In Nevada, Derek burns all across the back of his neck and, weirdly, the tops of his feet. It feels like it’s under his skin, the heat of it, and Laura says, “leave it alone,” and Derek scratches at it and is rewarded with pain, blooming bright and red hot under his nails.
The scratches heal over immediately, but the burn takes longer, fading out from underneath as slowly as poison, as slowly as smoke.
The place they’re staying is a flat-roofed building off the interstate, a white-washed motel that hunkers against the earth like a belligerent animal with its hackles up. There are two aloe vera plants growing outside the door to the main office, enormous leather-leafed behemoths sitting amongst the gravel with a good ten years of growth on them. Laura and Derek peel away some of the leaves while the clerk isn’t looking, and make a paste that Laura applies to Derek’s burn. There’s an Albertson’s two blocks the way they came that probably has a display of Solarcaine right by the check-out, but buying some would mean interacting with a cashier, and between that person and the motel clerk, that’s two more people than Laura and Derek ever wanted to deal with today.
They crossed a hundred miles of desert to get here; a stretch of nothingness with only the occasional sign to remind them that there were no amenities, no gas or water to be had for the next fifty miles, and warning them not to pick up hitchhikers, as this was where the country buries its undesirables, sowing the earth with nuclear waste and building prisons on top to feed it.
In Nevada, the sunlight feels as bright and breakable as glass, like he could throw rocks at the endless blue of the sky and it would fall to earth in splinters. The air is heavy with heat, deep as still water, and the light is impossible to escape.
The furthest Derek has ever been from home was the trip they took to the Sacramento state capitol in the fourth grade. The desert is new to him, alien to all his senses.
They stay there for three days. The room has two beds, but Derek sleeps on the floor because Laura is the alpha now.
She looks at him like she hates it, but at home their parents had slept upstairs and everyone else had slept downstairs and that can never, ever, ever be recreated, but Derek doesn't have the faintest clue what else to do but try.
After the fire, they come back to find grackles picking at the ashes in the yard.
There’d never been grackles on the Hale property before. Their mother wouldn’t tolerate them, the same way she didn’t tolerate cats or foxes or raccoons. Hale land, she said with all her teeth on display, was no place for scavengers or poachers. Hale land belongs to the wolves, not to invaders. As pups, they pulled a lot of black feathers out of their teeth when they changed back, until the grackles learned to stop laughing.
At the sight of their little bodies standing out sleek and oil-bright against the grey lawn, Laura tears after them, howling in rage. She keeps on, a wild keening noise that leaves Derek feeling fractured like she’d dropped him against quarry rock, long after the yard is clear and not a single black shape can be seen in the sky.
When they were young and still had all of their puppy teeth, Laura used to try to trick him into submitting to her, clamping her hand down over his nose like she was an alpha wolf biting the noses of her betas. Then she’d pretend she’d stolen it, wiggling her thumb between her fingers and holding it just out of reach, while he cried and demanded his nose back, horrified that she would take something so fundamentally important to him.
He’s twenty-five now and actually has to use two hands to count the number of times his nose has been ripped off (usually with other chunks of his face still attached,) and there's this time that Scott's mom snatches up a National Geographic off an exam room table and hits him over the nose with it. She then immediately looks terrified, like she’s already imagining the hassle of her own closed-coffin funeral, but Derek’s too off-kilter, the wolf confused by the signal of dominance, the human watching her and seeing, strangely, an exasperated Laura standing there in Melissa's place.
In the space of that single, blissfully young moment, he looks at her and sees someone who could take charge.
You would have been a good alpha, he thinks out of nowhere, and then shoves it down, because lately, it's seemed like all the Hale alphas have been able to do is get killed.
He’s nineteen, it’s March in Manhattan, and Laura comes out of the bathroom and crawls onto his bunk with him. The Christmas cactus on the windowsill is in bloom even though it’s the wrong time of year, and she’s wearing a Mount Rushmore shirt she’d picked up at a Bucky’s Express forty miles east of Wall Drug; as Derek had watched, sitting on the hood of the Camaro and devouring three gas station hot dogs without enthusiasm, she'd cut it up with a pair of scissors and braided the remains into a halter top. He remembers that moment, startlingly clear like it's still drenched in sunlight. Derek can count the freckles on her shoulders. He’s supposed to be working on a paper for some intro class he's taking, but all he’s done so far is paraphrase an introduction by skimming Wikipedia, and he lets her take the laptop out of his hands and set it aside so she can straddle his thighs and bite at his neck and his ear like she’s a puppy again. He can smell the answer all over her.
“It worked,” she tells him, breathless and victorious. She sits up and shows him the test, the plus visible in its little window, like their own noses hadn’t been enough.
He looks up at her, the slight part to her mouth and the color flushed up along her cheeks. He nods grimly.
“Pups, Derek,” she gets out, and then it’s as if the weight of it sinks into her like a river stone, because she bends at the spine, resting her forehead on his sternum and saying, even quieter, stunned, “A baby.”
The first full moon, after, Laura sidles up beside him and nudges him into her beta position. They track up and down Hale land, methodically scent-marking the borders to show the change in leadership, covering up the smell of idle, happy-pack wolf chitchat that came before, all the little detritus of their lives when they had nothing more important to communicate. The new message is stark: betrayal happened here, murder happened here. The land is salted with the ashes of a pack, a good pack, a strong pack, with an alpha female named Marguerite who smelled of paint, Russian sage, and the love of her family -- a pack that had never broken the law.
Slowly, carefully, Laura turns the Hale land into a cemetery; not even the most ambitious, land-hungry pack would try to invade now, not while Laura still lived. It would be a great offense, something other packs would retaliate against.
More than once, Derek finds himself drifting back; the further away from the cinders-and-matchsticks remains of the house they get, the sharper the scent remnants of their family become, and the more Derek expects them to fall in like it's any other full moon of his life.
Laura stops and looks back, ears ticked forward and tail held low and stiff, wolf posture for "you're behaving incorrectly," until Derek resumes his position at her right flank, skittish and miserable and unused to it.
The second full moon, after, they spend in the foothills of Utah with the pack there. The alpha is a female, a friend of their mother's from college who called them and invited them to come run with them if they ever needed to; unlike some of the other families who called out of obligation or to subtly suss out the land situation, she was genuine, and when Laura takes them east out of Nevada, Derek sees the red hills of Utah approaching and doesn't protest.
The alpha's name is Peppermint. She was born in Fruitvale, twenty minutes out of San Francisco, to an El Salvadoran dishwasher working in a Chinese restaurant, and when she was twenty-one she took a stray bullet to the throat, and their mother gave her the bite to save her life. She's a small woman, in good hiking boots, with long black hair and piercings all up the cartilage of her ears that she has to redo every month.
"Marguerite didn't make many werewolves, did she?" she asks, letting them circle her living room restlessly before they settle on the sofa, Laura dragging Derek down to sit beside her before he can take the submissive position on the floor. They shake their heads at her, and she nods, and pushes a cooler across the floor to them in an easy shove of her foot. Laura fishes out a Coke, nails clicking to test the can before she pops the tab. Their mother had bitten only out of necessity: people like Peppermint, or Uncle Peter's wife, people who would have died otherwise. They had all they needed, otherwise; Marguerite and their father, aunts and uncles and cousins, an easy blend of humans -- both born and married in -- and wolf -- both born and assimilated from other packs.
Derek knows the story; Marguerite's closest friend, who was clipped by "friendly" police fire and eventually left Beacon Hills to follow a job and form her own pack, but he's surprised by the reality of her. Alphas are almost always born, not made. Bitten werewolves make good betas, everyone knows this, but you have to grow up alongside the wolf to run with it as pack leader.
"Che," Peppermint huffs out, but when she smiles at them, it crinkles through to her eyes, sympathetic and sincere. "You'll be surprised to find what you can do when it's asked of you."
He doesn't doubt that that's true. His sister is nineteen, and responsibility pulls taut across her shoulders.
There are five wolves in Peppermint's pack, herself included; all of them adults, all of them humans who'd been turned. She has no mate, no pups, and her second-in-command is a middle-aged man with thin eyes and a white-grey beard who works with her as a curator at the Natural History Museum on the university campus. When her wolf greets them, Laura keeps low, her red eyes half-lidded and turned away in a sign of submission, and Peppermint noses at her, sniffing her mouth and sweeping her tail low with acceptance, and, with the truce between dominant wolves established, they rub their ruffs together, chests bumping; Peppermint whines low through her jaw to express a very real grief. Her betas swirl around them, taking turns rubbing at Laura comfortingly. Derek hangs back, bristling and reeking with the stench of adolescence and guilt, and the pack keeps their distance.
They run, because they are wolves and that's what they do: they run, Peppermint and her betas singing a wolf-song of tragedy and missing pack members, their voices sliding up and down the scales in a seamless harmony. Utah is strange to Derek, who misses the trees and the mulch and the petrified wood scent of the redwood forests, of home. Here, the night sky is an oppressive, open, expansive weight at their backs, the ground beneath his paws crusted with saltwater deposits, the scrub baked by sunshine.
But Laura runs beside him, bumping into him to remind him she's there. Derek aligns himself to her; she is the polestar, the pull of the tides, the cycle of the moon.
They run into Kate Argent in the woods in Nebraska.
She's as surprised to see them as they are to see her. Derek knows this, because she greets him with two buckshot blasts to the face. Laura has to reassemble his jaw in the men's restroom at a gas station half-way to Ogallala, snarling a terrible wolf snarl when somebody tries to come in, and he's still spitting bits of lead two weeks later.
If she'd been given any warning they were coming, he's sure it would have been a lot worse.
They're standing in line outside a community theater in the Lower East Side, waiting for student rush tickets to a show that the landlord had recommended to them, put on by a spindly Jewish guy with threadneedle fingers who wrings his hands and reeks so strongly of nerves that Derek's fighting the compulsion to sneeze out here on the sidewalk, when Laura turns to him and says, with the voice people use to speak gospel, "I need a pack."
Derek looks at her. She's wearing a pair of his jeans that she'd cut off at the knees after he'd outgrown them, and a shirt with the emblem for the Kansas City School of Korean Language on it, which she has slit up the sides and retied into diamond shapes. Laura's face is a mismatched Picasso collection of people Derek recognizes in flashes as she grows into and out of them again; their mother's autumn-colored eyes, their father's strong jaw, Uncle Peter's fishhook smirk and Cora's smaller, softer smile. Their bodies are burial grounds, but when he opens his nostrils, she smells like him. Or he smells like her. Or something.
He opens his mouth, contemplates an answer, closes it again.
There are five packs in New York City, one for each of the five boroughs, each territory painstakingly carved out with bitter victory a sharp scent in the centuries-old, oft-renewed boundary markers. The Greek pack in Queens is the biggest and the nicest (Derek isn't sure if they fit the stereotype or if they're the ones that created it) and they let Derek and Laura live on their land without a fuss. They all seem content to ignore that Laura still has the red eyes of an alpha. After all, what threat are two young, inexperienced wolves against the full brunt of My Big Fat Greek Werewolf Wedding?
Up ahead, the box office window slides open, and the line stirs, drawing itself up. "Will you help me?" she presses swiftly, like she's staunching a wound.
Derek pushes up against her side without hesitation, feeling like his skeleton is trying to jump right out of his skin in order to stand at attention, like his blood is diverting like water flowing uphill, trying to join hers like tributaries in a river well. With gentle pressure, Laura nudges her elbow up against his ribs in return, smiling the Cora-smile.
Allison Argent comes into his work on a dark Tuesday morning, stamping her boots out on the mat and shaking the rain off her umbrella, which is patterned with cartoon cats and dogs ("it's raining cats and dogs, Jesus Christ, how did I not get that?", "Oh my god, Stiles, focus,") and advertises Dr. Deaton's veterinary clinic. The rain is heavy enough that they've had to turn the lights on in the lobby, which makes everything feel like it's underwater and a lot earlier than it actually is.
Angie waves her through the metal detector, jaw cracking around a yawn, and tells her, "Derek's going to inspect your bag, ma'am," in what Derek's sure she believes is a subtle way, and he and Allison share a deeply awkward grimace.
He lifts the flap of her satchel, nudging the contents around with his wand. She is not, of course, carrying anything she could use to damage the paintings, and he politely pretends not to see the shape her brass knuckles make in one of the inside pockets.
"I'm curious," she says, and he ticks his eyes up at her in surprise, but her lips barely move and her jaw is set in that way she gets around him, like they're survivors of the same horrific natural disaster and don't have much in common except that they run into each other everywhere. Allison and Derek's social circles don't overlap so much as they consist of the exact same people. "Why New York? I mean," her eyes snag his. "You don't have to tell me, of course, but … of all the places in the country you and your sister could have hid, why the city with the highest concentration of werewolves and hunters per square mile?"
On their way out of Utah, Laura stops to gas up the Camaro before they hit the traffic around Salt Lake City and gas prices jump 20c a gallon. She goes into the convenience store and Derek sits in the passenger seat with his fifteen-year-old limbs tucked awkwardly around him to make them fit, listening to the engine tick over as it cools and watching the man at the neighboring pump. His hairline's receding over a shiny scalp, and when the wind shifts, Derek catches the full brunt of his odor, and the scent of the barely-pubescent girl all over him. He smells how much the man hates her, and underneath that, how much she fears him. Derek thinks of grackles and his stomach turns.
Laura comes out before he can decide if he's going to vomit, slitting her eyes against the sunshine. The wind catches her hair and balloons out the front of her shirt, and when she slides into the driver's seat, she drops a little plastic bag into his lap.
He rummages through it; in it, there's a torn-open package of that novelty baseball gum Laura won't admit makes her feel like a professional player, like she's watched Angels in the Outfield or A League of Their Own too many times in a row, and when he looks over, she blows a luridly-pink bubble in his face.
But there's also a cheap, disposable Kodak camera with a memory card that only holds 500MB. Derek lifts an eyebrow and holds it up questioningly.
Laura shrugs sharply. "It's a road trip, bro," she goes, and drums the flats of her hands on the steering wheel. "Come on, take pictures of the scenery or something."
Derek rolls his eyes dismissively and shoves the package into the glove compartment, but Laura won't let it go. For the rest of the day, she points at things and goes, "That, Derek, wouldn't that make a good picture?" and "come on, Derek, I'm driving, I can't do it, you're going to have to" and "quick, we're going to pass it!"
To appease her, he pops open the packaging and obediently points the camera at what she tells him to: at first, the pictures are all too-faraway shots of herds of palamino horses picking at fields of brown summer grasses, the stormclouds broiling around the mountains, the empty skeleton of the 2006 Winter Olympic Stadium hulking protectively behind the lights of Park City. But as Derek grows accustomed to the weight in his hand, he grows more self-indulgent with it. Whatever, it's something to think about that isn't Kate Argent, isn't the way Laura's ignoring the buzzing of her phone in the driver's side door, isn't the hedges of wolfsbane they planted over the graves of everyone they ever loved the night before they left.
At the next interchange, they head north, because Wyoming's coming up soon and Laura says she isn't ready for any more flat land just yet.
Derek finds the pictures years later, when Laura buys herself a new laptop for her birthday and Derek inherits the old one. They're in a folder tucked under the data card manufacturer's name, and once he realizes what they are, Derek's embarrassed of them in a distant, oh god I was a teenage shutterbug kind of way. Here's a psuedo-artistic macro of raindrops against the Camaro's windshield; there's a picture of a weathered sign telling them Yellowstone is only 65 miles ahead, its slats broken clean through in places; and this is a picture of the Dakota flat lands, wide glaring open space that dares you to confront your own insignificance.
And there's a picture of Laura, standing outside their motel room in Montana, leaning against the railing overlooking the parking lot, enormous silver numbering on the door catching the sunlight behind her. She'd just invested in a pair of sunglasses, he remembers, and the mirrored surfaces are doing a good job of shielding the werewolf light in her eyes. She'd caught Derek aiming the camera and is the middle of blowing him an exaggerated kiss, hip cocked.
It's strange, so strange, to know that this Derek, the fifteen-year-old one aiming a camera at his only surviving sister, knew with utter certainty that this was the worst time of his life. This Derek couldn't imagine anything worse.
Derek envies him, sometimes.
He turns sixteen in Missouri, while he and Laura are living on an organic collective run by a man named ("I swear, my hand to Godallahbuddha-whatever,”) Ichabod Crane. Crane has knobbly knees and a small, rounded belly that juts out under his ribs and makes him look bizarrely like he's days away from giving birth to a watermelon. He stops by their table in a Subway in St. Joseph to compliment Laura on the condition of the Camaro, and he is all-out earnest in a way that neither of them know how to handle.
Laura won't come into the Hale money until she's twenty-one -- and between the combined family savings and the insurance payout on the house, it isn't an amount to sneeze at. Social Services allows her a stipend, because when their parents died, Derek was still too young to be emancipated and thus would have to be Laura's dependent. Crane offers them work and a place to live, and Laura doesn't even have to look at Derek before she accepts for both of them.
It's as sudden as submersion in cold water, going from just him and his sister and the Camaro to living on a farm with twenty-five other people, but something in Derek missed this, being surrounded with happy, yelling bodies that smell too sharp as they jostle in line for the bathroom.
They sleep in cots in the attic of the main house with seven others their age; they’re a mix of the cheerful, the shy, and the altogether strange, but they’re happy in a way that Derek imagines people who are proud of what they do with their lives are like.
“So, where are you from?” asks Tyler as they’re slicing up onions and bell peppers for a stew. He has blond curls pulled up under a bandana and eight different religious symbols tattooed below each knuckle. His canine teeth are crooked.
“California,” Laura answers for them, sucking at a cut on her thumb to hide the way it scabs over instantly.
“No shit!” he goes, excited, and it draws the attention of the others. “Why’d you leave?”
“Our whole family was murdered,” she deadpans, and Derek chokes on air. “We’re on the run.”
While they're there, he learns how to make soaps and lotions out of wild rosemary and mint, how to make wreaths out of long stalks of Russian sage that make him homesick for his mother in a horrible shipwrecked way, how to can salsas and preservatives that they’ll sell at the farmer’s markets in St. Joseph on the weekends. In the evenings, Tyler and Manuel teach him the Cha Cha Slide, like they're somehow imparting vital wisdom. Derek is bemused; the dance is just about following directions, and he's a beta, he's got that one down already. He even learns a little Zen meditation, because Crane always makes a point of inviting them all to join him on the back porch just as the sun first begins to crest over the farmland.
Out in the fields, they grow rhubarb and red onions, lettuce and sprouts, asparagus and thick trunks of brussel sprouts. Later in the season, there will even be sweet corn, which Derek is looking forward to because he’s never had it fresh before. Laura goes out every morning and comes back with a burlap sac full of strawberries, and when they pass each other at lunch time, she makes a point of feeding him some, just to make him roll his eyes and grumble tolerantly.
Because of his size and werewolf strength, Derek’s charged with the task of fertilizing ("oh, sure, you get to flex your muscles and impress everyone," Laura complains, "and I have to pretend to be ladylike and only carry delicate amounts," so, because no one's around, Derek dumps two 25qt bags of a clay-silt mix off of the loft onto her head, just to hear her yelp,) hauling out compost and manure, and mulch that they ship in from California that smells so much like home that sometimes on hot nights he wants to climb out the window and sleep out amongst the crops.
On the full moon, he and Laura take to the hills, lichen and wild grasses under their paws, startling the prairie hawks and the sparrows out of their nests with their passing. The air smells like the green thunderstorms that come rolling down from the river delta.
There’s no pack out here, so they run the way wolves do, until they’re panting harshly and the lights of some other city dot the landscape in the distance. They circle around the greyed-out, punched-open skeleton of a barn, the sight of which flinches through Derek even though all of his senses are telling him weather and neglect did this, not fire. Laura throws her head back and howls, and Derek falls in at her right flank and howls with her. They scare springhares out of their warrens, chase down fieldmice and crunch them between their teeth. Laura grins at him with her canines on display, blood a thin scrim up by her gums, and Derek almost expects her to blow a bubble.
He has absolutely no intention of celebrating his birthday, and kind of hopes that Laura will forget, but she doesn’t, of course.
“It’s your birthday!” she protests when he tells her this, rapping his nose with her knuckle. “It’s the one day of the year you are absolutely allowed to be the center of the universe,” and they both try not to flinch, because that was something their parents said a lot. It was important, in a family as big as theirs, to carve a day out where each kid would be the axis of everyone's attention.
She and two of her friends make cupcakes, which are largely eaten by everybody else before Derek can get to them, but they light a “sweet sixteen!” wax candle for him, and he catches Laura’s eye as he’s licking the frosting off its base, hoping for a smile. Instead, he sees tears streak down to her chin.
She covers them quickly, retreating to the small bathroom behind the pantry. He follows.
Somebody upstairs is playing Coldplay on repeat, and Derek takes his sister’s face in his hands and licks the salt from her cheeks, nosing at her comfortingly. He’s surprised to find he has to bend kind of far to do it.
She whines back, low in her throat, nudging her head up along his to exchange scents.
“I would ask you if you feel like the center of the universe yet, but let’s face it,” she smoothes down the front of his shirt. There’s black dirt under her nails that Derek could smell in the cupcakes, and her voice is shaky. “I wouldn’t notice the difference.”
They talk it in circles, and it’s six months before she decides on somebody; a friend of Derek’s from homeroom, a girl named Kellie that he goes to the movies with sometimes -- because neither one of them want to admit they spent money to see the Transformers sequel, so they use each other as an excuse. It’s a good system, Derek likes it, and he doesn’t mind that Kellie doesn’t talk much, because neither does he.
She’s gotten both of them to join her for the Light the Night run every year since they moved here, raising awareness for childhood leukemia, of which Kellie is a survivor.
This is why Laura wants her to join their pack, Derek knows. He also knows, although they don’t discuss it, that Laura’s playing matchmaker, too, angling for a packmate Derek’s own age. He wonders what kind of beta Kellie will be, how her howl will harmonize with theirs, what she'll look like when she runs with them. He wonders if, once they turn her and whoever else they decide on, if he'll still be Laura's second-in-command.
They pick a day to invite her over: two days before the full moon, when they can shift forms fluidly for a demonstration. They'll give her plenty of time afterwards to absorb it and make a choice. That's important. And they won't give her the bite until there's a time where she can get away and it won't be weird, because there's jumping into things headlong and then there's trial by fire, and asking Kellie to adjust to the werewolf hypersenses in the biggest, busiest city in America probably edges into cruel and unusual punishment.
They rehearse. Laura corrects his language, his tone, puts her hands on his sides and angles him so he's less threatening. She calls him "dipface" and "scavengebutt" more than once, and you have to understand that being called a scavenger is very insulting for werewolves, but her childish excitement is infectious and before he knows it, they're both laughing.
Wolves! Laura's body language says. She might as well be wagging her tail. Soon there will be more wolves to run with!
Then he goes to get fitted for cap and gown ("Jesus Christ, what do you eat for breakfast?" grumbles the secretary, going on tiptoes to measure across his shoulders, and Derek resists the urge to quip something about the blood of virgins, because he's been reliably informed that that's creepy.) It is five days until the full moon, and when he cuts through Astoria Park on the way home, he scents blood.
His heart trips for a fatal beat and then takes off, and the rest of him is obliged to follow. Derek clears sidewalks and vaults fences in long bounds that dent the cement when he lands. He doesn't care who sees him; he has his sister's blood in his nose and that, that -- that obliterates everything else, a crater in his consciousness like a nuclear detonation.
He slams up the stairs to their apartment. His nose is telling him other things, too, things he'll think about later when he has the smallest sliver of attention to pay to them: the second-in-command from the Queens pack was here. She'd brought two of her sons with her, betas with a sharp edge of iron to them. The scent is so fresh that the whole stairwell reeks of them. The door on their landing is ajar.
There. On the floor, blood forming a dark halo around her.
She's on her back, head tilted to expose the white flag of her throat and the claw-shaped marks that are healing over as he watches, and that, more than anything, scares through Derek faster than being flung off the edge of a cliff. It's more disturbing, somehow, than even seeing her naked: Laura is an alpha. Laura is his alpha. Alphas show their bellies and bare their throats for nobody.
Her eyes snag on his like striking a flint, and she peels herself off the floor. Her hair slops against her neck. She puts a hand in her own blood like it's not there and levers herself to her feet.
"Okay," she gets out, with absolutely nothing in her voice at all. "New plan."
They leave that night, and within the week, they've secured a place in Lower Manhattan. Derek never sets foot in Queens again.
"Arizona." Derek bites his teeth around the answer, closes his throat around the gravel rock it has to drag itself over to escape him. "Arizona. We never got to visit."
"Huh," says Uncle Peter, in that unimpressed way he gets when he's about to follow it up with something more horrible. He claps his hands together. "Well!" he says brightly. "Good thing I put a stop to that freak show before it happened. Imagine having to pass Hale land off to some furball named Arizona." He effects a shudder. "God, how awful."
Every muscle in Derek twitches toward him, his mind blinked clean and white-hot and sunstruck with the desire to rip Peter's throat out. Grief is still an empty, cavernous yawn of space inside his chest, like his insides had been hollowed out and filled with a wailing wintry wind, an arctic bite.
Peter laughs, like he knows exactly what Derek's feeling, and he probably does. He just doesn't care.
Missouri is where Laura first teaches him to drive the Camaro.
The whole world looks and feels different from the driver's seat, and while she runs him through turn signals and quizzes him about hydroplaning until it's ingrained with the same straight-forwardness she taught him how to tie his shoelaces, how to mask his scent when he needed to sneak past his parents for a midnight snack (and later, to sneak out to meet girls,) all he can think about is how the seat isn't really molded to his shape at all. He doesn't quite fit. A couple of the other kids on the collective come out to watch; they know where the dragsters from St. Joseph host the races and keep angling to get Laura to let them soup up the car and enter it. Laura reacts like they'd asked her opinion on cannibalism.
Derek's first driver's license is a Missouri state one; he's spotty in his picture and hasn't grown into his jaw yet, but he's defiantly proud of it, this little piece of plastic.
Missouri is where he and Laura learn to operate as a pack together. They're roused in the middle of the night some time in July, alert to the sound of something moving in the cornfields. He cuts his eyes sideways, and finds Laura already awake, a slitted red gleam in the dark. They twist out of their cots and go out the open window, careful not to let the sill creak under their weight. There are people out amongst the head-high stalks -- Derek smells the distinctive, saturated scent of drunk human flesh, smells gasoline, and hears a muttered "fucking" and "organic my ass, 'll burn the same" and "goddamn hippies," and knows exactly who's come to burn their fields. He's seen them at the farmer's market before. Laura growls, and they shift: Hales don't tolerate scavengers and poachers. There's no place on Hale land for vermin.
It's the first time Derek's been given a mission as second-in-command. It's the first time his livelihood depends on him getting it right.
Derek is very, very good at frightening people. That's new information to him.
But the whole year feels that way to him, a macabre collection of firsts. First full moon, after. First time out of the state of California. First birthday without his family. First hunt without the coltish puppy bodies of his brothers and sisters fanned out around him. First Mother's Day with no mother to get anything for, first Thanksgiving that doesn't take two days of prep because they're going to feed half the werewolves in the state, first holidays with nowhere to go.
The Social Services agent Laura's been ignoring calls them to ask what they're going to do about school for Derek in the fall.
"He needs to be enrolled, Laura," she tells her, not unkindly, but firmly. "It'll be a black mark against you if you don't. He's not old enough to drop out."
"I'll emancipate," Derek says immediately, not even pretending that he isn't listening. He hefts the last 50-qt bag of fertilizer into the bed of Crane's truck and crosses the sawdust to where Laura's tucked herself into the small square of sunlight patching through the high window. "I'm old enough for that."
After she hangs up with the agent, she looks at him and says, "There's no pack here."
He nods, feeling his heart trip-hammer and knowing that she hears it too. It's not ideal territory; it's in the werewolf blood, imprinted as deep in their chromosomes as their bone structure to like the dark woods, the primordial forests, the places you'd sing about on Halloween, and the flat farmlands of western Missouri isn't that. But Derek likes it here -- Derek thinks he might be cut out for farming, if you could ever be sure you’re cut out for anything. He's got the size, the endurance, the love of land that comes with being a wolf, and Derek could no more separate the wolf from the human than he could separate out either from his love of Laura, so it's only natural that he should love the land as a man, too.
Missouri is where Derek is almost happy.
It doesn't matter, of course, because then Peppermint calls them and says she has news about Nebraska.
"They found fingernails," says Stiles, like he’s trying to be serious, but he forms the words with a gruesome relish.
"No, what." Scott sounds horrified, and drops his voice to a whisper. "Like, she'd eaten somebody?"
He never forgives himself for thinking it, but if Derek had to pick a single member of his family to survive the fire, he would have picked Laura.
She was four years old when he was born; she learned how to do everything because she'd already decided she was going to teach him when it was his turn. That was her responsibility. There's nobody on earth that Derek knows better than his sister, not even himself, because Laura was his mirror turned inwards, Hale reflecting Hale, a fractal repeating pattern. Laura played soccer in grade school and never tried out for lacrosse: her real passion was baseball, and Beacon Hills just wasn't big enough to accommodate that. She wanted to play professionally. She wanted to chew gum and wear smelly cleats and be on a trading card that some kid would keep in shrink wrap in a neat little binder, never mind that the women's leagues rarely get their own trading cards, or that it was against werewolf code to go into professional sports, given their natural advantages.
Laura liked sugar on her strawberries and she hated the way all the cheap shirts always came in men's sizes but she never met one she couldn't improve with a pair of scissors. Her favorite lipstick was a deep purple plum color that didn't quite work with her complexion, but she wore it anyway, blotting the excess on a Kleenex before blowing Derek a kiss in the mirror, just to see him roll his eyes.
He misses her, an ache so acute, so sharp beneath his breastbone that it's like being stranded in a foreign land, homesick for your birthplace long after someone else has come along and stuck a flag in it and rearranged all the borders so that what used to be yours doesn't exist anymore.
Derek hands Allison's purse back to her.
"Because," he says, just as she's visibly given up on getting an answer. "Your aunt broke the code first. If she came after us to finish the job, New York was the only place we could be certain somebody would get to her before she got to us."
The night before she died, Kate had taken Allison out for ice cream, obstinately because Allison's grades were good, but honestly, who needs a reason for ice cream, and the very next night, Allison had watched her aunt's throat get slit into bloody pieces in front of her. "But she never did."
"No," Derek agrees, because Kate had wanted a fear of the Argents to be written in Hale genetics, the way the Hales had trained the grackles to stay off their land, the way wild animals once had to learn the hard way that man meant pain. "She wanted us to survive. That was her idea of fun."
Their apartment building in Manhattan had once been part of a chain of youth hostels, before the area gentrified and the hostel was converted into studio apartments designed for the busy single commuter. In that respect, remnants of its past life linger: the one-bedroom that Derek and Laura rent comes with a bunk bed tucked into the corner.
“Not ideal, I know,” says Genevive, the office clerk who’s showing them around, catching the way they startle at the sight of it. “It’s just --“
Derek and Laura cut in simultaneously. “It’s perfect.”
The windowsill aligns perfectly with the top bunk, and Laura climbs the empty frame to jimmy it open. She inhales deeply, and her eyes sparkle when she twists on the rung to inform Derek, “Southerlies. There’ll be a great cross breeze. You can smell the park from here.” I’ll be able to defend this territory, is what she means.
“Central? But that’s, like, way uptown,” Genevive points out, mystified.
There’s a skylight on the landing with an astounding view of the air conditioners dotting the sides of the neighboring building. The recycling bins are directly below them in the alleyway, papers and plastics marked with signs in English and Spanish. The Spanish is crossed out, with the grammatically correct version handwritten next to it.
The kitchen is too compact for Derek, who keeps jamming his shoulder up against the microwave, since it’s also too big for its space and juts out over the lip of the shelf. Laura hates the shower. The first thing she buys for them after they move in is an enormous painting of three grey wolves howling at a pock-marked moon, which she found at a kiosk in the mall that usually just sells the shirts. When she brings it home, Derek takes one look and says, “what,” and Laura lifts her hands, like, fight me.
He’s nineteen. His driver’s license is a New York issue now. He’s taking twenty-one college credits, hasn’t picked a major yet, and works part-time in the summer with an exterminator, shrugging taciturnly every time somebody’s surprised when he’s right about a building. Hales don’t tolerate vermin.
Everybody knows he lives with his sister, because that’s as much a facet of his personality as his teeth or his hair color, and nobody thinks it’s weird: in this economy, you bunk down with whoever isn’t actively out to kill you.
What is weird, maybe, is that he has absolutely no desire to go looking for his own place. Derek is the third child of eight, and a beta: he was never built to be alone.
“What’s wrong with your face?” Laura goes, coming at him with a frown like she’s going to clear something off his chin.
He lifts his hands to check, going, “What?”
Her expression clears. “Oh, wait, my bad, that’s just you,” and she dances out of the way when he snatches up a pen and throws it at her, annoyed and affectionate all at once.
Laura is twenty-three. She’s working on an Agriculture minor, taking mostly online classes. She works at a dojo in Midtown, teaching taekwando to middle-schoolers who need to be kept busy after school and giving half-price self-defense classes to female undergrads. It’s been a year since they tried to turn Kellie and the Queens pack ripped open her throat for it.
He comes home one day, hauling his bike up to their landing and locking into the rack, to find her going over their finances, laptop at her elbow and reams of paper spread out over the floor.
“I need a pack,” she tells him without looking up, preempting his question.
He tosses his keys into the dish with hers and goes to fetch a Gatorade out of the fridge. He settles cross-legged on the outer edge of the paper-white aureole she’s made. He doesn’t address her comment, because he’s used to it, whatever survival instinct is ticking through Laura’s blood, driving her with the need to expand their numbers. He remembers the promise she made in Oklahoma.
“We’ve already ruled out giving someone the bite,” Laura continues, more to herself than to him.
“How else are we going to get more werewolves?” Derek grumbles, feeling ill at ease and useless. He can’t turn anyone. “It’s not like we’re going to be able to persuade someone to leave a bigger, more established pack to run with us.”
“Well,” Laura takes a statement from the bank and sets it down on a bare patch of floor. Derek reads it upside down; it details the charges for Uncle Peter's hospital care. She doesn’t look at him. “When Mom and Dad were young wolves and they needed a bigger pack, how did they do it?”
In Oklahoma, the wind comes down across the plains with a howl that just won't quit, and their second day there, Derek almost drowns himself trying to escape it.
He comes around to the feeling of two fingers shoved far down his throat, and he heaves, rolls, and vomits up river sludge into the reeds. He coughs and chokes and coughs. Trying to breathe is like trying to suck down air through a pinched straw, his chest feeling so compacted it's like these are the first breaths he's ever taken. Midges swarm around his eyes, whining in his ears, landing at the corners of his mouth. A pair of black squirrels watch them from the opposite bank.
The sun's at his back and Laura's got one hand clamped around the nape of his neck, the other holding him up, and she's saying, her voice a ragged thread, "Don't you dare. Don't you dare. Don't leave me here alone."
And Derek's gasping, "I -- I --"
"Jesus Christ, Derek, do you have any idea --"
"Kate Argent set the fire."
Her grip on him slackens, but only for a moment. "Argent … ?" she echoes, with a note in her voice that other people would use when describing the kind of grime that gets caught in shower drains, or that werewolves use for the entire horticultural genus of Aconitum. It's been five months since the fire, and two weeks since Kate took a shotgun to Derek's face in Nebraska.
He breathes in, and out, and in again. "And I helped her do it."
There's mud seeping up the legs of his shorts, river water squelching in the small spaces in the toes of his shoes. Laura's nails scratch against the back of his neck, and he doesn't know how she's lived with the stench of him in the passenger seat this long, all that guilt and shame and the rotten, decomposing scent of something used. Let Peppermint and her pack think it's survivor's guilt they're smelling. They're not wrong. It's that and twenty other things at once. Sometimes, Derek can’t remember if he wasn't standing there with accelerant, the night his house burned with everyone still in it. It feels like he should have been.
Laura leans him against her. She smells like water, like the scrim of pond scum and industrial run-off from where she'd slammed into the river after him, and she's trembling. Her words keep echoing in his head like she'd shouted them into the rafters of a cathedral, don't leave me here alone.
"When we're old enough," she starts, slow and careful. "We'll find a pack. Fuck, we could make a pack. Point is, there will be enough of us."
He turns his chin against her skin, looking up. He can hear an oil well in the distance, the steady beat of the pumpjack churning against the Oklahoma horizon.
"There will be enough," she says with a siren light in her eyes, the kind of light men would drown themselves for. "And we'll go hunting."
In his dreams, Kate Argent comes to him wearing the face of a fox, her fur rust-colored like she'd been left to oxidize in the elements. She sits in his yard and tilts her head coquettishly, watching him with a vixen's slit-eyed smile.
Hales do not tolerate scavengers and poachers. There is no place on Hale land for vermin. He leaps down from the porch and chases after her; she disappears with a flip of her bottlebrush tail, and from the trees, the grackles cackle with laughter. They swoop down while his back is turned, picking through Hale ash for shards of bleached-white bone and little nailhead teeth that could have belonged to baby Isaiah.
He wakes. He orients Laura's location in the universe and, with the axis spin of the earth established around her, lets the rest of it fall into place.
There's no way to prove that what happened to the Niobrara pack in the north Nebraska woodlands was Kate's fault. The hunters live by their code, and Kate rewrites it wherever it suits her purposes to do so. That's what caught his attention about her in the first place, the fact that Kate looked men in the eye and demanded that they make a space for her. He continued liking it up until she murdered his entire family.
(Cora had been five days away from her thirteenth birthday. She wanted a German chocolate cake and she wanted it baked in the heart-shaped pan that the family saved especially for birthdays. Drew had knocked out his two bottom teeth by walking into the door by where the third graders lined up for lunch, and had been anticipating a good haul from the Tooth Fairy that night. Their father had planted a row of lavender by the front porch to keep the rabbits out of their garden, and promised to show Derek how to dry them into potpourri when the stalks got long enough. Their mother had a half-finished painting sitting on an easel in her bedroom that she’ll never come back to.
That is what he will never forgive Kate Argent for.)
Peppermint heard it from Aunt Clementine's sister in Willamette Valley who heard it from Knox Runninghorse that the last member of the Niobrara pack, which had always been rather small and exclusive, was sick. Nobody knew with what, but word through the grapevine said it was probably terminal.
"It's perfect up there," Laura relays. "The territory extends over the state park, so it's protected. And if we time it right, we could move in before anyone realizes that it's unclaimed territory."
They part with Ichabod Crane and the rest of the collective and head north. The Niobrara territory consists of a spread of green-rolling loess and thick, heavy woods that cover the thundering crash of river rapids. Derek hadn't imagined a wilderness like this could exist this far into prairie land; if he stands under the shade of the trees and doesn’t breathe too deeply, he can almost imagine by the way the sun dapples through the leaves over his eyelids that this is Beacon Hills, that he's still fifteen. There's a sweetness to the air that unnerves him, though, something in the water that makes him fall into position at Laura's flank, on guard.
The official story involves a supposed contamination from a broken dam further upriver, but they meet Kate Argent in the Niobrara woods and Derek keeps his own suspicions as to the manner of the pack's death to himself.
They flee, and after she baptizes him in Oklahoma water, Laura says, “We're going as far away from all of this as possible."
When school starts in September, they're living in Queens.
Arizona, for a girl. Laura told him, as they were sailing down the country's book-cover spine of I-29 with the windows cracked just enough to lift her hair and whisp it around her head, that she wanted to see the Grand Canyon. Maybe they could do that next.
But they never got to go.
They'd thought about Missouri, too, while they were on the subject of state names that were good for children, but Jules from the apartment opposite theirs, who goes to Parson's and keeps trying to get them to buy weed off of him (Derek is from Northern California. Derek is allowed to be offended at what East Coasters try to pass off as smokable,) overhears them talking about it in the laundry room and tells them solemnly that "children shouldn't be your attempt to stick signposts in your past." They are, if anything, "your hopes for the future."
Arizona, then, for a girl and David for a boy, after their father.
There are forty-eight names on Laura’s list of potential candidates, a mixture of men that she knows and some she hasn’t met yet but come highly recommended, because apparently baby daddies are something you can find on Craigslist.
She cycles through them, doing up spreadsheets, trying to pick and choose the best parent material for her pups. This apartment will work fine as a whelping den at first, but eventually they'll need to find somewhere bigger, so she keeps tabs on places to look. She includes Derek in all of this; he genuinely believes that it doesn’t occur to her not to. She’s his alpha. He’s her second-in-command, her brother, her beta. They’ve known each other longer than they’ve known anyone else left alive.
Laura’s putting a lot of care into it, but she has to, she says. “It’s an investment. A very, very long-term investment. We can teach children how to run, how to be pack, but I want them to have the best genetic predisposition for it, too.”
“So does that mean you aren’t seducing Jules?” Derek remarks dryly, and she barks laughter.
The list steadily shrinks. The ones she likes the most she brings around for Derek to meet, so he watches as they get progressively meaner, toothier, more like wolves who’ve been trapped behind the bones of a human face and can’t change back.
Manuel from the collective wound up settling nearby in New Jersey, but he’s the type who’d keep in touch with his kid, and probably wouldn’t take kindly to the whole werewolf thing. Amed has a family history of psoriasis. Killigan’s all right -- all four of his grandparents are alive and well into their 90s -- but something about him has Derek convinced that he’d only produce human children, and they need wolf pups first and foremost. Marc touches Laura’s ass without her permission and she breaks three of his fingers before Derek gets the chance. He wisely doesn’t press charges. Rico is Caribbean and pretty much the perfect genetic specimen, but Derek doesn't like his attitude: he seems like the type of guy who'd eat a full meal at a restaurant and then claim it's horrible to get out of the bill.
Eventually, though, Derek runs out of reasons to veto them.
Laura picks one (Han, 6’1”, a beta from the Manhattan pack so far down on the totem pole that being in the same room as an alpha -- never mind that she’s an alpha from a different pack -- pretty much makes his year. He’s always been nice to them, even on full moon nights,) and invites him over on the right day of her cycle. She tells Derek to get lost.
“Do you love him?” he asks, stupidly.
It seems important. Loving someone is something you’d change pack dynamics for. He’d been in love with a hunter once and was somehow caught off guard when she went hunting.
Laura snorts. “Of course not.” And then her face softens. “But I’ll love the baby.”
Truth, says Derek’s werewolf senses, and he nods, grabs his keys, and leaves the building.
He passes Han on the sidewalk and thinks, startlingly clear, you’re going to impregnate my sister. Han catches scent of him and smiles a greeting. He really is a nice guy. Laura’s kids would probably look like him. Derek snaps.
Derek snaps and chases him off with no finesse or courtesy and then goes right back up those stairs.
“Don’t do it,” he tells her, standing in the middle of their apartment with the wolf painting on the wall and all their belongings and setting his stance, telling her with wolf posture, I’m not changing my mind.
She looks back at him. Her hair’s down, a flip painstakingly curled onto the ends. She’s wearing a skirt patterned at the hem with California lupines. Something about the sight of her knees completely dumbfounds him, like he’s an astronaut seeing earthrise for the first time.
“I need a pack,” she tells him frankly.
He huffs out a breath, frustrated, because he knows that. He shuts the door behind him, and suddenly she is right there, so close that her face becomes horizons and Derek cannot look anywhere else.
“I need a pack,” she says, softer. She looks down at the space between them, and reaches out.
She touches his wrists first, then his arms, fingers trailing up past his shoulders to lift his jaw, thumbs pushing up his lips to feel his teeth. Her hands are shaking. He catches them immediately, holding them in his own, because his alpha is scared and what else is there to do?
“Derek,” she whispers.
He gets it, all in a rush, this monumental thing that she’s asking him, and it fells him as fatally as if he’d ingested mountain ash.
“What?” he goes. “No. No, I’m --“
“You’re Derek,” she says fiercely. “You are the only person I know I can trust."
He breaks away from her. It’s difficult, because she is his polestar and gravitational pull will always bring him to her, but he needs to get out from under her hands. No beta can think when his alpha has her hands on him. He paces the length of their apartment, but even being able to think clearly doesn’t help. They are so deeply entrenched in each other that they are as inescapable as Nevada sunlight, as red Utah dust.
He turns around. He sets his shoulders.
Laura’s throat bobs.
Then, she crosses her arms and pulls her shirt up over her head in a single, brisk movement, and Derek goes to his knees in front of her with a whine. He puts his hands on her calves, and Derek is lost, Derek is found, Derek is pulled gasping from the Oklahoma waters, all the smoke sucked clean from his lungs.
It doesn't make sense, Peter killing Laura. It doesn't make sense. He didn't need to kill her to become the alpha: she would have given him the Hale land if he'd asked.
Contrary to the way Derek’s life seems to be going, alpha rites are something that can be passed to another without bloodshed.
She would have given it to Peter in a heartbeat, let him be the caretaker of the land he'd lived on his whole life, let him resurrect a pack and start over, or kill himself trying to get revenge. She didn't need to be alpha in Beacon Hills. Laura's territory was New York. Laura's territory was Derek.
There were no other living Hales who would have come back to challenge Peter for the title.
So why did he think he needed to kill her?
It takes a week to drive from New York to California, but you can shave that time in half if you pull twelve-hour stints behind the wheel, pee in bottles, and treat speed limits like suggestions.
The I-35 interchange in Des Moines promises to lead him straight down into Missouri if he takes one of the upcoming exits, and for a second, Derek's heart lurches sideways in his chest with the miserable want of it. But the country’s life's blood of I-80 safely skirts him north of it, through Iowa into Nebraska. It stretches high-wire thin far south of Niobrara, too, so he can't even smell the loess on the winds. He doesn't know who has that territory now, doesn't want to find out.
Somewhere over the border, his eyes raw and itchy, his gut trash-compacted into a horrible shape, he stops because the need for hot food is overwhelming. He gets it to-go. Laura's dead, he can feel it, can't avoid it; a cataclysmic kind of destruction inside of him, like whole continents have broken off and fallen into the sea. There's no reversing that kind of death, there's nothing of Laura left to save, but Derek's hurrying anyway because he needs to get to her body before something else does.
It's mostly empty here in this place where Derek's found himself, the kind of coffee-and-eggs pit stop that caters almost exclusively to cross-country truckers. He followed his nose, and there's only one other person here, sitting on the same bench waiting for a to-go order, too. He's of indeterminate age and smells like hemorrhoid creme, and when Derek makes the mistake of eye contact, he takes that as permission to strike up a conversation, so used to talking and taking it for granted that people would listen that he seems oblivious to Derek's preoccupation. On the radio, something slow and painfully poignant of Adele’s segues into Gangnam Style without finesse, the sound turned down so low it’s like a phantom in another room.
"And anyway, that's what I said. What about you?" he asks at present. "You a father?"
Derek blinks his way back to consciousness, trying to orient himself. There have been ads on the radio for Father's Day specials at such-and-such restaurant, sale signs at Target and stuff, so maybe that's today.
"Yeah," he goes, rubbing at his chin with the back of his hand. "Yeah, I am."
"No kidding," says the dude. He lifts his cap far enough to scrub at the flatgrass tuft of hair spread thinly over his scalp. "How many?"
And Derek, without thinking, answers truthfully. "Six."
This throws them both for a moment, silence spreading at their feet like a pool of blood, and something awful must be showing on his face, because the other guy lowers his hand slowly and ventures, tentative, "What happened?"
Derek slams to his feet.
"They died," he says shortly, and cuts through the back to the bathrooms before he does something horrible, like tear the plaster from the walls and howl and howl and howl until a hunter comes and puts a wolfsbane bullet in him. As is, he punches a pretty sizable dent in one of the stalls, and shatters every mirror into fractals.
He greets Laura outside the doors after they discharge her from the E.R., saying, “No more.”
She waves at him vaguely, reaching out and steadying herself on him like his weight is the only crutch she needs, and he waits until they've secured two of the reserved-for-handicapped seats on the subway heading home, where the scent of fresh-spilt blood and post-mortem preservatives isn't so strong, before he says it again. "No more, Laura.”
She tilts her head against him. She's crosswise in the seat with her legs thrown over his lap, careful of where she's sitting because he's got more padding than the seat does, and he braces for her with every jarring shift in the tracks the subway car makes. There's tape on her wrist and there's industrial-strength pads in her purse that the hospital issued her.
"I mean it," he says lowly. "We're not doing this again."
Her eyes lid. All of her make-up has been scrubbed off, and a five o'clock shadow is starting to show on her upper lip. Carefully, he cups her head against his shoulder and rubs his cheek along hers, hoping to comfort her by covering the scent of the hospital with his own. Seeking comfort, too, maybe, because it'll be weeks before he'll be able to shake the sense memory of Laura on the floor in the bathroom, shrieking horribly, I can't lose this one, Derek, I can't! It has fingernails, I can't lose it if it already has fingernails, this isn't happening this isn't --
"I know," she agrees, after a long pause, and she sounds exhausted, white noise a burring undertone to her voice. "You're right, I know, I just wanted --"
Her arms come up, hovering for a beat, and Derek thinks she's forgotten what she was doing with them, except then he realizes that she's made a cradle, looking down at her arms like she can imagine without fail what a baby would look like there. Derek's thought about it so many times -- and the baby, in his imagination, always looks like baby Isaiah, which it might have: if a sister has a child with her brother, who would it look like? -- that he has no trouble picturing it, either. Laura wanted it so badly that Derek was almost excited at the prospect of devoting his life to raising it.
Then she shakes herself off, jaw setting with a faint flicker of muscle, and the wistfulness is gone.
"So we'll never have kids," she declares, matter-of-fact. “That’s fine. It was worth a try."
Or six, Derek thinks bitterly, furious with himself that he didn’t stop this after the third or the fourth time, but then their stop is announced and he's distracted by the way Laura's mouth whitens with pain when she tries to get up.
She heals, because that's what werewolves do, and three months later her periods come back. The first time she ovulates, after, Derek catches the scent of it and stupidly, because it's habit by now, he picks up his phone off the kitchen counter and cancels the plans he had with his friend for the evening. He sets the phone back down and looks up to find Laura looking at him funny. And then he remembers, swift as the sudden fall of a guillotine -- they've agreed to stop trying, because Laura's body will not carry Derek's pups to term and it's going to kill her. Derek is free to go wherever tonight, because he isn't going to try to get her pregnant anymore.
He stares at her, stricken, and something about the whole situation is just so absurd that they both burst into laughter at the same time, and things ease.
Condoms reappear in the medicine cabinet. The financial papers are bundled up and clipped together and stuck in a folder in a kitchen drawer. Summer swoops upon Manhattan in one hot, breathless gulp, and Laura picks up a second job coaching Little League. Derek turns twenty-two, vaguely unsettled by the fact he's now lived a third of his life post-fire.
But what he finds hardest is the process of unlearning his sister. Her body is none of his business anymore.
When she stretches up onto her toes to fetch a clean bra off its hangar as she dresses in the morning, he's no longer allowed to scoot across his bunk, and pull her close enough to kiss the side of her breast. When she's sitting on the windowsill, balanced easily with her legs crooked around the Christmas cactus and her laptop propped between her chest and knees ("it's more comfortable than it looks," she lies, and he's pretty sure that nobody with a laptop is ever sure how they wind up in the positions they find themselves in half the time,) he's no longer allowed to go over there and stroke her calves. He has to train himself to ignore her cycle, after so long of being completely in tune with it.
It's like losing the ability to speak a language when it's the only thing your brain seems capable of thinking in.
It's not just him. He catches Laura diverting kisses at the last moment, brushing against his jaw and cheek when she'd clearly been aiming for his mouth. She'll climb into the bottom bunk with him sometimes, mid-conversation, and will only remember where she is too late, going stiff and awkward. There are charged moments between showers that were never charged before. They keep trying to reestablish their boundaries, except neither of them have any idea where that line existed before.
It's like, he realizes slowly. It's like they've broken up.
Like, they were a thing and now they're not.
"What are we going to do?" he asks her while they're standing in the middle of the weekend greenmarket in Tribeca. She's got her head tilted back, breathing deep and trying to determine which of the stalls has the strawberries, and he's trying to distract himself from the instinctive urge to kiss her, because she looks amazing and he is so very unspeakably fond of her. "Are we going to give biting someone another shot, and hope that the Manhattan pack is more forgiving than the Queens?"
She opens her eyes and looks at him. The rest of the world goes mute, because she's looking at him like he's the first glimpse of a motherland she's seen since childhood.
"We're okay, aren't we?" she says, and he misses the inside of her mouth badly. "As we are? An alpha needs a pack, but I've got a pack," she brushes the back of her hand against his ribs. "All my power depends on you."
"Sorry about that," he jokes, but lamely, judging by the way her mouth pulls at the corner like it's been tugged by a fishhook.
"We can make it with just two of us," he promises instead, voice dragging low and heavy. "Here?" he asks, because he doesn't want to go back west. Kate Argent is west. Kate Argent is Manifest Destiny and the whole country is hers, except for this narrow bit he and Laura have hollowed out in this salt-crusted cove of Atlantic sea, threatened by a crazy howling wind.
"Here," she agrees, and then her hands are on his face and she's pulling him in. She bites at his nose, playful puppy dominance, and then kisses him between the eyes. She lingers there, up on her tiptoes, before she shifts, angling and pressing her mouth against the bridge of his nose like she isn't ready to pull away, and Derek braces her against him with an arm around her waist, easy with familiarity. People flow onwards around them, and the stalls smell of wet lettuce and dirt, and it's a shockingly beautiful day.
They'll be all right, him and her, he knows, and it's the most terrifying thing he's ever hoped, ever believed. They'll be all right. Amazing things have been done with less.
He kisses her and the noise she makes against his mouth is ecstatic and greedy and surprised all at once. He kisses her again, and she puts a hand to his jaw and drags one from him in return, and they trade it back and forth, lips catching and tongues touching teeth, until they smell the same, taste the same, and the relief of it could drown them.
There's no room in them for anyone else.
When they die, when they die, they're going to cut open their bodies and Laura's heart is going to have his fingerprints all over it, all signs pointing to him. This is Derek's territory, these ribs up under her cut-up shirts, these hips and this plum-colored mouth and these autumn-browned eyes that go red when she bares these teeth, and he needs nowhere else on earth if he just has her.
Derek's heart is black Missouri mulch, Oklahoma winds, Manhattan cinderblock, and Laura is the only thing that grows here.
"Like, she'd eaten somebody?"
"Man, I worry about you. How is that the first place your mind goes? Scott, old buddy, old pal, when forensics find itty-bitty fingernails in a woman's remains, cannibalism isn't the first conclusion they jump to."
"Then what -- oh. Oh."
"Exactly," says Stiles gleefully, and slaps Scott hard on the back for emphasis before continuing, "Laura Hale was pregnant. She was pregnant and her creepy-ass brother cut her into pieces and buried her in his backyard."
"Dude. That's -- that's --"
"I know. You still want to trust this bastard?"
The sun is rising over the California hills, and Derek stands and says with red eyes, "I need a pack."