There are thirteen kinds of kitsune, a full spectrum of foxfire: Ocean, Mountain, Thunder, Wind. Earth, River, Fire, Forest. Music, Time, Spirit.
The elevator doors open, and the hallway lights flicker as Celestial and Void face each other. The cries of frightened and confused humans sound not far away, nurses escorting patients from rooms gone dark, technicians running to take care of failing life-support machines, but such things touch neither fox.
“You know me,” Celestial says.
It is difficult to tell, in the strobing light, but it may be that Void nods. It may be that it does not. There is certainly no need for a reply, when both know the answer.
“Then you remember that I won’t be deterred by your choice of host.” Implacable as the will of Heaven. “Even if it’s an innocent boy.”
Should any mortal wander past, they will see this: a middle-aged Japanese woman standing in an elevator, cool and confident. A seventeen-year-old white boy, with darkness smeared beneath his eyes.
Only those with the Sight would see the truth; the thick golden plumes of the Celestial’s many tails, shining like sun-on-water, blazing-bright: nine centuries’ worth of strength gathered about her like banners of starlight, a nebula of power. In the Real, the light of her floods the corridor, gilds it gold.
Until it meets, neat as the stroke of a blade, the sin-soft darkness emanating from that smaller, lither figure. If the Celestial burns like a star then this one is a black hole, a never-ending spiral into bottomless depths. Its tails are ebony velvet and obsidian, the shadows from under the bed and inside the closet set alight and burning black. They curl and twitch and flick like restless flames, and they are too many to count.
“You threatening us?” the darkness asks, after a long moment.
It is not a sense of drama that summons the Oni to Celestial’s side then; it is reflex, instinct, a reaction that leaves no track on her face but makes her tails whip in startled, fearful realisation. But even as epiphany strikes it is subsumed, replaced with cool bright hardness: she meant what she promised.
“Now I’m threatening you.”
The darkness does not smile. It does not even roll its eyes. “We’re not really afraid of your little fireflies.”
Celestial’s human form is impassive, but in the Real her golden tails quiver, tremble, just once. Understanding.
He is her daughter’s age. But that is not why she hesitates, why she freezes in place.
Slowly, deliberately, Void turns its back on her. The dismissal could not be clearer.
“If the Oni can’t defeat you,” Celestial calls after Void (because she knows they can’t, now, Void did not spell it out for her but she is nine hundred years old, she is no fool, she understands), “then I know someone who will.”
Void pauses. Overhead, the fluorescent dims, brightens, dims again as the darkness—the boy—Void turns, looks back over their shoulder just once.
They do not say a word. They do not need to. They walk on, and neither the Celestial nor her firefly-demons try to follow.
Allison couldn’t help noting, with the instincts she’d never realised her parents were training into her, that even now Peter wasn’t meeting with them at his own apartment. It made the back of her neck itch, knowing that psychopath had a secret den somewhere that none of them knew about, the black hole he disappeared into whenever the pack really needed him. Given the coolness between uncle and nephew, she suspected even Derek didn’t know where Peter laired.
She wanted Peter where she could see him, always. Preferably through the scope of a rifle or down the line of a nocked arrow.
But no, he insisted on all his little secrets, so it was Derek’s loft—always Derek’s loft—that they went to after his twisted little game with Lydia’s mom. Like good puppies answering the snap of their master’s fingers, Allison couldn’t help thinking, and gritted her teeth.
When Lydia raised her hand to knock, she couldn’t hold it in any longer; she grabbed her friend’s wrist before Lydia’s knuckles met the metal. “While it’s smart to bring me with you, I still think the rest of this is totally insane,” she said, pleading one last time for Lydia to reconsider.
Even though Allison knew it was useless.
“I tried to find Stiles,” Lydia said, “and I led everyone into a mental institution.” Allison winced, remembering the chaos of that night and Lydia’s confused humiliation afterwards. “I call that a colossal failure.”
Allison didn’t know what to say. Raised to strategy and tactics, she couldn’t call it anything but a failure, either. She didn’t know any softer words for an unfulfilled mission objective.
Lydia closed her eyes briefly. “Look, I just…need to figure this out, and he is the only one offering help.”
“Peter doesn’t offer help!” Allison knew Lydia felt guilty, knew she blamed herself for misleading the Sheriff so badly, however accidentally, but this was Peter. “He offers a chance for you to be manipulated into giving him what he wants.”
“Fine!” Lydia said brightly, and Allison felt something in her relax, because Lydia was using that voice, the one that meant chins lifted high and bruises left uncovered like medals of honour; the one that made make-up into war-paint and declared her pretty varnished nails the match for any werewolf’s claws—and promised that she’d be happy to demonstrate if anyone needed proof. “Let’s see what he wants.”
She pulled the door aside.
Peter was standing with his back to them, facing the wall of windows in what Allison knew immediately was a deliberate pose. But he turned at the sound of the door, and the look he gave them made Allison’s fingers twitch for her bow: considerate and mocking and appreciative, all at once. “The hunter and the banshee.” For a sliver of a second he smirked, but then the curve of his mouth melted into a smile, charming and just a little bit dangerous; it was probably the very same expression he’d used on Lydia’s mother, Allison thought with disgust. “Ladies, come in.”
“What do you want?” Allison demanded, making sure to come down the steps in front of Lydia. If Peter made one single move towards her friend, he would have to go through an Argent to get to her. “We know you want something, Peter, you might as well just spit it out.” So we can tell you ‘no’ and go home, she thought viciously.
He glanced at her as wryly as if he’d overheard her thought. “Children these days,” he tutted. “So impatient. No manners. Whatever happened to the little social niceties—some tea or coffee, enquiries into each other’s health, the exchange of banal anecdotes about one’s nearest and dearest?”
“The last time you played host, you spiked the punch with wolfsbane,” Lydia said tartly. “Via mind-control of me, at my party. I don’t think Miss Manners covers the etiquette for any interaction between us.”
He dipped his head at her; touché. “If that’s how you feel, then I will, as you so charmingly put it, just spit it out.” The lazy blink of his eyes made Allison think of a big cat, not a wolf; something feline. “I propose an exchange of favours. I can teach you how to properly use your powers, so we have no more little…misunderstandings, like the other night.”
Allison felt more than saw Lydia stiffen at the reminder, and only barely kept from snarling. “And what do you get out of this?”
“Why, I want her to use her abilities on my behalf, of course.” Peter smiled again, apparently not realising—or perhaps just not caring—that Allison’s suspicions of him rose in direct proportion to how prettily he curved his mouth. “There’ll be no wolfsbane involved this time, I assure you. Scout’s honour.”
“There will be if you try anything,” Allison muttered, knowing full well that he could hear her.
She thought he might have twitched, but she couldn’t swear to it.
“A banshee’s scream is both power and tool,” he said, exactly as if she hadn’t spoken. There was a table between him and them, and he laid his hands on the edge of it. “You’re meant for far more than stumbling upon corpses, Lydia. I can teach you, right here, right now. You’re an intelligent young woman; once you know what you can do, I doubt it will take you long to learn how. Spare me an hour of your time—perhaps two—and you’ll leave here even more deadly than you were when you entered.”
Allison frowned, and glanced at Lydia. They had both scoured the Argent Bestiary for reference to banshees, but there had been almost nothing to find, beyond a brief confirmation of their existence; they were always female, and appeared spontaneously in otherwise purely human families with their roots in the British Isles, but Allison’s ancestors had never had reason to hunt them or otherwise interact with them, so that was all they had noted down. If Peter was telling the truth, then Lydia might finally learn something about what she was.
But when did Peter ever tell the truth? The whole truth?
“How do you know anything about banshees?” she demanded.
Peter turned his attention to her—just as she’d intended, giving Lydia a few more moments to make a decision Allison had no right to make for her. “Before your aunt burned my family alive, it was my job to know these things.” His voice was as pleasantly warm as if they’d been discussing holiday destinations, but his eyes had gone cold. “I was my sister’s legate, little huntress. Do you know what that means?”
A year ago, she wouldn’t have, but she’d learned a lot since then. “It means you were the one who negotiated with other packs,” she said. “You were your pack’s ambassador.”
He smiled, and this time it wasn’t sweet at all. “I was a great deal more than that. It was my task to smooth the way between Talia—my sister and Alpha—and any members of the supernatural community, not just other werewolves. And for that, I had to learn all about them.” He tilted his head. “I spent a great deal of my life travelling around the world, visiting and studying the ways of a thousand different creatures. Banshees were the least of it, I assure you.”
“The opposite of an emissary,” Lydia said slowly, and Peter turned back to her. “The emissaries connect packs to humanity. The legates connect them to the supernatural.”
“Precisely.” Peter gave her the look of a teacher pleased with a favoured student. “So you understand that my credentials are impeccable.”
Lydia considered him silently. “I want to know your price before I agree to anything,” she said at last.
“A wise, but for once unnecessary caution.” Peter’s hand moved; Allison’s twitched towards the shock stick at her belt, but with an amused glance in her direction Peter picked up the cylindrical box on the table. She hadn’t paid attention to it before, but now as Peter twisted it open she saw the triskele pyrographed into the lid: the symbol of the Hale pack, just like the arrows and snarling wolf were the Argent crest. “What I want poses no threat to you or your friends. In fact, I think it will help you as much as it will me.”
He spilled the box’s contents onto the table, and—
“Are those werewolf claws?” Allison burst out, unable to stop herself.
Lydia looked intrigued.
“They are.” Peter set the box down, and picked up one of the razor-sharp, curved bits of keratin. “To be precise, they are—or were—Talia’s. These are all that remain of my dead sister.”
“And you want me to do…what, with them, exactly?” Lydia asked.
Peter set the claw down. “Alphas have a number of abilities denied to the rest of us mere Betas. One of them is the power to enter the mind of another person—or even two people at once—by inserting their claws, very precisely, into the other person’s brain stem and spinal cord.” At the faces they made, he shrugged. “Yes, it’s rather dangerous, no, that’s not the point. The point is: very powerful Alphas can use a similar process to steal or hide a person’s memories. And I happen to believe that Talia stole some of mine.”
“Your evidence?” Lydia quirked an eyebrow.
“Must you have all my secrets?” But Peter didn’t stall for long: Allison wondered if that was a sign of just how important this was to him. She knew she’d be horrified if she found out someone had been messing with her mind. “As you said: legates are the werewolf equivalent of emissaries, more or less. We’re the keepers of our lore, the history and the rituals of our kind. I was always considered something of a prodigy in that regard.”
Allison snorted: he ignored her. “I may never have initiated the mind-meld as an Alpha, but I have a great deal of experience in participating in one. I know the traces the process leaves in one’s mind; I know the flavour of the ritual. I suspected something had been done to me for a long time, and when I became an Alpha, however briefly, I was able to finally see the…incision Talia had made in me. The scars of the psychic surgery, if you will.” He gestured to the claws. “So when Derek told me that he wanted to track down his mother’s claws—taken as a trophy by Kate, traded on or sold to or simply stolen by other Hunters after that—I agreed to help him. Because I knew traces of my memories would linger in Talia’s claws, and a banshee—” he dipped his head regally in Lydia’s direction, “—could help me discover them.”
Lydia reached out slowly—and when Peter made no move to stop her, picked up one of the claws herself. She rubbed it between her fingers thoughtfully.
“What did Derek want them for?” Allison asked suddenly. “You wanted your memories back, but Derek must have wanted them for something else.”
Peter considered her, for so long that at first Allison didn’t think he was going to answer. “There are rituals that can be done with an Alpha’s claws, even once the Alpha is dead,” he said finally. “I don’t think I’m going to tell you what they are, huntress. Some things are sacred even to me.” At her look of disbelief, he shrugged. “Suffice to say, Derek used them to receive a message his mother left him. One that I believe is tied to my lost memories.”
“What was the message?” Lydia asked. “Or was it private?”
“Not especially,” Peter said. “Only that our pack moved to Beacon Hills to protect it, and it was—is—his responsibility to continue to guard it.” He smiled, a sharp, bitter thing. “Which is interesting, because I can’t remember why it was Talia chose to bring us here.”
“Wait, you moved here during your lifetime?” Allison asked, startled. “I thought the Hales had been here forever.”
“Oh, no,” Peter said. “We moved here a little over seventeen years ago. Leaving the territory our family had held for almost two hundred years in Alaska—a great big bite of the Tongass forest—to do so. And I have no idea why.”
Allison and Lydia glanced at each other, sharing a flash of startled comprehension. If Peter was telling the truth, that meant the Hales had moved to Beacon Hills around the same time Scott—and Lydia, and Stiles—were born.
Scott was a True Alpha. They’d barely begun to scratch the surface of what that meant, what it meant Scott could do. Had Talia Hale known what he could become, somehow? Had the Hales come to guard Scott—maybe until they could take him into their own pack? What status or power would it have given them, to have a True Alpha of their own?
But how could Talia possibly have known?
“How is that tied to your lost memories?” Lydia asked.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Peter said, and there was something in his voice—something so raw and frustrated and genuine—that Allison couldn’t laugh. “I don’t know, not for sure. But I feel it. Ever since we learned about the nogitsune, the hole in my memories has…ached. Throbbed, like an infected wound. I don’t know what Talia took from me, but I’m convinced it’s relevant to what’s happening now. Something I knew once ties it all together—why she brought our pack here, what it is we’re supposed to guard, the damn mystery behind the nogitsune’s choice.” He saw their baffled expressions. “What, really? Neither of you?”
“Neither of us what?” Allison snapped.
“Haven’t either of you ever stopped to wonder why the nogitsune chose Stiles?” Peter demanded. “Three of you underwent the ritual that left you vulnerable to this kind of possession: an Alpha werewolf, a hunter trained from birth to kill—and a scrawny, breakable human boy whose self-proclaimed only defence is a sharp tongue. Why on earth would a dark spirit choose him, when it could have had either Scott’s strength or Lady Argent’s skills for the taking?”
Allison went still, and Lydia stopped playing with the claw. Because no—no, Allison, at least, had never stopped to ask that question. But Peter was completely right—there was no strategic advantage to the nogitsune’s picking Stiles to possess.
“It’s a trickster spirit,” she said weakly. “Maybe it doesn’t care about strategy. Maybe it chose at random.”
“Really? Because it’s done an excellent job creating and utilising structured plans since then,” Peter snapped. “You think the creature that set up Barrow’s escape and directed him to abduct Kira, all to ensure that she would be there to transmute a huge electrical power surge into foxfire it could use to power its possession of Stiles, doesn’t plan? You’ve never been stupid, Allison. Don’t start now.”
But, “He’s right,” Lydia said, laying a hand on Allison’s arm. “Much as I don’t want to admit it.” She looked to Peter. “You’re saying you think there’s something about Stiles, something that would make him more attractive to a nogitsune looking for a host than an Alpha or a hunter. Implying that he’s not a normal human. He’s clearly not a hunter, so he must be something supernatural—like a werewolf, or a banshee, or a kitsune.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re saying that Talia knew what he was before or just after he was born, and brought your family here to guard him. No,” she said when Allison opened her mouth, “it can’t have been the Nemeton, it was cut down by then. It was Stiles.”
“So I believe,” Peter said, smooth as silk. “But as should be obvious, I can’t be sure.”
“Because Talia took your memories away.” Allison turned to Lydia. “Whatever she made him forget, it was something she didn’t trust Peter with. That’s not something we should help him get back!”
“That’s a great deal of faith to place in the moral integrity of an Alpha you never met,” Peter said. “What makes you think Talia did what she did for the nebulous ‘greater good’? She was an Alpha. What do you think that means? She was strong, and utterly ruthless, and the only interests she cared for were her own and her pack’s. And you forget: I wasn’t the man you know now, back then. This was long before the fire. When I entered Beacon Hills, my eyes were still golden.”
Meaning he had never killed an innocent. Allison curled her hands into fists. “We only have your word for any of that.”
Peter spread his hands eloquently. “Be that as it may, if my lost memories do concern Stiles, then you need the information in them even more than I do. It might well be the key to saving your friend.”
That was dirty pool, and all three of them knew it—but it was true, too. Allison grit her teeth, but there was nothing she could say to that.
“Fine,” Lydia said, after the silence had stretched to the breaking point. She swept the rest of Talia’s claws into her hand. “Teach me. But if you use whatever we learn to hurt Stiles, I won’t scream for your memories. I’ll scream your death down on you.”
Peter paused, as if to consider. “Fair enough,” he said. “Let’s begin.”
“The primary purpose of a banshee’s scream is to drown out all mundane noise. Your hearing is attuned to a level of the universe no one else can perceive; when you scream, you block out all normal sound and can hear.”
That was the theory, anyway.
“You need to listen,” Peter insisted.
“I’m trying,” Lydia snapped, pacing the confines of the loft with Talia’s claws clenched in her fist. Her stomach was all sick knots; she knew part of the problem was that she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear whatever Talia had taken from Peter. Part of her was still reeling from the revelation that Stiles might be as inhuman as she was; another part was mentally flipping through pages of the Argent Bestiary to try and figure out what he could possibly be.
“Well, try harder,” Peter snarled, shoving himself up from the table he’d been sitting on.
Instantly Allison’s shock stick lashed out, crackling a warning an inch from his face, freezing him mid-step.
His lip curled, and Lydia thought of how among every species but humans, to bare teeth was a threat display. But Peter didn’t need his fangs; his claws snapped from his fingertips like daggers unsheathing. “Your aunt had one of those,” he purred.
“Stop it,” Lydia said sharply.
He ignored her, turning his entire body to face Allison, who met his stare unblinking. Unflinching, even as Peter continued. “Didn’t do her much good as I ripped her throat out, did it?”
“She didn’t shove it up your—”
“STOP IT!” Lydia shouted, flinging her hand up as if to halt them—and flinging Talia’s claws like throwing stars, five razored crescents that sliced the air between Allison and Peter, cut the tension between them like knives through spider-silk so the two of them sprang back from each other, shock rippling into something like awe on both their faces as they turned to watch—
—as all five claws sank into the wooden pillar beyond them and embedded there, quivering.
Quiet. They were finally quiet, Peter and her best friend, but it wasn’t silence Lydia heard. It wasn’t even the sounds she would have expected to hear, like their breathing, or her own, or the whip-crack electrical noise of Allison’s shock stick.
The world felt hushed, swathed in thick velvet, and yet she could hear.
Allison and Peter both turned to look at her, still shocked, still—awed. And there was something else, in Peter’s face; an urgency, a hunger, a hope. “Lydia?” he asked.
He sounded—he didn’t sound. No comparison she knew could do it justice: it was not as if she were underwater, and he on the surface. It was not as if he were very, very far away. It was not like the broken words heard through the static of a poor phone signal.
It was as if she couldn’t hear him at all. Except that she did.
Except that she didn’t.
“Lydia, do you hear something?” he said again, and she could hear him, but she couldn’t. She wasn’t listening.
She was listening.
She found herself drawn towards it, to the not-sound, the more-than-sound. It wasn’t—she needed to be closer. Peter, and the claws still sharp on his fingers; even Allison, her best friend—neither of them registered, neither of them sounded as she walked between them, closer to the Sound. Peter’s lips were moving, and she didn’t care, didn’t notice, didn’t hear.
She stopped when she was close enough to touch the claws where they were stabbed into the wood, although she didn’t. She didn’t need to.
“What did Talia take from me?” Peter demanded. Desperate. Afraid. Frantic. “Tell me what she knew!”
The sound—the Sound—faded, slowly; the wave of a tsunami, having crashed, now rolling back down to the shore. But Lydia still felt drowned.
“No,” she said, slowly. Turning back to look at him; the colour drained from his face, the lines of dire need carved into it. She met his eyes and thought of wolves in winter, starving. “No.”
“What do you mean, ‘no’?” Peter genuinely didn’t seem to understand, for a moment: then he did, and his eyes blazed blue. Blue as ice, blue as copper sulphate, blue as the hottest part of a Bunsen burner’s flame. “What do you mean, ‘no’?” The second time, it emerged a roar, and if she didn’t flinch when he lunged it was because she was still vibrating with the Sound, with what she’d Heard, because his rage was nowhere near as loud as the last echoes of what had sung from within the claws—
But he never reached her; of course he never reached her, because as fast as he was Allison had trained to be just as quick. Her shock stick slapped across his shoulders and he fell, spasming, and Lydia was still working her way back to the world, but Allison’s fingers were warm and sure as a beacon as they slid between hers.
“Now we’re leaving,” Allison said, and put action to words, and led them out of the loft.
“What did you hear? In the claws?” Allison asked, later.
“Something I want to research myself before I tell Peter about it,” Lydia said. “I don’t know what it means, but he might. I want to make sure it’s not something he can use against Stiles, or the rest of us.”
“Good call,” Allison nodded. “Will we need the Bestiary?”
“I don’t know,” Lydia admitted. “But it seems like a good place to start.” She licked her lip and glanced at her friend. “What do your family know about stars?”
“That venom,” Deaton said, “is not going to last long. Something needs to be done sooner than later!”
Lydia watched Scott’s agonised glance back towards the body of his best friend, and the thing inside it. For the thousandth time she wondered if she should tell him what Peter had known, what Talia had taken from him. But all she had was a single word, one that was nowhere in the Bestiary, one she couldn’t even be sure was Latin or Sanskrit—or if it was meant to be both.
And she looked at Deaton, and thought of all the things he’d never told them—he’d let them go months after awakening the Nemeton before telling them about the doors in their minds!—and didn’t trust him enough to say it where he could hear.
“I can try calling Derek again,” Scott said, already resigned even as he reached for his phone.
Who did she trust more: Deaton, or Peter?
She swallowed hard.
“Maybe we should try someone else,” she said, trying not to sound as reluctant as she felt. When Scott frowned at her, confused, she raised her eyebrows pointedly.
He was sweet, Scott. But he was sometimes a bit of an idiot.
Then again, bringing Peter into this might just be the stupidest thing she’d ever done. So maybe she shouldn’t be pointing fingers.
He came. Of course he came; it might have been Scott who made the call, but he knew she was there, knew what chit she would pay for his help with. She was surprised he didn’t smirk outright as he swept through the door.
But he didn’t smirk. He didn’t smile at all as they showed him the nogitsune, still immobilised by the kanima venom, the black duct tape over his mouth echoing the bruise-like sweeps of darkness under his eyes. The tight knot in Lydia’s stomach began to loosen, slightly, as she watched Peter circle around the couch, the sharp consideration in his eyes as he took in what the nogitsune had done to Stiles’ body.
He might not know what Stiles was—if he was anything, if what Talia had made him forget was anything to do with Stiles at all—but he thought his pack had been brought here to guard him. Some things, he’d said, were still sacred to him: maybe this was one of them; the mandate of his family, the responsibility he must, once upon a time, have willingly accepted.
Even if he could no longer remember what it was.
“He doesn’t look like he’d survive a slap across the face, much less the bite of a werewolf.” Peter stopped directly in front of the nogitsune. Their eyes locked, and the nogitsune was a trickster, had always been a trickster—but was Lydia only imagining that it looked more alert, faced with Peter? Less bored, more awake, paying attention as it hadn’t to any of the rest of them?
“You don’t think it would work?” Scott asked the older werewolf. Meaning the Bite, meaning: changing Stiles, forever, for good.
“This is more a war of the mind than the body,” Peter answered, and immediately—Lydia was sure this time that she wasn’t seeing things—the nogitsune was bored again. Indifferent.
That could be another trick, though. Pretend to be unconcerned so that they would think their plan wouldn’t work. Trying to throw them off the scent.
Or did Peter no longer want to turn Stiles—when it had been his favourite part of Scott’s plan, not long before—because he was wary of what it might do if Stiles wasn’t human?
Did the Bite work on people who weren’t human? Lydia had often meant to ask, but something always came up before she got an answer she could trust. It hadn’t worked on her, but maybe that was only banshees. Or her immunity might be even more unique, might be specific to her alone.
Peter tilted his head, and it was as if no one else were in the room; only him, and the spirit wearing Stiles’ skin. He looked, Lydia realised, the way she had felt, when Talia’s claws had flown from her hand.
What was that? Realisation? Puzzlement? Understanding? She wished, desperately, that she could see whatever Peter saw, sense what he could sense of the nogitsune, of Stiles.
Peter stayed crouched down a moment longer, and then seemed to make up his mind. He straightened up without looking away from the creature on the couch. “There are better methods for winning this battle,” he said finally.
“What kind of methods?” Deaton asked.
Peter was still staring at the nogitsune; it briefly flicked a glance at the emissary, but then it was staring back at Peter again. Watching him, the way it had watched no one else.
It must know what was different about Stiles. If there was anything, if that was what Talia had hidden. But why would it care about Peter? Even if it knew why the Hales had come to California—and how could it, when it had been buried under the Nemeton at the time?—it hadn’t cared about Derek.
Without breaking that gaze, Peter grasped Scott’s wrist—and jerked it, triggering his Alpha claws. The nogitsune raised its eyebrows, as if to say: yes, and?
Peter smiled. “We’re going to get inside his head.”
“If you give me what I want,” Peter said, mere moments later.
Lydia had known this was coming, had known it since she suggested Scott call him. She’d even deliberately walked away from the rest of the group, to give Peter a chance to follow her and make his damn demands.
She didn’t see another option.
“This is one of the most dangerous rituals an Alpha can perform,” Peter said. “And Scott is completely untrained. One mistake, and he could paralyse his best friend.” He paused, presumably for the dramatic effect. “One mistake, and he could kill him.”
“All right!” Lydia hissed. “I’ll do it. You knew I would. But only if you help.” She wanted to add, and only if you swear you won’t ever use what you used to know against us, but what promise could he make that she could trust?
“Agreed. But renege on your part of the deal this time, sweetheart, and I will make you regret it.”
Lydia refused to dignify that with an answer.
They went into Stiles’ mind—Scott, and Lydia too, which hadn’t been part of the plan: not her plan, at least, but apparently Peter’s. She sat still and tried very hard not to run through everything she knew about the brain stem and spinal column, all the vital nerves Scott could slice through with one wrong twitch of a fingertip. Her motor function, her breathing function—
If she died, though, Peter’s memories died with her. He had an excellent incentive to keep her alive.
Maybe that was why she heard him shouting her name when she got lost in the dark and the balloons and the slamming locker doors. Maybe that was why he reminded her of who and what she was and what she was there to do.
There was the white space, and Scott.
There was Stiles, and the Nogitsune, playing go on the stump of the Nemeton. Stiles, who couldn’t seem to hear them no matter how they yelled; the Nemeton, which never grew any closer no matter how far or how long they ran.
And there was pack, and Scott’s howl, and Stiles overthrowing the entire board.
She came back gasping, with blood drying below her nose, but not so disorientated that she couldn’t scramble off the couch to make room for Scott. Her fingers shook as she pressed them to the back of her neck, to the incisions that wouldn’t heal in seconds like a werewolf’s would, that might even scar, but she would wear those scars so proudly her entire life if Stiles just—
“Did it work?” Scott was demanding, and Lydia’s legs were still weak. “Did it work?” Stiles’ head hung forward limply, and Scott was ducking down in front of him, and no, no, he was so still, this was supposed to work, it had to work—
“What happened?” she asked, not even sure who she was asking. “Why didn’t it work?” There was blood on her fingertips, she could feel it, wet and slick on her skin, not much of it but enough, and Stiles wasn’t moving.
“Because it’s not science, Lydia, it’s supernatural,” Peter said in an undertone, drawing her back, away from the others. She didn’t want to go, but couldn’t find the will to resist him just now, not when her body felt like a new and unfamiliar thing after her consciousness had left and returned to it. “I did my part, now give me what’s mine.”
“What’s yours?” Scott asked, rising to his feet, and Lydia blinked at him, thinking, werewolf hearing, of course he heard, even as Peter pulled her insistently further from the group. “What are you talking about?”
“Lydia,” Peter said sharply, dragging her attention back to him, “a deal is a deal, even with me.”
She looked at him. Allison wasn’t here, but there was no way Peter could hurt her here, if she refused him again, not with everyone else here to see. And he couldn’t kill her, not while she held the secret she wanted.
He wouldn’t have to kill her, though. Blue eyes weren’t enough to signal the core of a werewolf’s heart—Derek’s werewolf eyes were blue, too, but he had never gone on a killing spree, never would. Peter’s, though—Peter’s were blue even when they weren’t lit with a wolf’s fire, and Lydia knew rationally that that didn’t mean anything, but she couldn’t help the fanciful, ridiculous notion that Peter’s eyes were always blue so that everyone was always warned as to what he was. The blue light in his eyes was a genuine warning, a very real one. She knew first-hand just what he could do, when he wanted something badly enough.
And he’d helped. He had helped.
“Astra,” she whispered.
It meant nothing to her. Or, it meant too many things: it was a girl’s name, it was Latin for star, it was the Sanskrit term for a god’s unstoppable weapon, it was nothing that could possibly refer to Stiles.
But Peter’s eyes went wide and shocked, the way they might have done when Derek cut his throat, and he actually stumbled away from her—the ever-graceful, constantly-suave Peter Hale stumbled back and let go of her, and Lydia knew that however ignorant she might be, ‘astra’ meant something to him.
“What?” she asked, urgently, “What is it, what does it mean?” but it was as if he couldn’t hear her—he stared right through her—
And then his head whipped to the side, because Stiles jerked on the couch, he was awake and moving and scrabbling at the duct tape on his mouth even as he fell on his hands and knees on the floor, vomiting—vomiting bandages, choking and gagging and clawing foot after foot of ragged bandages out of his throat. Lydia didn’t even have time to feel relief or joy that Stiles was alive before the visceral disgust hit her, disgust and horror as Stiles heaved a wide puddle of war-stained bandages onto the carpet.
Until he stopped, shaking, trembling, and Lydia was too frozen to go to him—
A hand punched up out of the bandages, and she didn’t shriek, because she was long, long past the point of shrieking at sudden horrors if she had ever been that kind of girl at all, even when she recognised the leather jacket the figure climbing out of the—puddle? portal? void?—as the one the nogitsune had been wearing inside Stiles’ mind—
She did try to scream when a hand closed around her mouth from behind, but the nogitsune’s grip was too strong, and everyone else was staring in horror at the bandaged creature that wasn’t the monster, and not a one of them saw her dragged from the house.
Astra. Astra. Astra.
Damn you Talia! Peter howled silently, lunging for the nogitsune alongside Scott, slamming the spirit back. Damn you, damn you, DAMN YOU!
If he’d known—if she’d let him remember—!
“Hold him!” Peter snarled, unimpressed with Scott’s “I’m trying!”
Even if Lydia had told him when she learned it from the claws, how much difference it would have made! He could have—
“Wait!” Scott barked. “Wait, wait, wait—”
Peter growled, but Scott ignored him. Leaving Peter to wrestle the nogitsune into submission, Scott pulled and plucked at the bandages over the spirit’s face—
And the moment he did, Peter could smell what the stink of nogitunse on the bandages and jacket had covered up.
Instantly, he was clawing at the bandages alongside Scott, praying as he had not prayed in years; let it be him, let him be alive, let him be well—
The Moon heard his prayers, or perhaps Scott’s; surely the divine androgyne of the wolf-kind had turned xer face from Peter long ago. It didn’t matter, it didn’t matter because as the bandages fell away they revealed Stiles underneath, his scent striking Peter like a blow, almost as hard as did the relief. He felt his knees tremble, minutely, unnoticeable to everyone but he himself; it took an embarrassing effort of will not to reach out and cup the youth’s face, turn him this way and that to check him for damage.
Astra. Astra. Astra .
Moon and stars, how had Talia dared?
“Scott?” Stiles asked tentatively, and it was Stiles, the real Stiles, true as silver. Peter knew it at once, knew it as he knew the phase of the moon; in his marrow, his blood, the claws aching unsheathed in his fingers. He knew it as a compass needle knew north; intrinsically, unmistakably, certainly.
Because Stiles was an Astra.
It explained everything.
“Scott,” Deaton called, and Peter realised whose heartbeat was missing from the room even before he turned around, even before he saw the open door.
“Where are they?” Scott demanded, rising, glancing from couch to wall and back again. “Where are they? Lydia!”
He ran out the door, but Peter stayed, stayed to stare and couldn’t stop, not even when Stiles turned wet, hesitant brown eyes to his, scared and helpless and pleading. It was an uncharacteristic look for him, and it made heat like molten honey pool in the pit of Peter’s belly, made his teeth ache to strip the bandages from Stiles’ throat and bite into the soft flesh beneath.
It answered one question. If Stiles still felt the need to beg, however wordlessly, for anything, then he didn’t know what Talia had known, didn’t know what had brought the Hales all the way from Alaska to a small town in California.
But he knew the other reason the nogitsune had chosen him. The smaller secret Peter had seen no need to share with Scott’s pack, who would never have believed it anyway—Stiles knew that Peter knew that.
Don’t tell them, he begged silently.
Peter shook his head, very slightly. I won’t. Let the boy puzzle over Peter’s motivations as he pleased; they had larger problems to deal with.
“Let’s get you out of the rest of these, shall we,” he said briskly, and set his claws to scything through the mare’s nest of bandages and WW2 gear, stripping Stiles out of it as if peeling him from some toxic cocoon, so carefully his claws never grazed skin. Stiles shivered anyway, and avoided Peter’s gaze. “Melissa, perhaps you could find Stiles some clothes?”
“Yes, yes of course…” He heard her leave, her footsteps on the stairs, and Scott returned just as Peter withdrew gracefully to the next room, leaving Stiles to struggle out of the last of the bandages and dress with his friend’s help, without needing to let anyone else see him naked.
Peter could be a gentleman: he didn’t even peek.
“We need to know if I’m really me, Scott,” Stiles said, and Peter shifted to lean in the doorway, both a part of the conversation and not. “We can call Kira’s mom, she can bring the Oni—”
“Don’t do that,” Peter interrupted, more sharply than he’d meant to. When they all turned to look at him, startled, he smiled his most charming smile. “There’s no need. You are the genuine, first-edition Stiles—if a little less pristine than a prospective buyer might prefer.” He tipped his head. “If Scott knew anything about being a werewolf, he could sense it too.”
It was more than a little unfair—Astrae were so rare that even Peter had only ever caught whispers of their existence, and those in stone tablets almost reduced to dust, faded cave paintings and crumbling papyri. They left their spoor around the edges of legends, could be glimpsed at the borders of myth, but the ones who believed in them were more often than not the very reason they had to be kept secret. There weren’t many legates who would have recognised the word Lydia had heard in Talia’s claws, and even fewer who might truly comprehend its meaning. Derek, for example, would have been, was, just as blind to Stiles’ true nature as Scott.
And Scott had known, had sensed it was Stiles even before Peter did. He just didn’t know how or why he’d been able to recognise his friend beneath the nogitsune’s disguise.
He didn’t know that Astrae drew the supernatural as the stars they were named for pulled all that came near into their gravity. Or how unmistakable that draw was, once you put a name to it.
But it was always such fun to make Scott growl—and he did, stepping protectively in front of Stiles to do it. Peter smirked. It was just too easy.
“No one’s buying Stiles,” Scott snarled.
“Far more importantly,” Peter continued, ignoring him, “the nogitsune still has Stiles’ form. That means they’re still bound together.” He raised his eyebrows at their surprise. “Really? This occurred to none of you?”
“What are we supposed to do about it?” Scott snapped. “We have to find Lydia, and when we find her we’ll find the nogitsune, and we can kill it!”
Peter rolled his eyes. Why did he even bother? “Indeed.” He pushed off the door frame and walked past them. “God’s speed and good fortune to you all, then. But keep Noshiko out of it.”
He didn’t miss the sharply speculative look Stiles gave him when no one else could see. And as Peter closed the front door behind him, he allowed himself a smile.
He considered calling for Derek’s assistance, but in the end decided against it: his nephew knew next to nothing of a legate’s lore, and the fewer who knew what Stiles was the better, for the moment—unless Derek had lied to him, Talia’s ghost had kept the secret from her son, and until Peter had the time to sit down and ponder why that might be he would abide by her decision. He would have cut off his finger again rather than allow Deaton any involvement whatsoever—he had not forgotten whose wards had happened to fail, the night Kate Argent decided to set the Hales afire—which meant he would work alone.
At least with only himself to talk to, he was guaranteed intelligent conversation.
For the thousandth time, he regretted the loss of his palvonta box, an Hale heirloom that had been destroyed, like so much else, in the fire. For the first time, he regretted not obtaining a new one since rising from his hospital bed: the traditional tools of a legate’s trade—salt and blade and herb, the fangs and claws of the dead, the bones of prey taken with Selen’s blessing—all housed in a casket of electrum with just enough gold content not to burn careful fingers. But he hadn’t seen the need—hadn’t thought he would ever call on Selen again, or engage in any of his kind’s ancient rituals—and now he would have to do without.
It could be worse. If this had been Los Angeles or San Fransisco, there wouldn’t be a kit’s chance in winter of this working.
What Scott and his pack of idiots didn’t seem to realise was that so long as Stiles and the nogitsune were linked, Stiles would continue to deteriorate. Rapidly. Stiles was quick and clever and fascinating, with a streak of fierce, icy ruthlessness in him that had long had Peter fantasising about what kind of wolf the boy would make; when Scott first put forward the idea of turning Stiles to save him from the nogitsune, Peter had almost clapped his hands with avaricious delight. He would have done a great deal to prevent Stiles’ death back when he believed the boy to be fully human.
But if Stiles-the-Astra died now, the nogitsune would gain his power. And Stiles might not know what he was capable of, but the trickster spirit certainly did: in hindsight, it was obvious that it had been using Stiles’ powers from the beginning.
If it gained full control of them, if it took those powers for its own, it might quite literally bring about hell on earth.
And Peter had only just finished decorating his new apartment to his satisfaction. He was damned if he was going to let the world end now.
He knew it was facetious even as he thought it: worse, he was too good at stalking the secrets of others through the shadows and dragging them down beneath his claws not to know it for what it was, and he had no compunctions about lying to everyone else about anything and everything, but he was too proud to lie to himself.
The truth was that the thought of Stiles lying still and cold while that flea-bitten fox danced off with his face made Peter’s eyes flare in the rear-view mirror, made his jaw ache as his teeth grew sharp and long. The truth was that imagining that quicksilver tongue fallen silent for good made him want to rend something, that the idea of losing his verbal sparring partner, the only darkly scintillant mind in this backwater little town that could keep up with him, filled his nose with the memory of smoke and put the taste of his family’s ashes on the back of his tongue. It made him feel the weight of his flesh as a slowly tightening, claustrophobic thing, forcing him to remember being trapped in a cage of his own bones for six years on a hospital bed. Losing Stiles would be like being back in that thick, choking silence again, with no one to talk to, no one to hear him. No one to see him the way he knew Stiles did, sharp and incisive as a scalpel; no one to strike his wit and mind and self against like flint against steel.
The truth was that Stiles being an Astra didn’t matter, except that it might give Peter a way to save him.
Dawn was breaking by the time he abandoned his car in the woods, far enough off the road it was unlikely to be disturbed. He stripped, quickly and methodically, folding each piece of clothing neatly into the trunk. His car keys he pushed under the thick roots of a nearby tree; even in the unlikely event he forgot which tree it had been, his nose would lead him to them when the time came.
Then, naked as the day he was born—and the day he was reborn, for that matter—he started walking.
As he had told Lydia to focus her banshee powers, so did Peter focus now: on the dirt and grass and moss and stones beneath his bare feet, on the ferns that brushed his skin and the thorns that pricked it. He listened to the sound of squirrel and mouse and jays waking to the morning, and the velvety wing-beats of owls returning to the nest for the day. He let his breaths fall into the rhythm that his great-aunt, who had trained him to be legate after her, had called earth’s heart, a fanciful name for a pattern of inhales and exhales that slowed and soothed his heart and blood, that smoothed his thoughts to stillness even as he scented mink and porcupine, a doe grazing on the morning dew and the complex, multi-faceted smells of a thousand small blooming things. He walked and the redwoods were his chapel, the wind brushing through their leaves the only hymns his wolf-heart required; when he found a brook sparkling in the early light, he knelt and drank as one taking communion, and the icy cold of it was good and right, a reminder that someday winter would come again, and thus every day it did not come should be celebrated.
He kept walking.
These were not the woods where he was born; these were not the trees his mother had given birth among, these not the branches that had been his first glimpse of the world outside his mother’s womb. But they were where he was now, and the wolf in him accepted this. This was the place where he belonged; he had been woven into the deceptively delicate tapestry of this forest’s workings a long time ago. He was predator here, a vital part of eco-system, just as was the mountain lion; this earth had taken in his broken body and brought it back to life whole. His blood was in it, and it was in his blood; his scent was on a thousand trees, a thousand bushes held a snatch of his fur like a love-lock, a thousand nights his howl had echoed through these woods. This place was his home, and he was one of its guardians.
He kept walking.
He did not watch the sun, or follow a set path; he aimed for nothing, had no set destination. He walked until his human mind was still and silent, until his sweat washed him clean of the scent of worked steel and concrete, plastic and tar; until his hunger pulled him further from a man’s thoughts with every step. He walked until the wolf in him found the right place, and then he stopped.
He went to his knees in the glade his wolf had found, not ignoring but accepting the burn of wolfsbane in his nose and lungs, the knowledge that it grew in profusion close by.
He unsheathed the claws of his right hand, and drew them across his left palm, and when his cupped hand filled with red he let it drip onto the earth.
“I come as Selen’s son,” he whispered: to the trees, and the grass, and the one he hoped listened to the sound of his words on the breeze. The one he hoped was there to hear him at all, and not only myth or madness. “I give my sweat, my blood, my breath to call you. I swear by the dark crescent and the bright, by my wolf, and by my name that this is no trick. The one whose coming You portended needs more help than I can give.” He closed his eyes. “Help me, that I might see him blaze instead of gutter.”
He kept his eyes closed for a long, long time. He breathed, and meditated, and tried to neither hope nor fear.
He did not know how many hours passed before he heard the soft whicker of something that no more belonged in these woods than a pearl, and beautified it more surely than any gem.
He opened his eyes, and for just a moment, he forgot how to breathe.
In the West, they called them unicorns. In Japan, where Peter had first learned of the truth behind the legends, the creature emerging from the other side of the glade would have been called a kirin, most sacred of all the heavenly animals. It was half again as tall as Peter at the shoulder, and though it was more or less equine in general outline, its proud head was shaped like a dragon’s, its powerful legs ending in taloned paws instead of hooves. Two magnificent horns twisted from the back of its head, like those of a blackbuck antelope, but larger, as thick around as Peter’s wrist and pearlescent. Its body, white from the tip of its muzzle to the end of its plume-like tail, was covered in scales, and behind its great horns exploded a mane of white silk more like a fountain than anything found on a mortal horse. Thick locks of the same wild whiteness dusted its ankles above each paw.
White, for mourning. White, for perfection. White, for the divine.
Peter was already kneeling. Now, where there was none but the trees and the kirin to see, he fell forward and pressed his brow to the grass.
He hadn’t known. He’d hoped…he’d thought…he didn’t know how else he, or Talia, could have discovered an Astra was going to be born, or where, if not by catching a glimpse of the creature whose appearance foretold the birth of Astrae. Logically, there had to be a kirin where there was an Astra.
But Peter hadn’t known, because he hadn’t remembered. And he found himself with tears of wonder in his eyes, the sight of the kirin blazing even behind his closed lids like white fire.
He hadn’t known, and the beauty of it broke his heart.
He heard it come closer, padding soft-footed as a tiger over the grass, and wondered if he was about to die. The literature claimed both unicorns and kirin were gentle creatures—but also that they could destroy any enemy when roused. He thought he remembered something about kirin breathing fire to reduce the impure to ash.
He wondered if he could bear to fight this thing, even for his life.
But when it bent its head, low enough that its hot breath gusted over the back of his skull, it was to nuzzle him, not crush the back of his neck between its dragon-jaws.
When he looked up, it was into eyes that glowed the bright blue of his own, and his breath caught in his throat. Without thinking he let his eyes shift to the wolf’s, and the kirin snorted as if in approval.
Peter had never looked for redemption, and he did not want it now. There was nothing in him that craved forgiveness or benediction; he was not ashamed to bear blue eyes instead of gold. But he was even less ashamed now.
“There’s a nogitsune,” he managed. “It’s been separated from his body, but they’re still bound. I think it must have left its hoshi no tama inside him, but I don’t know how to remove it.”
The kirin rose, and looked down at him from its full height. How much did it understand, Peter wondered? He was hoping that because kirin and kitsune were both Japanese, the one might know how to deal with the other—he was hoping that the kirin was more than a beautiful beast, drawn to the birth of Astrae as moths were drawn to light—
Without warning, the kirin reared, its diamond-clawed paws ravaging the air, and Peter scrambled back without thinking, certain he was to be killed after all, found wanting as a supplicant. His claws cut furrows in the dirt as he shoved himself backwards, his jaw reforming to accommodate a werewolf’s fangs—
And the kirin jerked its head sharply; once, twice, the way Peter had seen stags do when the time came to shed their antlers. At the second jerk, something fell, and as its front paws hit the grass once more something that gleamed like the moon tumbled down alongside them; a long, twisting spear of pearlescent horn.
Peter froze. Slowly, he withdrew his claws and teeth, but left his eyes glowing as blue as the kirin’s.
With another snort, the kirin nudged its fallen horn towards Peter, an unmistakable command.
His heart pounding, Peter reached forward to take it, his fingers closing around the smooth horn with slow care, half-certain it would dissolve into moon-dust the moment he touched it. But no: it was hard and utterly solid, smooth as polished wood. It was an impossibly beautiful thing, as if someone had gathered up the shine of moonlight on water and crafted it into something that could be touched and held—and he laid his fingertips to the knife-sharp point, and understood exactly what he was supposed to do with it.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
The kirin lowered its draconian head and nudged his face, pushing him away; it felt fond, and playful, and Peter found his heart lighter for it.
He shifted into his full wolf-form, carefully picked up the horn in his mouth—and turned and ran back the way he had come.
But not before noticing that the kirin was already crowned with two opalescent horns again.
It was fully dark by the time Peter reached his car and returned to human form. He dressed quickly and swaddled the horn in a blanket from the trunk, wondering how long he had walked to find the glade, how long he had waited there for the kirin to come. There was only one missed call on his phone, from Derek, so it seemed safe to assume that Stiles was still alive and well.
He called his nephew from the car. “Where is Stiles?” he asked without preamble.
“Oh, now you care?” Derek asked, incredulous.
“If you recall, I’m the one responsible for separating Stiles and the nogitsune,” Peter reminded him.
“No, that was Scott. And then you disappeared for the entire day! Leaving the twins and I to be shot at by mystery hunters—we’re all alive, by the way, thanks for asking—and Scott and the others to find and rescue Lydia on their own. Deaton talked Stiles through some meditation thing that let him get flashes of where the nogitsune was—”
Peter bit back a snarl, even more glad he’d kept Deaton far, far away from the kirin. If only he could have kept the idiot emissary away from Stiles as well! “Strengthening the bond between them and ensuring it kills Stiles faster,” he snapped. “Yes, what a fantastic idea.”
“We didn’t have any other choice!” Derek protested. “Besides, Stiles knew the risks, he agreed to it—”
Peter suppressed a growl. Selen save him from teenagers who thought that a just cause made them immortal! “I trust everyone survived the heroic rescue?”
“Yeah. The nogitsune controls the Oni now, but Allison figured out how to kill them. It takes silver—”
“I’m sure it’s very fascinating and wholly revolutionary,” Peter interrupted. “But I need to get to Stiles immediately. I know how to kill the nogitsune and save him, Derek, but I don’t know how long Stiles can survive sustaining the nogitsune like this.” Especially now the fool emissary had bound the two of them even more tightly together. “So please, save your righteous rage for a more opportune moment and tell me where he is.”
He seemed to have shocked Derek silent. Peter was just about to snarl again when his nephew finally managed to answer. “He’s at Kira’s,” Derek said. “Everyone else is at the hospital—Allison was hurt in the fight, but they think she’s going to be fine—”
Peter almost swerved off the road. “You let Noshiko take him?” he snarled. “I told them to keep her away from him!”
“She offered—he’s not well, everyone else was taking care of Allison—” Derek was almost stuttering with surprise, clearly confused by his uncle’s reaction.
“You unbelievable nose-blind, moon-sick mongrel!” Peter shouted. “She’s going to kill him!”
“What?! Why would she—”
“Get in a car and meet me there, and so help me, Derek, if he dies he’ll be buried with your corpse in a collar at his feet,” Peter snarled.
He hung up on Derek’s protestations and hurled his phone into the backseat, distantly surprised the tiny piece of technology didn’t shatter from the force.
He pressed his foot flat on the gas, and drove faster than he ever had in his life.
There are thirteen kinds of kitsune, a full spectrum of foxfire: Ocean, Mountain, Thunder, Wind. Earth, River, Fire, Forest. Music, Time, Spirit.
Celestial and Void, who bracket the rest, anchoring each end of the spectrum.
There are thirteen kinds of kitsune, and they are born foxes or they are born human, but the older they grow the more power they gain, and the more power they gain the less mortal they become. Who can destroy an ocean? Who can capture thunder? Who can overcome time?
Grow old enough, powerful enough, and some of them leave flesh behind entirely.
Some of them never had it to begin with. How can Void have a body? What form does chaos take?
It doesn’t. It can only take the form of others.
This is the secret Stiles knows and Peter did not tell: not any form will do. It must fit, it must be the right shape to contain that fierce black wildness, it must be sharp and deadly already to sheath Void within it. It doesn’t mean as much as some might think it means: for every person who gives in to that part of themselves, there are a hundred thousand who do not. Having darkness inside you does not make you dark.
It could never have been Scott, but it could have been Allison. Stiles fit like a tailored coat but there was room in Allison for a spirit of discarded inhibitions and vengeance and joy-in-pain. The nogitsune could have squirmed inside and made its nest behind her heart, if Stiles had not been so picture-perfect, so snug and warm with the power of a thousand dark suns to call on.
It doesn’t mean anything. Stiles could have gone his whole life without embracing those impulses, those instincts, those desires. Most people who have them do just that.
But Peter likes to know his enemies, and he saw the security footage from the hospital. He saw Void say ‘we’, and saw Noshiko hear it too.
He saw it when he looked into the nogitsune’s eyes, and saw Stiles looking back at him.
One possessed by Void can still be innocent. One who fights the puppet-strings wrapped around their bones bears no fault for failing.
But one who stops fighting, and starts dancing in step with the monster? One who embraces it, laughs with it, throws themselves into the game because the power tastes so good and their possessor-partner has gone from enemy to friend to soul’s-lover?
That one isn’t innocent anymore.
That one is no one a Celestial will leave breathing, not with whatever made a nogitsune choose him over a trained hunter. Not with the power she must be able to sense in him, whether or not she knows precisely what it is. It is enough that she knows that he has tasted darkness, and drunk deep, and called it good.
It is enough that she knows he is more than he seems, enough more to wreak untold harm with or without a nogitsune to partner with.
She will kill Stiles, and it will be for the greater good, it will be the safe and right and just thing to do—
But Peter’s eyes are kirin-blue, and he has not cared about right and good since Kate’s fire burned such sentiments out of him, and he will slaughter Noshiko’s daughter and her husband and tear every one of her tails to bloodied shreds before he lets her do it.
Kira tucked her legs under her on the couch as her mother deftly set a tray bearing cups and teapot on the sitting room table. Now that she knew her mom was nine hundred years old, Kira saw it in everything she did. Her mom’s smallest gesture was imbued with a grace that spoke so eloquently of centuries of experience living in her body that Kira couldn’t imagine how she hadn’t seen it before.
Even after what had happened tonight—how the nogitsune had stolen her last tail, stolen control of the Oni, put Allison in the hospital—Kira’s mother was serene.
But then, after nine centuries, there probably wasn’t much that could freak you out any more, Kira thought.
Beside her Stiles was bent almost double, drumming his fingers against his knees, his lips, the restless, jittery opposite of Kira’s mother’s calm. Horrible things kept twisting across his expression, worry and guilt and something like despair as Kira’s dad quietly moved the go board and its pieces to a shelf.
Kira hesitated for a second—she really didn’t know Stiles that well, didn’t know if she was intruding, if she was too much of a stranger—but she shifted closer to him on the couch and put her hand on his back. “It’s going to be okay,” she said, knowing how useless the words were even as they left her lips. Pathetic platitudes; she could feel her cheeks heating with embarrassment at her own uselessness, but she had to try. “You heard what they said. Allison’s going to be fine.”
“It’s true.” Kira’s mom sat down on Stiles’ other side. “In ancient times, dishonoured samurai would perform seppuku—ritual suicide—”
“I know what it is,” Stiles interrupted, without looking at her.
Kira’s mother seemed unperturbed. “Then you know that when a samurai drove his tantō into his own abdomen, he cut deeply, and horizontally, to be sure of slicing open the aorta. Your friend’s wound was deep, but without that horizontal cut, her artery remained intact. Almost everything short of that, an American trauma team can take care of, given time and warning to prepare for their patient—and the Beacon Hills team had both.” She reached for the tea cups, arranging them on the table. “Between the wonders of modern medical care and what healing magics Scott’s emissary can work for her, Allison will survive with nothing but a scar and some nightmares.”
“Jesus, mom.” Kira scooted a little closer to Stiles in a show of moral support, and glared at her mother. “Could you at least pretend to care? This is Allison, not some stranger. You sound like a robot or something. And please, tell us more about ritual suicide, I don’t think we’re creeped out enough yet!”
“Kira,” her father chided gently, but his wife waved him off.
“I care very much,” she said. “But Allison is safe. It’s the safety of the rest of us that should concern us now.”
Kira saw how Stiles hunched his shoulders. She sympathised: the reminder felt like cold, molten lead pouring into the pit of her stomach. “Are we safe here?” she asked, hating how her voice had gone small again. She’d fought off the Oni with a katana tonight—where had all that fierce electric strength gone, the foxfire that had flooded her until she was surprised when she didn’t blaze like a lightning bolt in the dark?
“As safe as I can make us,” Kira’s mom answered, which wasn’t much of an answer at all. She picked up the teapot, and for the first time Kira noticed that it was the dark red atode no kyusu pot they never used. Kira’s mother had always said the ‘back hand pot’ was meant for white guests who didn’t know how to appreciate Japanese teas, but she’d brought out the uwade no kyusu for Scott, the dobin pot with the handle curved above it instead of attached to the side opposite the spout—and okay, Scott wasn’t white, but he’d mistaken wasabi for guacamole! Did she think Stiles, who knew everything Kira had been perfectly happy not knowing about how samurai committed suicide, was more ignorant about their culture than Scott?
“And everyone at the hospital?” Kira insisted. She wasn’t going to bring up the teapot. That would just be weird, and with everything else going on she couldn’t imagine something that mattered less than what kind of teapot her mom wanted to use. “It could attack them there—everyone’s distracted—”
“It is nothing you can control now,” her mother said, a little sharply. Her husband came to stand behind her, putting a hand on her shoulder, and she closed her eyes and took a breath. “I’m sorry. We are all—stressed. Tea will help.”
She poured, with that ethereal, liquid grace—and then pushed the cup into Stiles’ hands. “Especially you. I suspect you need it more than any of us.”
Kira saw Stiles’ fingers close around the cup automatically. “What is it, some kind of magic tea?”
“No,” Kira’s mom said, in the slow, precise tones of someone speaking to an idiot. “Just chamomile. It will ease you.” Her eyes narrowed as she looked at him, and Kira wondered if she saw what Kira saw—how pale Stiles was, how dark the circles under his eyes were. The way some of his shaking looked more like someone cold than someone unable to sit still. “You need easing, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Stiles said after a pause. “I—yeah.”
He straightened up, the cup held carefully between his hands—did the warmth feel good? Kira wondered—and drank.
“Allison killed one of the Oni,” Kira said, trying to make her voice firm and strong. The voice of a Thunder kitsune, who had reforged a katana and used it to fight off demons. “I think we should try and figure out how she did it. If we could kill the rest of them—”
The sound of shattering ceramic made her jump, and the hilt of her katana was in her hand before she could think, snatched up from where she’d left it propped against the arm of the couch. She threw herself to her feet, whirling—and only then saw the pieces of pottery on the floor between Stiles’ feet, the small puddle of tea between the shards.
“Oh—god,” she said with humiliated relief, lowering her sword. “Sorry, sorry, I just—I thought—Stiles?” Her voice broke on the question, caught on the sharp edge of confusion and dawning fear, because Stiles—Stiles had dropped his cup, it had slipped through his fingers, his fingers that were shaking far more than they had been before, and the look on his face—
Shocked and hurt and understanding, the most horrible kind of realisation—
He coughed, and coughed, like he was choking, his eyes gone wide and desperate as his body jerked, jerked and he was gasping, coughing, falling—his arms fell first, like a puppet’s limbs cut free of their strings, and then he was convulsing, he collapsed onto his side and Kira dove to catch him, dropping her sword and not caring, not noticing because Stiles was a limp and heavy weight in her arms, the most sickening sounds coming out of his throat as he jolted and heaved, shook like he was shaking apart—
“Mom!” Kira screamed, “Mom, help him, help him!” as blood started to trickle from Stiles’ eyes and nose, from the corners of his mouth, not the black sludge the nogitsune had left in Isaac and the twins but bright red human blood, and he was choking on it, she could hear him trying to breathe and failing, failing—
But her mother just sat there, calm and still, the only sign that she felt anything at all the white-knuckled grip she had on her husband’s hand, Kira’s dad with his hand on her shoulder, Kira’s father who also just stood there, and watched, looking sad and resigned and just watching—
And all at once Kira remembered the stupid teapot, the one they never used—
And realised her mother had only poured a cup for Stiles—
And saw the lines of golden light, Celestial light, the power of a Celestial kitsune slithering jagged as razor-wire under Stiles’ skin, up his throat and over his face—
The howl of an engine outside blended seamlessly into a raging thunderous roar that shook Kira’s bones inside her skin. Her mother rose to her feet in a sudden surge and Kira screamed as the front door exploded apart, blinding headlights streaming through the windows and back-lighting the dark silhouette that came tearing through the doorway, a shape that was all shadow and blue-jewel eyes burning and a twisting gleam of starlight like a sword in one hand. Kira didn’t think, forgot about her sword and her foxfire and just tried to drag Stiles away, behind her, away from this monstrous thing—
But the shape stepped into the light of the sitting room and it was a man—no, blue eyes, glowing blue eyes meant a werewolf, and Kira hesitated, because she didn’t recognise him but all the werewolves in Beacon Hills were with Scott, weren’t they, they were allies—
She didn’t have time to make any decision as to whether to trust or not-trust; the werewolf’s head swung towards her unerringly—no, towards Stiles, and he snarled, so low and loud and vicious the very air reverberated with it. “Get away from him!”
He bolted towards her, towards the boy who wasn’t really her friend yet but could be, would be if he lived—and suddenly her mother was between them. For an instant she blocked Kira’s view—but the werewolf didn’t stop, didn’t even slow; he lashed out with a fist full of claws and blood sprayed, her mother’s blood, the werewolf caught her by the throat and threw her aside and Kira’s dad was shouting and Kira, Kira couldn’t make a sound, she froze like ice as the werewolf came bearing down on her, on her and Stiles—
My, what burning eyes you have—
My, what big teeth you have—
“I said, get away!” the werewolf snarled, and Kira had a split second to see his bloodstained claws coming at her—but there was no tearing pain; he only shoved her back, pushed her so hard she tumbled off the other side of the couch, gasping as she twisted her arm beneath her as she fell—
Distantly she heard the screech of tires outside—her dad desperately calling her mother in Japanese—
And then Derek was there, Derek, whom she knew, helping her up, his eyes as wide as hers as he took in the chaos that had once been her family’s living room, and Kira should have been looking for her parents but all she could see was the werewolf she didn’t know (but he could only be Peter, Derek’s uncle and Scott’s uncertain ally, the one Lydia mistrusted and Allison hated and there was no one else he could be) picking Stiles up with quick, deft tenderness and laying him on the floor, cradling Stiles’ head with one hand to protect it from the wooden floor. “I didn’t go through all this work for you to die on me now, Stiles,” he said, a low urgent murmur as he sliced through Stiles’ shirt without ever letting go of the long silver thing in his hand, shoving the sheared fabric out of the way. “Don’t you dare—”
Stiles made a choked sound and arched, his spine curving like one of Allison’s bows, harsh and clearly involuntary, the tendons outlined on his neck and his eyes crimson with burst blood vessels and Kira grabbed onto Derek without thinking, wishing she could hide her face in his chest but unable to look away, from Stiles’ eyes gone bloodied and blind as her mother’s gold seared through his skin—
And Peter plunged the length of shimmering silver something into Stiles’ chest.
Kira screamed again; even Derek cried out, jolting forward as if he could do something, anything, stop this—
But there was no blood. Where the twisting, spiralled length of—bone? horn? pearl?—pierced Stiles’ chest light spilled out, diamond-fire light, an iridescent radiance that hurt Kira’s eyes even as it took her breath away, because she had never seen anything as beautiful as the light that streamed out of Stiles as Peter dragged the gleaming thing down over his heart, and it was impossible, Stiles had ribs there, Peter couldn’t possibly cut the way he was doing, as if he were drawing a blade through wet soft clay instead of flesh and bone—
Except that he did, and then he dropped the silver thing on the floor and shoved his hand inside the glowing incision—
His hand vanished inside Stiles to the wrist—and then half his forearm, and it was impossible, it was so, so impossible, Kira’s brain was shrieking at all the ways this could not be happening: Stiles could not be bleeding light, Peter couldn’t push half his arm into Stiles’ chest—there wasn’t room—
But she saw it, saw the moment Peter found whatever he was looking for, saw it in his face and heard it as Stiles made a sound that was not a scream, was too broken and animal to be anything as simple as a human scream, relief and agony twisted together into something sick and wrong and right, all at once—
And Peter drew his arm back out, all the way out, and his prize glowed white and black and red in his fist, a bulb-shaped jewel just like the one in Kira’s kitsune book; a star-ball, a hoshi no tama, the gem that contained a vital part of a kitsune’s power, their life-force.
This one—it could only be the nogitsune’s. It must have left it in Stiles, it must be how it had remained bound to him even once they were separated, it must be why Stiles had been cold and tired and in pain ever since they’d pulled him out of Void—
The gash of light over Stiles’ heart closed before her eyes, and Peter picked up the silver thing again and brought it down like a hammer on the star-ball, with all of a werewolf’s terrible strength.
For a flicker of a heart-beat, Kira thought she heard a faint, far-away scream of thwarted rage and anguish as an immortal monster—her distant, distant cousin, Void as she was Thunder—was obliterated in the flash of un-light that was the star-ball’s shattering.
Derek grabbed her and spun them around so he was between her and the explosion—but there were no flying shards, no tangible shrapnel. Just a kind of dust, glittering in a way that was somehow nauseating—and then nothing at all.
When no more seemed forthcoming, Kira peeked around Derek, her heart in her throat. Was that—did that mean—? Was Stiles okay now?
What she saw was Peter with his hands cupping Stiles’ face, the blood on his claws mixing with that Stiles had bled. “You’re all right now, Stiles,” he said, and the intensity of the words made Kira shiver. “You’re all right, you’re well, you’re healed. You’re healed, Stiles!”
For an agonising moment, Kira thought he was wrong.
And then Stiles convulsed once and gasped, taking his first deep, sobbing breath in far too long. He trembled, not with poison now but with the aftermath of pain and terror as the web of toxic gold dimmed and guttered beneath his skin, as his bloodshot sclerae smoothed to white again. He curled onto his side, foetal, turning his face into Peter’s palm, his shoulders shaking with what might have been tears or just the attempt to suppress them.
Slowly, so slowly, Peter’s claws retracted. “You’re all right,” he murmured, almost crooning. “Everything’s all right now, Stiles. You’re healed, you’re safe, you’re you.”
Stiles made a soft sound in his throat; it scraped at Kira’s heart, small and pained and somehow very, very young. When she blinked away the blur of tears, she saw Peter leaning back just enough to give himself room to carefully, tenderly pick Stiles up. He flowed effortlessly to his feet, cradling the teenager against his chest as if the weight was nothing; as if it—Stiles—was infinitely precious to him.
“Pick that up,” Peter said, pointing with his chin at the thing he’d used to cut Stiles open, to smash the nogitsune’s star-ball. “I can’t begin to tell you how priceless it is.”
For a beat, Kira thought he was talking to her—but then Derek moved forward, stiff and uncertain and yet obedient to his uncle. The moment he had the horn, wand, silvery whatever-it-was in his hands Peter turned and made his way towards the front hall.
He was almost at the doorway of the living room when he paused. Following his gaze, Kira remembered the existence of her parents; her mother, bloodied but breathing, sitting against the wall and clutching her side, and her dad, crouched protectively next to his wife. Mr Yukimara didn’t quite glare up at Peter, but it was a close thing.
Peter ignored him utterly: when he spoke, his words were for Kira’s mother. “You are no longer welcome in Beacon Hills,” he said coldly, and some part of Kira—the part that was still a human teenager, that still, deep down, expected to wake up any moment and find that all this, kitsunes and werewolves and banshees too, was just a crazy dream—was glad she couldn’t see his face. Was glad that tundra-voice was not directed at her. “You have three days. If I find you within my territory after that, I will kill you.” He said it softly: he said it like something true, like a law—not a human law of books and gavels, but a law like gravity, like the colour of the sky. “You no longer have the tails to match me, Tengoku Gozen. If I were you, I wouldn’t try.”
Kira’s mother struggled to sit up straighter; her husband made a low protesting sound, but she ignored him as thoroughly as Peter had. “You know what he is,” she accused the werewolf, her voice rough with pain.
“Better than you do,” Peter said coolly.
“Then you know what he has done. What he can do, what he will do!”
Kira didn’t need to see Peter’s face to hear the cold, deadly smile in his voice. “I do,” he said. “And I don’t care.”
He walked away, disappearing through the doorway. “Come along, nephew,” he called back. “I’d really rather not linger.”
Kira tore her eyes away from her parents, and saw Derek swallow. Saw him look to her, and from her to her parents, and from them to the stains of Stiles’ blood on the couch, the floor.
She saw his face harden, and he turned and followed his uncle.
Kira stood still, wondering if this unreal, detached clarity she felt was clinical shock. She didn’t have a werewolf’s hearing, had no idea if that was a kitsune power she would grow into or if it would never happen, but she could hear Peter and Derek’s footsteps on the gravel outside. She heard a car door open, and not close immediately; they must be settling Stiles.
She found herself staring at her parents, a strange, thick hollowness in her chest. I don’t think I’m ever going to trust you again, she’d told her mother. But Kira had, hadn’t she? Even when she went with Scott and Isaac and Allison after the nogitsune, and found her mom there before them: even after her mom insisted that ‘your friend is dead’, that Stiles couldn’t be saved—even then, in her deepest core, it had never occurred to her to truly mistrust her mother.
‘You want to save Stiles? Kill him. That’s the only way.’ Her mom had said that. God, Kira should have known—
“You tried to kill Stiles,” she heard herself say woodenly. “Why, how could you do that?”
“Kira,” her mother began.
“And you, dad, you let her,” Kira said, looking to her father. “You knew—you’re his teacher, he’s in your class—and you just let her—”
“There are things you don’t understand,” her mom said.
Kira stared at her, across a gulf that was far wider than the nine-hundred-year difference in their ages, that was deeper and infinitely less fathomable than the difference between her mom’s Celestial nature and her own as a Thunder kitsune.
And the worst part was, her mom didn’t seem to see the abyss riven through the heart of them at all.
“If it means turning into someone like you, then I don’t want to understand,” Kira said. She bent and grabbed up her katana, and ran out of the house.
“Kira!” her mother cried.
“Kira, come back here!” her dad shouted.
She didn’t answer them. She didn’t turn back. Her heart felt like it was flying, like it was breaking, like it was bursting apart.
She skidded to a stop in front of the unfamiliar cars in the driveway.
“I didn’t know,” she blurted. “I would never have—never.” She swallowed hard. Stiles was out of sight, tucked into one of the cars; Derek was frozen in the process of getting into the driver’s seat of the one that must be his. And Peter—Peter was standing still and staring at her, perfectly expressionless, but the glow of his blue eyes seemed to outshine the headlights of both cars. “Can I— Can I come with you? Please? I don’t want—” She glanced helplessly back at the house, unable to find the words.
Peter blinked, once and slowly, and Kira wondered what he saw when he looked at her. The kitsune aura she had no idea how to control yet? A young onna-bugeisha, a woman warrior? A teenager who had no idea what she was doing?
Or something more?
Whatever he saw must have been enough to satisfy him, because he turned his head towards Derek. “Well? It’s your call if you want to take in another stray. She’s certainly not staying with me.”
“I—yeah, sure.” Derek still looked stunned, but he nodded—sent a faintly disbelieving glance Peter’s way, and then nodded again, more confidently this time. “Get in. We’ll figure it out.”
A wave of relief washed over her, so intense she almost burst into tears. She ran up and hugged him, tight and impulsive, remembering how he’d tried to shield her from the exploding star-ball; how his first instinct had been to get between her and what he thought was a danger. “Thank you.” It was all she could manage. “Thank you.”
Derek had frozen stiff the moment she touched him; now, with hesitant awkwardness, he patted her back. “Don’t thank me yet,” he said, his voice as blithe as his body was not. “You haven’t seen my loft yet.”
“And she won’t before dawn, if the two of you don’t get a move on,” Peter said. “Get in the damn car, both of you.”
Before he could change his mind—or she could change hers—Kira let Derek go and almost ran to the passenger side.
Somehow, it didn’t surprise her to realise that Stiles was in the other car, with Peter. Of course he was.
She fastened her seat-belt, and clutched her sword tightly, staring at her knees. From the corner of her eye she saw Derek glance at her, when he took his own seat; saw him open his mouth, and close it again, leaving whatever he might have said unspoken.
When he pulled out of her family’s driveway, she didn’t look back.
The nogitsune had followed them to the hospital, brought the Oni like a flock of ravens to the battlefield—but Lydia and Chris, at least, had been half-expecting it. They were distracted, in shock, afraid for Allison—what enemy wouldn’t take the opportunity to attack at such a moment?
But after what Alison had managed to tell them as the trauma team rushed her into the operating theatre—her game-changing discovery, the revelation the Oni had tried to cut her down rather than let her pass on—Chris had sped home and returned, bringing his daughter’s silver arrow-heads, and Lydia—standing in the linoleum-floored corridor between the smirking nogitsune and the room where Allison was in surgery, between the monster and her wounded best friend, Allison depending on her strength for once, Allison Lydia’s to safeguard and defend—
Lydia had screamed. And discovered what Peter had been implying, that day in Derek’s loft.
‘The primary purpose of a banshee’s scream is to drown out all mundane noise.’
Primary. Primary, as in: the first of more-than-one.
‘A banshee’s scream is both power and tool.’
Peter had taught her the tool. Facing down the nogitsune after it had kidnapped her, mentally and emotionally tortured her, tried to kill her best friend, Lydia learned the power.
Glass had exploded at the touch of her voice, a blizzard of glittering shards. The air shook and the walls fractured and metal warped and the wolves and Oni alike had crumpled to the ground, clutching their ears in an impossible agony. Even the nogitsune had fallen to its knees, black oil leaking between the fingers holding its skull together beneath the aural assault, bowed beneath the detonation of a banshee’s protective fury.
Chris didn’t fall. Allison’s father was knocked back by the shockwave of solid sound, but it didn’t claw inside his ears and rend what it found there, like it did to the supernaturals. And with the Oni paralysed, writhing like insects pinned to a board, he had stepped up smoothly and put his daughter’s bolts through their chests, destroying them one, by, one.
And when Lydia ran out of breath—when the nogitsune climbed to its feet with blackest rage in its eyes, Stiles’ eyes—
It had swayed aside from the bolt Chris shot at it with inhuman ease, snatching the arrow out of the air as it passed—and spun on its heel and hurled it back, a blur of silver-tipped sharpness that slammed through Chris’ shoulder and out the other side in a spray of blood.
Lydia had heard him grunt, seen him stagger. She had heard Scott and Isaac start to pick themselves up off the floor.
And in the echoes of her own scream, she had heard the sound of something crystalline shattering.
“I told you they would kill you,” she’d told the nogitsune, almost dreamily, oracular, knowing and not-knowing what she said. “I warned you.”
It had met her gaze for an appalled, disbelieving instant—and then it had howled, howled the terrible keening cry of an ancient deathless thing forced through the gates of death at last.
And broken apart like ceramic as it hit the ground, fragments that crumbled to dust, and turned to smoke, and then into nothing at all.
Between Allison’s silver arrow-heads and Lydia’s crippling scream, the Oni had been disabled and destroyed before anyone could be killed. And the nogitsune—the only harm it had managed to do was to Chris’ shoulder.
He assured them he’d had worse, and allowed Scott’s mother to hustle him away for something better than a field dressing.
It wasn’t long after that that Scott got a call, and when he put his phone away, he looked shaken and immeasurably relieved, all at once. “That was Derek,” he said, loud enough for all of them to hear. “He said—he said Peter saved Stiles.”
“Peter?” Isaac echoed incredulously. “How?”
Lydia said nothing. She thought she might know the answer to Isaac’s question, even if she lacked the details.
Because he knows what astra means.
Scott shrugged helplessly. “Derek doesn’t know exactly. But he said that was where Peter disappeared to today. To get what he needed for it.” He took a deep breath. “Kira’s mom poisoned Stiles,” he blurted. “She tried to kill him.”
“She probably intended to kill the nogitsune in the process,” Lydia said, when she could speak past the shrapnel of sudden blazing anger lodged in her throat. She forced herself to be calm—tried to kill him, Scott said tried—and made a mental note to discover what kind of poison was capable of killing a nogitsune outright.
It would be useful information to have. Especially if she could find a way to utilise it without killing a nogitsune’s host.
“Maybe. Probably. But Peter saved Stiles from that too. Cured him, somehow.” Scott looked a little like he’d been hit with a hammer. “Kira’s with Derek now. She didn’t want to stay with her parents, so… They’re going to bring Stiles here, get him checked out…” He glanced around. “I should go find my mom, tell her they’re coming.”
“I’ll call the Sheriff,” Lydia offered, and Scott smiled at her gratefully. “And Isaac and I will stay by Allison. Won’t we, Isaac?”
“Yes we will,” Isaac affirmed, and Lydia thought she could see what Allison saw in him, that immediate deference to another’s will. Good boy.
Scott hurried off, but he was back before Stiles’ father came running in, out of breath and wild-eyed.
“Stiles? Where is my son?” he demanded.
“Right here, Sheriff.”
Stiles’ father whirled—they all did, snapping around at the casual, almost playful tone of one Peter Hale, and in the back of her mind Lydia noted that Scott and Isaac hadn’t heard Peter’s approach either. Not even with werewolf hearing.
But the majority of her attention was focussed on the figure Peter held cradled against his chest, swathed in a blanket of the kind someone might keep in the trunk of a car, for picnics or sunbathing—or for wrapping around pale, shaken teenagers.
“Hey dad,” Stiles said weakly, and tried to smile.
“Stiles!” The Sheriff lunged for him, taking Stiles’ face between his hands and turning it to check him over. “Jesus, what happened to you? Is that your blood? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Really, I’m fine,” he insisted, pulling away from his father’s hands. “It’s my blood, yeah, but just a little—”
“He is not fine,” Peter said pleasantly—Peter, who had not given one inch of ground when the Sheriff ran towards him, and made no move to lower Stiles to his feet. “Not completely. But he will be. The nogitsune is dead; all your son needs now is rest and some proper nutrition.” The tilt of his head was eloquent as a shrug. “But I know you’ll want to run your tests whatever I say.”
“Damn straight.” The Sheriff gave Peter a searching, narrow-eyed look. The werewolf met it calmly, easily, with no sign of being perturbed by it. “Lydia tells me you’re the one responsible for saving my son.”
Peter smiled. “Lydia is usually correct.”
The Sheriff looked at him for a moment longer—then nodded once, as if some private suspicion had been confirmed, or some unspoken pact had been agreed upon between them. “All right then. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
Peter inclined his head in regal acknowledgement. “Then all things being equal, I will leave the rest of you to it.” He stepped to one side to set Stiles down in a chair, and Lydia was struck by it, by the gentle way this amoral serial-killer eased Stiles into the seat. Was it because Peter knew what Stiles was now, because he knew what astra meant? Or an act for the Sheriff’s benefit, or hers, or the rest of the pack’s?
Or the same thing that had driven him to delve even into the realms of the dead for answers, the moment he knew Stiles was involved?
Peter straightened. “Derek and Kira were right behind me,” he told them. “I’m sure they’ll be here any moment now.” He glanced at the Sheriff. “Don’t let him walk unaided. He doesn’t have his strength back yet.”
The Sheriff nodded again. “Wheelchairs it is.”
“Peter!” Stiles protested. “Seriously, dad, don’t listen to him, I’m fine.”
Lydia tuned out the rest of the comfortable, familiar bickering, listening instead to the bone-deep relief behind every word as the Sheriff took the seat beside his son, as Scott’s mom came and went and returned with a wheelchair to bundle Stiles into, as Chris came to sit vigil outside his daughter’s room and Stiles went away for tests she would bet any amount of money would tell them nothing but what Peter had already said.
She heard it all. But she was watching Peter’s retreating back as he walked away, and she wondered.
 ‘Gozen’ was the honorific given to Japanese Onna-bugeisha, female warriors of the noble class. ‘Tengoku’ is literally ‘heaven’ and refers to the fact that Noshiko is a Celestial kitsune—and is Peter’s way of telling her he knows that.