It’s the day after Christmas, and all through the Stilinski house, everyone is stirring. Loudly, and in Stiles’ case, literally.
Stiles is in the kitchen and the mixer is running, because somebody got him a waffle maker and he read somewhere that you can put cake batter in a waffle maker and make cake waffles. This is something that obviously demands attention right away. Scott and Isaac are in the living room, playing video games. Derek is in his usual position, perched on the kitchen counter so he can sketch, and although he wouldn’t admit it, he’s singing along to the Christmas carols that Stiles is blasting on the radio. He has a passable baritone. Sheriff Stilinski is in the garage, playing with a sanding belt that he got and talking about building a cabinet or something. Carpentry is a hobby of his, not a skill, so nobody has high expectations of this cabinet, and as long as he has fun, nobody will complain.
Melissa is working an overnight shift at the hospital, so it’s just the guys. The rest of the pack are with their respective families, although Lydia is staying at Allison’s because her mother is in Italy. If it bothers her, she gives no sign of it.
Stiles has just put the first of the batter in the waffle maker when he glances up suddenly. Derek notices and gives him a questioning look. “I think an alpha’s somewhere nearby,” Stiles says, and Derek nods and goes back to his sketch. The longer Stiles is the alpha, and the larger and more powerful the pack becomes, the more sensitive he’s becoming.
“Gonna call Chris?” Derek asks.
“Nah. I’ll wait and see if something happens,” Stiles says. Alpha werewolves are people too, and sometimes they just need to cross into his territory on their way through, or for human reasons. It’s considered polite to request permission first, but not everybody bothers. Besides, it’s Christmas. He doesn’t want to bother the Argents if he doesn’t have to, which is an attitude he’s five hundred percent sure Chris would not approve of.
But everything has been surprisingly quiet in the supernatural world lately. He had been able to spend his entire autumn semester in Neptune without any issue. What had happened there had been an isolated incident rather than part of a larger pattern. Even Chris agrees that things are calm.
There are multiple reasons for this, and Stiles knows that he himself is one of them. The alliance he’s managed to forge with Chris Argent has given others encouragement to try the same sort of thing. He’ll be the first to admit that plenty of werewolves just aren’t interested. Many have lost friends or packmates to the hunters, and aren’t going to give them the time of day. But some of them aren’t like that. And as Allison continues to keep up contact with some of the younger hunters they befriended at the conclave, things are gradually shifting.
But werewolves in general have just been less violent lately. Chris has reported fewer incidences of young alphas losing themselves to their power, or people being turned without consent, and even smaller packs joining together to form large ones rather than recruiting new wolves. Chris isn’t sure what’s behind the shift, and neither is Stiles. He keeps his nose out of it, though. Some things, he’s just not curious about.
This alpha, though, whoever it is, just lingers at the edge of his senses. They seem weak for an alpha. An alpha without a pack, Derek says, when Stiles mentions this. He supposes it’s possible that an alpha might come here to try to kill Stiles and take control of his pack. It would be an extremely foolish idea, but then, some people are fools. Stiles is wondering how to go about suggesting they go back to the den for the night, with all its security and cameras, without freaking anybody out. Before he can make a decision, there’s a pounding at the front door.
“Who could that be?” Stilinski asks, coming in from the garage with sawdust all over the knees of his jeans.
Stiles smacks the power button on the stereo as Derek hops off the counter, and heads for the door. He doesn’t argue when Derek steps in front of him, obviously intending to open the door himself. Some things he simply isn’t allowed, and ‘go first when there might be danger’ is always one of them. Isaac and Scott are up, too, the former standing tall for once, none of his usual hunched shoulders.
He’s not sure who he’s expecting, there are so many possibilities, but when Derek swings the door open, it reveals one of the last ones he would have guessed. A petite young woman with tanned skin, long black hair, and dark eyes framed by dark lashes stands there. Her name is Yasmin Ortega, and Stiles hasn’t seen her for over a year and a half. That was when the alpha pack had given him his trial. Yasmin was the youngest, weakest, and least aggressive of the alpha pack – not that those descriptions meant much when talking about the strongest pack in the world.
The last time he had seen her had been outside the Hale house. She had been standing tall and proud, with Justin’s arm looped around her waist. Now she’s glancing over her shoulder even as Derek opens the door. There are dark circles under her eyes, and her dark skin is a few shades paler than usual. Blood has stained her shirt in two separate places, and there’s a smear of it underneath one eye. She’s holding one arm gingerly across her chest.
“Yas,” Stiles says, a little too surprised to manage anything else.
Yasmin heaves a sigh of relief that’s almost a sob. “Stiles,” she says. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know where else to go, who else to turn to. I – I need – I can’t find Justin. I should always be able to find him and I can’t.”
Stiles knows from personal, painful experience how traumatizing being separated from one’s lupa can be. He stands back and says, “Come in.” Derek shuts the door behind her. “Scott,” Stiles says, waving him forward.
“Yeah.” Scott drags over a chair and gets Yasmin sitting down. He takes her arm and gives it a gentle squeeze, and she lets out a little yip of pain. “Broken,” he says. The blood on her shirt is from what looks like claw marks.
“Why isn’t it healing?” Stiles asks, mostly rhetorically. He doesn’t expect Scott to whip out an answer.
“Sheriff Stilinski, can you get me a few pieces of wood from your workshop?” Scott asks. “About six or eight inches long, not too thick.”
“Sure,” Stilinski says, and heads back out to the garage.
Stiles drags another chair over so he can sit down facing Yasmin. Derek is at his shoulder, hovering. “Yasmin, tell me what happened.”
She takes a few deep breaths. “We were in Oregon. Near Columbia River Gorge. We had just finished a trial in Idaho and were just laying low for a few days, staying at a hotel. One of those lodges up there. We were in the woods. Just playing. Burning off some energy. The full moon is coming. And . . . something attacked us. I never got a good look at it. It seemed . . . insect-like? But big. Really big.
“Justin shouted for me to run. I saw Mei – go down. I could smell her blood. And then I couldn’t see anything. It was so dark. So I ran. I ran until I couldn’t hear it anymore. And then I waited. But nothing happened. After about an hour, I tracked back to where we had been. But there was no one there anymore. Just a lot of crushed trees and foliage. And blood. I tried to find Justin, but . . .” A wolf whine escapes her throat. “I couldn’t. I can’t feel him anymore. He could be dead and I wouldn’t know.”
“I’m pretty sure you would know that,” Stiles says. “What about the others?”
Yasmin shakes her head. “Because we’re all alphas, we don’t bond to each other the way a normal pack does. They could have been nearby and I wouldn’t have necessarily known. The smell of blood was so strong that it covered everything else.”
“How did you even get here?” Isaac asks.
“I drove,” she says. “We had a car. I . . . I waited at the hotel for a day, but when nobody else showed up, I knew I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit around and wait for him to come home.”
“Jesus,” Scott says. “You’re lucky you didn’t cause an accident. You’ve got one hell of a concussion.”
“Please,” Yasmin says, clutching at Stiles’ hands, crimson starting to seep into her eyes. “Please help me find Justin. I don’t know what else to do.”
“Yasmin, it’s going to be fine,” Stiles says firmly, glancing up as his father comes in with the pieces of wood. He hears Derek give an almost inaudible sigh behind him, but it doesn’t bother him. Derek knows him; he knows there’s no way he would leave a friend in danger or say no to a request like that. Derek’s hand brushes his shoulder, and then he wanders away, probably to call the rest of the pack. “We’re going to find Justin, okay? Now let Scott take care of your arm.”
Yasmin swallows and nods. She grits her teeth as Scott takes her arm and, with help from Isaac, gets the splint around it.
“That creature has to be magical,” Stiles says, almost to himself. “Given the way the wounds didn’t heal. Tell Lydia to make sure she brings the bestiary.”
Derek nods and continues texting. Since the pack keeps getting larger, Stiles has relied on him more and more to keep everyone calm and content. It’s not a problem, Derek says. Traditionally, that’s the role of the lupa in any case: to stand-in for the alpha if he’s too busy or his hands are full with someone else. The fact that Stiles needs to delegate is the sign of a healthy pack – and it’s also a sign that Stiles himself is becoming healthier, that he’s willing to let others help with things.
Once Yasmin’s arm is splinted, Scott doses her with some heavy-duty painkillers, and minutes later she’s asleep, curled up in a corner. She’s obviously exhausted, and Stiles tries to keep everyone quiet although he doubts she’ll wake. By the time she’s asleep, the rest of the pack are showing up. Derek has given them the bare bones of what’s happened; Stiles fills in the details.
“So,” he says, “we are leaving for Oregon.” He looks at his watch. “Now. Tonight. We’ll make the drive overnight so we can be there first thing in the morning. I know that’s probably a problem for some of you.”
Danny and Boyd both shift uncomfortably. Mac plays with her hair, then says, tentatively, “I’m not the only one with parents who don’t know, right?”
“Right,” Danny says. “It’s about half and half now. Me, Boyd, and Lydia are the ones with parents in the dark. Well, and Isaac, but his dad doesn’t count.”
“So . . . what do we do?” Mac asks.
“That’s up to you,” Stiles says. “I can understand if you don’t want to. If you think it’ll be easier to sell them some fiction, like . . .” He looks at Lydia.
“Winter spa retreat,” Lydia says. “Not that my mom will notice, since she’s in Italy.”
“Like that,” Stiles says. “And if you need a parent to cover, one is always available.”
“I just . . . I don’t want them to freak out,” Mac says.
Danny nods. “My problem with telling them has been less not wanting them to freak out about me being a werewolf, and more not wanting them to freak out about how-and-or-why I became one. It was kind of a scary story, you know?”
“I’ll have to tell them,” Boyd says, sinking into a chair. “They were wary enough of the semester in Neptune. They are not going to accept ‘winter spa retreat’. Not on the day after Christmas. And my little brothers have been getting more and more nosy lately. They know something’s up. But if I just throw it in their faces and take off, it’s going to be a disaster.”
“Do . . . do we all have to go to Oregon?” Mac asks.
“Rule number one, sweetie,” Erica says, “we do not discourage Stiles from not charging headlong into danger without the rest of us.”
“I think we’re on rule six hundred and twelve by now,” Mac says, “but okay.”
“The pack sticks together,” Scott tells her. “We’re stronger that way. Last summer when the hunter conclave was in town, we tried splitting up. It was a really bad idea and it didn’t work out for anybody.”
“I think the best solution is that we will split up very briefly,” Stiles says. “Those of us who can leave tonight will. Those who can’t, take this evening or tomorrow morning to break whatever news to your parents that you see fit. Mac, if you want to go with ‘winter spa retreat’, just tell your parents tonight that Allison invited you. Her dad will back you up if they want to talk to him. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say when we’ll be back, but just tell them it’s for three days and we’ll burn that bridge if we get to it.”
Mac nods. “Okay, yeah. I think I’ll go with that.”
Stiles turns to Boyd and Danny. “If you need moral support, one of the other parents is going to have to step in. Dad, help them out?”
Sheriff Stilinski nods. “I can be available if they have questions or need an adult to tell them that they’re not going to lose their little cupcake.”
Danny nods. “Thanks,” he says, and Boyd echoes him.
“Okay,” Stiles says. “Those of you who are going tonight, talk to your parents, get some stuff, meet back here in an hour. Erica . . . don’t antagonize your father. If he wants to talk to me, just call me. Okay?”
“Yeah, fine,” Erica says, with a huff.
Stiles glances around the room, considering, and then says, “Jake, I think you had better stay here.”
“But - !” Jake protests.
Stiles shakes his head. “I know that you want to be part of this pack, but you’re not, yet. And no offense, but you don’t have the same experience that the rest of us do. Tangling with something that can take down alphas is not going to be your first rodeo.”
Jake slumps a little and says, “Okay, but – call me if you need, need research or anything, okay?”
“You got it,” Stiles replies.
Once the pack has dispersed, Stiles goes up to his room to pack his stuff. Derek has headed back to the den, and Stiles texts him a list of things to grab. Allison has a list as well, things she’ll want from the armory. Isaac decides to go with Derek and help him pack up. He trusts Scott to throw some of his clothes into a backpack for him.
Most of the weaponry is at the den, but Stiles keeps his baseball bat and his gun with him at all times (barring school, where they don’t look kindly on such things). He packs those and a few clips of ammunition, then some clothes, including two of his red sweatshirts. Official pack business entails the need for the official clothes. Then he goes down to the kitchen and stuffs a cooler full of sodas, a bag full of chips and crackers for the drive, and two thermoses full of coffee. Scott will take care of medical supplies, so he doesn’t have to worry about that. Derek will grab his chain mail.
He feels woefully underprepared, but has no idea what he might be facing. They all have their protection charms, but he knows that those only protect them from long-range sorcery. It won’t defend them against a magical creature. He packs away a bag of mountain ash, his vials of wolfsbane, and all the books that he can fit into his laptop bag along with the computer itself. It makes him nervous to be leaving Beacon Hills, where all his support is. But he won’t solve this mystery long-distance.
When he comes downstairs, Scott is back from his own house and has talked from his mother. He checks Yasmin’s temperature and says she doesn’t have a fever. She stirs underneath his hand. “We’re leaving in a few minutes,” Stiles tells her, and her eyes fill with tears. “When was the last time you ate?”
“I . . . I don’t even know,” Yasmin says, and laughs a little. “You must think I’m the most pathetic alpha ever.”
“Hardly,” Stiles says. “I know what it’s like to have someone put a magical whammy and cut me off from my lupa. So I’m probably the only alpha you’d find who actually knows what you’re going through. It’s freaky as hell. But, we are going to go find Justin’s lost ass, and then we’ll give him hell for scaring you. Right?”
“Right,” Yasmin says, and lets out a breath. “Food. And, uh, a weapon would be awesome. I won’t be able to fully shift with my arm splinted, I guess.”
“We’ll get you something when Derek gets back from the den,” Stiles says, and ushers her into the kitchen, where he can make her something to eat. Before long, Allison, Derek, Erica, and Isaac have returned. “Any problems at home?” he asks Erica, and she shakes her head.
“Lydia decided to wait for the others,” Allison tells Stiles. “In case Mac needs help with her parents, and also just because . . . someone should stay with them.”
Stiles nods, approving this decision. The ones staying behind are the newest of his pack. Although Danny’s been a werewolf for over a year now, he never quite took to it the way the others did. And Mac has barely been a ‘wolf for two months, if one doesn’t count her time as the kanima. She still needs a lot of training. He feels better leaving Lydia behind to look after her. “Okay.” To Allison, he adds, “Yas needs a weapon. Something light.”
Allison nods and pulls out a knife. “Careful with it,” she says to Yasmin. “Silver in the notches.”
Yasmin nods and gives it a close look before sheathing it. “Thanks. Got a hair tie?” she adds, pushing her long hair out of her face. “Jesus, I’m a hot mess.”
“I’ll braid it for you,” Erica says.
Derek and Isaac start loading up the Jeep. Stiles is about to help, when his father pulls him aside. “If you get in trouble up there, I won’t be able to help you very much,” he says.
Stiles nods. “I know.”
“Be careful, kid.”
Stiles hugs him, hard. “I will be. I promise.”
~ ~ ~ ~
They have to take two cars. Stiles decides to ride with Yasmin and let Scott drive his Jeep. Derek goes with him; Erica, Isaac, and Allison go with Scott. Stiles takes the time to pump Yasmin’s memory for any scrap of detail that she can remember. Things she smelled, the sounds the monster made, anything she might have heard or seen at the hotel the day before that was out of the ordinary.
“I don’t know if I’m being very helpful,” she says at one point, as Stiles taps away at his phone.
“I don’t know if you are either, yet,” Stiles says, “but you never know what might come in handy.”
They stop twice to change drivers. Stiles takes two shifts, since Yasmin’s not up to driving, and he has plenty of experience staying up for several days straight with black coffee and Adderall as his guide. “Aw, hell, what’s today?” he asks, yawning as the sun is rising on their right.
“The twenty-seventh, why?” Derek asks.
“I’m gonna have to text Gwen. I have an appointment tomorrow.”
“Who’s Gwen?” Yasmin asks sleepily.
Stiles gives her a glance and says, “She’s my therapist.” It’s a tone of voice that almost dares her to giggle.
She doesn’t. She just gives him a sideways little glance and then says, “Maybe that’s why you’re so much better at holding your shit together than half the alphas we meet. Because you can actually admit you need a therapist.”
“Back when I really needed one, I couldn’t admit it,” Stiles says dryly, but lets it go. “How’s the alpha trial business going lately? I guess the question ‘do you have any enemies’ is both necessary and probably impossible to answer.”
“No, it . . . it hasn’t been that bad lately, actually.” Yasmin reaches for the coffee she got at their last rest stop, tastes it, and makes a face at how tepid its become. “Justin’s kind of . . . been changing things up. I mean, it’s not like there was ever an official rule book we needed to follow. And he hated anything that made him like Kali.”
“Changing things up, how?” Stiles asks, frowning.
“He introduced a middle ground. A probationary period.” Yasmin takes another drink of her coffee. “So many of the alphas we met – not just since he became the leader, but back while Kali and even Trevor were in charge – were terrible alphas, but not because they were terrible people. They just didn’t know any better. You stumbled into doing things right most of the way, but it’s not like anyone was holding your hand and telling you what to do. You were a natural. But not everyone who becomes an alpha is like that. And hell, you know better than anyone that not everyone who becomes an alpha was asking for it or even realized it was going to happen.”
Stiles is nodding slowly. Some pieces are starting to fall into place. “So what did the probation grade entail?”
“Some alphas still fail flat-out, don’t get me wrong,” Yasmin says. “But if we were doing a trial and Justin thought that their heart was basically in the right place, that they were trying to do right by their pack, he would just say ‘okay, we’re gonna come back in six months’. We would sit down with the pack and tell them how things should be. And Justin would give them his number and tell them to call if they had any questions.”
“Did they?” Derek asks, leaning over the seat.
“Yeah,” Yasmin says. “More than even he expected. It got to the point that he started matching up each probationary alpha to one of us, like a big-brother-big-sister type deal,” she adds, laughing. “So not everyone would be texting or calling him all the time. I’ve got two in my phone book right now.”
“Have you gone back for any of your six-month follow-ups yet?” Stiles asks.
“Yeah, a bunch of them. Most of them are doing a lot better. Some of them aren’t. He failed two or three after their probation. One of them dissolved their pack outright and became omega because he just knew he sucked at it and wasn’t going to get any better, and he didn’t want Justin to fail him. And a couple he just extended their probation another six months, because they were doing better, but not better enough to pass.”
“This explains a fuck of a lot about how quiet things have been lately,” Stiles says. “Justin is single-handedly changing the fabric of werewolf society.”
Derek’s nodding. “It used to be, every new alpha needed to build up power as quickly as possible, because they knew the trial was coming. That’s why a lot of them go nuts and change a bunch of betas, with or without consent.”
“And as each individual alpha on probation gets better, other people are probably finding out about it,” Stiles says, “and going to those alphas for advice just as those alphas go to you guys. It’s a new, stabilizing hierarchy that’s never existed before.”
Yasmin knuckles tears away. “Justin is – he’s just so good. You know? And he knew that Trevor took a chance on him, that he didn’t have to. He wants to pay that back.”
“As fascinating as this is,” Stiles says, “I’m at a loss as to how it might have anything to do with what’s going on. You’d think this would be making you guys friends, not enemies.”
“We have gotten a couple ‘why did so-and-so get probation but I fail’,” Yasmin says, “but . . . those people aren’t around to cause us trouble.” She gives a little shrug. “We’re the alpha pack. We’re brutal when we have to be.”
Stiles nods, thinking this over. He had never doubted that the alpha pack would kill his entire pack if the trial has necessitated it. But none of that helps him figure out what to do now. “I’m sort of surprised I hadn’t heard anything about it,” he says.
Yasmin shifts a little. “I think . . . a lot of people don’t trust you,” she says, and he glances over at her. “What you’re doing with the hunters is really interesting, and I want to see if it’ll work as badly as anyone. But some people see you as a traitor.”
“A lot of hunters see Chris Argent the same way,” Stiles says, with a sigh. “Change takes time, I guess. I’ll straddle the fence as long as I can. There are good people and bad people on both sides. But eventually I’ll be forced to pick one. I guess, when that time comes, I’ll probably be as surprised as anyone to find out which side I choose.”
~ ~ ~ ~