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Moon Chaser

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The day brightened dry and heavy, with a whiny wind blistering. It made Derek’s lips chap, but before he could even lick across them, they healed right. This wind told of twisters, brittle crops, and dust plumes, but it still didn’t rid the earth of Peter’s trail—that familiar, pine-and-grass, sickly scent which reminded Derek too much of Mama and even more of bane brew. He followed that scent, just as Laura had asked, until he found his uncle, pale and dozing, in the sheriff’s holding cell.

“Fuck’s sake, Peter,” he spit bitterly. Peter hardly acknowledged him, just kept staring at the jail’s bars as a sly, furtive curl drew up his lips, fangs wet and glistening.

“This one yours?” The sheriff asked plainly. The man’s shoulders warred between tense and coiled—two wolves in one room did that to a human—and sagging with relief; watching Peter was never an easy task, so to finally have a pack member to claim him must be a prayer answered.

With a light growl in his throat, Derek nodded. “Yessir, he’s mine.”

The sheriff sighed, then muttered: “Son, can’t tell ya how glad I am to hear it. You got bail, but there’s gonna be even more due from this one, I can guarantee ya that.”

“Why? What’d he do this time?” Derek took off his hat, hoping to appear contrite on his uncle’s behalf.

“Take it up with the madam. Her boy brought ‘im down. If you don’t speak to her, your name won’t be let back in this town again, I can guarantee it.”

Derek swore, head snapping back in frustration. Rubbing a hand across his hair, he turned to Peter, then back to the sheriff, looking for words—something he was never quite good at to begin with.

The sheriff quickly took pity on him. With a wave of his hand, he shooed Derek, muttering “go on, go on, another hour of his moanin’ won’t kill me.”

With a hasty thank you, Derek stepped out of his office—and into the path of a pale, flushed boy, one who moved like his limbs had grown long overnight. He smelled of the sheriff, mountain ash, and pinkened embarrassment, a scent like rose tea and clay-laden mud. His eyes were wide, bright on his face like only youth can be, and they grew wider as they took in Derek’s own: part hazels and greens, and part white-blue, the clouded color slivered now to match the moon’s waning crescent, a Hale clan trait.

Derek placed his hat back on and watched the boy take a swift step back. His heart pounded; he was no different from other humans in that regard. Even without his teeth or claws emerged, it was fairly obvious that Derek was a wolf. Still, he tipped his hat and muttered a quick “pardon” before shuffling down the porch and towards the stench of sex and strangers—the whorehouse down the dirt road.

That was where he found the madam: a younger woman, fresh-faced with a steely gaze, despite being framed by delicate red curls. She looked more like a girl than a madam, but Derek wasn’t one to speak out of line to strangers, not unless he had to. And this woman held herself like a queen, not the whores’ keeper. At her door, a darker skinned wolf stood, just as young but reeking of omega; Derek took off his hat and rubbed at his neck with the other hand, then held it out for the strange wolf to shake. He copied the motion with slightly jilted motions, as though he were unused to interacting with his own kind—but the handshake was firm, and he kept Derek’s gaze like a man.

“Your packmate has a lot of makin’ up to do,” the madam opened with a hiss, forgoing greetings. She sat primly at her desk like a schoolmaster to a child.

Derek’s eyes fastened onto a nearby floorboard before he responded, fingers clinging to his hat brim. “Yes miss, I’m sure he does.”

“He bit one of my boys,” she said with a balled-up fist. Protective madams could be like a mama with her pups, so Derek listened quietly and took her anger as due. “Now we’re a wolf-friendly establishment, Hale. We’re used to lookin’ a bit to the side when it comes to a nibble. But what your uncle did, well—by the time McCall heard the struggle, your packmate tried to fight him off as a rival.”

Derek raised his hand to wipe at his face, mortified; he winced further as McCall’s scent rubbed into his nostrils. Peter had a problem with the bane brew, and he had a problem with his temper once it broke—but to mistake a whore for a potential mate was an insult to this business, as well as a pup mistake. A wolf should be possessive to pack and mate only, not to a stranger who had agreed to sex for money.

“How much for damages?” Derek asked patiently.

The madam scoffed. “It isn’t just property damages we’re talkin’ here. My boy’s got wounds, Hale. He can’t work until he’s healed, and if he can’t work, I lose money. If I lose money, well—let’s just say I’ve got the mayor’s ear.”

Gritting his teeth, Derek dug out his wallet. The Hales couldn’t afford to be run out of this town; not another town. “How much for damages, your boy’s medical costs, food—the lot of it?”

Tilting her head slightly, the madam smiled like her mouth was filled with venom.

&&&

“Goddamn you, Peter!” Derek growled, pushing his uncle down the sheriff’s porch. The bane brew had worn off enough to let Peter walk straight, but he still stumbled before righting himself. “We don’t have the money to pay for your bullshit! The madam cleaned me out; I still owe her more.”

“You’re upset, Derek,” Peter said calmly, like there was something irrational about Derek’s reaction—like he’s a damn shrink. “Would you like to take a swing at me? We can have it out here, if you want.”

Humans walked to the side of them, on sidewalks; a cart or two rolled near them, on the dirt road of the town’s center. Derek would’ve liked to have it out with his uncle, that’s for sure—but he couldn’t bring them a further reputation. Besides: “I can’t even see the moon on you, Peter. Fuck’s sake.”

Peter’s sly expression slid into a quiet anger. The wolfsbane brew diminished werewolf capabilities—it needed to, in order to do its job and get them drunk—so it was no wonder Peter had lost a fight to a young omega at the brothel, and why it had been no problem to toss him in a sheriff’s jail cell and drop a bit of mountain ash. The brew faded the wolf in him to the point that his eyes didn’t even match Derek’s anymore—like he wasn’t a Hale at all. If Derek took a shot at him now, Peter would fall like a sack of bricks.

“Yeah, give me that pitying look,” Peter spit at him, voice louder than it should be. “Are we pack or not? Am I not your elder? I don’t need your sympathies, boy. Get out your childish anger now or shut the hell up.”

They were being watched. They made enough of a scene to warrant humans’ pause, multiple pairs of eyes sliding to take in the arguing wolves standing in the dirt. McCall watched from the brothel’s door; a young, pretty thing with a dark braid and shrewd gaze watched from the doorway to the hotel, and the sheriff’s boy let his eyes slide up and down the two wolves’ forms from up on the porch, holding a shotgun like it was an old friend.

Derek shook his head sharply, once, before approaching Peter slowly. He didn’t lower his head, but he didn’t lift his chin; he simply came close, pressed his forehead to his uncle’s, and disregarded the lingering stench of brew on his breath. Surely a human or two pinched their face at the proximity; space was different for a wolf than a human, pack was different than what they could ever understand.

“I’m gonna take you home,” Derek told his uncle, voice softer now. “We’re gonna get you sober, cleaned up. All right?”

Peter growled and turned his head, but he didn’t push Derek away. He didn’t argue, either.

“Besides, uncle,” Derek said as he stepped back. “My judgment doesn’t mean shit. We’ll see Laura soon enough.”

Peter said nothing more, but his face darkened as he moved to follow Derek’s lead.

&&&

“Fuck’s sake, Peter!”

“S’what I said,” Derek replied wryly. Laura growled at him; she wouldn’t be humoring her brother today.

Peter stood with his feet planted wide, proud and unrelenting—but his head couldn’t help bowing as his niece snarled, the red crescent of her eyes turning to full, furious crimson. She paced past their wide kitchen table, one fist curling tight into her dress skirt as her boots clomped on the hardwood.

“Our pack isn’t rich, Peter. We’re not some high profile bunch of mutts.”

“I’m aware,” Peter drawled, but the moon was reaching his eyes again; he had no reason to talk back, not that Laura would’ve ever accepted one anyway. Her continuing growls soon shut him up.

“Then why the fuck do you act like we’ve got money to spare? Don’t you dare answer that. We owe the town’s madam because of you; I don’t wanna hear a single fucking excuse.”

She continued to pace, ignoring her brother as he tapped his claws against the table, thighs splayed out in a wicker seat.

Finally, she snapped out: “Derek. You can pick up more work?”

He answered slow and soft, sensing potently just how easily she could be angered further. His head stayed down and subservient. “If I could, Laura, I would’ve done it already.”

She swore again, knowing it to be true. Their ranch was enough; not prosperous, but not a money pit. It was just what Peter had sprung on them that brought the scarlet to Laura’s eyes.

She turned to her uncle and saw the shake in his fingers—backlash from the brew. Her glare sparked further. “No more of that bane,” she ordered, voice resounding in unquestionable dominance. “Not a fuckin’ drop, do you understand me?”

Not a sound.

Peter flinched as his alpha planted her claws on the back of his neck, not squeezing, but a clear message nonetheless. “Let me hear you,” she whispered.

“I understand,” Peter finally answered, though it sounded strangled, forced. Their dynamic was a strange one: the former alpha’s eldest to the former alpha mate’s brother, a mismatch of age and rank. But there was no questioning the authority, the sheer power that blood and fate determined—and Laura, not Peter, had taken the red eyes after her father’s death.

Laura let Peter’s neck go then, jaw gritted on fangs. “Fine. Go clean yourself, and when you’re rested and have your wits again, we’ll discuss how you can answer for yourself. With work and penance.”

Once Peter left the room, Laura sat across from her brother. Her eyes did not dim, and she sighed long-sufferingly.

“Remember when we were kids, and Uncle Peter would bring us sweets?” Laura spoke with a bit of strain, but her face broke into an odd smile. “He was so proud of his sister, and he looked at our daddy like he was a god. Is it just because of that, you think? That he saw me grow, maybe, that he doesn’t see mama and daddy in me—just a pup he used to bring candy?”

Derek placed a hand over Laura’s claws and squeezed. “People change, Laura. You’re not a pup, and Peter isn’t—well. He sure as hell doesn’t spend his allowances on candy anymore.”

Laura squeezed back, but her other hand clutched at her face. She sighed heavily again. “What exactly did he do? Do I even want to know?”

“You don’t want to know,” Derek answered honestly, “but I’m telling you anyway. He bit a whore, then when the madam’s guard dog came to take him out, he—ugh, Laura. He fought the poor guy like he was trying to steal a mate.”

Laura looked to the ceiling as if it were holding answers hostage.

“Cigarette?” She held out her fingers expectantly, smelling the tobacco on him. Smoking couldn’t calm them; they weren’t affected by human drugs or remedies—but sometimes you’ve just got to fill your lungs with a bit of bitterness.

Derek lit her up first, then himself. They puffed on their cigarettes in silence. Her eyes had dimmed, but their red was still sharper than she usually held it.

“You want me to bring in Thomas?” Derek asked gently. Laura’s mate could calm her better than a mere cigarette.

“Nah,” she waved him off, smoke pluming from her smiling mouth. “He’s working. That new dog we got is trained now.”

“The pups or the shepherd?”

Laura snorted. “The shepherd, chrissake. You think I call my brood dogs?”

Derek smiled, quietly fond. Laura’s brood: three newly turned wolves, Erica, Isaac, and Boyd, all taken within weeks of each other. They were adapting well—some better than others; Isaac acted like a born wolf already—and it was a comfort to have new additions to their pack. With a new alpha came a new generation; soon, Laura may even get pregnant.

“No, but you would call them trained.”

As Laura grinned brightly, her eyes finally settled. “Damn right I would.”

&&&

Not a morning later than when Peter was sober and clean, his room was empty. But only when he did not return for the rest of the day did the pack worry.

Laura sat on the porch’s railing, dress’s long skirt hiked up where her leg was placed over Thomas’s next to her. Her human mate said nothing, just soothed a single thumb under his wife’s jaw. They looked out upon the house’s property, Thomas relaxed for Laura’s worried sake.

Derek approached them quietly, head bowed. Other than Peter and Laura, he was the last of their blood; no more of the born Hales lived. The turned Hales were still family—they bore Laura’s bite and those Hale eyes that chased the moon, though not in blue but amber—yet they were not yet family like Peter was. He had watched them grow up. He was their mother’s brother. No matter where he went, or what he did, he was pack.

That’s why when his alpha did not greet him, just spoke, tone dire and strong, Derek understood her words.

“Find him, Derek. It’s gotta be you. It’s always gotta be you.”

&&&

He tracked Peter out into the middle of nowhere. Bastard tried to throw off his scent a few times, even pouring some bane onto the ground over his tracks so that when Derek smelled for him, his senses would be weakened and thrown off.

But it didn’t do the job. Furthermore, the bane’s scent was just a mask; Peter hadn’t had a drop of it. Even at large and running, Peter couldn’t disobey Laura’s commands.

He hadn’t caught up to Peter, not yet, but he saw him down the rocky slope, just walking. The smell of exhaust was reeling in the thick, arid winds. A pair of railroad tracks wound around the hill Derek was atop of—not tall enough to be a mountain by any means, but still looming over the flatter lands below. Down two miles or so, Peter stopped walking forward, paused over the tracks, then turned left to keep on them.

Derek watched for a minute or two, curious. His uncle kept a steady pace on the tracks, almost lazy, and his hands were stuffed into his pockets casually. Then, he turned once more, going off to the left of the tracks briefly before he reached a round rock the size of a horse. He studied it, raising a hand to scratch at his hair under his hat, then seemed to rest his chest against it strangely, leaning his body into the boulder in the direction of the tracks.

With a sense of heavy dread, Derek realized what his uncle was trying to do—just as he could begin to hear the sound of a train approaching in the near distance.

Breaking into a run, Derek did the only thing he could as he nearly fell down the slope: he howled. It was a bitter, pleading sound, mournful and bereft. A plea for return, for reunion.

Peter heard him—and pushed the rock harder. It settled into the tracks just as the train wound along the bend, chugging at a mediocre, stable speed. Peter hurried to put himself behind the boulder, hands flat and braced against it. He had always been physically strong, even for a wolf, and the rock’s mass combined with his strength could do incredible damage.

There was no way for Derek to reach him before the train collided. It touched upon the boulder in a screech of iron, granite, and the drowned-out snarls of a desperate wolf, and Derek could hardly hear anything over it, not even the patter of his feet on gravel or the panic of his heart. The train’s front crumpled and burst into flames, engulfing his uncle in embers—and that, the vision of his pack and blood searing in hellfire like it had burnt and licked its way up from nightmares, would haunt Derek’s shut-eye for years to come.

Through the flames, Peter sprung like a beast, roaring in pain. He ran on all fours to the front of the train, the passenger cabins—the ones for rich, first class customers—and disappeared, but the screaming and terror wafted out behind him.

By the time Derek ran and panted further, there was a cacophony buzzing into his ears: his uncle’s hoarse voice, one he would never forget or mistake; humans hollering and fleeing, looking for one another and scattering; the snarls of an unfamiliar wolf, one on the train already and shifted for defense; the pop of bullets snapping towards him, humans making assumptions and considering him the cavalry to his uncle’s one-wolf army—and the distinctive voices of Victoria and Chris Argent, farther back than the front cabin, but present nonetheless. Derek growled and whimpered at once, then threw himself into the cabin he’d seen Peter enter, determined to do one thing and one only.

He needed to bring Peter home.

By the time he barreled into Peter, his uncle was locked in a battle already, too distracted to fight Derek off. The other wolf was familiar, but only vaguely: McCall, the omega from the brothel. Derek paid him no mind and simply slammed Peter to the cabin’s floor, wincing as his uncle’s claws sunk into his forearms—and further flinching as he saw the dagger, reeking of trace wolfsbane, sticking from his uncle’s side.

In a moment, Derek’s desperation morphed to perfect, scorching rage—that his uncle had attacked humans, that he was harmed, and that he had been stupid enough to induce this chaos. Derek flicked the dagger out of his uncle’s side and roared into his face, completely unhindered and shifted, eyes shining all-blue.

The message was clear and ranked them wordlessly: I am my sister’s brother, and you are mine.

His uncle rasped back, words garbled by fangs: “This was for you! It was for them! She’s an Argent.”

Twin snarls rang out, one from Derek, and the other McCall. The Argent in question, a young girl with a dark braid and unflinching stare, held another dagger at the ready behind a crouched McCall, and her parents rushed to join them in the cabin; Derek could hear them yelling and struggling to make it past the mess of people and wreckage.

He pressed his unsheathed claws into his uncle’s throat, growl emanating loudly from his chest. He waited for less than a moment, but Peter did not go limp, did not submit—so he growled further, sinking his teeth into Peter’s shoulder. He was tired of acting as though they were equals, as though their relation to Laura made them both her second-in-commands; if Peter was to return to their pack, he would accept Derek as a superior, as someone to more than clean up after his messes, but to forbid him from making them. He would have Peter a pup until he let him make decisions again, especially if he was misguided enough to believe it was for the good of the pack.

Yet, Peter did not go lax in Derek’s grip. He did not yield to his nephew’s teeth.

Instead, they were torn apart by Victoria Argent’s wolfsbane bullet lodging into Derek’s arm.

With a lack of restraints, Peter lunged for the Argent girl again, and McCall was on him in an instant. Victoria Argent pumped her shotgun with both hands; the clatter of the shell upon the ground was oddly loud, like an omen. Derek flinched before the second bullet even let loose.

But a manic, deafening roar mingled with the bullet’s boom, and Derek opened his eyes to see that Peter had managed to smack the shotgun’s barrel skyward.

It was enough for Derek to let out one last howl: cracked and sorrowful, but with an edge of dark horror; a young, helpless pup’s bark threaded into a lonesome eulogy.

Earshot or not, it would bring Laura.

The terror was apparent in Peter’s eyes, their ice blue shrouded with his blood’s dripping scarlet. Derek didn’t know if he was afraid of Laura because he had tried to damn them all—turn them to hunter’s prey, again;  smear shame on their name—or if he had failed.

Peter leapt from the train cabin, leaving blood behind him, and headed east, towards the open parched plain. Derek whimpered for him, but his uncle did not miss a step, fleeing without looking back. Although he tried to follow, Derek was stopped by the sting of a dagger burrowing between his ribs; he was bleeding from a bullet wound, now a knife wound, and the look in Victoria Argent’s eyes said she wished for more blood, for all of it.

So he ran back the way he had come, following his own scent, eager and frantic to see his alpha tracking him with wild, protective, red-eyed purpose.

&&&

6 months later

&&&

A boy stood in front of his table. Hardly anyone stood in front of Derek’s table; they despised his eyes on them, calculating and what they perceived as predatory. But here he was, just a skinny thing, fingers drumming against his thighs and face pale, flushed, and so, so young.

He smelled like rose tea and clay-laden mud.

“You know me,” the boy said with a voice full of gusto. It was almost endearing. “You never forget a scent once you have it, right?”

Derek set his cigarette in his empty whiskey glass. He let the silence between them settle, though it was drowned already by the band tinkering away by the bar. He waited until the boy was blushing, unsure and tense, before responding, slow and languid.

“Sheriff’s boy.”

“Um…yeah.”

Apparently the kid took that as his cue to sit. He sat like he couldn’t decide whether or not he needed to run a few laps or not, leg bouncing and fidgeting every so often. He also seemed a little disturbed that Derek had made no effort whatsoever to speak further, but the mood slid away as soon as the kid spoke himself.

“I need to find a wolf.”

Derek raised his eyebrows. “You found one.”

The kid scowled, cheeks reddening further. “No, I—I need you. To help me find a wolf.”

Sighing, Derek looked the kid up and down. His face undoubtedly showed disinterest and lazy judgment—which would be correct. The kid fidgeted further, but said nothing more.

“You got money?” Derek asked, cutting to the point.

“Yeah.”

“How much?”

“How much do you want?”

Derek grinned slowly, then let his words slip off his tongue scathingly. “How much do you have?”

The kid frowned. “That’s not how bartering works.”

“It’s how I work.” Derek gave him another unimpressed look. He was bad with strangers; so bad, in fact, that he had just stopped trying. It was more fun this way.

Without words—just a childish huff—the kid slapped a bundle of bills down on the table, then laid it all out for viewing.

“Say how much. Say it.”

“Can’t you see?”

Derek waited.

Another huff, then: “Four. No more, no less.”

Another slick, cruel smile, then: “You’re lying.”

The kid blanched a bit, but instead of startling further, he sighed again, deep and dejected. He reached back into his pocket and pulled out a silver necklace, its emerald pendant shaped like a teardrop and rather impressively sized. “If I didn’t have enough money, I was going to offer this. Or pawn it.”

“A trinket?”

The kid’s glare caught Derek off-guard. “An heirloom.”

Derek sat back in his chair, slouching, and brought two fingers to his temple. He loosed a single breath, watching the emerald pendant, the kid’s drumming fingers; his pulse tapped and danced into Derek’s ears, quickened as he fought to stay patient and quiet.

“You want to find this wolf so bad? Enough to sell the memory of your own flesh and blood?”

The kid nodded swiftly, probably jostling his head’s insides. It nearly made Derek snort—nearly.

“Yeah, fine. Four’s fine,” he concluded.

The kid honest-to-god thrust out a fist in victory.

“I knew you’d eat that family shit up; pack animal and all.”

“Don’t push it, kid.”

“Stiles.” He held out his hand.

Derek glared it down; he didn’t need the scent smeared on his palm. “How the fuck d’you—”

“My dad’s family name, that’s how. Stiles.” He repeated it like Derek was slow.

Derek wanted to rise at that, but he didn’t. No use getting off to a grumpier start.

&&&

They head east come morning.

Stiles jabbed a throb straight to Derek’s temples come afternoon.

“Werewolves don’t get headaches,” he said with a grumble, “but somehow you’ve managed. Congratulations.”

“Nah, me giving someone a migraine isn’t new,” Stiles replied, unperturbed. “I asked for something I didn’t know.”

“What are you so interested in wolves for, anyway?”

“There’s so much to learn!” The kid waved his hands momentarily before grabbing hold of his horse’s reigns again. “Culture, history…anatomy.”

His gaze scanned Derek flittingly; Derek just rolled his eyes in response.

“Don’t you get interested in humans’ stuff? How they live, how they think? It’s gotta be new to you too.”

Exasperation turned to glaring right quick. “I know everything about humans. I have to,” he trailed off into a mumble. “We all do.”

“’Cause there’s so many of us?”

“Because I’d die otherwise.”

“Oh.”

Yeah, oh, Derek thought bitterly. They rode a bit in silence after that—up until the sun licked at the western horizon. After tethering their horses to a nearby joshua tree, Derek told Stiles to get a fire going while he headed to the nearby water hole, a mere puddle among stubby palms and folding hills. Despite not seeing another soul, the way they were going was a well-known desert route; you needed to know where the water was and keep to it if you expected to survive more than a day out in this land.

He returned to find Stiles draping a woven rug over the flat dusty gravel. He’d managed a small blaze—more than Derek expected, honestly—and had even piled a bit of mesquite nearby for extra fuel. He’d placed the hearth near the face of a boulder, as Derek had instructed, but he’d placed himself across from it, so that he was exposed to the open.

“Hey,” Derek toed at him impatiently. “Move your shit. There,” he pointed to the space between the fire and the flat, tall boulder face.

“What? Why?”

“Just do it, kid. You didn’t pay me enough to argue.”

“But I’m almost settled—”

“You can’t hear for shit and probably sleep like the dead; I’m not having you sleeping without something at your back.”

The boy pinked slightly, but started to gather his things.

“Gee, you care for my safety. I’m touched.”

Face set in a scowl, Derek ignored him and started to unpack his own sleeping wear. Ignoring Stiles was near impossible, however; the kid kept bundling and re-bundling an old shirt, trying to settle it under his neck comfortably—and he then drew a harmonica from his pocket, which made Derek almost growl.

“Don’t worry, my furry friend. I’m not too bad at this thing.”

“If you’re bad I’m chuckin’ it.”

Only, he wasn’t bad. Stiles played harmonica similarly to how he spoke: seamlessly, never wanting to end, and sometimes without knowing where the hell he’d end up, but continuing and making something of it nevertheless. Derek could tell most of what he droned out was improvised; it seemed very much Stiles’s habit to come up with things on the fly, and while it flopped every once in a while, he kept trying regardless.

Between puffs of melody, Stiles chatted into the night, voice soft and fond. He told Derek that he’d always wanted to play at a campfire; it was some kind of idle fantasy of his, something a child conjures up when they dream of future journeys. He talked about how the emerald pendant he’d looped over his neck and tucked into his shirt had been his mama’s. Frankly, he told Derek more than he would have ever solicited.

But he didn’t shut him up. Instead, Derek placed another mesquite branch over the fire, sighed deep, and turned his back to the boy, and just like that the kid got the message, turning his back as well.

They fell asleep at the same time, firelight reaching at their spines and waning crescent moon hanging low.

&&&

Derek woke up. The moon had traveled a bit across the sky; the fire had collapsed to ash and lulling embers. Stiles was sleeping, leg kicking with a snap every few seconds. He shivered a bit, so Derek placed another branch on the fire and let the soft wind bolster it.

He cocked his head to the wind’s source, ears perking to points. He didn’t wake for dreams; he didn’t even wake for cold. Something had prompted him up—so he listened, and his slivered, dilated eyes cast to the mesquite and joshua trees with practiced sharpness.

Five heartbeats: his own, Stiles’s, their two horses.

And a stranger.

A growl bubbled from his throat, lengthened his teeth.

There was the patter of footsteps: a human retreating. Only one—he had no worry to leave Stiles alone, then—so he stalked up, claws sharpening and curling out of his fingertips, and followed the sound of a quickened pulse.

No sooner had he stepped into the mesquite thrushes, snarling with eyes ablaze, did the man break into a sprint. Derek could see him clearly now: a stocky man, a bit short, with blue jeans torn at the knee and a revolver tucked into a holster. As he rushed after him, intent on settling this confrontation without even waking his young employer, he was suddenly struck by a need to stop—so he did.

And looked down to see a line of ash a shuffle’s length away from his boot tips.

It was the simplest of traps: a hunter pretends to be easy prey, running and inciting a wolf’s need to chase—then, once the wolf is led into an incomplete circle, the hunter completes it with a quick pause and a handful of mountain ash.

Derek growled because he had nothing else to do, anger settling with embarrassment low in his gut.

The hunter laughed once, short, as if he couldn’t believe that his plan had actually worked. He skirted the length of the mountain ash circle slowly, keeping his eyes on Derek, and moved to open space, away from the tangles of thirsty mesquite, enough for him to comfortably draw his gun.

“Fish in a barrel,” he muttered softly, his voice still tinged with surprise, like he was grateful for his luck.

Derek stared back at him unflinchingly—and only curled a smile when he heard the second gun cock.

“Put the gun down,” Stiles commanded, hand and tone unwavering. “You got five seconds, man, or I blow your fucking head off.”

The hunter turned, stunned, and pointed his own revolver at the ground. But he didn’t drop it.

“I said,” Stiles paused, his voice softly rattling, then continued, “put the gun down. Into the dirt.”

Considering him, the hunter spit into the soil, then challenged casually: “You ain’t no fucking killer—just a boy. Probably don’t even know how to shoot the damn thing—”

The first bullet slapped out of the barrel so terribly it may as well have been a cannon—but it just tore through the man’s hat, flinging the wrecked thing back into the ash circle. There was a beat of deep, charged silence before Stiles spoke again.

“Next, your fucking skull.”

The hunter tossed his gun back with his hat so Derek could snatch it.

“Step back. Shuffle your feet. Break that circle of yours.”

Again, the man obeyed. The moment the ash was disturbed, Derek toppled the hunter to the ground, claws grinding his face into the dirt. Stiles dropped his hand—and gasped out a breath, limbs shaking visibly and chest shuddering.

“Goddamn,” he mumbled, staring wide-eyed at Derek and the hunter where they were pressed together. “God fucking damn.”

&&&

Ever the sheriff’s boy, Stiles insisted they blindfold the hunter, tie him up, and settle him on his own horse’s back, once they found the far-off mare. Derek set the horse off galloping with the flick of a hand and a nasty snarl—and like that, the hunter was cast into the desert, fate unknown but life preserved.

“A life for a life,” Stiles had said. “I saved yours, you spare his. We’re even.”

It didn’t feel even, but Derek didn’t argue with him.

&&&

Every night, Stiles played his harmonica. Derek knew why; he didn’t question it, though he sometimes complained when it went on for too long.

Every night, Derek howled. Stiles didn’t know why; he wanted to question it, but he didn’t think Derek would tell him. Something about the ritual felt sacrosanct, private—and the howl he let loose was always the same: melancholic, lonesome.

Instead, Stiles prodded at him in different, more subtle ways.

“Where’s your pack?”

Smart of him, cautious, to not assume Derek was an omega. In this dangerous world, it was a rare and treacherous thing to be.

“Not tellin’ you,” Derek growled out, but he didn’t mean any harm. He sounded more tired than aggressive, and Stiles heard it.

So he plowed on: “What are they like?”

Derek sighed, laying his arm over his face as he settled onto his bedtime rug. It ached, to think of pack; but for some reason, he wanted to speak of them, make them more than a feeling.

“Pains in my ass,” he said gently. Stiles waited. “My alpha is my sister. Growing up, we always knew she would be alpha…she’s done right by us, from the beginning. She’s bit a few new wolves, and taken a mate. We’re not the biggest pack, but it’s a good life, on our ranch. It’s good.”

After a few moments passed, Stiles asked quietly: “Why’d you leave, then?”

It was something he cursed every damn day—so he just snapped out, “none of your damn business” before turning and shutting Stiles out.

The song Stiles played that night was soft, slow, and told of yearning.

&&&

They had originally headed east because Stiles said it was the direction he suspected his wolf had fled. Derek didn’t care much where they started out; both of them were trailing paths and scents of wolves long faded, so it was a matter of wandering and waiting for clues, as well as snatching up gossip where they could. Omegas were rare, but they weren’t that rare, and people whispered about them when they passed through—if they revealed themselves, at least.

So they passed through some towns, spent some time sitting and chatting in bars—that task usually set out for Stiles, though when it came to the gambling gossips Derek would claim a spot at the table. He was a good gambler on new moons, when his eyes didn’t show his wolf—nobody wanted to play against someone who could detect every tell—and won enough cash during those times to finance himself for weeks.

When he won a particularly good pot, he would always drop an envelope discreetly to the postman. The pack could always use a bit of extra cash.

A week after they had begun traveling, Stiles came to their hotel room with a slick, self-satisfied smile on his face. He didn’t say anything yet; Derek knew he wanted him to ask.

“This better be good,” he mumbled under his breath, then asked, “all right, Stiles. What’d you get?”

“You’d better speak a bit nicer to me, because I’ve found our next destination.”

“Just tell me what it is.”

“And you think my talking would annoy everyone away, but the guy at the bar seemed more than happy to tell me all he knew—”

“Stiles I swear to god—”

“Up north, towards the red canyon and past the mountain with the peak like a camel’s back. The man who told me—his party traveled past there looking for an old mine shaft, and instead saw a man in the distance who ran on all fours.”

Derek considered in silence, then: “Heading north?”

“Yep.”

He sighed. “That’s straight to some pack land. An omega wouldn’t enter, just skirt by.”

“Okay, so we head north in the morning?” Stiles asked, seeming a bit excited.

Derek nodded, then hesitated to elaborate. But he didn’t want Stiles to get his hopes up. “You know what lines the pack lands up north?”

“Uh—” Stiles thought quick. “There’s the canyon?”

“Yep.” Derek sat on his bed and toed his boots off. “And in the canyon, there’s a river. And from the river, there’s plenty of creeks trickling in. Scents can’t hold in water.”

Stiles’s face fell a bit. “So the scent will probably be gone.”

“Yeah.”

“But you’ll be able to smell ‘im before that, right? There will be some trace left before the river.”

Derek frowned, then resisted slapping his forehead with his palm. Instead, he just leveled Stiles with a heavy glance. “Do you even have anything for me?”

Mouth opening, closing, then opening again, Stiles muttered, “…what?”

“Do you have anything for me to smell, in order to recognize your wolf’s scent?”

Stiles’s mouth opened again—then his eyes widened as his face turned bright pink. The scent of rose tea wafted into their room like a swarm.

Derek flopped back onto his back. “Fuck’s sake, Stiles.”

The boy turned a bit desperate, then. “Could I describe it to you?” He scrambled to rifle through his bag, hands moving and grabbing things carelessly. “Maybe I have—a gift he gave me, or something—I must have—”

Finally, he dragged a handkerchief out of his bag and held it up triumphantly. He brought it over to Derek, who was just lying on his back and giving the kid a well-earned judgmental look.

“Smell this. It’s got my sweat on it, but maybe it has some of his scent too. My wolf gave it to me.”

His nose crinkled at those words—my wolf—but he took the cloth and brought it to his face anyway. He was immediately struck by Stiles’s scent; it practically gagged him.

“Ugh, god. Smells like you rubbed yourself all over it.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, I’m nasty. Let’s move on and try again.”

Derek held the handkerchief farther out before sniffing again. There was something underneath Stiles’s scent, just barely there beneath the stink of clay, mesquite, sweat, and awkward enthusiasm—not that that was a smell in itself—and it was startlingly familiar, for all it was hardly present anymore.

“What’s your wolf’s name?”

“Uh, Scott.” Stiles said, blinking a bit dumbly. “Scott McCall.”

Derek gave the cloth back. “This doesn’t smell like him anymore. But I know him, so just go to sleep already.”

“Wait, what? You know him?”

Derek quit the light.

“Oooh no no no—Derek Hale, you tell me how you know Scott right now or so help me—” There was a heavy whump as Stiles dropped himself onto Derek’s bed, his back, then started poking at his head, ribs, and neck—like a child bugging his playmate. Derek lied motionless, playing dead.

“Scott doesn’t talk to other wolves. You haven’t spoken to a single omega since we started this damn trip, so how—”

The next time Stiles’s hand came to Derek’s neck, he let his instincts kick in, a growl rumbling from his chest, but he didn’t aim to harm. If Stiles wanted to act like a child, two could play at that—so it was like how Derek and Laura used to scuffle as kids when Derek turned and reared up, tumbling with Stiles to their room’s floor and pinning the boy down.

It stopped being roughhousing almost immediately. Stiles stared up at him, eyes huge and pale face splotched with pink, and his heart pattered like a bird’s. He swallowed, knees shifted up to keep Derek a bit distanced from his body—that motion spurred Derek to realize their position, Stiles’s obvious discomfort. Wolves weren’t like psychics; they couldn’t sense emotion any more than a human could, but they took physical cues as easily as a nonverbal animal, with help from their wolf side. Right then, Stiles was a skinny, lean kid, on the cusp of adulthood, with a fully grown werewolf pressing him into the wooden floorboards—and he was terrified to silence, though he still didn’t look fearful for his life. Whether that was trust or idiocy, Derek couldn’t judge.

So Derek slid off him, picked him up, and set him down gently. He motioned vaguely towards Stiles’s bed.

“Sleep.”

Stiles’s voice cracked as he nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, good idea.”

Derek avoided looking at him for the rest of the night, but the boy’s heartbeat clattered into his ears endlessly, and the room reeked of rose tea.

&&&

It took them until late afternoon the next day to approach the pack lands. Derek knew them: the Barba pack, a group twenty members strong, likely even more. They mined silver from the one lucrative shaft in the area and guarded it with their lives; however, they usually were permissive to prospectors just outside their boundaries, as well as travelers-through.

But tolerance didn’t mean they wouldn’t keep extensive tabs on all who stepped in their boundaries, and they sure as hell wouldn’t be kind to a strange wolf intruding.

 Once they reached the Barbas’ boundary, Derek stopped his horse and slipped off the saddle. He motioned Stiles to do the same.

“Are we here?” Stiles asked, a little uneasy. “Why don’t we just avoid the boundary, go around it, like an omega would?”

He probably was nervous to be faced with an entire werewolf pack; Derek couldn’t blame him. Packs tended to be guarded against humans, even moreso than against omegas—at least an omega understood lycanthian social cues, hierarchies, and courtesies.

With that thought in mind, Derek stripped his jacket off, then his shirt. He wore an undershirt, so he just shrugged into his jacket again before tossing Stiles’s the shirt.

“Wear that. Put it on. Now.”

Stiles caught the shirt, but made no motions to put it on. “What, why? Is this a smell thing?”

“Yes.”

“Is this…are you—”

The boy’s heart picked up; Derek rolled his eyes and huffed. “Stop overthinking. If you smell like me, and I’m friendly, then you’re friendly.”

“But what does that—” His words cut off as Derek let out a rolling howl, octave rising. The sound was tentative, mild. Within moments, another howl droned across the expanse, and it was similar but more solid.

“Okay,” Derek said dully, then saddled up.

Stiles spluttered and rushed to put Derek’s shirt on. “Wait, hang on, can we talk for second, I’ve never been around a pack before and what if I offend someone, is there anything I should know, I am heading towards panic right now.”

“Get on your horse,” Derek commanded, once the shirt was buttoned up. “Just be nice, and as quiet as possible. Someone might tease you, but they shouldn’t bother you. Not when you smell like me.”

“What does that mean?”

“I told you—”

“No, but what does that mean.”

“It means you’re mine.”

The kid spluttered again awkwardly, bouncing as his horse trotted onto the Barba lands. “But I—”

“‘Mine’ is vague, Stiles. They can interpret it however they want, but the overarching theme here is that they should treat you like they’ll treat me.”

His mouth shut at that, and his blush receded. “Okay. Okay…So, is there anything else I should know?”

Derek considered. It was strange to think of what a human might find strange—especially since none of it was foreign to Derek. “Hm…I guess. You might meet wolves with human mates. Or mates of the same sex. Don’t act surprised, or offended. If you’re awkward—which you will be—they’ll probably find it amusing.”

“So that’s true, then,” Stiles said softly. “What they say about wolves.”

“That we’re godless and hate family values? Yeah, sure.” Derek actually chuckled at that. “Who you love, the strength and power of women—these are things werewolves don’t question. But humans are in the habit of denying things they should know instinctually.”

Stiles laughed brightly. “Yeah, some of the fiercest people I’ve ever met have been women, so I don’t disagree with you there. And the, um, other thing—there are people who take not one wife but three, so I guess it’s not all that strange.” He paused, then teased with a low laugh, “werewolves are just a bundle of acceptance and love, aren’t they?”

“To pack. We’re not so better than humans, though, when it comes to outsiders and omegas.”

“Ever rip the throat out of a stranger?”

He asked it jokingly, but Derek answered truthfully.

“Yes.”

They said nothing more, following the invisible trail of a howl’s beckon.

&&&

The Barbas lived in a large estate at the foot of a rocky mountain. Somewhere up on the slope, their mineshaft was nestled away; but what caught the travelers’ attention most was the creek which bubbled and snaked down the hillside’s crags, pooling into a fresh pond to the right of the estate before trickling towards the distant canyon’s river. They had some crops, some livestock, but not much, just enough to help feed the pack. They made their living well on silver.

Derek and Stiles dropped from their saddles and a few betas left the house to meet them. They led their horses off towards a stable, neither lifting nor bowing their head to Derek, and no one made a move to shake hands. They would wait for the alpha to greet the strangers before interacting themselves.

The Barba alpha was an older woman with silver-streaked hair. She kept it tied in a loose bun, out of her face and away from her congenial expression, but Derek still saw the keenness in her gaze, the shrewd scrutiny necessary in an alpha’s features. He bowed his head, took off his hat with his left hand, and wiped his right hand at his neck before holding it out, palm up. Behind him, Stiles bowed his head as well, just as Derek had told him—but did not offer a hand, also as Derek had said, just twisting his hat brim and fingers together in a tense, nervous motion.

The alpha took the scent offering delicately, just a brush of fingers to Derek’s palm, then brought her hand towards her mouth and smiled. “We haven’t had a Hale on these lands for a long time,” she lowered her hand and lifted her chin, briefly. At the nod, Derek let his head level once more. “My condolences for your parents.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Derek said quietly, then moved on quickly. “Thank you for allowing us on your land.”

“We don’t mind company, every once in a while.” She turned back to the porch and walked; her turned back told Derek of her strength, her confidence in her authority and pack. “Come on in. Introduce yourselves to whoever you like, no one’ll bite.” The mention of a wolfish nip reminded her of Stiles’s presence, and she smiled again, subtle and cunning. “Can your human speak?”

Can he,” Derek said with dark, quiet mirth, but Stiles spoke over him: “Sorry, ma’am, my name is Stiles, and I just—I’m not used to this. I meant no offense.”

“None taken.” The alpha shrugged and sat in an armchair inside the house, picking up her knitting. “You can call me Sherry. But only you,” and she winked, causing Stiles to blush and lower his eyes as Derek fought to contain a barking laugh.

The rest of the pack soon filed into the sitting room, seemingly excited about the visitors. The wolves greeted Derek formally, but soon he had swapped enough scents that he reeked of them, so they just shifted to back pats and short, strong handholds. To Stiles they kept strictly to handshakes, and most of them kept a respectable distance at that, though they invaded Derek’s space often—which he was accustomed to. In their excitement, some of the young ones’ eyes illuminated, revealing a pack-wide tendency for jade-colored eyes.

The sun swiftly retreated, and with the chilly night came a warm, busy dinner. To accommodate the guests, the pack’s pups ate in the sitting area nearby, receiving warning growls when they weren’t cautious with their food around the furniture. Derek and Stiles were seated to the alpha’s left, by the head of the table, and to her right sat her thin, regal mate, a woman with a long braid and warm smile. Further down the table sat the alpha’s two siblings, then the bitten and born in order of age. They passed platters of food from the alpha downwards, allowing every pack member to serve themselves in the order of rank.

Stiles was tense to begin, but he soon settled, sending a happy glance Derek’s way every so often. Perhaps a human couldn’t understand pack, but they understood family, and the ties of blood and time. Besides, the wolves at the table watched Stiles like he was a fascinating spectacle; Derek doubted the kid had gotten so much positive attention before, and he probably enjoyed it once the initial shock wore off.

Whenever the alpha spoke, the table hushed, even though she never enforced such behavior. Derek felt at ease with that kind of pack stability, even if it wasn’t his own.

“Why are you two traveling our way, Derek?”

“Troublesome wolves at large, Alpha,” he answered. “Stiles is looking for a friend, and I’m helping him.”

“Who else you lookin’ for?”

He hesitated, but would not dodge an alpha’s direct question. “My uncle. Peter.”

Stiles tensed next to him. The alpha nodded. “I hope you find him. I can’t imagine how it must be, one of your pack astray.” Her mate grabbed her hand on the table, and the rest of the pack visibly relaxed at the contact.

When Derek responded, it was only after a quick bracing of his jaw, a settling of the waxing shine of his eyes.

“Thank you.”

The rest of the dinner passed quickly. There would be no questioning of the Barbas tonight; that first day on unfamiliar pack grounds was for pleasantries and gratefulness, not interrogation.

&&&

They retired to the room provided, yawning and stuffed of good food, to find a single large bed waiting for them.

Stiles was about to raise a little hell—for Derek’s ears only, of course—when Derek pressed a hand against his mouth. It was odd to watch Stiles visibly swallow, like he was drowning back the words and embarrassments with effort.

“It’s fine,” Derek said toughly. “We’re going to get ready for bed, lie down, and go to sleep. We’ve been treated very generously. Right?”

With a purse of Derek’s lips and a few pointed glances towards the walls, Stiles got the hint.

Mouth free, he said back: “You’re right. I’m ever so grateful for their hospitality.” He mouthed: eavesdrop?

Derek sent back a dry look, because of course.

A bit of shuffling, the rustle of clothing, and Stiles couldn’t resist speaking again. “Why do you even care? Why shouldn’t we…” He made some vague arm motions which Derek figured meant clarify our relationship.

“Do you wanna field some advances?”

Stiles turned to face him, expression shocked. “What?”

“Some of the Barbas, tonight, seemed a bit keen on you.”

He didn’t bother to repeat his incredulousness; it was all over his face, his rosy gob-smacked mouth.

“Well, do you? Because then—”

“Come to bed, darling,” Stiles said with irritated rancor. But Derek just shrugged; sharing a bed wouldn’t kill him.

And it didn’t. But what doesn’t kill you…does other things.

Stiles was quiet in his sleep. Blessedly, blissfully, quiet. But he was also warm, relaxed, and a bit prone to clinging. There was something in his demeanor as he slept that was different—something Derek couldn’t quite recognize—because he seemed vulnerable; but then again, that was how he always seemed. How he should seem, to a creature like Derek.

Perhaps it was how his mouth was dropped open just the slightest bit. Or how he would occasionally turn, snuffle something, and burrow his head into Derek’s shoulder softly, for once unembarrassed at close physical contact between them. Derek kept himself loose and accommodating for Stiles—surprisingly, he didn’t mind the kid using him like a pillow—and breathed evenly, deeply.

Clay-laden mud, rose tea. Pine-and-grass.

Their scents blended and married perfectly, overwhelmingly.

Night passed and early morning gray began to seep through the window. Soon enough, the house would be stirring; there had already been a wolf or two to bustle out of bed at this hour. Stiles wriggled, pressed against Derek’s side and chest, then shifted to turn and lay claim to the space unoccupied—and before Derek could think of it, he had wound a hand around to clasp at Stiles’s shoulder, nostrils flaring and chest burring in a cranky morning rumble.

Half asleep and grinning lightly, Stiles brought his palm up to grasp at Derek’s mouth. He smacked at Derek’s nose before finally finding his lips. “Hush,” he commanded gently, breathing deeply still. He chuckled sleepily. “And don’t sniff me, ya big mutt.”

Encouraged by Stiles’s tone, Derek gave in to temptation and let his nose rest in the kid’s hair—and took a big, obvious whiff.

Stiles laughed. “Wha’ do I smell like?”

Like you, Derek thought, you at your best, with my scent mingled in—

And at the realization, he went tense, like a snap from dream to reality.

The silence had dragged on for too long. Stiles was waking up fully, limbs going rigid and blood swarming into his cheeks; there was the bang of a door down the hall, the Barba pack waking up and not bothering to be quiet about it.

So Derek ground out an answer, finally: “Morning breath,” and slid himself out from under Stile’s resting form, out from the sheets which smelled like them.

Stiles shrugged and rubbed a hand across his hand. “Aren’t you a charmer first thing in the morning.” He huffed again, this time fully awake, his tone gone tight and a bit brittle, so different from how he had been only a few moments ago. “But then again, you’re always like this.”

The tension between them continued until they went downstairs for breakfast, the clink of silverware and chatter of pack acting as both distraction and escape.

&&&

They retired to the sitting room as some of the lower ranking betas cleaned up the dishes from breakfast. The alpha and her mate took two armchairs—apparently their favorites; they sat upon them like thrones—while Stiles and Derek took the couch next to them, across from the hearth. Derek was thankful that the alpha went right to the discussion he had been aching to begin.

“We get a few people trying to travel on our lands, every so often,” she said casually, her hand placed on the armrest of her mate’s chair. While she spoke, her mate crocheted peacefully. “We get even more skirting along the edges. The omegas, especially, want to avoid confrontation with a pack like ours…we don’t take to inducting strangers.”

Derek nodded understandingly. There was a prejudice of guiltiness inflicted upon omegas; most packs assumed a lone wolf had been booted from their own for being undesirable—not that the pack the omega had left was a bad fit. It could turn into a bad situation for werewolves if an alpha was abusive, because even if a beta left, they were taking a great risk and might never find a new pack to welcome them in. Omegas with a pup had better luck—pups were precious; most packs would be grateful to bring one in—but there were still a great many problems for omegas. Some of them who never found a pack, or never even sought another, went to work for humans as hired muscle, as McCall had done. They were casually called “dogs” among werewolf company and humans alike.

Derek didn’t like the slur, but despite that he had caught himself letting it slip before. It was difficult to shake off what your kind so readily accepted as the way the world was.

“And like I said before,” the alpha continued, “we haven’t seen a Hale around these parts for some time, until you. And despite your uncle being…missing,” she avoided forsaking barely—“he would still bear the scent and mark of your pack. We’d have known if he had been this way.”

He expected that answer; he still felt breathlessly disappointed. It wasn’t until Stiles spoke through Derek’s silence that he remembered their other reason for traveling.

“But there was an omega this way?”

“Not on pack lands, but yes. An omega ran along our borders not too long ago.”

Stiles perked at that. “Did any of your pack see him? Did he have brown hair, tan skin, and yellow eyes?”

The alpha’s mate, Heather, spoke just a hint louder than usual: “Georgie? Can you come inside for a moment?”

It wasn’t five seconds before someone stomped into the house through the porch, a girl no older than Stiles. She bowed her head to her superiors, then turned to smile at Derek in a bland, friendly manner. Her smile for Stiles was decidedly not so bland, and Derek resolved to ignore it with fervor.

“They’re asking about the omega from last week,” Heather prompted her, then explained to her guests, “Georgie was out on patrol then.”

“Oh, yeah,” Georgie grinned slyly, and her words seemed directed at Stiles specifically as she recounted in a playful tone, “that omega sniffed our border and high-tailed to the canyon. Moved faster than I thought a wolf could.”

Growing tired of her Stiles-directed antics, Derek asked: “What’d he smell like?”

The girl scratched at her jaw and looked upwards before answering. “Hm…sagebrush. Storm winds. And faintly like…um…”

As she trailed off, blushing, her alpha smiled. “Go ahead, Georgie. It’s fine.”

She still looked extremely uncomfortable as she continued. “…Like a whorehouse.”

“That’s Scott!” Stiles bounded from his spot on the couch; Derek dragged him down to sit by the tug of his shirtsleeve. In a slightly less manic tone, Stiles grinned and asked the girl, “Are you sure he went towards the canyon? Do you know when his scent trailed off?”

Georgie preened under Stiles’s excitement and approval; Derek gave her a subtle, heavy stare.

“I don’t know if his scent did trail off.” She waved a lazy hand. “He just reached the border, then ran alongside it like a bat outta hell. He didn’t seem too caring about whether or not he could be followed. He knew as long as he got out of here, we wouldn’t follow him.”

Stiles’s grin grew, and Georgie’s only lessened when he shifted to face Derek—who felt slightly bowled over by the kid’s enthusiasm. “The scent might still be around! It hasn’t rained, and Scott’s not running from me or anything. He might not even know I’m looking for him. Though he should, because of course I would.”

“And he might not know you’ve got a wolf to help you.” Georgie chirped in. Stiles held a hand out in her direction as if to say, see?

“Why aren’t you more excited about this? We’re closer than we think,” Stiles said with cheer.

Thing was: he was exactly right. And Derek didn’t know if he should be excited about that—not at all.

But he plastered on a small grin and offered a placating, backhanded bit of optimism regardless. “McCall acted like he didn’t know how to greet me when I met him, so he might not even know how to throw off a scent. Or evade tracking. Or be a decent werewolf.”

Stiles chuckled. “That’s my Scott. Hell of a guy, not much of a wolf.”

They left after lunch, when Stiles’s happiness was most infectious and the alpha insisted they remain for one more meal—to which Derek lowered his head, wordlessly conveying his gratitude. The Barba alpha was pleased with their short visit; they weren’t much trouble, and now the Barbas had the Hales owing them a favor, something which could come in handy should the Barbas ever run into conflict.

Georgie and her sister gave Stiles a bag of cookies just before their departure, their palms sliding along his neck and shoulder oh-so discreetly, collecting that scent like clay and roses on their hands. They giggled as if he were charming when Derek growled at them lowly, moon-chasing eyes flashing, and Stiles just turned red, his mouth curling contently.

“Don’t look too happy about it. It was just a parting gift,” Derek grumbled.

Stiles bared his teeth like a human—carefree, inviting, intimate—and nodded slowly. “Nope, of course. Not happy about the cookies.”

He wasn’t lying; Derek could tell.

&&&

They reached the canyon soon after leaving the Barba’s home, and McCall’s scent had faded some, though not enough to matter. He’d even been sweating as he’d passed this way, nerves getting the better of a wolf’s stamina and making him perspire to the point of reeking. Derek told Stiles so, and he laughed, imaging aloud how Scott must have had his metaphorical tail tucked once he caught a whiff of the Barbas, a pack twenty-something strong.

If Derek were traveling alone, and therefore without a horse, he would have easily climbed down into the canyon. McCall’s trail led there; he had enough common sense to stick close to water and duck from the winds blistering along the upper desert’s surface. But as it was, Derek had not only a horse to worry about, but a human on horseback tagging along behind him, chattering about his childhood memories with his best friend-turned-werewolf. Therefore they moved slowly, almost glacially, from Derek’s view, and kept a sharp eye for a possible path down for the horses to trot to water.

During that time, Stiles’s good mood hadn’t worn off. He spoke loudly, carelessly, and happily, his own one-man dialogue.

He kept it from being a true monologue by asking Derek questions, then answering them himself when Derek just grunted back.

“So only a week after Scott had been bitten by that outlaw alpha from the north, and he’d tried his best to keep it a secret from me, he stuck his boot on and got jabbed by a very angry scorpion. I’m no expert, but I’d read about twenty books about scorpions in around two days as a kid—one of those obsessive stints, you know how they are—” Derek didn’t, but that wasn’t relevant, so he said nothing; “—and the one I tipped out of his boot was tiny. The small ones are the worst ones. I started panicking, thinking he was going to keel over at any moment and begging him to say his last words, saying my last goodbyes, clinging to him, pretty pathetic really, and—and he just kept telling me he was okay, despite me telling him otherwise. I thought he was in denial. But he finally blurted it out.” Stiles tossed one hand out dramatically in reenactment. “I’m a werewolf! Don’t hate me, don’t hate me—as if I would.” He settles then, shaking his head lightly. “As if I ever would. He should know better. Shouldn’t count me out so quickly.”

There was silence for long enough that Stiles seemed surprised when Derek answered. “Like now.”

“What?”

“Like now,” Derek repeated quietly, sniffing the air every minute or two to check their progress. He didn’t know why, but he felt a little reluctant to answer now, after Stiles had conducted so much conversation by himself. He was embarrassed to let on that he had actually listened, despite willfully implying otherwise. “You said McCall might not know you’re looking for him. It seems stupid of him, after all you’ve said.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Stiles glances to his horse’s reigns and pats the beast’s neck idly. He sighs. “You know, I know Scott is considered an omega, but he’s never even looked for a pack. Because to him, he’s never needed to, even if others say so. His mama accepted him for what he’s become, and I don’t give a shit if he’s a human or a werewolf or a goddamn unicorn—or whatever. So he doesn’t know a lot about wolves, but he knows a lot about family. That’s enough for him, I think.” He smiles then, wistful. “And even if that makes him a bad wolf, it’ll make him a damn good man.”

Plenty of opinions flooded Derek’s mind then, but he didn’t voice them. After a companionable quiet had settled, he just remarked: “Unicorns aren’t real, you know.”

Stiles scoffed, but his reply was playful. “Damn you, Hale. Let a guy dream.”

Just as the day dimmed, they found a slim path down the canyon that the horses could manage. It was lucky, because down by the river they could not only replenish their water supply, but find shelter among foliage and rocky outcrops. The plentiful lookouts above them made Derek uneasy—defensively, being lower than your enemy was an assured defeat—but water and shelter won out over all other doubts.

As Stiles rummaged for his sleeping rug and harmonica—Derek had insisted he stay close to the river this time, letting himself be between any possible visitors who scaled the canyon walls—a few pebbles scattered down from the flatland above them, not too close but enough to be heard. Stiles was oblivious, but perked when Derek stood purposefully, superior ears morphing to points and nostrils flaring.

“What is it, boy?” Stiles asked jokingly, laughing when Derek snarled at him.

“Something disturbed the rocks,” he answered tensely, “back from where we’d come.”

“Could just be a lizard going to sleep, for all you know.”

“Could just be a hunter looking for a pelt.”

Stiles blanched. “They do that?”

“No,” Derek said with a forced shrug. “But they sometimes pull our fangs out, after. To show their friends and brag. Make a nice necklace.”

Mumbling into his harmonica, Stiles glared at him disbelievingly. “No, they don’t.”

“What do you think?” Derek began to pace. “That they give us a nice funeral, read from their holy book?”

“But you have a pack,” Stiles said quickly. “They wouldn’t dare kill you if they knew that they’d bring an entire pack down on ’em.”

“Anyone off pack lands is fair game. Your human laws don’t consider werewolves people, so murder laws don’t apply. Some towns even give bounties for my kind.” He stops pacing to listen again, then continues when he doesn’t hear anything. “And here I thought you were a sheriff’s boy.”

Determined to switch off the topic, Stiles asked: “Hear anything more?”

“No—” His voice cut off suddenly, and his head tilted to the side, then up. A rumble began to build in his chest, biding and even. “Horseshoes. Footsteps. A human heartbeat.”

Finally, Stiles stuffed his harmonica away and got to his knees, ready to stand but not yet doing so. “Could just be passing by.”

“Stay here,” Derek ordered, voice a mix of command and snarl.

“Like hell—”

“Stiles,” he said, persuading and perilously close to beseeching, “someone needs to watch the horses.”

But Stiles wasn’t having it. “And someone needs to watch your back,” he replied stubbornly. “Remember the last time you went after someone on your own?”

A grunt. “Thought you said we were even.”

“Doesn’t mean it can’t be a lesson.”

“I have to go—”

“Check? Investigate? No. No you don’t. If you sit your wolfy ass down and heat up some of those same beans we’ve eaten far too many nights, and listen to me play my harmonica, while keeping an ear open for someone approaching, you’ll be just fine. This is a common route and people—other than us—travel it all the damn time. And what if you do go, and a cougar decides to nab me? You know that could happen, Derek. I’m a perfect cougar-sized meal. So,” he wound down, settling on his bottom again to relax, “just sit or pace or whatever you want, but stick around. Take pity on the cougar that’ll go hungry tonight.”

Derek was tempted to sneer and snarl—but he didn’t. Even when Stiles grinned smugly, he didn’t. He did pace, however, all the while feeling petulant about it.

When the horseshoes clanked against familiar gravel, the same path they took to get down the canyon’s ridge, Derek’s pacing quickened. “They’re comin’ down the ridge.”

Stiles stood and brushed his hands off on his thighs, then walked over to stand directly in Derek’s path of pace. Before Derek could turn or change his stride, Stiles’s hands came up to clomp onto his shoulders, firm and grounding. The contact made him go absolutely still.

“Calm down,” Stiles ordered, and his palms pushed down until Derek’s tense shoulders sagged. “The sun went down not an hour ago. There’s a reason we camped here, and others see it too. The reasons, I mean. So we’re going to sit tight, keep our guard, and not start a fight. Because then we’re guaranteed to have one. All right?”

Derek wanted to shrug; he wanted to grumble, and run—and most of all, groan, because not only was Stiles making sense, but he was downright calming. His hands were steady and his presence was soothing; hell, even his damn scent was making Derek’s stiffness loosen.

Stiles raised an eyebrow, so Derek sighed. “All right.”

He received a pleased smile, then resumed his pacing, only a hint of dread weighing him down rather than a ton. He was surprised Stiles had talked him down so well, let alone that he had effectively told him exactly what to do, but he shrugged it off in favor of allowing his apprehension to build once more, claws lengthening and shortening in waves of worry.

When a horse’s snort was audible even to Stiles, Derek’s dread started to peak. He heard Stiles’s mumble of “worry-wolf” just before a breeze whisked down the canyon, from the ridge’s path down right to their camp—and Derek’s constant rumbling sparked into loud, brutal growls.

“Hey now, don’t embarrass yourself; first impressions and all—” Stiles said with forced humor, but Derek wasn’t listening.

He just watched as an Argent approached with slow, measured steps, a crossbow notched, her clan scent on the wind like piss in water.

He hated that scent.

A warning snarl, and Stiles was up and rushing to him, palm pressing to Derek’s shoulder, his collarbone; Derek just shoved him back, mindful enough to barely avoid scratching the kid with his claws. There was a desperate soothing tone in Stiles’s voice; Derek hardly listened. Yet Stiles wouldn’t stop touching him, pulling him back, vying for his attention—and he persisted even when Derek had no interest in responding to it, not when an Argent faced him down, armed and steel-faced.

Finally, Stiles ran forward, right around Derek’s crouched form. Thrown off, Derek took his eyes off the Argent to snatch Stiles back, picking him up easily and bustling him back again. It was his distraction from the threat which allowed him to process Stiles’s words: I know her, it’s all right, it’s all right.

Derek breathed heavily through his nose, suddenly irritated by how Stiles had grabbed either side of his head in a vice grip. He hadn’t even noticed until now, when the Argent was lowering her bow and Stiles was rambling at him exasperatedly, declarations of “Derek you need to listen” and “now I get why they call it lunacy.” He shook his head until Stiles’s hands slipped away.

“Stiles?” The Argent said with an incredulous, snapping tone, and Derek couldn’t help his growl in return.

“Allison,” Stiles responded, much more concretely—“What the fuck.”

&&&

The humans talked by the fireside, and the werewolf paced nearby. Stiles’s scolding “sit down, Derek; we have a guest” went unnoticed, to say the least.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Allison asked Stiles.

“Same as you, I guess,” he waved generally at her. “Tracking. Stalking. There’s a McCall on the loose, they say.”

Finally, Allison let out a laugh. “Yep. And two wayward teens.”

“How’d you get away from your parents?”

“How’d you get away from the sheriff?”

“Uh.” Stiles scratched the back of his head and avoided eye contact. “Let’s not…let’s just not.”

“You know, your dad put out a reward for whoever could bring you home alive,” she revealed conspiratorially. “You have a poster and everything.”

Stiles seemed—well, he seemed delighted. “I have a bounty? Like I’m some kinda outlaw?”

“More like lost puppy,” Derek grumbled, to Stiles’s quickly snapped: “Nobody asked you, wolf!”

But Derek saw the tension increase in his shoulders, the slight falter to his smile. Allison Argent acted as though her running from home was some kind of liberation, a chance for her to make it on her own and finally use her tracking and hunting training for something important to her—but Stiles’s departure wasn’t an act of emancipation, not really. He left because he couldn’t bear not knowing where his friend was, someone he considered a brother in all but blood. And no matter what, no matter how long it took, he planned on returning, because his father was waiting and worrying for him.

Derek knew it all well. So Stiles could grin and snark about bounties and the thrill of the journey all he wanted, but he felt that pull in his bones, just like Derek did.

They both traveled, first and foremost, for the return.

Allison put her horse with theirs, and eventually her head where they slept, after a hushed back-and-forth between Derek and Stiles.

Stiles won, of course.

The need to have himself between Stiles and whoever was not to be trusted beat out Derek’s need to be as far from an Argent as possible, and while he did sleep, it was with one eye open, and both ears perked. By morning, he had shifted enough to share Stiles’s space.

No one mentioned it. No one felt the need to.

&&&

To say Derek disapproved of Allison Argent’s presence would be an understatement.

To say Allison Argent’s presence was a burden would be an inaccuracy.

Derek still hated it.

With the wax of the moon, Derek’s eyes steadily filled with a constant blue sheen. With it, his very mind leaned more towards the bestial—not that he was ever out of control, but that his senses became more central: sharper, consuming, distracting. While he would easily ignore the skittering of a mouse on the new moon, approaching the full moon made him not only notice, but crave the chase, blood, blow and tear of claws and teeth. He was aware of even the smallest pebble pattering, the beat of a hawk’s wings above. The wind filled his nose like a bouquet of stories to tell.

So when they passed a hillside, approaching a burrow up above them a few feet, and Derek sniffed something magnificent, he had to investigate. He scaled the near-cliff easily, silently, and stopped his advancement only when Stiles called to him.

“What are you doing?”

He looked down. Sniffed again. It smelled good. “Checking something.”

“What?” Allison asked this time, and he narrowed his eyes. “What does it smell like?”

He deigned to answer her, but not nicely. “Good.”

Her expression turned from curious to illuminated, yet also suspecting. “Stay right there,” she ordered, despite Derek’s withering look, and began scaling the hill after him. He enjoyed her clumsiness on the looser rocks. “Please, let me check it.”

She approached the burrow soon enough, sniffed it for herself, and wrinkled her nose—before picking up a fist-sized rock and tossing it in. There was a stomach-turning, shocking snap. She tossed another rock, then another, but nothing more happened. She reached her hand right into the burrow, face a palette of purpose.

She dragged out a massive, clamped-down bear trap.

“Holy shit,” Stiles muttered.

Allison tossed the trap down the slope like it sickened her. “Popular method for hunters with the means. The rare blend of bane they use is meant to lure a wolf in, then snap on ’em.”

“And you were gonna stick your wolfy snout in there,” Stiles teased as Derek tapped down onto the path next to him. He sounded far more shaken about the prospect than his joking meant to imply.

Derek sent Stiles a tired glare, but once his back was turned, he gave Allison a silent nod.

&&&

Looking for tips in the next town was easier than before. Stiles could chat as much as he liked with new strangers, Derek was left absolutely alone by strangers due to the almost-full coloring of his eyes, and Allison melded into hunter company like a snake to sand.

When they set out the next morning, heading straight southwest, they packed enough water for three people and three horses. It wasn’t agreed upon, but Derek would not be drinking his share. The terrain until the next water hole was unforgiving, and the sun bore down without a single cloud to burden it. He wasn’t so sensitive to dehydration, not like the humans.

They moved with purpose and haste after Derek picked up a familiar trail only an hour outside of town. Noon came and passed like a fever. Afternoon slid into memory—and they kept their horses treading on, Derek becoming so restless and irritated with his beast that he went to foot, closer to the scent and able to keep his own pace, the horse traveling better while unburdened by his weight.

“Tell me that isn’t a trick of my desperate mind,” Stiles said, pointing to the dark grouping of trees in the distance. The land thus far had been utterly, horribly flat, desolate of even the odd joshua tree, and this treeline jutted out of a depression in the desert like a crack of the earth’s crust to eden.

“They said it would take this long,” Allison responded, a hint of caution in her voice, like she didn’t want to celebrate just yet. “I’m pretty sure it’s real.”

“Derek?” Stiles asked, seeking confirmation.

“You’re not hallucinating.” He answered gruffly. The scent—sagebrush, storm winds—was pungent now; it was taking all his attention. “Well. Probably not.”

“Wow, so comforting. See why I keep him around, Allison?”

“I’ve known from the start why you keep him around,” she replied cunningly. Stiles said nothing in return.

Reaching the trees was a reprieve. Sometimes the desert could be beautiful, colored like a sunset or cool and quiet in the evening; often, however, it was hell on earth, and that day had been one of those times. The trees by the water were strange for an oasis: broadleaf, seasonal, sprawling behemoths, bright green and rooted in plenty of underground water—without that replenishing source, they could never have even sprouted. They led their horses immediately to pool, and Derek wandered off on his own, unconcerned for the humans.

Stiles hurried after him, whispering and hissing at him to slow up for just a second—but Derek had a destination. Allison scrambled after them, troubled that Derek moved like a man possessed, and asked in a hushed voice, “Can you smell him?”

Suddenly, Derek stopped completely. He breathed shallowly through his mouth, avoiding a heavy smell. Then he brought his claws out to their longest, sniffed with a wrinkling, irritated nose, and grabbed hold of a nearby tree trunk, climbing it with a few strong pushes and pulls of well-placed grips and kicks. When he was fully obscured by bright green leaves, there was a quick rustle, a startled yelp—and finally, the thwump of a body falling flat to the ground at Stiles and Allison’s feet.

The body rolled over and swore.

“Scott!” Allison yelled, dropping to her knees and tugging him into a tight embrace. Stiles stood still, shocked and slack-jawed, and Derek landed on his feet next to him.

“There,” Derek said, holding a hand out.

“Yes, I see him, thank you,” Stiles muttered in a high voice.

“Stiles?” Scott asked from the ground, where he’d pulled Allison onto his lap and into a hug.

The sound of his name from his friend’s mouth did the trick. Stiles went to his knees like he wanted to attack Scott—and maybe he did, because the way he wound his arms around his friend was hardly gentle. “I want to punch you in the face,” he said darkly, tone like fire.

“I missed you too,” Scott said thickly.

Derek leaned against the tree trunk he’d scaled and looked anywhere but at the bunch of kids piled onto each other like puppies.

&&&

“Did you seriously sleep right through us stomping through the trees?” Stiles asked that night as they ate the usual, beans, as well as something new: a couple rabbits, of which Scott had caught most as an apology gift.

Scott spoke through his food, a bit peevish: “Hey, I’d been running a lot, all right?”

Allison seemed endeared by Scott’s petulance and previous lapse of attention. Derek just wanted to sneer.

“Why the fuck did you even leave?” Stiles finally asked, barely holding down his anger. “You didn’t even tell me you were leaving. You didn’t say goodbye.”

Scott flushed and looked down. “If I had gone to see you, you would have talked me out of it. So I didn’t.”

“You’re damn right I would have talked you out of it,” Stiles answered, “because I’m sure the reason was stupid.”

“My parents found out he was a werewolf,” Allison said. “The madam kept it a secret, despite hiring him for muscle. So they only found out Scott was a werewolf when he saved me from being mauled by one—but that they found out at all was enough for them to forbid us from seeing each other. And then they found out we had been seeing each other anyway, and…things got ugly.”

Derek remembered the day Scott had revealed his identity to the Argents: the screeching of a train off its tracks, the roar of a fire, of his uncle’s desperation, rage, and agony.

“So, what—” Stiles continued, his ire making him speak quickly and sharply, “—you just run away? Instead of face your problems?”

“I had a reason to go, other than that.” Scott was getting defensive. Derek wished he could advise against it, in the face of Stiles’s roiling anger, but he said nothing—just directed his expression of intense judgment to the campfire.

“What. Tell me. What great idea did you have for leaving without a word?”

The young wolf huffed. “I was going to find the wolf who had attacked Allison and killed those people. The one who wrecked the train. I was going to kill him and bring him back, show them I could—”

Scott lost his breath as Derek slammed him down in the dirt, snarling. Stiles and Allison scrambled up, each of them rushing to a different wolf: Allison to Scott, trying to drag him away; Stiles to Derek, trying to drag him off. But Derek kept Scott’s throat in a tight grip, claws extended and fangs mangling any possible words he would have spoken—until the sounds of pleading, two human voices garbled in terror and begs, cut through the fury and instinct.

He loosened his grip and watched as Allison snatched Scott away, bringing him into a grab as she fell back on her bottom. She whispered against Scott’s cheek, over his shoulder: “He was on the train, you idiot. Don’t you remember? Their eyes matched.” Despite her harsh tone, she kissed his temple in a harsh press.

Scott must have been truly clueless about the implications of that, until now—having little to no experience with packs, he wouldn’t know that many of them bore the same lycanthian traits. He also had no knowledge of who, in fact, belonged to the Hale pack, even if they lived so close to his hometown.

Derek quickly lost interest in Scott as a threat then—just a pup on a fool’s errand. His uncle would have ruined this kid if they had actually met and fought on equal footing, without Derek barreling into the middle of the brawl like before. So he ground out: “If you attack my uncle, I will rip your throat out. Clear?”

“Crystal,” Scott replied, voice gravelly.

It was as Derek moved to stand upright that he realized Stiles, in his fear of a werewolf scuffle on the full moon—the kind of fight to escalate to a death match—had not let go of Derek at all. He had one arm around Derek’s collarbones, the other from his chest to sternum, and his hands were locked tightly, body leaning fully into Derek’s bulk. Derek turned to give him a look with a single raised eyebrow, one which spoke volumes soundlessly.

“—oh,” Stiles squeaked before flailing his arms out and dodging from Derek’s body—falling sideways to the ground in a graceless heap.

Derek lifted him by the back of his shirt collar, set him on his feet, then settled back to sit by the fire.

“Well,” Stiles squeaked out, brushing his pants off with brisk movements. “Glad we got that settled. We can leave to look for your uncle in the morning.”

 Once the words were out, a silence descended. Derek stopped eating—stopped chewing, truly—for a good few seconds before swallowing, breathing once deeply, and turning to Stiles where he stood firm.

“We?”

It was a simple question, a necessary one. Stiles’s eyebrows lifted, subtle but clear in intent.

“Yes. We.” Don’t argue with me on this, his tone said, solid and impatient.

But Derek’s face remained closed-off and grave. “No.”

A huff, then: “Oh come on. Scott won’t attack your uncle,” Stiles began; Derek could tell he had much more to say. “But even if he doesn’t drag Peter’s body back by the tail, Scott still has something to prove. So he’ll return home, with Allison, me, and you—and with the wolf who attacked her. It’s his best chance with the Argents.”

“I won’t travel with him,” Derek spit out, sending a glare Scott’s way. “No fuckin’ way.”

“He gave you his word. I can give you my word for his trustworthiness—”

No, Stiles.” Before the kid could burst into combative words again, Derek continued, “I know he won’t attack Peter. He wouldn’t have a chance, and he knows it, not with me there.”

“Is this because he’s an omega?” Stiles asked. He pointed to Derek fiercely. “Because I’ll be damned if you spit at my best friend just because he doesn’t belong to some exclusive werewolf club.”

“If he was omega just because of problems with pack, I would have some sympathy for him. But no—he’s alone because he hates what he is. He hates what I am.” Derek really did spit then, disgusted and furious, right into the fire’s orange blaze. “I make it a policy to stay away from people like that. Human or wolf.”

“Scott just—”

But Stiles was cut off by the wolf himself. “I didn’t choose this,” Scott retorted angrily, a growl buried under his words. “I never wanted to be a wolf, and I hate being a wolf. It’s a fucking curse.”

Instead of getting further incensed, Derek just held out an illustrative hand in Scott’s direction, showing Stiles all the evidence he needed to see. “And anyway,” Derek went on, voice becoming noxious and shadowy at the quiet, dark look on Stiles’s face, “our agreement is fulfilled. You have your wolf. You’ve got no reason to keep hanging ‘round another.”

Derek wasn’t prepared for how Stiles’s expression shifted. He no longer looked angry or stubborn—just confused, taken aback, and the smallest hint of hurt.

“I thought…But you…” He began, before quickly going silent and pensive again.

He walked into the dark of the treecover without one more word.

&&&

Derek lasted all of one minute before following Stiles.

He would have lasted longer—honest—but Allison and Scott kept giving him looks.

“Goddamn it,” he mumbled to himself, sight sharp in the shadow of the moon’s glow. The night was illuminated enough to allow Stiles to walk without stumbling, meaning the kid was still moving through the fallen leaves and brush, even after Derek caught up with him. “Hey,” Derek called out, soft—but Stiles didn’t stop moving. “Hey, kid, just hang on a second—”

At that, Stiles halted immediately, then turned to toss some harsh words over his shoulder. “Don’t you call me that,” he hissed. “You don’t get to call me ‘kid.’ Not anymore.”

Derek sighed and scratched at his scalp—then, to his own surprise, he looked down when he caught Stiles’s furious eye. “Yeah, fine. All right.”

Stiles’s head whipped forward again. His breathing became forcibly even; Derek could just imagine the way his lips would be pursed, and his brow scrunched down. Perhaps he’d even be pinking from sheer frustration by now—

And he was, Derek saw. Because Stiles had abruptly twisted to face him, then stomp to stand much closer to Derek than before.

“I don’t get you,” Stiles said, rushed and irritated. “You make sure to sleep between me and even the chance of danger. You only drink your water when you’re sure I’ve got enough. You listen to everything I say, even when you act like you don’t, even when you shouldn’t be able to, when your fangs come out and instincts take over. You growl when another wolf touches me, and you—you smell me when you think I won’t notice.”

Derek said nothing. Stood motionless.

Stiles gasped in exasperation, rubbing at his forehead before flinging out his hand and letting it drop. His voice went softer, more towards broken.

“And then you say there’s no more reason to hang around each other. ‘You’ve got your wolf,’ you say—so what, we’re done? That’s it?” Derek still said nothing, but Stiles wasn’t finished. “Are you really going to tell me that—no, you know what? Fine. Maybe I am done with you. It’s not like it’d be the end of the world. I’m sure someone else would—or some other wolf—”

He went silent, finally, suddenly, as Derek grasped at his shirt, his back, and cupped behind his head firmly. He shoved his nose right up to Stiles’s neck, sniffing and growling deep, the thunder of it leeching out from his chest and mouth like a rising tide.

“No,” he said—one syllable, one word. His shock-blue eyes cast into the night with savagery, the moon turning all his emotions into a force of nature, barring further words—and drawing forth his fangs, which he pressed into the curve of Stiles’s neck and shoulder lightly, just enough to convey what he needed to, right then.

Stiles raised his arms and wound them around Derek’s ribcage, clinging hard to the fabric of his shirt, his grab digging into skin. “I knew you’d eat that up. Possessive bastard,” he joked, but it was fragile.

They stood together for a while, some unspoken, unknowable time.

Stiles’s next words, however, were not flimsy in the least.

“Scott’s still coming with us, though.”

&&&

“So, your uncle’s got a bounty,” Scott said briskly, hands behind his head and gaze to the stars. Allison was curled towards him, dozing softly.

“No shit,” Derek replied. He finished rolling a cigarette, then thrust the end of it into the campfire’s embers. His slightly singed fingers healed immediately; he didn’t even feel the pain.

Scott watched him from the corner of his amber eye. The wolves had purposefully placed the humans—their humans, Derek supposed—closer to the fire, farther from open space, so Scott looked to Derek over Allison and Stiles’s sleeping forms.

“So, what’m sayin’ is,” Scott continued, shrugging and sleepy, “I wasn’t even trying to track him. Didn’t try to make things harder for myself.”

Derek finally turned and gave Scott proper attention at that, albeit slowly, and with plentiful dread. “How many hunters does he have on his tail?”

Scott sighed as he replied; it seemed more in sympathy than exhaustion. “I’m not sure. Five, maybe? At least three. It’s hard to say. They’re not bad at shielding their scents.”

But even the best of hunters could let a bit of scent slip. Humans didn’t have the same abilities to detect smell, not by a long shot, so no matter how thorough they were, they couldn’t ever be sure they were rid of it all. Those slight mistakes, to a sloppy wolf, may go undetected—but for all Derek and Stiles joked about Scott’s prowess, and the kid himself shirked his new status, he wore the wolf well. If he didn’t spend so much wasted time hating himself, he would make an invaluable ally.

 “So you know a direction we can start heading come morning?” Derek mumbled, fatigue hitting him like a slugger.

“More or less,” Scott replied. He undoubtedly felt the effects of the moon’s beginning descent, just as Derek did; though it hopped them up with energy and emotion as it rose, its falling path often had the near opposite effect. Scott’s body language immediately told of his new resolve to lose consciousness: a loud huff, a nudge into Allison’s sleeping bend, and a protective, firm wrap of his arms around her, like she was something he wanted to absorb, become, and keep forever.

Derek tossed his stubbed cigarette into the sand near the fire’s ash. He saw every dim wave of cloud above him; he heard every slight rustle of small feet in the fallen leaves, every plop and drip of the nearby pool.

He heard the steady heartbeat of Stiles next to him.

Without allowing himself to think too much about it, he curled a hand around Stiles’s upper arm, dragging his body closer. Derek stiffened in hesitation to see the kid’s eyes open briefly, a light, questioning noise emanating from his chest—then, with a spark of recognition and pleasure in his eye, Stiles burrowed into Derek’s space, resting his cheek over Derek’s shoulder and falling back asleep instantly.

It took a bit longer after that for Derek to fall asleep, breathing in the dust, the damp nocturnal air, and the perfect, newly familiar scent of rose tea, clay-laden mud, pine-and-grass.

Grounding his jaw against a smile, he pressed his lips to the top of Stiles’s head.

&&&

The last Scott had gotten sign of the hunters—the ones trailing Peter, assuming they were skilled enough to track him—it had been on the heavy southwest-bearing wind. They could cover their scents, their tracks, and manipulate the ground with bane, but the wind was candid. There wasn’t enough bane in the world to completely and consistently mask the smell of human—something so familiar and jarring to a wolf that even pups whimpered when they caught the whiff of an aggressive hunter in the distance.

What those two-legged beasts lacked in strength and jaws, they made up for in a ruthlessness and cunning, talents which claimed countless wolves every damn day.

So just like real wolves, a werewolf had teeth, claws, and the good sense to give humans a wide berth.

But Derek moved with purpose and fearlessness when the sun clambered its way up the sky. He kept his nose sharp, ears pointed, eyes focused with their pupils tightened to dots. He gave up his horse, let Scott take its reigns; the kid was more comfortable on the creature anyway. Derek had no patience for it, not on that day—the day he resolved to hone himself into more than a wolf: a predator, a hunter of hunters.

They followed that loaded wind as Scott had deciphered it—its source leading them northeast, almost but not quite making them backtrack, towards hazy horizon mountains. Derek thought of his uncle constantly, of his pack and what he needed to do: reclaim Peter, bring him home, protect him. It made his claws itch to slide out. He wondered, sometimes, how much was the moon and how much was eagerness for it all to be over, but it didn’t even matter, in the end; the near-frantic buzz coursing under his skin felt true enough.

When they stopped for a break—one insisted on by Allison, who in her shrewd practicality had won out over Derek’s gruff impatience—Stiles approached him, brow crinkled in concern and body relaxed, as though to encourage the same in his restive wolf.

It didn’t work. Not at first.

“We have a long way to go yet,” Stiles said to him, cautiously. “You can’t keep up this pace, or this mood. You’ll tire yourself out.”

“We’re close,” Derek insisted, twitching Stiles’s hand off his arm. “I know we are. I can sense it, somehow.”

“Hey.” Even then, when Derek was wound up and agitated, Stiles was horrible at stepping down. He placed his hand back, but this time let his palm slide up to Derek’s face, cupping at his stubbled jaw. It wasn’t a tender touch—firm, demanding, unignorable. “I know you’re restless. I was looking for one of my own, not so long ago, so I understand. We’ll get there. You don’t need to—”

“It’s not the same,” Derek snapped out.

Stiles glared in silence, then continued: “Not pack, but family. Nothing to shit on.”

He nearly slipped his hand away—to dole out a round of silent, sulking punishment, no doubt—but Derek caught his wrist. “Yeah, fine,” he ground out, but it was forced in its gentleness, not sincerity. “I’m just—I want to find him. That’s all.”

“You will,” Stiles reassured him, and not the hint of a tell revealed itself.

“Stop stroking his face and get on your horse,” Scott called out, his tone a playful, devious drawl.

Stiles whipped around to glare at him, a smile sneaking in. “Shut up, you drooling mutt. You practically rubbed yourself all over Allison this morning. It was obscene.”

“Pathetic, really,” Allison added with humor, a hint of dreamy affection lacing into the tone.

“Ugh!” Stiles muttered as he saddled up. “Hopeless. Both of you. All of you.”

So Stiles’s effort to calm Derek down was successful, for a time. And he was right; keeping up the attitude would have tired him out rather quickly, because they did have some ways to go. They reached the foothills of ruddy mountains, after much quiet travel, and kept to the lowland. There was no need to climb just yet; it was steep enough in most places to not even allow it, and no scents or tracks revealed a path already trodden by anything but the occasional bighorn.

Once they reached a narrow pass, however—one folded between two sheer slopes, parched and craggy—Derek paused, and his pulse spiked to a running thud.

In the background, Stiles was asking him something, words he couldn’t answer yet. Instead, he honest-to-god whined—because something ethereal was wriggling into his ribs, hooking into his organs, and tugging him forward, to this pass which revealed nothing and promised everything. It was an ache, a pain in his bones; it was a strike of instinct unexplainable, a force that occupied him wholly yet still felt outside himself—like a bone thrown to him finally, after all his running, all his chasing after the moon and his godforsaken uncle.

He trusted the hunch, even if he couldn’t grasp why. He trusted it like he followed his nose and the word of his alpha.

The first to catch on to what Derek would do, ever so underestimated, was Scott. He yelped out, “Derek, no—” but there was no way to stop it: Derek let out a howl, his same call repeated every night. It careened sluggishly along the desert plain to their left and ricocheted into pass to their right.

And it caught a response.

Derek broke into a sprint without another cue; there were some curses behind him, then the sound of gallops as his companions followed. They did not plead for him to stop, or slow down. He would not have obeyed anyway. Only when he began to clamber up a cliff, breathless and frantic, were the horses forced to pause.

Once up the precipice, Derek didn’t have far to go until he was rushing into a shallow cave, one which reeked of blood, wolfsbane, and pack.

He grabbed his uncle and held on tight, his eyes shutting vainly to keep away tears.

&&&

The second person to enter the hollow was Stiles. He could not have safely scaled the slope himself; Scott had to have helped him, but the wolf stayed outside, wary of getting close to Peter while he was wounded, while his packmate guarded zealously. At any other time, any other moon, perhaps Derek could have been better able to discern ally and foe, but he would not be so discriminating then, not when every ounce of his pack-sworn flesh demanded protectiveness.

So Stiles approached alone, carefully. He spoke in soft words, then touched with soft fingers when he was close enough, growing in boldness when Derek didn’t growl. “We need to carry him down,” Stiles told him, calm but commanding. “Allison can look at his wounds. It’s nothing you can tend.”

By then, Derek’s initial overwhelming rush of relief and worry had settled. He could understand the necessity of Stiles’s words: Peter bore a gash in his arm which swelled and stained in great black smudges, like his skin and bones had been painted over with sludge; his eyes were dull and lackluster, bane stifling his gleam. So Derek nodded, still unable to speak well, and tucked his hands under his uncle’s limp body to lift him up. Peter grunted in discomfort, but did not struggle.

Once they had gotten down—Scott practically leaping down with Stiles on his back to keep his respectful distance—they took the short walk to the nearest water source. Peter had likely fled here mindlessly once he had been wounded, following the only reassuring thing he could find: the trickle of a stream. But when they reached the water, he drank like he was made of dust, having been too weak to bring himself back for regular visits. The stream dried into the pebbled ground quickly as it reached the pass’s end, but where they stopped, it was plentiful enough to satisfy, and the land around it was dotted with sparse green shrubs and grasses.

In a whim of wisdom, Scott scrubbed his hand along his own neck, then offered his palm to Derek, keeping his head low. Derek accepted, bringing his scent to his nose; it was revealing of sagebrush, storm winds, rooibos, and the soft undertone of clay-laden mud, along with the profound presence of goodwill. When Derek brushed his palm along his uncle’s forehead, clearing the damp hair from his face, he received Scott’s scent as well, and it mingled with Derek’s, with pack.

No longer would Scott fear a defensive attack, but he still moved gingerly around them.

Stiles and Allison had no such scruples. While Allison rushed purposefully to rip away Peter’s mangled shirtsleeve and get a look at his bullet wound, Stiles grasped at Derek’s wrists, encouraging him to let go of his uncle and back away.

Derek hesitated, muttering, “But he attacked her.” A flash of unease rippled through him as he considered the implications of a hunter’s daughter, an Argent, getting her hands on his compromised pack. But Stiles whispered right back into his ear, soothing and beseeching, “she’s all right; it’s all right.”

And he believed him. Derek didn’t know if he couldn’t. But he still watched closely, hovering nearby, on his knees as he listened for Peter’s pulse and breathing.

“It’s advanced,” Allison remarked, more thinking aloud than expecting a response. “He doesn’t have long. The bane isn’t the best, but he’s been hurt awhile. It’ll kill him within 24 hours, at this rate.”

“No, no—that can’t—” Derek babbled dumbly, having no idea where his mouth was running. He only realized Stiles’s arms were around him, keeping him in place, when he struggled weakly to move forward and push Allison out of the way. Stiles kept him back and Allison paid him no heed—and when she withdrew a long, sharp knife without hesitation, bringing its silver shine to his uncle’s flesh, Derek began to thrash. It was only Scott’s added effort to keeping him still which allowed Allison to continue. She dug the blade into Peter’s wound, low on his right arm, her every movement precise and forceful, and as she drew out a scream, she also claimed a bloody, bane-stinking bullet.

Peter stopped screaming and bleeding all at once, but he continued to whimper softly under his breath. It tore Derek apart. With Allison’s curt nod, all hands released him, and he scrambled to look over his uncle once more—comfort him, if he could.

Allison wiped the blood off the bullet and inspected it. A leap in her pulse indicated she recognized it.

“Kate.”

&&&

Kate Argent was the worst kind of monster: one on the right side of the law.

Not much she did was truly illegal. When it was, she hid it well. She would torture a man for information; she would feed him drugs to besmirch his word. She would set traps fit for bears in places so unpredictable and hidden that a human would lose a leg; she’d claim it was an honest, tragic mistake.

She would join a posse of thrill-seeking, code-breaking hunters to help murder a peaceful, older alpha and their mate; she would laugh gleefully that werewolves didn’t count as people in the law books, and all the remaining pack members were either too young or too at the mercy of the Argents to demand her just punishment. One bad word, and the Argents could have had the Hales run out of their home, as if a double murder wasn’t enough punishment for what they were, what they couldn’t hide or change.

So the Hales remembered her well. She left town, leaving destruction in her wake, and her sane brother was remorseful and horrified enough to forsake her, promising protection and amnesty for the pack so stricken by his sister’s sins.

Derek remembered that, too: amnesty. As though, even when he’d lost his parents to a crazed, bloodthirsty gang of murderers, including a woman who had looked at him like he was a fresh plaything for shredding, there was still something his family needed forgiveness for.

And now, his howl had probably alerted her to their presence. After a shot like she made, Peter couldn’t possibly flee far, so she would just need to wait and search for the corpse after enough time had passed for her prey to die in solitude. His uncle had hid himself well, but they still didn’t have long.

Peter had even less.

“Fuck,” Stiles mumbled, watching Derek hold his uncle, the man sweating and pale like he teetered on the edge of oblivion. He grabbed roughly at his hair and muttered again: “Fuck.”

Allison flicked the bloody bullet from her fingers as if it were an insect. “Aunt Kate never did waste ammo,” she said softly. She dragged her steely gaze from the dirt to Peter, then to Derek, who watched her with a similar stony expression. “She’ll have another bullet.”

In that moment, Derek was held stunned by her, this new woman melded from the blood and bullets of her heritage. In her eyes, he saw her proposal, her fierce, brutal promise—the line in the dust that the youngest Argent and a beta Hale drew between their clans.

A life for a life. They wait for Kate, defeat her, heal Peter—and drag both their sorry souls home, to be reclaimed and judged by the only jury that matters: family. The taste which grew in Derek’s mouth then was bitter, a kind of sick, violent pride; he couldn’t help wanting more, wanting Kate torn to pieces by his own claws, or brought to his alpha as a tribute. But he had been there that day, when a train had been ripped from its tracks and an innocent girl attacked; he remembered the fire and panic, the uncounted casualties and the raw, searing terror. Peter had killed that day, and would have done more if he could. He had finally branded himself the monster so many insisted he was—just like Kate had proved herself, in the end.

Allison asked no more than was due.

What sealed the agreement was Stiles, further tugging his own hair out and watching them avidly. “Fuck,” he repeated, growing paler. “Fuck, you’ve gotta be—oh man, are we going to do something stupid like seek retribution and get into a shootout? Will I witness a mauling sometime in the near future?”

Derek simply checked on Peter again. He was looking better, surprisingly enough. Removing the bullet must have helped some.

A startling thwap in the near silence rang out as Stiles swatted the back of Scott’s head. “Stop doing that, fuck’s sake—you’re embarrassing, you know that?”

“What? Allison was really awe-inspiring. She, uh, negotiated terms with her eyes and willpower.”

“Yeah, but you don’t stare at her like a puppy.”

Scott didn’t deny it. He just grinned.

&&&

They waited past sundown. With water, rest, and caretakers, Peter made a tiny but noticeable recovery. His eyes shined a little brighter, and he was even responding to requests: sit up, drink this, eat this. While the crickets resonated by the stream and the heavy, swollen moon approached skytop, Peter even spoke.

“God damn you,” he mumbled under his breath. It was bitter, truthful—and yet Derek couldn’t mind; he was just grateful to hear anything come from his uncle’s mouth.

“Yeah, yeah,” he replied.

“Don’t you even—” Peter began, but stopped as he winced, the wound in his arm throbbing. “You couldn’t leave me be? Just let me die on my own terms?”

“Bullshit,” Derek snapped. “Like hell these are your terms. And I’m not letting you die at all, so get that outta your head.”

A wet, pathetic chuckle escaped Peter’s chest; he winced again. “You think you know what’s best for me. What’s best for me,” he taunted. “That ship sailed a long time ago.”

“You need to come home,” Derek said, voice going gentler. “You need to be with pack.”

Peter stared at him. His expression had gone stony, dark; his irritability turned to a quiet, disturbing fury—one bleeding with despair.

“You and I are the same,” Peter said. His voice captured Derek’s attention absolutely; on some level, it frightened him. “The fucking same. Save for one thing.”

Derek waited, but Peter would not go on. So he prompted: “What’s that?”

Another harsh laugh; then Peter seemed to taper off, switching paths and tones entirely. “You remember how your mama would laugh until she snorted? And the way she made up songs with the same melody, but different lyrics, every damn day? How your daddy would sneeze so hard his eyes would go red and he’d sprout fangs? Do you remember?”

Derek’s chest contracted in sorrow. “Yes, Peter. I remember.”

Peter’s head relaxed back, and a precious smile curled along his lips. “Do you remember how I was when your mama was alive?”

The sorrow seemed to cave on itself, building and burrowing until it ran in Derek’s veins, icy and cruel. “Yes, Peter. I remember that too.”

Just like that, Peter’s expression crumpled to sullenness, and he spoke with malice once more. “Well that’s your fucking difference. You’ve got your sister; you’ve got your alpha. I don’t.”

Derek couldn’t respond. His throat had dried; his hands had curled to fists—but there was nothing to fight, not yet, save for words and demons.

But Peter went on, though Derek wished he could stop him.

“The only fucking thing that keeps you from becoming me—a drinkin’ failure who’s no good to anyone, including himself—is Laura. Without her, you’d be a goddamn mess. So you keep that in mind, pup. Be grateful for what you still have, what you can still go home to. And leave a grieving man to his fucking misery.”

The exchange took much from Peter, and he dozed off soon after.

&&&

Scott sighed. It was a good cover for his nervousness; made him seem more confident and uncaring than he was. “Well. Here they come.”

He was spot-on: the sound of horseshoes clopping against gravel carried up the pass, audible to only the wolves. Peter twitched to hear it, still weak enough to doze; Derek brought a damp cloth to his forehead briefly before leaving him be.

Stiles was dozing as well, lying on a few sizeable rocks in a manner which must have been uncomfortable, though it obviously didn’t stop him from getting some rest. He sputtered and woke with a flail as Scott plugged his nose up, teasing with a hushed: “Get up, Stiles. You’ve got some shots to miss.”

“I’m a damn good shot and you know it,” Stiles said nasally, batting at Scott’s fingers where they continued to clamp on his nostrils. “I’m a fucking sheriff’s kid—”

“You don’t take a shot at Kate,” Allison said sternly, breaking into the teasing without pretense. She set her quiver on her back with efficiency and readied her crossbow. “You don’t let a single bullet graze her, do you understand? I’ll deal with her.”

It made sense on multiple levels: family protectiveness, as twisted as it was, and that a well-placed arrow would be much more effective at wounding and disabling than a bullet, no matter where the metal hit. A gunshot wound on human flesh was hardly a smart gamble if you wished to keep someone alive.

“Yeah,” Stiles promised softly. “Yeah, o’course.”

“And everyone’s clear on the plan?” Scott asked. No one responded; they had gone over it enough.

So they all stood: Allison with her arrows, Scott with his fangs extended and eyes bright, Stiles with his gun pulled and fingers itching at the trigger—but Derek, hesitant to rise, looked down at his uncle’s blanched face and terrible poisoned wound with eyes muted in concern, as though a single glance in the wrong direction could take him away again.

“I’ll be back for you,” Derek told him, though he wasn’t sure his uncle even cared. “We’ll bring an antidote.”

Peter drowsed awake and stared up at him, then looked to Allison in a move resembling an eyeroll. “And leave a poor, sick man without defenses? What do you say, little lady, gonna at least give me a knife or a sharp toothpick for my sanity’s sake?”

Allison sighed, but tossed a dagger into the sand, the very one which had fished the bullet from Peter’s arm. He wouldn’t be able to use it anyway, not in his state, and knowing Allison, she had more where that came from.

Then two of the youngers began to walk from the creek towards the pass’s opening, where the mountains bordered the horizon and released into the flat, endless dark—Allison and Scott side-by-side, matching to the step. Where they marched, the sun rushed to meet them in a dull, pallid dawn.

Derek only turned his back on his uncle when the calm, insistent tug of Stiles’s hand on his fingers led him away.

&&&

There were four hunters. A tall, pale man with sun-flushed, peeling skin and a red beard; a burly man with long, dreaded hair and teeth blackened from chew; a short man with a familiar scent, the hunter they’d encountered before—Derek resisted a grin when Stiles whispered, “dibs”—and lastly, there was Kate.

Kate, who even in the desert and ruggedness, looked beautiful like a vivid poisonous serpent. She had one of the brightest smiles Derek had ever seen, despite being a bonafide killer—and perhaps she was truly, very happy, for killing was her calling and business was booming. But her smile was mild then, as though she knew there was more to the story than just Allison standing in an isolated pass, seemingly alone and outnumbered. An Argent alone was a threat, even one so young as the runaway heiress—but Kate too was a prodigal daughter, just like her niece, who watched her elder with a gaze akin to condemnation.

It was high time for the prodigals to come home.

“Baby girl,” Kate called out, voice like the slickest of venoms. “It’s been too long.” She glanced to the rocks and precipices above them, looking for others. “What the hell you doin’ out here? You taken up with the wrong crowd since I’ve been gone?”

Allison remained stony, gripping her crossbow with silent, subtle fervor. “You’re one to talk.”

Kate’s expression darkened. “Now, now honey. You shouldn’t talk to family that way.”

“You gave up the name,” Allison yelled, voice growing fiercer and eyes going slightly wet. “You gave it up when you broke the code.”

At that, Kate scoffed. “The code, the code,” she repeated in a sneer, laughing. “Sweet, darling, baby girl…maybe you’ll understand when you’re older, what it means to be a hunter. What it means to be powerful.”

The hunters were growing restless. Stiles stood high above, perched in a spot ideal for shooting; he watched the fidgeting men below with a hawk’s gaze, moon and approaching daybreak both yielding illumination. Yet he still couldn’t help looking to his companions for a few weak moments—Derek below him, Scott across, both hidden among the brush and high stone. Scott looked murderous, listening to Allison exchange bitterly charged words with the very humans he’d spent so long tracking and barely avoiding. Other than the Argents themselves, all who stood in the pass stewed and braced through the tension, impatient for its inevitable end.

But like she was on a casual visit, Kate kept talking and teasing, cruelty laced in her tone. “How about this, “ she called to Allison loudly over the threshold, “we finish up that Hale runaway—” Derek growled softly, went unnoticed; “—and finally that annoying pup who’s been following us, and you come with me and learn what real hunting is. Would you like that, baby girl? Would you—”

Finally, Allison had had enough. At the threat to Scott’s life, she lifted her crossbow and took aim for Kate’s stomach. The woman’s harsh diatribe halted—and before the release of the crossbow could even twang out into the pass, one of the hunters had pulled a revolver to let loose the first bullet.

That first shot sunk into the back of Scott’s shoulder as he leapt into Allison’s line of fire; she just barely avoided setting an arrow into him in the process. The second, third, and fourth bullets rang out in a cacophony, snapping into dust and rock, dead air, and the meat of Derek’s thigh as he charged savagely, only hazily aware that he was setting teeth into a terrified, sunburned man’s throat before the entire thing was ripped out in chunks and ribbons of tendon, muscle, vein, sinew. As he was hunched over the stranger’s fallen form, it gurgled and spewed blood in a crimson torrent, saturating the thirsty ground among jostled plumes of dust. Distantly, he heard the soft click of a revolver preparing to fire once more—but a farther trigger pulled faster, and the unmistakable collision of bullet, flesh, and bone echoed up into the mountains’ cleft.

As though in a dream, Derek spotted a familiar hat toppling gently to the scarlet desert floor in front of him. It had a single bullet hole bored through its crown, just beneath the dent, and he remembered Stiles’s long-ago words like a phantom whispering into his ear: next, your fucking skull.

With two corpses at his feet—and Allison and Kate tearing at one another, throwing punches and scratching nails as though they were the beasts they claim to hunt—Derek’s first thought was to retreat to Stiles. He could hear him, calling out but not screaming; not when a werewolf’s ears were his audience: “Hold him still, hold him—”

And Derek saw what Stiles meant as he looked to Scott, who was in a brutal struggle with the tan-skinned hunter. It should never have been an even fight, but Scott simply wasn’t exhibiting enough strength to pin him, or even enough to make the man pause in their fighting and give Stiles a good shot. It was likely that Scott had taken wolfsbane poisoning when he intercepted the bullet meant for Allison; a bane bullet on a human was a waste of the herb, but not ineffective—after all, a bullet, laced or not, would still shred through flesh just fine.

So Derek did the first thing which came to mind: he ran, a snarl emanating from his chest and announcing his approach to both wolf and hunter. The man turned his attention to Derek for one moment—and that was all Scott needed to grab him by the throat, hold him still, and dig his claws straight through the throbs of a stuttering, deafening pulse.

With the escape of the hunter’s last breath, both Scott and Derek heard the whoosh of another—Allison’s windpipe spluttered as the side of Kate’s fist nearly plowed into her neck. Allison was just quick enough to flinch away from the blow, and she careened back briefly before Kate was right on her, straddling her waist and moving to press on her neck once more. Allison had mere seconds to dislodge her, so she scrambled and bucked until she gained a grip on a stray arrow fractured into two among the dirt.

Without even a hint of indecision, she took hold of the arrow’s splintered end, fingers clutched inches above the arrow’s tip—and rammed it into her aunt’s side.

As Kate tumbled back into the gravel, clinging to the damaged skin surrounding the protruding shaft, Allison righted herself onto her feet. Blood dripped down her chin, gushing from her nose and splattering to the ground as she spit it from her mouth with a harsh, horrid grunt. When Scott moved to come to her, she wheezed out, “fuck off!” and hurried to pin Kate down. But Kate fought with a new zeal then, desperation encroaching fast upon skill and bravado, and she staggered upright on unsteady feet, her lungs wheezing to keep up with the fight’s frantic pace.

What ultimately knocked her off-balance, even before Allison stepped to engage her again, was the thump of a something dull and blunt colliding into her back. It bounced off and fell to the dirt. Kate looked not to the object, but to the thrower: Peter, trembling, paler than before, but with eyes wide in rage. The front of his shirt was a mess of black sludge—spit-up from the bane’s slow spread in his body.

Peter didn’t know how to throw knives. He could hardly chop vegetables. He’d tossed the dagger with determination, but a lack of skill had caused only the handle to make contact with the target.

And Kate—she laughed.

Not only because the throw of the dagger had been poor, but that it was smeared with black and scarlet—and that Peter was missing an arm. The very one which she had shot not too long ago. He had sawed the limb off at the upper arm—must have broken his own bones to cut through it all—in order to halt the spread of the poison, its reach like murky spiderwebs wriggling to his heart; yet despite that, his veins continued to darken, and the smell of bane was still rank in the windless air.

So Kate laughed, adrenalined delirium and spite racking out of her gasping chest like a raven’s caw.

&&&

In her manic, sadistic amusement, Kate was subdued and tied up with relative ease. She almost seemed pleased to finish her fight with Allison on that note: her prey poisoned, self-sacrificing and still putrefying, the bane too progressed to stop without antidote. That Peter had been willing to pay such a price to live, to see Kate punished with his own eyes—and then to have it not matter—put a spring in Kate’s step, even as her own niece’s captive.

Peter was still saved, however. Allison had been right—Kate had extra bullets, of which the bane was burned and applied to Scott and Peter’s wounds. The stub had to be reopened; Peter had burned it shut with the smoldering remnants of their campfire.

But that had not been the worst part of preparing their departure: it was returning to their camp, where the horses were tied by the stream and their supplies were strewn about, plenty of it coated in a thin layer of dried blood. At the sight of Peter’s wasted arm, Stiles turned from their path to lurch and vomit into the bushes; Derek’s expression went slack and bare, a poker face to contain his deep, curdling disgust. Scott was more revolted by the smell than anything else, but otherwise reacted surprisingly well; Allison merely looked like she’d found a dead mouse instead of a severed limb.

And separate from them, tethered up and contained by Allison, Kate hardly tried to contain her dark, choked snickering.

Without a clue as to the best course of action, the group left the stream—and Peter’s arm—with incredible haste. They walked past the corpses again, and Scott and Stiles both covered their mouths and shut their eyes against them, these men whose lives they took; Derek and Allison looked long and hard, remembering the faces, keeping them for the horrid dreams of years to come.

Through it all, Peter remained silent and wobbling, strangely complacent with Derek’s orders in a manner which worried his nephew ceaselessly.

“When we reach town, you should travel by train first,” Derek told Allison. She nodded in agreement.

“Scott will come with me. He can help me if I need it,” she said, decision made, though Scott still made assenting noises. Kate wouldn’t be giving them trouble; her wound wasn’t too deep to disallow her mobility, but she was exhausted and unfit for a struggle.

No one mentioned how Stiles would travel home; they did not need to.

&&&

Even when they entered the nearest town, Peter did not speak. Derek did not push him to.

There was one more train departing that day; Allison, Scott, and Kate would board it. Before they left, Stiles hugged both of them in turn, avoiding eye contact completely with Kate who watched him like a cat watches rodents. Derek didn’t feel the need to engage in such displays, though he did give Allison a brief nod—he’d developed a begrudging respect for her, one he would never speak of aloud—and to Scott, he said with a bit of mirth, “whenever you’re ready to stop living in denial and chasing your tail, we’ll meet again.”

And that was it—the parting words, the farewells. It felt nearly anticlimactic, but then again, Derek wouldn’t expect or ask for anything more.

At the hotel, Derek told Peter what to expect, and what would happen once they reached home, undaunted by his uncle’s silence.

“You’ll answer for your sins, just as Kate will. She’ll be punished for what she’s done to us—done to others. And so will you. What you did would usually call for an execution, Peter. And if the law books were just, Kate would get one too. But instead we’ll make sure you both get alternative punishments…and then we can move on.”

Finally, Peter spoke—well, at least grunted in acknowledgement. And that was the extent of Peter’s communication before he dropped down to his bed, rolled over, and went into a deep sleep.

“He’s been through plenty, especially in the last day,” Stiles said, placing his hand on Derek’s shoulder. “I can’t imagine what he had to go through. I hope he sleeps through the night.”

Peter did—but Stiles didn’t. They shared their space all night, leaving the room’s third single-sized bed empty. Stiles didn’t say much, the occasional snuffle notwithstanding, but he clung to Derek tightly and hid his face against his neck. Derek understood why.

Stiles had never killed before.

“I don’t regret it,” Stiles whispered in the dark, his face wet and his hands clenched around Derek’s torso. “I don’t.”

Hidden beneath those words, there laid more, far more: I’m not sorry, and I’d do it again, but I don’t want to, I don’t, never again—

And once the night passed, Derek knew Stiles would smile again. He wouldn’t have too many nightmares about obliterating a man’s skull, not like he would if he had seen Derek killed by that man, or Scott taken down by another. It was the lesser of pains he harbored now—but it was fresh, and unfamiliar, and it kept throbbing behind Stiles’s eyes until all he saw was blood on the sand.

So once the memory turned to a scar, recognized and reconciled, everything would be all right. Until then, Derek held him and watched him, wiping his face and pressing his lips to where the tears had been.

&&&

Walking onto the main street on their hometown was strange. They’d finally returned, battered and weathered—one of them less an arm—and yet nothing back home had changed. The grocer still sold subpar, over-heated produce; the tailor still showed the same dress in the window; at the hotel’s first floor, the bar still bustled with visitors and deadbeats. Even the brothel had welcomed Scott back and put him to work as their guard dog in the mere hours they had been apart—Derek could hear his familiar voice, breathing, and bootsteps from within the brothel’s walls.

Outside the sheriff’s, the man himself stood with a look of relief and fury all melded into one. Stiles ran to him without delay. Derek followed at a slower pace, bringing Peter along, and took off his hat as an afterthought; he felt oddly indebted to the sheriff for borrowing his son, even if the kid hadn’t given him much choice on the matter.

Stiles and his father embraced for a long time, their arms tightly curled around each other. The sheriff scolded and welcomed his son in a rushed, fierce tone, one constantly undermined by an undeniably affectionate softness: “Don’t you dare worry me like that again; I ought to clock you for this; do you have any idea how out of my mind I was—and what the fuck did you do with the horse—”

Sold it was the answer, just as Derek had sold his so they could buy their wildly expensive train tickets, but instead Stiles muttered back, “I had to go, I’m sorry, Scott, he—I couldn’t—”

“I know, son. I know. So I should clock him too. Not that Melissa hasn’t already taken care of that.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, Stiles. You damn idiot.”

By the time Derek and Peter had trudged their way up the steps to the sheriff’s office, Stiles and his father had finished their reunion. The sheriff looked to the two wolves with a bit of surprise, but he recovered quickly.

“Thank you,” the sheriff said, and Derek was caught off-guard, kept silent. “You brought my kid back. I’m sure he was a thorn in your side.”

Derek wanted to reply with something—something not incriminating on his part—but before he could gather some words together, the sheriff had moved his attention to Peter.

“Well I’ll be. The Argent girl wasn’t kidding.” He sighed, then, and motioned for them to come inside. “All right, into the cell then. We’ve got to schedule a quick hearing, then a—”

His hesitation made Derek’s eyes widen. “Then what?” He asked, fear and unease suddenly eating into his chest. He clenched down on Peter’s holds even further. “Then what, Sheriff? My alpha will be here soon, I called to her earlier, and—and we got Allison Argent’s word that—”

Derek stopped. He heard something in his peripheral, something which didn’t make any damn sense. Peter had already diverted his silent attention from them and was staring away, down the steps, towards the two people approaching them—the two Argents.

Chris, Allison’s father, and Kate herself. She walked free and untroubled, her torso bandaged and her eyes twinkling in delight.

“I told you, brother,” she said softly, whispering for Chris’s ears only. The man clenched his jaw and said nothing in reply. “I told you I’d lured them back.”

The tension crept upon them all—Chris, who did not share his sister’s glee, that manipulative, deceitful snake; Derek and Peter, who stood stock-still and allowed the situation to sink into their very bones. Derek shuddered inwardly and cursed his folly, trusting the word of an Argent—but no, it wasn’t her word which was dishonest, just how much power Allison truly held within her clan.

If it were up to Allison, things would have gone as agreed. But she was too young yet. It had never been in her hands.

Quietly, so quiet that none of the humans caught it, Peter hissed out his first words in so long: “Nothing has changed. Nothing will.”

And then in a flurry of movement, Peter had snapped out of Derek’s control. He rushed down the steps in one leap. Before anyone could scream or pull a pistol, Peter barreled into Kate, his jaw gaping open and shattering down onto weak, human flesh—until there was only a mess of crimson where a neck had once stretched up in pride.

It only took one moment—and in the next, Chris Argent withdrew his gun and sent three cracking shots straight into the back of Peter’s head, the reek of bane mingling with blood and fury.

Then the silence descended once more.

It broke, moments later, to the sound of knees hitting the dirt—hunter and wolf alike. Argent wailed, clinging to either side of his sister’s head and bring his brow to hers. Derek descended the stairs softly, silently, to drag Peter’s body back towards him by the ankle, then rolled him over gently to stare at his lifeless face. The bullets hadn’t burrowed all the way through, and Derek could see that Peter’s eyes showed no more sign of the moon. He closed them softly, fingers trembling.

Then, delicately, Derek set his palm down over his uncle’s chest and watched him, neither sobbing nor shuddering into grief. He felt nothing at all.

Under his hand, Derek searched for a heartbeat. When all he found was stillness, he kept looking.

He didn’t notice when someone arrived to pull Chris Argent away, the man still weeping in anguish. He did not register the voices behind him, mumbling to one another: “Leave him be, son.” “I can’t just—” “Leave him.”

Only when the soft sound of a long, flowing skirt fluttered in the wind—and the clomp of boots hit the gravel, a scent like hibiscus and pine-and-grass following on the breeze—did Derek take any notice of his surroundings. And when a hand curled along his jawline, bringing his head back and into the soft fabric of his sister’s stomach, Derek finally began to fully, earnestly sob.

Laura spoke to him quietly. Derek listened completely, gratefully, like had hadn’t heard her for years. “You did well,” she said, her voice so familiar and loving it sent shocks through Derek’s chest. “You did all you could, Derek. I’m so proud of you.”

Resounding in his memory, he heard Peter’s words: The only thing that keeps you from becoming me is Laura.

He clung to her tighter. His arms wound around her back as Laura’s fingers ran through his hair. He didn’t need to speak for Laura to understand him, just like it had always been, like nothing had changed—and she kept speaking, soothing, until Derek’s cries hushed to strained breaths.

“You’re home,” she whispered. “You don’t ever have to leave again. We’ll bury him, together, by our parents. It’ll be all right. You’re home now. I’ve got you.”

Then Derek took up his uncle’s body with steadier hands. He placed Peter gently into the back of the Laura’s cart, the one she had taken to reach town. He climbed into the front of the cart, next to Laura, and neither of them spoke, but she reached her hand over and clutched his for a moment.

Peter’s words faded from Derek then, replaced by Laura’s simple, truthful ones: You’re home now. I’ve got you.

They departed from town—all those watchful human eyes and harsh, confused whispers—with hardly a backward glance. Only once did Derek crane his neck to look behind, catching Stiles’s gaze like a beacon in the gloom.

&&&

3 weeks later

&&&

Stiles slid off his horse’s saddle and stood outside the Hale house expectantly. He’d been whistling as he’d approached the house, knowing Derek would recognize him by that if his smell and heartbeat hadn’t been enough. Apparently, though, it had—because Derek rushed out of the house, the screen door banging shut behind him lazily, and stood to watch Stiles on the porch. He didn’t move any further, however, and it troubled Stiles.

“What, no hello?” Stiles pestered, barely concealing his sudden insecurity. “I know it’s been a few weeks, but I would have thought you’d at least—”

“He’s waiting for me, honey,” Laura cut in, tone playful and sweet. She stepped down the porch and approached Stiles with ease, her head held in obvious authority. “Wolves can’t speak to visitors until the alpha has spoken for them first. Derek’s just being a good pup.”

Derek huffed in annoyance at that, especially when Stiles let out a laugh. The kid remembered his manners quickly and took off his hat, head bowed.

“Welcome to Hale territory,” Laura said cheerfully. She took a liking to Stiles immediately; Derek knew she would. She held out her hand, and Stiles placed his hat back on quickly before holding out his own. “Ah,” Laura took her hand back for a moment, then grinned devilishly. “If you don’t mind, I’d like your scent.”

Stiles blushed; most likely, it was from worry of offending and the unfamiliarity of lycanthian gestures, but a nagging, illogical part of Derek’s brain reminded him how intimidating and beautiful his sister was. Hastily, Stiles nodded and brought his hand up to his neck—but before he could even reach it, Laura had darted closer and placed her own hand there, swiping some scent away and declaring sovereignty all at once.

Derek was torn between growling and rejoicing—on one hand, Laura was accepting Stiles already, expressing care for him with gentle, intimate touches. The only time an alpha touched anyone, it was either in affection or violence, so a harmless swipe was a good sign.

On the other hand, Derek thought with a grumble, she had touched him.

Laura sensed Derek’s discomfort, but she didn’t much care. She brought her fingertips towards her face and examined Stiles’s scent, her smile turning to a full, tooth-bearing grin. “How sweet,” she teased, and Stiles blushed even further. “Like clay, roses…I can see why Derek’s so keen to—”

“Laura, please,” Derek interjected loudly, clomping down the porch gracelessly. His alpha only took the interruption in good spirits because her brother looked so terribly, incredibly pained.

“All right, all right. So you heard we were looking for another pair of hands around here?”

Stiles nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I owe my father for the horse I took…then sold…and the one I rode here.”

“That’s a lot of horse-related debt.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good thing we’ve got room for one more in this house.” Because of Peter wasn’t said out loud, but they were all acutely aware of it. Laura continued: “We’ll be glad to take you on, then. But only because you’ve come with such a good recommendation.”

She winked at Derek—who looked mildly horrified—and went back to the house without another word.

“So,” Stiles said after a few moments had passed. “I can really stay?”

“As long as you want to. Forever.” Derek replied—then felt instantly, overwhelmingly embarrassed for it.

Stiles grinned down at the ground, his feet shuffling awkwardly. After a few more seconds, he tsked impatiently and rushed closer, tossing his arms around Derek’s frame.

“I missed you,” he said, and it was like someone had punched Derek in the stomach.

“Yeah,” he replied, words stuck on his tongue like dry cotton. “Yeah. Me too.”

But then Derek thought to hell with this heaviness, so he rubbed his face along Stiles’s cheek, down his neck, and snuffled at his collarbone. Stiles laughed and shoved at his nose, but it was weak, hardly an ounce of force behind it. “You’re the strangest, most humiliating, ridiculous—”

“Yeah, yeah. You’ll get used to it.”

“We’ll see about that.” Stiles sighed, looped his arms along Derek’s lower back, and laid his head on Derek’s shoulder.

&&&

epilogue

&&&

After spending so long holding onto each other, Derek took Stiles inside. Laura smiled at them both and barely restrained herself from making a few mortifying quips at Derek’s expense; he saw the trouble in her eyes and only a pathetic, pleading look her way could make her hold her tongue before she did any damage.

After settling into his new room, Stiles still couldn’t really believe it was all happening, and he made a point to tell Derek multiple times—until his wolf tried to prove things to him.

He would need multiple attempts.

Some weeks later, Laura laughed at them over the dinner table after they’d been quick to agree to share a room. They both turned red, Stiles more so, and when Derek grabbed his hand under the table, he hoped Stiles wasn’t still ashamed. He knew that human rules and taboos were hard to break when they were all you knew.

“We’ll need spare rooms by the bushel,” Laura went on, rubbing at her own stomach proudly, then smirking at Erica a few seats over. “Especially in a year or two.” Erica blushed fiercely in embarrassment and anxiety at her alpha’s implications, but Boyd just smiled subtly.

And after one too many insults, one too many spits at his boots, Scott left his job at the brothel and showed up at the gates of the Hale property. He carried only a single sack of clothes and the remnants of his pride. What Laura said to Scott reminded Derek of what he’d been told on his grim homecoming long ago; it was just as warm, just as cherished.

You’re home now. It’s here, if you want it. But you have to want it.

So for once, neither Scott nor Derek allowed the past to weigh heavy on their shoulders. Scott abandoned his omega’s eyes, took Laura’s bite to chase the moon—and for once, Derek chased nothing but the moon, finally home, and loved, with contentment and belonging filling his days.