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The Man with a Thousand Smiles

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Cora shrieked with laughter as Peter took another winding turn that hugged the edge of the pavement. His grin widened as his niece slapped her palm on the side of the teal convertible.

“Uncle Peter!” Cora’s hair blew wildly. “You’re going too fast!”

“Long country roads were meant to be taken this way.”

Peter cranked up the radio on the only station available so far out in the countryside. Oddly, it wasn’t country or preachers like Peter had expected. With the wind blowing through their hair Cora belted along to crooning lyrics from the seventies. Peter felt feather-light for the first time in his life.

Cora sat back, her sunglasses twinkling with the reflected sunbeams. She scratched the tip of her freckled nose and squinted at her phone.

“Next stop, Beacon Hills. Did you know that it’s known for its beautiful fog?” Cora snorted. “Can fog be beautiful?”

Peter took another tight turn and Cora threw her head back, giggling against the wind. Peter pumped the gas and hoped they could continue to ride this high for at least another day—that they could pretend it was just a spontaneous road trip and not a necessary break from the Hale Pack. The small towns could easily be excused as pit stops for amusing curiosities and not for finding Peter a permanent, solitary home.

He stopped at a small deli where he got bagels and coffee while Cora called Talia outside. He glanced at a community board where the flyers consisted of penny auctions and garage sales. It was like all the other towns he’d driven through.

Sleepy, tranquil, rural.

All were perfect places to hide an exiled Pack member, a pleasant place to forget that the former Hale Second had ever existed.

Peter pushed out of the deli to see Cora blow hair out of her face.

“I’m fine, mom. It’s been fun, Uncle Peter is showing me all kinds of driving tricks—” Cora winced and turned away from him with a frustrated sigh. “No—I was just kidding, geez.”

Funny how quickly Peter could go from feather-light to heavy. Cora answered Talia’s demands with unenthusiastic hums. He had hoped, uncharacteristically optimistic and naïve of him, that Talia would be able to separate his desire to be alone from being a feral Omega.

Cora hung up with a defeated slump of her shoulders. Peter didn’t comment on her wet eyes and she didn’t mention his white knuckled grip on the steering wheel. The radio played love songs that tried to lift their spirits but left them feeling lost.

“Where are we going,” Cora whispered after twenty minutes.

“I think a hike would do some good.”

After a while all the unclaimed territories blurred together. They ate their bagels before they pulled into the state park. The path was steep enough to make sweat gather on the back of Peter’s neck. Cora kicked a few pebbles out of her way.

“Mom is worried you, uh, won’t make a decision.” Peter snorted and he heard a faint smile return to Cora’s voice. “Yeah, I thought that was stupid too.”

Fog gently rolled in thin wisps that didn’t hover higher than a few inches off the ground. They’d been hiking for a good hour when branches snapped behind them. Peter and Cora both turned, alarmed to see a park ranger waving as he made his way up the path.

“Hey, strangers!” The young man’s cheeks were flushed as he drew closer. “I heard your voices down the hill so I thought I’d stop by and say hello. Are you guys new or just passing through?”

He glanced between the two of them with warm brown eyes. Cora shot Peter a crooked smile.

“Kind of both. Trying to decide if it’s a good place to move to.”

“Oh!” The ranger brightened, and the sun sliced through the thin cloud cover. It illuminated his skin as he held out his hand. “I’m Stiles Stilinski. You’re about a half hour from this clearing that gives you a great view of Beacon Hills. I can lead you up, if you want.”

Cora shook his hand.

“That would be great. I’m Cora Hale.”

Peter was next, and though his hand was bigger he felt oddly enveloped when Stiles shook his hand.

“I’m Peter Hale.”

Peter Hale,” Stiles drawled like the name was a flavorful wine. Stiles withdrew his touch, and the absence left Peter feeling cold. “Follow me and watch your step.”

Sunlight followed them up the hillside, and Stiles chattered on about town celebrations, the wildlife, and various places to visit. His voice carried impressively as he helped them up steeper patches until they finally arrived at the peak’s clearing.

“I know it sounds totally cheese-ball but I really do love seeing Beacon Hills from so high up.” The mountainside had a steep drop off that exposed the town below. Lakes, rivers, and forests were intricate from their height. “It’s not the most exciting place,” Stiles smiled with a shrug, “but I like it.”

His voice wasn’t a bubbling, rose-tinted sales pitch. In fact, he sounded tired. Despite his easy-going posture Peter could see the deeper lines at the corner of his eyes and mouth. Stiles, Peter realized, hadn’t always been in Beacon Hills, but had chosen to settle there.

Peter would have to make a similar choice soon.

“Yeah, looks great and all,” Cora flicked her hair over her shoulder, “but can you really claim that the fog is beautiful?”

Stiles hesitated, his body halting in movement like he’d stumbled and caught himself. He threw his head back and laughed, loud and uneven like it was falling out of him. The noise made Peter’s lips lift into a bewildered grin as birds flew from the trees.

Stiles steadied himself by gently gripping Peter’s shoulder, and Peter realized he knew where he was going to stay.

::::

Scott McCall met Stiles when he was five years old.

Most memories from that time faded into vague blurs of color and dull sensation—but not Stiles. Scott had been short and chubby, wide-eyed but aware enough to be restless when his parents were fighting.

It had been early spring, and the flowers just opened up from a chilly winter. Scott crept down the hall, past the kitchen where his father slammed his glass down, and out the backdoor. He’d walked past the tree line, the indigo sky at his back until his tiny legs shook too much to hold him up.

Divorce was a dark word hissed under the breath from other mothers at church. It made Scott’s chest tight, thinking about that word, how it made his mom flinch and his dad sneer—

Would he be able to stay with mommy? She already worked so hard, would having Scott be too much? What if his dad really—really—wanted Scott to stay with him?

The smell of sweet flowers did nothing to stop the crushing anxiety from closing Scott’s throat until he collapsed. I forgot my inhaler, he thought as tears streaked down his face. He wheezed, his little hands uselessly gripping the moss.

“Help me,” Scott whimpered, too soft though he tried to scream, “Help me—please…”

He curled on his side and watched the shadows stretch towards him. They were an unnatural, deep, flat dark that made Scott’s eyes hurt. He felt a large hand push against his chest and suddenly he could breathe again.

The shadows pooled around him, and Scott took deep, uneven breaths until his skin no longer stung. Scott turned to lay on his back and stared at the stars that peeked through the leaves. The night grew colder, the moon brighter, and the hand remained on Scott’s chest.

He moved his little hands to the large splay of slender fingers on his chest. The hand was too firm and big to be his mother. It was far too gentle to be his father. Scott ran his fingers over the flesh and he didn’t feel skin. Scott knew immediately what he felt and he relaxed.

Crushed velvet held him, the same velvet on his favorite bear from his grandma.

Are you okay?

The voice came from all around him, soft as a breeze and bright as a sunflower. Scott gripped the index finger that spanned across his right shoulder and over his chest.

“Uh-huh.” Scott stroked the velvet and the darkness purred. “I’m Scott McCall,” he felt the ground ripple beneath him, more crushed velvet brushing against the back of his neck and cheek. “What’s your name?”

The night breeze was warm and blew Scott’s hair out of his eyes. Below him the ground moved slowly up, then down. Breathing, Scott thought and matched the tempo.

It’s very difficult to say. I don’t think you’ll be able to pronounce it.

Scott puffed out his chest.

“Will so!” He tightened his grip on the velveteen fingers. They curled, the sinew and muscle shifting beneath Scott’s grasp. “You want to be friends or not?”

He’d never had a friend before. It always looked so easy in the movies, but it was hard to run and play with the threat of asthma over his shoulder.

Warm breath blew through the trees. Scott struggled to follow the various low trills and lyrical rumbles. His vocal chords were too limited, too human. He squeezed the velvet fingers in desperate frustration. Was Scott as pathetic and hopeless just like his dad said? “Quit crying, Scotty,” his dad would say while he squeezed Scott’s chin between his fingers, “Nobody likes a crybaby.”

The fingers touched his face and wiped the wetness away from his cheeks.

How about you give me a name?

Bubbling hope bloomed in Scott’s chest.

“And then we can be friends?”

Sure. The voice rumbled. I’ve never had a friend before.

“Really?” Scott grinned. “Me neither!”

Scott sat up and the shadows retreated from under him. The velvet grip helped him to his feet and brushed twigs and pebbles from his knees. The birds flew from the trees, and the cicadas dropped to an awed hush as the name left Scott’s lips.

“Stiles.”

The name took form and burst across Scott’s tongue like fireworks. His new friend smiled over a thousand smiles. He laughed like waves crashing on a beach and the brief hush just before his mother would sing to her favorite song on the radio.

Stiles, his new friend sang, what a wonderful name. I think I’ll keep it.

::::

Cities held an addicting impersonality to them where a person could blend in with the noise. The Hale Pack had territories in New York City and Peter had adored his home. There was always a store open, coffee to be had, and money to spend—but it wasn’t enough to shake the disconnect he felt from his Pack. It grew sharper and deeper every day until—

Peter pulled on his jogging pants and gripped his phone tightly. Beacon Hills brought a different noise. Those who lacked imagination or vocabulary often labeled small towns as “quiet.” They were just as loud, just in a different way.

Birds chirped wildly, bugs hissed, and branches snapped in the grey light just before dawn. Peter played his music and jogged down his driveway until he got to the road. Running in the city there were always sudden stops, but in Beacon Hills the road was open and empty.

People left their doors wide open. At first he thought it was an error, but he passed six houses were someone was awake inside, whether it was in full morning-breakfast mode or just yawning over coffee—but their front doors all hung open.

He ran until his limbs blossomed with pain to remind him of what he left behind.

Pack.

The word held a grandiose weight where werewolves basked in its reverence. Pack was a sanctuary, a group of wolves that had a home in each other. Peter’s home was the city, its people, and its routines—just not his Pack. Peter had calmly explained that everything was fine and that he’d like to stay in the city that served as his true home.

Talia disagreed, and so Peter ran miles through thick fog. He couldn’t chase the prickling, angry heat that spread along his spine. He stopped when his legs shook to the point where he had to lean against the guardrail. Energetic music played from his dangling ear buds and he tried to focus on the inane lyrics. He squeezed his eyes shut and ground his elongated teeth.

Between breaths he heard singing. Peter turned off his music and heard a voice warble along to the lyrics. Peter straightened and wiped his eyes moments before Stiles walked out of the fog.

“Oh.” Stiles said with a sleepy smile. “Good morning, Mr. Hale.”

“Please,” Peter stood and shook Stiles’s hand, “call me Peter.” Stiles nodded around an impressive yawn. His uniform was crisp, not a button out of place. “You’re up early.”

Stiles cracked open a bleary eye.“So are you.” Peter snorted and without a word they walked into the fog together, slowly retracing the path back to Peter’s house. “The first few weeks are tough.” Stiles croaked with sleep-stung lips. “I remember my first month was awful.”

The park ranger shook himself out, and when his eyes met Peter’s, he seemed much more awake. Slowly the tightness in Peter’s muscles ebbed into a dull throb. The mist cooled him with every step.

“When did you move here?”

Stiles couldn’t have been older than twenty-five, but his expressions often felt older. He squeezed one eye shut and poked his tongue out of the corner of his mouth.

“A while ago.” Stiles walked with casual purpose, his shoulders brushing against Peter. “It’s hard to sleep, it’s all new and overwhelming, but the key is to remember what you love about it. Or, in your case, find things to love about it.”

Silver mist swirled at their feet. Peter had a place that he loved, that he missed—and he knew that he was being stubborn out of spite. When Talia had placated him with the same words, Peter bristled down to his bones. Stiles didn’t mean it that way, but Peter still clenched his fists.

“What is there to love about it?”

A sharp gust of wind punctuated Stiles’s flinch. The fog grew so thick Peter could hardly make out Stiles’s silhouette.

“Well,” Stiles’s clipped tone made Peter want to do something ludicrous like apologize. “I can only speak for myself.” A gently breeze moved the fog as Stiles sighed. “All my friends were here. It made it easier. Now I love just about everything, the trees, the rivers, the old bridge by the general store that shakes when you drive over it—all of the pieces combine to form a cohesive picture.” Stiles paused, his eyes warm. “I know flowery sentiment isn’t much of a comfort.”

They arrived at Peter’s driveway much quicker than he expected. He wanted to linger in Stiles’s orbit, and he reached out to touch the younger man’s arm.

“Do you want to come in for breakfast?”

“Hm.” Stiles’s lips curled, and when he winked, Peter’s mouth went dry. “What’s on the menu?”

The birds and insects had gone quiet. Peter felt as though he was in the eye of a hurricane. Surely the world continued in its noisy entropy, but Peter could only hear the rush of his heartbeat.

“Well,” Peter swallowed with an embarrassingly loud click, “I hadn’t planned on anything more extravagant than eggs. However, for you… I might break out the waffle iron.”

The sun chased away the fog and left clear blue skies in its wake. Peter whisked while Stiles meddled with one of the clock radios that had been left behind in the house. Soon he found the only radio station in Beacon Hills, and the disco filled the kitchen.

Stiles ducked and weaved around the island. He sang badly but never missed a lyric. Peter cracked a smile and poured the batter into the waffle iron. He closed it with a satisfying hiss.

“Disco is dead, you know.”

Stiles stopped mid-spin.

“Disco is not dead! Disco is life!”

Pink spread across his cheeks, and he cracked a smile. Minutes passed, and Peter had to lean against Stiles while they both laughed themselves hoarse.

“All right, Beacon Hills, that wraps up the disco power hour.” The prickly yet jovial radio host crowed. “I hope our favorite park ranger enjoyed the tracks. Stay tuned while I catch us up to the current time period.”

Stiles had a mouthful of waffle and choked when Peter cocked an eyebrow.

::::

Lydia Martin met Stiles when she was eleven years old.

Summer cicadas wailed as Beacon Hills Elementary celebrated the last day of school with the annual field day. The entire class was divided into red or blue teams where they competed in physical games. Lydia was on the blue team with her best friend, Kira Yukimura.

“I hate tug-of-war.” Kira whispered, her hand shaking in Lydia’s. “The boys always get so loud.”

Lydia was in the fifth grade but was studying at a ninth grade level in math and literature. Her peers focused on finite, crass humor and short-lived camaraderie. Her mother said she was very mature for her age, but all Lydia felt a bitter sting. That was until she met Kira, who didn’t sneer at her books, who was patient when Lydia explained her lessons, and above all—she was equally repelled by the noise that came with their age.

Kira’s dark eyes wandered away from the rope they’d soon have to grip to the concrete steps where Scott McCall sat.

“I feel bad.” Kira said, turning away before Scott could realize he was being watched. “There must be some games he could play with us.”

The pink flush on her cheeks made Lydia roll her eyes. Boys. Boys who thought violence and flirting were one in the same, boys who splintered apart friendships over a crush. Scott wasn’t like those boys. Scott wasn’t like most people.

He was quiet but not shy. He didn’t have friends, but he never came off as lonely. Even as he sat on the steps, he didn’t fidget or sigh wistfully. He seemed fully content. Lydia watched him, and let her jealously fester at how he captivated Kira… and how he seemed more comfortable in his own skin than anyone else Lydia had ever encountered.

Kira peered back over to sneak a look at him only to meet his eyes.

“Oh no.” Kira jumped and turned around, red as a tomato. “Oh no, oh no, oh no.”

“What?” Lydia turned, and Scott was already staring off elsewhere. “Kira, he didn’t even notice.” Her best friend’s shoulders trembled, and Lydia tightened her grip on Kira’s hand. “You can say hi—”

“No.” Kira shouted, uncharacteristically loud. “No, he’ll make fun of me.”

The cicadas were deafening, and Lydia came up with a plan. Scott, she reasoned, could use a few friends. If he was as friendly as he seemed, then Kira would be happy. Lydia liked it when Kira was happy.

Scott McCall lived three houses down from Lydia, and summer break gave her ample time to sneak away into the woods to track down her neighbor.

You should be my friend because Kira likes you. No, too revealing. Scott, let’s be friends. Too simple. Scott, I can’t tell if you need friends but this is more about my best friend and—

Shrill giggles made Lydia pause.

“Put me down—Stiles, stop, I’m going to get my clothes dirty—”

Lydia hid behind a tree, her heart pounding. Stiles. She vaguely remembered that name, its echo conjuring up memories of show-and-tell in kindergarten. Stiles was Scott’s imaginary friend. Lydia’s stomach tightened.

She’d never had an imaginary friend. Everyone else had one, even Kira, but not her. By now everyone knew that Santa Claus wasn’t real and that your parents were the ones who traded quarters out for teeth. Maybe Scott never stopped believing… and Lydia felt an oily bubble of pity swell in her stomach.

Lydia stepped out from her hiding place. She expected to see Scott alone in the forest.

What she received was impossible.

She saw Scott hovering in the grasp of something with odd textures that bled from three to two dimensional. She saw eyes, scales, and mouths that laughed with Scott. She saw it and gasped. She blinked, and Scott’s feet were back on the ground. Another boy stood behind him, Scott’s arm out to protect him.

“Lydia?” Lydia stared at the new boy, at his ghostly skin and brown eyes. “Lydia, are you okay?”

She didn’t know how to properly respond. Her gut—childish—impulse was to emphatically insist that no, she was not okay. Her limbs jerked with restraint because a more ancestral and archaic instinct told her to flee.

The unknown danger shrank behind Scott, his voice an ashamed murmur of leaves in the wind.

“Scott, should I go?”

“No,” Lydia lifted her eyes to see Scott turn his back to her. “Stiles, it’s okay. It will be fine.”

Her heartbeat slowed to a manageable rhythm. She straightened on steady legs, and when she drew in a breath, the taste of vanilla Coca Cola bubbled across her tongue. She had to relax her eyes and purposely not focus on the dark shadow on the ground that was too big to be cast by Scott.

“My name is Lydia Martin.”

She held out her hand because her mother raised her to be polite. Scott whipped his head around, and the wide grin he flashed her made her chest constrict. She was beginning to see why Kira was infatuated. The boy behind Scott stepped forward.

When his hand closed around Lydia’s, she knew it was one hand of many, perhaps thousands. His skin was smooth like the river stones Lydia and Kira collected from the stream behind her house.

“Stiles.”

He smiled, and Lydia’s stomach flipped like she’d reached the top of a Ferris Wheel. She could feel something vast stretch out before her, something new and exhilarating. She squeezed his hand and grinned until her cheeks were stained pink.

“It’s an absolute pleasure, Stiles.”

::::

The Beacon Hills library was more impressive than Peter had expected.

“I’ll just need a form of identification.”

The librarian, who’d introduced herself as Kira, took Peter’s license. She frowned, and Peter saw her eyes flicker over his out-of-state ID.

“I just moved here.”

“Oh.” Kira beamed. “Welcome. I can get you a temporary library card, but it expires after six months.” She rummaged around her desk before she dropped to her knees to get to the lower drawers. “It will be just a moment, Mr. Hale.”

The smell of books was calming. He leaned against the front desk and craned his neck to see if he could spot the local records section. A rapid, terrified heartbeat approached him. When Peter turned, he forced himself to keep his expression neutral.

Chris Argent stared at him, a ghostly shadow of how Peter remembered the legendary hunter. He’d grown a beard, and the lines on his face had deepened with age and grief. Peter watched the human’s throat bob and click, no words making it past his teeth.

“All right,” Kira stood with a light huff, “you’re all set—oh, good afternoon, Chris.”

Chris barely looked at the librarian before he returned his eyes to Peter.

“Good afternoon, Kira. Peter.”

Kira, adorable and astute, kept her smile steady.

“Is there anything I can direct you towards, Mr. Hale?”

“Since I’m new,” Peter drawled over the spike in Chris’s heartbeat, “local records and history would be lovely.”

“I can show you,” Chris interjected. “I’d be happy to.”

Peter’s smile tightened.

“Sounds wonderful.”

Every werewolf knew the Argent story, Peter especially. Chris Argent had been a frequent face during Pack and Hunter treaty meetings. He’d been strong, confident, and the epitome of the dedicated soldier… until a feral Alpha went after his wife. Talia had volunteered Peter’s services to hunt the wolf down. He’d dragged the Alpha to Chris for execution.

Justice had been satisfied, but it didn’t take away the loss, the tragedy.

Peter might not have liked Chris Argent, but even he felt pangs of empathy at the dark circles that remained under his eyes after all these years.

He followed Chris down a narrow hallway to the records room. Inside a man slept, draped in his own jacket as he snored softly. Chris paused at the sight of the sleeping stranger but closed the door behind Peter anyway.

“I didn’t know the Hale Pack was moving.”

Chris’s voice was a dark grumble. Peter was shocked by the slump of his shoulders and curved spine.

“They aren’t. Just me.”

Hushed snores softened the icy stare from Chris. Peter expected jaw-cracking gnashed teeth and dark threats. Instead, Chris sighed and his posture worsened. He ran his fingers down his face, so harsh that lines of red and white briefly flared up on his skin. His ring finger trembled, an involuntary spasm as he met Peter’s eyes.

“You won’t cause this town and its people trouble.”

“No. Of course not.”

Peter answered despite it not being a question. It sounded like a warning, one that made the tiny, thin hairs on the back of Peter’s neck stand on end. Back when Peter had first met Chris, back when the hunter was all steel and determination, it would have been a warning against Peter. In the hushed records room at the Beacon Hills library it felt like a warning for him.

“Beacon Hills is different from New York.” Peter snorted with a roll of his eyes. The muscle in Chris’s jaw leapt like a rabbit. “I’m serious. Tread lightly here, you aren’t shielded by city crowds anymore.”

Chris clenched his fists. Peter heard the strain of his calloused skin. He was about to ask just what had Chris so frightened when a lion-like yawn came from the sleeping man.

“Easy, Chris.” A smoky rasp came from a head of unruly black hair. “You’re heading toward Liam Neeson territory, and it’s beginning to stray from sexy to actually unnerving. Roleplay is fun, but not if I’m unconscious.” The man twisted and leaned back in his chair, only for his eyes to widen. “Oh shit!”

He startled and toppled out of his chair with a resounding thud. Peter watched Chris’s entire face slacken, pink tinting the tips of his ears as he hurried to the man’s side. His touch was firm but gentle.

“Are you okay?”

Chris’s hand slid from the stranger’s shoulder to his hip, helping him stand.

“Yeah, just embarrassed, but that’s nothing new.” He stood, his arm loose around Chris’s shoulders. He held out his hand to Peter. “Sorry, I’m used to Chris being a bit of a lone wolf.” Peter chuckled and took the man’s soft hand into his own. The man grinned with big teeth and winked. “I’m Bobby Finstock.”

“Peter Hale.” Peter let Bobby’s hand fall from his grip and smiled when he realized why Finstock sounded so familiar. “Stiles has me listen to your Disco Power Hour when he comes over for breakfast.”

Finstock brightened, his smile softening—while Chris recoiled. It wasn’t a full, dramatic repulsion, but Peter caught the full body flinch as he stepped away from Finstock.

“Oh, you met my favorite ranger? He’s a good kid. A bit weird but who isn’t, right? A friend of Stiles is a friend of mine.” He pulled Peter in for a tight hug with a hoarse, “it’s good to meet you.”

He sauntered out. Chris followed, and Peter didn’t miss how his shoulders were back to being wound tight.

::::

Kira Yukimura met Stiles when she was twelve years old.

Thunder and lightning crackled outside, making the windows shake in the community center. Kira shivered in her bathing suit, her hair soaked and plastered to her pale face. She’d joined the summer swim team at her mother’s insistence, and now the meet at the lake was postponed due to a sudden storm. Another lightning strike that was closer made Kira bump into Scott.

“This is ridiculous.” Lydia crossed her arms, pink splotches on her cheeks and neck. “Has anyone called our parents? The meet should be cancelled.”

Kira envied Lydia.

Lydia Martin was a hurricane, a force of nature with endless confidence and intelligence. Nothing scared her, and nothing made her shrink away with embarrassment. Kira felt like a mouse next to lion, and it had only gotten worse.

Over the last summer, Lydia brought Scott into their circle as a new friend. One day Scott was someone Kira comfortably admired from a distance, the next he was shaking her hand with a soft, “It’s nice to meet you.” Lydia had smiled like she’d gotten Kira the best present.

Kira was not a genius, but she also was not stupid.

Something had happened with Lydia and Scott. She saw it in Lydia’s gaze, how her smile widened when Scott joined them for lunch or when he ran to catch up with them on the way to the bus. That summer, when Lydia had randomly decided that Scott McCall, a boy she had no previous interest in, was worthy to call a friend. Something happened, and she didn’t tell Kira… and Lydia used to tell Kira everything.

“Ugh.” Lydia huffed with a flick of her beautiful fiery-amber hair. “I’m going to find the coach.”

She turned to Kira, and she flashed her a secret smile, as she always did when she left Kira alone with Scott.

Lydia was brave. She didn’t back down from the same conversations and interactions that made Kira freeze. Lydia had no hesitation while Kira could still feel her mother’s hand tighten on her arm as she hissed in her ear on the first day of preschool.

“Smile! Don’t you want to make any friends?”

Kira was a coward. She wrapped her towel tightly around her and didn’t say a word to Scott. Without Lydia as a foil Kira was lost.

Maybe that’s why Lydia went after Scott. Maybe she’d finally decided Kira was too boring. It hurt, deeper than being laughed at, deeper than loud noises, and deeper than talking to Scott. Whatever had happened with Scott and Lydia—whatever made her hang out with him more—Kira had a dark and miserable wish that it had never transpired.

She’d always liked Scott. She liked how soft he was and how he smiled brightly even if it was toward no one in particular.

But she’d rather never speak to him again if it meant she could have her best friend back.

The windows rattled with more thunder. The lights flickered. Some of the smaller kids drew closer to them, comforted by the “big kids.” In a few months Scott, Lydia, and Kira would leave elementary school and head to the dreaded junior high.

A flash of light made Kira recoil and Scott’s hand found hers and squeezed.

“It will be okay.” Scott’s voice commanded their corner. The wide-eyed kids stared up at him in awe. “It’s just a storm, it will pass.” Scott squeezed her hand again. Kira almost lost her grip on her towel. “Kira,” usually her heart soared when Scott said her name, but now she only felt morose, “just keep breathing steady, okay?”

He was so nice it wasn’t fair. Bitter tears welled in Kira’s eyes.

“I wish Lydia were here.”

She yanked her hand free just as the lights went out. The little kids surged forward and slammed into her. Kira hugged them close, and Scott was squashed against her side. Kira gasped, blind in the dark.

A violent flash of light illuminated the many faces of terror for a silent, serene moment. Then it ended, and the crackle of splintered and burning wood filled their nostrils. Kira backed up against Scott just as the ceiling caved under a fallen tree.

Kira couldn’t draw in air to scream. Terror froze her in place, and she barely heard Scott’s shout.

“Close your eyes!” She felt him move; the little kids pushed so close she couldn’t breathe. She jumped when Scott’s clammy hands closed over her eyes. “Stiles,” Scott whispered, high and tense, “help us, please—”

Rain fell on them, and the storm raged. Kira began to twist out of Scott’s relentless hold when the approaching violence, the storm, the thunder—it all vanished. The pressure of the kids on her stomach was lifted, and she felt feather-light. In fact, she felt like she was underwater, her hair floating in silky tufts around her face.

Two hands, smooth as glass, gently took hold of her fingers.

I’ve got you. A voice surrounded her like her grandmother’s old blankets. She felt warm, dry, and treasured. Another hand gently cradled her head. Hello, Kira.

The water-that-wasn’t-water receded. Kira grew heavier, and rain pelted her face. She smiled as Scott’s hands fell away.

“Hi.”

Kira opened her eyes to see that everyone who’d been in the community center was outside, at least a three hundred feet away. The storm rumbled, and the community center collapsed with zero casualties.

That day had been the first instance of a Beacon Hills miracle.

Kira wiped the rain out of her eyes to see Lydia and the coaches running towards them. Lydia’s eyes were wide, bloodshot, and frantic. She threw herself at Kira. Her arms were tight, and Kira felt her hot tears against her neck.

“Are you okay?” Kira could hardly breathe; Lydia was squeezing her so tight. “I shouldn’t have left, I’m so sorry, Kira—I was so scared.”

The rain lessened, and Kira pulled away. Scott stared at her as Kira glanced back towards the community center.

“Who is Stiles?”

Lydia stepped back, and when she smiled Kira knew that she also shared the secret.

::::

Peter wasn’t a fan of hiking, but he was a fan of Stiles. He slipped on loose pebbles, and Stiles immediately grabbed his arm. He was strong, deceptively so. Peter wanted to know how Stiles acquired his unspoken strength, how he came to Beacon Hills… and what he’d look like writhing in pleasure in Peter’s bed.

“Watch your step.” Stiles pulled Peter forward until they were only a few breaths apart. “Don’t want you to slip.”

He released Peter once they were on even ground.

Stiles was odd. He was confident in every touch and smile, yet he never pushed past professional boundaries. Peter noticed how Stiles’s eyes lingered on his hands. Stiles desired something, and Peter was willing to wait to find out the details.

Stiles led him along the mountainside on a steep trail. When Peter wasn’t wiping sweat from his eyes, he would stop to gaze out at the long stretch of rivers between the blue and red rocks. Peter stopped, the sweat cooling on his back as grey clouds rolled across the sky.

“Are you feeling better about living here?” Peter turned to see Stiles gently touching a sapling’s leaves. “You seem more comfortable.”

Peter hummed. It was true, in a sense. His skin was less tight, and he’d formed a loose routine that mostly consisted of going to the library and annoying Chris Argent at every opportunity. Some days he wanted to throw himself into the idyllic small town identity. He wanted to say hello to his neighbors and cook things like casseroles. Other days Peter wanted to wither away out of spite.

Cora was the only one who called him, and he was grateful that it never felt forced. She had plans to visit again in the summer, and she wanted Peter to show her all the sights that Beacon Hills had to offer.

Sights of Beacon Hills… Peter was sure that there were landmarks that he could show his niece. However, when he thought of sights, his mind always wandered back to Stiles

“I’ve started to warm up to it.” Peter winked at Stiles. “Most of that is thanks to you.”

He watched as hues of fuchsia and scarlet speckled along Stiles’s cheeks and neck. His throat bobbed, and Peter was hungry to taste Stiles’s skin against his tongue. Peter heard Stiles’s heartbeat thrum with excitement, and Peter strode forward; he wanted to feel the rapid pulse beneath his fingertips.

Of course, that was when the grey clouds opened up and unleashed a deluge of rain.

Heavy water sluiced down Peter’s body. It took seconds for him to be fully soaked and a minute for the dirt path to become unstable.

A firm hand held his and pulled.

“I got you.” Peter could hardly see Stiles through the sheets of rain, yet his voice remained clear as a bell. “Come on, my friend’s place is close. We can take shelter there.”

Stiles’s long fingers wove together with Peter’s. Peter followed, blinded by water and foliage. He gripped Stiles tight and thought surely they would slip and fall, at least once, but they never so much as stumbled as Stiles led him down the mountain.

Waterlogged air burned his lungs by the time Stiles slowed, his grip still tight around Peter’s hand.

“This way.”

Peter continued to follow blindly until his shoes hit wooden stairs that lead to a porch. He wiped the water from his eyes. Stiles stopped in front of a modest two-story home on a narrow dirt road. Before Peter could read the cheery wooden sign on the door, Stiles opened it and tugged him inside.

The sterile smell of hospital made Peter recoil as Stiles let go of his hand.

“Scott!” Stiles shook himself in the waiting area, the water making his skin glow. Peter shivered. The adrenaline faded and cold settled into his soaked clothes. “Scott, are you home?”

Peter rubbed his hands on his arms in a futile attempt to force warmth back into his skin. He peered around the area, the white tile floor, the dog biscuits on the counter—ah, Stiles had brought him to a local veterinarian. Peter couldn’t help but smile.

“I’m here.” A pleasant tenor voice rang out, and soon a young man stepped out with a sleepy puppy cradled in his arms. His smile was wide as he saw Stiles, and it flickered briefly when he saw he wasn’t alone. “Oh, hello.”

Scott hugged Stiles with one arm, careful to not disturb the dog in his care.

“It’s really coming down.” Stiles pulled back, looking oddly flushed. “I need to get back out there in case mudslides start, but could you look after Peter?”

Scott’s heartbeat stumbled at Peter’s name, a minor blip, but no blip was ever minor. Not to Peter. Stiles turned to Peter.

“I’ve got to go,” he touched Peter’s fingers and squeezed. “Please stay here until the storm is over.” Thunder rumbled. Stiles withdrew his hands and jogged back to the door. “That’s my sign. See you around!”

Stiles tipped his hat like a cowboy and left between flashes of lightning. Peter could still feel Stiles’s touch lingering on his skin like static electricity. When he turned back, Scott’s eyes were on him. Peter held out his dripping hand.

“I’m Peter Hale.”

Scott’s grip was firm and sure.

“Scott McCall.” Scott’s heavy gaze lightened so rapidly that if Peter had blinked he would have missed the change. He smiled and tilted his head slightly in an ‘aw shucks’ manner that most would find endearing and disarming. “Let me put Duncan down to rest and I’ll grab you some towels and fresh clothes. Do you like coffee or tea?”

Scott ducked back into his office. Rain slid down the windows and Peter blew on his hands.

“Tea would be great,” he called toward the back.

Peter shivered as cold water crept down his spine. He glanced at a photo on the wall and recognized Kira, the librarian. According to the picture she was happily married to Scott. How quaint.

“All I have is lemon… I really need to go to the store.” Scott threw Peter a towel and handed him folded clothes. “The pants might be a bit small on you but at least they’ll be dry.”

Peter followed Scott to the bathroom and quickly stripped and dried off. Scott was right, the clothes were small, but the dry warmth was a relief. When he came back out with his wet clothes in hand, Scott was waiting with hot tea.

“Thank you.” Peter took the hot mug. “You’re really too kind.”

“Is there are such a thing?” Scott’s eyes returned to an intense focus. “Being too kind, I mean.”

Yes, Peter had to bite back, of course there is. Peter appreciated kindness from a distance. He understood it in theory, but in practice—in practice kindness was a diversion. Scott McCall, the sweet veterinarian who married the adorable librarian was a kind man. But Peter could feel that he wasn’t familiar to using kindness as a tool for personal gain. He wielded it clumsily, and if he weren’t careful he’d get hurt.

“How long have you known Stiles?” Peter drawled with a smile that cut through Scott’s fumbled attempt at being cunning. Scott blew out a long breath.

“Let’s see… it’s going on twenty-five years now.”

Scott poured himself a cup of tea and refilled Peter’s. Scott had sweetness to him even if the protectiveness for his friend was annoying. Peter waited until Scott took a long sip of tea.

“Is he single?”

Scott choked and had to slap his hands over his mouth to keep the tea down.

::::

Allison Argent met Stiles when she was fifteen years old.

Bright summer sun shone down on Allison’s shoulders as she lugged a box of plates and utensils up the steps of their new home in Beacon Hills. Her arms strained, and sweat stung her eyes. She rolled her feet from heel to toe to keep her gait steady.

The harder she worked and the worse her body ached the less she’d have to think about her old home. Her old house, her old friends, and the graveyard where her mother was buried. She’d be more upset at the move if her father didn’t look just as ragged and raw.

Allison took the heaviest boxes until, after a few hours, a calloused hand on her shoulder stopped her.

“Easy, Alley-cat.” Her father smiled around the weary croak in his voice. “Leave something for your old man to take care of.”

She ignored the gentle plea in his words and went for the third box of books and bullets.

“It’s all right, dad, I got it.”

This time her father’s grip was firm, and his voice was rough.

“Allison.” Her shoulders jumped at the bite around her name. “Take it easy. I don’t want you hurting yourself.”

Funny how it took Allison’s mother dying to see her father’s age and mortality. For her whole life, he was the silent strength to her mother’s fierce fire. They were so strong that, in Allison’s mind, they would never get sick, grow old, or die. Her parents would live forever and Allison knew it was silly, naïve, and a tad delusional—and she hadn’t realized just how deep those beliefs went until her mother died.

Overnight her father’s hair went from honeyed brown to salt-and-pepper, his face and hands became wrinkled, and his eyes often got lost somewhere beyond the horizon. He coughed, he moved slower, and he was going to die one day. Allison would be damned before she stopped taking care of her father, even if all she could do right now was carry a few heavy boxes.

“Allison—Alley-cat.” He was holding both of her shoulders, his grey-blue eyes boring into hers. “I take care of you, got it? Take a break.”

She nodded because didn’t trust herself to speak. She twisted out of his hold in time to hide her tears, but she was sure her dad knew—just as she knew when he cried at night.

Beacon Hills was what her father called a “fresh start.” It was quiet, rural, and so green that Allison was afraid she’d get sick of the color. She’d start her sophomore year of high school once the summer was over, and Allison thought she’d feel fear at being the new kid… but all she felt was emptiness.

Allison picked a sunny spot in the grass and stretched out on her back. The road, a narrow paved street with no lines on the sides or center, was twenty feet away, but no cars had driven by in hours. Houses spotted the side of the road frequently enough to show that she’d have neighbors, but they were spaced out to avoid easily i she chose. She listened to the leaves rustle and the birds chirp. The breeze kicked up for a moment and blew all her hair back as a voice rang out.

“Hey.” Allison sat up, her muscles throbbing from being still. She saw a boy on the edge of the road, his sneakers crunching against the gravel. “Are you new to Beacon Hills?”

He had fair skin with brown eyes. He was skinny and his limbs were long, almost skeletal. None of his physical features stood out over his voice. It was so clear, and even though he asked her a question, she had a feeling that he already knew the answer.

“I am. Just moved in.” Allison waved him forward, and the boy stepped onto the grass. He sat down next to her easily like he’d done it for years. She held out her hand. “I’m Allison.”

He shook her hand with a warm smile.

“Stiles.”

Allison flopped back down onto the grass. She heard Stiles join her as she closed her eyes.

“I’m starting school in the fall. I’ll be a sophomore.”

The scents of flowers and approaching rain danced on the breeze. Allison heard Stiles shift like a cat getting comfortable on a bed.

“I have friends who will be in that year. You should try and find them. They’re good people.”

Allison’s body relaxed to the cheerful musings from Stiles. He spun images in her mind of his wonderful friends. Scott was his very best friend who’d been by his side since Scott was five. Lydia was a genius with a hidden heart of gold. Kira was the kindest and gave the best hugs.

The flowers lulled her into a light and lazy doze. She felt lighter than she had in months, like she was floating above the pain she carried in her chest. She knew she’d have to return to it, the quiet and heavy agony of her mother’s permanent absence. She continued to rise, briefly shedding her responsibility and guilt for her father.

I think you’ll like my friends, Allison.

Stiles’s voice was like a lone hawk, flying through a mountain range—majestic in a way that Allison had no hopes of replicating. The wind caressed her face with gentle fingers that pushed her hair out of her eyes.

“They do sound wonderful.”

Allison spoke lazily, slurred with sleep, and she hadn’t realized that she was crying until sunbeam warmed hands wiped them away.

The touch pulled her from sleep, and she plummeted back into the deep sea of grief. Her eyes flew open, and she sat up with a labored gasp. She glanced to her side, and Stiles was gone, yet when she touched her cheeks they were still wet.

Allison’s only company was a few butterflies.

“Alley-cat!” Allison startled at her fathers’ voice coming from inside their new house. “I made lunch!”

Allison scrambled to her feet, bits of grass and dirt sticking to her legs and shoulders as she turned to see her body’s imprint on the ground. There was a larger indent on the grass, huge, too big to be a bear or deer that surrounded her.

Blades of grass began to stretch back into place.

On the first day of school Allison gripped her bag tight and held her chin up. She wandered the sophomore wing to her assigned locker when she heard bubbling laughter. She turned to see a group of three students leaning against the lockers just a few feet away.

“Scott,” a redhead wheezed between peals of laughter, “it’s no one’s fault but your own if you didn’t do the summer reading.”

“Don’t pick on me, Lydia. Your brain eats books like candy.”

The other girl in the group giggled and slung her arm around Lydia’s shoulder, her dark eyes twinkling. That must be Kira, Allison thought, the one who gives the best hugs. Allison took a deep, steadying breath and felt her grief recede. She approached slowly, and Scott was the first to turn when she was on the fringe of their vision.

He smiled, as light and carefree as the wind had been in Allison’s hair.

“Hi.” Allison swallowed and clutched her backpack strap tightly in her fist. “I’m Allison… Stiles said that you guys are good friends to have.”

Scott’s eyes widened, Kira gasped, and Lydia winked as she held her hand out. When she took it, she relished Lydia’s firm grasp.

“Welcome to Beacon Hills, Allison.”

The bell rang. Allison had no idea where she was going, but when the three of them smiled at her she didn’t feel so lost.

::::

Chris took a long sip of coffee out of his Big Bird thermos.

Long billowing banners hung across Main Street and announced the date for Beacon Hills Day in bright letters. Chris paid the decorations no mind as he began the long drive to the San Francisco airport. He kept the radio on until it fizzled and lost signal after driving south for forty-five minutes.

As the last whispers of the Beach Boys faded into static, Chris finally exhaled even as his knuckles remained white. Leaving Beacon Hills was a terrifying relief. He turned the radio down until it was a fuzzy whisper, and hours later he waited in baggage claim.

In quiet moments, when Chris was alone and didn’t have work or Finstock to distract him… he wondered if Victoria would have managed better if he had died instead. Would she have moved on? Would she conquer the new fears that came with being a single parent?

Would she have panicked at the sight of something impossible in the woods behind their house?

Allison shuffled toward the rotator, and Chris barely had to step forward before she saw him. She ran into his outstretched arms, and Chris felt the last of his gnawing worry retreat for the moment.

“Hey there, Alley-cat.”

Allison squeezed him until Chris’s leather jacket creaked.

“Hi, dad.” Her voice was raspy with exhaustion. “Thanks for picking me up.”

She took the heaviest bag, and though he’d never admit it, Chris was grateful. He’d aged but did his best to ignore his grey hairs and ache in his bones. He loaded up the car, and Allison remained awake for the entire ride.

“What’s Stiles’s new friend like?” The static on the radio continued as Allison pushed her seat back. “Scott said that he’s odd.”

Chris snorted.

“That’s one way to describe him.” Chris glanced his daughter, and her tired smile was contagious. It never struck him just how much he missed her until she visited. “Actually, you’ve met him before.”

Allison sat up, suddenly much more awake.

“I have?”

Music began to whimper through the static.

“Remember the Hales?” Chris adjusted his grip on the wheel, sweat gathering on his palms. “They were the Pack that helped us after Vict—your mother’s death.” He glanced at her to see her brows furrowed as she nodded slowly. “The new friend is Peter Hale.”

Allison’s eyes widened.

“Oh. Oh.” Allison had been a teenager, quiet but not shy when Peter Hale had several dinners in their emptier old house. She sat back and closed her eyes. “I remember him being smart but not polite.”

Chris smiled and it felt whole, not uneven and broken for once.

“I wouldn’t disagree.”

The roads got narrower, the fog thicker, and the static on the radio washed away into a familiar voice.

“—got this right, then one of my favorite listeners should be on their way back home. There will be a slight delay on the Disco Power Hour so I can keep a buddy awake. Welcome back, drink some coffee out of your Big Bird thermos, and after this we’ll be back to the regular groovy schedule.”

Finstock’s laughter was cut off by Chris’s favorite Tom Waits song. He felt his ears get hot when Allison laughed.

“Oh my God, dad!” She giggled, high and carefree. It made Chris’s ribs ache as she wiped her eyes. Chris restrained himself from doing something juvenile like shrug, but it was a close call. Tom Waits’s gravelly rasp provided a perfect overlay on the foggy roads. The moment the song ended the Bee Gees came on in full force. “I think… I think mom would have liked him.”

Even though he laughed, he thought she was right. Victoria would have enjoyed Finstock, if only to see the man squirm in their presence. Finstock couldn’t be more different than Victoria. He was loud, crass, and nervous around firearms. He always found a way to break something whenever be visited, and all his jackets had tears in them.

“He’d make her laugh.” Disco love songs crooned them back to their house on the long stretch of narrow road. He switched off the car and let the strange silence seep through the windows. “But let’s face it, he’d be terrified of her.”

“Yeah,” Allison yawned as she shouldered her heavy bags, “but he likes that. It’s why he likes you.”

Chris knew that, of course. He wasn’t an idiot, and his eyes were still going strong. Allison kicked off her shoes and wandered down the hall to her room. The bags landed with a muffled thud, and Chris leaned against the doorway as she pulled out pajamas. The house felt warmer with her in it.

“Dad,” she spoke in a soft whisper that attention to the circles under her eyes, “you deserve to be happy.” She glanced away, her lips tight as she blushed. “I like him. You like him. He likes you. You should go for it if you, uh, want to.”

Chris smiled, crooked and faint.

“I’ll consider it if,” he chuckled despite Allison’s grin, “you remind yourself to relax every once and a while.” He kissed her forehead. “Goodnight, Alley-cat.”

“’Night, dad.”

Technically it was morning, and Chris knew it would be easier if he remained awake. He kept the small radio on in the kitchen while he brewed coffee. He watched the sky fade from periwinkle-grey to blue.

Chris Argent had a deep stain that no amount of soap, alcohol, or turpentine could remove. It was a heavy pressure on his skin that ached worse than arthritis. The inside of his palms stung from a phantom shotgun’s recoil. It rang through his bones despite it being years since he held a gun.

Bitter coffee kept him awake through the Disco Power hour and Finstock’s sign off.

“Thanks for listening. Now, I don’t know about you weirdos, but I have to see a hermit about some coffee.”

A quiet chuckle was lost in the last sip of coffee. Tires crunched into the gravel driveway fifteen minutes later. Chris opened the door just as Finstock brought his fist down to knock, lightly hitting Chris’s shoulder.

“So I’m a hermit now?”

“Yeah.” Finstock grinned at him with his large, perfect set of teeth as he sidestepped and carefully toed off his shoes next to Allison’s. “Maybe if you left the house for things that didn’t include the library and groceries I’d give you a different title.”

The reverb in his hands lessened. Finstock’s chair was a blue stool that wobbled and he drank his coffee with milk and honey.

His love for Victoria had been an unshakeable foundation, savage, and precise. Chris was comfortable being unquestionably devoted.

He wasn’t used to being lazy and sharing soft smiles in the early morning over hoarse whispers and coffee.

“Thanks for the song.” Chris bumped his toes against the inside of Finstock’s ankle. “It helped.”

Soon Allison would wake up. She’d come in the kitchen, and Finstock would give her a back-cracking hug and lift her up. Chris would make chocolate-chip pancakes. For that moment, however, it was just the two of them. Finstock rolled his eyes, but that did nothing to hide the light flush along his neck.

“No problem.”

Chris gripped Finstock for balance he didn’t need as he reached for the coffee pot. He let his hand slip to the back of Finstock’s neck as he refilled their cups. He pretended not to feel Finstock’s shiver when Chris ran his thumb along the exposed skin above his collar.

His fingers fell away, and the ghostly stinging sensation returned to his skin.

::::

Sheriff Noah Stilinski was forty-six years old when he met Stiles.

He drove the back roads of Beacon Hills on the last hour of his nightly patrol. After Claudia died, he’d considered moving. He couldn’t stand to remain in the beautiful town without his wife. However, as he healed he remained, and so he drove the same routes, said hello to his neighbors, and protected the peace in a town that had never known violence.

When the call for a shooting came in, he thought he’d misheard until Penny voice shook. He grabbed his walkie and swung his cruiser around. He gunned it, sending up a plume of dirt and pebbles.

“I’m on it. Send two backup units and call an ambulance.”

Fear was kept at a distance even when Penny’s voice trembled over the line.

“Sheriff—the call came a from a girl, her father shot one of her friends. Noah, she couldn’t have been older than sixteen.”

It had been a cool spring night and the daffodils swayed as the Sheriff blew past. He arrived at a modest house. Jesus it was the man who’d just moved in with his daughter. Noah launched out of his car and heard his backup approaching. He drew his pistol and followed the sound of desperate sobbing.

He crept around the side of the house, stepping over a succulent garden, until he reached the backyard. There was group of five kids and sure enough, a man with a shotgun hanging limply in his grip. Chris Argent, Noah’s memory supplied him, the widow with his daughter Allison. She was fifteen.

“Mr. Argent,” the Sheriff kept his aim steady and centered, “put your weapon slowly on the ground.” He heard car doors close, and without looking he spoke to his backup. “Take care of him.”

He holstered his pistol and turned to the group of kids, all of them crying around—good God—Scott McCall bleeding on the ground, his chest stained red. Allison wailed as they all spoke at once.

“It was an accident—”

Help him—”

“We were just playing and he—”

“Sheriff, please—”

“Quiet.” The kids fell silent and Noah cradled Scott, little Scott he’d known from when he could barely walk, in his arms. “Easy, kiddo.” Scott’s hands were slippery with his own blood as he clutched onto the Sheriff’s arms. Noah turned to see Officer Parrish staring at him looking panicked. “Where is the ambulance?”

“It’s at least twenty minutes out, sir.”

Eight hands clung to Noah’s shoulders. He recognized the Martin girl, her friend Kira, and Allison. There was a pale boy who was someone the Sheriff had never seen, but he didn’t have time to care about his identity, not with Scott bleeding out.

“Scott,” Noah moved his arms to under the small of his back and shoulders, “I’m going to move you. It will hurt, but we need to get you to the hospital. I’ll meet the ambulance halfway.”

He screamed just as Noah knew he would. He moved as quickly and helped Scott into the backseat. He stripped off his jacket and pressed it to Scott’s chest.

“Hold this here as tight as you can.”

Scott nodded, too pale and too young. Sheriff opened the front door just as the pale boy reached for him.

“I need to go with him.”

Noah had barely glanced at him, which in hindsight was foolish.

“He’ll be fine,” Noah spoke confidently despite it tasting like a lie. “Stay here with Officer Parrish and he’ll call your folks.”

The Sheriff slammed the door and went to work. He kept his speed steady and after ten minutes he checked the rearview mirror to make sure Scott was applying pressure to his wound—only to see that Scott was not alone. His foot slipped off the gas because the pale boy crouched over Scott, tears falling off his lashes as he cupped Scott’s cheek.

“Hey.” Noah twisted around in his seat because the kid had something in his hand, something dark and pulsating. “Hey!”

The boy’s voice was tender, but the Sheriff couldn’t keep a grasp on the words. He heard birds, the sound of his coffee pot in their morning, and his wife’s breath on his cheek. Tears sprung to his eyes, but he still saw that boy feed something to Scott.

Noah’s hand shot out. The moment his fingers hit the boy’s glowing skin his vision went black. He felt a deep electric shock go through him only to drop off into numbness. He heard Scott’s voice, tiny and far away.

“I don’t care if it hurts,” he sniffed, and the distance between him and the Sheriff grew, “I can’t leave my mom alone, Stiles.”

Stiles, Noah remembered thinking, what the hell is a Stiles?

The moment that his thought ended he was submerged in a bottomless void. He seized, struggling to move because he had to claw to Scott, he needed to get to—

“Sh…” Claudia’s voice made him pause. Except it wasn’t just her voice. It was the taste of lazy Sunday mornings, it was the feeling of a dog licking his face, and Noah’s heart hurt. “Scott will be fine. I’m taking care of him.”

Something or someone touched him gently on the face. Every breath he took burned.

“You’re not Claudia.”

“I’m not.” Whoever it was admitted, their voice strained. “I didn’t want you to be scared.”

It gripped him with hands too large and with too many fingers. Noah gripped one of the limbs and squeezed.

“Please, I need to help Scott.”

Whatever it was paused and then withdrew all at once. One moment Noah had been suspended in endless nothingness, the next he was laid out face-first in a dirt driveway. The bell in his car rang because all the doors were open as the car idled.

His limbs prickled like they’d been asleep.

Someone wretched nearby, and liquid splattered onto the grass. It was the pale boy, only now his skin had lost its glow, and his slender frame shook as he vomited again. The Sheriff wobbled on his knees to see Scott a few feet away. His eyes were bleary, and he still had the Sheriff’s bloody jacket on him.

“Scott!” The boy glanced up at the Sheriff when he pulled the jacket away—only to see that there was no more blood. No scarring. Nothing. Noah’s hands trembled and his face was still wet from tears. “What… what—?”

“Oh my God,” Scott half-crawled half-ran to the sick boy. “Stiles, are you okay? What happened? What’s wrong?”

The Sheriff kept his breathing even so he didn’t faint. He stood and realized he was home which was six miles in the opposite direction of the hospital.

Melissa rushed over and the Sheriff told her it was a miracle, that somehow Scott had come away unscathed. Chris Argent was released because there were no charges to press, and after hours of frantic panic the Sheriff was left alone with Stiles in his foyer.

Stiles.

Without the barrage of adrenaline in his system, Noah was able to remember where he’d heard that name before. The kids whispered it back and forth, and at first he thought it was a game. However, when more and more “Beacon Hills Miracles” occurred, he’d always heard that odd name. Stiles.

Stiles shivered and twitched in his house, his eyes bloodshot and his breath short. Noah crouched so they were eye-to-eye, but he didn’t have the right words to speak. He wasn’t sure there was a combination in the English language that would do all his questions justice. He held out his hand.

Noah Stilinski was forty-six when Stiles squeezed his fingers in his clammy grip.

::::

The smell of powdered sugar and fried dough wafted across the pink and purple sky. The state park and been populated with food trucks, games, and the promise of fireworks at nightfall.

Peter waded through people easily, eavesdropping in and out of conversations. He took a few pictures for Cora and was surprised when a hand clapped on his shoulder.

“Good to see you here, Peter.” Finstock struggled to balance a plate piled high with food. “You came just in time, I hear the fireworks are going to start up in twenty minutes.” He gave Peter a once over and whatever he saw made him click his tongue. “Come on, stick with me kid, I’ll show you where everyone watches.”

Peter had come at Stiles’s invitation. He’d been casual, his hands in his pockets and his smile crooked. “I’ll find you once the fireworks start.”

Finstock led him to the radio tent and handed off the food to ravenous sound engineers and interns. A few people glanced at him briefly, but once Finstock started directing them, Peter faded into obscurity. Finstock returned minutes later, out of breath.

“All right.” He smiled, and there was a bit of powdered sugar stuck to the corner of his lips. “Right this way.” Peter was led by the gentle touch on his elbow to a long pale stretch of beach that overlooked a massive lake. Shoes lined up along the grass just on the edge of the sand. “Kick off your shoes and get in the water.”

People mingled about in knee-deep water. Peter toed off his shoes and rolled up his slacks.

“What about you?” He hoped he didn’t sound too pitiful. “Will you have a chance to see them?’

“Eh, I’ll catch the finale.” Finstock grinned. “I’ll find you.”

Small towns, Peter thought with a shake of his head, always toeing the line of nosey and nice.

The water was cold between his toes, but the sand was smoother than silk. The sky bled from indigo to black just as Scott bumped into him, too careful to be an accident.

“Oh, hey Peter.” Scott was with a group of girls. “This is my wife Kira, and my friends Lydia and Allison.”

Peter jumped as he extended his hand because fish brushed up against his ankles, hidden by the dark waters. Allison’s smile was polite while Lydia’s was all teeth as she drawled, “Charmed.”

The fish brushed against Peter’s toes once more, and that was when familiar hands gripped his arm.

“Hey, guys!”

Stiles’s weight lifted the anxious grip on Peter’s ribs. He hugged them all and saved Peter for last. His arms wove around Peter’s neck, and the water splashed against Peter’s trousers.

“It’s good to see you.” Peter felt the words against his cheek, a warm buzz on his flushed skin. “Glad you could make it.”

He pulled back but in the dark Peter swore he felt lips press against his cheek, against the swell of his smile. He wanted to chase after those lips to make sure—but the first collection of fireworks went off. Colors darted across the water.

Long fingers tangled with Peter’s, and Stiles threw his arm around Scott’s shoulders. The contact distracted him from the fish that darted nervously around Peter’s legs as the fireworks increased.

Finstock was right… it was a sight to behold.

Streaks of gold, red, green, and blue raced across the water and sky in a frantic dance. The display was enough to make Peter’s cynicism alleviate, but Stiles’s grip on his hand elevated him to somewhere approaching giddiness.

After ten minutes Stiles whispered against Peter’s ear.

“Duty calls, people tend to get wild after the finale. I’ll be working to keep kids out of trouble.” He squeezed Peter’s hand again, and this time, when he kissed Peter’s cheek, the action was unmistakable. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yes.” Streaks of gold burned along the water and the fish pressed up against his skin. “Of course.”

Stiles slipped away, his friends meandering after him; even the fish seemed to follow. Clumsy splashing had Peter turn in time to see Finstock intercept them, giving them hugs before he jogged up to Peter.

“Glad I got here in time,” Finstock shouted over the noise, “the finale is close!”

A suspenseful pause came in the show, and while the crowd held its breath, Peter leaned over to the older man.

“Where is your other half?” Finstock made a confused sound that twisted in the air like an unfinished song. Peter rolled his eyes. “Chris Argent.”

Children laughed and splashed, urging on the finale as the night sky remained clear and silent. Peter let his eyes wander to the shore to see Chris Argent staring at him, his shoes still on. Peter smirked as Finstock’s ears burned scarlet.

“He’s not,” Finstock sucked in a breath and his grin did nothing to hide his heartbeat. “The dude doesn’t have room for all this comedic gold. Plus… he doesn’t go to things like this.”

Peter touched Finstock’s arm and angled his back to Chris, but not before he saw the older hunter tense and take a step into the water.

“But you’d like him to. Have room, I mean.” Before Finstock could do something foolish like deny it, Peter continued. “Luckily I’m feeling generous.” Thin lines all shot up into the dark sky. He gripped Finstock with both hands and moved close so he could slip his foot behind Finstock’s ankle. “You can thank me later.”

Peter pushed Finstock hard. He moved out of Finstock’s reach as he flailed his arms. Colors exploded across the sky as Finstock fell with a mighty splash. The only person who noticed was Chris; everyone else was taken with the show.

“What—what the hell—?”

The water’s resistance made Chris stumble just as Finstock floundered to the surface. Peter turned and retreated. Fireworks hammered at his back, and when he turned for a final look, he saw Chris and Finstock’s kiss silhouetted with bright colors.

He whistled as he grabbed his shoes from the shore.

::::

There were two time periods in Stiles’s life: Before Scott and After Scott.

Before Scott was endless expanse of time and space. Stiles had been unfathomably huge, swimming across galaxies without much care of purpose. He liked observing, he liked the colors, and he liked the way a planet felt beneath his many hands. If he found a planet that felt particularly nice he’d curl around it, cradling it against his stomach as he slept.

It was during one of those naps that he heard Scott cry out in pain, so tiny, a speck within a speck—and Stiles remembered thinking it was so odd that this micro-speck in particular should deserve special attention.

All that happened within that moment was After Scott.

Scott McCall was one of six names given to Stiles from the beginning of his existence. Names that were significant but names that Stiles hadn’t known what to do with until he twisted himself into a small enough form that he could touch a young boy’s lungs to alleviate their constriction.

Within the After Scott time measurement came the After the Heart-Split, which left Stiles drenched in sticky sweat and shaking on Sheriff Noah Stilinski’s floor.

Going from the scale Stiles had been to what he was now had been difficult. The Sheriff wrapped him in a blanket and held him as Stiles went through countless transitions within seconds. He held him as his limbs grew, retracted, and grabbed—he held him until Stiles wasn’t so blurry around the edges, until his limbs stopped splitting to maximize his reach.

“Easy, kiddo.” Calloused fingers wove through Stiles’s hair. Stiles squeezed his arms around the Sheriff’s waist. His skin hurt, trying to fit into such a small shape. “You’ll be just fine.”

“There’s no way to know if that’s true.”

Noah pulled back to fixate on Stiles with his world-weary eyes.

“Yeah, but I’ve got a good feeling.”

Stiles had been given six names, names that would prove to be important to him. Seeing Scott throw his body in front of the gun’s aim—Stiles too late to stop the hot metal from making a mess of his best friend’s chest—it awoke a new sensation that tasted like ash and loneliness.

Fear.

Stiles touched his chest where a human heart would be. Fear drove him to sever his own heart in half to feed it to Scott. He hoped that it would be enough power to revive him. Scott lived, and Stiles shrank. He could no longer stretch about among the planets and paw at star clusters.

When he felt whole enough to speak he answered the Sheriff’s questions, which ended with the man blowing out a long breath, his ring finger trembling.

“Gee whiz, kid,” he said despite Stiles being centuries old, “you cut your heart in half? Did you know that was going to work?”

Stiles shook his head.

“No. But I had to take that chance.”

It must have been disconcerting to see so many years hidden behind the face of a child. Noah Stilinski had been the fifth name. It was a name that smelled like old book pages and felt like dust swirling in ancient sunbeams. It reflected the man well, his weathered hands an illogical comfort when they held Stiles to keep him from shaking.

“If you’re stuck like this you’ll need a place to stay. Beacon Hills is a nice town but even nice towns will raise an eyebrow at a teenager living in the woods.”

He heard the Sheriff’s heartbeat; he felt his hands tug the blankets tighter around Stiles. Stiles might never swim among the stars again… but the floor in the Sheriff’s house was warm and had a knitted rug with a blue cat stitched in it.

Stiles broke the silence between breaths.

“I could be your son.” Stiles shifted in Noah’s arms. “It could make things easier.”

While Stiles couldn’t expand galaxies, he could still convince people that he’d always been there, that the Sheriff had always had a son. Arms tightened their hold as the idea settled over them. Father and son.

“Well,” Noah’s arms shifted, and Stiles realized he was being hugged. “All right then.”

Stiles supposed that halving his heart was like a rebirth. He had to learn to walk, eat, breathe, and live in this new body. Things that seemed so small were now large. He learned to run, laugh, and play with his friends who all hugged him breathless when they saw him.

Early morning fog rolled in, and Stiles couldn’t have been more delighted. His dad sat in the kitchen.

“You look refreshed.”

His dad smiled at him from over his coffee mug. Stiles hugged him with one arm.

“It’s nice to see everyone together.” Stiles gazed out of the windows. “It’s nice and thick today.”

His father kissed his temple, a soft “have fun, Stiles,” whispered against his skin. Stiles ran through the door, and once the fog hit, he smiled and let loose.

It was easy, after years of practice, to shed his human illusion. He let his limbs expand and stretch. He closed his many eyes against the cold mist as he moved gently through the forest. The birds hopped from branch to branch, less afraid of him now but still wary.

He could taste hints of fire on the wind from the fireworks. Memories of Peter’s cheek against his lips made Stiles’s throat run dry.

Peter Hale had been the last name. It was the most unique tasting, some days it stung his tongue, others it soothed like ice water on a sweltering day. It was a dangerous name, more dangerous than the previous five, yet Stiles found the risks to be worthwhile with the first five.

The longer he lingered around Peter, Stiles learned why his name felt so different, why the taste and touch of it changed so wildly.

Stiles got his body back into an appropriate shape before he intercepted Peter on his morning run. He was sweating, and his teeth had a hint of sharpness to them when he smiled.

“Come on. I’ve got a big breakfast planned.”

It was a feast of pale syrup, jams, and French toast. Peter casually held Stiles’s ankle between his legs and said nothing of the additional contact. Today Peter’s name shone bright like sparklers, drawing Stiles closer.

Finstock played Stiles’s favorite songs as Peter’s fingers slid over Stiles’s knuckles.

“Are you free for dinner tonight?”

The question flowed from Peter’s tongue like honey, slow and inevitable. Lydia had teased Stiles for being such a flirt, but Scott understood. Stiles copied what he’d seen others do, and as the fireworks burst, he understood just what he wanted from Peter. He wanted to touch and be touched, to kiss, bite, lick—to do what lovers do.

Peter wanted it too; it’s why his cheeks were flushed and his pupils dilated.

“Is eight okay? Which restaurant to do you want to go to?”

“I was thinking,” Peter purred and squeezed Stiles’s hand, “that I could cook for you. And eight is perfect.”

The first early months after halving his heart Stiles mourned the loss of the stars and moons. He’d worried that he’d get bored, stuck on a green planet that had felt best when cradled to his chest. Yet, he couldn’t have been more wrong. His vocabulary his experiences—had grown at an exponential rate.

Stiles would never cradle the earth again, but if he remained out there—he’d never know what it was like to have a best friend, be hugged by Kira, dance with Allison, laugh with Lydia, or to have a father.

And… he would never have felt Peter’s hand on the small of his back as he walked Stiles to the end of his driveway. Sunbeams cut through the fog. Stiles turned to say goodbye only to be stopped by Peter pressing his lips to Stiles’s.

It was a soft pressure as gentle fingers brushed across his cheek.

“I’ve wanted to do that,” Peter breathed across one of Stiles’s mouths, “for quite some time.”

“Me too.”

Stiles swallowed, and when he licked his lips his tongue brushed against Peter’s mouth. Peter pushed forward and Stiles fluttered under new sensations of teeth and tongue and wow this was what made kissing such a big deal.

The fog blew away, and stars were singing under Stiles’s skin.

::::

Kissing Stiles was even more pleasant then Peter had hoped. He was all warmth and tactile affection, surprised and happy. He slid his tongue along Stiles’s teeth and delighted in the startled moan that tickled his lips.

Shadows fell over them. Perhaps a cloud passed over the sun. Peter pulled back, wanting to save something for dessert. He let his eyes open slowly, his lips tingling and hungry for more. He expected to see Stiles’s flushed face and lush lips, but instead—

A wall of deep, unnatural dark stared back at him, eyes, mouths, and vastness with swirling colors, like feathers and scales moving under moonlit water. Peter was frozen in the presence of the impossible.

He was kissed again, and Peter jolted, his teeth sharpening before he could stop them.

“Ow!”

Within a blink the wall of Stiles was gone. Stiles stared at him, his fingers on his lips and the blood was in Peter’s mouth wasn’t human blood. He wiped his mouth and did his best to discreetly spit it out into his palm.

“Sorry.” Peter smiled and kept every muscle relaxed. “I got a bit,” he sucked in a rapid breath and hoped Stiles would think it was from lust, “overexcited.”

When he looked down, he saw that Stiles’s shadow was much longer and wider than it ought to be. He swallowed and his throat clicked. Stiles gently touched Peter’s wrist.

“It’s okay.”

Peter kissed Stiles’s cheek, mimicking affection like an actor on stage.

“I’ll make it up to you. Tonight.”

Stiles’s smile returned.

“You don’t have to—it’s just—it’s a date. You have nothing to make up for.”

“Right.” Peter smiled. “Can’t wait.”

He walked down his driveway but didn’t breathe until he was finally free from Stiles’s shadow. He closed his door softly and then threw the essentials into a suitcase and grabbed his keys. He drove fast until he realized he was low on gas.

Peter stood at the pump and bit his thumbnail.

Just how many people knew? Scott? His merry band of friends? His father the Sheriff of the entire town? Peter let his finger fall from his mouth when he realized that Chris must have seen it—Stiles. That was what haunted the hunter; he knew and yet he stayed. Peter’s stomach churned, and he gripped the side of his Mercedes and hoped he didn’t vomit when a rumbling engine approached.

The Sheriff stepped out of his cruiser. His polite but distant smile suddenly seemed sinister.

“Good morning, Mr. Hale.”

“Morning, Sheriff.”

Peter paid quickly, and he felt the Sheriff looking at him. He twisted the keys in his ignition and absolutely didn’t jump when the Sheriff walked to the side of his car and placed his hand on the door.

“Are you feeling okay? You look grey around the gills.”

His question lacked warm concern and held the diction of an interrogation. It was a habit of most cops and Peter couldn’t help but recoil.

“I think I may have eaten something off.”

The lie soured in his mouth, and he watched the Sheriff’s eyes slide to the backseat, to the small suitcase rested against the leather. The Sheriff withdrew his hand from the side of Peter’s car like he’d spooked a wild animal. The older man’s smile dropped, but instead of looking angry he just seemed sad.

Heartbroken.

“Well,” the Sheriff’s voice cracked painfully, “feel better.”

Peter nodded, not bothering to keep up the charade as he drove east. He drove until Finstock’s radio station dropped off, and then onward until his breathing had stopped burning and his mind cleared. He pulled over on the side of a lonely highway between long strips of desert. He realized that, instinctively, he was driving toward his Pack.

Gravel dug into his ass as he listened to the wind whisper through clumps of dead grass.

Cora picked up on the second ring.

“Hey, Peter.” She spoke through the sleepy rasp in her voice. “How’s it going?”

The sweat on his clothes cooled. He shivered and let his head lean back against the car door.

“To be honest, Cora, I don’t know.”

He heard her breath catch followed by the sounds of moving blankets.

“Oh yeah?”

Peter heard the thrum of struck metal in her voice, the unspoken I can come to you and we’ll face it together singing across the sands. Peter hoped Talia recognized just how fierce her youngest had become. He watched the winds kick up dust among the stars, and somewhere a coyote yipped.

“When was the last time fear snuck up on you?”

Distance helped dull the thrall that had run rampant through his veins. Most of his fear had come from the shock, the string of split-second moments that arrived without warning. Peter was used to feeding fear, anticipating trouble, and being prepared.

There was no preparation for Stiles.

“Sure.” Cora’s voice had lost all fatigue. “When… when you left. I knew it was happening. You and mom sat us down, and then you and I drove around looking for places—but the day you left still took me by surprise.” Cora laughed. “I guess I thought you’d change your mind.”

“If there’d been a chance of me changing my mind, Cora, I would have.”

“I know.” Peter felt her smile through the phone. The stars shone brighter in the countryside, funny how Peter had never cared to look at them before. His breath fogged out across the night sky, and as it passed over the moon, he thought of Stiles’s skin. The skin that was velvet, leaves, river stones, and glass all at once. “What scared you?”

Embarrassment burned his ears.

“Stiles.” Cora made a justified sound of confusion. She knew Stiles as Peter had known him: an adorable park ranger who unabashedly loved disco and waffles. “He’s not human.”

Cora snorted.

“Neither are you.”

“I’ve never seen anything like him before.” Silence washed around them. Cora knew Peter had experienced his fair share of the world. Peter no longer felt fear when he thought back to his second kiss with Stiles, only shame. “I overreacted. I ran—I had to get as far away as I could. It wasn’t very fair of me. Tonight is the first time I’ve ever stood someone up for a date.”

He stood and stretched, his back popping in a few places. Cora sighed.

“Even though he’s something unexpected, is he still cool?”

Peter twirled his keys.

“Yeah. He’s still cool.”

He was too far to drive back, so he continued on to a cheap motel where he showered and slept. The next morning he drove to the nearest diner for coffee and runny eggs. He tore his paper napkin into strips, not looking forward to the long drive back to Beacon Hills while he thought of a worthy apology.

He sat alone at a table with a chipped corner. The bell above the door rang and Peter glanced up to see Chris Argent.

::::

Finstock’s mattress squeaked at four-thirty and Chris was instantly awake.

“No.” A familiar voice rasped and soft lips kissed Chris’s cheek. “I tried to be quiet. I didn’t want to wake you up.”

Chris rubbed sleep from his eyes and was rewarded with the vision of Bobby’s wild hair and bruised lips. He smiled and delighted in the flush it brought to Finstock’s neck and ears.

“I need to get going anyway. I don’t want Allison to be worried.” Before Finstock could over think things, Chris kissed him, willing to risk morning breath if it meant he could sink his teeth into the other man’s lower lip. “You should come over for dinner.”

“Okay.” Finstock squeezed Chris’s bare hip, and when he pulled away, his eyes swept over his body, lingering on the bite marks on his skin. “I’ll bring sparkling cider and a picnic blanket. We can eat on the floor and pretend we’re in the park.”

Chris laughed himself hoarse and still lapsed into giggles as he pulled into his driveway. It was still early, the sun not close to the horizon. When he opened his door, he saw that Allison was awake and had company.

His daughter, Lydia, Kira, and Scott all sat on the living room floor. A morose Stiles sprawled on and around them.

They all froze and stared at him. All of Stiles’s eyes widened and Chris couldn’t help but be flung back to years ago when he’d gone looking for his daughter out in the woods, shotgun in hand—only to see the impossible Stiles. His hands stung as his fingers fell from the front doorknob.

“What happened?”

Stiles’s limbs tightened around his friends. Chris recognized it as a need for comfort and not a predator trapping prey. The air felt heavy and humid. Allison squeezed her fingers around one of Stiles’s hands. He was crying. Chris couldn’t say how he knew; his eyes were hard to look at for too long.

“I messed up.” Stiles’s choked voice came from the floor, the hall, and just over Chris’s shoulder. “I must have been distracted and he saw me. His house is empty… he just left.”

The taste of old coffee and ash poisoned the air. He knew he wasn’t the only one who tasted it, he saw the bitterness on the Five’s faces. He knew the taste wasn’t a random flavor. It had been in his mouth for years, lingering ever since Victoria died.

“I’ll be back.” Chris pulled his jacket back on. “Alley-cat, if you need anything just call.”

“Wait.” One of Stiles’s hands shot out. It was cool to the touch, but his grip was gentle. “Where are you going?”

Chris left Stiles’s grip slide down his wrist until he could grasp Stiles’s fingers firmly. He felt no repulsion, only the need to comfort someone who was vulnerable.

“I need to take care of something. You focus on feeling better. Eat something, there should be leftovers in the refrigerator.” He squeezed Stiles’s long fingers. “Take it easy.”

Chris drove east. He drove east because the Hales were east, and a scared wolf would run home. He kept driving long past the point when Finstock’s show fizzled out and past a patch of gravel on the side of the highway that had been cleared. He drove until his legs cramped and he spotted a sign for a motel. He slowed, and sure enough he spotted Peter’s car in a nearby diner’s parking lot.

Peter looked like shit. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his stubble aged him. He didn’t mind when Chris sat across from him, their knees bumping under the table. Chris had known the Hales for decades, and he knew the type of wolves they raised—the kind that didn’t spook easily.

Peter pushed his plate of eggs toward Chris.

“Eat something. You need the protein after the drive… and the fun you had last night. You’re welcome for that, by the way.”

The eggs were rubbery, and the coffee was dull, but Chris ate it graciously.

“I didn’t drive out here to be congratulated on my sex life.” Peter smirked and raised a brow, but it didn’t hide the strain in his fingers. “How are you doing?”

Peter sat back, his shock only noticeable for half a heartbeat.

“Just fine.” He tugged at his unkempt hair. “I let fear get the best of me.”

Chris felt as though the floor dropped away from him. He was in freefall as he stared at the genuine regret on Peter’s face. Chris shook his head.

“Be glad that you chose flight over fight.” He smiled but it felt like a ghost stretching its lips around perfect teeth. “Your impulses are better than mine.” The waitress refilled their coffee and Chris paid the meager bill. Sunlight shimmered across the smudged glass and cracked fake leather booths. “Are you going to keep heading east?”

“No.” Peter cleared his throat to keep his declaration from sounding like a question. “No. I like Beacon Hills.” He flushed as his lips twisted into a frown. “I stood him up. We were—I was going to make dinner but…” He grimaced. “How do I even begin to apologize?”

Life had deviated from the path Chris had anticipated for himself, but he didn’t feel cheated as the marks on his inner thighs throbbed. He knocked his toes against Peter’s.

“I’ve got some suggestions.”

Peter smiled, a little toothy and crooked, but Chris returned it all the same.

::::

Peter smoothed out the sapphire tablecloth and double-checked that everything looked perfect. The candles were lit, dinner was hot, and the radio played merrily in the kitchen. Peter splashed cold water onto his face before he adjusted his vest and slacks.

“All right, folks,” Finstock grinned over the airwaves as Peter put out plates of creamy soup, artichokes, and pasta. “We’ve got a very special request during our infamous Disco Power Hour. I won’t say who asked, but they swore that it was important that the next song plays.” Peter opened his front door, the witching hour fog his only company as it lazed across his porch. Peter blew out an anxious exhale and turned his back, making last minute preparations of wine and fruit. “To my friend out there in the dark: good luck.”

Three candles blew out. Peter turned to see that his door was open, and his foyer was still empty.

“Smells good.”

The voice came from behind him, at the head of the table. Peter smiled.

“It’s a secret Hale recipe, passed down from generation to generation. Anyone who eats it has been awarded an honor.”

Stiles snorted, and Peter turned to see the park ranger rocking on his heels. The shadows from the candles were oddly flat and too dark. His smile was warm despite the redness around his eyes. Peter moved without thinking, grasping Stiles’s hand and kissing his knuckles. He kissed the inside of his wrist, the corner of his mouth, and his temple.

He didn’t realize that with every kiss he was whispering, “I’m sorry,” until Stiles cupped Peter’s face. He kissed him, and Peter let his eyes slip shut as Stiles gently licked into Peter’s mouth.

“You’re forgiven.”

Stiles’s voice breathed against his neck as fingers wove through his hair. Stiles squeezed Peter’s hands and more fingers rubbed circles against Peter’s hips.

Peter pulled back an inch to catch his breath.

The taste of snowflakes lingered on his tongue.

He felt as though an orchestra waited just on the edge of his vision. He could almost hear the held breaths, the soft whispers of pages being turned and instruments being grasped. Stiles smiled at him with his many, many mouths.

Peter couldn’t wait to hear what music they would make together.