When he finally hears the near-forgotten (never-forgotten) pounding rhythm of hoofbeats, Peter is calm.
It has been six years of travelling all over the globe, always one step behind the Riders he’s been pursuing since they coughed him back out in Beacon Hills, miraculously alive and miraculously free, Stiles’ magic still crackling over burnt-black flesh and darting off to cover the length and width of Beacon Hills the moment he fell to the forest floor, removing him and the town from the Wild Hunt’s greedy grasp once and for all.
McCall was useless, as always, and the rest of his ragtag pack were just as bad. They could barely remember Stiles anymore, they certainly didn’t want to, and the more Peter insisted, offering what little evidence he could gather of the existence of a boy who had proven invaluable to them time and time again, the harder they rejected the truth.
Remembering, or even just trying to remember, would’ve meant chasing after the Ghost Riders, borrowing trouble, putting their lives on the line, and all of them were too relieved when the Hunt moved on to attempt confronting them again when they didn’t have to.
Out of sight, out of mind. Such has always been Scott McCall’s unspoken creed. If it doesn’t affect him, then it isn’t something he has to deal with, and he’d already proven more than once that his supposed brother meant very little to him when it came down to it. With Stiles half-forgotten already, it was even easier for him and those who followed him to move on with their lives.
But Peter made a promise. As a werewolf, he could survive the Riders’ flames, and when Stiles told him he could protect him from being dragged right back into the train station once he got out, Peter had in return promised that he would help Scott and the others get Stiles out too.
(And in their last moments, he’d looked back over his shoulder at Stiles’ pale anxious face - as determined as it was frightened as the boy watched him go - right before Peter had plunged through the portal and burned again, and he knew that Stiles had believed he would come back for him.
Whether he still believes that… well.)
It’s been six years ( so long, too long, but if there’s still even a fraction of a chance- ), and now, sitting in the woods surrounding some small backwater town in the middle of Russia, finally, finally, one step ahead of the Riders, Peter does not flinch even when the first of the Hunt thunders into the clearing, black-hole eyes in a scarecrow face already turned towards him.
The world blazes with eerie green light, brightening until he has no choice but to shut his eyes. The horses’ hooves grow louder until they are all that Peter can hear.
The world forgets him, once more.
When Peter opens his eyes again, it is to a train station that looks identical to the one he left behind six years ago. He’s dumped on the platform amidst a cacophony of panicked screams as the Riders continue on through the tunnel, and as soon as they’re gone, silence falls like a stone, and their previous victims return to their seats, faces going slack as a little more of their souls are chipped away, bit by bit.
Peter rolls to his feet, absently dusting off his coat, eyes already scanning the crowd. He knows that - eventually - every single person here is destined to join the Hunt once they’ve been sucked dry of all soul energy, and it’s been six years.
But Stiles was a Spark, with a soul that survived a nogitsune. Stronger than the average human, and powerful enough to hide an entire town from the Riders, even if he couldn’t counter their searing ghost flames too.
Surely, surely, Stiles hasn’t become one of them yet.
(It’s the only thing that’s kept Peter going all these years. Stiles was waiting for him, so he couldn’t give up no matter how cold the trail became or how hopeless the situation in general seemed sometimes.)
He starts wandering up and down the rows of plastic chairs, peering into each vacant face, searching for brown eyes and mole-dotted skin and a dark red plaid shirt.
“Stiles?” He calls, hoping for a reply, a jerk of movement, even a punch in the face and a demand to know what’s taken him so long. “Stiles, are you here?”
He checks and re-checks and checks again, once, twice, three times, five.
Anxiety chokes his lungs and makes his fangs itch. Fear sits like ice in his chest.
Stiles isn’t here.
Peter staggers against a pillar, steps jarringly loud in the otherwise silent station, and for just a moment, when he blinks, a vividly horrific image of Stiles’ features melting away into the hollowed out husk of a Ghost Rider flashes across the back of his eyelids.
He shoves it aside, a snarl rumbling in his throat. No. He refuses to believe that. Until he gets irrefutable proof that Stiles is well and truly gone and beyond saving, he won’t give up. Moon help him, that makes him sound positively nauseating, but Stiles is waiting for him. Peter has to get this right.
He takes a deep breath, straightens, and looks around again.
Alright. He knew this might happen. It was a long shot anyway, for Stiles to be in the station Peter lands in.
His gaze drifts between the many doors in the station. He knows from experience that stepping through one will just take him right back here through another door, a never-ending labyrinth of a prison.
Peter glances down, turning his left palm up and watching the shimmer of gold light pulsing beneath his skin.
In all these years, this tiny bit of Stiles’ magic has never left him. It’s the only piece of reassurance he’s had that Stiles is still alive, still himself, because surely if the boy had already become a soulless fae, his magic would’ve died with him.
(Peter doesn’t know though, not for certain. But he can hope, and that is enough to keep him going.)
Here and now, he approaches one of the doors at random and pulls it open with his right hand. The station seems to stretch on in front of him, but when he steps through, sure enough, he reappears in the same station, just from a different door.
He shuts the door and looks behind him at the people waiting for a train that would never come, and then he turns back and reaches for the door handle once more, this time with his left hand, the gold flashing briefly when it comes in contact with the metal.
He thinks of Stiles.
And then he opens the door again.
He steps out into a fog-smothered world. A cobblestone road sits solid beneath his feet and tumbles into the dark beyond without giving him any hint of where it might lead. Dark shapes that look vaguely like buildings loom in the distance, and odd whispery sounds like muted voices float by on an invisible wind.
Peter shivers, squinting warily through the fog, but something in him rejoices too.
This is something new. Perhaps this might even be something real, instead of the station room the Wild Hunt constructed to confine their food sources and future fellow Riders.
The door closes behind him as soon as he’s through, although at least it doesn’t disappear. And it wasn’t as if the station was particularly bright but it’s even darker now. Peter hesitates for another few seconds, glances back once to touch the door’s handle, and then he begins walking.
The fog never lifts - in fact, it seems to get heavier the deeper he travels. But the looming shapes do indeed turn out to be buildings, a church here, a school there, a rickety circle of suburban houses mashed around what looks to be a hospital, as if the places that the Wild Hunt stole out of reality were simply dumped here like garbage, left to sort themselves out wherever they landed.
All of the buildings are old and dilapidated, but they still provide more of a sense of security than the open road. Peter immediately veers into the shadows of one, feeling only slightly less hypervigilant but no less on guard against his unknown surroundings.
He sees people, eventually. Or what he assumes are people and not fae in disguise or whatever other monsters roam this realm. He feels eyes on him long before he actually starts catching glimpses of figures dressed in shabby clothing from different time periods, hidden away in the makeshift homes they’ve clearly cobbled together for themselves. Some have chosen to squat in the crumbling confines of the available houses, with moth-eaten blankets draped over the broken windows. Others skulk in overturned school buses or ramshackle sheds or even plain old tents that were really not much more than old tarp tacked to a barren tree or a brick wall and pinned down with rocks or cardboard boxes. Dim little fires flicker here and there, barely bright enough to pierce the fog more than a few dozen feet, the only points of warmth in this world as far as Peter can see.
But the people. What draws Peter’s uneasy attention to the people isn’t the fact that they all look more or less poor and homeless, or even the way their eyes follow him as he makes his way past each of their… accommodations. That’s part of it, but none of them look like they’re about to attack him, and so long as that stays true, Peter can tolerate the close scrutiny he’s getting.
So no, the biggest reason he’s so unsettled by them is their appearance. They still look human. Mostly. Somewhat. But a woman with hunched shoulders and stringy hair stares at him with bizarre orange eyes set in a face where everything on the right droops down like a melted candle. Another woman has a normal enough - if a bit dirty - face, but she’s perched on the half-collapsed rooftop of an empty shop, and her arms end not in hands but bird-like talons that would be too big for any real bird to have.
Then there’s a man with two human-looking ears but one of them is somehow twice the size of his head, and so when he scuttles back into his tent as Peter slips by, his head remains tilted almost parallel to the ground, sagging with the extra weight.
Others have animal-like legs, or odd colouring, or extra appendages, or body parts twisted into something disfigured or even entirely alien.
They’ve been here too long, Peter thinks, and he sticks even closer to the shadows. They seem to have escaped the Riders’ clutches, for however long they’ve been here with their souls more or less still intact, but this world is no place for humans.
He tries not to think about what might’ve happened to Stiles by now.
He doesn’t know how he’s going to find the boy here though. This world doesn’t look like it’s going to come to an end anytime soon, and he supposes he could ask, but he doesn’t trust any of them not to attack him if he approaches one, and there’s no guarantee they would know anyway, or be willing to tell him if they do.
He’ll save that as a last resort. For now, he keeps walking, keeps a sharp eye out, keeps searching. The chill of the fog settles in his bones in a way that reminds him of his stint in Eichen House, but all he does is grit his teeth and push forward.
Minutes turn into an hour. An hour turns into more. Time loses meaning even here, although Peter at least remains focused and alert this time, his mind untampered. It’s probably why these people stay - one way or another, they managed to escape their train stations, and better to retain free will and individual thought despite the physical degradations than remain under the mindless thrall of the fae as their souls are sucked dry.
He doesn’t get hungry, although the fog feels heavier with each passing hour, and his energy wanes eventually. He checks his phone once, but while the battery hasn’t depleted at all, the time hasn’t changed either.
3:33am. He wonders how much time has gone by in the outside world but there’s no real way to tell until he goes back.
And he’s not going back without Stiles, this time.
He sees more people, the further he travels. Strange and eldritch, some more than others, but still, none of them attack him even when they see him, and considering he still looks entirely human and his clothes are still in good - if slightly stiff from the cold - condition, he probably sticks out like a sore thumb.
He passes more tents, more houses, more buildings frozen in eternal ruin. And then he stumbles on a handful of full-on bonfires with people huddled around it, playing cards or drinking or even talking in low murmurs that Peter can’t quite make out. They fall silent and stare back at him with sunken gazes when he peers into their faces for any signs of Stiles. They do not invite him closer or chase him away, and Peter does not venture nearer to them than he has to.
By the time he stops for a break, he’s probably as close to an actual established town as anything here can be. There’s no traffic, no real streets to speak of, and most of the shops are looted, but the people interact, reluctant and cagey but getting along anyway like they can’t do anything else in this world where there’s little else to keep one - relatively - human.
Peter stays in his corner of the… square? That he’s found himself in. There’s rubble all around and a fire at its center. People come and go, stopping to share a word in grunting, garbled tones, through misshapen mouths with too many teeth, or just to leech some warmth from what seems to be the only source in the immediate vicinity. Most of them even lose interest in him when he only sits in silence and keeps to himself.
So it’s a surprise when a rustle of cloth sounds behind him, and Peter’s on his feet and whirling around, back to a wall and lips peeled back in a warning snarl. He didn’t even hear anyone sneak up on him, and even now, he can barely hear a heartbeat, like it’s not only a couple feet away.
A girl stands in front of him. Or what used to be a girl anyway. She’s dressed in rags and barely reaches his chest, and her hair is a tangled mess. Bulbous yellow eyes stare up at him, and half of her nose, right cheek, and the area around her mouth have lost all their flesh, leaving part of her skull visible instead. It’s a disconcerting sight, to say the least, and even more so when her lips part to speak and Peter can see right through the underside of her jaw.
“New?” She croaks, pointing at Peter.
Peter doesn’t respond. The girl doesn’t seem to care.
“Too bright,” She continues in the same guttural tone that reminds Peter of rusty hinges. “Your soul too bright. They’ll know.”
Unbidden, a chill runs down Peter’s spine. The girl’s head wobbles in a nod. “They’ll know.”
And then she’s gone, scurrying away down an alley, lost again in the shadows within seconds.
Peter stares after her, then slowly turns around again, only to freeze when he realizes that the fire - all the fires, even the handful of small ones he can just make out through the fog - is quickly being put out.
And the people. The people are clearing out, scuttling away into the dark like mice in the face of an approaching predator, their movements certain with the ease of long practice, like they’ve done this many times before, but still rushed in a way that speaks of urgency.
Peter tenses even further, and then follows their example and sinks back into the shadows himself, vaulting through a broken window to take refuge behind solid concrete instead.
He hears it, seconds later, sees it too - the clatter of horses’ hooves, and the phantom green light that always heralds the arrival of the Wild Hunt.
Peter hunkers down as low as possible, peering instead through a crack in the wall, and so he has front-row seats to the portal that bursts into existence out of the fog and thin air, and through it, three Ghost Riders on their mounts come crashing through, galloping in midair for several steps before hitting the ground still running. They tear through the decayed town, weaving in and out of sight between the buildings, hoofbeats like the drums of war, and then-
They stop, in the clearing, two, maybe three dozen feet from where Peter is crouching, and Peter knows what’s going to happen even before their heads turn and their black-hole eyes stare straight in his direction like they can see through concrete.
They can’t see. Peter knows this too, has known it for years, after so much time spent poring over every bestiary and tome and half-forgotten myth that humanity managed to record about the lost fae. He learned everything there was to know about them, and he knows they don’t see the way most other species do. They sense soul energy instead, because that’s what they feed on, that’s what they need to survive after being exiled from the Courts and cut off from the source of their magicks, and the girl’s words rush back to him all at once:
“Your soul too bright. They’ll know.”
Fuck. The other residents - changed by the air they have to breathe or maybe the never-ending fog hung heavy over the land - at least get some kind of camouflage out of it. If they manage to survive however much time it takes for their souls to whittle down into something more Other than human, they’re afforded some measure of safety in exchange.
But Peter is new here. And his soul is too bright.
He debates running. But nobody outruns the fae, not really.
(In his left hand, Stiles’ magic thrums like a pulse.)
Peter’s jaw sets, and he reaches into his coat, ignoring the faint tingle to his fingertips as he fishes out a gun loaded with special bullets just for the fae.
An Argent original, straight from the source. But it’s not like darling Kate’s ever going to need it again after he tore her throat open for the second and last time and left her ashes in a ditch.
The Ghost Riders pull their mounts around. Peter takes a deep breath and rises to his feet.
His first shot takes the lead Rider by surprise. It’s a near-perfect headshot, and it throws the Rider clean off their horse, a horrible screaming sound erupting from behind stitched lips even as their face blackens around the silver bullet lodged in their head.
Meanwhile, the suddenly riderless horse whinnies and stumbles into the horse next to it, almost knocking that Rider off balance and inadvertently saving them from Peter’s second bullet. Peter hisses a curse, fires off a third bullet at the other Rider still charging at him, and doesn’t wait around to see if it put them down for good before he spins on his heel and flees, and not a moment too soon because he barely gets a five-second lead before the wall he’d been crouching behind shatters in a rain of debris under iron hooves and the ear-splitting crack of a whip.
He needs higher ground and better cover. He can’t hide forever but he’s always been rather good at turning the tables in a game of cat-and-mouse.
He can’t die here. He won’t die here.
Stiles is waiting for him.
Peter is down to one Rider and zero bullets when he’s finally cornered. His thigh’s been cut open, and healing is slow. He’s fairly certain the Riders’ whips aren’t coated in wolfsbane but whatever magic runs through them is obviously more than enough to counter a werewolf’s healing factor. He’ll count himself lucky that he’s at least not been poisoned too. Hopefully.
Of course, that luck decides to run out when he’s forced to use the last of the bullets in his arsenal. He would’ve brought more, but it was difficult enough to get his hands on the ones he did have - forged from silver, packed with a toxic cocktail of several different strains of wolfsbane and poisonous metals, and blessed by monks - and Peter had really been hoping he wouldn’t have to use them all the first time he crossed paths with the Hunt again.
Sadly, that hope has clearly suffered a premature death.
But he still has his fangs and claws, and that will have to be enough. He checks his thigh one more time - at least the bleeding is a sluggish thing now - and then readies himself as he listens to the furious drum of hoofbeats heading directly for him.
The whip comes first, and Peter just barely dodges it, so close that he feels the heat of the lash sear past his temple, but it misses, and then he’s past it and throwing his whole weight into the next strike, shoving his claws into the horse’s throat and chest for better purchase before wrenching the animal clean off its feet with a roar.
The horse goes down with a shrill scream, and its rider topples with it, too slow to jump off. Peter yanks back his claws and immediately leaps for the fallen fae, only to get a chestful of green flames that eats straight through the front of his clothes. Peter swears and rolls away, scrambling back to his feet and sparing a second for relief when the fire sputters out on its own, not strong enough to do more than lick a few minor burns across his chest before they’re gone.
He ignores the uncomfortable tug of his newest injuries, more occupied with putting some distance between himself and the Rider, who’s also back on their feet, their horse still bleeding black on the ground.
Black-hole eyes swing around to face him, and one of their gloved hands clenches around their whip. Peter bares his fangs in return, and for a moment, the two of them only circle each other, looking for a weakness to exploit.
Peter doesn’t know if he’ll be able to dodge the whip a second time, although at least he knows to expect the fire too this time. But if he does get past both, then he’s pretty sure it wouldn’t be too hard to take the Rider down. Even a fae can’t do much if Peter succeeds in ripping their head off.
It happens in an instant. The Rider shifts their weight, and then their whip is snapping out almost too fast for Peter to follow. He throws himself to the side, gritting his teeth when he feels the lash of it bite into clothes and into the flesh of his arm, but at least it doesn’t catch him.
The moment his feet find purchase on the ground again, he’s lunging forward, determined to power through the flames that are already flaring in the Rider’s other hand. He knows he can survive them, and the burns will be worth the Rider’s permanent death.
He doesn’t expect his target to literally burst into flames.
His line of sight floods with eerie green light, and then the heat slams into him, and for an endless terrible moment, he’s burning and burning and burning.
A howl tears itself from his throat even as he thrashes, lashing out with his claws, and even he isn’t certain if the futile reaction is his attempt to kill the fae or a reflex as he tries to shake the flames off himself. All he knows is that his hands grasp nothing, passing through the vaguely humanoid figure made of flame as his flesh melts and peels away, and all the while, soulless eyes stare down at him, somehow triumphant even in their detached indifference.
He can’t die yet though.
He hasn’t found Stiles yet.
He can’t die.
Magic bursts from his left hand, gold and bright, and a moment later, he finds himself on his hands and knees, gasping for breath but no longer on fire. Sparks of gold light dance over his skin, easing the pain slowly healing the burns.
Healing the burns.
Something about that strikes him as odd, but he’s distracted by the scrape of boots against cement, and somewhere in there, he finds the energy to lift his head just in time to witness the Ghost Rider become corporeal again, half-turned away like… like they want to flee.
A second after that, they’re speared right through the neck by a literal bolt of gold lightning that leaves a smoking hole through their throat and slams into the ground beside them, scattering stone and debris everywhere.
The Ghost Rider though. The threads sewing their lips shut pull taut as their mouth gapes open in a silent scream. A second, two, and then they just… crumple. Their body collapses into sand or dust, and even their clothes dissolve soon after, all of it carried off on an invisible wind.
Peter pushes to his feet. Half his clothes are in burnt tatters, and he’s still burned in quite a few places, but he’s healing.
His gaze snaps back down to his left hand, the spark of magic in his palm now pulsing like a beacon, brighter than he’s ever seen it, which means-
Where had that lightning come from?
Peter whirls around, and-- there. Perched on a broken slab of concrete that must’ve once been part of a building, like a splotch of ink against a drab grey canvas, a figure dressed in dark clothes is facing him, and Peter is running before it’s even a conscious decision in his mind.
“Stiles!” Peter blurts out as he skids to a wavering halt a few feet away. “You- Are you-”
The figure does not reply. They don’t disappear, or run, still as stone and about as expressive. Because they’re wearing a mask, like white porcelain, and completely blank, no eye-holes, no face, just a symbol scratched off-center that looks vaguely like an S.
The rest of them is mostly covered. Dark coat pulled tight around bony shoulders, dark pants, cuffs frayed and worn, and dark boots smudged with dirt. They have no real scent, and their heartbeat - like every other resident here - blends with the world like background noise.
But Peter also catches a glimpse of an old plaid-patterned shirt under their coat collar, and the gloves they’re wearing are dark but also lit up from within with the same gold light still glowing in the palm of Peter’s hand.
And their hair. If nothing else, their hair is the same, same colour, same length, same style, a piece of time preserved. Peter would recognize it anywhere. Maybe it wouldn’t be enough for some people, but Peter… Peter’s certain, knows who this is down to his bones.
“Stiles,” He repeats, slightly unnerved by the silence but refusing to look away, some irrational part of him terrified of the idea that Stiles would be gone if he takes his eyes off the figure. “You- I’m sorry it took me so long. There was some issues on the other side, but I never stopped trying to find a way back here.” He hesitates and thinks of the other residents in this world. “...Are you alright? Are you hurt?”
For a long minute, silence continues to reign, deafening in its intensity. Peter’s getting a crick in his neck, and he’s on the verge of just reaching up and hauling Stiles into his arms because damn it it has been six years and Peter needs to have Stiles solid and present under his hands.
Stiles finally moves, just a little, a shift of weight as he sits down properly, legs swinging down to hang off the edge. “...You shouldn’t have come back.”
His voice comes out in a gravelly croak, but it’s Stiles, and Peter has to swallow hard even as he takes another few steps forward, only stopping once he’s within touching distance. He doesn’t reach out, but it’s a close thing.
“I promised,” Peter replies, equally hoarse. He brushes absently at some ash stuck to his skin, and then still when Stiles’ fingers twitch, and fluttering gold like a butterfly’s wings swoop forward to wind around his arm, erasing the ash as it goes.
“You shouldn’t have come back,” Stiles repeats.
Peter rolls his eyes. “You already said that. And as I said, I promised. I couldn’t-” He hesitates, wondering if it’s the best thing to say, but then, Stiles has probably already at least guessed. “I couldn’t convince Scott and the others that you were still in here, that they had to get you back, and by the time I decided I’d do it on my own, the Hunt had already moved on. It took me a long time to catch up, but I promised I would get you out.”
He’s a liar through and through, but the rare few times when he actually promises, he’d have to be dead first before he breaks his word.
He glances down at himself again, at the remaining burns that are barely visible now. “But… you found a way out a long time ago, didn’t you?”
Because last Peter checked, Stiles’ Spark still wasn’t strong enough to counter the Ghost Riders’ flames. That was the main reason Stiles was forced to stay behind six years ago.
Another hush swells between them. Stiles’ legs swing a bit, bootheels thudding dully against the wall.
“...It took me a while,” Stiles finally rasps out. “At first, I just... waited.” Peter has to suppress a flinch. “Then I started losing time so I tried to find something to occupy myself with. I didn’t have anything but my magic, so I started trying to figure out other stuff I could do.”
His head tilts as if he’s looking at his surroundings. Peter doesn’t know if he can actually see through the mask, or if he’s just using his magic somehow in lieu of his eyes.
He tries not to think about why Stiles might need his magic to see for him.
“I found this place first,” Stiles gestures half-heartedly with one hand. “Opened a door and came out here instead of back into the train station. There were… some people here already. They stayed because they got to keep their minds but...”
He trails off, and a rough sound scratches out of his throat, an attempt at a laugh that falls short.
“By the time I got strong enough to heal from fae magic,” Stiles continues, then stops again and shrugs, and Peter’s attention flickers briefly to the abnormal ripple across Stiles’ back, like something under his coat was moving in a way the average human body shouldn’t be able to. He looks back at Stiles’ masked face, and somehow, he gets the sense of a mirthless smile behind it.
“You shouldn’t have come back,” Stiles says for a third time. “I’m fine here. I’ve been fine. Sometimes, I even get to kill a few fae. It’s not so bad anymore. So if you have a way out, then you should-”
Peter snarls, and Stiles falls abruptly silent.
“If you think,” Peter says in low, flat tones, his wolf rumbling in his chest. “For one second that I’m leaving here without you, then you’re more insane than I ever was.”
And this time, he doesn’t falter. This time, his hand shoots out, closes around Stiles’ arm, and yanks.
Stiles releases a muted yelp, like something half-forgotten, startled out of him, and then he’s crashing into Peter’s chest, and Peter’s other arm comes around to curl across his back like a steel band.
Under his arm, under Stiles’ coat, something shifts again, like extra appendages protruding from his back.
Stiles stands frozen against him, and like this, Peter has a perfect view of the grey skin under Stiles’ coat, disappearing under his shirt and behind the porcelain mask.
“I can’t go back with you,” Stiles whispers. The edge of his mask is cold against Peter’s cheek. “Not even my magic can- can change me back. I’ve tried. I waited and waited and waited, but I couldn’t keep my body from changing, and going back to the station would’ve just changed me worse and-”
Peter’s arms tighten, Stiles’ voice stutters to nothing, and for a long moment, Peter just hugs him, ignoring the way Stiles’ body remains limp and cold against him.
When he finally pulls back, he keeps one hand pressed against Stiles’ lower back even as he raises his other to brush against the S on the mask.
Stiles flinches. Peter doesn’t retreat. “Stiles. Let me see.”
It takes almost three minutes before he receives a shaky approximation of a nod from him, and then, slowly, carefully, he eases the mask from Stiles’ face.
He does not recoil when pitch black eyes stare back at him. They’re thankfully not like the fae’s at all, they’re still eyes, just completely black from pupil to sclera. His skin is grey but not like they’ve been drained of all moisture, everything still smooth and as young as the day Peter had to leave him behind. His lips are the same tint of grey and seem thinner than Peter remembers-- too thin now to hide the fangs - more shark than wolf - protruding from his mouth.
Stiles jerks back a little, chin dipping like he wants to hide. Peter cradles his face in his hands instead, fingertips brushing over what feels like tiny spines along the back of his neck, before gently but firmly coaxing Stiles’ black gaze back up to meet his own.
“Still gorgeous, sweetheart.”
Stiles’ jaw hangs open for several seconds, and his eyes go wide. Then something like a laugh and a sob, all wrapped up in hysteria, bursts from his throat, and a moment after that, Peter finds himself with an armful of Stiles.
His hands splay over the boy’s back, and he definitely can’t mistake whatever is hiding under his coat. Wings, probably.
“I can’t go back like this though,” Stiles tells him, fervent and despairing. “I can’t reverse it, and illusions don’t work, I’ve tried. And if- if I have to live the rest of my life in the middle of nowhere away from everything, and it’s been so long, I might as well just- just stay here-”
“Stiles,” Peter cuts him off and pulls back just to give him a reprimanding look. “I’ve spent six years looking for a way to get you out.” A flash of red the colour of blood flits through Stiles’ otherwise black eyes. Peter doesn’t blink. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have a way, and three contingencies behind that. Trust me to know what I’m doing, okay?”
Stiles stares at him, and Peter can read the fear there now, like he’s a miracle Stiles is unwilling to believe in. Then he swallows, and his teeth click together before he says tremulously, “Only three?”
Peter blinks. Then snorts as Stiles grins back with too many teeth, and for just a few seconds, everything feels a little brighter.
“It’s going to be alright,” Peter tells him. “All you have to do is come back with me.”
The mask clatters to the ground. Neither of them picks it up again.
Stiles does have wings, as it turns out. He sheds his coat with only a little reluctance, revealing white cobweb-like bone wings with a thin layer of leathery grey skin grown over it.
“They’re useless though,” Stiles mutters. “I’m too heavy for them. I mean they can slow my fall a bit if I jump from somewhere high, but I can’t fly with them.” He gives himself a shake, and his wings shake with him. “So? What’s your plan then?”
Right. Peter’s plan, to get them out.
“The train stations,” Peter explains. “They’re basically dimension pockets of every location the Wild Hunt erases from reality. Their victims sit there until the Hunt drains them dry, but they don’t age. They become undead once their souls are gone, but they don’t die of old age, and it’s not because their souls are taken before their bodies expire. Each dimension is frozen outside of reality’s timestream, and in theory, if we can get back to the station you, and I, were first taken into, and then leave that station through that rift, which you can now apparently do, we should land right back where that rift first opened. Back in time. Back before your body started changing. Six years ago.”
He’d done his research, tracked down every thread and rumour he could find, and patched it all together. This will work. It has to.
Stiles is staring at him again. “...I’m gonna skip the whole time travel plot and pretend that actually makes sense, and just ask how you plan to find that train station again. Does it even still exist? Are the Riders using it for another location they’ve erased? You do know it may have been six years for you but time doesn’t pass the same way in here, right? And oh my god, Peter, time travel, are you serious-”
He shuts up when Peter taps a finger to the corner of his lips. An instinctive sort of growl bubbles up in response, and it makes Peter smirk. It’s good to see Stiles is still in there. The distant, hollow creature from earlier felt more dead than alive.
“It’s not exactly time travel,” Peter explains calmly. “Think of it… like an actual train station. Every station is a time period on the same route, which means the train we take should be able to get us to the time period we want sooner or later.”
Stiles’ eyes narrow. “And where exactly are we gonna find this hypothetical train?”
Peter grins and raises his left hand where Stiles’ magic still glows. Stiles goes still. “Why, right here, sweetheart. Your magic came through the rift with me. Before I left Beacon Hills, I tethered it to the magical residue that that rift left behind. It’s a unique signature. Fae magic just doesn’t belong in our world’s dimension, and that means it can’t be very easily countered, but it also means it’s a lot easier to pick out.”
Stiles is blinking rapidly, mind no doubt racing to fit all the puzzle pieces together. His knowledge of magical theory is of course nowhere near as advanced as Peter’s, but even pieces are enough for him to make the correct leaps. It’s one of Peter’s favourite things about him.
“But… residue,” Stiles frowns. “Residue fades sooner or later, and once it’s gone, the tether would’ve gone with it.”
Peter shrugs nonchalantly. “Not if I anchored it with something even more powerful.”
It only takes Stiles another second to understand. He makes a hissing sound, a little like a snake, while his scent spikes with concern. “The Nemeton?”
Peter smiles sharply. “Don’t worry, I’ve already promised it something in exchange.”
Stiles’ wings flare with agitation. “You’re not-”
Peter runs a soothing hand over one bristly wing, and Stiles shivers under his touch but calms. “Of course not. Who do you think I am? Certainly not someone who would sacrifice himself so soon after getting what they want.”
Stiles’ wings flutter, and pitch eyes peer at him like they’re gauging his intent.
“Stile,” Peter breathes. “Trust me.”
Stiles looks away, then back, and then claw-tipped hands - ungloved - curl gently around Peter’s own. Peter waits patiently, and he’s rewarded a minute later when Stiles mumbles, “I thought you weren’t coming back. I really, really thought you’d left me behind for good. But then I saw you and-”
He chokes, and Peter doesn’t even care when he gets clipped by a wing, not when he also gets Stiles in his lap, shuddering with tears that won’t come.
“You’re my pack, Stiles,” Peter says, and it’s the first time he’s ever acknowledged it to anyone out loud, but it settles in the air around them with the weight of an immutable truth. “I’ll always come back.”
In the end, it’s easier than even Peter expects. All he really has to do is focus, and the tug of Stiles’ magic tethered through time, still latched onto a rift frozen outside of reality’s timestream by the Nemeton, perfectly preserved, leads them straight to the station platform they need to return to.
Stiles drifts uneasily at his back, pressing even closer when they push open a set of doors and emerge in a familiar train station full of blank-eyed people all out of time.
Now they just have to wait for the next time the Riders come through.
“What if I still look like this on the other side?” Stiles’ voice is small as he curls into Peter’s side, one wing wrapped obliviously around Peter’s shoulders. Peter is very careful not to bring attention to the gesture.
“You won’t,” Peter says confidently, and he is confident about it, as confident as he can be. “But even if you do, then we’ll find a way to hide it so that you can still interact with other people, and when we’re alone, you’ll never have to hide at all.”
Stiles doesn’t reply to that, but his hand tightens around Peter’s.
It feels like hours. Days maybe. But eventually, the thunder of hoofbeats grow louder and louder, people in the train station begin to stir, and as Peter and Stiles rise to their feet as well, green flames gather and then explode outward into a very familiar rift.
Even six years later, Peter can recognize the woods on the other side.
Beside him, Stiles’ wings snap out, and when Peter glances over, his face is suddenly sharper, fangs elongating, the black of his eyes staining the area around them like spilled ink, and his grey skin turns even greyer, ash to winter storm clouds.
People begin to scream as the Wild Hunt tears through the station. Stiles’ hand grasps his like a lifeline, and Peter returns the grip with equal strength.
They run, straight towards the rift, right behind the last of the Riders, and even having been burnt so many times, Peter doesn’t hesitate.
They’re almost home, and this time, he has Stiles.
They throw themselves into the rift together.
There is a moment of heat, but this time, Peter does not burn. For a moment that feels like a small eternity, there is nothing but silence and gold light all around him.
And then he hits the forest floor and automatically tucks Stiles into his chest as they roll a few times through the dirt with the momentum of their leap. Peter only has time to catch a glimpse of a Rider’s corpse-like face turning towards them, and then Stiles is slapping a hand against the ground, and a web of gold lines spring into existence, shooting off in every direction to erase the town from the Riders’ memories for a second time, and a first time, and a last time.
The rift closes. The Riders disappear. Peter can hear voices in the distance.
He also gets one glorious moment of Stiles - all mole-dotted moon-pale skin again and amber eyes just a touch too gold to truly pass for human - staring down at him with an expression of something wild and bottomless and utterly incandescent. And then large warm hands are cupping his face, and hungry lips are catching his own, and by the time Scott and his fellowship of idiots burst into the clearing, Peter has Stiles plastered against him, each of them doing their level best to devour the other’s mouth.
Twenty-four hours after the threat of the Wild Hunt has well and truly passed, Scott frantically calls a pack meeting together to inform them all that he is no longer an Alpha. More than one accusing look is thrown Peter’s way, but everybody knows what - or rather who - Peter’s been doing since he and Stiles came back through the rift.
(Nobody can understand Stiles’ complete lack of fucks to give when it comes to their opinions. Scott wailed about how evil Peter was and how could Stiles do this to him for a full thirty minutes before he realized Stiles wasn’t even listening, and the Sheriff has been feeling guilty enough that he accepted Stiles’ lie about needing to stay close to Peter for a while after the magical mojo he performed to get them both back alive without much fuss.)
The point is, even Peter hasn’t had time to do anything nefarious so he couldn’t possibly be responsible for this latest development.
Peter keeps a remarkably straight face through Scott’s panicked complaints, and Stiles has to have guessed what happened but he spends most of the meeting dozing with his head in Peter’s lap.
Peter honestly couldn’t be happier.
Later, once Scott exhausted himself and was placated with the idea that perhaps Deaton could fix whatever’s gone wrong, and the pack went their separate ways again, the only question Stiles asks is, “But how?”
Cuddled together in bed in Stiles’ room, Peter hums thoughtfully at the ceiling. “Do you know how the first Hale Alpha came to be?”
It’s rhetorical, because nobody knows anymore except him. Derek and Cora would’ve been too young to have learned all of the family history. And any written record of it burned with the house.
“Legend has it - and in this case, there’s obviously some truth to it - that the first Hale werewolf who stumbled onto this territory was a beta, and he made a pact with the local Nemeton. In exchange for enough power to keep his family safe, he swore that the Hale Pack would live and die for this land, that his generation and every generation to come would protect it with everything they have. The Nemeton accepted, and in exchange, that Hale gained an Alpha spark, the same one that’s been passed down from parent to eldest child for centuries.”
Peter sighs, and then smiles a little when Stiles slings a leg over his. “Then Kate happened, and Laura deserted, and Derek and Cora both left, more than once. And I haven’t exactly prioritized protecting Beacon Hills either. The Hales have failed their duty, more than once, some of it our fault, some of it not, but the Nemeton only cares about results. We’ve failed, too many times, and so, when Derek gave up his Alpha spark to save Cora, instead of going to her or even me, it was passed on to Scott, one of the only other two werewolves present at the time who called Beacon Hills home, and considering Isaac’s less than ideal childhood here, it’s not a surprise that the Nemeton decided Scott had a better claim. Plus, Scott was turned a month earlier than Isaac so he had seniority, even if it wasn’t by much.”
“So the True Alpha thing…?”
Peter scoffs. “Fairy tales. I’m still not sure what Deaton’s been playing at, but there’s nothing special about not killing to become an Alpha. There would be a lot more parricide if that was the case.”
Stiles snorts. “Yeah, that’s a good point. I always thought it sounded fishy.”
Peter makes a noise of agreement. “Besides, Scott hasn’t exactly lived up to his Alpha status either. He thinks he has, but too many people have died on his watch, the Nemeton has been left unguarded, and the forests haven’t been properly walked and patrolled since my pack burned. That’s partly because he has no idea what he’s doing, and Deaton hasn’t explained anything to him, but his personal decisions have also been largely selfish or foolish or both, so of course the Nemeton would find him lacking too.
“So I offered it a bargain. If it could tie the rift to the land until it opens a second time, I - as a Hale - would release the land back into the Nemeton’s care. And with it of course went the Hales’ Alpha spark, because that spark has always just been another part of the land.” He smirks, wide and vindictive. “And that, sweetheart, is why Scott is no longer an Alpha.”
Stiles is quiet for a few minutes before nodding against Peter’s shoulder. “That makes a lot more sense. But Scott’s never gonna believe it.”
Peter snorts. “Of course not. Lucky for us, it’s not our responsibility to convince him. Or babysit him.”
He glances at Stiles, who rolls his eyes. “No more babysitting, I’m too old for that shit.” He rolls until he’s draped over Peter’s body, humming a languid noise of content, much to Peter’s delight. “I just- I’m gonna test out of high school as soon as possible, and then I just wanna get away for a while.” He peeks up at Peter through a fan of dark lashes. “With you, maybe?”
Peter scoffs again and thinks, fiercely, joyously, triumphantly, that six years of chasing the Hunt and burning again-- that every minute of it was worth it when Stiles is what he gets in return.
“Just try and stop me, sweetheart.”