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Anthracite

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So here I am it's in my hands
And I'll savor every moment of this
So here I am alive at last
And I'll savor every moment of this
The Used

♠♠♠♠♠

The first text Stiles got came about a month after the Berserker-shitshow in Mexico. There were no words in the message, just a single uncaptioned image. It was a photo of a spectacular sunset: oranges and blues and glowing golds against a mountainous backdrop that could have been just about anywhere in the world. Stiles had no idea who the unknown-number sender was. He’d considered messaging something back to indicate that, but then a random monster-of-the-week tried to kill one of the Pack, he can’t remember what or where exactly, and he didn’t end up hitting send.

He forgot about it until another month later when he received the second text. This time it was a picture of a huge basket of curly-fries set on a table in a retro-styled diner. There was a big, neon-pink Route 66 sign hanging on the wall. Stiles had spent most of that night—the Sunday of his actual birthday—with his dad, and they’d made a pact to leave their phones behind, which meant Stiles had not seen the message until after midnight, an hour or two after it was sent.

The photo had two words as its caption: Happy Birthday.

Stiles probably should have freaked out, then and there, at the fact that it was a not-so-random somebody sending him texts. A somebody who knew his date of birth. He didn’t, though. He made an in-Stiles’-brain-executive-decision and chose to remain composed. He also decided to keep it to himself.

He loaded the sunset image as the background on his phone. He saved that pic, and the big-basket-of-awesome-fries one, to a folder synced with his laptop and two different services in the cloud. It wasn’t until after he’d done those few things, finished his chemistry homework, jerked off, and had a post-midnight snack, that he allowed himself to admit that he knew exactly who it was who’d sent him the messages.

Five or six pictures and a Happy Fourth of July later, Stiles saved the number into his contacts list as M.W . Everyone in the Pack had their noses in everyone else's business, so it was nice to have something just for himself. No one but Stiles needed to know about his newly nicknamed Mystery Wolf.

A few days after making the contact-list commitment, Stiles sent his first reply. He managed a fairly decently angled image of the bandage covering the small tattoo he’d travelled a couple of towns over to get.

He was worried at what M.W.’s response might be. He didn’t send a shot of the actual ink.

There was no comment, but the texts kept coming.

♠♠♠♠♠

Derek stepped back and shook himself off. It felt as if there’d been a bucket of blood thrown over him. There were rivulets of it carving tracks through his fur and it was dripping off his muzzle and down to his paws. He did a quick half circle one way then the other, all the while keeping an eye on the guy on the ground. Derek growled when the man groaned. The stranger was still bleeding from his neck and his breaths were making a sucking sound that wrenched through the still night air.

Derek took a few steps back and sniffed properly for the first time. He hadn’t smelled any sign of other shifters in the area around the side-of-the-road campsite he’d stopped at for the night, but given the werewolf’s clothes and shoes, and the big backpack the man had dropped before he’d attacked, the guy had been a traveler too. Despite his red eyes the stranger had the unmistakable sour scent of Omega.

The Alpha wasn’t young, and likely not inexperienced, but he’d picked the wrong werewolf to attack. He’d been no match for a full-shift Hale wolf. Derek wouldn’t have sought out red eyes again, but the Omega had left him little choice.

The sigh Derek let out sounded more like a huff in this form. The change in power and status would make his life far more difficult. The Alpha on the ground dragged in one last horrific breath and his eyes faded into nothing.

Derek felt his body change with the influx of energy: the ache of his jaws eased and his wounds closed, his chest and back and haunches broadened, and the slight chill in the air seemed to disappear as the Alpha power coursed through his body. It felt foreign, but comfortable all the same.

Derek had been on the road for almost six years without any issue between him and local Packs. They’d all known his last name, they’d all somehow known why he had blue eyes, and they’d mostly let him stay without protest. Some had even tried to tempt him into settling down with them.

He’d done labor and construction in small towns, picking up a variety of practical skills along the way. He’d opted for working club doors in bigger places, blending into the background with the rest of the nightlife. He always took cash in hand for payment, and one-star motels and cheap rooming houses had been happy to relieve him of it. He sent texts to his family on birthdays and holidays. Every few weeks he used a credit card to buy fuel and minutes for his phone, making sure to leave a trail for them and the lawyers in case they needed to find him.

Now he needed to find them. Travelling as a lone Alpha could be seen as a challenge by others if he didn’t have obvious Pack ties.

Derek walked past the disgusting-smelling toilet and shower block and ducked into the forest off to the side of the otherwise empty campsite. He shifted back to two legs and scrubbed himself with muddy sand from the base of the river he’d heard when he’d made camp, then found wood to start a fire just big enough to do what he needed. He burned his ruined sleeping bag and the few pieces of his clothing that had ended up splattered with blood. The fire took an hour to go out, which left only a few before dawn.

Derek dressed and moved himself and his truck upwind, then got back out with the small bag of mixed mountain ash and wolfs bane he’d hoped he’d never have to use. He held his breath and tossed the contents in an arc over the camping area, erasing his scent and that of the other werewolf’s. It was probably an unnecessary precaution. There were no Packs who laid claim to land for miles and miles in every direction. Humans would more than likely blame the itinerant man’s death on a feral dog.

With the clean-up done, Derek drove.

It was good that he was in Texas. He wasn’t that far from the border with Mexico, and the big, gas-guzzling pickup truck he was driving wouldn’t be difficult to trade for something else. He’d grown fond of it and its idiosyncrasies, but only two seats might not do for much longer.

He hadn’t had enough sleep, so he had to concentrate hard on driving. If he got back on the interstate and kept to it he could make it to El Paso without garnering too much negative attention from any established Packs.

It took an hour or two, but as soon as he had a decent phone signal he parked at a big truckers’ road-stop to get fuel, grab a shower, and eat. He called the family solicitors once he’d ordered his burger and asked them to contact the Romero Pack that lived just outside the El Paso city line. He needed permission for the Hale Alpha to stay in the area for a week or two while he waited for one of his Betas to return from Guatemala.

Derek ate while he listened to one of the legal partners go over what had been planned for this kind of scenario. They would contact the other Hales, find the new Alpha a place to stay while Derek waited for at least one Beta to get to him, and then start a full report on what did and didn’t need to be done with investments and properties and everything else.

With his nicest jeans on, his belly full of grease and most of his belongings left in bags next to the side of the roadhouse so they’d be found by someone who might need them, Derek drove again. He stopped once more on his way to El Paso, acknowledging the text the lawyers had sent confirming the Romero Pack’s permission and a reservation for a suite with two bedrooms at the city’s Marriott Hotel.

Derek sent See you soon messages to the other Hales. He stopped himself from hitting send when he snapped a shot of a random guy’s very fancy, very red, snakeskin ankle-boots. He could show the picture off in person soon enough.

Truth be told, Derek had been thinking about it for months. It was difficult to believe it was actually happening. Despite their physical distance from each other, their pseudo-Pack ties had kept the Hales stable and sane. None of them had planned on becoming an Alpha, but now there was a solid center to their bond that wouldn’t be denied. The four of them would be together again soon, and then the Pack would be heading back to where they belonged.

It was time to go home.

♠♠♠

Stiles sat back onto the sofa and brought his foot up to rest across his knee. He listened as Alena made sure everyone had a drink and their favorite snacks. He resisted looking at his phone just-in-case; he hadn’t gone without a text from his M.W. for more than a couple of weeks since the Hunt in senior year, and that was years ago. Not that he was counting, but it had now been twenty-seven days. The last picture he’d received, a wide desert landscape with a clear, candy-blue sky, had been like something from a fancy coffee table book. It had been captioned with a simple declaration of location: Chihuahuan Desert, Texas.

Stiles wouldn’t look at the picture again here, he didn’t need someone noticing him fumbling with his phone and inevitably asking about it. He would look at it again later, though. And then again.

Right now, he needed to keep his hands busy. He leaned forward and picked a bit of a fall-leaf out from underneath the lace of his county-approved boots. He should polish them soon or his dad would be on his case.

Stiles looked up when he heard the door to Scott and Alena’s big, new apartment open and shut again.

“I told you he wouldn’t be much longer.” Liam looked far too smug. It wasn’t like they didn’t all know Mason was always at least fifteen, but no more than twenty-five, minutes late to any given meeting. Luckily not even Liam had told the guy in question that these things officially started at half-past the hour now, just for him.

It was moments like this that Stiles missed Malia. She’d hated the petty shit that went on in human life, and constantly called them out on it. She’d said no to meetings and no to makeup and dresses and eventually no to shoes. She’d reverted to her coyote form a year or two ago and disappeared deep into the preserve. Stiles sometimes wondered if she ever missed them. He doubted it.

“Yeah, yeah,” Aldin said, waving around the beer he’d just snagged from the fridge. He put it on the coffee table as he sat himself on the floor and used a yellow elastic from around his wrist to pull back his dark, wavy hair. “Can we get this show on the road, now? I’ve got wards I need to cast on this place. If I can get them done tonight I’ll have the weekend to myself.”

Lydia sat down next to Stiles on the loveseat and handed him the Diet Sprite he’d been trying to avoid. He knew he’d end up spilling it, and he had to make it through the late shift. He’d be off the night rotation starting Monday, technically, but he didn’t need to go into the station looking as if he’d not taken any care with his uniform. There was no need to goad his dad into extending the swing-shift hell he was currently in.

“It won’t stain, Stiles.” Lydia sipped the straw she’d put in the bottle of overpriced mineral water she’d brought with her. Stiles still wondered, sometimes, despite being there to help when she’d made each and every decision, what she could have done if she’d left Beacon Hills. She hadn’t been able to stay away in the same way that he hadn’t, though. They’d felt the same preternatural pull to return from far across the country. They would have felt it from across an ocean. It had been too painful, in every way, to not come back.

Lydia motioned at his bottle, and watched him take a drink. She then looked back at the Pack at large. “And I’ve got lesson plans and marking to do. Even those of us with mundane jobs have places to be.” She smoothed her skirt over her knees and crossed her legs.

Alena shooed a few stragglers out of her kitchen. She followed them as she picked up one last bowl of snacks and put herself, and it, into Scott’s lap. A few moments later the whole Pack— at least all the actual adults that weren’t looking after kids at Mitchell and Anna’s place—was ready.

Scott looked around the crowded room, flashing his eyes at all the wolves, and muttering hellos to everyone else. “So, it’s that time of the month again. Last week’s Full Moon gathering was good, and the next one’s actually on a weekend, so we’ll all have time for the fun stuff then. I know this is a chunk of time you’d mostly rather spend anywhere else, but let’s get this over with as fast as we can and we can all get back to our own Thursday nights.”

There were general noises of agreement, and then Scott looked at Mitchell and grinned as he said, “It’s up to you to start, my man. Tell us about the money.”

Stiles suppressed a groan and knew Lydia was doing the same. Every month Scott used the same corny line. His sense of humor had been charming as a teenager, but now he just sounded like he was getting lame dad-joke practice.

Mitchell, a definite lame-dad himself, swiped across his iPad and looked up from under his too-long, ginger bangs and said, “Much the same, so going well. The pseudo-tithing thing is working. We’ve got enough now for a good deposit on a meeting house of some sort, and given our combined contributions, more than enough per month to make payments at current standard loan rates.” He kept his pale eyes down and pulled his chin in a little. He rolled his lips together and looked up. “The biggest problem we have at this point is finding a place that meets our requirements and is available.”

Stiles flicked his eyes at Scott and saw the expected pull of his eyebrows, then made sure to concentrate on Mitchell again.

Stiles imagined the pained look on Lydia’s face as Scott put his beer into the cup holder in the side of his armchair. The Alpha was blissfully oblivious of the judgement on his decorating choices, thankfully. “What about the places we talked about last meeting?”

Jessica cleared her throat. “Two of them have only changed hands in the last month or so, so it’s understandable that the new owners aren’t willing to let them go.” Her long, dark hair was pulled back so severely that Stiles wondered how she didn’t have a headache. It was unlikely that it was what was putting the uncomfortable expression on her face at this point, however. “The other four, well—”

“Well what?” Alena lifted an over-plucked eyebrow as she spoke. It wasn’t the kind of eyebrow lift that expressed much, though. Stiles had always hoped that eyebrow-speak was a werewolf-wide ability. It wasn’t. Not even in the born ones. Stiles missed conversations held entirely in eyebrow. Uncommunicative facial muscles or not, Alena didn’t look happy. “Are they all condemned or something?”

Mitchell jumped in again. “No. But they are all owned by the same company, Tee Ess Enterprises. Their legal representatives sounded firm in the ‘absolutely not for sale’ answer they gave for each of the four buildings.”

“Tee Ess?” Lydia uncrossed her legs.

“Yes. It sounds like the initials but it’s written differently. This is all I could find on them,” Mitchell said as he tapped the screen on his iPad a couple of times again and handed it over, “which is not very much.” Lydia scanned the info and passed it back over the table. She just nodded at Mitchell when he added, “I’ll send it to you.”

Stiles held back the yawn that was growing deep in his chest. Twenty minutes more, that’s all he needed. He’d grab a double beef and veggie burger and curly-fries on the way to the station, get his iron levels up to the same level as his blood sugar so he wouldn’t crash.

Scott didn’t scowl at Mitchell and Lydia, but he did at Jessica. It was uncalled for. The poor woman couldn’t help it if a property wasn’t for sale. She didn’t automatically get to buy and sell any place she liked just because she was in real estate.

Scott looked at Aldin instead. “Do you have anything to say about this? Or, you know,” Scott’s goofy face was still his most affable, “any way of making someone want to get rid of a building? Anti-keep-me spells you could secretly do? I really like the look of the place on Maple Drive, for the record.”

The Emissary raised his eyebrow, a mirror image of his twin-sister a few moments before. He didn’t pull off the look, either. “I don’t think that’s something the Elders’ Council would exactly sanction. There’s nothing else to report either, really. All the Pack members’ house and apartment wards are fully functional, as are the ones around the schools and town center. And, nothing’s tripped any of our extended perimeter alarms for more than a month, now.”

There were some happy mutterings in response to that. With an established, and well-known, werewolf Pack in residence, not much nasty supernatural stuff happened in Beacon Hills anymore. There hadn’t been any objectionable visitors or incidents for close to a full year.

“So, the wolves I saw at The Apollo last night are cool?” Gwen asked. “They, well, two of them had faces you’d not want to argue with. Though, one of them was pretty handso—” She swallowed half the word with a squeak and her big brown eyes opened wide.

Scott growled out loud. All the wolves, even Scott’s fiancé, bared their necks and a couple of them, Gwen included, whimpered.

Lydia squeezed Stiles’ hand to stop him from calling Scott a dick. Their mighty-pissed Alpha curled his lip and just managed to keep the wolf out of his words as he said, “What wolves?” He glared daggers at Aldin. “How did they get through your wards without them alerting you? You just finished telling us that the outer perimeter was strong. The Apollo is at least five miles inside the southern border.”

Aldin looked a lot smaller now that he wasn’t spouting off good news. It was times like this that Stiles found it easier to not resent being passed over for Emissary. Most of the time it pissed him off—his Spark wasn’t vulnerable or tainted, no matter what anyone thought, thank you very much—but right now not having the responsibility was a good thing.

Aldin swallowed hard, but apparently found a little strength in the look of support his twin-sister was giving him from the Alpha’s lap. “I have no idea.” He turned to Gwen. “You saw wolves at the diner last night? What time?”

Gwen flared her nostrils. She’d not opted to take the bite until recently, and wasn’t able to read a room with her nose yet, but her newly-improved senses were trying their hardest anyway. “It was pretty late. Well, early this morning, really? I had a paper due today and decided to get coffee and a slice of pie to finish it off with. They were there when I sat down, but left before me. So, from about one to two? I left about an hour after them.”

Scott’s eyes glowed red and his eyebrows had done their shrink-but-not-quite-disappear-thing. He wasn’t taking this well. Stiles decided he should step in and try to get a few more facts before anyone, Alpha especially, completely lost their cool.

“Gwen,” Stiles started, and she turned to look at him, relief on her face, “I think it’s perfectly understandable that you didn’t think to tell anyone about this. None of us would expect to see unknown wolves in the middle of town if no ward-breech-warning-texts were sent out.” She relaxed, and a couple of other sets of shoulders around the room rounded, too. “So, the strangers were there when you got to the diner, and then left about an hour later, yes? Are you certain they were wolves? Could they have been some other kind of shifter?” A group of sneaky werefoxes made more sense to be honest. If anyone could get through a perimeter without setting off a ward it was them. It wasn’t as if it hadn’t happened before.

Gwen looked earnest when she said, “No. They were wolves. They didn’t smell sharp like foxes, or spicy like cats.” It sounded as if she’d at least been practicing her sniffing, then.

Lydia leaned forward and Stiles shifted sideways to give her a direct line of sight to Gwen as she asked, “How many of them were there? And do you think they were all Betas?”

“Four.” Gwen screwed up her nose and tried to hide under her hair. “I don’t know if they were all Betas or not. They weren’t Omegas. They didn’t smell sour. But,” She put her eyes down and the volume of her voice went with it. “They maybe smelled a little stronger than Betas? My wolf has never met an Alpha other than Scott, and he just smells like strong-Pack to me. Maybe they only smelled strong because I don’t know them?”

Evidently Scott made an unhappy noise again. It was too quiet for Stiles to hear, but all the wolves cringed and a couple tilted their heads a bit. Stiles chose to outwardly ignore it.

“Well, that sounds like what most wolves say about their Alphas and other Packs. Scott smells like Pack and safety and home, and strangers smell weird.” Gwen glanced up at him, but dropped her eyes again. “Well, how about what they looked like? Did you see all of their faces?”

Gwen spoke up a little again, apparently feeling a little more confident about this bit. “Three men, one woman. They were all well dressed and looked and smelled almost freshly showered. The woman had dark hair and tanned, but not olive skin. She was sitting next to Guy-one. They looked like they were related? But he had darker hair than her and wasn’t really as tanned. He had three or four days’ worth of scruff, but it looked like it was planned that way, not ‘cause he couldn’t get to a razor. They both had leather jackets on the backs of their chairs.” She paused for a breath, and turned her head a touch as if focusing on different parts of the memory she was describing. “Guy-two was almost as wide across the shoulders as Guy-one. He was less tough looking, though? He was clean cut and shaven, had dirty blond hair, and light eyes that might have been blue. It was hard to tell in the diner’s light. Guy-three wasn’t as muscly as the others, but wiry. His hair was straight and black, with a big, bright-orange streak dyed in the front. He looked like a manga-character, which might be why I want to call him Japanese?”

Stiles summarized all that for himself: two dark haired, leather jacket owning, possibly brother and sister non-Hispanic whites, a light-eyed, clean-cut Caucasian, and someone who looked like they were out of an Anime. Okay. He couldn’t lie to himself; the descriptions of the first two, and even the third, had the hair on his arms standing on end. The reaction was lessened by the fact that he had absolutely no idea about the last guy. He’d felt Lydia move herself a little closer to him, push into his side just a bit more as Gwen as talked about the woman, Guy-one, and Guy-two. She’d wilted a little on Guy-three too, though.

They’d probably been thinking, and hoping, the same thing up until then.

Stiles made himself smile as he said, “That’s good detail, Gwen. I’m impressed. Now, I’ve got one last question for you, okay?”

She smiled back even as Scott barked, “Only one?”

Stiles gave him a terse look and all but snapped out, “Yes, only one.” He tacked on a, “for now, at least,” after a moment to placate the not-so-proverbial beast. He angled himself back fully to Gwen, who looked far more relaxed now she had an apparent end in sight for the questioning. “What were they doing while you were there?”

She nodded once, as if acknowledging that this was a question she could answer. “They finished dinner. The waitress cleared their table and asked them if they wanted anything else. They all got dessert and coffee and seemed to enjoy it.” She paused a moment and looked to her right. “The waitress was happy with the tip they left her.”

Stiles sat back and the whole room started into talking. The apartment sounded like a lunch-busy school cafeteria. Hopefully the noise, and the fact that Alena chose that moment to twist around and plant a kiss on her live-in fiancé’s scowling face, distracted Scott enough that he didn’t hear it when Lydia leaned forward and said, “So, Gwen. Bad-girl, Bad-boy, McDreamy and Manga-cutie, yes?”

Gwen giggled into the soda she was holding, her wide smile telling them that Lydia had the descriptions dead to rights. Stiles’ heart skipped a beat or three, but hopefully no one took any notice.

The meeting only lasted another ten minutes. All business other than the interloping wolves was put on hold. Liam and Robert chose wolf-only pairs and assigned each of them a section of the territory to search, with a stern warning not to approach the strangers or engage with them in any way. They should alert them, or Scott, the moment they caught sight or got a whiff of the outsiders.

Everyone left with strict instructions to not travel anywhere alone, and Stiles dutifully offered to walk Lydia to her car and then tail her home. They kept their mouths closed until he followed her inside their house, ostensibly so he could make sure everything was secure, but actually so they could be inside their special wards and wouldn’t be heard.

They stood just inside the doorway looking at each other for a few moments.

Lydia broke the silence. “So. We’re thinking what, Hale, Hale, Whittemore, and… Associate?”

Stiles snorted. “You make them sound like a pretentious law firm that forgot to hire more than one minion.”

Lydia laughed, then slipped out of her absurd heels and grabbed the scrunchie she’d never be caught dead in outside of the house and pulled her long hair up into a loose bun. She lost her smile. “I haven’t figured out how they got through Aldin’s wards without tripping the alarm, but it has to be them.”

Stiles followed her to the kitchen and took the bowl of leftovers she handed him from the fridge. Microwaved turkey meatballs might not be a lovely, greasy burger and fries, but they’d more than do for his pre-shift dinner. Lydia held out a bowl of plain pasta in one hand and cheesy mashed-potato in the other. Stiles chose the potato, and put it next to the meatballs on the bench.

Then it hit him. “Let me see the spaghetti a sec?”

Lydia turned, managing a raised eyebrow better than either of the Allard twins ever could despite her distinct lack of werewolf DNA, and passed him the bowl without further question.

Stiles lifted off the lid and stared into the pasta swirls while Lydia stared at him.

“Most of the Pack don’t have the full history. And, despite hearing the legends of the Hale Pack and the McCall True Alpha, Aldin has no way to actually know everything that went down. Deaton wouldn’t likely tell him even if he got the question perfect from the get-go, and Scott’s cocky enough that he wouldn’t even think to consider the tangled story important, let alone think to inform his poor Emissary.” Stiles pulled the lid back on the bowl and put it back in the fridge. Lydia waited. Stiles took in a deep breath, and counted to eight on the out. “That’s not spaghetti, it’s linguine. I do remember what you taught me in your hour-long lesson on importance of different pasta types.” Lydia smiled, happy that Stiles did know the difference. “But, Lyds, you still handed it over when I asked.”

“Even I don’t demand precision with every word, Stiles. Not anymore.” Her smile was softer now.

“Not for day-old left-overs, no. But for hexes or runes and wards around us you definitely would. I’d bet whatever Spark I have that Aldin used a general notice-anything-that’s-not-meant-to-be-here type of ward when he marked out the perimeters, rather than something that focused on the Pack in specific, or on the intent of the who or what it detected.” Stiles rubbed a hand through his hair, tugging a little and letting his hands drag through the long half-curls on the top. He’d have to comb it again before he headed off to the station. “I can see why he wouldn’t. Tailoring to intent means that he’d miss beings that didn’t mean harm but might cause it anyway. And with his kind of magic, a spell that was Pack member specific would have to be actively recast, or at least tweaked, every time someone even changed rank in the Pack. That’s not to mention people joining or leaving. Imagine the nightmare he’d have gone through while Scott was actively recruiting. Even now that everything’s settled down he’d be constantly exhausted.”

Stiles could see Lydia connecting the dots as he spoke.

“And the land that Scott considers to be Pack territory, the land that Aldin’s wards are tied to, would consider the Hales and their Pack to be meant to be here.” She looked over his shoulder at their little office-cum-library. “I’m glad Deaton looked the other way when we didn’t give back all his books. It’s been a while, but I get the feeling we might need to do some brushing up on theory, at least.”

Stiles hummed in agreement at his best friend and leaned back against their kitchen counter so he didn’t have to rely on his jello-legs to keep him upright as the situation sank home. “The Hales are part of the land here, figuratively and literally. There are generations of them buried in the preserve. They spilt their blood over and over in service to the area, sacrificed themselves to provide protection to other beings here. Not to mention they probably still own at least some property here.”

“It makes sense. And therein also likely lies the reason our Gwen wouldn’t have flipped out completely when she saw them.” Lydia put the meatballs in the microwave and hit Start as she spoke. “They probably smelled a bit strange, but not terrible. Scott might not like to advertise it, but he was made by a Hale.” She shivered, but shook away the feeling. “Peter’s dead, but that link can’t ever die. The unknown wolves probably just seemed like the long-lost cousins they are to Gwen, rather than true intruders.”

“They’d be strange, but also familiar enough to make her okay about them being there even easier than if she’d just accepted them for the-magic-intruder-alarm-didn’t-go-off reasons.”

Lydia leaned back against the cupboards with him, and for a minute or two all there was was the hum of the microwave and the sounds of an overly long-lived cricket in the garden beyond the big glass windows.

Stiles couldn't help imagining that the bing bing bing of the microwave finishing sounded like the bell at the beginning of a round of boxing.

“Well,” Lydia said as she swapped the meatballs for the potato and hit go again, “at least we had a pleasant summer?”

Stiles sighed and reached into his pocket to pull out his phone. He ran his thumb over the darkened screen, looking at the smudge he left as he did.

“I know you already figured out my little secret, and I thank you for not pushing or teasing me about my messaging-buddy.” He swiped his phone open and hit the contacts button, then scrolled down to M.W. “I suppose it’s time to make your knowledge of him official though, seeing as there’s no way in hell that Hale, Hale, Whittemore, and Associate didn’t notice our Gwen sitting in the corner doing her homework, cousins or not.”

Lydia looked serious again. “The Hales made the first move, sitting in the middle of a busy diner to let the McCalls know they are here, and doing nothing out of the ordinary except tipping well. It might not seem like a loud statement, but it did what it needed to do. They wouldn't have exposed themselves that way if they were without an Alpha, but we'll have to see which one of them it is.” She tugged at a tendril of hair. “I doubt there’s an Alpha who stayed at home and sent out their Betas as show-and-tell.” She pushed off the cupboards. “And, despite Scott and the rest of the Pack deciding they need to be on high-alert, we both know that the Hales aren't here to attack. No one would have seen them coming if that had been their intention.” She reached into the cupboard to her left and pulled out a couple of plates. “We should make use of your messaging-buddy status to return their friendly overture.”

“Peacefully eating pie is a friendly overture, right.” Stiles grinned at how surreal that was, and how perfect. “I think that might be a little too subtle for some.” He felt his smile morph into a smirk. “Martin and Stilinski, though, we can do subtle, right?” He tapped open the messaging app on his Android. “What kind of photo says, We’ve missed your faces, About damn time you came home, and Why the fuck haven’t you come said hi?

♠♠♠