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“Come now, Miss Kate. You are an Argent, are you not?” Stiles motioned at the oh-so-ostentatious family crest on her ring as he spoke. “I’d not deign to ask for something so important as that to your family to match the wager, but I’m sure you’ve an Alpha Wolf or two in your stables at this point? Perhaps one with a Beta or two of its own. If I win this next hand, I’ll take my pick of your stock as settlement, shall I?”

It still appalled him, every time, to hear other humans referred to as livestock and toys. It was worse coming from Stiles’ own mouth, but he was playing a game far more dangerous than the one on the table before them.

Stiles laid his cards face down on the saloon’s worn tablecloth. His movement was designed to telegraph that he was over cautious, protective. Some would take it to mean he was guarding a winning hand, others that he was trying to hide a bluff. The Argent woman would never see anything as but an opportunity for her to take, so she probably presumed it the latter.

Lydia huffed beside Stiles, feigning disinterest in the entire affair. She shifted the obviously new book she was reading to one side and adjusted her gown. The movements drew attention to the overabundance of expensive silk and lace adorning the frock, as well as the jewels upon her fingers. Stiles’ own hands were similarly decorated and his wrap-fronted culottes were just as embellished.

The show did what it was devised to. Despite now owing Stiles more coin than she likely had access to in two or three months, the seemingly reckless Katherine Argent eyed the pot on the table with even more hunger. If Stiles stared a little too hard, he could imagine the twinkle of a gold-find in her eye. Argent possibly thought she could later have him and his step-sister robbed outside the saloon if she didn’t win the hand. As her father owned the town, and likely whoever passed as its law-enforcers, too, with any other pair of Omegas she'd likely be right.

She looked up at Stiles, that same money-hungry glint in her eye. “The only Alpha Wolves I have at this time are far too deep in my debt for me to gamble them away so cheaply, young Master Stiles. Especially those with extras. You understand that there are costs associated with taking such animals on—the cost of purchasing their original debt, wagon fees for transporting them here, their housing, clothing, feed… Of course, on top of all of that they will likely end up being fined for fighting with other beasts; the mines are not a place for the faint of heart. Such stock is usually with us for many years before it is even close to paying off its indenture. Even before the extra trouble they’ll cause, however, I couldn’t possibly contemplate such a collection of workers being worth less than three or perhaps even four times the size of the current pot.”

That was what Stiles wanted to hear. Argent had set a price in her mind. It was an absurd price for a handful of Human beings, but it was what he needed; he had an in.

“Well, Miss Kate, as I am a keen collector and have been itching to own such a creature for months, I think all I can do is take your suggestion.” He tried to sound sincere as he added, “You have far more experience in such things than I, and I will thus bow to your valuation.” He glanced over his shoulder and Scott stepped forward with a small chest, putting it on the table where all could see. Stiles reached into the neck of his jacket and pulled out a normal looking key on a chain. He used it and concentrated as he said the accompanying incantation only in his mind. It wouldn’t do to bring Argent’s attention to his magics, even if they were relatively common in Human Omega men. “I just can’t bear the idea that I might not get what I want, you see.” He flashed a small smile and batted his long Omega lashes at her.

She looked mostly unimpressed, but couldn’t completely contain the flush that rose in her Beta cheeks in response to his flirting.

Stiles held her gaze a moment, then used his eyes to drag hers to what was in the box. “You’ve seen that my sister and I travel with retinue and comforts; wagons, staff, etcetera. To some that might be proof enough of our liquidity, but I can see you are far more savvy than average.” He nodded, as if to convince himself again that he was dealing with a worthy opponent. “I’ve more than enough capital to cover either three or four times the amount that’s on the table, as you can well see.” In fact he had ten or fifteen times that much to show her. “Perhaps, if I don’t succeed at this game, I could simply unburden you of all that future trouble you spoke of by purchasing one of the creatures and its kin outright. I’m sure you’ve one pretty enough to take my fancy. My Beta Wolves show my tastes, do they not?”

Stiles heard Jackson take a step forward so that he was next to Scott. The two of them were currently fashioned as pampered pets; shirtless and oiled with sweet scents, wearing thick, leather collars inlaid with silver filigree and seemingly branded with an ornate mark on the skin over their hearts.

There was not a Beta or Alpha in the room who wasn’t currently comparing themselves bodily to the pretty little Omegas’ beasts.

Katherine Argent dragged her eyes down Scott and Jackson’s torsos, not-so-subtly admiring the sharp vee of musculature that curved over their hipbones. “Forgive me the observation, Master Stiles, but are they not pleasure-beasts? Surely it is improper for two young, eligible Omegas such as yourself and Miss Lydia to be accompanied by them on your tour.”

Lydia gasped and Stiles blinked several times before he made his own version of a horrified sound. He summoned his most haughty tone and said, words sharp and a little too loud, “We are, of course, travelling with chaperones, Miss Kate. My Alpha father would not be pleased to hear you make such a scandalous accusation, I’m sure. ” Stiles glanced over his shoulder at Scott and Jackson, then back at the Argent woman, distaste painted on his features. “You are not, I should hope, insinuating that either myself nor Miss Lydia would be cavorting intimately with the beasts?”

Lydia was, of course, Mated to one of them, but the potions Dr Deaton brewed them hid that fact from all and sundry. She and Stiles appeared as any other young, unmarried Omegas with money to spare, parading themselves across the country in one last not-so-wild fling, fishing for husbands or wives even more wealthy than themselves.

The Argent woman noticed that several other freemen Betas, and the surprisingly high number of freeman Alphas—there were always a higher percentage of them in frontier townships than properly established communities—had shown interest in the fact that the Omegas she was playing cards with had taken offence to something she said.

She worked quickly to avoid a bravado-fueled challenge in honor of their good names. “I do beg your pardons Omega Stilinski, Omega Martin. I myself would never imagine such debauchery from fine young Omegas such as yourself. I have had the pleasure of your company this evening, however. Others, without the benefit of knowing you personally, may not be so kind in their opinions.”

Lydia gripped her book tightly, lace gloves pulling tight against her skin. “Then those others would be in dire need of further education, Beta Argent. Outside a proper courtship, Omegas are naturally reticent in our physical affections. To think otherwise, of any Omega, no matter their standing, is an atrocious idea.” She snapped her book shut and pushed her chair back a little from the table. “Perhaps, brother dear, we should retire for the evening, and I'll be glad we are to leave here after only a night or two’s rest. You’ve had your fun. Collect your winnings and we’ll to bed. You’ve plenty of other pretty toys, besides. No need to go spending some of your allowance on an Alpha pet, of all things.”

Lydia was, as ever, a wonder at thinking quickly. There was no chance that Stiles would be heading away from the gaming table until he’d won himself the right to at least one of Argent’s Wolf packs, of course. It was what they were in the township for, indeed, and getting it over and done with in one evening was more than they could have hoped possible. Immediately stumbling on the daughter of the man who practically owned the outpost known as Beacon had been a stroke of luck they’d all appreciate, loudly, as soon as they were shot of the place.

Making it sound as if Lydia would pull Stiles, and his winnings, away from the table because they were offended? Brilliant thinking.

“Please, Omega Martin. As I said, I meant no offense.” Katherine Argent’s cheeks were red again, but this time it was out of distress. She had no hope of producing, in gold, what she currently owed Stiles as winnings. It had not been her suggestion, yet an Alpha and their Pack was something she’d likely rather pay with, no matter what the Werewolves’ actual value through their indentured debt. Right now, Argent was not only keen to take advantage of that arrangement, but also certainly wanting to make sure that every other Beta and Alpha in the saloon could see that she’d placated the emotional little Omegas whose time she’d been monopolizing all evening. “Allow your brother Omega to play this hand, my Lady, and if he wins, I’ll let him have his pick of my Alpha beasts in the morning. To make the pot sweeter, I’ll halve any of the beasts’ debt he’d possibly owe to make up the difference between this wager and their cost to me. I’ve four or five lovely Alphas, with extras each, that are yet to be sent to the mines. I’m sure one will suit even your and your brother’s obviously refined tastes.”

Stiles might be the one playing the cards and doing most of the talking, but every movement and every comment that Lydia made was to further their purpose. She pursed her lips and made a show of tugging at one of her long, strawberry ringlets, then sighed. “Very well.” She tipped her head and gave a tantalising glimpse of the length of her throat. Humans liked to say that they were above the urges and tastes of Wolves, but most everyone in the room took notice of the soft, pale flesh Lydia put on show. Argent sat taller in her seat and Lydia would have been smirking at the woman’s blatant interest if she wasn’t such a gifted actor. “As long as you sweep this hand aside as befouled by the conversation, I pray.” They were, neither of them, superstitious in the way that Omegas were commonly thought to be, but cultivating their image as soft, gullible, and weak? It would always work to their advantage. “Allow him that courtesy, Beta Argent, and I’ll suffer through one more hand of foolish play for my dear brother.” She looked Stiles in the eye and added, “I’ll stay to help you count what’s owed after.”

Argent heard that offer as meaning Lydia would be counting what Stiles owed her, of course. The mind often convinced itself that it had heard what it wanted, rather than what was more likely.

“Well then, Miss Kate, we have permission to play just one more round.” Stiles looked at the dealer as the man pulled in their discarded cards and then mumbled out again what he’d stated at the beginning of the game:

“Standard draw. Aces high. Nothing fancy at my table.” The dealer chewed and aimed at the spittoon at his feet. He then set about shuffling so fast that if Lydia wasn’t there to assure him otherwise, Stiles would have assumed the Beta man had some kind of Magic. He flicked the cards out and sat back, waiting.

Stiles glanced at his draw, tucked the cards flat under his palm on the table and said, “Let us reiterate the stakes, shall we, Miss Kate, before we take the chance to alter our bets? I’m wagering the total of the current pot, against the papers of one of your prettiest Alphas and it’s kin, with any difference in value halved if it’s necessary to make up the value of the Pack I’ll claim if I win.”

“Agreed.” Argent had a happy glint in her eye.

If Stiles were playing fair, he might feel some trepidation at her expression. He was not playing fair, however. “In that case, I’ll take two please, Mr Dealer.”

Stiles slipped off the top and middle cards in his hand to make it look as if he cared which he was discarding, and slid them towards the dealer.

“And I’ll take one,” Argent countered as she rearranged her own hand. She smiled at what she received.

The dealer was fast, and effective, and as Stiles arranged the two new cards he’d been given he felt slightly rude reciting, in his mind, an incantation that would negate all of the man’s skill. Stiles watched Lydia from the corner of his eye, noting as she lifted the smallest finger of her right hand off the table, indicating that whatever Argent was holding, it involved at least mostly diamonds. Lydia lifted the same finger and dragged the tip slowly back then pushed it out fast. Argent had a straight flush, but it was low. Lydia tapped her left index finger once. Argent had no spades in her possession. Stiles breathed in and out and said the last word of the spell to himself and the cards in his hand changed places with some from the remaining deck.

“Well then, Miss Kate.” He glanced down, trying to look pleased but still cautious. “I’m happy to keep our wager as it is, unless you’ve a better offer to make?” Stiles batted his lashes quickly and hoped that it made him appear excited at the idea of winning something, rather than particularly flirtatious. “I do so love the thrill of the tables.”

“I think, Master Stiles”—Argent licked her top lip—“that I would like to raise our bet, if you’re amenable? I suggest a doubling of the pot from your side of the table, against an Alpha and it’s kin, outright. I’ll even offer my current favorite for your inspection. I had looked forward to its breaking and training myself, but…” Stiles wasn’t sure if she was salivating at the thought of the money or of crushing an Alpha Wolf’s mind and soul. He forced himself still so he didn’t shudder. “I’m happy to sign it over to you. I’m certain you have the means to hire someone capable of handling the tedious and often unpleasant process of making a beast amenable. I’d never burden those of the more delicate sensibilities with such a task themselves.”

Stiles looked down to his hand again, and thought about what Katherine Argent would look like broken instead. He looked up and sideways at the little chest of money they’d bought with them, and thought of the miles they’d need to be away from this hell hole of a place before he’d be able to shed all the lace he was currently wearing. Time and time again they’d learned that to succeed in a lie, it was best to base it on something that wasn’t. He was counting miles, Argent thought he was counting the money he had to spare.

Lydia sniffed. “Don’t spend all your play money in one go, brother. You know that your father will lecture you, and I don’t wish to hear it. Not again.”

Stiles felt his cheeks pink. He was actually prone to spending big when he did. The Wolves whose debt he was playing for would be lavished with attention and food and care over the next week or two, and then, as with the other Packs they’d freed over the past year on the road, they would disappear into their own lives, signed into freedom with nothing owing and a generous pocket full of gold to get them what they needed to keep them and their kin safe for awhile, at least.

Stiles tried not to consider the other scenarios possible at this particular moment in time. One of them they’d all been hoping for these last twelve months, and the other Lydia had seen in a vision and shared only with him. Stiles risked becoming too emotionally involved in the game if he thought too hard on the idea that the wolves would not part company with them, for either of those reasons. It could wreak havoc with his magic. No, he’d think of these Wolves like any other, shackled by their indenture as much as the chains this horrendous woman likely kept them in.

He and Lydia’s grand tour to find suitable marriage matches was the perfect front for gathering and freeing such Wolves. They’d have another small Pack free again in twenty-four hours or so, no matter who it consisted of.

Stiles concentrated on that fact, looked at his cards again, and let himself smile, just. “I agree to your terms, Miss Kate.”

“Then shall we reveal, young Master Stiles? You looked pleased. It pains me to know that I am to take your winnings if it removes such a pretty smile.” Argent’s voice was sickly sweet. It carried the same cadence as those Alphas and Betas who liked to tote items for dainty little Omegas in an effort to prove themselves strong and worthy. Winning at a game of cards was not physically, nor in any other way, awe-inspiring, though. Stiles doubted any Omega would be impressed.

Argent laid her cards flat.

Straight flush. Diamonds. Eight high. It was her best hand of the evening.

Lydia feigned a sigh of inevitable defeat. “Brother! Not again, I simply—”

“Never fear, my dear sister.” Stiles tried to seem as excited as a spoilt little rich Omega should when winning a long-sought-after treat. “I believe I’ll not be receiving any scoldings. Well, at least not until Father discovers the work I have for him in what I’ve won.”

Stiles laid his cards face up and flat. He’d decided against a true Royal flush, but what he was presenting still beat Argent. Straight flush. Spades. Jack high. It was his best hand of the evening, too.

Argent’s face was redder than it had been all evening and one of her hands dropped off the table. She was either incredibly angry, or simply desperate. Even if her family owned the town, it was unlikely she’d be able to argue her way around the fact that she’d killed an unarmed opponent if she got a shot off into Stiles before anyone stopped her.

The catch on her holster stuck, of course, held there by some of the other magic Stiles could wield.

“Well, young Master,” Scott’s mother, Melissa, was a welcome focus of attention as she stepped up to the table, “have you actually won yourself something this time?”

Argent was on her feet now, one of her lackeys having seen fit to stop her from trying to draw on the two Omegas everyone was eyeing. She seemed unable to find any words.

“The luck of the Omega is strong with you so infrequently, son. Congratulations.” Stiles’ father had also appeared, sliding up to their sides as if from nowhere. “I do wish you wouldn’t parade your pets so, however. How are you ever going to find yourself a decent Alpha if you make all the potentials feel inadequate in comparison to these two?” He nodded at Scott and Jackson, and the Wolves pulled back their shoulders. John Stilinski chuckled low and raised an eyebrow at the fact that Argent still had her hand resting on her holster. “Did you wager your weapons, ma'am? I’m afraid I can’t let my sweet boy have one of those, even if he agreed to it as payment.”

Argent managed to shake her head.

Lydia stood, looking as if nothing too out of the ordinary had just happened, and placed a ribbon inside her book to mark her place. “Oh, no, Papa Stilinski, Stiles knows not to bet on such things any longer. He’s won you some work in the form of an apparently unbroken Alpha beast and it’s kin. I’m glad we picked up an extra wagon in the last town, heaven knows how we’d transport them otherwise. I’d not brook a handful of smelly Wolves near me if they had to run all the way behind us every day.”

Stiles’ father smiled wide as he gazed over to his son. It looked warm, but Stiles knew he was actually concerned. The Argent woman wasn’t the first to reach for a weapon after losing to Stiles at cards, but she had more local power than most he’d bested before. They needed to clean this up, collect the winnings, and be out of town as soon as possible.

“Well, son. You have had an eventful evening. You two head on upstairs to our rooms, young Miss Kira is there waiting to have you both to bed. I’ll settle what needs to be settled with the lovely Beta here.” He turned to Scott, still holding the money chest. “Boy, collect the young Master’s money winnings, then you two head up as well. We were lucky enough to secure permission for you to bed on the floors of our rooms tonight.”

Argent’s shoulders rounded a little. The whole saloon now knew that the two Omegas and their fortune were guarded not only by their Alpha chaperone and helpers, but a couple of pet Wolves as well. Nothing of theirs would be an easy target this evening.

They’d be even more cautious if they knew the party better.

Stiles slid his arm through Lydia’s, and turned with her to head upstairs. They followed Melissa to their rooms, not turning to look as they heard Stiles father carry on the charade.

“Now then, it’s Beta Katherine Argent, I believe?” There was still a smile in his voice. “The dealer here can attest to the terms of the game. Let’s get the paperwork done this evening, my boy and his sister are very early risers. We only planned on stopping one or two nights here anyway, so we’ll be out of your hair before breakfast, I’d say. We’ll collect our winnings bright and quick, and you and your town can forget any of this ever happened long before noon.”

The morning was crisper than Stiles liked, but it suited their task well. The extra bite in the air would keep the rest of Beacon Outpost tucked up in their beds a little longer. Katherine Argent’s final signature on the transfer papers of the Wolves would trigger magic that would affect her memory, but no one else's: the fewer witnesses to the collection of Stiles’ winnings, the better.

Only the town bakery had appeared to be readying for the day as they’d ridden down the main street and the few extra hundred yards to where the Argent’s stables were. Stiles didn’t allow himself to be too caught up by the enticing scent their fresh wares followed them down the road.

He put on his prettiest, poutiest expression when they came to halt in front the Argent’s stable.

“Good morning, Beta Argent.” Stiles’ father was no longer playing the jovial guardian. He was wearing his riding clothes and most serious face. “You have the livestock ready for inspection, I hope.”

She sneered at him, and bent herself sideways to see who he had in tow. Stiles was dressed in his finery still, if not a little more staid considering they were to appear to be his his traveling clothes, and both Jackson and Scott were wearing shoes, shirts, and hats this morning, jogging along side of the horses their apparent Masters rode. They looked liked guards, and they were, but they had a more important task.

They were, all of them, certain that the Argents were the ones who’d bought the Pack-debt of the Wolf who‘d bitten Scott and Jackson before then being shot and killed. It had been almost twelve months of tracking, but two towns ago they’d been told that the Hale Wolves were Argent stock now. If they weren’t amongst those offered as winnings this morning, life would go on and new plans would be made, but everyone was hoping against hope that today would be the day.

Scott and Jackson would survive either way. Wolves without an Alpha could live, but it was a difficult life. It was nowhere near as unpleasant as Wolves trapped in the horrific cycle of indentured labor, however.

Scott and Jackson were here, with Stiles and his father, to hopefully scent out the Wolf they should call Alpha, and then try to convince him or her to come away from their current situation without too much fuss. His friends stepped up behind Stiles as he dismounted.

Argent laughed. “Are you mad? You can’t bring your two beasts into a stable full of unbroken others. It’s asking for trouble. Leave them outside.”

Scott and Jackson stood still at Stiles’ shoulders.

“It is you who is mad if you believe I’m letting my Omega son walk into a stable full of animals without proper protection, Beta Argent.” Stiles’ dad put a little Alpha into his voice, and his hands on his holsters. “I’ve ‘bane in my ammunition of course, but those two Wolves aren’t just pretty. They’re trained to defend, and defend they will.”

“Besides,” Stiles stepped forward, walking around Argent as if he had every right, “I want my pets to like each other. If you don’t have an Alpha these two approve of, then you’ll have to pay what you lost to me in gold.”

Argent had wavered at his father’s comments, but Stiles’ were the ones that, not surprisingly, had the desired effect. The woman motioned him in and stepped aside, pushing open the gates at the end of the barn wide. Pale light stretched along the length of the central aisle of the building, but the Wolves in each stall stayed back in the shadows.

Jackson stepped to one side of the way, and Scott to the other, and Stiles knew they were asking the other Wolves to come forward, telling them their names, asking if they knew a Pack by the name of Hale. He couldn’t hear the words, and neither could any human. Yet, the Alphas in the stalls would have no problem understanding.

One Wolf stepped forward, just shy of the still weak morning sunlight and the gate holding him back. There was a low rumble from his chest, and both Scott and Jackson stopped still in their tracks.

Argent shook her head. “That’s not a Wolf you want, Omega Stilinski. There’s four more of them behind it. Three are breeders. Not the best toys.” Her emphasis said she didn’t actually believe Scott and Jackson weren’t, indeed, pleasure-beasts. “Hardly what you’re looking for, now, is it?”

“I beg your pardon, Beta Argent, but other than a pretty Alpha, you don’t know what I prefer.” He turned his attention back to the gate. “Three breeders, you say? Are there shutters on the pen? Open them up and put some light on the stock so I can see.”

Stiles hated the role he played in this. He hated that the first time new Wolves saw him he was acting as the epitome of all they must surely despise. He hoped, as always, that the fact that he and the others were all employing scent masking potions would make it obvious to the Alpha and his Pack that not all was as it seemed.

If their long sought information, and Lydia’s vision, were correct? Then he hated the ruse even more today than he had every other time he’d played it.

Argent screwed up her face but turned away to see to opening the windows on the outside of the barn. She roused a stable hand and followed him outside to supervise. It gave Scott and Jackson enough time to flash their eyes and show their necks to the Alpha in the pen, hopefully helping him understand that Stiles was not the cocky little upstart he was making himself out to be. Scott produced a handkerchief from his top pocket and flicked it through the mountain-ash gate. It was ladened with his scent, and Jackson’s, and that of all of them in their group.

Hopefully it would be enough to make the Alpha agree to come quietly.

The Alpha grabbed it and sniffed and whined, the others in his stall shuffling forward to inspect the cloth, too.

Light flooded in behind them and everyone blinked against the change. The Alpha and a large dark-skinned Beta man stood across the gate, blocking the others from view.

“Please,” Stiles said under his breath, “Alpha Hale, I presume?”

The wolf’s red eyes faded a moment and he nodded, once.

“I’m John Stilinski,” his dad said, stepping closer to the pen. “This is my son Stiles. It’s all confusing now, but we’ll explain when we have time. You have my word on my son’s life,” the Alpha Wolf’s eyes flashed as Stiles bent his neck, “that we mean you no harm. Please, go along with our charade a little longer.”

The door to the outside swung open again, and the Alpha’s eyes bled back to Wolf but he tipped his chin up a little and stuffed the handkerchief from Scott inside the pocket of his filthy pants.

It was enough of an agreement for them all. Stiles tried not to show his relief.

“Enough light for you all?” Argent snapped. She turned to look at the Hale Pack. “Step away from the gate, both of you. Show the pretty Omega what he asked for.” She was losing grip on her patience.

The big Beta stood to one side proper, but the Alpha didn’t move away completely. It was enough either way.

Behind them were two young women of indeterminate designation, one blonde and stubborn looking, the other dark like the Alpha and several years younger than the rest. The young man with them was, by Argent’s pronouncement, an Omega. He looked even less nourished than his Packmates, and bore bruises that no Wolf should usually keep for more than an hour or two.

Stiles did his best to summon a disapproving look. “Are you presenting me with damaged stock, Beta Argent? Or is it simply sullied?”

Argent curled her lip at him. “I said they were breeders, not what state they were in. The male is sullied, I believe. The older female is also, as it’s attached to the black one. The young one’s maidenhead might fetch a decent price if that is what you’re after? As you stated before, I know nothing of your requirements other than for a pretty Alpha.”

The Alpha, pretty or not, showed his fangs at the suggestion someone might sell a member of his Pack’s virginity. Stiles would do the same if he could. Instead, he bit his tongue.

“I’ll have you mind your manners in front of my child, Beta Argent. Such matters are not proper for an Omega to hear of, let alone discuss. Tell me, which of these Wolves committed the arresting offence?”

Stiles watched his father’s face, as a diligent child should, but caught the shame that flitted across the male Omega’s features at the question.

“The male breeder was caught thieving and locked up. The Calaveras family were unaware at the time that it was the then Alpha’s bitch. That Alpha, predictably, attempted to reach it and apparently went berserk when it couldn’t. It was put down as it raged, and this younger one took its place.” She nodded at the Alpha who’d again stepped across the gateway, hiding his Pack members from easy view.

Stiles wanted to reach out to Scott and Jackson. That rage, the old Alpha trying desperately to reach his stolen Mate, was what had earned them both the Bite. They both stood silently, stoically beside him however.

They’d all worked together as a team to free Pack after Pack of Wolves they’d met in the last few months, yet this effort was going to be that much more taxing on them all.

Stiles huffed. “I’m tired and cold, Papa.” The whine of an Omega was enough to make most Alphas and Betas cringe, and hopefully it would push Argent to her wit’s end. He turned and looked at her. “You can assure me, Beta Argent, that they’ve not yet been branded?”

“The beast was free-stock before he signed on to help pay off the breeder’s and old Alpha's crimes. The Calaveras had no wish to keep an unmated stud, and I’ve not yet had the time to break it in, so no. Neither it, nor its extras, are branded.”

Stiles felt another weight lift from his shoulders; a brand could be removed with time and Deaton’s medicine and magic, but… It was better to not have that issue. And it was far better to know that the Alpha had been allowed to keep his wits. “Have the beast step out of the cell so I can inspect it properly. If it’s pretty enough then we’ll sign the papers and be gone before you’re back to your lodgings for coffee, Beta Argent.”

The Alpha Wolf snarled, but didn’t resist too much when Argent produced a restraining pole. He didn’t so much as whimper when the aconite-soaked rope she slipped around his throat burned into his skin.

The Hale Alpha’s trousers were threadbare and he had no shirt or shoes. His hair was months uncut, and the beard on his face was as impressive as it was filthy. It matched the rest of him. His eyes were still bright though, and Stiles found it hard not to simply stare into them. Instead, he stepped around the Wolf, apparently appraising him from all angles, loudly commenting on the probable power of the beast’s wide thighs and lamenting the fact that he didn’t dare touch because of what might be in the grime on its skin.

All the time, Jackson was murmuring to the Alpha that he and his Pack would have fresh clothes and a chance to bathe soon enough, and that Stiles would indeed not touch him as they all respected the right for a Wolf to guard their own scent, and that of their Packmates’.

Stiles looked at Scott. “We have four extra collars, yes? Fetch them. The youngest can go without for now. It won’t go anywhere without one.” He turned back to his father and smiled sweetly. “I shall leave you to deal with the rest of the formalities, Papa. My dear sister will have my head if she’s made to fall asleep in our wagon alone.” His father had the contract they’d penned last night, and ink and wax imbued with some of Dr Deaton’s magical prowess to seal it with. “It was a pleasure doing business with you, Miss Kate. I trust us leaving so soon will make your life less uncomfortable. Of course, we could stay another night or two? I do so love the thrill of the tables.”

Argent stepped sideways around the Alpha and used the restraining pole to push the man to his knees. She put her boot between his shoulder blades and pushed him face-first onto the cold ground.

“You and your retinue should take your winnings and consider never returning to this town.” She flicked her eyes off Stiles and barked at her stable hand, “Get the others out. Now.”

♠♠♠

Derek let the older man, the one who’d introduced himself as Stilinski and claimed to be the spoilt Omega’s father—it was impossible to tell the whole truth of that without the help of their scents—fasten the collar around his neck. It was of the same design as those worn by the two strange Wolves. The fine leather and fancy filigree looked obscene against the unwashed skin of Boyd, Erica, and Isaac. He was glad they didn’t have one to go around Cora’s neck. Derek held the same wish that his parents and older sister and brothers and uncles had; they dreamed of a world where no Wolf, or any person, would be kept as chattel while they paid off inflated debts. At fifteen Cora had never, yet, worn a collar. Derek would, if he had to, die trying to make certain she never did.

Whatever these people were playing at, they had prepared well. Derek knew little of magic, but whatever it was they were using to mask their scents must be powerful. The Wolves were definitely Wolves, and if what was on the cloth they’d given him was true, they were Hale Betas, bitten while Peter was mad with grief at trying to reach his then pregnant Mate. The square of material held more secrets, and something Derek wanted to know more of, but the cursory sniff he’d taken had not shared much information beyond what he’d already learned with his ears.

Their new owners, or rather those who were buying the debt Isaac and the Pack had been saddled with, were not all Human and they were a mix of Alpha, Beta, and Omega. They were… the scent of two Wolves that should have been more than familiar was what was utmost in Derek’s mind. He’d play their game for the moment. One of the new Wolves had promised clothes and bathing. The Human Alpha Stilinski had all but sworn their safety on the Omega’s life.

Derek had given great thought to the keeping-in of his claws when the Omega had presented his throat.

He concentrated now on making certain that Isaac did not fall while they walked the few hundred yards to the caged-wagon they were to be transported in.

The Wolf who had promised food took gloves out of his pockets and used his covered hands to shut the gate behind them. He kept his head down as he murmured, “We’re still in danger and authenticity will keep us all safe, so the cage is made of rowan. Please don’t touch it. There should be room enough for you all to lie and sleep comfortably. The box at the front there has blankets, water skins, and some food. I know you can’t trust us yet because of our scent blockers, but consider this much,” he looked up from under his brows, “even if you were just bought as labor, or toys? I’m Jackson, and you can see that I’m strong and healthy. Scott, the other Wolf, is strong and healthy. Your wounds and troubles will be tended to as soon as possible, but in the meantime, please eat and rest. This afternoon we’ll make camp some place safe and you can wash and eat some more. By then the Doctor’s magics will have started to fade and you’ll be able to ask the first of the questions you have, and of course judge us with your noses.”

A quick brush of Derek’s elbow against the wagon’s cage proved it was indeed rowan, and good quality. It would do more damage to him than it was worth to try breaking through it.

The food and water smelled safe, and the new Wolf’s logic was sound. They all drank slowly and took small bites. The blankets were warm and they could all stretch out.

Together they fell asleep easily.

Derek tugged the kerchief out of his pocket just before he drifted off; there was something in the scents that made him feel comfortable. He settled into a slumber without dreams.

Derek woke as the wagon came to a halt. He blinked up at the sky and saw that it was long past noon but not yet night. They’d slept, uninterrupted for the first time in months, for eight or nine hours. He felt more alive than he had since he’d become Alpha.

The wolf who’d called himself Jackson stepped off the front of the wagon at the same time as those controlling the other two carriages did. Derek watched carefully as the travellers all revealed themselves. He’d seen four of them so far, and was interested to see just who, and what, else might come tumbling out of the wagons.

The other Wolf, Scott, took the gloves from Jackson and opened the cage wide. He stepped back and they both showed their bare throats to him. “Please, come sit with us, Alpha Hale. Bring the basket and the blankets. Leave the collars. They were just for show.”

Alpha Stilinski spoke up, “When we get you clean and dressed properly we’ll ask that you keep them with you, but only just-in-case. They’re simple leather, there’s nothing herbal or magical in them. The only thing they’re good at controlling is the opinions of others.”

“It is still unfortunately necessary in many places.” The new man’s voice was soft and his skin was dark. “I am Omega Alan Deaton.”

“And I’m Omega Lydia Martin.” She was tiny, with hair the color of a soft sunset. Her skin was the same milk-white as the lean young man standing next to her. “You’ve met my step-brother, Omega Mieczysław Stilinski. We call him Stiles. I promise you, Alpha,” she looked past him to the others, “friends, that he is not what this morning’s performance would have you believe him to be.”

Her brother stepped forward and showed his neck, dropping his eyes as he spoke. “I would like to formally apologize to you, Alpha Hale, and all the members of your Pack, for appearing to treat you as animals this morning.” He lifted his gaze and looked directly into Derek’s eyes. “I do not consider you, nor any Wolf, to be any less important than anyone else. None of us do. Unfortunately the best way to get what we want, sometimes, is to pretend that we are who we are not.”

Derek could hear the Omega’s heart beating steadily. All the others’ did, too. He turned his head as he saw that there were two more people coming out of the middle carriage. The women were both dark haired, but the younger one’s was as straight as the older’s was curly. They didn’t seem to be kin.

“Sorry, sorry.” The young woman, quite unusually, was wearing an Alpha man’s pants instead of a skirt or culottes. Derek couldn’t help but stare. “It’s why we were a bit late to the introductions. Melissa was finally helping me get out of that stupid dress I have to wear in towns.”

The older woman rolled her eyes. “I am Beta Melissa Delgado, Beta Scott McCall’s mother.” She fixed her own skirts. “It’s a pleasure to make your, and your Pack’s acquaintance, Alpha Hale.” She tipped her head and curtsied simultaneously.

“And I’m the only other name you’ll need to remember. Alpha Kira Yukimura, Scott McCall’s Mate. I’m so glad we actually found you.”

“Come, bring the blankets over and we can all sit and eat, son.” Alpha Stilinski spoke with surety. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions for us.”

Derek turned and looked at his sisters and brothers and they all nodded, but he paused.

“First,” his throat still felt sore, but it was better than it had been for weeks. “May we… You gave us a sample of your scent, but I don’t—” He swallowed. He had no idea if these people were telling him truth or lies. He didn’t want to risk offending them, but he also didn’t want to let them think he was not prepared to look after his Packmates.

“Of course, Alpha.” Jackson, who’d not yet formally introduced himself, stepped forward, Omega Martin by his side. “One by one?”

“Yes. I want to be certain, one way or another, that you are indeed my uncle’s Bites.” Derek tried to sound as sure as he should be. It was hard to imagine, though, the fear or madness that must have been in Peter’s mind if he’d Bitten two unconsenting humans in his rage.

Jackson stepped forward and pushed up his sleeve. He flashed his eyes and offered his wrist. “I am Beta Jackson Whittemore. I was in the town square with Scott the afternoon that your Alpha uncle was killed. I don’t know if he meant to maim us or turn us, or was simply crazed. His bites were vicious, though. We were lucky that Doctor Deaton was nearby to help us heal.”

Derek leaned in and breathed in and, yes. “I do not know either. My uncle must have been...” He turned and looked at the older Omega. “I thank you, Sir, for what I presume was you saving my Betas’ lives.” He looked back at Beta Whittemore again and breathed a little deeper. “You’re Mated?”

“He was shopping for a wedding gift for me that afternoon,” Omega Martin said, stepping up to be next to her Mate. “We went ahead with the ceremony, even if it was a little late. My only regret is that it had to be kept secret.” She looked around Derek, to where Isaac was standing with Erica. “I’m truly sorry for the loss of your Mate. I can’t imagine the pain you’ve been through. Deaton and Melissa can make you a tonic to help you now, though. It won’t heal your heart, but it will help with the toll the separation has taken on your body.” She stepped back, eyes lingering on Isaac as she did. She wore the look of an Omega concerned for another; for all that they were supposed to be the fairer and softer of all the designations, they could be fierce in their protections of each other, as well as those they called their own.

The other Wolf stepped up to take her place and flashed his eyes. “Beta Scott McCall. Kira and I were already married, and Mated, when I was bitten.” He too rolled up his sleeve and presented his wrist.

Derek flared his nostrils wide to try to understand what he was smelling. There was Wolf, but also something more. “You were already Mated?”

Alpha Yukimura stepped up and offered her own skin. “I’m not Human, Alpha Hale.” Her eyes glowed momentarily, far more orange than her Mate’s. “My kind are known as Kitsune. I’m not quite a shifter, but if I was I’d be a fox.”

Beta McCall puffed out his chest. “I’m the first Mate she’s taken, even though she’s a hundred-forty-seven.”

“Really?” Cora’s voice was full of wonder.

Alpha Yukimura smiled at her. “Really. My mother is nine-hundred-sixty-three years old.” She looked back Derek. “John and I have been acting as Scott and Jackson’s Alphas. It’s helped that they’re both Mated, but…”

“We’re very, very happy we found you.” The young Beta wrapped his arm around his Alpha Mate and smiled.

“We’ll offer the rest of our scents in a few more hours, Alpha Hale,” Omega Deaton said as he stepped a little closer. “The potion we use to fool others can’t be used by Humans more than once every few weeks because of it’s ingredients. It’s also quite strong, even when we can. It’s depleted in the system of shifters faster than in those of Humans.” He looked past Derek, to where Isaac was leaning on Erica, then flicked his eyes back. “Might we know your names and designations? I would very much like to offer my services in helping you all back to health, if I may. Both Melissa and I are trained in medicines, and as you’ve already surmised, I have the extra advantage of magics.”

Derek wanted to believe these people. As far as he could tell, there were no lies in the words of any of them. But, if they could hide their scents, could they not perhaps hide their heartbeats’ truths as well?

“It is hard for your to trust us, of course.” The older woman, Beta Delgado, was spreading out one of the blankets as she spoke. “We will have no other power than to be more polite if we know your Pack’s names and titles, though.”

Derek swallowed. She was right. “I am Derek Hale, Alpha.” He felt the others arrange themselves behind him and stepped to the side to show them plain. “This is Vernon Boyd, Beta, and his Mate, Beta Erica Reyes. Omega Isaac Lahey’s Mate was Peter Hale, my uncle. And Beta Cora Hale,” she stepped out of line and pressed herself into his side, “is my blood sister.” He pulled her close and squeezed. Even with several months of grime on her skin she still smelled like home and family.

“Thank you, Alpha,” the young Omega woman sat down on the blanket that had been laid out as she spoke. “Please, you should eat a little more. Once that’s done, we can set up our tents and set water to heat for you all. We’ve clothes and soap and scissors and razors for you if you wish. By the time you’re feeling more yourselves, we’ll all be smelling more ourselves.”

The sharp edge of the razor against his skin felt good: a renewal. It wasn’t easy, even for a born Wolf, to shave in only lamp light, yet now it was a pleasure. Derek had spent much of his adult life with a beard, but after months forced to wear one it was good to no longer have it on his face.

Washing themselves had taken more time than they’d realized it would, although their hosts seemed to be prepared for the process. They’d been given fine scissors for their hair and beards, but then another, strangely shaped set—one blade with an extra rounded protrusion on its side to stop it from slicing into the flesh—designed specifically to help them cut off their clothes. In some cases the cotton and wool had near felted to their skin. The new shirts and pants and dresses and underthings they were given to choose from smelled freshly laundered, and faintly of Omega.

Erica cried as they cut pieces from her hair that they could not comb through, and Isaac whimpered as Cora washed the whip marks on his back. The sounds were a strange mix of misery and relief.

Their host’s conversation drifted over to them in the night air.

“He sounds like he’s in terrible pain, Deaton. At least let me offer some of your tincture. You know it will help him to have it sooner rather than later.” They were speaking quietly, but the young man’s voice was clear nevertheless. The one they called Stiles sounded truly concerned. “Another Omega’s touch will also help, you know that. His Packmates’ support has helped him until now, but we are here for him too. I just.” There was almost a croon in his voice. “He sounds so sore.”

“He does, Master Stiles, but he does not know you, nor Miss Lydia, and it would not be right to put either of you into his personal space. You know this, we’ve been through similar before. You seem very peculiarly invested in this group, even though they are the people we’ve been searching for months.” Derek wished he could see Omega Deaton’s face, but the question in his voice was plain enough.

“We, I.” The young woman moved herself, perhaps recrossing her legs or smoothing her skirts as she spoke. “I saw them. Not just in relation to Jackson and Scott. I saw their Alpha, specifically.” Derek looked at Boyd, and Boyd nodded, stepping closer to his Mate, and Cora and Isaac, who were all still in the process of dressing and fussing, happy to be clean and properly clothed for the first time in months.

Derek moved himself a little nearer to their hosts, but stayed behind the blankets that had been hung from a tree branch to give them some illusion of privacy.

“You had a vision you but chose not share it with us?” Alpha Stilinski made the statement in a way that told Derek he was not concerned with Omega Martin having had a vision, but just that it had not been spoken of. Derek wondered at it a moment; in Humans the male Omegas often had small magics as it was magic that gave them the ability to bare children. Omega women usually did not.

“I have shared every other thing my grandmother’s blood has shown me, Papa John.” That answered that question, slightly. Whatever her grandmother was, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning if she was simply Human. “Of this particular possibility I told only Stiles, as it was only Stiles’ to care about.” She sounded certain, but then hummed, “Well. I’m sure you’ll be interested if the image was true, but still.”

“Still?” The tone made Derek think of Peter, one eyebrow raised and judging with every ounce of his stare. Derek shook off the memory and concentrated on the present. His Betas behind him were silent now, and listening too.

Her brother answered cautiously. “It’s nothing bad, Papa, I swear. In fact, if what Lydia saw is true we might all, Hale Pack included, have more to celebrate than we already do.”

The older man huffed out what sounded like a long-practiced sigh. “Well then, son, as none of our guests seem to have moved in the last minute or two and have likely been listening, I’d say they’re interested in your little revelation, too. We will none of us fault them for also wanting an explanation.”

There were a few mumbled agreements. Derek slipped a hand between the hanging blankets, and picked up one of the lanterns they’d been using with the other. He carried it, and Erica and Cora carried the other two.

Derek breathed in deeply as he stepped forward. The sharpest scent was of course from the fire, but there was also an overlaying sense of another Pack. This band of Humans, Wolves and Kitsune would likely not call themselves that, but it was what they were. Their smell in the air was like the one on the handkerchief they’d given him that morning. It was stronger now, fresher, and still potent despite the woodsmoke around them.

It was familiar to Derek because of his new Betas, but he thought there was also something more. It was the scent that had given him comfort in the wagon and helped him close his eyes to sleep.

Their hosts were sat around the fire on logs that had been brought close, and a few folding chairs. The two Omegas had changed their clothing to simpler guise, most of their previous lace and frills abandoned for far more plain lines. They were both wearing wrap-fronted culottes now, although they’d offered Isaac, and Erica and Cora, skirts, culottes and pants to choose from.

“Was everything suitable?” Beta Delgado asked, standing as she did. “We’ve freed sixteen other Packs, and we’ve generally had everything we needed, but please let us know if there’s anything else you require.”

They’d freed sixteen other indentured Wolf Packs. Sixteen. Derek considered that, and each of the people standing before him. It was a staggering concept. A mature Human man and woman, two young Wolves, a more than century-old Kitsune, and two Human Omegas who most would expect to be flitting and flirting their way through ballrooms and teahouses in the finest cities and towns, not sitting by a campfire drinking from chipped mugs and hoping that the night-bugs didn’t fancy their sweet blood. If they’d been caught it could have been devastating. Derek’s stomach churned. These were unlikely heroes, but his mind could supply no other description that seemed appropriate.

Beta Delgado prodded again, gently, “We have salves and tonics for you, of course, but other than those, is there anything else you need?”

Boyd’s shirt was a little tight, and Derek’s pants were a little long. Cora had never liked yellow, Erica looked better with her hair in curls, and Isaac was bleeding into his borrowed shirt and standing a little uncomfortably in a skirt for the first time in almost a year, but.

“Everything is good, thank you. We owe you a great debt.” Derek tried not to sound bitter at the last word, but his throat had other ideas.

“Oh!” Omega Stilinski cried as he stood up from his spot on the other side of the fire with speed that Derek had not expected. “Let’s get that sorted before any other sniffing happens, shall we?” His father also stood and handed him some papers. “Can you read, Alpha Hale?”

The question was asked with no condescension, so Derek nodded easily. “My parents thought it important.”

“And we would agree,” the young man said, a wide, warm smile on his face. “Scott, can you give these to your Alpha, please?”

Derek would have been shocked a few moments before if he’d witnessed the young Human Omega following official Pack protocol, but knowing now that they’d dealt with Wolf Packs before it was less of a surprise. He thanked Beta McCall as the young man handed him a small stack of papers.

Omega Stilinski’s voice was as excited as his speech was fast. “You’ll see that we’ve not only granted Isaac Lahey freedom from the debt he was ladened with when he was found guilty of theft, but also absolved you, the new Hale Alpha, of any financial penalty your predecessor was sentenced to in the chaos after. There are contracts granting each of you your freedom by name, and your Pack as a whole, also.” Derek could see the writing on the first page, but daren’t look at the others, he didn’t want to risk ripping the pages in his haste. Stiles’ smile was still there when Derek looked back up at him. “Technically Katherine Argent signed you over to me, as I’m the one who bested her in cards, but as I’m an Omega, some might question the legality of that.” A Human Omega had more rights than most Werewolves, but not many more, and Derek could imagine that there were places they still weren’t given them freely. “So you’ll see that my father co-signed them all, just in case. No one would dare question the right of an Alpha Human to do so.”

Alpha Stilinski stepped around his son, coming closer to Derek as he added, “Of course, given that you may have smelled the magics in the ink we used on Argent’s contract, we won’t blame you for wanting fresh ones when it’s possible. Just to make sure everything is above board. We’ll be happy to have them redrawn in your presence, with ink you’ve watched purchased, as soon as we’re in another town.” Derek hadn’t smelled any magic this morning, in fact. He’d been too busy trying to scent his two new Betas. Now, John Stilinski’s heart beat was the same steady rhythm it had been that morning, and that afternoon. “May I approach, son? It’s a very Human thing to do, I realize, but I’d like to shake your hand to make all of this official. And, of course, I want to give you the chance to sniff out anything you need to.”

“Please,” Derek managed. He was quite overwhelmed, and even more so when he realized he’d have to let go of the contracts to greet the other man properly. He turned and handed them to Boyd for safe keeping.

“I’ll get you a leather wrap for those papers when we’re done, son.” Alpha Stilinski watched the care with which Boyd held them. “Hopefully you’ll never need to show them, but if you do, we want them in good order.” The man took his final step closer to Derek and reached his hand forward. “I don’t like to say congratulations when I hand over what should have been yours in the first place, Alpha Hale, but it seems the only thing suitable.”

His hand was warm and rough. His Omega child and ward were soft and primped and pretty, but this was a man used to working for a living.

Derek swallowed the small whine that rose in his throat at the relief he was feeling. “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, son.” The Alpha’s heartbeat was still clear as he raised his wrist. Its cadence was becoming familiar already. His scent matched it. Though Derek couldn’t tell exactly what John Stilinski was feeling without knowing him better, the man’s presence had none of the telltale bitter or sour notes that went with disgust or deception. He smelled like his Pack, whiskey and lime, and something else that had Derek wanting to lean closer. It was comforting and enticing at the same time. Derek shook his head a little. It must the fact that this man had been Derek’s Betas’ surrogate Alpha. He smelled a little like home.

The others came forward one after the other. Alpha Yukimura first, as she said she’d not been completely unmasked earlier. She smelled of thunder and rain and a wildness that was unfamiliar but not unpleasant.

Melissa Delgado smelled of laundry, her son, bread, and that scent that all mothers carried. She dared a small touch of her fingers to push back a lock of Derek’s hair, and he imagined, in a moment, that he saw his own mother in her smile.

Omega Deaton smelled of magic, medicines, and thyme.

Scott and Jackson—they were his Betas, so he should possibly start addressing them by their first names in his head, at least—smelled of each other and their Mates and something Derek could only describe as Peter. They both offered their throats again, and Derek gave them his own scent, rubbing his wrist over their pulse points. Both young men’s shoulders relaxed and their scents warmed and they happily stepped around him to meet the rest of their Pack. Omega Martin watched after her Mate as she offered her own hand. She smelled of roses and boysenberries and carnage.

“I’m sure you heard our conversation before, Alpha?” Derek nodded. “My grandmother gave me the gift of sight. I can delve into other worlds and sometimes other’s minds. But, mostly I can hear the thoughts and approach of the Reapers of Souls. Just as the Kitsune smells of thunder, the Banshee smells of death. That is what your nose is telling you.”

Derek didn’t know how to respond to that. “I,” he stopped. There was no using trying to say something if there was nothing to say.

“The most important thing to remember is that I’m not dangerous, Alpha Hale. In fact, once I’m practiced, I will be able to help us avoid anything that might chance death. I’ll have time to concentrate on it fully once we are home.” She looked up at him, and now that he knew what her eyes might see, he felt more exposed than he had before he’d dressed fully. “No one has said it yet, but I hope, we all hope, that you’ll be coming north with us. My Mate needs you, thus I need you. And,” she looked over her shoulder at the only one of their unorthodox Pack to have not yet stepped forward, “well.” With that last word hanging she stepped aside and went to join her Mate, standing next to Isaac.

Omega Stilinski stepped forward. The young man’s cheeks were a little red, perhaps from sitting too close to the fire. His eyes, now that Derek had more of a chance to look at him closely, were round and large, and a similar color to the flames or maybe the caramels Derek’s father used to buy for them when he had some extra coins in his pocket: a rare treat.

“Alpha Hale,” he tipped his head to the side again as he spoke, but stayed a step or two away. “I…” Omega Stilinski looked sideways at his father, and the man raised his eyebrows with an amused look on his face. The young man half-grimaced. “My father thinks it strange that I’m not immediately chatting your ear off, and that I didn’t jump to the front of the line to present myself.” His cheeks were pinker now, and Derek wanted to touch the skin to see if it was as warm and soft as it seemed. “Omegas are supposed to be meek and mild. Our tutors called Lydia a smart-witted perfectionist and me a precocious rascal. Neither of us are usually good at holding our tongues.”

Derek spoke quietly, despite knowing all could hear. “Alphas are supposed to be strong of speech and body. I may be the second, but I’m certainly not the first,” he offered without delay.

Omega Stilinski smiled again and his cheeks rounded as much as his eyes shone. They stayed wide and bright as the rest of his face settled into something less jovial. He whispered, “I promise my father won’t actually shoot you,” and stepped closer and lifted his wrist.

Derek was hit with a wall of scent that slid around and through him and he felt his teeth drop and his claws extend and his eyes bleed into Wolf. He wrapped his arms around Stiles and pulled him closer and pressed his face into the young man’s neck. This was the scent that had been alongside all the others. This was why he’d felt comfort and longing. Most Omegas smelled pleasant, but this, this was something so right that Derek never wanted to breathe in anything else. He wondered how it would taste, and thought of running his tongue over the soft, pale skin he was pressed against.

It took him several moments to realize, but eventually it became apparent that Stiles was saying his name and that the young man’s father, and the others, were shouting.

Derek turned himself so his back was against the threat as much as he could while still allowing himself line of sight. John Stilinski had a pistol in each hand, and Scott and Jackson were standing either side of him, claws and teeth ready to assist.

Stiles’ voice was warm and his words slow. “Derek, you don’t have to let go, but let me see my father, please,” he said. The Omega’s heart rate was faster than before, but he didn’t smell afraid. “I’m not going anywhere, I promise. Everyone is worried, though. If you let me loose a little, I can talk to them and everything will be okay.”

Derek could see the sense in that. There were angry voices all around them. Despite wanting to pick up the Omega and make away with him, Derek widened his arms a little to allow him movement instead. Stiles twisted around, but didn’t move to push Derek away.

Derek could feel him talk, his chest pushed into Stiles’ back.

“Papa, please put the guns away. Yes, he has his fangs and things out, but Alpha Hale isn’t going to hurt me.”

Derek lifted and turned his head a little so he could watch the older man. The Alpha’s shoulders had relaxed a little, but not much.

“Fangs and things out usually means hurting people, Stiles. You can see why I don’t really feel like I want to put the pistols away, yes?”

“You’ll hit me if you fire at him, Papa.” Derek growled at that idea, and all the other Wolves, Scott and Jackson included, whimpered. “I don’t think he likes that possibility.”

John Stilinski’s arms relaxed a little more. “You know I’m a better shot than that, but I concede your point.”

“Well,” Omega Deaton sounded as if he’d just found the answer to a long-considered riddle. “That would explain why your scent helped heal Scott and even Jackson more than Lydia’s did when the boys were first bitten.”

Alpha Yukimura was practically vibrating, standing tall and looking ready to spring into the air. “Oh, this is wonderful! My mother told me stories about it of course, but this is my first time seeing it!”

Derek breathed in the wave of happiness that Stiles gave off at their words. Stiles reached up and pressed his hand against Derek’s, and slid it underneath so that they were palm to palm.

“Someone needs to explain this to me properly so that I can decide if I am actually putting my guns away or not.” John Stilinski’s voice had less urgency, but the man was still concerned.

“Is this what you were talking about seeing in your vision, Omega Martin?”

Derek lifted his head at that. He hadn't heard Isaac use more than one or two words at a time since he lost the baby.

Derek watched Omega Martin smile at her new Packmate-by-marriage and reach out. Isaac let her take his hand as she replied, “It is, yes, Omega Lahey.”

“Then I, too, am very glad you found us. Derek’s strength kept us alive, but he’ll be even stronger with a Mate.”

“Especially his True Mate.” Erica sounded as awed as she should if what she was saying was true.

Derek breathed in again. He thought that Stiles had bathed in the last day or so, but today had only run a wet cloth over his skin, and he hadn’t done behind his ears. The scent there was deeper, sweet and rich. The Omega smelled of raspberries ripened in the sun, freshly cut grass, hot steel, and… Derek couldn’t describe it. He could spend a hundred lifetimes trying to, he suspected, but it wouldn’t matter. There was only one thing he’d ever have to call it: the Mate-scent was elusive, but just as he’d been told he would as a child, he knew, instinctively, that that was what he could sense in Stiles’ skin.

Derek swallowed the saliva that was building in his mouth and concentrated hard to retract his fangs and his claws. His vision stayed Wolf-sharp, though, and he decided that for the moment it would have to do. He couldn’t bring himself to let go of the Omega completely, and he wondered a moment if Stiles had known that would be a problem and if that was why they were basically holding hands. Derek slotted their fingers together and lifted his eyes to meet John Stilinski’s hard stare.

“Well, son?” The guns were back above their holsters, but they weren’t yet slid in.

Derek steadied his voice and hoped his words didn’t come out as a growl. “I apologize for the ‘fangs and things’, Sir. While they are indeed a general sign of hurt and the such, this was part of a completely different reaction.” Derek’s whole body had responded to Stiles’ scent with everything it could. He wasn’t going to mention the presence of his knot to his hopefully-father-in-law-to-be, however. “I believe that Omega Deaton, Alpha Yukimura, and Isaac and Erica are correct in their assumptions.”

Omega Deaton dragged his eyes from Derek and Stiles to look at Alpha Stilinski as he addressed him. “Pure Mate Matches are unusual, but not unheard of. If they happen, it’s usually between an Alpha and an Omega Wolf.” He looked down a moment and then said, looking back at Derek, “Our research said that you are a born Wolf, Alpha Hale, so that makes the likelihood higher for you, even if it is unusual that your Mate is Human.”

“So,” Alpha Stilinski looked at his son and then his step-daughter in turn, “you had a vision about Stiles meeting his True Mate and neither of your thought it was something you should share with the remainder of us? I could have shot my son’s Alpha!” The sound that escaped his chest was exasperated and fond all in one sound.

My son’s Alpha.

Derek was certain all of the Wolves heard his sigh of relief, it wasn’t a direct statement, but John Stilinski’s words could only mean acceptance. The fact that the man was not only snapping the clasps shut on his guns’ holsters but also removing the whole belt from his waist suitably emphasized the point.

Beta Delgado stepped up to Alpha Stilinski’s side and rested a hand on his shoulder. “You might have, but as you said, you’re a good shot and, well.” She looked at his two chastised children closely. “Something tells me these two swapped out your ‘bane shot for something less lethal?”

John Stilinski shook his head and stepped closer to Derek and Stiles. He reached out his hand again, arm not quite out straight as he’d come so near.

“Miss Kira may not have seen a True Mate match even in her long life, but I have. I know exactly what it means.” His face softened a little. “Welcome to the family, Derek.” They shook hands much more firmly than the first time. Stiles held Derek’s other palm in his own. “Dinner first, then we can discuss the fact that your pack has not only gained two Wolves, a Banshee and a Kitsune overnight, but also that you’ve managed to catch a Human Omega and a handful others alongside him. You’ll be heading north with us, all of you. I won’t take no for an answer.”

Derek glanced over at his sister and Packmates. They all seemed as if, for the first time in a very long time, they were ready for anything. Derek then looked back at his Mate.

“Miz-i-sla—”

Stiles’ snorted and squeezed Derek’s fingers. “There’s a reason I’m usually called Stiles. Though, if you want, I’ll teach you how to say Mieczysław. We’ve a long road north. We’ll have time along the way.”