head – but then you look away and slam your foot on the gas.

 

*

 

In the years that followed her death you got used to dealing with counselors, got good at dealing with them, but when you were ten years old and she had just started treatment, the last thing you wanted was strange adults asking you questions about your life – and yet that was exactly what began happening. Not long after your dad told Mrs. McCall what was going on, he told the school, and when he told you what he’d done, you stopped talking to him for a week. Even when your mother told you to stop, told you that you shouldn’t be mad at him for doing what had to be done, you refused to say anything to him. It was nearly as much of a punishment for you as it was for him, and you found yourself rambling at your mother too much instead, even though you knew you shouldn’t, that she was tired and needed to rest. You broke down and started talking to him, again, after your mother sighed one evening, and said, “Stiles, I’m sure your father would love to hear about this,” but you heard what she was really trying to tell you, which was: please, leave me alone for just this one minute. Let me have the silence.

You crept back into the kitchen and tried not to cry, because you were ten whole years old now and ten-year-olds did not cry, and stood behind your dad at the stove, even though you thought he probably didn’t want to talk to you, since you’d been mean, but he turned and looked at you for a moment before rubbing his hand over your hair and letting it settle on your shoulder, so you could lean over and into his hip without having to feel embarrassed about it.

The school guidance counselor kept calling you into her office, and for a while – for months, you think – you just pretended that nothing was wrong, that you didn’t understand her questions. What did she mean, how was your mom? Your mom was the same as always; your dad was pretty busy at work, though. But somehow the word began to spread through the school that Stiles Stilinski’s mom was sick, and soon enough all the teachers were looking at you like they felt sorry for you, and the other kids just looked like they didn’t know what to do, or like they were afraid of you. You started getting into trouble – worse trouble than usual, that is; trouble with intent – around then, just to make them all stop looking at you like that, and you didn’t stop, no matter how disappointed your parents looked when they found out. Somehow that was better than other people’s pity – at least you deserved the disappointment.

“Oh, Stiles,” your dad sighed one afternoon after you had committed some now-forgotten offense. You were standing in the family room, in front of him where he was sitting on the couch. She must have been asleep upstairs. “What are we going to do with you?”

“I don’t know,” you told him, voice small, and he reached out to pull you into his lap, like you were four or five again, and you listened to the loud thudding of his heart in his chest, pressed your ear against the sound, and tried not to think about anything else. It was hopeless, of course: it was always hopeless, when there were that many things to think about, all crowding into your small, tender skull.

 

*

 

So now you’re apparently not talking to Scott, or Allison, or Lydia (or Jackson, not that you’d want to), and with Scott goes Isaac, and Erica and Boyd are still persona non grata (you’re trying not to think about the fact that they’re probably dead, not because they mean that much to you but because their deaths would only bring death that much closer to you), and the thought of Peter and Derek makes you see red.

Beacon Hills is a lonely place when you haven’t got anybody to talk to or anywhere to go. You should probably try to get another job, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it; you can’t stop thinking about all the terrible things that could be happening to you or any of your friends at any given moment and you don’t think that really lends itself to customer service. You try researching alpha packs, try to get a better idea of what it is you’re dealing with, but the internet is completely useless to you in this particular endeavor. Gerard’s grimoire would probably be the most useful thing, but the chances of you getting your hands on it are actually less than zero, so after a while you give up and accept that you won’t have any idea what’s coming for you until it arrives.

You try to do things with magic, things Deaton was attempting to teach you before he died, but you mostly wind up thinking about him, and the fact that whatever it was he did got him killed. You’re frightened and angry and neither of those emotions is good for channeling magic, apparently. You’re starting to think you have no talent for this whatsoever, despite the fact that Deaton thought there was something strange about you. You have no idea what he might have meant. There are many, many things strange about you, but you don’t think any of them make you particularly special, and they’re not going to save you from this clusterfuck of a situation, so: useless, pretty much.

You know your dad’s getting worried about you shutting yourself up in your room all the time, even though last month he would probably have been thrilled to have you where he could keep track of you at all times. You’re not talking much, these days, and he doesn’t know what to do with you in this state. You don’t really blame him. He dedicated himself to the task of learning how to deal with your anger and your panic and your endless distraction, but this is a deeper, sicker kind of misery that is beyond his scope. You think this might be what other people call depression, and some part of you wishes you could just be depressed like a normal person. You always thought people’s minds slowed down when they were depressed, but yours is just as frenetic as ever: it keeps skipping from one nightmare scenario to another, all tinged with an almost crippling dose self-loathing.

But maybe that’s just what depression is like for everybody, and nobody ever told you. Mostly it feels like you’re treading water. You find yourself thinking about that one night at the pool a lot, the burn of your lungs and your muscles as you tried to keep yourself and Derek alive, as the thing that was Jackson stalked around the edge, croaking and hissing its disdain, its murderous intent. That was easier; that was physical, and you had somebody else to worry about, had Derek’s huge, heavy body tethered to yours. You can keep yourself afloat as long as somebody needs you, but nobody needs you now. Even if they do, they won’t let you help them, and it’s driving you slowly out of your mind.

Your dad does tentatively ask what’s going on with Scott, why he hasn’t seen him in the past few weeks, and you just shrug and say that he’s busy, which is a technically true but practically unsupportable claim, since he doesn’t have a job at the animal clinic anymore. Your dad doesn’t push, though, for which you’re overwhelmingly grateful. “He still seeing that girl?” he asks, and you shrug, tell him you don’t really know, because you don’t. The status of Scott and Allison and their epic romance is pretty much beyond you at this point, and to be honest you don’t give that much of a shit. You never did, if you’re being perfectly honest, even though you do kind of like her; you just cared enough about Scott that you got good at pretending.

“And still, uh, nothing with – Lydia,” he says, and he sounds like he’s walking on cracked ice. You snort.

“Nope,” you say, but that’s so far from the thing you’re most bitter about right now, you can’t find it in yourself to be all that upset about it.

He sighs, leans back in his chair. “I don’t know what’s happening,” he says, and there’s something in his voice that’s aching, it’s so sad, and you’re momentarily paralyzed by the thought of him dying. It’s a thought that hits you often, these days, but that doesn’t make it any less potent. He’s gotten new lines in his face, this year; his hair gets greyer with every passing month. You want to turn your mind and body inside out until you don’t have to think about this anymore, but you can’t. You’re stuck sitting there, at the dinner table, watching him gaze out at nothing, contemplating the nightmare your lives have slowly become.

“There’s just – there are so many people dying,” he says wearily. “I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know what it means. There’s no pattern I can see.” He pauses. “It didn’t used to be like this, you know. It didn’t used to be like this at all.”

“I know, Dad,” you tell him. “I know.”

That night you dream of her, of sitting out in the backyard with her in rickety beach chairs you don’t recognize. She looks pretty much the same as she did before she got sick, blurry and out of focus since you can’t remember her that well anymore, have to work off of photographs. When you wake up you can’t remember much of what she said to you, of what you said to her, but you’re crying into your pillow. You haven’t done this in years – you can’t remember the last time you dreamed about her – and you make yourself cry longer than your body really wants to because that, at least, makes you feel like you were somehow close to her. But the dream frays and slips away from you, and you’re left with the empty darkness of your quiet bedroom, full of nothing but moonlight and shadows and the quiet, ominous sounds of the suburbs outside.

 

*

 

Your memory is constantly in flux. Sometimes this makes you anxious, as though it would be somehow easier – less painful – if there were a concrete number of memories of her that you had catalogued and could refer to easily, unambiguously. But you know that some of these memories are not actually memories at all, just fictions constructed around stories they used to tell you, about your early childhood. And you also know that your mind does not work this way. You may be young, still, but you are not naïve. There are things inside you that you think you have forgotten but that appear every once in a while, inconveniently, to remind you that you are not actually in control.

Sometimes you hate those new memories, but mostly you hoard them, obsess over them when they do float up to the surface of your ever-churning mind. You miss her more, then, but she also seems more real to you, less a story you’ve told yourself to pass the time.

Like this one, now: that actually that trip down the coast was not actually an isolated event – not the trip itself, which was unusual, but your strange sense of being at peace in the car. You remember suddenly, for no reason, that you always loved cars – you must have forgotten at some point, and then remembered, after a fashion, when it was time for you to start driving. You were fascinated by how they worked and by the sheer power of their huge metal bodies, but mostly what got you was the feeling of being inside of them when they were in motion. You don’t think your mother had a lead-foot, but you’re also pretty sure that didn’t matter: as long as you were going fast enough to feel the thrum of the vehicle in your bones, you were satisfied. The motion seemed to rattle some part of your intrinsic chaos out of you.

The memory, suddenly overwhelming in its sensual exactitude: her hands fitting nearly around your abdomen as she picked you up from the ground, settled you on her hip even though you were nearly too big for that, you sticking your face into her hair, which smelled intensely like her (you can’t remember this smell anymore, just the fact of its existence), and your anxiety at the burden of your thoughts and energy, far too great for somebody so small, easing away as she strapped you into your seat in the car – not a car seat for babies anymore, but the one in-between, for toddlers – and rolled the window down partway so you could feel the wind on your face. Your feet, kicking the seat below you, the slow purr of the engine as she drove in circles around your neighborhood, playing Sam Cooke on the CD player.

You go down to the basement and dig around through the boxed-up CDs, stacks upon stacks of obsolete objects, and find the old, beat-up disc, Sam Cooke’s Greatest Hits. You haven’t listened to this in years and years, but you distinctly remember the cover art, and his name: she used to make jokes about cooking, something probably desperately unfunny that you laughed at anyway, because you always laughed when she made a joke.

You put it in the stereo system you’ve still got set up in the family room, the one you never use, and listen to twenty seconds or so of the songs, trying to find the one she liked the best. You recognize all the tunes in a distant, strange way – you don’t actually know them, but your body has a better memory than your brain: when you hit the one, you know it immediately. Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took –

But I do know that I love you –

Your dad opens the front door, and you think distantly that you should probably turn the music off, but you don’t think you’re physically capable of that right now. You’re crying, and you’ve got your hands over your mouth, but you’re almost hysterically giddy, through your tears. It’s like she’s standing in the room with you, shaking her hips, singing along to the music, your little feet balanced on top of her big ones, her hands holding yours high above your head.

He stops dead in the doorway when he registers the sound of the music, jaw slack, and you let yourself laugh, aching from your grief and your joy, while Sam Cooke tells you, now, I don’t claim to be an A student, but I’m trying to be

He just covers his eyes, his hand a mourning veil, until the song changes to something about a chain gang. Ooh! Aah!

 

*

 

The irony of this line of reminiscing is not lost on you later that week, when your Jeep is turning over itself as it topples off of the road and into the darkness. You feel strangely detached from the entire situation, although you can hear each crunch of metal distinctly. You are probably going to die. If you don’t die, in fact, it will be nothing short of a miracle. You find it difficult to be bothered by this. Although you’ve been – well, yes, let’s name it, depressed lately, you’re not particularly eager to end your life; your ambivalence isn’t borne of self-destruction. Death just seems very, very inevitable all of the sudden.

You hadn’t left your house in days, to the point where your dad was beginning to become actively concerned, almost panicky. You don’t want that – he worries about you too much anyway, and you really do not deserve it – and anyway, there’s only so long you can go doing nothing but falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole and wearing out your Xbox and half-heartedly jacking off without getting profoundly bored. You are seriously so, so bored. You tend to get bored by even nominally interesting things extremely quickly, and even your persistent paranoia is not enough to counteract the effects of being shut up in your house for a week.

You snap around ten-thirty one night, seized by the urge to go somewhere, anywhere, so you grab your keys and tell your dad you’re running to the supermarket quickly before it closes, to pick up eggs for breakfast the next day, which is a pretty pathetically flimsy excuse, but he’s so worried about you – and so bad at saying anything about it, you think as you shut the door behind you, simultaneously fond and bitter – that he doesn’t push it, just lets you go.

You feel considerably more horror at the guilt he’s going to feel when he finds out that you died in a horrific road accident than you do about your own impending demise. He’s not going to have anything left now – and you didn’t even die nobly, trying to protect him; you’re going to die stupidly, and it’ll probably be talked about as an example of reckless teen driving, even though you were driving completely safely, barely five miles-per-hour above the speed limit. The extraordinary injustice of this seems distinctly outrageous to you, and remains so until your car slams to its final resting place off the side of the road and your body takes over from your mind and you scream.

You’re upside down and your arm is caught under something – you don’t know what, you have no idea, you’re nothing but the parts of you that are broken or breaking. Your arm is caught under something and your shoulder is on fire and your leg must be bleeding because it’s warm and wet and it hurts, it hurts so much, and you like to think you’re all grown up, a man in control of your destiny, but you’re crying like you’re five again, and you just need somebody to help you, you need her to help you, but you’re stuck, you’re trapped, and it’s hot, is the Jeep on fire? Is it on fire? Are you going to be on fire soon? You’re screaming for her, you’re screaming for your mother, your mom, Mommy, and she is not coming, and your shoulder is in agony and your arm is shattered and you are getting hotter, and you are going to die, you are going to die and there is nothing you can do, and you almost don’t notice when the metal next to you that was once a door bends out of shape to create a man-sized hole in the wreckage and there is another body in there with you, you just keep babbling for her because you’re pretty sure nobody else can help you, right now; you are beyond help. But the person is swearing and looking at you like he’s trying to figure out what’s going on, where to move things to get you out of there, and he apologizes tersely before wrenching something up, off of your arm, and you scream again because that somehow makes it worse, just for a moment, before it’s better. Your face is so wet with tears that it feels sticky and heavy and your mouth is full of phlegm and you’re so, so hot, and the man is apologizing again, almost angrily – why is he angry? – before putting his arms under you and pulling you out. It is the worst thing you have ever experienced, except maybe the moment the car hit the ground.

Fortunately then you’re out, and he puts you down far enough away from the wreckage that you’re not quite so hot anymore, just warm. It’s summer; it’s warm out. Your face is sticky from your tears and from the heat, and you breathe messily through your mouth, big gulping gasping breaths, and the man – who is Derek; the man is Derek – is putting one of his huge hands on your chest and the pressure hurts, but only for a moment, until everything goes a little fuzzy.

Stiles, he’s saying, he’s saying your name repeatedly, like he’s actually worried about you, and for once the expression on his face isn’t broadcasting misery or rage or sheer dickishness but something closer to acute panic, which is weirdly comforting. You’re not sure when you got to a place in your life where panic has become a good thing, but your thoughts aren’t really traveling in the right directions right now. You think you’ve lost kind of a lot of blood, and Derek is doing something to you that you don’t understand. Maybe he’s just making death easier. You appreciate it, if that’s what it is. This is a much better way to die than burning to death in the wreck of your car. Somebody is looking down at you like he cares what happens to you, somebody is clutching a cell phone to his ear and yelling something at the 911 operator, and that’s nice. That’s kind of a nice thing. Your right arm still works, sort of, so you jerk it in the direction of his body, not so much for your own comfort as much as to make him feel better, because – you think this with a sudden, wide-eyed clarity that you guess must be a harbinger of death – Derek Hale does not deserve to watch anybody else die. Your fingers hit his kneecap and he looks down at them, startled, and you’re starting to lose consciousness – you’re starting to die; you’re not going to try to fool yourself – but you feel the slow, confused press of his fingers against yours, like he doesn’t recognize the gesture. Like he’s never been touched before in his life except to get beaten. It makes you intensely sad, this thought, and you squeeze his hand in the last instant before everything goes dark.

 

*

 

You were not there when she died; you did not see it happen. You have no idea where you were – school? home? the McCalls? – but you were not in the room with her. You did not see the life go out of her. What does it mean, to die? What does it look like, when the person you love simply does not exist in her body anymore? (Exist anywhere – she does not exist anywhere, anymore, except in your mind and in your father’s.)

You know your father didn’t want you there when it happened, that he was trying to spare you, but sometimes you think he should have let you see it. You probably wouldn’t have understood it, but at least you would have understood its incomprehensibility. Understood that you would never really understand how she was gone, that no matter what you did, you would not be able to get her back.

 

*

 

When you wake up, you can’t move anything, and for a brief, horrible moment you think you’re paralyzed, but then you drag your heavy eyelids open and realize that you’re just profoundly, profoundly drugged. Your arm is in a cast and you think other parts of you are pretty heavily taped up and bandaged, but miraculously, you seem to be mostly in once piece.

You open your mouth to try to say something to your father, who’s got his head in his hands in the chair next to you, but you can’t get any sound out. It’s maddening, and it would probably be making your heart rate shoot up if you weren’t so fucking sedated, but something must get his attention, because he glances up and sees you staring at him, mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water, and he stares back for a single stunned moment before bursting into such hysterical sobs that you don’t even know what to do, or feel, or think. You have never seen him like this, never in your life, not even in the horrible months directly following her death. You want to reach out to touch him, to reassure him that you’re here, that you’re alive, that you’re fine, really not worth getting that worked up about, but you can’t move at all except to twitch your fingers in his direction, and he doesn’t notice through his tears.

Scott comes the next day, looking haggard. You smile crookedly at him and he winces, so: something must be wrong with your face, too. It feels a little swollen and generally not as tactile as you’re used to, but you haven’t looked in a mirror yet, so.

“Hey,” you croak.

“Hey,” he mumbles, guilty.

“If I hear this was somehow related to your supernatural bullshit, you are literally never hearing the end of it,” you tell him, and he blinks, clueless, but you’re not entirely sure that Derek would have said anything to him, if it were, since despite their uneasy truce Derek has trust issues the size of the fucking state.

He stays for a while, talking about nothing much, and you’re still drugged up enough that you can admit to yourself (if not to him) that you love him so much it’s fucking embarrassing, that you’d probably subject yourself to all this a second time if it kept him from dying. He’s trying, Scott; he just doesn’t have a fucking clue what he’s doing. You’re feeling generous today: you’re happy to be alive.

“Send Derek around,” you tell him.

“Why?” he says, genuinely baffled.

You raise your eyebrows. “Seriously?” you ask.

“Yeah,” he says, frowning. “Why do you want to see Derek?”

“I just do,” you say, and he looks at you strangely but agrees.

“Tell him if he doesn’t come, I’ll find him in the night,” you tell him as he leaves. “Tell him I know where he lives!”

Scott just shakes his head, baffled, but that night – long, long past the end of visiting hours – a noise wakes you up from your medicated slumber, and when you open your eyes he’s standing in the corner of the room, the fluorescent light from the hall only barely touching the side of his face. It would be creepy as all hell if he hadn’t saved your life a couple of days ago. This is probably also the drugs talking, but you are feeling pretty fucking positive about Derek Hale this week.

“Yo,” you croak, and he makes a face, which only makes you snicker.

“Scott said you wanted to see me,” he says tersely. He’s got his arms crossed in front of him, and he’s wearing that stupid leather jacket, even though it seriously has not been that cold at night recently.

“Scott didn’t seem to have any idea that you pulled me out of the burning wreckage of my dearly departed Jeep like some kind of superhero, dude – I think you are the one who owes me an explanation, here, not the other way around.”

He shifts his weight from one foot to the other. You know, now, that Derek is scared all the time, but you’re only now beginning to truly appreciate the fact that he is also astonishingly, almost gloriously awkward. Still kind of a dick most of the time, when he’s not saving your life, but: awkward.

“It wasn’t relevant,” he says stiffly, and you raise your eyebrows. He winces, too, and you have seriously got to get a look at a mirror tomorrow.

“How the fuck is that not relevant?” you ask, incredulous.

He shrugs, avoiding your gaze.

“Dude, I know you and Scott are working together, now, to keep Beacon Hills from alpha annihilation or whatever, but I don’t think I need to tell you that he still basically thinks you’re out to ruin his life. Spontaneous acts of heroism in the service of keeping his best friend alive are maybe the kind of thing you should want him to know.”

You’re making him profoundly uncomfortable, but you’re too tired and drugged-up to care. “It wasn’t – heroic,” he mumbles, and you want to roll your eyes but apparently you’ve tripped some kind of switch between snarky and weepy.

“I was gonna die in there, you jerk,” you tell him, and you’re not particularly proud of the wobble in your voice, but it actually makes him look at you, so that’s something. “Take the fucking credit.”

“I,” he starts, lost, and you turn away from him so that he won’t see you crying. You hear him take a few steps forward, and sit down slowly in the chair next to your bed.

“It was them,” he says, which you already knew, pretty much, though it’s nice to hear it confirmed. “They – they went after you as soon as you left your house.”

“I know,” you manage, still staring at the opposite wall.

“They don’t want to fuck with the Sheriff, I don’t think,” he continues, weary. “And I think you’re doing something strange to your house. Unconsciously.”

You blink away your tears and turn back to stare at him. “I’m what?”

“It smells like magic. The plants are growing in strange patterns, and – there are, well, a lot of birds on your roof.”

“I – what?”

You sigh. “We’re going to have to – talk. About the magic. I think – I was trying – well, it doesn’t matter. It’s going to be an issue. It’s already an issue.”

“I’m accidentally magic-protecting my house,” you say slowly. “Correct?”

He shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “Correct,” he admits after an irritated moment.

“Shit,” you say, very eloquently.

“Yeah,” he mutters. “Shit.”

“And your alpha friends… know.”

“Yeah.”

You take a long, shuddering breath. “So – my dad –”

“I don’t think they’re interested in your dad. I don’t think he’s worth the trouble, to them.”

You think that makes sense, kind of, and anyway – the fact that you’re apparently magicking your house is probably good; maybe they can’t get him when he’s there – but it doesn’t really matter, because you’ve made yourself the target and made him a target, by association, and you fucking knew this was going to happen and you didn’t stop it, you should have stopped it somehow, but you didn’t, you didn’t, because you’re a fucking moron, is why, too wrapped up in your own shit to actually think about anything, fuck

You don’t realize your breathing is out of control until Derek reaches out and grabs your hand with one of his and presses the other against your skull, threads his fingers through your hair, which is a little longer than usual due to your recent bout of petulant apathy. He says your name over and over again until you actually hear it, and then you can focus on the feeling of his fingers against your scalp, long and warm, and your breathing gets slower and more even, until you are basically yourself again.

He pulls his hand back from your head but uses it to pull your hand toward him, just a little. He’s got both his hands around yours and he’s inspecting it, the lines on your palm and the instinctive curl of your fingers, and he doesn’t say anything for a long time. You have no idea what is so fascinating about your hand, but it feels nice – it’s good to have some kind of tactile stimulation after an attack, you learned early; it gives you something to focus on, besides your panic.

“It’s just – weird, to me,” he says, slowly, because Derek is nothing if awkward with his words, “that you can’t – smell it.”

“What?” you ask, dumb.

“I think it was always there,” he says, almost to himself. “But it was just – I mean, you – it reminded me of, of my – my brother. Who was – it reminded me of him, a little, but I thought it was a coincidence. And now…”

“What?” you ask again, but with more intent this time.

“You smell like magic,” he tells you. He’s not looking at you – he’s looking at your hand, which he’s still holding between his. “It’s… a very distinctive smell.”

“I smell like… your brother?”

He shakes his head slowly. “I – no. Not – it’s like, it’s the same – if you think about food, it’s the same – family of food, I guess, like – citrus. But it’s not – it’s not actually all that similar. Patrick – my brother – he was all – it was all about the forest, for him. The earth.”

“And me?” you ask, and you’re not really sure why you sound so needy, so unsure.

“Like electricity,” he tells you, and glances up at you for just an instant. His eyes reflect the faint light like an animal’s would, glassy and bronze.

“And the ocean,” he adds, and a single, salty tear leaks out of your eye down onto your pillow. He lets go of your hand.

 

*

 

Kate Argent burned the Hale family to the ground not long after your mother got her diagnosis. You know this because it was the first time your father stayed out most of the night, and you started out mad at him but just got anxious, as the hours wore on and he still did not call, or come back. Your mother fell asleep in the armchair in the living room and you wandered around the house, kicking a bouncy ball around from room to room and following it before kicking it again. This was a trick you had learned as a little kid, to keep yourself occupied and moving even when there was nothing to hold your interest, and it drove your mother out of her mind but she was asleep, now, and you probably weren’t going to knock anything over, so you figured it was all right.

You’d heard the sirens in the distance, in the afternoon, but your house isn’t close to the Hales’, so you didn’t see or smell the fire itself, had no idea what had actually taken place until your father finally came home at two-thirty in the morning, ragged and weary. You were practically asleep on your feet, by that point, and you tottered over to him when he came in the door. You could see, in his face, the cloud of exhaustion and horror that subsumed his vague irritation at your still being awake at such a late hour.

He closed the door behind him and leaned back against it, slowly, and gestured for you to come closer. You did, unsteady on your feet, and he heaved you up in his arms like you were still a little kid (and you weren’t, anymore, in your mind, even though you were only ten years old). You wrapped your arms around his neck and your legs around his waist and he carried you slowly, heavily up the stairs to your room, put you in bed without changing your clothes, and sat on the floor next to you while you fell asleep.

When you woke up it was morning and he was still there, head tilted back to the wall, breathing slowly. You didn’t think you should wake him up but you did not think you were capable of keeping quiet; your burning desire to know was too strong.

“Dad?” you whispered, and then, again, louder: “Dad?”

He blinked, came back to himself, frowned when he realized where he was. He looked over at you and just stared, for a long minute, before you said his name again.

“What happened?” you asked him.

“Oh,” he said as though this question were in some way a surprise. “Do you – do you know the Hale family? They – live out in the woods, in a big old house… their kids are older, though,” he said, and cringed. You didn’t know why.

“No,” you said. “Did something happen to them?”

“Yes,” he said quietly, sadly. “Their house caught on fire, and the fire department didn’t know about it until it was too late. We had to – there was a lot of work for us to do, which is why I was out so late.”

“Are they okay?” you asked.

“No,” he told you. “No, they – most of them died.”

“Oh,” you said, voice small. “Did the – the kids die?” You didn’t like talking about death, the words strange and heavy on your tongue. They didn’t belong to you yet.

He closed his eyes. “Yes,” he said. “All but two of them. The oldest and youngest.”

“Do they not have a mom and dad anymore?”

“No,” he said. “They don’t.”

“Oh,” you said, and curled deeper into the warmth of your blankets, which was a misleading comfort, because out in the world there were things like fires that took people’s parents away from them, and here you were in a nice warm bed in a house that had not burned down, and all of this seemed excruciatingly unfair to you.

“The youngest one’s sixteen,” your father said wearily. “Sixteen.”

Sixteen seemed old to you, inconceivably so, but you did not say anything. You could tell that the fact of him being sixteen, this boy whose name you did not know, was upsetting your father and you did not want to upset him further by saying something stupid – or, no, your mother told you repeatedly that you did not say stupid things, just things that weren’t well thought-out. You tried to remember this, repeat it to yourself in times of need.

“What’s gonna happen to him?” you asked, and he shook his head. I don’t know, he told you, I just don’t know.

In the months that followed you got used to seeing an old yearbook photo of that boy, of Derek Hale, in the newspapers, and the one of his sister, who was older and didn’t look quite so uncomfortable in her own skin. You haven’t thought about Derek’s yearbook picture in years but you wonder if you could rustle it up, now. It doesn’t really matter, because you remember it vividly, now that it’s risen back to the surface of your mind: his face was so much softer then, seven years ago, and he hadn’t exactly been smiling but he hadn’t be glaring at the photographer, either, which is how you’re pretty sure he’d behave if anybody tried to take his picture now. He’d just looked kind of uncertain, unsteady maybe, like he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be looking at, or how. Now that you think of it, you realize that the strange way he’d averted his eyes was probably just to avoid the flash reflecting in them, but back then it had looked like fear: mundane fear, more like discomfort.

It bothers you, knowing that that photograph still exists, that there is a physical record of the person Derek used to be and is not anymore somewhere on the earth. There are pictures of you like that – not just the ones packed away in the box in the attic, but probably others, school pictures and pictures Scott’s mom took of you guys in the backyard, newspaper pictures even, in the town crier. You don’t control those pictures; you don’t own them. Anybody could look at them and see you, the way you used to be, and think he knew something about you, in exactly the same way that you used to think you knew something about Derek from looking at that picture of him so many times, every time the paper ran a story about the fire or the follow-up investigation, that dragged on and on for months.

(Because maybe you did know something about him, something that was true. It made him vulnerable, his past – and so did yours.)

 

*

 

He texts you a few days into your recuperation, just about when you’re ready to go nuts from not being able to leave your house. This is going to be a serious problem: you don’t have a car anymore, and your dad can’t afford a new one, even with the insurance money. You couldn’t drive yourself anywhere right now, anyway, not with your arm broken and your re-located shoulder still sore and your slashed-up leg healing maddeningly slowly. But you wish that you could; you wish that you at least knew that you could go if you wanted to.

There’s also the fact that there’s still a pack of werewolves trying to kill you, out there somewhere. Part of you is convinced that they’ll descend the second you cross your property line, which isn’t exactly encouraging. Neither, frankly, are the cohorts of silent birds gracing your roof – it’s no wonder you hadn’t noticed them, they don’t make a fucking sound – or the fact that you can sort of see the shimmer of something in the way the blades of grass in your lawn are growing, curving toward you. You’re the center of it, the eye of the hurricane. You don’t like this line of thinking, either, but there’s nothing you can do about it: it is here to stay.

I need you to come over, the message says. You’ve never texted Derek in your life and you’re not entirely sure how he has your number. You’re not entirely sure why you’re so positive it’s Derek texting you, but you are. Maybe you can feel his aura, or some shit.

kinda stranded atm didnt u hear

I can come pick you up.

this crazy protection shit gonna follow me around?

It should be fine for a while. I can drive you to the house; as long as I’m there they won’t be able to come close.

It figures, you think, that Derek would be the kind of person to text using semi-colons.

K, you reply, and put on some real clothes – slowly, painstakingly – before he arrives.

Your dad’s working so you lock the door behind you when you see him pull up in the Camaro. He looks like he wants to get out, but there’s no reason for him to do so, so you wave him down and hobble across the lawn all by your goddamn self, thank you very much. You’ve got to use a crutch, just for a week or so, to keep pressure off of your leg, and it’s pathetic, but you’re desperately grateful for the fact that it’s your left arm that got busted up, not your right, or else you’d really be screwed. You look like a walking car accident enough as it is. At least the swelling in your face has gone down.

Derek reaches across the seat and pushes the door open for you, and you should probably thank him but you’re too frustrated, and too busy getting yourself into the car. You realize too late that you didn’t deal with the crutch beforehand, and he gets out and walks around to your side without saying anything, takes it from you and shoves it in the backseat.

You make it halfway to the Hale house before you can’t take the silence anymore, and only that long because you’re still pretty heavily drugged up on pain medication. “So,” you say. “They’re not going to, like, take out your car, right?”

“Not in broad daylight,” he says, which is considerably less reassuring than you think he intends it to be.

“Okay,” you say dubiously. “And later…”

“Probably not,” he says evasively. “They won’t want to repeat themselves; it’ll look suspicious.”

“Right,” you reply, and he scowls. Well, that’s reassuring, you guess. Sort of.

It’s been a couple weeks since you came out here, after Deaton’s funeral, and it was dark then. They’ve really made progress. It still looks like – well, like a burned-out husk of a home, but in a considerably less awful way than it did a few months ago. You see a Peter-shaped shadow in one of the windows that vanishes once the car pulls up to the front, and you hope he’s not going to stick around. You don’t want to see him.

Derek gets out and gets your crutch while you open your door, hands it to you after you’ve gracelessly hauled yourself out and upright.

“Thanks,” you mumble, because he kind of deserves it, and he shrugs awkwardly, like there’s nothing in the world he hates more than being thanked for something, which would be funny if it weren’t so damn sad.

“So, uh,” you continue. “Why… am I here? Exactly.”

“Now that Deaton’s gone, our options are… limited,” Derek says grudgingly, not looking at you. “I thought – it might be nothing. But I thought maybe – if you tried it here, it might… something might be different.”

“Okay,” you say, even though you don’t really have any idea what it is, exactly, that you’re agreeing to.

“Okay,” Derek repeats, and walks up to the door of his house like he’s walking to his execution.

“What’s that?” you ask, gesturing with your cast at the marking on the door. Something draws your eye to it; it seems bigger than itself, in a strange way. Significant. The skin under your cast is itching all of the sudden, worse than it has been.

“That’s their sign,” Derek tells you. “The alpha pack.”

You freeze. “I thought you said they couldn’t get here.”

“Not as long as one of us is here,” he says. “We didn’t realize at first.”

“You didn’t know?”

He shrugs. “Patrick was the only one who knew that stuff.”

“Your brother?”

He pushes open the door. “Yeah,” he says, without turning around.

“Did he, like – train, or something? Did Deaton teach him?”

“No,” Derek says, and holds the door open for you while you hobble through. “He just – did things. He just knew how.”

“Is that normal?” you ask.

“No,” he says. “He was human, but – nobody knew what it meant. There are people like that every once in a while, every couple of generations, but there’s no logic to it. That I know of.”

You’re pretty sure that by the end of this little excursion that Derek will have said more words to you than in the entire accumulated history of your acquaintance, so you decide to be as amenable as humanly possible to all of his possible demands, because seriously. This is, of course, the moment when he stops at the base of the staircase, and turns around to look at you speculatively.

“Fuck off,” you tell him. “I can climb the goddamn stairs myself, thanks.”

He just shrugs, and takes your crutch while you haul yourself painfully up to the second floor, watching all the way.

“One word about this, and I will – I don’t know what, conjure up the worst rash you’ve ever fucking experienced,” you mutter, and his lips twitch like he’s trying not to smile, which was really not the intended effect of that comment. Whatever – you’ll take what you can get.

“So,” you pant when you reach the top of the stairs, just to distract him, “what could he do? Your brother.”

He passes your crutch back over and shrugs again. “It’s kind of… hard to describe,” he says, and you’re about to tell him to try when he continues: “He could – do stuff with the forest. Like – call the wind, or make it go away. He could get water to come up from underground, or – moss, sometimes. On the trees.” He gestures vaguely with his hand, profoundly uncomfortable, and you’re having a hard time imagining it, what it might look like, a person with that kind of power. You wish you could have seen it, and you tell him so, honestly. His shoulders curl in on himself a little, and you wonder how much older this brother was than him, how old he was when he died.

“Animals liked him,” Derek says after a moment. “They always hated us – or they were scared, anyway. Until they got used to us.”

“So basically he was some kind of… forest spirit,” you say, retreating into flippancy, even though you don’t really mean it. “Dude, he was basically Tom Bombadil.”

Derek blinks, lost. You wonder, not for the first time, just what the hell they all got up to as children, the Hales.

“I’m not gonna be able to do that kind of stuff, though, right?” you say. “I’m not, like, deeply spiritually connected to Beacon Hills or whatever the fuck like you guys are – were – and, uh. Anyway, I don’t think I could do that – could I?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know what you can do,” he says. “I don’t know what Deaton taught you.”

“Not much,” you admit. “Not much that was useful, anyway. Mostly he just told me that magic was inconsistent, and that I had to really believe stuff to make it happen, and that it was – dependent on my mood, or some shit, which does not exactly bode well.”

“Yeah,” Derek says vaguely, and starts moving down one of the rickety hallways. The floorboards are particularly charred up here, you think, and part of you is convinced that you’re going to fall straight through to the next floor. Death by floorboard, when you survived a car wreck. You snort to yourself, a little hysterically, and Derek glances over his shoulder at you, perplexed.

“Nothing,” you mutter, hobbling along behind him, and then he stops, and pushes open a door.

“This was his room,” he says, and steps inside.

Part of you really doesn’t want to follow him, doesn’t want to see what’s in there, doesn’t want to get involved in this, even though it’s all you’ve been trying to achieve for the past month (past few months, if you’re being honest with yourself). You feel more breakable now than you ever have in your life: if you thought the black eye and scraped-up cheek took a long time to heal, compared to Scott’s eerily invincible flesh, your current injuries are a considerably more troubling wake-up call. But you’ve never been able to do that, to walk away from something once you’ve gotten your proverbial teeth into it. And you don’t like the idea of Derek in there alone. You can’t quite articulate why; you just know that’s how you feel, right now, at this instant. So you cross the threshold.

It’s hardly a room anymore, honestly. There’s a gaping hole in the far corner, where fire ate through the floor, and all of the furniture is long gone. The walls are charred black and there’s a stain that looks like blood, years after the fact.

“What happened?” you ask.

He twitches a little, shrugs. “They shot him,” he says flatly. “They didn’t want him to – do anything.”

“Oh,” you say, and try not to shiver at the thought of the bullet punching through his skull, exploding it onto the wall.

“So, um,” you say a minute later, when he hasn’t responded. “What do – am I supposed to, to do something here? Or – um.”

“I don’t know,” he says, somehow small and miserable despite his bulk. “I thought maybe – I thought maybe if you could – feel something –”

You’re on the verge of saying something flippant, but then you see the bloodstain again, and keep your mouth shut. What was it that Deaton had told you? Magic is highly dependent on any number of factors, including but not limited to your physical well-being, your emotional state, and your presence of mind. Well, physical well-being is right out, which leaves emotional state and presence of mind. And location, presumably.

What does magic feel like? That night – it seems so long ago, now – when you managed to send the mountain ash across the alley was strange – kind of like getting high, you imagine. You’ve only ever smoked pot, and not all that often – your dad is a cop, after all – so your basis for comparison is a little sketchy, but you think it’s probably like E, or coke – a pure hit of something, not euphoria exactly, but close. It was physical as much as psychological – your extremities tingled for a solid twenty minutes, after.

It had worked because you were trying so hard to keep them safe. That’s why you’re here now, too; you’re here because you’re trying to keep the people you love safe. But that’s the motivation you’ve had all summer, and it hasn’t been getting you anywhere.

You look at Derek, who’s turned away from you and is peering out the window, standing what seems to you like perilously close to the hole in the floor, shoulders tense, and the moment of clarity would be almost sublime if it weren’t also tentative, and a little afraid. You’ve been so angry, all summer. It’s been exhausting. Presence of mind, Deaton said. Maybe anger is bad. Maybe you need something else.

Right now you don’t feel angry; you feel uncomfortable and a little frightened and mostly vastly, overwhelmingly sad. You’re sad about a lot of things all the time; that’s just your lot in life. But most of the time your sadness, your trauma, overcomes everybody else’s. You don’t ever say this to them, but there is that small voice at the back of your head that knows that whatever pain other people are feeling has nothing on yours. Scott’s sorrow over Allison is nothing compared to the loss you have suffered and are suffering, every day of your life. The universe took something from you that nothing will ever be able to replace, and it’s not fair. Scott’s dad wanted to leave; your mom wanted to stay. And she didn’t get to.

But this, this room – this is something else. This would be like you going home today and finding your mother’s hospital room off of the kitchen, the IV stand rusting in the corner, the fluorescent lights flickering dimly overhead, the stale smell of sterilization seeping through everything. You’ve felt bad for Derek before, known intellectually that he had suffered something worse than you, but you don’t think you ever really understood it before now, before looking at him standing in this room where his brother was shot to death, as though this is somehow a normal thing to be doing, as though living in the edifice of the thing that destroyed your life is acceptable, or deserved. Nobody deserves that.

“How did they get in?” you ask. “If he – if there was some kind of… protection on the house.”

You wouldn’t have thought it possible for Derek to hunch his shoulders even more, go even stiffer, but he’s done it. “Derek?” you ask, hesitant.

“It doesn’t work if the – if the enemy’s invited in,” he mumbles.

“Oh,” you say dumbly, because this puts – quite a different spin on the course of events you’d clumsily cobbled together in your mind.

So Derek is – literally living in a crumbling monument to his guilt. You think you might throw up.

Instead you close your eyes and try to feel the room, even though you feel like an idiot doing it. You’re not expecting to, like, commune with the dead or any of that bullshit, just – magic has energy, right? And if there’s still blood on the goddamn wall, there could easily still be magic in the air, in the floorboards, in the window. You don’t know how magic works, but you’re pretty sure the whole point is that there aren’t any rules. So you listen for it.

It’s not hearing, exactly – it’s a sense entirely unto itself, the thing you experience a minute or two (or five, or ten) later. It’s like – a pulse. Like the room has a heartbeat – but not a living one. Like a star’s heartbeat, maybe. Your heart starts beating in time with it, and that feels natural to you; that feels right. You distantly feel your breathing slow down. You try to think about sadness, not about your own solipsistic brand of grief but about other people’s sadness, about the impersonal sadness of death, death of people and of places, of things – the death of this house. Your heart is beating in time with the heartbeat of everything left behind by death, and that makes sense, that’s fitting – you are one of those things.

You could stay like that forever, maybe, except that Derek makes a noise, a pained noise, and so you open your eyes – slowly, like you’ve been drugged, and maybe you have been, after a fashion. There’s nothing technically different about the room, nothing that the untrained eye could see, but you know that something has happened, or is still happening, in its space. There is something alive here where there was not before, not the boy who lived here but a part of him, maybe – the part of him that lived outside of himself, that he left behind. Magic is personal and impersonal all at once. You know that as surely as you know the sound of your own breathing, although you think you didn’t, a half-hour ago. You’re not sure, exactly, how time is passing in this room, whether it’s passing at all.

Derek looks like a little boy, and you’re not sure whether it’s just his expression or something else, some other form of him that you’re allowed to see, now, that you weren’t before. He looks afraid of what is happening, of the charged air that is converging on you. You feel drunk with it, but not out of control. It’s not exactly in your control, anyway – you’re not in its control, either. It’s just – it’s revolving around you, like the blades of grass in your law spiraling towards you. You are now a point around which the universe turns.

“It’s okay,” you tell him, because it is. “It’s fine, don’t worry. I know how it works now.” You don’t know if you still will tomorrow, or even an hour from now, but in this moment: yes. You know. If anybody who meant you any harm tried to approach you now, you wouldn’t even have to do anything to keep them away: they would simply cower in fear, and run away. You can hear a frequency most people cannot, now. That’s all this is.

You lean back against the wall, draw yourself out of it, a little. “It’s okay,” you repeat, partially to him and partially to yourself. “It’s all going to be okay.”

 

*

 

Your curiosity didn’t fail you often but it failed you then, in those long months of her dying. You know now that it wouldn’t have mattered, you understanding all the details of what was happening to her, but some part of you still feels guilty about it, about failing her in this way. As though knowledge could have acted as some kind of opposing agent to the cancer in her bloodstream, when even love was not enough. You know this; you know the contours of this rational argument intimately. But it does nothing to assuage your guilt. Guilt is not rational. Guilt is another thing, a malignant thing that eats you from the inside out, just like her blood was eating her from the inside out, destroying her even as it kept her alive.

Because you did not want it to be real, could not fully cope with it being real, and it was not only at school that you pretended nothing was happening. You got frayed at the edges, just like she did, and you compensated by talking more, by getting into trouble, by kicking a bouncy ball around the house even though she hated that, by generally acting like a brat.

Your father wasn’t around more often than usual until the end; your family needed the money. Your house was modest and his paychecks were decent, but her medical costs were through the roof, and she hadn’t been earning anything for years anyway, had been too busy taking care of you. You didn’t know any of this at the time – your father’s still never mentioned it, but you’ve put the pieces together; you’re not stupid – and in your mind it was just another piece of proof that nothing serious was wrong, that you did not really have to worry, even though Mrs. McCall had started baking too much for you, compulsively, and sometimes had to keep herself from crying in front of you. She’s tougher, now, than she was back then, back when her husband had only just left her. She was a crier.

But of course you did know; you always knew. You knew from the way she was shrinking before your eyes, from the fragile quality her skin had suddenly acquired, and from the hair that was falling away from her like dead leaves anticipating the coming winter. But most of all you knew from the way she slowly stopped pleading with you to be quiet and good and started, instead, simply telling you to stop bothering her. You could not climb into her bed with her anymore, because she locked the door behind her when she went in to sleep off one of her headaches – the headaches that never really went away, anymore – and sometimes physically forced you outside when you were acting out, even with her diminished strength. You could never really oppose her; you did not know how to do it.

So you grew to hate her, a little, because you could not differentiate between her and the disease. You hated her for putting a door between the two of you, for sectioning herself off, for retreating into herself in those last months of her life. She was dying and she knew it and she chose herself, chose to spend her last months enjoying the comforts of her own solitude for the last time. Or maybe that wasn’t what was going on at all; maybe she was just afraid and hiding. You don’t know. You can’t ask her, now, what was going through her head. Whatever it was, it’s gone.

You never said anything about any of this to your father, though; you couldn’t have said why, you just didn’t. You were afraid, maybe, that she would be even angrier with you than she already was.

A couple weeks before she went to the hospital and never came back, he came home and found you sitting on the porch, knees tucked under your chin, shivering. It was almost summer by then, but the sun had set, and it wasn’t warm out. You were only wearing a t-shirt and your arms were covered with goosebumps.

“Stiles?” he asked as he came up the walk. Usually she remembered to let you in before he got home.

“Hi,” you said, and he stopped in front of you, frowning.

“What’s going on, son?” he asked.

“I can’t get inside,” you mumbled, and he blinked, walked the few steps to the door and tried to turn the handle.

“Did you lock yourself out?” he asked, even though you think he already knew what was really going on.

“No,” you said, and he didn’t say anything else, just fished out his keys and went inside.

You followed him up the stairs because you felt like you had to, because you didn’t have anywhere else to go. Their bedroom door was locked, too, so he knocked, and when she didn’t respond, slammed his open fist onto the wood, over and over again, until she finally opened it. You were standing at the other end of the hall, peeking around the corner: you were hiding.

You can’t remember, anymore, everything they said, but there are sentences that will be burned across your brain forever. You don’t have to stay at home with him all afternoon, your mother said to your father, you have no idea what this is like for me. Don’t fucking tell me you get it because you don’t, you don’t, you don’t. Or this one: I’ve got his voice in my head all the time and it won’t stop, it won’t stop, I just need to sleep, I need the quiet, you don’t understand how badly I need the quiet.

She knew you were there, that’s the part you still can’t get over, all these years later: she saw you standing there, cowering, and she kept going. She didn’t have control over herself – that’s what your father’s always believed. But you think she did, and that she just didn’t care about hurting you.

You went back outside while they were fighting, even though it was still cold and you hadn’t put on a sweatshirt or a coat. You tried to sit on the porch again, but you could still hear them, so you went to the back of yard, near the tree line. If you put your hands over your ears, you couldn’t hear any of what they were saying anymore, so you did that, and pressed your face against your knees, even though you were ten, now, almost eleven, and you thought that meant you were supposed to be kind of grown up and not do things like cry about stupid stuff anymore, but you couldn’t help it.

You didn’t hear him walking toward you, but you felt him sit down next to you, felt one big hand on your back, the other gently pulling your hands away from your ears. Stiles, he was saying, over and over again. Stiles, Stiles, Stiles.

“I’m sorry,” you managed, even though your throat was swollen and there was snot streaming out of your nose. “Daddy? I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m –”

“Stiles,” he said. “You don’t have –”

“It’s my fault,” you said, “it’s my fault Mommy’s sad all the time –”

And he told you it wasn’t, crushed you to him while you cried, but it didn’t seem to matter, somehow, because you knew that, no matter what he said, she was still going to turn her face away from you when she saw you next. And all you wanted was for her to look at you, and smile.

 

*

 

The Argents leave town at the end of July. They don’t sell their house, but they pack up most of their stuff and go. Lydia goes with them. You don’t see her – you spend all of your time cooped up in your house or at the Hale house these days, reading Peter’s surprisingly unhelpful bestiary and pulling magic to you to wrap around your heart – and you can’t decide whether you wish you had or not. Her parents are still here; it’s not like she’s gone forever – but she might be gone for a long time. You really have no way to tell. You don’t really know much about Lydia’s parents, but you know that there are some people who are willing to let each other go, that there are some families that are not like yours. You know that in a few years you’ll have to leave your father but until then, nothing will take you away from the place where he is.

It occurs to you that you only have two years left with her anyway, even if she does come back – that you only have two years left with all the people here, in Beacon Hills, before you leave them. You’ll come back, but it won’t be the same. You can’t totally wrap your mind around how not-the-same it will be, but you’ve never really thought much about this before now, and it frightens you. You might die tomorrow, of course, but if you don’t – if you don’t – you’re going to be out of here, and wherever you go is going to be full of people who don’t know about your mother, people who don’t know Scott or Lydia or Derek or anything about his fucked up family tragedy, people who don’t know anything about werewolves at all, people for whom the universe is logical and scientific and terrifying but concrete, manageable. Part of you wants so badly to be one of those people, and part of you hates the idea of living like that. You know you won’t ever be able to, no matter how hard you try. Everybody has old wounds, childhood scars, but yours are not the same as most people’s. You have magic beating a tattoo on your heart with every rush of blood that courses through it, and you won’t ever sleep through a new moon again without thinking of the people you know who are wild under it, who are howling.

The only thing that makes it better is the knowledge that there will be some people – just a few, but enough – who do know that, who will be with you in some abstract way on those nights. You and Lydia may never see each other again but you will be together; you came into the world in the same horrible moment. It’s true of all of you – of Allison and Scott and Isaac, and Boyd and Erica, if they’re alive – but you’ve been thinking a lot about Lydia lately, about how well you really know her, whether you know her at all. You saw her when you were nine years old and decided you were in love with her, and your mother laughed and asked you to tell her about her, about this girl you swore you were going to marry, and you did. She was already sick then, but you didn’t know it; her headaches were still manageable and she still loved you. You’ll always remember Lydia as the girl your mother liked, just from hearing your stories about her. You’ll always have that, even when she’s gone.

Scott’s furious, of course; somehow, the fact that Mr. Argent has (wisely, you think) decided to get the hell out of dodge becomes Derek’s fault, which really doesn’t surprise you, all things considered. Scott has a tendency to ascribe all terrible things that happen to him to Derek, and while you understand the temptation – and used to yield to it, once upon a time – you find it tiring, now. The problem with everything happening in Beacon Hills right now is that it’s not exactly anybody’s fault. Oh, there have been guilty parties – Gerard Argent, Matt the creep, the alpha pack – but really the culprit is the simple fact of the supernatural’s existence here, its preponderance, and that’s something beyond human will. That’s in the water. You can feel it, now, in a way that you couldn’t before: you can feel the strange way the universe curves to this place. The Hales didn’t do that; they were a result of it. They were drawn here, a long time ago, just like everything else was.

You don’t know how to explain this to Scott, is the thing. You’ve tried – you have tried – but he doesn’t want to hear it, and he can’t feel it in his bones the way you can, for all that he’s the wolf. You think Deaton might have been able to explain it to him, but Deaton’s gone, and for the first time you really understand that loss. You’ve been missing him lately, in a weird way, missing even his obfuscations.

You wind up, anyway, in the passenger seat of Scott’s mom’s car, careening toward the Hale property, because you were damned if you were going to let Scott do this by himself. You’ll act as peacekeeper, if you can. You really don’t want Derek to kill Scott, which seems like a more likely outcome than Scott managing to kill Derek. Derek may be hopeless at alpha business, but if there’s one thing he actually can do, it’s beat the shit out of people. What that says about him, exactly, is too sad for you to fully contemplate, but it’s undeniably true.

You’re off the crutch by now, but you’re still limping, so you sort of hobble up to the Hale house behind Scott, who’s pounding on the door and shouting Derek’s name as though Derek – or Peter, you guess – wouldn’t have heard him from the second your car got within earshot. He’s still slamming his fist against the door – he’s going to break it soon, if he keeps it up – when Derek comes around from the back of the house, looking somewhere between hunted and deeply fucking irritated. You feel for him. He looks at you for a second, scowling, and you shrug. He rolls his eyes, very clearly not at you, and grows Scott’s name.

Scott whips around and leaps off of the porch, somewhat less acrobatically than Derek does on a regular basis, and starts shouting at him, about how it’s all his fault that the Argents are gone and how they were a reliable ally against the alpha pack, which is all technically true but also bullshit, because everybody present knows perfectly well that the reason Scott’s upset about this is maybe 5% communal town safety and 95% Allison-related angst. Derek lets him rant for a few minutes before cutting him off – mercifully, you think. You’re really not interested in this conversation, and you’re tired. You’ve been getting tired a lot, lately, and you don’t know if it’s from your injuries or from the magic that’s playing out between your fingers and inside your bones, maybe a little of both.

“He’s trying to keep his daughter safe,” Derek says. “There’s nothing you or I or anybody can do about that. It’s his right. He’s allowed.”

“Well, maybe if you hadn’t killed her mom –”

Derek’s nostrils flare and his whole body seems to get bigger as his canines grow and his claws come out. Scott has to have noticed but it doesn’t seem to be deterring him, since he just keeps yelling.

“Goddammit, would you both just stop?” you shout, and then once again when Scott doesn’t pay any attention the first time. He does, blinking almost owlishly at you despite his rage, and sometimes you want to smack him, you really do, even though you love him something stupid.

“Derek didn’t kill Allison’s mom, Jesus,” you tell him. “No, no, you fucking listen to me, okay,” you continue when he tries to argue with you. “Allison’s mom was a fucking moron, let’s be real. I know, I know, there’s lots of hunter bullshit culture that was probably bred into her from a pretty young age, but come on: the exact same thing happened to her that happened to you, and you didn’t up and stab yourself in the chest when it did, right? People die and it sucks, okay, I get it – I get it, but when you kill yourself – and not because you’re, like, crazy fucking depressed or whatever, like, that’s a different thing – when you kill yourself because you’re a fucking prejudiced asshole, that is your own damn problem.”

Scott looks like he wants to argue with you but doesn’t actually have a response, which makes sense because you are clearly right about this, and Derek looks kind of like somebody’s slugged him in the gut, but you’re pretty sure that’s just what his face does when he’s surprised.

“Dude!” Scott finally says, outraged. “You’re supposed to be on my side!”

“I’m not on anybody’s fucking side,” you tell him, peeved. “I’m on the side of being a reasonable person and not a huge douchebag, and also on the side of you two not killing each other. I don’t really know how I’d explain going home covered in that much blood.”

Scott tries to come up with something else to say, to have the last word, but evidently fails, because he just stomps back to his car, huffily. Derek’s looking normal again and just staring at you, like you’ve done something incredible, which you think is pretty dumb, since all you did was state a couple of manifestly true facts. Derek doesn’t exactly have a lot of people looking out for him, you guess. Not that that’s what you’re doing, exactly, but – still.

“I’m gonna go make sure he doesn’t, like, drive his car off a ravine, or something,” you tell him. “See you later, I guess.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Uh. Bye.”

You wave a little before you get in the car, awkwardly, and he raises his hand hesitantly in response, like maybe he’s never waved at anybody before. You really hope the Hales weren’t that crazy, but you wouldn’t swear to anything, at this point.

Scott just sits there in the driver’s seat for a minute, huffing to himself. You wait it out; it’s usually pretty easy to wait Scott out.

“That wasn’t cool, man,” he says finally, churlish.

“Yeah, well, neither were you, so deal with it,” you tell him, and you spend the rest of the drive back to your house in silence.

Your dad’s not home when you get back, even though it’s already the evening. You putter around the ground floor to avoid taking the stairs, and try to watch the baseball game for a while before turning the television off. You can’t focus on anything: you’re crawling out of your skin in just the way you used to, when you were a little kid, but that hasn’t happened in years, not since your body adjusted to the medication zipping through your bloodstream. But this isn’t coming from inside of you, you don’t think, even though it feels that way – this is being done to you. You shiver, even though it’s a warm night, and lie down on the couch, staring vacantly at the ceiling. Magic is impossible in this state, utterly inaccessible. You really, really hope there aren’t a bunch of werewolves standing outside your windows, waiting for – something. You could get up and check, but you don’t move. As long as you don’t move, nothing happening outside the house is real.

Your phone buzzes a while later – you’re not sure how long, you haven’t been keeping track – and you answer it without looking at the caller ID.

“Hey,” you say blearily, and neither of you says anything for a moment. Your heart rate speeds up and you try to keep your breathing even.

“Um,” Derek says finally, and you exhale. “I was wondering – if – um –”

“You feel it, too, huh,” you say. The two of you have taken to texting, recently, to coordinate when you go over to the Hale house. It’s still the most magical place in Beacon Hills, you think; being there is like getting a strong hit of something that follows you around even after you leave. But Derek does not actually call you, ever. You’re pretty sure he’s allergic.

“Yeah,” he says after a long moment. “I don’t – I don’t know what it is.”

“They’re here,” you say almost dreamily. “I mean, not – here, here. They’re – they’re close. They’re around.”

“I know,” he growls, but you can tell pretty easily that he’s not irritated at you.

“Don’t go looking for them,” you tell him impulsively. “Scott’s not going to be in the mood to help you out tonight, and they’d tear you to pieces alone.”

“I can’t leave here anyway,” he says, terse. “Peter’s not around.”

“Oh,” you say, and wonder what that means, exactly.

“I,” he says after a long moment of silence, punctuated only by the sounds of both of you breathing. “I – thanks, I guess.”

Part of you wants to crow about the fact that this is probably the first time Derek Hale has thanked you for anything, ever, including almost cutting off his arm that one time, but you’re not feeling that petty. When was the last time somebody stuck up for Derek, anyway? You have no idea what his sister was like, but you don’t think anybody has really had his back since she died, which is too depressing to even think about.

“Yeah,” you wind up saying, instead of all the other things running through your mind. “No problem.”

Neither of you says anything for a while, but you don’t hang up, either. You’re afraid, you realize, of what might happen when you hang up the phone.

“What was he like?” you ask eventually. “Your brother. The one – you know.”

“Uh,” he says. “He was – I don’t know. He was the second oldest, after… after Laura. He and my dad didn’t really – get along.”

“You said he wasn’t – that he was human,” you say.

“Yeah,” he says. “My –” He pauses, swallows. “My dad was afraid of him, I think.”

“Oh,” you say.

“I wasn’t,” he continues, like he knows what’s running through your head, which is: are you afraid of me? “He was – he was my favorite.”

“Oh,” you say again, and it’s not enough, but it’s all you have, right now. It’s all you have to say.

“My mom died,” you tell him a minute later. You’re pretty sure you’ve never said it to him. It’s been a long time since you’ve said it to anyone at all.

“Oh,” he says. “I – I mean, I sort of – um. When?”

“Around the same time as – uh. Around the same time,” you tell him.

He doesn’t say anything.

“You were – gone, already. I think.”

He stays quiet but doesn’t hang up, so you don’t, either.

“Do you think they knew each other, maybe?” you ask finally. “Our moms?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe.”

You know they probably didn’t – you don’t remember your mom reacting much to the Hale fire beyond generic horror and sympathy, muted by her disease – but some part of you wants to believe that they might have, anyway. That they might have smiled when they ran into each other at the supermarket. That maybe Derek was trailing after his mother while you were sitting in the front of the cart, kicking your legs out and making lots of noise, even before you could talk properly. It’s a stupid idea, sentimental and unlikely, but you really, really wish that it were true.

“I meant it, you know,” you tell him. “About – about Allison’s mom. You didn’t – it wasn’t your fault.”

“I know,” he says after a long pause. He probably doesn’t, though, is the thing.

Your front door swings open, and you go stiff for a second until you hear your father’s familiar footsteps in the hall.

“I gotta go,” you tell Derek. “My dad’s home.”

“Okay,” he says. “Don’t go outside.”

“I know,” you say, and hang up.

Your father, when he appears in the door, looks considerably older than he did that morning.

“Dad?” you say, hesitant.

“Stiles,” he sighs, running a hand over his eye.

“Did something happen?” you ask a minute later, even though you already know the answer to that question.

“Yeah,” he sighs. “Yeah, kid, something happened.”

“Is Scott okay?” you ask, heart thumping painfully hard in your chest.

“What?” your dad says, vaguely. “No, Scott’s – Scott’s fine, it hasn’t got anything to do with Scott.”

“With who, then?” you ask, and he sighs.

“Did you know a girl called – Erica Reyes?” he asks, and the hand holding your phone curls so tightly around it that you think you might shatter it, werewolf strength or no.

 

*

 

When was it that you began lying to your father? You honestly can’t remember, it’s become such an ingrained habit: was it before she died, or after? Some romanticizing nostalgic instinct in you wants to believe it was only after her death, but if you’re being honest with yourself, it was earlier. You lied to both of them often, and it didn’t matter whether they believed you or not, because when you were determined enough, nothing they did or said could get you to give in to their requests for honesty.

They both used to ask you all the time whether any of the kids at school were giving you a hard time, whether you had trouble understanding things in class because you couldn’t pay attention, whether there was anything they could do to make things easier for you. And you always said no, no, no, that everything was fine, that you were fine, that it was normal. That you were normal. They never believed you, but you kept up the lies anyway, until it didn’t matter, because they weren’t asking you those questions anymore. They were busy with something else.

After, you like to think you got a little better at it, or maybe he was just more distracted. But the one thing he’s never quite been able to do is force you to tell him something you don’t want to. He can’t guilt you into giving anything up because there’s simply no way he could make you feel guiltier than you already do, all the time. That’s just the way it is.

None of this makes it easy, though. It’s never easy to lie to him. You hate it more than you hate just about anything. But you do it all the same. You do it because you have to. Because there are things that he doesn’t deserve to suffer from, not like you do.

 

*

 

“No,” you tell him. “I mean, a little, but not – not well.”

He sighs, leans back against the doorframe. “Somebody killed her. Poor kid. Jesus.”

Somebody, you think, he said somebody, not something.

“Did you – find the body?” you ask, even though you already know the answer to that question.

He nods. “Yeah. Yeah, we… we found it.”

“Where?” you ask. He’s not supposed to tell you these things, but something like this will be all over the local paper within a day or two, and you know him well enough by now to know that he’s going to want to get this off his chest.

“The old train depot,” he says with a sigh. “Looks like Hale did it – Derek Hale, the one who – well, you know. Last year. I guess you were right after all, kid.”

“Derek didn’t kill Erica,” you tell him before you can think about it. You may be used to lying to him – to him, to Scott, to everybody – but every once in a while, you just can’t fucking help yourself.

He frowns at you, blinking through his fatigue. “I thought you said you didn’t know her,” he said.

“I mean, I don’t, really,” you say, which is actually not that far from the truth, all things considered. “I just – we were wrong the last time, it wasn’t him, I just – it doesn’t seem like something he would do. Is all.”

“What do you know about what Derek Hale would or wouldn’t do?” he asks, more baffled than suspicious, still. It’s very late, and he’s very tired.

You shrug. “I dunno,” you say. “It just seems weird.”

“Well, murder is weird,” he tells you. “And his prints and DNA are all over that place. We’ve got it in the system, from – well.”

You wonder idly whether werewolf DNA is markedly different from human DNA while the rest of your mind tries desperately to come up with some kind of explanation that he might believe about why Derek’s fingerprints are all over the inside of an abandoned train depot with a dead body in it.

“On the body, too?” you ask, and he shrugs.

“Don’t know yet,” he says. “Lab’s got to do their thing. They’re heading off to pick him up, anyway.”

“Right,” you say vaguely, and heave yourself up with your right arm, careful to keep your left arm still. “Well, that’s – I’m gonna go to bed, I think. I don’t – yeah. Sorry, Dad.”

He looks at you sadly. “Teenagers getting killed in this town,” he says, sighing. “All these goddamn kids.”

“Yeah,” you say, and on an impulse step forward to give him an awkward, one-armed hug. He squeezes back a little too tight, but you figure your shoulder can handle it. Part of you wants to tell him everything, to explain it to him so that he would understand, but it’s such a small part of you that you barely even register its existence.

“Good night, Dad,” you say, and hobble upstairs.

You close the door behind you and shut yourself in your closet as fast as humanly possible, cell phone pressed to your ear. Derek picks up after two rings – paranoia’s good for something, after all.

“What?” he says.

“There are cops heading over to your place,” you whisper, and hope he can hear you. The reception’s shit in here, but like hell are you going to let your dad listen in on this conversation. “Erica’s dead, they left her in the train depot. The cops think you did it.”

There’s a long moment of silence on the other end of the line, and then he hisses, “Fuck.”

“Yeah, I know, I know,” you tell him. “Act now, panic later. You need to get out of there, do you hear me? You need to get out right the fuck now, or they are going to haul your ass off to jail, and I’m not exactly sure how you’re going to get out of this one, okay, so just – I don’t even know, run.”

“Peter’s not here,” he says, and you wish you could give him some time to process this news, but you didn’t have any yourself. Life fucking sucks, sometimes.

“Well, if you let the cops take you in, you won’t be, either,” you tell him. “Jesus, do I have to pull a Lion King, here? Run, run, and never come back, whatever – or at least not until I figure out what to do about this bullshit –”

“You’re not going to –”

“Jesus!” you say, too loud, and force yourself to start whispering again. “I know you don’t trust anybody as far as you can throw them, but now is seriously the time to start, because you are going to get put in jail if you don’t –”

“That’s not –” Derek starts, huffing angrily. “That’s not what I –”

“Look, I’m thrilled you actually want to talk,” you interrupt, “like, really, I will happily listen to everything you have to say once you are calling me from a payphone in Reno, but right now you need to go –”

“Fuck,” Derek says, and you can hear the faint sound of the sirens in the background, through the phone. “Fuck, they’re here –”

“Get out –”

“Too late,” he says simply. “I’ve got to destroy the phone.”

“Wait,” you start, and then the connection cuts out.

“God fucking damn it,” you whisper, and try to figure out what the fuck you’re going to do now.

By the next day, it seems like everybody in Beacon Hills has heard that the Hale kid murdered some teenager from the high school, at least that’s what you gather from the fact that literally everybody you know, including Allison, has called you asking about what happened, as though you have some kind of unique perspective on this situation as the sheriff’s kid. They all seem to know as much as you do, though, so you’re all shit out of luck. Isaac actually comes over to your house, high-grade panic fully in swing, and you have to tell him you have no idea what to do, that you can’t just teleport Derek out of prison using magic, and that you have no clue where the alphas are and what they’re going to be up to next. You’re all fucked, pretty much, but you don’t tell him that, because you don’t actually want him to go to pieces in your living room, so instead you tell him to stick by Scott, because at least there’s strength in numbers. Allison’s clearly calling on behalf of her father, and you stress to her that Derek had nothing to do with this, because the last thing you need is for a bunch of hunters descending on Beacon Hills if they’re not going to go after the right werewolves. You do tell her you could all use some serious help, though, but she tells you they can’t come back. Typical, you tell her, without bothering to hide your bitterness, and hang up before she can say goodbye.

Scott actually has the nerve to suggest that maybe Derek did have something to do with it, so you kick him out of your house before he can say anything else.

“I don’t get why you’re, like, defending his honor, dude,” he says from your porch, through the screen door that you have slammed in his face. “He’s a total dick, you know that as well as I do.”

“He’s not a dick, he’s just stupid sometimes,” you tell him through gritted teeth, and try not to think about why you’re so pissed off at him.

Your house is presumably the safest place left in Beacon Hills, but a fat lot of good that’s going to do you, now that your dad’s going to be spending at least fifteen hours a day at the station for the next week, minimum. For all the carnage that’s come to Beacon Hills recently, there hasn’t been much murder – not like this, anyway, not that anybody outside of your fucked-up little group has been able to see. This was a girl who got a bullet to her brain, though, and that’s something everybody cares about. The entire police force is going to be working overtime until they’ve proven beyond all possible doubt that Derek is responsible, and the thing is, you’re pretty sure they’ll manage it, if given the time. Either they’ll manage it because the information has been planted, or something worse is going to happen before then and it won’t matter. You’re not sure which outcome seems worse to you, but you’ll take neither, if at all possible.

You ask your dad the next night whether you can come into the station with him the following day. You’ve got a whole speech planned out, about how you’re freaked out by being alone in the house, and how you keep thinking about Erica even though you didn’t know her that well, just saw her in the halls, how you’re thinking about her and Dr. Deaton and how they’re both dead and how you don’t want this to keep happening, how you’re worried about all of your friends and how much your worry is starting to weigh on you. But it turns out you don’t have to use any of it, because he just looks relieved when you ask, and says yes immediately.

Most of the deputies and officers are the same ones you knew growing up, a little older now but still fond of you, and the youngest ones are too scared of your dad to be anything less than exquisitely polite. You take the big A.P. U.S. History textbook you’re theoretically supposed to be reading – the first chunk, anyway, all the parts before the Europeans came and fucked everything up, the part that doesn’t actually matter, on the test – and pretend to be diligently going through it, but actually you’re highlighting things completely at random and trying to glean as much information about the investigation as you possibly can without looking suspicious.

It turns out they found the gun dumped in a dumpster not too far from the old train depot, and it’s got Derek’s fingerprints on the barrel. They didn’t find any gunpowder residue on his hands, but they figure he must have put on gloves before actually pulling the trigger. It’s a weak argument, but everybody’s so totally convinced he’s guilty that it doesn’t seem to matter much. You know why they’re all so sure: they keep bringing up your accusations from last year, going on and on about how they really did think he seemed suspicious, how they’d never quite figured out what had happened to his sister. You always used to want people to believe you, to take you seriously; it’s somehow depressingly appropriate that they would finally do so now, when you can’t think of anything you’d like more than for them to assume you were being a dumb teenager, because that’s what you actually are.

You sneak down to the holding cells when everybody else is taking lunch break. They’ll have to transfer him to county soon, but they’re trying to get everything in order before they take the news outside of town. Erica’s dad is too out of it to give much of a shit about the efficiency of due process, so they’re not exactly in a rush, except insofar as they don’t want to be thinking about this anymore. You figure he’s got a couple of days, at least, before they get rid of him. A couple of days is more than nothing.

You try to make yourself invisible on the way down – or, well, not invisible exactly, but… unseen. Deaton told you that you could do whatever you wanted, as long as you believed it hard enough, and mostly you just push away from yourself with all the force you can muster, and the sight of their eyes sliding over and away from you makes your skin crawl, is intoxicating. It won’t work on the security camera, but you’ll deal with that when you come to it. Nobody watches those things anyway.

“Hey,” you say when you’re standing in front of his cell. He’s wearing those stupid jeans that are way too tight, and a black t-shirt, and even though he looks like he hasn’t slept in days – he probably hasn’t – he’s still a beautiful thing. You really don’t want to be thinking about that, about the fact that Derek is one of those people whose bodies fit together in the way that makes you hungry for them. Your timing is always bad, but this might be your worst yet.

He blinks up at you, unsurprised: he must have heard you coming. “What are you doing here,” he says wearily.

You shrug. “They found the gun,” you tell him. “Your prints were on it.”

“I figured,” he said. “They tested my hands for – I don’t now, something about the gun. They didn’t find anything.”

“Well, no,” you say. “I don’t think even the alpha pack can get gunshot residue on your hands without actually coming into contact with you, even considering their obvious ability in other areas.”

He sighs. “When are they moving me?” he asks.

“I dunno,” you tell him. “A couple of days, probably. They’ll want to get everything in order before they do anything.”

“What’s going on out there?” he asks. “I can’t – I can’t feel it, in here. Away from the house.” He lets out a little, frustrated growl, you think almost unconsciously. “I don’t – I don’t like it.”

“Yeah, well, neither do I, buddy,” you tell him. You swallow. “I mean, they’ll probably be after me next, right? They tried to kill me already, and – let’s be real, Scott and Isaac are probably not on the top of their list. No offense to them, but they’re not exactly the first people I’d go to if I were looking to get information or power or whatever out of somebody. Isaac would probably go to pieces in a heartbeat, and Scott would get stubborn and not say anything even if they killed him. Unless they had Allison,” you add after a moment, “but she’s off the grid, so.”

“Yeah,” he says, and swallows. “They’ll probably go after you next.”

“Great,” you say, and try not to think about how dry your mouth is, how clammy your hands feel all of the sudden. “I’ll, uh, I’ll try to – figure out what to do, about that.”

“You should leave,” he says. “You should – you should leave.”

“I can’t, man,” you tell him. “Where am I supposed to go? I don’t have any family left, they’re all – my parents didn’t have siblings, and my grandparents died a long time ago. My dad’s not going to up and leave in the middle of a murder investigation because he’s not actually insane, so it looks like I’m pretty much stuck here, for the time being.”

He doesn’t get up, doesn’t move at all, but you think he looks distressed. He looks, all of the sudden, like an animal in a cage. “They’re going to come for you,” he tells you, urgently now, “they’re going to come, and they’ll – I don’t know what they’ll do, Stiles, but it’s not – it’s not worth it to stay, it’s – you should go, you should –”

“I can’t,” you tell him simply. “I’m going to try to do what I can to keep everybody safe. Scott and Isaac are patrolling the town, trying to keep an eye on things. I don’t really know what they’ll do if they see anything, but – that’s something, right? Peter’s still gone, I think he might – well, I think he’s probably not coming back.” You shrug. “I think we’re pretty much doomed, at this point. Nothing much to do except, um, put up as much of a fight as we can.”

Your hands are shaking so you stick them in your pockets, but it’s not just your hands, really; it’s all of you, all of your bones. You realize you want to cry and try to tamp that down, but you can’t really do that, either. You’re going to die, just like Erica died, and so is Scott, and so is your dad, and so is Derek, and Derek’s not even going to be able to put up a fight, because he’s going to be stuck in this cage when they come for him, and that’s so fucking unfair, you almost can’t bear it.

Derek’s saying your name, he’s standing and saying your name, and you almost think you’re having a panic attack, but it’s not that, you realize; it’s not that, it’s just sorrow. It’s just grief. Your legs aren’t feeling so hot so you sit down right there, in the middle of the hallway, and this is really going to look terrible on the security camera footage, fuck. Derek sits back down again, or crouches really, and reaches his arm between the bars of his cell to squeeze your ankle and then your knee, the only parts of you close enough for him to touch. You put your working hand over it and hold on for dear life, leaning against the bars, listening to him breathing, and that’s how your father finds you, a few minutes later, sounding panicked as he approaches and then stopping dead when he sees you. Derek just stares up at him, like he’s trying to crouch over you to protect you from your own father through the bars of a cage, and something about the absurdity of that would be funny if it weren’t so damn sad. You press your fingers against his once more, hope that that gesture conveys everything you want it to, and stand up shakily.

Goodbye, you think. I’ll try to come up with something, you think. You can’t say anything to him now, not that your dad’s here staring at you. You can’t say any of the things you want to say to him, can’t reach through the bars and press your fingers through his hair like he did for you in the hospital – except that you’ve already done that, done it without thinking, and he’s looking at you like he has no idea what to do, and you think it’s really pretty sad that this is how your life is going to turn out, that it’s going to be nothing but a half-formed life, full of possibilities that never came to anything.

“Stiles,” your father says once he’s gotten you out of the cellblock, unaware that Derek can almost certainly still hear you both. “Stiles, what’s going on?”

“He didn’t do it,” you tell him. “Dad, he didn’t do it.” But he just looks at you like he’s baffled, like he’s always been baffled by you, and shakes his head. You know he doesn’t believe you. Nobody is going to believe you but a few other powerless teenagers, and a whole host of the dead, who can only give testimony with their compromised bodies. Your friends, whose tongues have been cut out of their mouths by death, who will never speak again.

 

*

 

Both of your parents tried to teach you ethics; both of them failed. This was one of the only serious things they argued about: ethics. As a child you had no idea what this meant, but you nodded fervently when your mother tried to explain something to you, because you wanted to please her, and this was the easiest way you knew how.

Your mother did not have any problem with your father’s job; you knew even as a child that she was proud of him. But she did, sometimes, have problems with the way his job required him to behave. You have a distinct memory of the first time you were present – and cognizant, anyway – for one of their long, relentless arguments about capital punishment. You had no idea what capital punishment was at the time. You’d probably never even heard of the death penalty, but that at least is fairly self-explanatory; the term capital punishment was entirely beyond you. Your father was not a particularly bloodthirsty man, but he had no problem with capital punishment in certain circumstances. He was absolutely without sympathy for people who killed children. He used to look at you too often during these arguments, not because he wanted to see how you were reacting but because he was imagining you in the place of those other children who had died. You’re not sure how you knew this, but you did.

Your mother did not believe in violence. She explained to him, in agonizingly patronizing detail, why it was wrong for the state to kill people. You don’t think you have any memories in which the fact that she was more educated than he was is more obvious. She whipped out philosophy and politics and literature – there’s an old copy of The Stranger on a high shelf in your father’s study – and argued him into the ground. It didn’t change his mind, only made him increasingly irritated. Her education was not generally a point of contention between them – you rarely thought about it, growing up – but every once in a while she started using lots of words you didn’t recognize, which had the adverse effect of making him stick even more mulishly to his opinions.

You do remember asking her, after the first of those arguments, what capital punishment meant. She was standing at the sink and she looked down for a moment, surprised, at you where you were grabbing her skirt, before crouching down to look you straight in the eye. “It means that the government can kill people they decide have done something very bad.”

“Like dead?” you asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Like dead.”

“What kind of bad thing?” you asked.

“Like killing somebody.”

You tried to wrap your mind around this. Death was only a recent concept to you, anyway – her father had died a few months before, and you hadn’t been able to attend the funeral service, since you couldn’t keep still that long. They got you a babysitter, and she came to get you after the service, picked you up and carried you out, pressed your body against hers, held on tight.

“I don’t think they should be allowed to do that,” she told you. “Daddy does, because it’s his job to arrest bad people and he knows that bad things might happen to them when he puts them in jail. But we don’t agree.”

“Why?”

“Well,” she said. “I don’t believe anybody has the right to take another person’s life, even if that person has done something very bad.”

“Oh,” you said, and tried to wrap your mind around this. “Even if somebody killed Daddy, you wouldn’t want him dead?”

“Yes,” she said. “I would want him dead. But even if I knew nobody would ever find out, I wouldn’t kill him.”

You wonder, sometimes, what she would think of you now. You wonder how disappointed she would be. They may not have agreed about that, but they each had their own system of morality: she with her righteousness and he with his faith in the law. You’ve thrown both of those things to the wind. You don’t like violence but you’ve found yourself worryingly amenable to it in the past few months. At first it didn’t seem quite real, horror-movie-terrifying, but now it has reached its inevitable conclusion in the death of people you know, in your death that is coming, and oh, it is real now. And instead of making you turn away from it, all this violence around you has made you even less scrupulous than before. You will kill anybody who tries to hurt you and yours, if it’s remotely in your power. You will do anything. You don’t think you’d feel a moment’s guilt or hesitation before stopping the person who killed Erica’s heart in his chest.

That’s the only thing you feel guilty about, really. Not the carnage itself, but your indifference to it. You wonder whether this is what Derek felt like, after his family died. Whether he wanted to rip Kate Argent and all of her family apart with his long, inhuman teeth, or whether he never wanted to see blood again in his life. It doesn’t much matter what he wanted, you suppose; he got it, anyway. And so have you.

Maybe there are just certain people touched by death from the moment they are born, people who carry death around with them all their lives, who can never escape it. Maybe that is why you are so bothered by the idea of harm coming to him, even though you really don’t know him very well: maybe it’s because you see in him a strange, fragmented reflection of yourself. You are both damned sons of the darkness, and if he dies – well, what does that mean for you?

 

*

 

“I thought you said you didn’t know Derek Hale,” your father is saying to you as he drives you home that evening, his fury barely contained. If you couldn’t hear the tremor in his voice or see the way his hands are clenched around the steering wheel, you might think he wasn’t upset. But you can, and you know him too well for that kind of game, anyway, so you do.

“I lied,” you tell him. You can’t possibly explain even half of what’s going on in Beacon Hills right now, what’s been going on in Beacon Hills for the past six months (past twenty, thirty, sixty years), but you’re no fool: there are certain things you’re going to have to admit to, now, and knowing Derek is one of them.

“Stiles, he’s been arrested for murder,” he says. “You were the one who accused him the first time, if I remember correctly.”

“I made a judgment error?” you tell him. “No, seriously, Dad, he didn’t do it. He didn’t kill Erica, either.”

“How on earth would you know that?” he asks.

“I know – I knew Erica, too,” you say. “She and Derek were – friends, kind of.”

“All the more reason he might have had for killing her,” he shoots back, and you try not to roll your eyes.

“Yeah, but he didn’t,” you tell him. “Look, I think – I know who killed Laura Hale, okay, and I have a pretty good idea of who killed Erica, and it wasn’t Derek.”

“Then who was it?” he asks, and oh, if you thought he was mad before, he is livid now.

“I can’t tell you,” you say, baldly. “I know how that sounds, and I know you don’t like it. But trust me, you wouldn’t believe me about Laura, and I don’t know the names of the people who did Erica. But it wasn’t Derek, Dad.”

“There’s no reason why I should believe you,” he says. “You’ve been lying to me consistently about something for months and this isn’t the whole of it, and I’m tired of it, Stiles. I’m sick and tired of the lying, and I love you, but this is it. This is done, now. I’m not standing for it anymore.”

“The people who killed Erica are the same people who just about killed me,” you tell him, and you’re angry now, angry at him for not understanding and at yourself for not telling him, and at the whole fucking universe for conspiring to put you in this unenviable position. “Didn’t you think it was weird that nobody ever managed to find any trace of what did that to my Jeep? That was a pretty big car, Dad, and I wasn’t driving recklessly. I got fucking slammed off the side of the road and left to die –”

“Stiles, who would want to kill you?” he asks, frustrated.

“Haven’t you noticed all the shit going on in this town lately?” you ask him. “How many people have died in the past six months? How many? Have you noticed the fact that our entire roof is fucking covered in birds all the time? It’s not normal, Dad. There is something bad going on and you don’t want to see it because it scares you, and I get it, Dad, I really do, but it’s real, and it’s here, and you can’t avoid it anymore, you just can’t.”

“And what, exactly, do you have to do with this supposed end-of-days situation?” he asks, snide, and god, you love him, but some part of you wants to slap him in the face.

“I can’t tell you, I can’t fucking tell you, I would if I could but I can’t,” you tell him. “Why is it so fucking hard for you to trust me? I’m your son, for Christ’s sake.”

“You being my son doesn’t make you trustworthy,” he tells you, and it’s like a fist in your stomach.

He pulls up in front of your house and stops the car.

“Out,” he says. “Don’t get Scott to take you anywhere; I’ll know. We’ll talk about this tonight.”

“Derek was the one who pulled me out of the wreck,” you tell him, because it’s the last piece of ammunition you’ve got, and you want him going back to the station with something good about Derek in his head, at least, something that might make him question what’s going on around him. “Do you remember how that one piece of the car, that should have been the door, was all bent out of shape? Dad, Derek did that, he got me out and he saved my life. I was going to burn to death and I didn’t, because he saved me. He would have done the same for Erica, if he’d known where she was, what was happening to her. He would have, Dad. I know him. He’s a good person.”

“Out,” he says again, and you can’t tell whether anything you just said made any impact on him at all, so you pull yourself out with your good arm and slam the door behind you as hard as you can, just to be obnoxious.

You text Scott with an update but tell him not to come by; there’s no point, and it’ll only attract attention. He texts back a sad face, which seems simultaneously totally inadequate and kind of appropriate.

It takes a long time for you to calm down enough to even think about doing anything approaching magic, but eventually you do manage it. You wind up lying down on the couch again, and you go into such a deep fugue state that it’s dark out by the time you come back to yourself. The house is safer than it’s ever been, you’re pretty sure – you’ve woven all of your love and anger and determination into the ground, the air, the sunlight and the darkness. You can’t protect your father at work, but you can at least make sure no harm will come to him while he’s here, within these walls. It doesn’t matter that he’s mad at you, that he doesn’t realize what you’re doing to try to protect him and everybody else, so long as it works.

But when you blink blearily at your watch, it’s well past nine o’clock, and he’s still not home. It’s not outrageously late, so you just make yourself an enormous meal – magic makes you hungry – and read through Peter’s bestiary for a few hours, until it’s late enough that you start to get really worried. You call his cell and then the station when he doesn’t pick up. It rings for a long time, and you start to think nobody’s there, either, but finally Pamela picks up, and tells you that he went to go look at another reported body, on the Hale property this time.

Your blood goes cold. “Do you know who it was?” you ask, thinking, not Boyd, not Boyd, even though you’re fairly certain that Boyd is long-since deceased.

“That’s the strange thing,” she tells you. “We got a tip, somebody saying it was – oh, what’s his name, that man who disappeared from the long-term care facility last year. He was a Hale, too. He was paralyzed, though – I don’t know what he’d be doing out there in the woods.”

“Peter,” you say, and your ears are roaring. “Peter Hale.”

“Yes, exactly,” she says.

You thank her and hang up, hands shaking, and call him on his cell again, and again, and again, but you’re not really expecting him to pick up. You feel like you might throw up.

When it buzzes in your hand you answer so fast you think you might break it. “Dad?” you say, hoarse.

“In a manner of speaking,” a woman replies, sounding amused.

“Who is this?” you ask. She laughs.

“Stiles Stilinksi,” she says. “How lovely it is to finally hear your voice.”

“Who are you?” you say. “Where’s my dad?”

“He’s here,” she tells you. “Don’t worry, we haven’t roughed him up too bad. We’ve got him and your boyfriend, as a matter of fact.”

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” you tell her, and she laughs again.

“Sure thing, dollface,” she says. “He came charging in like some kind of old-school hero with a savior complex, anyway, but I think you’ll agree that one against six is bad odds.”

“Fuck you,” you tell her. Your hands are going numb. You’re going to panic, soon. You need to hold it off until you get off the phone.

“Well, you come see us,” she says. “And we’ll see what kind of bargain we can strike, hmm? Because you’ve got some things we want, and we’re not exactly hesitant to do what it takes to get them.”

“Where are you?” you ask.

“Where do you think?” she says.

“I have no fucking clue,” you tell her.

“Boring,” she sighs. “I like it better when they play along. We’re in the hornet’s nest, sweetheart. It still stinks like Gerard Argent, in here. And make sure to come alone, won’t you? I have no compunctions about ripping that McCall boy open from neck to navel, but it’s awfully messy, and I think I’m looking pretty nice today, so let’s not bother with that, all right?”

“Alone,” you repeat. “Right.”

“Excellent,” she says with another laugh, “see you,” and hangs up before you can reply.

You put your head between your legs for a solid five minutes, hyperventilating, before you get a hold of yourself enough to dial the station again.

“Is Derek Hale still there?” you ask without preamble.

“Stiles?” Pamela asks. “I can’t imagine he’d be anywhere else.”

“Check, please,” you croak. You only have to wait for a couple of minutes before she’s back on the phone, panicked, telling you the bars of the cell were bent out of shape and that he’s gone, he’s vanished, how is that possible?

You hang up on her midsentence, and lurch off of the couch to vomit in the kitchen sink before getting ready to go.

 

*

 

You visited her in the hospital pretty often, that last month, but you didn’t go with her when your dad took her. You’re not exactly sure, even now, why she was in the hospital instead of being at home: it seems almost nonsensical, since she was so obviously not going to survive. You suppose that there were parts of her body shutting down that your house simply wasn’t equipped to handle. If she could have died before suffering the indignities of those last few weeks, would she have chosen that? You have no idea. It’s possible.

Your father explained to you the night before what was going to happen, but he didn’t offer you the option of coming with them. You went to Scott’s instead, played around in the backyard without talking about what was happening. Scott may have known; he may have had no idea. Mrs. McCall probably told him, you think now: she was always telling him too much.

He came and picked you up in the evening, and you didn’t talk about anything on the drive home. You didn’t say more than a few words at all. Once you got there, he made dinner while you got underfoot, but he didn’t scold you at all, even when you spilled a bag of frozen peas all over the floor and almost started to cry, even though that was a stupid thing to cry about.

You had spaghetti and corn, instead of the peas, and didn’t really talk over dinner, either. He tucked you into bed and wrapped his whole big hand around your fragile skull and just looked at you for a long moment before going back downstairs, and you pressed your eyes shut and tried to forget everything that was happening, but instead you wound up thinking obsessively about what it would be like to be in the hospital after dark, to be there when everybody else was sleeping. You didn’t like the hospital, even though Mrs. McCall worked there. It smelled wrong and the lights hurt your eyes and everybody there was sick or dying and you hated that, didn’t want to think about it. It seemed incredibly unfair to put all of the dying people in there together, where they would be forced not to think about anything else. Every time they pushed your mother down the hallway in a wheelchair she would have to see lots of other sick people and then she would have to think about the fact that she was sick and you hated that thought. You tormented yourself thinking about it for hours, until you couldn’t take it anymore, until your bedclothes felt like they were strangling you. So you got up and peeked in their bedroom, but your father wasn’t in there, so you crept downstairs and found him sitting on the couch in the dark, a half-empty bottle and an empty glass on the coffee table, staring at nothing. You crawled up onto the couch next to him and he started when your weight shifted the cushions, but he just blinked and put his arm around your shoulders while you pressed against him and waited for everything to stop.

You have all of these memories, all of these physical memories of your father pressing your body against his and letting it rest there, his big, faulty heart beating slightly out of sync with your small, fast one. Your memories of your father are about his body, about the solidity of it. Your mother’s body was what failed her, and by the time she was finished it was a tiny, fragile thing; you could almost have broken her in two, even as small as you were. But your father was steady. That was why his heart terrified you. It couldn’t give out, couldn’t fail him – not like her blood had failed her. It couldn’t happen.

He is somewhere else, now, somewhere where he might die, and this is the thing that frightens you the most: that you might get there, and find nothing more than a cold body there, a body with no heartbeat you can hear, if you press your ear up against his chest.

 

*

 

You get as much mountain ash into two plastic baggies as you can manage and stuff them into your pockets before getting into your dad’s car – thank god for the squad car, you think, thank fucking god – and peal out of your driveway in the direction of the Argent house. You haven’t been there since Gerard beat the shit out of you in the basement, and you’re really not looking forward to revisiting that particular memory, but there’s nothing for it.

Part of you wants to call Scott, even though she told you not to, and you know that you’re not really supposed to play along with set demands like that, if you want to make it out alive, but they have your dad. They have your dad, so they have you. You’ll do whatever fucking thing they ask, just about, if it means getting him back safe.

There are no lights on that you can see when you arrive, which you guess makes sense but freaks you out anyway. The sheer insanity of what you are about to do hits you only when you reach the front door, but there’s nothing you can do about it at this point; you’re going in.

The door’s unlocked so you just walk in and follow the faint noise of a woman’s voice echoing under your feet to the basement stairs. She doesn’t stop talking even once you open the door and head slowly down, although you know she can hear you – she could probably smell you from the second your pulled up to the driveway.

She’s crouched down in front of Derek, who’s tied up and – yeah, being electrocuted, just like Erica and Boyd were months before, when Gerard had them strung up to the ceiling like corpses in a slaughterhouse. You guess that’s what they were, in a way, and the thought makes your stomach turn.

“He’s only sixteen, you know,” she’s telling him, and you can’t help but listen as you turn and look for your dad, who’s slumped in another corner, gagged and with hands tied behind his back. He’s bleeding from the face but not profusely; it looks like they only roughed him up, instead of doing any actual harm. Knowing this doesn’t really make you feel any better; your father’s face is still covered with blood and slightly out of shape, and it’s your fault that he looks like that, that he might die in this hole in the ground, so even though you didn’t touch him you did that, in a way; you’re responsible. He blinks at you, alarmed, and you sort of shrug at him: what else were you supposed to do?

“How old were you, again?” the woman’s saying to Derek. They haven’t bothered putting a gag in his mouth but he’s not saying anything in his own defense; they must have known they wouldn’t need to. Derek is nothing if not a glutton for punishment. “When you met our dearly departed friend? Fifteen, sixteen? Close enough, if I’m remembering right. It’s – well, it’s fucking predictable, is what it is, I’ve got to tell you. We all become the things we hated, that’s what the psychologists say. You could really have used a psychologist, you know, I think I speak from a position of authority when I say that.”

She stands up and stares down at him for another long moment. He’s deliberately not looking at her, and you see very clearly the moment when his gaze catches on your feet and travels slowly up to your face, a kind of sublime horror blooming on his face that’s dulled by resignation. It’s incredible, some part of you thinks, how hard he tries, given that he seems to believe so strongly that everything he does is going to wind up ruined.

“It’s remarkable, you know, that you don’t know,” she says, and somehow you can tell that she’s speaking to you, now, even though she still hasn’t turned around. “I forget sometimes that you people can’t sense a fraction of what we can, forget that it’s possible to be so limited. I pity you, you know; I really do. I pity having to go through life like that.”

“I’m doing fine, thanks,” you tell her, even though right now, in this moment, you are really, really not.

“I wish you could smell him right now,” she says almost wistfully. “The self-loathing is – oh, it’s pungent. He is so – so smitten with you, it’s really almost sickening. I think I may develop cavities.”

“Derek is not smitten with me,” you tell her, because you need at least one part of the world to remain consistent with your conception of it tonight. If anything, you are – well, smitten is definitely not the word, but – something. You’re something, about Derek. You would really, really like him not to die, and you would like not to die, either, so you can figure out what that something is.

“He broke out of jail to come rescue your father from my evil clutches when he heard about his dearly departed uncle,” she says as she turns around. “Even though his chance of succeeding was essentially zero. I assure you, he is the very definition of smitten.”

Derek isn’t looking at you, just staring vaguely at some point in front of him that denotes the internalization of all his self-disgust. You want to hit her, suddenly and viscerally, for making him look like that.

She casts a glance over at your father, who is watching all of his with a furrowed brow and furious eyes. “I’m not sure what the Sheriff thinks about all of this; we haven’t given him a chance to express himself on the matter. I think he’s probably feeling slightly more positively about Mr. Hale now than he was yesterday, but that’s not saying much.”

“Are you just going to stand there and listen to yourself talk all night, or are we actually going to get anywhere?” you ask, and she smiles, predatory.

“We’re going to get lots of places, Stiles,” she tells you, and the sound of your name on her tongue makes your skin prickle unpleasantly. “All in good time.”

She’s sickeningly beautiful, this woman, and a little shorter than you but obviously infinitely more powerful. You get the sense that she could probably take out Derek without breaking a sweat, probably did take out Derek without breaking a sweat. And she’s got a pair of eyes so dark they’re almost black – she looks like she’s maybe got native blood; her skin has that cast – and there’s something so terrifying about them you want nothing more than to look away, but you know that you can’t. You know you have to look at her steadily for the duration of this whole thing, whatever it is. You know this in your bones. It’s important. She knows how terrified you are, of course, can smell your fear and hear your pounding heartbeat, but that’s not what matters. It doesn’t really matter if you’re scared or not, you’ve learned, not so long as you still act without hesitation. You get that from your dad, you guess. You think that’s what he’s been doing for seven, eight years now. You want to look over at him but you can’t break her gaze, not yet. Not even for that.

“You killed Deaton,” you tell her. “And Erica. And Peter.”

“Technically,” she says, lips curling, “I only killed the girl.”

“A bullet to the head,” you say. “That doesn’t exactly sound like werewolf behavior to me, correct me if I’m wrong.”

“Oh, she didn’t die from that,” she says, smiling broadly now. “I didn’t do that; I don’t like guns.”

“How did she die, then?” you ask, because she’s clearing waiting for you to.

She steps forward, toward you, and out of the corners of your eyes you see both Derek and your father thrash against their bonds. You still don’t look at them. “I ate her life,” she whispers when she’s close, just a few steps away. “I ate her entire life, and it was the best thing I ever tasted.”

Your heart is beating so fast you think even your dad can hear it, probably, but you manage to say, “I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard of that. Except in, like, Harry Potter.”

She throws her head back and laughs. “Stiles, Stiles, Stiles,” she chants, almost sing-song. “It’s nothing like that. It’s so much more… sensual. I don’t mean sexual, don’t get that look on your face. I mean you… you feel it. You feel every part of it, down to your toes.”

“I’m pretty sure werewolves can’t do that,” you say, even though you have no fucking clue, really, what werewolves can or can’t do. You’ll believe pretty much anything, at this point.

“Not by ourselves, we can’t,” she tells you. “But we’ve got help, haven’t we, boys?”

There’s a low growl of affirmation that comes from every corner of the room, and you realize that there are men standing there – well, wolves, really – in the dark, watching you. You didn’t really think that she’d be here alone, but you also didn’t really realize how truly fucked you are until right now. You are all going to die. The realization makes you lightheaded, and you can’t stop thinking, all of the sudden, about whether there was a moment when your mom realized, like this, that her life was about to be over. You wonder if it felt the same.

“What kind of help?” you croak.

“Julius,” she says, without looking away from you, “get Esther.”

One of the men opens a door and comes back a minute later with – with a person in tow, a – a person –

Your brain grinds to a halt. This is – you don’t know what this is. It’s a woman, that much is clear, but you will be damned if you have any idea how old she is. Your first thought was that she looked young, but she doesn’t, actually; she looks – she looks like nothing, like no age; she looks like she’s dead. But she’s not: she’s breathing, and her hands are twitching in front of her. Her hair is long and stringy and hiding most of her face, but you catch a glimpse of her eyes and they’re rolled all the way back into her head, seemingly permanently. She’s around your height, you think, but she’s so hunched over that it’s difficult to tell, and she can’t weigh more than a hundred pounds.

“This is Esther,” the woman in front of you says. “Esther’s my baby,” she says, almost cooing. “We had some good times, didn’t we, sweetheart? We had some good times, before… well.”

The woman – it feels wrong to give her a name, but you guess it’s Esther – doesn’t react. The man’s holding her up, it looks like; you’re not sure she could stand on her own.

“Esther and I have been together for a long time, haven’t we, sweetheart?” she says. “Esther’s a human – or was a human, it’s really so difficult to keep track of labels – and the best conduit for magic I’ve ever seen. Even including you, Stiles, and I know you fancy yourself very powerful indeed. You are, you know; you’re not wrong. But you’ve got nothing on my girl. My girl – what is that line from that poem? You won’t know it. Erica probably would have; I should have asked. My girl eats men like air.”

You want to look at your father but you can’t look away from this walking corpse in front of you; if you look at him and see how terrified he is you won’t be able to do anything except break down and cry, so you don’t. You watch Esther instead, and think about evil, and fates worse than death, and try not to be sick.

“See, there was something they weren’t telling you,” she whispers, right in your ear, and when did she get so close? “They weren’t telling you that magic has a price. We’re not particularly kind creatures, werewolves. We’re hungry by nature. We take, and we take, and we take, and we don’t give anything back.

“This is what happens,” she whispers, and you can smell her, and she smells like – like woman, and that’s so wrong you almost can’t handle it. “This is what happens when you let a pack use you, Stiles. You wind up like Esther here. I didn’t tell her, you know. I didn’t tell her what was going to happen to her. She was happier not knowing. I was going to make her do it anyway.”

You think about how tired you’ve been recently, how drained, and then try to think about anything else. “I thought you said he was – that he liked me,” you manage. “That doesn’t really seem to go hand in hand with – that.”

“Oh, he does, he does like you,” she replies. “He likes you because he can’t help himself. He’ll do this to you just the same. It’s in our nature. It’s silly to deny your nature, don’t you think? It’s pointless.”

Your breathing’s uneven, heart pounding from sheer fear, fear of being like this, but you make yourself think about it – really think about it, and you realize you don’t believe her, not really. Maybe it’s the way Derek talked about his brother, or the feeling in his brother’s room, the feeling of life there. And maybe it’s that Derek, for all his myriad fuckups, doesn’t take from people, not like that. He doesn’t think he deserves it.

“I don’t know why you’re telling me this,” you say.

“I’m telling you this because you want to make a deal with me,” she says. “You want your dear old daddy back, but in order for that to happen you’re going to have to give me something I want.”

“Such as?” you ask through gritted teeth.

“I want you to pull the life out of your little werewolf friend,” she whispers. “I want you to pull it out of him inch by inch, day by day, until there’s nothing left inside of him but meat, and then I’m going to take it from you, and it’s going to be the most – oh, it’ll be the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.”

“I – why didn’t you just have her do it?” you ask, glancing over at Esther.

“It’ll be better this way,” she says. “It’ll be a betrayal, don’t you see? Dear Derek has got quite a thing about being betrayed. The more – the more emotion involved, the better it will be.”

“Why do you want it?” you ask.

“Power,” she says simply. “Territory.”

“So you’ll – you’ll be in charge of Beacon Hills, then.”

“Yes,” she says, grinning. “We’ll deal with McCall first, of course, and his little friend – I can’t remember his name; Julius shot him but he got away. You should know that the other one – the black one; I didn’t ever find out his name, either – isn’t actually dead, Esther’s just been… feeding off of him. It’s good for her to have a source.”

You wonder what Boyd looks like now, whether it’s been taking a toll on his body or whether he looks the same and is just – not entirely there, anymore.

“Why not just kill him?” you ask. “To become the alpha of the territory. That’s how it works, right?”

“I could do that,” she says. “But this way – oh, this way will be better. This way all his little wolves will be at my beck and call just like Julius and the rest of them, here. This way, I’ll be able to do things – with Esther – most wolves definitely cannot do. Beacon Hills will be… changed, once I’m done with it. That only happens if we do it this way. I’ve gone through this enough times to know.” She’s been alive a long time, you realize. You don’t want to think about how long, but – ages and ages. Eons.

“I can’t do that,” you tell her, and you’re pretty sure that it’s true. You’ve been avoiding looking at Derek because if you do you’ll probably just – cry, but even if it weren’t him, you’re pretty sure you couldn’t do it. You can’t be a fucking Dementor, Jesus fucking Christ.

“Oh, but you can,” she says. “Because if you don’t, I’m going to rip your father’s throat out.”

He makes a noise, across the room, an angry noise, and you look at him, finally. He’s furious at her, you realize, not for himself but on principle, and if there ever was anything to prove to you that you don’t deserve to be his son, it would be that.

“You basically just told me if I do this, it’s going to turn into some kind of apocalyptic werewolf dystopia here,” you tell her, stalling.

“Yes,” she says simply. “And you’ll do it anyway, because if you don’t, you’ll be murdering your own father. I know you, Stiles. I’ve been watching. You’re not going to do that, are you? You’re not going to be responsible for that.”

And the bitch of it all is that she’s right, she’s right, she’s right. You have never claimed to be a good person; that was your mother but it’s not you. There’s something wrong at the core of you and there always has been, and you – you can’t let him die, you can’t be the one to do that. You look away from him because he wants you to let her do it, he wants to die for – for what? For Beacon Hills, for Derek, for you. But you won’t let him. You can’t do that.

She strolls over to him and lets her claws come out, and you try to do something, to do anything, pull any magic toward you that you can, but it’s not working; you’re too scared. She laughs when she realizes what you’re trying to do, and shakes her head.

“Esther’s taking care of that,” she says. “You’re not going to be able to do anything except eat that boy’s life, not as long as you’re in this house.”

You turn to look at him, finally, look at Derek, and he’s staring at you like – like he’s been expecting this, somehow. You wonder what that says about a life, that you could get to a point where you’d expect everybody you know – everybody you care about – to betray you. And you’re going to do this to him. That’s the worst thing: you’re going to do it again, and it’s going to be the last thing he knows.

“I’m sorry,” you whisper, voice breaking. “Derek, I’m so, so sorry, I just – my dad, I can’t – it’s my dad –”

He just looks up at you, not angry, just – resigned. You want him to say something, to say anything, but you know he’s not going to. His mouth might as well be sewn shut.

“I don’t know how to do this,” you tell her, and your hands are shaking now.

“You just take,” she says easily. Her claws are uncomfortably close to your dad’s throat. “You take, and take, and take, until there isn’t anything left anymore. That’s what she used to tell me, anyway. She can’t tell me much of anything, anymore. She can demonstrate, though – can’t she?”

“What?” you say. “No, no, don’t –”

“Yes,” she muses. “She can demonstrate on your dear old dad.”

The man wheels her around so that she’s near your dad, and you’re babbling something, telling them to stop, but the woman just says, “Make sure to pay attention, Stiles. You don’t want us to have to do this twice, do you?”

The man lets go of Esther, and she goes rigid, back to you, before she just – pulls – you can feel it – oh, you can feel it, and it’s only from the outside –

Your dad doesn’t let out any noise, but you can tell from the look on his face that he’s in agony, that this is the worst thing he’s ever experienced. There are small, shimmering pearls of light slipping out of his mouth, bluish and hazy, and you just want it to stop.

“Stop, stop,” you tell her, tell all of them, “I can do it, I can do it, just – stop it, stop it – please –”

“All right,” the woman says easily, like she’s amused, and she waves at Esther and the man with her, who catches her when she slumps down again. Your dad is crying, face turned away from you, like he doesn’t want you to see.

“Your turn,” she tells you, smirking, and you try to swallow, but your throat’s too swollen.

You turn to Derek again. One of her other minions is taking him out of the apparatus they’d rigged up to keep the electricity flowing through him, but he’s not going to be running anywhere anytime soon: he just sways, back and forth on his knees. You take a few tentative steps towards him, hating yourself, and raise your one good hand. You’re think, stupidly, about Dementors again, about pulling somebody’s soul out of their body. That was really what it looked like. Your hand is shaking, and Derek’s looking at you like he actually wants to be looking at you, in his last moments, even though you’re going to be the one killing him, and you hate yourself more than you have ever hated anybody, but you think about what Esther did, about how it felt to you, from the outside, and you pull.

It’s – it’s the most fucking intoxicating thing you’ve ever experienced; it’s so good your knees buckle. It’s something deep and hot and beautiful and sad, all at once, and you think you’re going to pass out from it, it’s so good – this is it, you think, this is how you could calm your mind down, is through this, this kind of constant, gorgeous focus – until you realize that it’s – that it’s a memory, that you’re taking a memory out of him and – and eating it, turning it into something else, turning it into raw power and denuding it of everything that made it beautiful. You focus in on it, on what exactly it is that you’re taking, and you can’t see it exactly but you can feel it, and it’s you, it’s you lying in a patch of sunlight behind the Hale house last week, pulling the universe toward you, and you hadn’t realized Derek had been watching but he had been, he’d been watching you and wanting you and hating himself for it, hating himself for noticing the couple inches of bare flesh between your shirt and shorts from where your shirt had rucked up when you stretched, and somewhere in the wanting is a different kind of desire, something fiercer and more animalistic – protection. He was not going to let anything happen to you. He would throw himself in front of any bullet, first. He would take anything.

If you keep doing this, you realize, you’re going to get through everything, through every last memory he has of his family, of his brother and his sister and his parents and their house the way it was before a psychopath burned it down, and them inside it, and you’re going to take them from him one by one, rip them out of his mind like muscle from bone, and then he’s going to die empty, like there was never anything inside him at all.

You’re crying, you realize when you open your eyes; your face is wet but Derek’s isn’t; Derek just looks hunted.

“I’m sorry,” you say, and you’re not sure whom you’re saying it to, whether it’s to him or to your father or to everybody. You’re sorry for being the person you are and you’re sorry for doing this at all and you’re also sorry for failing, sorry for killing your father. Because you can’t do this. You can’t.

“I can’t, I can’t, I’m sorry,” you babble through your tears, and you reach out for Derek with your good arm and touch his face and his shoulders and try to do the opposite of what you just did, try to put as much love as you have for everything, for the world, into him, try to give him back that feeling, the protective feeling, and you don’t know if it’s working or not but he collapses into you and breathes so heavily you think you must be doing something right. You’re going to protect him, is the thing; you’re going to do it. Nothing bad is going to happen to him, now, not as long as you’re alive. You’re going to spend years, if you have them, atoning for what you’ve done to him, and it won’t be enough, it won’t ever be enough, but it will be something.

“Oh dear,” the woman says dispassionately. “This is very disappointing, Stiles, very disappointing indeed. I suppose I’ll just have to give you a little more incentive, hmm?” You press Derek’s face against your stomach, shielding him instinctively from the thing you really don’t want to see, but you have to – you have to look at your father now, have to give him that.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Dad, I’m so –”

But he doesn’t look angry, you realize; he looks relieved. He looks straight at you like he’s trying to memorize your face, like he’s trying to take it with him wherever it is he’s about to go, and you realize – you don’t know how it took you this long – that you love him more than you love her, now. You’ve had so much more of him, and she’s the one whose shadow you’ve both lived under for so long. He’s given you so much more than she did, and not through any fault of her own. That’s just how it was.

“Dad,” you start, and then she plunges her claws into his stomach, and he lets out a muffled scream through his gag.

“Time’s running out, sweetheart,” she tells you. “Tick tock.”

 

*

 

Maybe you do remember it, after all, the moment you found out. Maybe you came home from Scott’s one afternoon and he was there, sitting on the porch, not crying, just staring out at nothing. Maybe you walked up to him and you knew without him saying anything, and maybe you didn’t cry, either, not even when he told you. Maybe you just nodded, and walked upstairs, and shut yourself in your closet, and sobbed so hard you thought your body was going to break. Maybe all of that happened, and maybe it didn’t. Maybe you made up the memory because you needed one, needed something to believe. It doesn’t really matter, now. The result was the same either way.

 

*

 

Derek is shaking under your hand and you’re not sure what you’re saying but you’re babbling, you’re babbling at her, telling her to stop, but you know you can’t do what she wants you to; even if you tried, you don’t think your body would comply, now.

“This is disappointing,” she sighs, and then gestures at the man holding Esther up. “Well, plan B, I guess.”

He drags her forward a couple of feet, toward you, and you try to back away from her but the woman tilts her head back and howls. It’s the first time she’s shown herself, really – shown that part of her, the part that makes her powerful – and it is fucking terrifying. Derek convulses and falls away from you, curling around himself on the floor, and Esther’s eyes roll forward, so pale they’re almost colorless, and she stares straight at you.

It’s like staring into – into the heart of the universe, or some equally insane metaphor. You couldn’t look away if you tried. She opens her mouth – too wide, too wide for a human – and her teeth are dirty and broken but you keep looking at her eyes, and you realize suddenly that they have no pupils, are just two spheres of almost-white blue, and you feel it, what you were doing, feel your life siphoning slowly out of you, see those small shimmering pearls slipping away from you and into her. You have no idea what you’re losing – that’s the worst part, maybe. You don’t get to say goodbye to whatever it is, these things you won’t remember.

You don’t have the capacity to notice anything but this until Derek slams into your side and you’re yourself again, hyperventilating but human, alive. Esther makes an angry sound and takes another step toward you, but you managed to get a glimpse of your father bleeding in the corner before she did, and that combined with the hot weight of Derek pressed against you is going to be enough, you think.

Magic, Deaton told you, was dependent on a variety of factors. There’s nothing consistent about it, he’d said, but the one thing – the one thing that was true, for a varying factor of truth, was that if you believed in something it could happen, if you wanted it badly enough. If you needed it badly enough.

You curl your good hand around Derek’s big, bulked-up shoulder and think about all the different ways people give themselves to each other all the time, every day. It makes you more than yourself, that’s the thing this woman doesn’t get: Derek’s not taking anything from you, when you do something like this for him. And maybe you’ve never taken anything from your dad, all these years that he’s been trying to keep you safe, to keep you okay. Not the way she thinks, anyway, not the way that will turn you into a husk of yourself.

You lean on Derek and you look at your father and don’t bother thinking about how, exactly, you’re going to stop these people from killing all of you; just that you’re going to do it, and that it’s going to be easy.

(And it’ll be fuzzy, this memory: disjointed, imprecise. You think the ground opened up and swallowed somebody. You think a pipe exploded. You think the ceiling opened up and a flock of birds came and ripped somebody apart. But you don’t really remember, and it doesn’t really matter. It happened, and it was easy, because it was what you needed.)

 

*

 

The hardest thing, in a way, is this: that even though you can remember things about her from before she got sick, that in a way she is always going to be her disease, for you. The person she is in your mind is the person who curled in on herself and looked at you like you were a plague on her life, a burden. It doesn’t really matter that she is also the person who let you sleep in bed with her, who insisted that there was nothing wrong with you that really mattered, who crouched down to talk to you so you never felt small or unimportant. You remember best her last year – you remember her death better than her life.

You wish you could talk to her, tell her that you’re sorry. You wish you could get to know the person she actually was, the psychology student who sometimes got a little self-righteous about things, who loved the sea and your father and used to carry you around on her hip, when you were little, for the entire day, somehow without getting tired enough that she had to put you down more than a few times. You want to know that person beyond just faint sense memories of pressing your face in her hair, curling your fist in her skirt. You want to have some memory of her as a person of a normal size, not the giant she seemed to be in your childhood. You’re taller than she was, now, but you can’t think of her that way: she towers over you still.

But you can’t have these things. She’s an imprint on your life now. That’s how she’s survived: she was somebody who set you in motion. So you guess you’ll have to try to be good, so she counted. So she was worth something.

 

*

 

Mrs. McCall manages to get all three of you in some practically-deserted corner of the hospital through nursing voodoo, and the expression on Derek’s face when he wakes up in a hospital bed is so good you kind of wish you’d taken a picture.

“Dude,” you croak. “It’s fine. Scott’s mom’s got it under control, nobody’s going to notice you’re secretly a werewolf.”

He blinks and looks around like a little kid who’s woken up somewhere new and doesn’t know what to make of it.

“Where,” he starts, and then stops, apparently overtaxed already.

“My dad’s in the next room over,” you tell him. He wasn’t awake to witness your defcon-one-level freak-out earlier, when you woke up and couldn’t see him anywhere, and Mrs. McCall had to run in and assure you that he was fine, that he was next door, that they’d gotten to him fast enough that his internal injuries were going to be okay. So you’re pretty sure he doesn’t need to know about that. You can act all laid-back now, and nobody has to be the wiser.

“He’s,” he says, and maybe he can only say one word at a time. He really does look like shit.

“Fine,” you supplement. “He’s fine, he’s gonna be fine.”

Derek doesn’t say anything, just leans his head back on the pillow and exhales, long and low.

“Tell me about it,” you croak, hoarse.

He stares at the ceiling broodily for a while before falling asleep. Once he’s done you manage to pull yourself out of bed and hobble out into the hall and into your dad’s room, and sit in the chair next to him until he wakes up, just watching him breathe, watching his chest rise and fall slowly and steadily. The repetitive ping of the heart monitor is kind of the greatest thing you’ve ever heard, you think. You could listen to it forever.

Eventually he does wake up, blinks up at you.

“Hey, Dad,” you say, and he just stares at you and reaches out his hand. He woke up before, and Mrs. McCall brought you in, but he was so drugged-up that it didn’t really count.

You reach out and clutch his hand as hard as you can.

“Stiles,” he manages, and you think you might actually break a couple of the bones in his hand but you really can’t bring yourself to care.

“Yeah,” you say, “that’s my name, don’t wear it out,” even though it isn’t, technically. He laughs a little anyway, totally unimpressed, so you’ll count it a win.

“I’m sorry,” you blurt out, because it needs to be said. “I’m sorry I didn’t – I’m sorry I never told you about, about anything that was going on, with – with Scott and Derek and everybody, I’m sorry, I should have – I should have –”

“Stiles,” he croaks, interrupting you. “Calm down.” You stop talking.

“I’m going to have… a lot of questions,” he says a minute or two later. “But not right now. Okay?”

“Okay,” you whisper, and he nods, once, assertively, and you feel nine again, ten, but it’s not so bad now, for some reason. It’s not so bad. You squeeze his hand.

You get to go home the next day, so Scott comes to pick you up in his mom’s car. “Dude,” he says after throwing himself at you in a decidedly unmanly fashion, “I know we’ve got, like, feelings and shit to talk about, and I’m so mad you went in there without fucking telling me, but I just have to say: you would not believe what the Argents’ looks like right now.”

“Yeah?” you say.

“It basically looks like you tornadoed it,” Scott says, somewhere between impressed and horrified. “Remind me never to annoy you again, seriously; you’re basically a weapon of mass destruction.”

“Good to know,” you tell him. “How’s Boyd?”

He shrugs. “I dunno, man. My mom’s keeping an eye on him. He hasn’t woken up yet, though. So – I dunno.”

You privately don’t think there’s much likelihood of that happening, but he’s still breathing, and his grandmother’s sitting next to him all day, every day, so you haven’t said anything. You don’t really know, anyway. There are no rules for any of this, as you keep being reminded.

Your dad comes home a few days later, and you spend a week feeding him outrageously healthy food and forcing him not to get up from the couch. It’s nice, lazy, and aside from the one night Scott comes over and demonstrates for him as part of your long, disjointed explanation of all of the shit that’s been going on in Beacon Hills for the past year, you don’t talk about anything important. That’s kind of the nicest part, if you’re being honest with yourself. A lot of people you know have died, and one more might die soon, but you just – you can’t, right now, with any of that. You watch a lot of baseball games instead, and argue about the calls – you’d be a much harsher ump than your dad, which doesn’t actually surprise you at all – and watch dumb action movies, that don’t bear any resemblance to the reality of fighting and dying, and mostly they make you laugh, which is – well. It’s nice.

It’s been two weeks since the – incident, that’s how you’re referring to it in your head – when your dad finally goes back to work and you make your way over to the Hale house. It’s a nice day, bright and clear and not too hot, and when you arrive it takes him a long time to come out. You don’t know if he was busy or whether he was just working himself up to be able to talk to you, but you have your suspicions. He vanished from the hospital on the first night, and you haven’t seen him since.

There’s a new grave, off on the side of the house – you can see it, just a blur from here. Peter, you guess.

“Hey,” you say when he finally does appear in the doorway, scowling at you. That doesn’t really work on you, anymore, is the thing. “Um. I thought I’d, you know. Check in.”

“I’m fine,” he says, short and clipped. You think he probably hasn’t been fine in – what, seven years? You don’t say that, though.

“Yeah, uh, that’s good,” you reply. “Me too. And my dad. He’s back at work today, actually. He’s not going to come after you, just – FYI. Scott and I did some show-and-tell, it was… informative.”

“Okay,” Derek says, because he’s going to make this hard for you. You weren’t really expecting anything different.

“I wanted to, um, apologize,” you begin. “About – well, everything, I guess, but mostly – almost killing you by eating your memories.”

He shrugs. “It’s fine,” he says. “You were trying to protect your dad.” And the sick thing is, he honestly doesn’t look that upset about it, like this is something that happens to him all the time, on a weekly basis, people he wants to keep safe, people he – he likes, killing him, destroying him.

“Dude,” you say, “nothing about that situation was fine. You do actually – count, you know. People don’t just get to fuck with you just – just because.”

He shrugs again, uncomfortable. You look up at him, standing in the doorway of his falling-down house, all alone again in the world – he’s got nobody but Scott and Isaac anymore, and they don’t need him. He could have you, though, maybe. You stare at him and confirm to yourself what you suspected, which is that you want to touch each sharp angle and curve of him until you have his entire body memorized, that you want to slowly get all those memories out of him the right way, so that you ultimately understand him as well as he understands himself. You don’t really know anything about him, not like that – you just know what you’ve seen, what you’ve witnessed. That’s something, though. You think it might be a lot.

“Do you ever get – I think about, a lot, the fact that – that the person I am, that she never – that she’ll never know, you know? And I feel like – it doesn’t matter, sometimes. Doesn’t matter what I do, I mean, because – of that. But sometimes I don’t – sometimes I’m kind of glad, because I think – I don’t think she’d be that happy, with – with who I turned into.” You pause, and take a long, shuddering breath.

“Do you know what I mean?” you ask, and you’re not sure when his answer became so important to you, but it is, now.

“Yes,” he tells you, and it sounds like it’s being ripped out of him, like it’s physically painful for him to say.

“See, that’s why – it’s so dumb, though. You know? Because I – it seems crazy, that your mom or – whoever – wouldn’t – wouldn’t love you,” you tell him, all in a rush, and he blanches. “I mean, your track record on, like, practical solutions to things isn’t – it isn’t the best, I have to tell you, but – otherwise – like, dude, you’re trying to help other people all the time, even if it doesn’t always work. You tried to – you tried to help me, to keep, to keep me safe. Even though you could have died, even though – I might have –” You stop, face heating. He’s staring at you like you’re actually from another planet, which is kind of how you feel right now, too.

“I’m just saying,” you continue, because there’s no point in stopping now. “I’m just saying that it’s – that I think anybody would be proud of that, in their kid. And I think – I mean, I can tell myself that my mom would be, too, but it doesn’t – it doesn’t really click, you know, in my head. Even though I know it’s probably true.

“That’s why we need other people, don’t you get it? To – to remind ourselves we’re not totally worthless fuck-ups. Because I kind of think I’m a worthless fuck-up, but I – don’t really think that about you, actually. Like, at all.”

“You’re not – you’re not worthless,” he tells you, like that’s the most preposterous thing he’s ever heard, which kind of illustrates your point.

“Neither are you,” you say, and he flushes.

“They’re all dead,” he says, numb. “They all – it was my job to protect them, and I – I –”

“Derek,” you say, interrupting him. “Derek, it is not your fault that that – crazy fucking sociopath came into town and went on a killing spree. It is seriously, seriously not your fault that she wanted to kill people. It’s her fault, okay? Not yours.”

“It’s mine,” he says. He looks haunted, you realize – he looks like he hasn’t slept in days and days.

“It’s not,” you tell him sadly. “None of it was your fault before, either, do you get what I’m saying? People do – do shitty, awful things, and – manipulate people, and it can – I’m just trying to say, they weren’t your fault. Okay? Your family wasn’t your fault.”

He’s turned away from you. You think he might be trying not to cry.

“I want –” you start, before realizing you have no idea how exactly to say it, or what it even is, exactly. “I don’t actually know you very well, you know. Like, I know about – your family, but that’s – that’s kind of it, dude. And you don’t – I mean, you know me, but not – there’s lots of shit I don’t ever talk about. I mean – ever, to anybody. I don’t really – I don’t really want to do that, anymore.”

You’d like to tell him. You only realize how true this is now that you’re saying it to his face. You want to lean in and whisper all the secret things you’ve tried to forget about yourself into his ear, and you want to know every little nook and cranny of his mind, what goes on up there when he’s not saying anything, just scowling and looking casually attractive (which is pretty much always), and you want so fucking badly for him not to feel guilty anymore. It’s a nice thing to realize, you think, even if it’s terrifying.

“Okay,” he says, cautious and kind of watery, like he doesn’t really understand what you’re saying. You almost want to roll your eyes, but you think he might slam the door on you, so you restrain yourself.

“I’m asking if you want to, like, get dinner sometime,” you say, too fast, turning bright red, and he blinks, like he honestly had no idea where that was going.

“Oh,” he says.

“Only if you want,” you hurry to add. “I don’t – I just, I mean –”

“I – seriously?” he asks, interrupting you.

“Uh, yes,” you tell him. “I don’t really – like, do I have to spell this out? I thought I was being pretty obvious. You’re – I think I might like you more than most people. And, like, I don’t really like anybody, so that’s – that’s. Really. It’s – something. I – dude, you have seriously got to say something, this is –”

“Okay,” he says.

“Okay… yes?” you ask, tentative. “Like, just to be totally clear –”

“Yes,” he says. “If – if you want.”

You reach up and scratch at the back of your neck with your good hand in a sad attempt to try to contain your happiness, but you wind up smiling stupidly anyway, and instead of turning away, embarrassed, he just stares at you like you’re some wondrous thing. You’re not used to that, but – you could be, maybe. You’d like to be. You could try.

 

*

 

That summer you drove down the coast, you wound up at a beach somewhere – you can’t remember where exactly, and anyway it doesn’t matter anymore – and you think it was maybe the first time you went to the ocean when you could really swim. You got salt water in your lungs and your skin burned something awful, even though she slathered you with sunscreen, and you made half-a-dozen half-finished sandcastles because you couldn’t focus on any one of them long enough to actually complete it, and it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because she smiled at you and followed you into the water, tugged on your ankles and pulled you down under the big crests of the waves that were unspooling over the shore. She was salt-streaked and sunkissed and one of the waves slammed you into her body and she just took it, held you and lifted you out of the water because she was taller than you, bigger, and it was her job to keep you safe. Your father watched from the dry part of the shore – he always hated the water – and she turned and smiled back at him, settling you on her hip even though you were really too big for that, and then turned and kissed your salty wet hair before tossing you back into the ocean and diving in after you, her fingers gliding across your legs so lightly it was almost like a ghost reaching out to touch you, just once, before sinking back down into the deep.