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A Swinger of Birches

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Derek’s been on this walk for about forty-five minutes, and he already regrets it.

“Do you ever feel like we’re in a low-budget Scooby Doo cartoon?” Stiles says loudly, as he moves through the forest like a drunk moose.

“I call Fred,” Scott says immediately.

“Uncontested,” Stiles says, high-fiving him. “Am I Shaggy?”

“Dunno,” Scott says. “But it’d be awesome to have that van.”

“Yeah,” Stiles says, and lurches sideways, sliding on wet leaves. “We should definitely get a van. Mystery Jeep doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

"You got the thing?" Derek says, trying to keep them focused. Deaton gave them an artifact, something mysterious and blessed, something that’s probably going to blow up in their face.

"Yeah, right here," Stiles says, drawing it out of his backpack. He hands it over to Derek, gingerly, as if it’s a live bomb.

"Thanks," Derek says, and holds it up, positioning it towards the moonlight. "And you’re definitely Velma."

"What?" Stiles squawks indignantly, but the stone is glowing bright pink, disturbingly cheerful for the doom it most certainly signifies. Derek takes off in the direction it indicates, hears Stiles and Scott following him. Stiles is still yelling insults, but Derek tunes him out, focuses on running without lowering his eyes from the sky.

The artifact takes him to a dark cave, one he hasn’t seen before. If he’d been back longer, gotten back in the paranoid mindset needed to survive Beacon Hills, that alone would have stopped him. There’s no part of the Preserve that he hasn’t ran through, no tree, no leaf, no rock he doesn’t know. He’s off balance and unready so he skids right into the entrance, stops only when the light on the stone winks right out. He’s turning to face Scott and Stiles, but there’s a rumble, and he has just enough time to throw himself to the ground, to duck and protect his head as rocks fall around him, the ceiling to the cave collapsing with a choking cloud of dust.

When it settles, when Derek raises his head again, he knows that this isn’t a natural cave, that that was no natural landslide. The rocks are too perfect, the entrance too beautifully blocked. When he touches the rocks, reaches to heft them out of the way, they burn him, shock him right down to the core.

"Scott," he yells. "Stiles," and he’s not afraid of the dark, not claustrophobic normally, but his heart is racing, and his blood is rushing in his ears.

"Derek," Scott yells back. "Are you okay?"

"Get me out of here," Derek barks, and he knows the fear is showing in his voice. He should have never came back, should have never crossed the goddamn state line.

There’s noises outside, crunching of the leaves, and Derek holds his breath but Scott yelps, loud and hurt.

"Derek," Stiles says, frantic. "I don’t think—"

"It was a trap," Derek says, "Something knew we’d be coming, someone—"

"I’ll go get Deaton," Scott says. "He’ll know what to do."

"I’ll come with you," Stiles says, and Derek can’t help it, can’t stop the panicked rush of words.

"No, don’t, don’t you leave me here, fuck, please” and his voice is shaking, he hates himself for that, but he can’t see much, can’t sense anything, and it feels like he’s drowning in the blackness.

It’s quiet for a moment, and Derek thinks for a second that they left anyway, that he’s alone here but Stiles says quietly, “You go. I’d never find my way back.”

"Okay," Scott says, and there’s a rustle, like he’s embracing Stiles. "Derek, I’ll be right back, just—just hang tight, all right?"

Derek manages to pull himself together enough to say, “Won’t go anywhere,” sarcastically, and Stiles barks out a laugh as the sound of Scott’s footsteps fade into the night.

"Well," Stiles says, and his voice is louder, like he’s moved closer to the rocks. "It’s just you and me, buddy."

"Oh, joy," Derek says, but he moves closer to Stiles’s voice, tries to mirror Stiles’s position on the other side of the rocks. He can sense Stiles’s heartbeat like that, can ground himself in the rhythm of Stiles’s breaths.

"You wanna play I Spy?" Stiles says and Derek growls, threatening and low. Stiles snickers, because he’s an asshole, and says, “how about I’m Going to Grandmother’s House?”

"I’m going to kill you," Derek says.

"It’s funny because you’re a wolf," Stiles continues. "Fine. How about mate, knot, or claw?"

Derek forgets the threat he was gonna use in favor of saying, “what?”

"It’s like marry, fuck or kill," Stiles says, the delight evident in his voice. "Only werewolf specific."

"Mates aren’t real," Derek says. "You’re on drugs."

"But knotting is?" Stiles yelps and Derek smirks, because Stiles isn’t the only asshole here.

"Get me out of here and maybe I’ll tell you," he answers.

"I’m holding you to that," Stiles says. They slip into silence just long enough for Derek to get edgy, when Stiles says, "Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Tom Selleck."

"Claw Cruise," Derek says, after a pause. "Knot Hanks."

"You’d werewolf marry Tom Selleck?" Stiles says, incredulous.

"You wouldn't?" Derek retorts.

"Uh no,” Stiles says. ”Tom Hanks is clearly better mate material.”

"Your taste is awful," Derek says haughtily. There’s a beat while Derek deliberates, and then says, "Luke, Han, Leia."

"Mate Leia," Stiles answers without missing a beat. "Knot Han, claw Luke."

"You’re clawing Luke Skywalker," Derek says flatly, and he forgets for a minute that he’s trapped in a magic cave because he’s so mad.

"Duh," Stiles says. "Princess Leia is the woman upon which all future mates are judged. And young Harrison Ford? Please. I need to get my cubs all up in that."

"You’re disturbed," Derek says. "Luke is the good guy who gets shit on constantly by everyone and he still does the right thing."

"Yawn," Stiles says, and Derek almost tries to reach through the rocks to strangle him.

It devolves from there, until Derek is laying on his back, arguing the merits of knotting Galileo over Einstein when it occurs to him that Scott’s been gone a long time. Just like that, the game stops being fun and Derek’s back goes cold where it’s pressed against the hard rock floor.

Stiles seems to sense that without being told, and without a word, calls Scott’s cell phone. Scott’s voice is clipped and strained when he answers and they establish quickly that Deaton doesn't know why they were led out there, doesn't know why the rocks are reacting that way, doesn't know how to get them out. Derek hears the unspoken “researching would be easier with you here,” but Stiles doesn't say anything, just says they’ll hold down the fort here.

“You can go,” Derek says, when Stiles hangs up.

“And be denied the pleasure of your company?” Stiles asks. “Never.”

“Stiles,” Derek sighs, but he’s glad of Stiles’s presence, glad not to be alone, wondering if anyone would come back for him. Stiles is steady, comforting, even if he doesn't understand Luke Skywalker.

“I know what it’s like,” Stiles says, cutting him off. “I've been locked in the cold, alone, trapped. I won’t leave you.”

Derek doesn't know everything that happened when Stiles was possessed, was there for the peripheries of it, but he didn't know Stiles, not like he does now.

“Thank you,” he says, hoarse, and he sees the pinks of Stiles’s fingertips peeking through a crack in the rocks. He ignores the warning heat of the rocks on his side to press his own fingers through, to brush Stiles’s skin, to say thank you.

“Oak, Ash, Birch,” Stiles says.

“What, like trees?” Derek says, reeling.

“Yeah,” Stiles says. “C’mon, I know you totally have an answer.”

“You’re asking me what tree I’d fuck if I had to fuck a tree.”

“Oh, you’re so above tree banging now. I’m Derek Hale, I fucked a Darach, but I have standards—”

“I’d claw the ash,” Derek says loudly, speaking over him. “Obviously. Knot the oak, mate the birch.”

“I’d knot the Nemeton,” Stiles says. “I bet that’s an oak. It looks like it’d give me a good time. And I’d mate ash trees, because me and mountain ash really have a special connection. I could see that going somewhere, you know?”

“You are the most demented person I know,” Derek says. “That was so well thought out.”

“Thank you,” Stiles says. “Your turn.”

“I don’t think I can top treefucking,” Derek says.

“I Spy is still an option on the table.”

“I spy a black mass of nothing,” Derek deadpans.

“Is it your soul?” Stiles says, and laughs when Derek growls. “Seriously, you can’t see anything?”

“No, Stiles,” Derek says. “Nothing but this stupid, blinking stone.”

There’s silence, and then, “Maybe try following the stone again?”

“Follow it where? I’m in a cave.”

“To the back,” Stiles says. “I don’t know, we’re not doing much here.”

Derek’s loathe to leave, doesn't want to go ahead alone.

“Fine,” Stiles says. “Knot, Mate or Claw: me, Scott, Isaac.”

“Maybe I should follow the stone after all,” Derek says.

“Thought so,” Stiles says. “I won’t go anywhere, I’ll be right here. Just check it out.”

Derek hoists himself to his feet, his knees creaking and popping as he stands, cramped from being folded into one position for too long. He carefully lifts the stone, and immediately feels the pull again, a force gently guiding him forward.

“I won’t claw any more of my friends,” he says, loud enough for Stiles to hear. “I’d figure out how to knot both of them. Or better yet, they can knot each other.”

There’s silence. “But you’re fine with mating me?” Stiles says, hysterically.

Derek ignores him, moves towards the direction the stone is illuminating, step by careful step. It gets colder back there, damp, and the stones underneath him have moss, making it slippery to walk on. The stone gets brighter and brighter as he moves, and eventually glows so intensely that he can see the whole room, can see the rune etched walls, and a small altar in the center of the room.

He knows, suddenly that the stone wants to be placed there, that there are grooves where it will go, and he’s afraid, because nothing good ever comes of listening to inanimate objects but there’s no way around it. He places the stone on the altar, releases it into the grooves and it seems to fit seamlessly, like it had always been there, never separated. The whole room glows, all the runes light up, bright and overwhelming until he has to shut his eyes against it.

When he opens them again, he’s lying outside, Stiles’s hand warm on his temple. “Yes, of course I felt that,” Stiles is yelling into the phone. “No, I don’t know what he did, he just appeared! Oh, he’s awake,” and hangs up, tossing the phone next to him.

Derek tries to sit up, pushing up off the hard, cold ground but his head is still dizzy, the blood rushing enough that he sinks right back down.

“Yeah, and stay down, you idiot,” Stiles says, but his hands are warm, guiding Derek almost into his lap.

“What happened?” Derek gets out, watching the stars above him spin a little.

“I think you closed the beacon,” Stiles says. “The Nemeton, it’s not,” and he touches his chest, lightly, brows furrowed in concentration. “I can’t really feel it.”

“There was something in the cave,” Derek says, and he cranes his neck enough to look, but there is no cave. No rocks, no sign of anything except a grassy clearing surrounded by trees.

“Birches,” Stiles says. “You should be happy.”

“Shut up,” Derek says, and that’s when Scott arrives, panting, talking a mile a minute. He and Stiles load Derek into the back of Stiles’s jeep and Derek dozes for awhile, the soft rumble of the engine lulling him under.

When he opens his eyes, he’s outside of the loft and Scott is hoisting him out of his seat.

“I can walk,” he says, batting both of them away, and he can. His head is clear, and the ringing has stopped. He feels fine.

Scott steps away, holds up his hands. “Fine,” he says, dubious. “I guess we’ll go.”

“You go,” Stiles says, tossing Scott his keys. “I have things to talk about with this asshole.”

Scott catches the keys easily, salutes them both and drives away. Stiles insists on helping Derek into the elevator, and maybe Derek doesn't shove him away as much as he should. Stiles is strong, strong enough to lean on, takes Derek’s weight better than Derek ever thought he could.

Stiles waits until Derek’s comfortable on the couch before putting his hands on his hips and staring. “Explain,” he says, determined.

“Well,” Derek says. “I've always thought Scott and Isaac had a little chemistry, and if those crazy kids—”

“I will claw you myself,” Stiles threatens, and holds up his jagged, nail bitten nubs for emphasis. “Derek, come on.”

Derek knows what he’s asking. Stiles is asking not to be the first one to say it, not be the first one to make the move. Stiles is asking Derek to take that step, to say what they've both been moving towards ever since Derek caught him trespassing in the woods.

“Mates aren't real,” he says, hoarsely. “But I’d still choose you.”

Derek gets the breath knocked out of him when Stiles lands on him, elbows landing in his ribs, knee pressing dangerously close to sensitive, delicate parts.

“I can’t believe you walked away after saying that,” Stiles says. “You’re such a drama queen.”

“Oh, what were we gonna do,” Derek says. “Keep touching fingertips?”

“I could have figured out a way to cut a glory hole,” Stiles says. “Never underestimate my resourcefulness.”

“Not exactly necessary now,” Derek says, and rolls his hips up against Stiles.

“Later,” Stiles says, a promise in his eyes. “First, I really, really need to kiss you.”

Later comes, and so does Derek, right there on that couch. The morning rises too soon, and Stiles falls asleep on his chest, golden in the light of the dawn pouring in through the loft windows.

He’s not ready to go to sleep yet, not ready to close his eyes to more empty blackness. Instead, he watches the sun, drinks in the light and the warmth as it rises.

There’s a marker on the floor, right within easy reach, leftover from a map Scott had marked up, or a sigil Deaton had drawn last week.

Derek uses it now to draw a mustache above Stiles’s slack, pliant mouth, thick and bushy, majestic even.

Yeah, he thinks. He’d definitely mate Tom Selleck.