The first time Stiles walks too far into the woods, he’s eleven, limbs long from a recent growth spurt.
He’s a wanderer, Derek concludes from the smell of salt coming from his eyes and the fabric bag thrown over his shoulder. Despite the weather cooling down as they enter the fourth season, the boy only wears thin, worn linens. Even with the extra warmth Derek’s lineage provides him with, he wears his furs this time of year, so the pale, bare arms are curious to him.
“You’re a long way from your people.” Derek finds his voice before his brain can catch up. He knows he’s not supposed to talk to the villagers, it’s dangerous, but he’s also sixteen and already out past his curfew.
The boy’s eyes snap up quickly, eyes blinking to focus on Derek in the dark. He absentmindedly grips the protection amulet around his neck before he speaks.
“I know.” He adjusts the bag on his shoulder. “That’s the point.”
He should leave, but his feet feel grounded. “Why?”
“Why not?” The boy snaps. “Why are you? Why is everyone so scared of these trees? My mother used to heal people, drawing all kinds of power from the land. I don’t find much more to fear here than at home.”
A howl comes from their left, and he only realizes Stiles can't hear it when he doesn't react. He continues to talk as if the sound of Derek’s uncle hadn’t called to his bones like it did Derek’s.
“Now my mother is gone, and my father has taken to the bottle and lives in his sorrow.” He sounds drained of all energy. “He refused to see to her burial, refuses to face the world without drowning his clarity, refuses to be a father.”
“It’s dangerous for you to be here.” Derek swallows his emotions.
“Why?” The boy laughs. “That’s what nobody seems to know!”
“Is that a question you want the answer to?” Derek heard and smelled his uncle before he arrived, and in a perfect world, he would have taken that as his warning. Selfishly, however, he basked in the attention of the boy. He listened. He hoped.
Smelling the fear radiate from all over him when his eyes landed on Derek’s kin in their natural form felt like punishment enough for breaking the rules.
Peter took the memories of their meeting from the back of the boy’s neck and instructed Derek to return to his parents. He did so without question, and if he walked slowly and frequently glances back at Peter as he carried the boy in the opposite direction, nobody was there to see.
Stiles is thirteen and his heart echoes in Laura’s ears like a second heartbeat. It’s loud, quick, and gaining on her.
Derek turns to face the direction of the sound when his ears pick up on it, and Laura frowns when she notices his nose twitch in recognition.
“Don’t hurt him.” He pleads softly.
When the boy cuts through the trees so fast he slams into Derek’s chest and knocks himself to the ground, hitting his head on a protruding branch, she moves towards his unconscious frame and sighs.
“He was already hurting well before he came here.” She says, and Derek is reminded of why she will make a better Alpha than he could have ever been. He is silently thankful that she is training for the honour instead of him.
Derek stares at the boy’s still form and feels like he’s watching the moving images their emissary creates in their fires to teach young children about pack traditions. It’s something almost unreal, something buzzing underneath the skin that reminds him that he belongs to something—only now, he isn’t sure what.
“Well?” Laura sighs. “Are you going to carry him to the healer in good time? I’d rather we have his scrapes patched up before he wakes, otherwise I will have more memory to take.”
She will make a great Alpha, and Derek knows he will never serve anyone more loyally in his life.
Derek is twenty.
The boy is back on their property, only this time, he is asleep.
Derek frowns when he sees the dark marks forming on his arms and debates howling to call for his parents. When he sees the boy shiver, he decides against it.
He lifts him up gently and flushes when his light linens tangle and shift, exposing his bottom half for a moment before Derek readjusts him in his arms.
A young man, then. No longer a boy.
He carries him to the border of the woods and gently rests him down, allowing himself to take a deep breath in through his nose, right by his neck, before letting him go.
When Stiles wakes up, he can’t remember how he made it back to the edge of the village.
If he turned around he would be able to spot footprints in the dim moonlight, but he moves forward. He must always move forward.
When Stiles turns seventeen, he comes back to the woods. It’s the anniversary of his mother’s death and he smells like alcohol.
Derek’s rational thinking flickers in the back of his mind as he picks up speed, cupping his face between his hands. Stiles’ eyes have trouble focusing on the man in front of him.
“Don’t drink that stuff, you hear me?” Derek scans his face, looking for a sign of acknowledgment. “You don’t need that, not after your dad.”
“How’d you know he drinks?” He slurs, nose twitching in annoyance. Derek doesn’t let go of his face.
“It’s poison to some people.” He continues without acknowledgment of Stiles’ words. “There’s a reason people turn to it in their loneliness—it makes them warm for a moment, but a flame can become a forest fire if you are unlucky.”
Stiles swats at Derek’s hand, leading to his release.
“What else ‘m I supposed to do?” He sighs dramatically, “I’m always unlucky.”
“You used to wear protection charms,” Derek notes his bare neck with a frown.
“Didn’t work.” He grumbles, glaring. “Why bother?”
“What do you mean?” Derek blinks. “They looked like they were created by a healer.”
“Mother didn’t think I needed protection from father.” He smiles sadly, stumbling forward.
Derek reaches out to stabilize him. When he turns it into a warm embrace, Derek returns it hesitantly. He has a memory of dark marks on the boy’s skin two years prior, when he was barely a man.
“Are you unsafe?” He asks, his voice barely above a whisper.
The body in his arms shakes as a sob releases, but he shakes his head in denial.
“Just unhappy.” He cries, and Derek rubs his back soothingly, hushing the sounds of anguish.
His mother taught him how to manipulate memories when he was officially tasked with border control.
When she asks about the foreign scent when he returns home, he avoids the truth, simply explaining that he removed the memories of a young man under the influence of the bottle.
If it had been Laura asking, she would have prodded, questioning how much time passed in between their meeting and the memory removal. If she had asked, Derek wouldn’t have been able to lie. He would have said that he held Stiles until he crumpled, giving in to his exhaustion, that he spent longer than recommended observing the memories from his point of view, and that he took them away very reluctantly.
It wasn’t her, though, so nobody needed to know.
Stiles doesn’t frighten when he spots a man in the woods wearing the skins of animals he knows are beyond the skills of the local villagers. He isn’t running this time, no, and he hasn’t for a long time.
“Hello.” He smiles coyly. “I don’t believe we’ve met. My name is Stiles.”
For some reason that brings a laugh out of the man. The fact that they have never been formally introduced is absurd. Derek finds himself warming with glee, having thought he wouldn’t see Stiles again.
“It’s just a nickname.” Stiles feels heat rising on his neck. “My real name is a monstrosity.”
His smile wavers and he stutters. “I meant no offense. It’s nice to meet you. My name is Derek.”
Stiles reaches out an open palm to Derek, who stares at it.
“What are you doing?” He asks, furrowing his eyebrows.
“Are you not from around here?” He asks, tone nothing but curious. “We shake hands as greeting.”
“Oh.” Derek feels dumb, reaching out his hand tentatively. “Right.”
Stiles grips it with his long fingers, lifting their clasped hands pointedly with a grin.
“How do you greet where you’re from?” He tilts his head.
Derek flushes, remembering a rant his mother had gone on about human villagers and their sensitivities to displays of affection.
“My mother says some other villages equate our greetings with uncomfortable intentions.” He explains delicately.
“Greet me!” Stiles laughs, “How else am I expected to learn?”
Derek huffs a laugh in response, pausing to find the right words to explain. “It depends on your rank in the community.”
“How would you normally greet a stranger?” He quizzes. “One you don’t know the rank of!”
He scrunches up his face. “You wouldn’t… well, you know, usually.”
“You just do.” He shrugs.
“So what am I?” Stiles asks boldly, a teasing smile on his face.
Derek sizes him up. He knows his mother has passed, someone Derek can inference to be the Alpha in his family dynamic considering that his father was mostly absent in his youth. Stiles, however, stands before him a healthy, happy young man.
“You would be strong. Not a warrior, likely, but a diplomat. Someone comfortable with taking responsibility for more than themselves—a leader. Strategist.” Derek moves forward until the gap between them is almost closed. “Similar to me in rank, but different in practice. You would not need to show immediate respect to me, and neither would I.”
“So how you would greet a friend?” Stiles asks, voice airy.
“Something like that,” Derek replies, reaching out a firm hand and clasping it on the space connecting Stiles’ neck to his shoulder. “I grab here.” He leans forward, until his head is on the opposite side of Stiles’ face as his hand, and gently grazes their cheeks together. He’s done it a million times to his family and friends, though usually, those who do not share his blood would bare their neck more to acknowledge his familial connection to their Alpha. Stiles doesn’t need to know the specifics, though.
He’ll forget them soon enough.
With that thought, Derek backs away, noting the flush on Stiles’ cheeks and the low hum of arousal surrounding his body.
“I’ve never met someone from another village before.” He smiles lightly. “I like learning new things, though. I’ve never feared the woods. I want to be a healer like my mother was, but such things aren’t good work anymore.” He shrugs, nonchalant, despite smelling sour. “Maybe I’ll try the diplomatic route.” He grins.
“Why is it not good work?” Derek blinks, baffled. “Witches are valuable.”
Stiles’ eyes widen. “You have witches? They’re alive?” His hands go to his hair, tugging, and he begins pacing. “Our village is supported by the Argents. They will tell anything with a concept of language that witches are evil, just like they say the woods house monsters. They kill women, men, children.”
Derek reaches out and grabs his forearm, grabbing the young man’s attention. “What do you mean?”
“My mother died of illness, but now her name is disgraced. They watch me with careful eyes, fearing I’ll follow in her humble footsteps.” He looks down with a frown. “Or, it used to be humble. Nobody can practice magic or rituals anymore. Within the last year, they came to my door and demanded all of my amulets. If I tried to become a healer, they would have me killed.”
Stiles looks up suddenly, staring at Derek with so much hope that his chest aches.
“Would you help me, Derek?” Stiles places one of his hands over the one covering his wrist. “If you come to my village, they might understand that witches are—”
“I can’t.” Derek shakes his head, attempting to take a step back. Stiles, however, holds tighter.
“Then can I come to your village?” He pleads, desperate. “My father was once someone who found justice, but there is no hope at home anymore. He can’t do anything. We’re all just waiting with targets on our heads.”
Derek takes a deep breath, absentmindedly wiping the beginning of a tear from Stiles’ cheek. He looks younger, somehow, like he’s eleven again and desperate to run away from home.
“Listen, Stiles,” He pauses, trying to find words that will make it hurt less. None call out to him. “I’ve met you before, and I’ll meet you again. I’ve been in your presence in these woods more times than I have deserved, and more times than what should be honourable to start a new acquaintanceship.”
“I don’t understand.” Stiles’ bottom lip wobbles.
“There’s a reason you feel the call of the woods, Stiles, think.” He growls, backing out of his personal space. “You’re smart. Your mother was a witch. Is that all that the village has with magic? Have you not noticed when people disappear, young and healthy? Where do they go, Stiles? They go to the woods because they’ll die in that town. They can feel how the energy here accepts them.”
“There’s more?” Stiles shakes his head, confused.
Derek continues, “You would never know. They hate us. They kill us. They fear us, but for what? You’ve never bought into it, I know that, but it doesn’t make it less dangerous. We have to steal memories or we will die. I wanted so badly to protect you, and I want to trust you with the sanctuary of my home, but I don’t get to make those decisions. It’s bigger than me.”
He doesn’t realize he’s gasping for air at the end until Stiles is suddenly under his nose, holding Derek’s body like he can pull it back together.
“What is this?” He mumbles, tentatively returning the embrace.
“A hug.” Stiles’ chest shakes with laughter. “It’s a comforting gesture, I suppose.”
“I know what a hug is. We aren’t that isolated.” He grumbles, unintentionally nuzzling the young man’s neck. “I meant what is this. What do we keep doing?”
Stiles pulls back, and though their arms still remain entangled, the distance is felt strongly.
“I don’t know.” He shrugs, “All I know is I don’t want to forget you.” He laughs lightly, though tears spring into his eyes at the words. “I wish I remembered you.”
“Your mind forgets but the body remembers.” He repeats what he remembers being taught as a child. “You’ll come back if you want to.”
“Like we’re tethered.” Stiles laughs, like he found his own miracle.
“I don’t want to keep meeting you this way.” Derek is surprised to find his own eyes wet.
Stiles shakes his head. “No, don’t be upset; I understand now, kind of. Not your order to give.”
Stiles doesn’t return for three hundred and forty-three days. Derek counts.
It’s enough time to convince his alpha’s that the boy is worthy of his memories.
When he does return, his scent is piquant in Derek’s nose and partially unfamiliar. He smells the same, for the most part, but it carries a buzz that he recognizes immediately.
He looks up sharply, unable to help himself from smiling, slightly marvelling the man.
His hair is slightly longer than the previous time, curling around his ears. It gives him the appearance of someone younger than he is, but that could also be attributed to the smile on his face crossing ear to ear.
“You have magic inside you,” Derek remarks, almost startled.
It’s wonderful to watch his jaw drop in surprise, and the absence of fear in his scent comforts Derek. Stiles, or at least Stiles’ magic, can tell that Derek means no harm.
“How could you possibly know such a thing?” He laughs, and it sounds even freer than it did a year prior.
“You radiate it,” Derek says, like it’s obvious, even though he’s aware that it isn’t. “Before, it was just on you in physical parts—amulets, pieces of clothing. It’s inside you now, coming out.”
Stiles’ eyebrow furrows in confusion, but his smile is fond. “Have we met before?”
“Would you trust me to show you how many times we’ve crossed paths, Stiles?” Derek asks, and he’s moving forward before his brain can catch up with his body.
The man doesn’t back away when he enters his personal space, he just stands still in anticipation. Derek’s hand rests on the bottom of his neck and he leans forward quickly, brushing their cheeks together. It’s the second time he’s greeted him this way, and from the way Stiles gasps, his body remembers.
When he pulls apart, Stiles’ eyes are wide. Derek doesn’t move his hand.
He moves to speak, but his bottom lip trembles and he can only manage to wrap his hand around Derek’s and move his fingers further to the back of his neck, nodding furiously.
It’s selfish for Derek to linger while pulling Stiles’ memories from his neck, but he finds himself momentarily lost in Stiles’ perspective. He can feel the flush of attraction and vibrant curiosity every time Stiles sees him for the first time. His own face appears almost alien to him from this angle.
He releases all the memories gently and moves quickly to heal the wounds, just like his mother had prepared him to do.
Stiles’ eyes are glassy and Derek fears he’s made a mistake.
“I know you.” He says breathlessly, and then again, “You know me.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t let you remember sooner,” Derek replies softly, his hand still cradling the back of the man’s neck. He expected Stiles to reject the close contact, surprised to find his hands reaching out to grasp at the fabric of Derek’s light, linen shirt.
“After the last time, something changed inside me. I found my mother’s journals and read them until the spines started crumbling.” He smiles shakily, “I had to activate my magic from the inside out. I’ve been practicing in secret. Nobody knows.” He laughs lightly, “I could have been killed for less than what I just said!”
“You trust me.” Derek can’t help the grin from pulling on his cheeks.
Stiles returns it, though, like they’re sharing a secret. He feels the urge to kiss him, and somehow planting one on the side of his temple feels more intimate than the lips.
Derek hears the howl of Laura, and distantly, of Peter. He pulls apart and leans back to return the call with the fullness he would have had if he were to be alone.
Stiles stares at him with a sense of wonder. “You’re a werewolf! I’ve read my mother’s journals. Would you indulge my curiosity? I have so many questions!”
Derek’s instinct is to ask if the young man is afraid, but he can’t smell even the slightest bit of apprehension. The affection swelling in Stiles’ chest is bursting.
Peter stalks the couple slowly, smirking.
“Stiles.” He calls, getting the man’s attention, “It’s nice to meet you under better circumstances. My name is Peter, the brother of Derek’s mother.”
“I remember.” Stiles nods, and it carries no resentment. “I’m glad I remember.”
“We’re glad too.” Laura arrives shortly behind Peter, and she stands tall like their mother.
The two are more collaborative these days. The pack recognizes Laura as an alpha, and even though she has not officially taken the title, nor the powers, she will always have the respect.
“I don’t recall you.” Stiles’ eyebrows furrow apologetically, “But the resemblance is clear.”
“She’s my sister.” Derek rests a hand on Stiles’ shoulder, and Stiles leans into it.
“Laura.” She supplies, and her smile is friendly, nervous even, “Would you like to meet everyone else?”
Stiles looks at Derek as if to ask permission. When their eyes meet, he realizes the decision is all his own.
With magic buzzing beneath his skin, he nods frantically, causing the family to smile.
“Does everybody know about me?” He asks Derek as they begin walking deeper into the woods. “I mean, everybody from your village?”
“Derek hardly gave his mouth rest from talking about you.” Peter drawls, causing Stiles’ cheeks to redden.
“I knew you would come back,” Derek says softly, tender and unashamed. “Didn’t you?”
Stiles knew too, on a subconscious level. He could feel the pull of the woods, begging him to return the energy to where it belongs. The more he read and practiced, the more he understood where he fit into a bigger picture.
He was unaware that Derek was a part of that picture, but looking at him now, it seems obvious.
“Yeah,” Stiles nods, and his heart is beating so fast it feels like a bird flying in a cage, “I think I did.”