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It's A Matter of Holding On

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art by Girleverafter

 

It’s 9 pm, and the street outside Derek’s apartment building is dark, splotches of light from the lamp posts breaking sporadic tears in the shadows. There’s a vague sound of a periodically repeated laugh track from a television coming from a house across the street when Derek extends his senses, strains his hearing, hands white-knuckled on the sill of the window facing the road.

It’s 9 pm, and Cora is not picking up her phone, just like she wasn’t half past five, half an hour late, and something in Derek is aching.

Derek believes in telepathy about as much as he believes in anything in relation to his family’s condition; it all just falls under the umbrella term “werewolf stuff”, which is to say he doesn’t honestly care a whole lot for wasting his time thinking about it; it just is. That said, the plain emotional connection between pack members was something Derek experienced as early as at the tender age of four, when his granddad died and the grief in the house was amplified, fed back and forth between especially the children, Derek in his mom’s lap, Laura curled up in a corner and snarling and—

And Derek’s scared. The anxiety is wedged firmly underneath his sternum, a quick thump of thud thud thud he can’t tamp down no matter how hard he tries. Cora is never late. She’s never late, it’s just fact; it’s fact, and while Derek is pretty sure that once in a while, people with normal, healthy relationships with their brothers and sisters are late or forget or, or, whatever, this is not one of those times.

Derek reaches back and snatches his phone off the table behind him, his eyes never straying from the street. Speed dial 1, Cora Hale. It clicks directly to her voice mail again, a short “hi, this is Cora, leave a message”, and Derek just breathes for a long moment after the beep. He feels raw, inside and out, and he can feel his pulse in his gums. He hangs up.

The Bad Feeling reminds Derek of being sixteen, of a sudden gut-punch of nausea in the middle of a trigonometry lesson, of getting extracted from class and being sat down with Laura in the principal’s office and told about a fire still raging on the outskirts of the woods. Leaving the office under loud protests, getting in Laura’s car and driving to Beacon Hills Elementary School, breaking every traffic law in the book, his big sister’s clawed hands on the steering wheel and his little sister, shaking like a leaf, leaping down the front steps with two teachers on her heels when Derek stumbled out the passenger door.

Derek fights back a body-wrecking shiver and very, very carefully puts the phone down on the windowsill next to him.

By now, he’s become unwillingly familiar with The Bad Feeling, and even if, sure, there’s a little premature dread involved sometimes, Derek knows a personal anxiety issue from whatever it is that’s causing his throat to seize up and his world to feel like it’s tipping over.

So really, it shouldn’t hit him as hard as it does when he gets the first text message from Laura in years around 1 am, no hello, just “have you seen Cora?

 

---

 

Alan Deaton’s vet office isn’t due to open for another two hours when Derek raises his hand to knock on the door, but still it swings open before he manages to land the first tap. He hasn’t seen Deaton in ages, but the man doesn’t appear to have changed a bit. He holds the door open for Derek and gingerly locks it behind them before leading the way into the heart of the clinic, an operating room where a sleeping cat with a fresh-looking leg cast is breathing slowly on the sterilized table in the middle.

“Whiskers here just finished surgery,” Deaton offers, abruptly startling the silence in the room and Derek along with it, like he didn’t know the man could speak, Jesus.

“Broken leg, though I think he’ll make a good recovery. Have a seat while I get him back to his cage.” The vet indicates a chair by the glass cabinets with a tilt of his head, picks the cat up with the expertise of a man who handles anaesthetized animals every day, and disappears into the adjoining room where Derek can smell fur and dry food and healing. There’s also the Mountain Ash and what-nots in the walls, in the ceiling, under his feet, but Derek tries not to think about that, and sits down instead.

Deaton’s a powerful man; Derek knows that. His family had an old history of working with the Hale pack back in the day, before… well, before. Derek hadn’t seen him much around as a kid, to be honest; always out gallivanting or running or playing. He’d met Deaton a fair number of times, though, mostly for special occasions, weddings, Cora’s and a few younger cousins’ naming ceremonies. For some reason it had made sense to call him at 3 am when he’d been close to vibrating out of his own skin – the man had known Derek’s mom after all, and even though Derek’s still on the fence about his weird calm demeanour, he’d trust his mother’s sense of judgement to the end of the world. It’s not like his own is the best anyway.

“Would you like some tea?” Deaton asks as he re-enters the room, drying his hands with a paper napkin that goes into a bin next to the operating slab.

“No,” Derek responds quickly, and then adds “thank you,” as an afterthought. There’s always been something about the older man that demanded respect, something – considering the situation – Derek feels he should give him. Deaton nods, curls his hand around a white cup on a small, wheeled table in the corner, and turns to face Derek.

“Your sister is missing,” he says, not as much of a question as it could have been to soften the blow, and even though Derek was the one who told him, it still feels like it solidifies the reality of the statement. Derek just nods. Deaton makes a regretful, sorry sound.

“I’m sorry, Derek. It’s been a while since I last saw you, it’s unfortunate that we should see each other again under such circumstances.”

Derek lowers his head and nods, feeling exposed and scrutinized on the frail plastic chair.

“Have you spoken to Laura?” Deaton asks, and Derek grits his teeth, because there’s no way in hell the vet won’t know that Laura has her own pack outside Sacramento now, away from Derek but close enough to what used to be her home.

“She texted me last night,” Derek bites out instead of what he really wants to say. “She asked me if I’d seen Cora. I told her no. She said to leave it to her, pack business.”

Deaton lifts his mug to his mouth and then sets it down, and Derek powers on before the other man says something that’ll make Derek feel awful. Like “do you miss her?” or “aren’t there anyone else you can go to?”

“I need your help,” Derek says, too loud in the quiet room. “You know things, you can help. Laura doesn’t trust humans anymore and she only has so many pack members who can look, and you know—" Derek pushes a hand through his hair with an angry sound, "you know I can’t leave this alone, I can’t, and I don’t know what to do, so please,” he’s not beyond begging. Not for Cora. “Help me.”

Deaton smiles his mild, sorry smile, and dread instantly pools in Derek’s stomach.

“I’m sorry, Derek, I can’t. I’m neutral these days, I left the emissary business to my sister. For the time being, I’m really just a vet, sometimes a mediator. It’s better that way, keeps the balance.”

Derek is on his feet and in Deaton’s face before he makes a conscious decision to do so, the chair clattering onto the floor behind him.

“My sister is missing, do you understand?” he snarls, even though Deaton doesn’t move a muscle. His mouth feels crowded, fear pushing from inside his gums, sharp around his tongue.

“Derek,” Deaton says, firmly, eerily calm, and it makes Derek panic more, makes him reach up and fist his hands in the other man’s shirt, lift until Deaton’s on his toes.

“Neutral is not good enough, not when my sister is missing, I asked you nicely once and you will help me or I swear—“ A hand lands on his forearm, warm, resolute.

“Derek, look at me.” There’s no mighty power behind the voice, no booming echo under the ceiling, but it still makes Derek’s breath hitch, makes him bite his tongue and stare at Deaton until he tastes copper and manages to unlock his fingers; Deaton just lets him take his time, gets his feet back on the floor as Derek lets go. He takes a big, gulping breath, and grabbles for something to hold his weight, falling a couple of steps backwards before he can put his hands on the operating table, turns to lean on it while he breathes and breathes and breathes and his anger dissipates like greasy smoke.

“I’m sorry,” Derek grits out through a mouthful of receding fangs. “I don’t—“

“Derek, please,” Deaton interrupts, right next to him when Derek opens his eyes; he hadn’t even realised he’d closed them.

“You were never entirely big on words, for once live up to that and let me talk, alright?”

Derek nods furiously, keeps his hands clenched on the cold metal surface to check himself.

“Good. Now, I can’t help you, but I know someone who can. A former apprentice of mine, I knew his mom too.” It’s a sharp reminder, and it makes Derek cringe, but he nods again.

“He’s very good at what he does. I’ll give you the address and you can go see him for yourself, but that’s all I can do, do you understand?”

Derek feels like nodding is the only possible response he can give to anything Deaton says from then on.

 

---

 

There’s one thought and one thought only in Derek’s head when he looks from the San Francisco address on the paper to the building in front of him and back, morbidly, flatly amused at the fact that he should, probably, be angry or panicked or something else entirely: Deaton has got to be fucking kidding him.

Ye Olde Magic Shop is located between an apartment building and a dry cleaner’s, the sign above the door proudly displaying the name in squiggly white ink on dark wood. Derek doesn’t even know what he had expected. Maybe a home address instead of a shop – even a dark cellar somewhere would have impressed him more than… this.

There’s a chime above his head when he hesitantly pushes the door open and steps inside, and then he has to fight the impulse to windmill his arms the hell back out; the scent of incense and herbs hone in on him like a beacon, settling sticky in his nostrils, lavender, honey, something even sweeter, god knows how, something spicy like cinnamon, and Derek can’t help but gag.

Letting the door swing closed, he dares a look around. The shop looks like how he would assume your standard crystal-wielding-patchouli-burning-dream catcher-hanging person would like their hunting grounds to look like. It’s a little dark, with rich-brown oak shelving and a long, low table in the middle with an array of little glass bowls containing rocks of different stages of shine and colour arranged around a large piece of driftwood in the centre with crystals balanced on top. The walls are lined with odd figures and feathery dream catchers, colour on colour and pearls on strings and large, African masks—Derek balks when he makes sudden eye contact with a stuffed owl.

When Derek finally finishes his half-circle, and his eyes come to a rest on the small counter at the end of the shop, there’s a boy looking at him from behind it. Derek blinks.

“Can I help you?” the guy asks, looking bored and a little smug at the same time as he looks Derek up and down. Derek huffs his chest out in annoyance. He know how he looks, and it sure as shit isn’t like he spends his time polishing rocks and lighting incense, but that’s no excuse for being a rude little shit. Derek hates rude shop employees, like the teenage girl in the nearby convenience store who never smiles at anyone (not that Derek does, either, but at least he’s polite, damn it). It probably doesn’t help that the guy’s dressed like he should be sitting at a trendy coffee house – who the hell wears hoodies with dress shirts?

“Garnet for your girlfriend? You look like you’d date a Taurus – got some nice sandalwood soap in this morning too, for your momma, they’re good for small-ish Christmas presents,” the guy begins rattling off as he steps around the counter, instantly in business mode, even if Derek’s fairly sure that he’s actively being checked out, and it’s making him uncomfortable.

“Garn—what? No, I’m here for Stiles,” Derek tries; he feels wound tight, tired, he has absolutely no time for bullshit.

“Deaton sent me.”

The guy stops in his tracks towards Derek (good thing too, his fight or flight reflex was kicking in at the feeling of being cornered), mouth still slightly open. Then he smiles. Derek feels like he’s getting an x-ray.

“Alright. Someone steal your car? It’s been a while but I can do a quick location spell for you, see how it turns out, come on out back,” says – well, Stiles, apparently, and gestures with an oddly tattooed hand towards the space behind the counter. He keeps talking, words about things Derek doesn’t know anything about, and Derek kind of just follows; he’s going to have words with Deaton about wasting valuable time. Words.

Derek almost gets tangled in a beaded curtain that seems to separate the store from “out back”, whatever that means, but when they pass through a rounded doorway with no door, something happens.

Stiles stops mid-step, his word-stream breaking off abruptly, his whole body going from relaxed to tense in the span of a heartbeat; Derek sees the shiver that rattles the kid’s broad, bony shoulders right before he turns, the crystal hanging from his right earlobe swinging heavily. All trace of good-natured joking gone from his face, he stares at Derek, like he’s surprised, like he’s concerned. One of Stiles’ hands twitches at his side in an aborted gesture, but Derek doesn’t miss it.

“What are you?”

Derek straightens his shoulders and ignores the way it makes Stiles seem to coil a little tighter, like a spring. There’s still a good four feet between them, and Derek prefers to keep it that way until he knows how this is going to go down.

“Werewolf. Deaton sent me,” Derek repeats. If this kid isn’t werewolf-friendly, that’s it, he’s screwed (so is Deaton. But, realistically, who’s Derek kidding, he’s in no position to threaten that man, no matter how much he wants to).

“Yo, Scott!” Stiles suddenly yells over his shoulders, eyes still firmly on Derek, and Derek starts on the spot and drops an inch further into a defensive crouch.

“Chill out, Cujo,” Stiles sneers, like he’s irritated, and Derek scowls at him. There’s a set of feet coming down stairs further inside the back of the shop, and Derek doesn’t know what to expect, until another young man pops around a corner, a bag of chips in his hand. Derek immediately smells it; werewolf. So. This is either going to go wrong or really wrong. Great.

“One of yours, bro,” Stiles says, and Derek sees when the young man recognises that too; he takes a deep breath through his nose, and his eyebrows go up, but surprisingly not in alarm. “You know him?”

His friend rolls his eyes, and for some reason, Derek immediately feels himself forced more at ease.

“I’ve tried telling him that we don’t all know each other, but he won’t listen,” says the boy, almost apologetically, wiping his salty fingers on his jeans as he bumps his shoulder against Stiles’.

“This is Scott, my brother,” Stiles starts, and Derek’s eyes flit from one to the other in suspicion; he’s getting emotional whiplash here.

“You look nothing alike,” he says warily. It’s true; Stiles is pale and freckled while Scott is thick-haired and tan. Derek doesn’t trust liars, even if there wasn’t a hitch in Stiles’ heartbeat. Stiles looks unamused, Scott grins.

“Not by blood. Whatever, dude. We run the shop together, that’s what you need to know. You think he’s fine to let in?” Stiles directs the last part at Scott, who shrugs and stuffs another chip into his mouth.

“Probably. Plus, he’s already kind of in, just saying.”

“Sure,” Stiles murmurs as he turns, apparently done looking like he’s ready to spring whatever mo-jo he has on Derek at the drop of a hat, “if he tears us apart I’m blaming your shitty guard dog qualities.”

Scott snickers and tosses his head in direction of Stiles for Derek to follow. Scott looks solid and would probably be vicious in a fight, but he has an open face, which is most likely a big part of what keeps Derek from wanting to charge full-pelt down the street to get home. That, and why he’s there.

They sit down around a table in what looks to be a small kitchenette with a kettle, a microwave and sink. It’s cluttered, to put it mildly, and Derek steps over a trash bag resting by the kitchen table. There’s a truly ugly frame standing on a narrow shelf with a picture of Stiles, Scott and a dark-haired girl with a braid in front of the store; probably from opening day.

“We live upstairs,” Scott offers politely as he sits down next to Derek, Stiles on his other side. “This is sort of the only kitchen space we have right now, there was an, uh, accident with the proper one—“ he breaks off with a yelp when Stiles jabs him in the ribs with two fingers.

“Customer, Scott, sent by Deaton, he does not need to know that,” he hisses, and Scott smiles sheepishly at Derek. Derek doesn’t say anything. He’s counting the exits (there’s two, one if you count the fact that he doesn’t actually know what the narrow staircase leads to) and trying not to choke on the smells still cloying up his senses.

“So,” Stiles begins, and folds his arms in front of him on the table. “I’m taking it you’re not here because you lost your car, because you could do fine sniffing that out yourself, no pun intended.”

Derek nods as Scott stuffs away his snack bag and settles properly in his chair, face turned towards Derek.

“And if Deaton sent you for something that isn’t menial crap, it either means I’m in trouble, or you’re in trouble.”

Derek nods again, and steels himself for a slew of jokes or something mocking, but it never comes. Stiles just looks at him, all business, suddenly looking a lot older than Derek initially thought he had to be.

“My sister, Cora. She's missing,” Derek says. It hurts no less every time it comes out his mouth.

“How long?” Stiles asks, as Scott reaches across the table for a notepad balancing on the corner.

“Close to 24 hours,” Derek replies, clenching his hands in the table top. He’s getting a headache, fucking incense, which Scott seems to notice while taking notes.

“Breathe through your mouth, dude, you get used to it.” His smile is kind, and Derek nods tersely in thanks and starts breathing through his mouth; he can almost taste the patchouli, but it’s better than the smell.

“Where was she last seen?” Stiles asks, digging in through a linen bag he produced from underneath a pile of papers. Derek thinks for a moment. Cora must’ve spent the afternoon at home before going to Derek’s in the evening, standing date every other Thursday.

“Pollock Pines, east of Sacramento. She lives there.” Scott writes his information down, and Stiles stops rummaging for a moment to frown at Derek.

“Did you drive from Pollock Pines? Isn’t that like, two hours?”

Derek shakes his head.

“I’m from Beacon Hills. She lives in Pollock Pines,” he replies, looking down at his hands.

“Hey, us too!” Scott exclaims delightedly to his left. Derek’s eyebrows go up.

“We thought business might be better in San Francisco,” Stiles explains with a shrug, and finally pulls something out of the bag; more incense. Derek bites back a groan.

“Alright, so the good news is, I’m pretty familiar with location spells. Looking for people is different than looking for say, a car, it takes more, but it should still work out just fine. Bad news, I can’t guarantee you it’ll work. Do you have something of hers with you?” Stiles asks, and reaches for a water bottle on the counter behind him. Derek pats quickly at his jacket pockets and pulls out a thin, folded up tank top he holds out for Stiles to take.

“Your sister’s top. Not weird or creepy at all,” he says, folding the shirt neatly on the table in front of him.

“Shut up, it was the only thing I had lying around,” Derek snaps, and Stiles holds his hands up.

“Just saying, man. Scott, would you—“

“On it,” Scott says, already getting up, grabbing the jar of bitter-smelling powder off the table and heading back into the shop.

“He’s just flipping the sign, Fridays aren’t busy at this time anyway,” Stiles explains. Scott returns moments later with a small tray made of what looks like cast iron, which he places in the middle of the table. Derek scoots back. He’s never been big on magic like this; he’s not sure what's about to happen, so he just watches as Scott scoops powdered incense into the small tray and uses his bare hands to pinch it into a tiny, dark blue mountain in the centre.

Meanwhile, Stiles is shrugging off his hoodie and unbuttoning the cuffs of his sleeves. As he rolls them up to his elbows, Derek’s eyes plaster to the dark ink on Stiles’ skin; his forearms are entirely black on top and white-blank underneath, like half cuffs with spikes pointing towards his elbows. The long strokes Derek noticed earlier on Stiles’ hands seem to be in line with where the tendons in his hands lie under the skin, curved at his knuckles and dotted along the sides. Derek doesn’t actually recognise the symbols from anywhere, but he does notice the white layered scar-tissue on the soft insides of Stiles’ pale forearms.

“Right, I think we’re good,” Stiles says, and claps his hands together, snapping Derek’s eyes up to his face.

“Should I do something?” Derek asks, probably a little late, but Scott just shakes his head as he sits back down next to him with a box of long matches.

“He’s good, you just watch.” There’s a special kind of glint in his eye that makes Derek uneasy and curious at the same time, and then Scott leans over the table, strikes a match, and lights the blue volcano of incense. It flickers and sparks as the powder ignites with a bright green flame, the fire dying down after a moment while Stiles is unscrewing the water bottle in his hands. With a tilt of his wrist, he pours out about what Derek could hold in his palm on the surface between him and the folded shirt.

Derek realises he’s holding his breath, and it isn’t because of the incense.

The solid black of Stiles lower arms is shifting. Correction; something in the jet-black cuffs is shifting. The small kitchen seems darker, and Scott is stock-still beside him, and Derek can’t help but stare, because his eyes really have to be playing tricks on him.

The water is starting to collect in odd shapes under Stiles’ hands, and he’s not even touching it; dollops of drops merging and half-moons circling the smaller puddles. His face is as serious as it was when Derek stepped through his arch earlier.

When Stiles dips his index and middle finger in the water, something like a spiral lights up the black canvas of his right arm, a sudden pop of warm white that disappears just as quickly. The water patterns shift direction, forming shapes counter-clock wise in the dimmer and dimmer kitchen. Stiles seems terrifyingly still, not a tremor to his shoulders or a rise of his chest with breath; his focus is static in the air, pulling at the light from the lamps until he looks luminescent.

His eyes though, they’re what keep pulling Derek’s focus; even from his seat across from Stiles, pushed away from the table at a safe distance and frozen in his chair, the young man’s eyes are very clearly completely swallowed by a film of white. Through the curling smoke, Derek can still see them flicking minutely back and forth, like Stiles is reading the water, tracing his fingers across the surface of the table, the water following, up, up, until he touches the fabric an arm’s length away. Water soaks Cora’s shirt, and Derek has a delayed moment of panic about possibly ruining his sister’s things, when Stiles abruptly sits back up in his chair with a rattling heave, the fluorescent tubes under the kitchen cabinets lighting back up so suddenly that Derek cries out and slaps a hand over his eyes. Spots dance on the insides of his eyelids and in his vision when he opens them back up.

Scott is already in motion, scooping up the tray of incense and taking it to the sink where he turns the tap on. Stiles looks worryingly frustrated, drinking from the bottle he’d used for the spell like he’s been denied fluids for days.

“What?” Derek asks immediately, blinking rapidly to get rid of the disruption in his field of vision. Stiles takes a deep breath, sets the water bottle down, and wipes his wet fingers absent-mindedly on his shirt.

“I don’t know.” That was the last thing Derek wanted to hear.

“What do you mean you don’t know?” Scott asks as he comes up behind Stiles, dripping iron tray in his hand.

“I mean I don’t know!” Stiles says exasperatedly, throwing out a hand at the now still puddle of water and the damp shirt.

“I didn’t get a location, I didn’t even get a ‘sorry, out of range, try again later’, I lost her just outside of Sacramento, and then nothing, nada! I just got a feeling and a flash of emotion, and…” he trails off, looking back over his shoulder at Scott’s frowning face, and then back at Derek.

Derek thinks he’s going to be sick.

“And it wasn’t good.”

Derek has to stand. He’s feeling light-headed from the incense, from exhaustion, from not knowing what he’s doing. He’s not used to depending on other people this way, not anymore.

“You have to try again,” he demands, crossing his arms to stop himself from pacing. Stiles lets out a startled laugh that grates Derek’s ears.

“Listen, buddy, this isn’t exactly a picnic for me, okay—“

“You have. To try. Again.” Derek snarls, leaning over the table and slamming both hands down in front of Stiles, who pushes himself out of his seat and meets his gaze dead on, a retort obviously on the tip of his tongue.

“Hey!”

Derek’s eyes snap to Scott, who looks angry; not something Derek could have imagined on his face.

“The man said no. He can’t do this again so soon, it takes a hell of a lot out of him, so back off!” His eyes flash, golden and bright, and Derek wants to tear someone’s head off. Instead, he rips himself away from the table and stalks towards the shop entrance, hands shaking, throat burning.

“Where are you going?” Stiles calls after him, chair scraping back and footsteps pounding after Derek.

“I’m going to Sacramento,” Derek snaps, just as a hand closes around the ball of his shoulder.

“I’m coming with you.”

That makes Derek pause.

“You’re what?” he asks, turning, close enough to Stiles that he can tell their only slight difference in height by the inch.

“I’m coming with you,” Stiles repeats, prodding Derek hard in the sternum. “Something’s fucking with my magic and I want to know what it is.”

Derek stands still for a moment, schools his breathing. He used to be so angry, all the time; he’d gotten better. Stiles doesn’t seem to give a shit if Derek’s angry, just crosses his heavily tattooed arms and lifts his eyebrows like he’s daring Derek to say something.

“Fine.”