23 days into his captivity, the metal file finally cut through the rest of the lock of that miserable little prison.
The scraggly haired young man stumbled out of his windowless hell of room, looking both ways, staring with incomprehension at all the empty and empty beds down the deteriorating hall.
Then, rising from the depths of the old lumber building, a deep, insistent sound emerged—a horn, loud unmerciful, signaling the sound of a new hunt.
It was then that Stiles Stilinski learned that his way out wasn’t earned, bitterly chased. It was planted. And he?
Well, he was screwed.
In high school, Stiles starved for attention. Craved it, needed it, and got himself all the wrong kinds. He hadn’t the foresight at the time to know why. In the end, it made him bitter and angry, feeling like a short person trying to jump up and be seen in a crowd of giants.
Stiles was human. He might as well put that out there, right? Because it was relevant. Stiles was human, part of the dominant species, one of over 6 billion on the planet. It was a point of pride to be one… to some. But it was hard to remember that when nearly everyone around him started showing off their secondary development characteristics. You know, the ones that got their records changed from homo sapiens sapiens to homo sapiens supernaturalis? The ones that turned asthmatic nerds into lacrosse champions?
You know the one.
It was the difference of four key genes, tiny microscopic things, and yet… it made so much difference. Lydia was a banshee, Scott was a werewolf, Danny was an emissary. Even Jackson freaking Whittemore was a kanima, one of the rarest creatures. He would have lorded it over all them too, if it hadn’t also meant he was in the habit of falling in and out of complete obedience to people.
And, sure, people were prejudiced against supernaturalis… Stiles understood that. Academically. There was centuries of the discrimination on the books, and supernaturalis scholars were reclaiming more of it everyday, taking back more history that was lost to the human ego. Even the whole label of “homo sapiens supernaturalis” was a blatant holdover from darker times, a handy and government sanctioned way to dehumanize a tiny section of humanity. And yet…
It didn’t seem that way at Beacon Hills High? Supernaturalis weren’t vilified. If anything, they were put up on pedestals, made into role models, and for Stiles, well…
That didn’t help, did it? Because he needed attention, he needed to be heard. So Stiles found himself always trying to outshine them all, and his dad too—the Sheriff of Beacon Hills. He was always trying to get himself known for something other than his relationships with these people. Love them, he did, but he hated standing in their shadows. It made him so frustrated and annoyed, he could hardly stand it.
But maybe it wasn’t attention he was seeking after all, but rather severance. Because the second he went into college, all that pent up anger vanished.
Because no one knew him at college. He was Mr. Nobody. Student Number 53 in a class of three hundred. That kid who lived down the hall.
And he loved it. That in itself confused him. He tried to break it down a few times to his baffled dad or Scott’s sympathetic ear. Even with Lydia over Skype, he found himself hitting a wall, not having the words to really explain the whole shift, how he went from craving attention to being ecstatic that he was getting none.
The best way he knew how to describe it was that he’d lost some… notoriety going to college. He was no longer the “Sheriff’s kid”. No longer the hyperactive spazz who projectile-vomited onto the principal in third grade. No longer the buzz cut freshman who kind of on accident, kind of on purpose caused a school-wide panic and evacuation over a misused Bunsen burner. He was no longer the loud mouthy human in a pack of supernaturalis.
He just… was. A face in a crowd. A number on his professor’s attendance sheet. He’d gone from being infamous by accident and design to being unknown in the blink of an eye, and anonymity was really working for him. It took a weight off his shoulders, a desperation out of his gait. He no longer had to live up to himself, no longer had to shout over his friends and dad, and that was…
He had no other words to describe it. Only a long list of benefits that kept popping up out of the woodwork. He’d mellowed. He didn’t stick his neck out anymore. He looked both ways before crossing a street. He even learned to keep his mouth shut, which had a wonderful impact on his grades. He was happy.
As he raced towards graduation, he was starting to fully embracing the anonymity, even enjoying it a little too much. He liked the way he could stand in the corner of a room and at a party and have people swear they didn’t know if he was there or not.
Mr. Nobody. In sophomore year, that was what he dressed up as for Halloween, a private joke to himself. He wore his normal clothes in muted colors and his only concession to the holiday was a white, featureless mask.
No one got the joke. Then again, they weren’t supposed to. They quickly forgot and even that too pleased Stiles. It was like that phrase—the nail that stuck up got hammered down, right? He reveled in not being noticed.
Too much, maybe. Because he’d stopped noticing people notice him at one point. At the worst point. And by the time he was clued in, it was already too late.
Thinking back, Stiles acknowledged that the signs had been there for a while. This frustrated him in a dull, defeated way. Could’ve, should’ve, didn’t. All he could think right now was that he should have connected the dots better than this. But he didn’t, and now he was on a cot, flipping his roommate Greenberg’s school ID through his trembling, dirt crusted fingers.
His eyes never left the padlocked door.
But now that he was thinking about it, the first red flag was… the blackout, wasn’t it? Yes, it was probably then. That was back in mid-September. He was in his dorm, free as a bird. The lights went out as he was walking down to the communal dorm kitchen. The entire building erupted into echoing sound—some cries of dismay, others surprise. Still others shouted with laughter. It didn’t take long for the RAs to assemble, relentlessly scolding their classmates and cracking down on the few who immediately went to light candles.
Not wanting to deal with his own RA, the prick, Stiles stumbled the rest of the way to the kitchen, thinking only of the sliding glass door to freedom, the relatively bright night ahead. He planned to wait outside until the lights came on again. It was cold, yes, but not that cold.
He slipped into the kitchen, groping at the wall. The glass door was already open, the blinds swinging gently in front of it, cutting into, obscuring, and revealing the bright night with every sway.
Stiles stilled at the sound of breathing.
“Hello?” Stiles squinted into the dark room, the different shadows castmade by appliances and chairs and the one rogue couch in the corner. Irritated at the person’s lack of response, Stiles pawed at his pocket for his phone and the light it would provide.
“You’re not supposed to leave the door open,” Stiles groused, fingers closing around his cell and pulling it out.
Then the breathing stopped. A hand slid over the back his neck, soft at first and then with nails. Yelping, Stiles dropped his phone and swung back with an elbow. He hit… something, but by the time Stiles grabbed his phone and turned it on, the person was gone, running footsteps heading up the hallway.
Stiles raced after the suspect until he was caught by not one, but three supernaturalis RAs, who escorted him back to his room with lectures about safety hazards and running around in the dark. They dismissed his blustered explanation, citing pranksters and nothing more when he pressed his case.
It didn’t sit well with him. It lingered. At one point, Stiles even told his suitemates. They laughed at him too, trivializing it. At one point, hearing himself, he stopped rubbing his hands over his face and started snickering about it too. How dumb it was, he’d tell classmates. There was much better ways to spook someone in the dark than feeling up their neck—water balloons, cold cans of soda, sudden obnoxious shrieks from inches away...
But in the dead of night, staring up at his dorm room ceiling… he just couldn’t shake it. He couldn’t trivialize the menace he’d felt being in a dark room with someone, not knowing who she or he was. Not knowing what they were thinking. Not knowing if touching Stiles was least violent of their plans and if they were shelving the other possibilities in their head for later.
Sometime later was another incident. It was in his dorm. Stiles stood in his boxers, brushing his teeth, still well fed and fairly reassured of his relative continued freedoms. He stared down at his erasable calendar—the last productive purchase he made before coming into college. It was a big thing, a four-month calendar, and it took up much of the space on his room door.
His current set of suitemates had jumped onto the idea of using it this year when he pulled it out of a bag. They were all juniors and feeling the crunch of time more than ever.
Everyone had the best of intentions the first couple of days of school. But even now, a few weeks in, that was slipping. The calendar had seen more dick pics and graffiti than it ever had before. But it was still pretty helpful. Already, it was solving disputes for when girlfriends or boyfriends or friends or hookups were allowed to happen in their shared space. It was great for figuring out work schedules, and they already had codes for sexiling, partying, and studying. The guys were great about respecting any panicked exclamation points added to an event. He’d give them that.
Stiles wasn’t really friends with most of the people he dormed with—never had been—but this group of guys was actually pretty solid. Good guys, all of them. All human too, though that didn’t matter. In any case, Stiles was a-okay with sharing his shit with people, as long as he knew they weren’t assholes. These guys weren’t, hence the shared food. Hence the shared consoles. Hence the shared calendar. Hell, Stiles had even shared clothes with them before, and he was very particular about his hoodies.
So when someone erased his plans on the calendar, Stiles didn’t immediately think one of the guys did it. He just stood there, brushing his teeth, staring at it.
Each day was split up into fourths—one for him and each of his suitemates. Everyone had an assigned color, and no one was allowed to erase anything until the end of the calendar. It was first come, first serve—that was the rule.
And on November 2nd, Stiles’ reservation of the living room had been neatly erased and replaced with the word OUT in red letters.
Red. His mind was stuck on that, wasn’t it? The dry erase markers Stiles handed out in the beginning were blue, purple, black, and green. Even so, there had to be a red marker somewhere, right? Even if Stiles hadn’t provided it. His roommate Greenberg had used it on the calendar himself, right before he went back home a few weeks ago.
Remembering Greenberg’s own eerie OUT, followed by a harsh line to the end of the month, Stiles shook his head. He erased it and rewrote his Skype date with Scott on November 2nd. He’d claimed the living room first and he’d be damned before his reservation was snatched up by anyone else.
Despite this momentary bit of temper, Stiles practically forgot this had happened at all, school and work whisking the memory right out of his head. That is, until the very next day.
Because by the next day, every plan he’d made that month had been erased. All it said in his section was OUT OUT OUT all the way until the end of the month. All the way to the end of the year.
He found his own marker on the floor, snapped in half.
Stiles angrily confronted his suitemates, and half the people down the hall. All he got was blank looks and denials. Frustrated, he ripped the calendar down and never used it again. He forgot eventually.
Three weeks after the fact, Greenberg was declared missing. He never made it home.
The announcement about Greenberg hung like a cloud over their suite. They barely talked to each other anymore. Classes dragged on and on, and, through them, Stiles felt like he was being pushed closer and closer to the edge of a cliff.
He came back to his dorm one day and found all of his books rearranged on his desk. Half of his toiletries had been packed as well as his pajamas and shoes.
Stiles did the right thing—he immediately went to the campus police. However, that conversation derailed quickly when they came inside “Chez Dormpad”. Yes, okay, he had been thinking about starting to pack for his Thanksgiving holiday. No, he hadn’t drank all the energy drinks in the corner—that was a combined effort of four, now three, stressed out guys trying to get through college. No, his suitemates weren’t messing with him.
No, he wasn’t just being paranoid.
After Stiles demanded if they had even one extra sensory supernaturalis on their team to do their job for them, the tour abruptly ended. The campus security made an insincere promise to check up on him, Stiles gritting his teeth all the while. But their work had been done. Where Stiles had pure certainty, there was now only doubt.
He tried to ignore it, weaning himself off of sugar and sweets and energy drinks. He even got his sleeping schedule back on track, but the feeling of being hunted wouldn’t go away. Halloween passed quietly into November. He didn’t bother celebrating it.
November 1st, someone knocked a shoulder against his in the scramble to leave class. Stiles had dropped literally everything he carried in his attempt to spring away. This drew stares. When Stiles had finally picked up everything, he sprinted back to his dorm, skipping his next two classes. He shook for hours after. He ended up leaving entirely, spending the night at his friend Allison’s house.
Allison was kind and friendly and fun. She was also a supernaturalis, a revenant, a fact that hadn’t been known until one of her anti-supernaturalis relatives stabbed her in the heart with a knife. She’d gone to a public school, like Stiles, and had many supernaturalis friends, like Stiles. She didn’t take kindly to people demonizing her friends and had been quite vocal about it until the end.
In their attempt to destroy her voice, the one weak link in their family’s united front, they made her into something much stronger and, in doing so, shattered the whole family.
Nowadays, Chris loomed around his daughter like an avenging angel, ready to strike down anyone who sought to take Allison away from him again. But a grizzly, overprotective father wasn’t why Stiles felt safe at Allison’s house.
Stiles felt safe because he could look in Allison’s gray-toned brown eyes and know that she was a person who had felt the height of fear, helplessness, and betrayal. Not only did she feel all that, but here she was, functioning as a normal—eating, going to school, talking with friends, living.
Maybe Stiles wasn’t a revenant, but seeing a person emerge on the other side of the fear and anxiety he felt was somehow inherently… comforting. Even if their circumstances weren’t remotely the same. Even if he couldn’t bring himself to open up.
They did other things instead. They hung out, eating pizza and playing video games and arguing over their shared stats homework.
It was nice.
The next afternoon saw him back at his dorm. He slammed the door shut on his Jeep. The cold morning air swirled with heat of his breath. The gray sky hovered low above him, clouds heavy with the promise of rain.
He remembered wanting it to rain.
Shivering, Stiles hurried up the steps to his building. His eyes jumped up, seeking and finding the closest camera. He swiped his card in the front door, catching the handle as it popped free. Stiles took a deep breath, letting out a massive sigh. He just wanted to face plant in a bed.
The girl manning the front desk put a pin in that. “Stiles!” she called out. Stiles swung in her direction sluggishly, squinting. She was a sophomore, bright eyed and unbowed by the weight of school books and impending “true” adulthood. Long brown hair was pulled into a loose pony tail, emphasizing an impressive jawline. Stiles might have worked with her once in a general ed class, but her name was escaping him.
“Hey,” he drawled out awkwardly, making a face. He stopped just in front of her counter, restlessly stroking it.
She didn’t seem to notice his discomfort or guilt. “Someone’s looking for you.” She then described someone who could have been Stiles himself—tall, but not too tall. Young, but not too young. White and dark haired and carrying a backpack.
He didn’t give his name. Stiles waved it off, leaning forward enough to finally catch her own—Hayden Romero—on the top of her homework.
“No worries, Hayden, uh…” Stiles smiled blankly, knocking on her counter with his knuckles. “Thank you,” he said. Hayden’s smile wavered at that, but he tried not to take it personally.
He quickly headed to the stairs and up to his dorm. Once inside, he locked the door behind him. He calmed at the familiar set up of the communal space—dubious couches covered with school spirit themed blankets. Low kitchen counters glowing a faintly sickly yellow. The pneumatic wheeze of their elderly fridge. The nicest thing there was easily the flat screen TV and the hundreds of dollars of video games and electronics just below it.
All of it—the good, the bad, and the ugly—he loved. It wasn’t this place he wanted to leave. It wasn’t school he wanted to run away from. He just wanted to turn his brain off and stop being so damn jumpy. Was that too much?
Stiles rubbed his templates tiredly. Maybe it was. He knew, logically, that nothing was happening. That he was seeing patterns into things that wasn’t there. The stress, he figured, had to be getting to him. It might be time to take a term off if his brain was busy inventing monsters around corner.
Bumped by the thought, hHe dropped his bag by the door and shuffled to the comforting embrace of his tiny bed.
It was peaceful there. Nice. Nothing had changed in his dorm while he was away, and the other two guys were out working. It was very quiet and still, just the way he liked it.
Groaning, Stiles shifted on the bed, stretching out on his stomach to precariously reach for his laptop, sitting dark and silent on his desk. He strained for it, bracing a hand on his chair before he was able to successfully grab the corner of it.
He lifted it to him then, triumphant. Then he saw movement out of the corner of his eye, a shadow crossing his third story window. He instantly dropped the laptop, cracking the screen.
He scrambled to his feet, nearly falling on his face. Lunging to the window, Stiles wrenched it open. The cold fall air assaulted him instantly. He saw no one. At first.
In front of him, the fire escape was vibrating. But that didn’t mean anything, right? It did the same when a faint breeze came through. Or when someone played loud music.
Or when someone climbed up the ladder.
But there was no one there. If someone had been, there was no way they could have disappeared so fast. Even if a supernaturalis jumped off the fire escape or spread their wings to fly, they wouldn’t have been able to move fast enough to dodge Stiles.
Stiles leaned over the windowsill, eyes sweeping back and forth. Half-convinced already he had seen something, he leaned far out over the fire escape. There was nothing on the right side of the landing.
On the left, his suitemate’s window was open.
The faintest brush of warm air skated over the back of his neck. His door creaked open.
He never had a chance.
Something shifted outside of his prison, startling him out of his thoughts. Stiles stopped navel gazing, stopped reminiscing about his many mistakes. He rolled to his feet, the motion practiced and silent, and quickly made it over to the water warped door. Crouching, he looked through the cracks in the surface, through peeling paint and split wood.
The light was crappy in the hall, provided only by low watt bulbs at either end of the space, but it was enough to give Stiles the impression of massive moving horns. Stiles scooted back, eyes diverting.
The Great Hunter.
He didn’t name the monster. No one knew who did. They participated in the Great Hunts as prey, as cannon fodder for his amusement. He was not prey. He was pursuer. Therefore, he was the Great Hunter. Nothing more.
Still crouching, Stiles swiveled in place, putting his back to the wall and ignoring the paint chips that showered him. He slipped down until he was seated, one knee raised and cradled by an elbow. His other hand felt along the plastic square in his pocket.
His first night seemed like a century ago, and hazy, like he’d half-dreamed it. Still woozy from the concussion and the tranquilizer, he tried busting through the weak looking door, and failed. That didn’t stop him from trying though—persistence being both his strength and his weakness—and ended up making such a racket that that his fellow prisoners had revealed themselves, locked up tight in their own rooms.
Naturally, they demanded that he shut the fuck up. Stiles didn’t, demanding answer after answer from the people he could hear, but not see. Even then, even after suffering through anxiety and jumpiness and paranoia, he thought it was a joke—hazing gone wrong.
That the Great Hunter brought him here to be hunted was not a rational or plausible explanation. It wasn’t legal, for one, and definitely wasn’t moral, for another. And it just didn’t make any damn sense. Even now, he still couldn’t see how hunting down young men was any kind of sport, especially college students like him and Greenberg. Their exertion was limited to trash talk over head sets and the occasional slow meander down to the closest gas station for more energy drinks.
He’d found Greenberg’s school ID wedged between the cot and the wall on his second day.
But his first day… how optimistic he’d been! Demanding explanations—real explanations—in the dark from Donovan, from Clark, from Bennet, from Ethan, Aiden, Tucker, and Corey too. He only stopped when Tucker swore he’d stab him through the eye if he kept talking.
It took his first Great Hunt to shut the fuck up. It took a guy dying right in front of him to get it. It took that kid being replaced within a week to really, truly understand.
The only reason why the Great Hunter had room to take in Stiles was because Greenberg died on his very first hunt.
Stiles only saw the Great Hunter up close twice. The first time was very briefly. He was with nine other guys—other survivors—his age. He was on his third Great Hunt and hardly an expert yet.
At the start of each hunt, a great horn sounded throughout the building—and it wasn’t a car horn either. It was like something out of a movie that signaled the start of a war. Or even something on a ship. Either way, it was a solid wall of unmistakable, unavoidable sound.
It filled up his head with this stretching expanding pressure that chased all thought out except-
Anyway, there was the horn. After you heard it, you immediately had to vacate your room, which had been unlocked at some point a few hours before. It was true that you weren’t always locked in your room, especially since the bathrooms and the “cafeteria” were communal, but a Great Hunt nearly always followed two days of being locked in your room without food or water.
Weak, tired, dehydrated—it didn’t matter. If you didn’t leave your room, you were dead. If you didn’t find the right hunting grounds, you were dead. If you got injured or trapped or fell…
Well, what happened next depended on a few variables. If you were the first to fall, you were the first to die. No compromises. But if you got trapped or injured, he might let you live. Maybe. But only if he saw something in you, Aiden swore with a smirk.
Or used to swear, anyway.
Stiles’ first two hunts were inside the building. They were being kept in what used to be some cutting and distribution center for a lumber company. The Great Hunts happened on the ground floor, where all the conveyer belts and workers used to be.
The Great Hunter kept the blades, though. A spring loaded one decapitated Tucker. And that was only one trap. The whole area was loaded with them—spikes and swinging lumber, ropes and nets… It was a kill zone. His worst nightmare.
But his third hunt was outside. They were ‘guided’—through the hunts of traps, barbed wire, and electrified fences—to a lake not far from the building for the day’s excursion. It was faintly gray, likely contaminated by the company that once stood there, but birds still dipped into it, dropping down on bugs, fish, and other small food sources below the surface.
They stopped near the bank, cautious to a man, trying to figure out what the game was this time. When a crossbolt landed solidly in the ground next to them, they got the hint and jumped in.
The other bank was clear of fences and wires and looked almost… idyllic, perfect in comparison to the crossbow wielding nightmare behind them. Assuming it was a race, they swam as fast as they could to the other side, elbowing each other out of the way to avoid being the slowest of the bunch—the one who would receive the Great Hunter’s next bolt.
The loser always got the ax. Even Stiles knew that much.
And Stiles was lagging way behind in this event. Still swimming forward, he turned his head, looking behind him for the bolt he was so sure was coming for him.
That’s when he saw him for the first time—the Great Hunter.
He didn’t see a person at first, just something huge with horns like a stag. Details emerged later—black pants, dirty boots, and a stained deer pelt stitched together in a trench coat. The killer kept the head too, wearing it like a hood, horns shooting up and giving him several feet more in height.
What part of his face that wasn’t covered was spread in a wide, wide grin.
Stiles had a second to mentally cycle through his list of nonhumanoid supernaturalis before his leg cramped viciously. Shouting, he sank under the water for a few moments, clutching at it, then scrambling back to the surface when he realized this had to put him in last place.
But the guy who lived across from him was just a tad slower.
Stiles surfaced with a gasp just in time to come face to face with Corey. The guy looked stunned and his mouth opened and closed a few times, betraying blood. Terrified, Stiles froze, staring at him, still roughly treading water.
In unison, they looked down, discovering together that sometime in the last few minutes, the Great Hunter had traded his crossbow for a harpoon. The end of it was sticking through Corey’s chest.
Corey died a few second later, tipping forward into the water. The Great Hunter cranked him back like a fisherman reeling in a prized bass.
Stiles doesn’t remember swimming away, but he did. He must have. He got to the other shore finally, collapsing near the guys. He tried to scramble up the bank, tried to put more distance between him and the murderer on the other side of the lake, but he fell face first in the dirt instead, limbs heavy and resembling noodles.
“Idiot,” Donovan mumbled. He was lying on his back, looking up at the sky. He was clammy and pale.
Stiles spit out pebbles. “What?”
After a long beat, Donovan’s eyes rolled back to look at him. “Sedatives. In the food.”
Just then, the horn of the Great Hunt sounded. They were being called back. From their position, it seemed weak, tiny. Almost possible to ignore.
But all around him, groaning, the survivors of the hunt got to their feet, sloshing down the bank and back into the water. Stiles didn’t follow, swinging his focus from the lake to the enticingly trap and fence-free greenery further ahead. If he could just-
If he could just keep going, keep walking, he could-
One of the twins—Ethan, he was sure—hung back, reading his intent easily. “If you don’t go back, you die,” he told Stiles, not unkindly.
“He just killed someone,” Stiles replied numbly. It wasn’t the first time the Great Hunter had killed, but it was the first time he’d gotten up close and personal. The first time he’d had to watch the light fade out of someone’s eyes, knowing that only a hair’s breadth of luck saved him from the same fate.
His head buzzed. His eyes hurt. He felt faintly as if he was tipping over the edge of a cliff without any bottom. And while he was afraid of escaping and getting caught, he was more afraid of obeying and drowning in the lake.
Ethan jerked his arm hard, yanking him out of his seated position and onto his knees. “If you don’t go back, you die!” he repeated harshly, face twisted up. When Stiles didn’t move, Ethan snorted with disgust, dropping his arm. He pivoted sharply, making his way down the bank at double speed.
After a minute longer of stalling, Stiles followed, sinking back into the lake.
In the cafeteria that night, stronger and better rationed, they found a ration of stale bread and granola bars. Stiles ate quickly and quietly by himself, bitter that he hadn’t continued on his own.
The other guys clumped together, familiar with each other in a way Stiles wasn’t yet. As an outcast, he was immediately brought up as a topic of ridicule—that idiot kid who thought he could escape during a Great Hunt. But when he didn’t respond, they moved onto something else.
Escape, no matter how ridiculous, was clearly something that still lingered in their thoughts.
In the middle of them all, Clark talked wistfully about a town they’d found just north five hunts ago. The others listened intently, Stiles too.
It was an empty town, recently abandoned. Clark had found a flyer on the ground warning about a town-wide asbestos problem. Rather than clean it out, the town decided to give up instead. But there was promise there, potential in that ten person town—phone lines, bicycles, canned food, and much more.
Clark had been with one other guy, one other guy who slipped the boundaries of a hunt—by cunning or design, no one knew. But just as they were about to break in a store, the Great Hunter came up from behind them. He killed the other guy and beat Clark so bad, he fell unconscious. The guy woke up later in his room.
Quickly, the conversation between Clark and his friends turned to the mystery. And yet the real mystery wasn’t the town, but rather why Clark was left alive at all. Even a disgruntled Clark could get behind that. The guys pondered this out loud, throwing ideas at each other.
It wasn’t a mystery to Stiles, who left soon after. The Great Hunter rarely spoke to them directly. They got their clues from the traps and the fences and all the little obstacles and weapons that made them bleed. Even so, that left a lot of gaps in communication.
Clark wasn’t killed because the Great Hunter needed a messenger. It was that simple. He never wanted another of his prisoners to travel that way ever again. Now that message was out.
And when the next Great Hunt ended with blond boy Clark and a noose, Stiles wasn’t even surprised.
Horrified, but not surprised.
They were survivors, but they were prone to bouts of stupidity too. They stood their ground exactly once.
That was the second time he saw the Great Hunter up close.
Stiles, shamefully, was the instigator. He got to know the other guys. He riled them up to it, citing his long history with supernaturalis. They weren’t immortal, he told them. Just a little faster. Just a little stronger. If they worked together, they could easily overpower the Great Hunter, no matter what he was. No matter how fast he healed. No matter how strong he was.
That hunt, he killed four of them instead.
The Great Hunter exercised restraint on most hunts, only killing one or two. But there was rage to this hunt, a response proportional to only betrayal. They had broken some rule and thus needed to be deeply, deeply punished for it. There was an unbelievable savagery to the murders, a fury that had never been present before.
Afterwards, he locked them in their rooms for five days as punishment. They’d all learned to hoard food and water bottles after the Banquet Incident, but they hardly expected the extent of those long, horrid days.
It broke something in them—in Stiles too. The experience left him permanently shaken and jumpy. It also marked the last time anyone talked to each other through the doors, the last time anyone tried to give anyone else any pointers. The new kids cried out into the silence, demanding answers and receiving nothing.
When the horn sounded, there was no hint of an alliance. At any moment, your fellow prey next to you would savage you just for the chance to get one step ahead.
And Stiles was one of them, bloodying his knuckles and gnashing his teeth with the rest. More animal than human at one point. There was only survival to care about. There was only the Great Hunt.
And then one night, something cracked in him, fracturing just a little bit further. His usual mixture of fear, anxiety, and anger reached a crescendo, overwhelming him with a sense of all too immediate helplessness.
He ended up rolling over, shamefully muffling sobs into the ratty sheet of his cot. It took him a long time calm down, his soul aching with keening desperation for someone, anyone to save him. His dad. Scott.
But if there was anyone out there, any higher power, it was watching with extreme apathy.
Stiles left the experience numb and, in hindsight, vaguely suicidal. He survived on slim rations and when the next hunt was called, Stiles trudged along with the rest.
The door to the outside was barred shut, they found. The Great Hunter wanted them to return to the inside of the building, back to the kill zone.
It was a nightmare, loud and horrible. Where hard workers used to stand, they had to run, dodging swinging traps and spears that came out of floors—and the traps always moved. Only the pits were constant. Some of them were safe, a haven for a moment, but none remained that way hunt to hunt.
As usual, the Great Hunter followed on their heels, ready to kill any who dropped. The first to fall was always first to die.
And that day, Stiles fell first.
He was clipped by a pulley, of all things, and went down, warm trickle of blood over his ear. He crashed, knocking his shoulder into a wall and falling off and onto a lower separate platform made of old pallet crates. He rolled onto his back, stunned.
Then he sprang into action, something curling hot and electric in his chest. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to live, but especially didn’t want to die.
He hurried past another trapped guy, caught in a bear trap hidden by a tarp. “Hey!” The guy yelled after him, voice thin and outraged as Stiles dropped and slid under one of old conveyer belt stations. He hid in the shadows, hands clamped over his mouth.
There was the sound of boots hitting wood—a steady and measured drop from above. Stiles’ stomach dropped.
The trapped guy’s voice came again, higher pitched and more desperate. “Hey!” Stiles couldn’t see him from this angle—one of the legs of the station obscured his vision. But he had no doubts that the guy was pointing opportunistically at Stiles’ very, very bad hiding spot. “I’m not the first. I’m not the first!” His voice went tight and quick and hushed all at the same time. “You- watch the cameras! Watch them! I wasn’t the first, I wasn’t the fir-”
There was a wet noise, then a meaty thud. Stiles closed his eyes, guilt curdling in his stomach. He flinched at the metal screech of a bear trap opening, rearming. He stayed very, very still, knowing he was dead.
And he was right, because the sound of boots came closer and closer to the conveyor belt, even and measured. Soon, Stiles could see them out of the corner of his eyes, walking up the length of his hiding spot. He saw too the deer hide, heavy, drooping, and dripping blood. Salty sweat rolled down the side of his face as the feet finally reached the top of the station mere inches from Stiles’ face.
Minutes passed like hours, stretching impossibly. Stiles didn’t blink, didn’t breathe, waiting for the merciless hand or face to break his poor illusion of a hiding spot.
He just wanted to die already. But he also didn’t. It was maddening.
But the Great Hunter didn’t bend over and look at him face-to-face. He didn’t even reach down and drag Stiles out. Instead, he turned around and walked away.
As he turned, though, something heavy fell out of his pocket, hitting the wood floor. The Great Hunter didn’t pause, didn’t look back, didn’t notice the glint of something promising on the dirty ground.
Stiles immediately swiped it, clenching the long metal edge of it to his head. He stayed there until the next horn sounded.
It was a file. A metal file, to be exact. And now that the Great Hunter was finished with his rounds—and Stiles was done reflecting on his stupidity—there was no better time than the present to use it.
And he’d been at it for at least three days already.
He got away from the wall, brushing paint off his shoulder. He was feeling that today was the day—The Day. The day of escape, to be exact. He’d finished off all his rations in anticipations, wrapped ones only. He quickly got to work, inserting the metal file between the seam of the door and the already noticeably dented padlock that kept him locked and ready for the next hunt.
Stiles wasn’t going to be here for the next hunt. Not if he had anything to do about it. He got to work.
A couple of tears, popped blisters, and hours later, the file cut through the last of the padlock.
Barely giving his dead legs a moment to adjust, Stiles stood, practically throwing himself out of the door. He staggered briefly, looking up and down the empty hall. Something wasn’t right.
He tried to figure out where he’d stumbled wrong. He’d been at it for days, until he wasn’t. Until the file finally cut through the rest of the lock. But where were the others? When had they ceased to be?
He had been so stupidly focused on himself, he’d completely failed to notice he was the last of the men in the cells. Slowly, he looked up at the camera at the top of the hallway, eyes narrowing on the steadily blinking red light. He was being monitored.
Suddenly, his tool seemed a little less miraculous and a little more planted.
Just as that dawned on him, the horn rose from the depths of the building. Stiles’ heart sank. He turned and bolted down the hall.
The Great Hunt was on.
Stiles skidded to a haphazard stop, heart hammering in his ears. He watched a pebble, unable to brake, fall over the cliff he’d just saved himself from. It plunked into a deep fast moving river just below.
It wasn’t far—ten feet at most. But it wasn’t ideal. It was November, edging closer to December in northern California, and he hadn’t done well in a placid lake.
He could die if he jumped.
He straightened, tearing off a long strip of fabric from his old shirt. He efficiently rolled it up, tying it around his metal file—his only weapon and tool—and his forearm. He quickly manipulated it into a makeshift sheath, keeping it close to his skin. He wanted to keep it if he jumped.
He approached the edge of the cliff, swallowing hard. He watched a branch break in half under the force of the moving waters.
Stiles flinched at the human noise, turning. Surprise turned to horror when he saw a stretch of stag antlers emerging from the brush.
The Great Hunter stepped out, seeming less monster than man for a moment. For one, his pale skin was flushed and sweaty. For another, the voice failed to live up to the hype—low and measured, but hardly intimidating. Then there was the fact that he was having a hard time holding up the antlers, like they weren’t connected to him, like they hadn’t been made for running.
“Stiles,” he said again in that eerily pleasant voice. “Excellent show. I imagined you’d go far if I removed the boundaries, but I didn’t think you’d go so fast.”
Stiles swallowed past a dry throat. “I was in cross-country-”
The massive head bobbed up slightly, revealing pale blue eyes. “No, you weren’t,” he said with absolute certainty.
“…in high school,” Stiles finished.
That startled a laugh out of the Great Hunter. Stiles’ stomach twisted at the sound of it. “Well then! Should have researched you a little better...”
He took a step towards Stiles, who automatically stepped back. The Great Hunter’s gaze moved from Stiles to the river and back to Stiles again. He seemed less amused now.
“It’s not your time yet, Stiles,” the man, the stranger said gently. He reached out his hand. It was gauntleted, cruel metal plates tipped in claws over broad hands. “Come back. It’s been a long day.”
To his disgust, Stiles found himself almost leaning forward, almost accepting the offer, if only not to worry for a few more hours. Almost, anyway. All he could think was here, he was too far. Here, he was past the Great Hunter’s usual boundaries. Here, even that horrible horn couldn’t touch him.
So when Stiles said “No,” he smiled, feeling a screwed up sort of peace.
Then he jumped into the water below.
That afternoon, Derek Hale slid out of his car, pocketing his keys. He looked around briefly, something in him settling at the sight of woods, tightly clumped plants, and, most of all, no people, neighbors or otherwise.
Hauling in groceries for the month, he walked into the modest cabin he’d rented, letting himself in. He loaded everything away and out of his Jeep like a well-oiled machine, familiar and comfortable with every inch of his current home.
The only thing that made him pause was a huge stack of letters on his front table, bound together. Rooting in one of his bags, he pulled out and added another letter to the pile, one that bore the accusing curl of his name in his mother’s familiar hand. He dropped it in the group with the others, not bothering to disturb even the seal.
She was persistent. A Hale family trait.
Mood souring, he finished quickly, leaving the front door open. He sat, without any grace, on the two person couch under the black board on the left wall. On it was a To Do list from the previous renters, the second word almost rubbed out. Besides that one fixture, the worn wooden walls were completely bare, interrupted only by thick paned and yellowing windows.
Derek passed a brief glance over his home for the last six months before sighing, sinking deeper into the cushions. He rubbed his temples, fighting off the low-level migraine that hit him every time he had to talk to a human. He was severely out of practice.
It was quiet here. Somedays, he struggled to remember why he wanted that so much. Others, he didn’t, for his quiet was being shattered by something.
Like Halloween, for example. Too many people thought wandering around the forest was perfect for that night, pushing their real limits for cheap thrills. Derek gave them a thrill, alright. Nothing sent a person fleeing faster than the sharp point of a massive wolf’s teeth. Supernaturalis were out and in the open now these days, but few could tell the difference between a well fed wolf and their almost human counterpart.
But it wasn’t all Halloween-related mischief—that season was over with. Now that Thanksgiving was approaching, Derek was finding himself more and more on genuine rescue missions. For example, last week, he’d run into a couple out hiking. A female school teacher had fallen into a creek. She’d knocked her head pretty badly and broken a wrist. Her incompetent husband, meanwhile, had run off to get help, almost wandering into bear territory.
It was him that Derek found first. Once he’d figured out the situation, he chased the stupid man towards the main road as a wolf. He shifted back to a human, found the wife, and took her to the closest ranger station.
And just yesterday, he found a five year old girl wandering by the river. He picked her up and retraced her scent as she yammered on in his ear about cars and books and, oh look, there was her terrified, tearful teenage brother. Derek gave the gangly boy a thorough lecture. He assumed Derek was the ranger and was “yes sir, no sir” through the whole thing.
He got that a lot. The real ranger, Braeden, was tickled pink by all this, but was also seriously offering him a job by the second week. Braeden was nice, for a human, but Derek had absolutely no intention of picking up after their species. He would not take responsibility for the idiocy of mankind.
And yet, his actions said otherwise, didn’t they? He roamed frequently, chasing bears away from camp sites and putting out left behind embers. He found and recovered ten people in one week after a bad rain storm. It was a feat, but he ended up sitting in his cabin at night tense, feeling as if he was failing somehow.
He wasn’t interested in protecting humans. Not after what they did to his family. But, at the same time, how many other children had he missed? How many other people fell and hurt themselves? How many others ran across a mountain lion or a bear or a snake and ended up worse for it?
The guilt he was feeling was ridiculous—even he knew that. He got no joy out of saving anyone either. So why he did this? Why did he bother when he had more reason than anyone to distrust humans?
The simple answer was, of course, that he was his mother’s son.
Derek’s eyes dropped to the mountains of letters, unopened. His mouth twisted. A moment later, he vaulted out of the seat, restless. He went straight out the front door, deciding to do one last patrol around his cabin before going to bed. Or perhaps instead of going to bed. He didn’t sleep well during the night.
In the end, whether he was selfless or just territorial didn’t matter. He was, however, indisputably thorough. In that vein, he started on his front porch and did a tight sweep around his cabin, then a bigger circle around it when he gave himself the all clear. By the time he headed down one of the barely worn trails for his final check, the river trail, it was already dark and chilly.
The frigid air made his head cool, his mind pulled away from the self-absorbed thoughts that had worked him up with such ease.
Being his mother’s son… that was a point of pride once. He didn’t hate her—couldn’t, wouldn’t—but somehow the comparison had become a point of bitterness, a bad taste stemming from justice dodged. But that didn’t matter now, did it? He wasn’t Good Beta Derek anymore. He was an omega. He helped no one. He cared about no one.
Of course, that didn’t explain why he felt compelled to do his patrol. It didn’t explain why he worried about all the people he couldn’t protect or save in his patch of forest.
Nor did it explain the twinge of regret or that feeling of failure when he found that dead boy on the side of the river.
Stiles was floating. Stiles was… being dragged deeper. Stiles was… colliding roughly with a rock, fuck! He woke up.
He shut down.
The current dragged him.
Peace made friends with him and held his hand. Time passed. His mind remained muck and jello.
He was gently swaying, like when his dad would pick him off the floor and carry him to bed. But he was too big to be picked up, he wanted to protest. If anyone was doing the picking up…
But there was something wrong, wasn’t there. Peace wasn’t there. Peace was never there. There was something wrong, something terrible. Even jello brain knew that.
The blare of an insidious horn reverberated in his head and, panicked, Stiles clawed to the surface.
Derek put the body in his living room, gently resting it on the couch. Such a goddamn waste. He looked over the former person with a sympathetic eye.
It should be said somewhere that the dead boy was really less boy and more of a man. Derek discovered that when he picked up the body. He had a scraggly stubbly beard and broad shoulders. He was tall too, but thin—too thin. He had a nasty, bloody gash on his forehead, ringed with specular bruising. Brown floppy hair covered most of it, but not all.
Was the head wound the cause of death? He couldn’t say. He wouldn’t be able to say even when this poor kid died. His skin was icy, but still had significant give to it. He couldn’t have been dead long.
Unable to take it anymore, Derek turned sharply, engaging all three locks on his front door. Then he headed back into the kitchen, feeling drained beyond all belief. He was just glad he’d approached that body in his human form, senses dulled. He still didn’t like the smell of death.
But others would. He hated the idea of moving a corpse, but he couldn’t just leave him outside. Wild creatures would pick the meat off his bones. He couldn’t sit and wait for the rangers either. The school teacher had been relatively close to their station. Out here, in his cabin, they were at least ten miles away, barred by deep thickets and tiny roads. And Braeden was burning her candles at both ends. There was no guarantee she would be able to make her way out to his cabin soon enough.
Feeling wrong footed, Derek fished out his radio under the kitchen sink. He didn’t have a cell phone, which wouldn’t have worked this deep in the woods anyway, and he had only rare success with the radio Braeden lent him. He set it down on the table, sitting across from it with his back to the living room.
Derek didn’t pretend to know how to work these things, but he gave it a good attempt. He fiddled with the knobs awkwardly, wondering if the radio should be making those popping noises. Then he lifted the receiver to his lips. “Station 7, Hale here. I require assistance, over.”
There was a louder popping noise, then the faintest smell of smoke. Derek dropped the receiver, watching the red power light slowly fade out. “What the hell.” He roughly clapped the side of it, turning it off and on again.
But the radio made no noise.
Behind him, however, was the sound of a foot scraping across worn wooden floors.
Derek shot up out of his chair, half-shifting, exponentially sharper ears catching the sound of a hitched breath and—there—as ubiquitous as drums in background music, the sound of someone’s pounding heart.
Derek rounded the corner quickly, stunned at what he saw. The dead boy was crouching on a low shelf in the corner, struggling with a rusted window. He froze and swung around, dark eyes catching on Derek instantly. He looked less a person as he did a wraith.
Then he sprung.
Stiles pulled his file out of the window—stupid, useless thing—and swung twice at the man coming his way. He missed the second time, but not the first. The stranger darted back, giving Stiles the room to roll off the shelf and fling himself towards the front door.
He got two locks undone before his arm was yanked back and his body was spun. Stiles ducked, kicking out randomly, and the grip fell off of him. He charged back into the kitchen, eyes darting and heart pounding.
He tripped over a chair and into the table, sending it sliding hard into the cabinets. Something boxy and wooden hit the floor at the same time as Stiles. He knocked the air out of himself. Suddenly, he could hear his own wheezing over the persistent buzz in his head, the awareness of noise without any comprehension.
“Are you done?”
Stiles had failed. He scrambled to his knees, pressing his back to the cabinets. Aching, throbbing pain made itself known from head to toe as he clenched himself up tight, looking at the man who had cornered him in this room.
He was tall—about Stiles’ height—and much, much bigger than Stiles expected without the deer hide.
“Son of a bitch, you tricked me, you tricked-”
Without any warning, Stiles fell into the worst panic attack of his entire life.
Derek washed his face, stunned and shaking, and also very, very quiet. He was in the kitchen now, alone, while his guest was in the living room, sitting in front of a roaring fire. What a fight that had been.
Pulling information out of Stiles Stilinski was like pulling teeth in the dark with tweezers. A lot of the issues seemed to be in line with a belief he had that Derek was someone else.
(“Great Hunter?” Derek had echoed, confused. “Who is that?”
Stiles—who still hadn’t named himself at that moment—still had his weapon aimed at Derek. “A murderer, a kidnapper, a coward, a sadistic son of a-” He’d sucked in a breath there, the end of it betrayingly shaky.)
Stiles hadn’t believed Derek when he argued his innocence. But Derek didn’t push it—not like he wanted to. Stiles’ health had to take priority. He had been showing the initial signs of hypothermia. Plus, he’d just had a panic attack and his bare feet were scraped up from their little tussle.
(“Get undressed,” Derek had ordered, throwing a pile of blankets and towels at Stiles.
“Not on your life,” Stiles growled, dripping wet in the middle of the living room.
“It’s not- did you sleep through health class or what?” he demanded. “It’s called hypothermia, jackass.”
It was the first time Stiles looked vaguely sheepish.)
By the time Stiles had gotten dry and dressed up in some of Derek’s clothes, it was midnight. Derek hunted down and found a dusty first aid kit. Trying to remember how he’d soothed animals in the past, he gruffly talked about plans for the morning. He was going to take Stiles to the closest town at first light.
Stiles stuck a pin in that plan quickly. “I’m not getting in a car with you.” He smelled like river water and pain. He leaned back when Derek tried to clean his head wound.
Stiles leaned back further, closer to the fire. “You know why.”
Exasperated, Derek stopped scooting after him and grabbed his chin. “What can I do to make you trust me?”
Stiles shot him the bitchiest, most unfriendly look he’d ever seen. “I’m not falling for your trap.”
“I’m not trying to-” Derek bit down on what he was about to say. He dropped his hand to his lap, eyes diverting away from Stiles. His senses had been going haywire since his dead boy turned into a real boy, and he couldn’t help but pay attention. As wrathful as Stiles looked, fear dominated his scent. As determined and steady as Stiles seemed, his heart rivaled a rabbit’s, beating faster and faster with no signs of slowing down.
Derek had to back down. For both of their sakes.
A hand was touching his cheek. Derek’s attention jerked back to Stiles. Stiles, who touched him still. Stiles, who looked distracted. It was the first time someone else had initiated a touch since he left home to hide in the woods.
Derek didn’t like how fragile that made him felt, how arrested he was under the cool appraisal of a person he didn’t know.
“You have a beard,” Stiles said flatly. Derek held his breath as Stiles’ thumb skated over the line of his jaw musingly. Stiles blinked at his chin several times, the gesture slow. “The Great Hunter doesn’t have a beard.”
I’m not the Great Hunter, Derek thought but didn’t say. As if their owner had heard that anyway, brown eyes jerked up, meeting his. A long second passed.
“Stiles-” Derek breathed. Stiles’ gaze sharpened, walls slamming up.
And then, with sudden viciousness, Stiles curled his fingers in Derek’s beard and yanked.
It was super effective. “What the hell, knock it off!” Derek pulled away, hand cradling his stinging cheek. “It’s real.”
“Sure,” Stiles said condescendingly, voice cold, eyes darting all over his face. He must not have liked what he saw because his gaze narrowed.
“You’re an asshole.”
“You touched me first.”
“I was trying to render first aid, you brat!”
Stiles swelled at that visibly. Then he turned faintly green. It was only Derek’s quick action that kept Stiles’ vomit in a pan than all over the wood floor. Stiles groaned low, in misery. But when Derek endorsed driving him to the closest town and the closest doctor, Stiles shot him a look so wrathful and dark, Derek immediately leaned away.
“Do you have a better idea?”
“No,” Stiles admitted, wiping off his mouth with the back of his hand. “But any plan you come up with is immediately suspect, so stop trying.”
Derek glared at that. “Fine,” he spat finally.
Stiles shivered faintly under the blankets. The numbness had faded, leaving only pain and a persistent sense of nausea. Derek’s clothes were soft. Stiles’ mind was calming. The floor was hard under him, but warm thanks to the dying fire. A fire he was loathe to alert Derek to.
Derek Hale. Who knew if that was even his real name? The guy had attempted to show Stiles his driver’s license as proof, but Stiles cut him off with a terse, “Yeah, I have a few fake ones too.”
Man. If Derek was actually a good guy, Stiles was going to feel like such an ass.
But he couldn’t be! Stiles had deduced this quite quickly. Even leaving aside the miracle of Stiles surviving the river and turning—face up, mind you—on a bank within walking distance of the only cabin in ten miles, there was no way Derek just happened to be there.
First of all, people who looked like Derek were never loners. Not unless they were serial killers—and he did have the eyebrows for one. Second of all, 18-25 year olds in this day and age did not disappear in the woods—not without technology and all the camping gear to enhance it.
And lastly, have you seen Derek’s cabin? He didn’t even bother making it look like he lived there. There weren’t any pictures, no mess, no television. Just a handful of books and disgustingly creased and folded blankets with ninety degree corners.
Derek was definitely a serial killer.
Stiles grimaced. Maybe. Stiles wasn’t-
Stiles wasn’t sure. His head hurt. There could be extenuating circumstances and Derek was-
He was gentle.
So Stiles couldn’t be.
As if Stiles’ thoughts had summoned him, Derek peeked his head around the doorway of the bedroom. Stiles’ shoulders hunched. He stayed silent as Derek padded in, barefoot and purposefully noisy. Watching Stiles carefully, he added more logs to the fire.
“Are you getting tired yet?” he asked, looking over his shoulder. The light of the fire planted false gold in the depths of his eyes. “You should get some rest. You can have the bed if you let me bandage your feet.”
Stiles pulled his legs closer to himself at the reminder. He squinted at Derek’s profile suspiciously, a memory forming through the throbbing pain of his concussion. He’d remembered not the good looking version of Derek, but rather something furry and gold eyed with fangs. At the same time, he wasn’t remembering enough. He couldn’t remember if Derek was standing. He couldn’t remember if they were inside or out.
But he did remember striking out with his file fast enough to draw blood from one high cheekbone. “I cut you. You healed. You’re supernaturalis.” Derek looked away, jaw jumping faintly. He didn’t deny it. “What are you?”
Derek’s mouth firmed into a flat thin line. He closed his eyes briefly and then, with sudden impatience, pushed forward the first aid kit Stiles had been studiously ignoring for the last half hour. He stood then, eyes dark—and, just like that, Stiles was back on solid, familiar ground. His hackles rose. He tightened his grip on the file under the borrowed blanket, sensing his time in comfort was at an end.
And… Derek stepped back. “I’m a monster,” he said flatly, taking another step back. Stiles stared at him in confusion, having lost the point. “And that’s all you need to know.” He took another step back until the light of the fire no longer hit him.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Stiles belatedly registered that he must have hit a nerve.
Derek continued brusquely, “If you don’t trust me, we’ll get in contact with someone you can.” His burning eyes dropped to the blanket and the feet hidden just under it. His voice lowered. “Please tend to your feet. Then you can sleep on the bed.” He turned his back on Stiles, moving back to the bedroom. “Sleeping on the floor will not help your injuries.”
Stiles stared after him until Derek was out of sight. When nothing else came, he deflated. He pulled out his file, staring at the dull edges of it.
He felt lost.
Derek aggressively aired out more blankets, piling them on top of the sheets that made up his bed. He rarely had issues with cold—with heat, yes, but not cold. But Stiles was injured, human, and had barely dodged hypothermia. He needed-
Derek paused. His teeth grinded together, all frustration and no satisfaction.
Derek hated Stiles. Or wanted to, anyway. Tried to, needing the wall that hatred always put up. There was something in the contempt the guy threw at him that he couldn’t help but read into. Couldn’t help but recognize.
He never hated being a supernaturalis. It was as much a part of him as his family or the color of his hair. But he was very aware of being other, especially now, especially around normal humans. The experience of prejudice came with being other—he knew this—but he just couldn’t… take it right now. Not even a hint. Laura’s death was still too raw, too recent, too… unfair. Unexpected. Unwanted.
In the last hundred years, the world had turned largely pro-supernaturalis. The letter of the law said, genetic difference or not, supernaturalis were still human and received all the rights due to one.
Reality was different, of course. There were still many out there that casually called them monsters. So many that most supernaturalis hid their heritage, fearing backlash and the all too slow reaction of the law. In fact, Derek had known a harpy once when growing up. She wore special shoes to hide her talons and bound her wings until they were bent, sickly, and had to be amputated.
But in their insulated family, her experience was singular, horrific, and unique. As far as the Hales were considered, either you were okay with the werewolves in the Hale family or you stayed away. This left them in a nice bubble where no one was really an ass at all. Prejudice didn’t touch them—not really. It wasn’t like they weren’t aware of the hate. They had tvs and the internet like everyone else. They just believed in a fairer world.
Laura had taken that earnestness with her into college. She came back the next break changed, mood darkened with stories upon stories, like the one where the professor failed a wendigo in her class because he looked at her wrong. Laura had challenged it, of course, but to her frustrations, conversations quickly skewed away from the blatant discrimination to whether or not one can tell if a wendigo is planning to eat you, and what “predatory” supernaturalis people could do to assure all around them that they wouldn’t act on their violent, homicidal instincts.
This alone was enough to leave Laura in tears. But she was an alpha, strong and sure. The doubt in their kind wounded her, but also left her fiery and committed.
When she went back to school, she tackled the situation head on. Her persistence and doggedness earned her enemies—and then, later, admirers. A year later, she’d badgered local officials until she had a voice in town hall and committee meetings. And she was good. So good, she was single handedly gaining traction on the local levels for some minor bills to handle the discrimination of supernaturalis. She was amazing. She did everything right.
It was Derek who screwed up.
He’d been so proud of his sister. He shared what she was doing with his friends at high school. Eventually, this attracted the attention of the slightly scary but wholly popular senior, Kate Argent. He’d been dating Paige at the time, but when someone like Kate paid attention to you, you sat up straight, tucked in your shirt, and made sure your fly was zipped. She was… intense. And she had eyes for no one but him.
It wasn’t like Derek wasn’t aware of what Argents were like. He wasn’t naïve. They had spewed some purist speciest crap in the fact, but that was easier to heap on the feet of Gerard Argent, who looked like the kind of guy who discriminated on the grounds of a few genes. Smart, beautiful Kate Argent, on the other hand…
Derek should have known better.
It was Kate who talked about getting a group of them together to support Laura. Something about showing that the next generation was completely on board with equality. Everyone wanted to get involved. Eager, he texted Laura with the news and found out where her next engagement was. He shared it with them, Kate Argent included.
In the end, their plan didn’t pan out. Their transport, Kate with her big SUV, had to back out at the very last minute. Although he was slightly disappointed, Derek didn’t give it another thought. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t get another chance.
Three days later, Laura was on the news. While she was walking home from a town hall meeting, someone came up from behind her and clubbed her over the head. Then they chained her to the back of a truck, leashing her. Then they took her on a ride around the city.
Werewolves had the best healing factors of all known supernaturalis, but they were hardly immortal.
It only took the cops a few hours to go through security footage and find the culprits. The whole family uprooted their schedules to get down to Laura’s college town. They got there just in time to watch Laura’s murderers get arrested.
Kate blew him a kiss before she was cuffed and put in the back of a police cruiser.
Derek was stunned. A cop stood between them and tried to tell them in clunky, overly worded sentences that Laura must have provoked Kate somehow. His sergeant whisked him away before he could say anything else, but the damage was done.
The pack was all up in arms. It was only his mother, Talia, who could make them back down. Derek, who remembered so little of that day, keenly recalled the flash of her red alpha eyes and the way she forced words out through gritted teeth.
“You’ll undermine everything she was doing. Honor her life. Don’t waste yours on her death.”
The provoked defense went beyond a tactless cop and into the resulting criminal trial. This galvanized Derek, who worked hard with the prosecutor to show how premeditated it was. How she had sought information, cozying up to him. How she had made plans in front of everyone.
To his disgust, he found few of his human friends were willing to back him up on this. Of the ten who made plans with Kate that one day, only two of them—his friend Rick and Paige herself—testified with Derek on the witness stand.
Still, the jury had been skeptical. The defense attorney pressed them for weaknesses. Eventually, Rick broke, admitting that he wasn’t sure if Kate had really intended to hurt Laura that day—just that she’d made plans with everyone else. Holes in Paige’s testimony also wounded them, but at least she didn’t let the attorney back her into a corner.
They were eventually dismissed, cross examined and sore for it, pride stinging as the attorney concluded for all assembled that their words had very little impact on the case at all.
It was there that Derek discovered he had very, very little use for humans.
But, in the end, the video, the hard evidence, and the name Argent just couldn’t be ignored. Kate was put away for the maximum sentence, but it didn’t matter. His sister was gone, his family was fractured, and his trust in basic human decency was destroyed.
He retreated socially, if not academically. Paige tried but couldn’t keep up with his self-destructive spiral. They split. Derek retreated more. He barely made it to graduation. He didn’t even make it to twenty-three before he bolted, leaving his family behind. He kept running until he finally settled here, squatting in a tiny little cabin in a tiny little corner of a great big nature preserve no one liked going to.
And now there was a human in his home, half-wild, distrustful, and dangerous. A human who looked at him like he was the monster Kate and her kind were so sure he was to become.
He should kick him out. Hit him over the head and put him in his car. Drive him to town and drop him on the steps of the sheriff station. Forget trying to be nice, trying to earn trust. What the hell was trust anyway?
Trust was glass half broken and waiting for the final blow. Derek pivoted, dropping the blankets. He should-
He should really-
There was a soft noise from the living room. Derek cocked his head, padding silently over to the open doorway.
Stiles was in front of the fireplace still. His blankets were puddled around him. The light and shadows highlighted how thin he was, especially in Derek’s bigger clothes. The first aid kit was open in front of him and he was leaning forward, hunched over his feet.
A choked sound of misery came out of him as the scent of antiseptic sharpened.
Derek’s heart softened. Trust might not be there, but Stiles was at least listening. And he was in pain. And scared.
Derek shouldn’t let his own issues damage Stiles further. It wasn’t fair.
Stiles wasn’t Kate.
Derek was giving Stiles his bed. If Derek turned out to be good, Stiles wasn’t just going to feel bad—he was going to feel super duper bad. Stiles was an asshole on even his best days, but even he understood the value of good Samaritans.
Not that Derek was one. No way.
But he was really, really good at acting like one. He was even helping Stiles into his room, offering his arm to lean on but demanding no more. Stiles really wished he didn’t have to take him up on that offer, but there he was, gripping that strong forearm, trying to convince his shaky knees not to drop him on his face.
“Please tell me what’s going on,” Derek asked as they shuffled through the doorway. “Before you went in the river.” Stiles jutted out his chin stubbornly and said nothing. “Were you hurt? Were you kidnapped? Were you being held somewhere?”
“If you’re trying to solicit a Yelp review, you’re barking up the wrong tree, Great Hunter.”
Instantly, Stiles hated himself. Hated how weak that sounded. Hated how he didn’t shove away from Derek and continue on his own steam. He glared at his bandaged feet, like they betrayed them. It took Stiles six times to get the bandages to lay around his feet just right.
Scissors and tape were scattered around him like offerings by the time Derek came out again. Derek had circled him like a predator—scowled like one too. And yet…
The only solid details Stiles had about the Great Hunter was that he was white and had dark hair. He was tall, but not too tall. Like Stiles. Like Derek. It was hard to tell the Great Hunter’s dimensions under his deer skin murder coat and hood, but Stiles didn’t think Derek was-
No. That was the problem, wasn’t it? Stiles didn’t think. Stiles didn’t think to double up on his security when his paranoia emerged. He didn’t think to contact a real police department when his dorm was broken into. And even when he did think, bad things happened. He thought he had a way out. He thought they could overwhelm the Great Hunter. He thought he could survive.
Stiles’ own worst enemy was himself.
“Do you have a bathroom?” he asked dully.
He did. It was connected to the bedroom—one of those tiny ones that only had a sink and a toilet. Derek dropped him off there, but kept the door open. Privacy, but no privacy at all. Stiles sighed, washing his hair in the sink. He made faces at the pale man in the mirror. With permission, he shaved his beard, feeling cleaner for it. But no less dirty, if that made sense. No less sick.
He scooted out of the bathroom slowly, wincing. Derek had already pulled back a corner of the bedding for him. Tired, Stiles couldn’t even summon up an innuendo. Derek was already leaving the room. Stiles sank into the bed, face buried in a pillow that smelled like leaves and warmth and a body that wasn’t his own. His gut clenched. His hackles rose.
Within minutes, he was on his feet again, adrenaline buzzing. He found and pulled out a folded chair from the corner and stretched it out. It was not comfortable, unlike the bed. Meant for camping, it still had a faint plastic smell to it. The metal of the frame prodded him through the red canvas. Dragging it, he situated the chair so he was facing the door, the window, and the entry way into the bathroom.
Allowing himself only a blanket, he sat back down again, ready.
When the trap finally revealed itself, he wanted to-
He wanted to prove that his stupidity didn’t extend to this one final thing.
Derek had to wait a long time before Stiles went to sleep. When he finally dropped off, head rolling back, Derek stood in front of him and his chair, frowning.
When most people shaved, they looked younger. Stiles somehow managed looked older. His jawline was harder. His face was thinner. The downward curve of his mouth was set into relief.
Derek sighed quietly, eyes dropping to the floor. Then he turned around, heading for the front door.
Stiles slept like he expected someone to shank him at any moment. It set Derek’s teeth on edge. The faster he got help, the better.
Not wanting to wake Stiles, Derek went on foot—four of them, to be precise. He headed to the ranger’s station. He took all the short cuts he knew, but still had to go around three different creeks. It took him a little over an hour to get there.
Ranger Braeden was a workaholic. Even so, she couldn’t be everywhere at once. She joked that he was a miracle for her overworked, understaffed part of the woods, and that was before she started seriously trying to recruit him. She always walked around with one hand on a satellite phone, the other on a hiking stick she used for everything between tapping out the rhythm to Derek’s least favorite song to flooring a drunk aggressive hiker.
Derek was convinced Braeden would be able to do what he couldn’t.
But when he got to her station and shifted back, he realized there was no one there. Using the extra key, he let himself in. It was as empty as his senses told him. She left a note for him on the table. It was a short, concise little thing where she talked about taking some “much needed vacation before I strangle my supervisor.” It ended with a comment not to worry and that “November’s quiet in these parts, but I know you’ll still keep an eye out, like you always do. Ranger Dan is at station 8. Contact him if you need anything.”
Seriously, use your damn radio was underlined three times.
“Damnit,” Derek muttered, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
Part of this was definitely his fault. He lured her into a false sense of security, made her think she had civilian back up, made her think he was something other than just some guy hiding from his responsibilities.
He made Braeden trust him and screwed them both. Stiles too.
Derek hunted around the station for anything useful. He grabbed at the dusty landline phone, knowing he was going to hear nothing but silence on the other end. Rats had chewed through wires back in September—he remembered Braeden talking about it. Clearly, judging by the continued silence, she hadn’t gotten it fixed yet. He let it drop.
He couldn’t find another radio or Braden’s satellite phone either.
He ended up grabbing a map, glaring down at it as he tried to figure out what to do next. He could make it into town in under an hour in wolf form. He trusted few people anymore, but someone had to care about what was going on. But all he could think of was returning to human form in front of a deputy and trying to explain Stiles. Trying, failing. Dropping the ball. Getting locked up or shot.
Maybe he could go to town and find a payphone. But did people even have those anymore?
Derek sighed, closing the station door behind him. Reluctantly, he shifted back down to a wolf. He wasn’t fixing anything tonight. Even if he did trust the local humans, he was loathe to leave Stiles alone for long. The best scenario would be to head back in his car with Stiles in tow.
But who knew how long it would take to wrangle that?
Derek’s thoughts about Stiles were confirmed when he got back to the cabin. Stiles wasn’t asleep anymore. Instead, he stood just outside the front door, weight on his toes. His sharp eyes were scanning the tree line. The only thing that made Derek’s hackles go down was the fact that Stiles had a blanket over his shoulders—not a flight risk, then.
Not now, anyway.
Derek shifted back and walked the rest of the way up to the cabin. When he was about thirty feet away, Stiles’ eyes caught on him finally—weak human eye sight—and abruptly widened.
“You’re naked,” he blurted out.
Derek paused, not sure how to address that. Deciding on bland affirmation, he said, “Yes, I am.” He stopped just in front of Stiles, cocking his head to the side. He wasn’t sure how to read his guest’s expression. It seemed like a mix between appraisal, embarrassment, and confusion.
“You going to let me in?
The embarrassment won. Stiles flung himself away from the doorway, slinking away.
After Derek got dressed, he noticed Stiles was still hovering, eyes shadowed with fatigue. “Get some more rest.”
“Bite me.” In true form, Stiles ignored him and settled in the corner of the living room like an angry cat.
Derek left him alone, retreating to the kitchen. Grabbing some tools, he sat down and worked on the radio. He opened it up and, after some poking and prodding, he identified the problem—a cracked electrical doohickey. Probably from the third to seventh time he dropped it on the floor.
Unfortunately, Derek’s expertise was limited to just that—noticing that it was broken, but not knowing what it was or how to fix it. He felt defeated. He had hoped it was a loose wire or something—a thing he could actually fix.
Stiles came in soon after. He gingerly walked around Derek twice, eyeing his project closely before taking up a seat across from him. When Derek looked at him, Stiles’ eyebrows swung up. Derek’s own stomach took the moment to growl. It was then that Derek noticed the orange light streaming through the kitchen window.
After a belated offering of food to them both, Derek shoved aside the dishes and the pieces of the radio. Stiles looked unimpressed by all of this. Derek ignored him. Armed with a pad of paper, he went forward with his battle plan.
“Tell me what happened.”
Stiles’ quip was as instant as it was biting. “What, too good to write your own memoirs?”
Derek assessed him a little more carefully after that. Stiles was still sitting with him—that alone was an achievement. Even conversationally, the claws were noticeably sheathed. He’d went from viciously and confidently accusing him of crimes to… whatever this was. The accusation without yesterday’s force. The distrust paired with an inwardly directed troubled gaze and frown.
Stiles’ gaze swung to the left. He chewed on his bottom lip. “No cell phone, huh?”
“Doesn’t work out here.”
“Right.” He swallowed visibly, eyes returning to the table. “And the radio’s broken.”
Derek winced. “Convenient, I know.”
Stiles’ focus was on him again. “Don’t put words in my mouth,” he retorted, but the corner of that same mouth was hiking up involuntarily.
Sensing an opening, Derek pushed. “Tell me how it happened.” Stiles’ smile wavered. “Please. I just want to help you. Pretend I’m a cop and I’m getting your statement.”
Stiles stared at him for a long moment before slowly shaking his head. “You’re not a cop.” There was something odd and sad about the way he said that.
“Until you get into my car and to town, I’m the best you’re going to get.” When Stiles’ gaze hardened, Derek stood, retrieving his car keys. He tossed them in the space between Stiles and Derek before sitting down again. Stiles stared down at them woodenly. “You can go. Anytime! With me or without me.”
Stiles thawed, curling his pinky through the loop of the keyring. He played with it, but didn’t pick it up. “You could have booby trapped the car.”
Derek tried not to growl at that, reminding himself to be patient. Stiles might have stopped distrusting him as much, but that didn’t mean any trust had been gained. Not at all. He ran a hand through his hair, gripping it.
“I think it started happening in October,” Stiles said unexpectedly. “Early October.” When Derek just stared at him, Stiles’ eyes dropped purposefully to his pad. Oh, right. Derek started taking notes and Stiles started talking. He started talking a lot.
Stiles Stilinski was a college student, studying Psychology at a private university near Beacon County. As it turned out, Stiles was only three years younger than him, not the eight he’d assumed. He was doing well for himself—highly in debt, of course, but excelling. He even had a research internship with one of the university’s top professors. It was enough to make Derek start looking at him in a different light.
The kidnapper started on him when he was at school, trying to study. He was stalked and messed with. His credibility was damaged, even to his own brain. Then finally he was taken, thrown into a crumbling room in an abandoned building. He was used as entertainment fodder for an asshole who fancied himself a master hunter.
As much as Derek tried to keep himself objective, this story wasn’t new to him. Only Stiles had survived in the end. Laura hadn’t.
Derek blinked rapidly, trying to focus. “Did you recognize… anyone? The other guys? Your kidnapper?”
Stiles shook his head. He was fiddling with his fingers, looking troubled. “But my roommate was there before me. He-” Stiles sucked in a sharp breath, eyes dropping. “I-”
He smelled like salt, like blood too close to the surface of the skin. He was like a yo-yo winding tighter and tighter, and not just mentally either. Derek could hear it in his heart, in his lungs. When Stiles looked up again, expression strained and in visible pain, Derek reached out, grasping his forearm.
He drained what he could—the physical pain only. Black veins darted up his arm under Stiles’ watch. Strangely, Stiles went limp under that hint of Derek’s other heritage. He didn’t tense up, recoil, or pull away.
“We’ll try again later,” Derek said, not unkindly.
“Or I could take a ride in your death trap.” There was something vaguely sullen about that.
Stiles was vibrating under his hand. The second Derek removed it, Stiles shoved away from the table noisily, limping back to the bedroom. Relieved, Derek went to the couch to get some shut eye, desperately needing it.
By the time he woke up that afternoon, Stiles was gone.
Right before Stiles was poisoned—along with all his fellow prey—he had a thought that he was perhaps too satiated. That he was too full. That his thirst was too quenched.
Why now, of all times, would the Great Hunter spring for a banquet when he was loathe to give them more than water bottles and granola bars?
Now he was feeling that again, buzzing with the familiar tingle of a werewolf’s mercy. The suspicion before the pain. The calm before the storm.
It struck him that, if this was a trap, then it was tailored for him, wasn’t it? An attractive presumably single male, ready and willing to take care of his every injury. And that the man was a werewolf too didn’t escape Stiles’ notice. Of all variants of supernaturalis, werewolves had to be his absolute favorite—near and dear to his cold little heart.
This didn’t happen in real life, not outside of the equality opportunities bodice rippers he mainlined during finals season.
This was a trap designed just for him. He was too comfortable. Too satiated.
Light was on his side, but not coordination, not his body. He caught himself making circles twice and once just barely dodged stepping in a bear trap. His flight, short lived, ended when he slide into and got trapped in the dried remains of a rocky creek.
He hurt his hand, catching himself on the fall down, and that was how Derek found him, trapped, annoyed, and sitting on an overturned tree trunk, picking at his abraded palm.
Frustratingly, the guy barely reacted to the challenge of the creek. He slid down one side gracefully, shoving his hands in his pockets when he reached the bottom. He stepped over roots and rocks with each, finding his way around with practiced ease.
He stopped just a few feet from Stiles, scrutinizing him carefully. Stiles bristled, but he didn’t break the silence, feeling as if that would have been a loss… somehow.
Finally, Derek swung away from him, pointing to the left of them. “If you keep going this way, you’ll hit a mountain,” he said matter-of-factly. He pointed to the right. “But if you go that way, you’ll hit bears.” He met Stiles’ gaze. Meaningfully, he stated, “And if you keep east for half a day, I bet you can get to town on foot, even in your condition.” He frowned. “Of course, in this temperature-”
Stiles had enough. “Shut up,” he snapped. “Just- shut up.” He pushed up from the trunk. Derek reached out, but Stiles slapped hand away, staggering a few feet away. He shivered.
Behind him, Derek muttered, “My car has heating. The cabin doesn’t.”
Furious, Stiles whirled around. “What’s with you, huh? Why you gotta keep pushing!”
Derek glared right back at him, crossing his arms over his chest. “This isn’t about you anymore. You know that, right?”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Stiles growled, hands fisting.
“Do the math, Stiles!” Derek snapped. “You said so yourself. Your kidnapper was constantly replacing you guys all the time. What makes you think he stopped just because you escaped?”
What little progress they made took a sharp downturn by the time they got back to the cabin. Derek knew some of it was him, but a lot more of it was Stiles, who was going up against his own personal demons. It was a good thing he hadn’t come across Derek during his first couple of months here. He would have drowned them both.
As it was, he could look on, seeing reflections of himself in the shattered pieces of what Stiles called his life. Stiles looked on it and saw ruin. As frustrated as he was, Derek only saw rebirth, like green grass poking through scorched earth.
Three days passed like this. Derek was almost always out at night. He kept trying to find a shorter, stealthy way to town. He kept checking Braeden’s post for her replacement. He got lost twice trying to find his way to Station 8. He found out later, after consulting a map, that Station 8 and Ranger Dan were up a hill at least twenty miles away. He didn’t dare do more, not even at night with his car, even though it would have solved everything a lot quicker.
He tried only once to tell Stiles what he was doing, hoping to provoke some understanding in him. They got in a fight instead over contradictory desires, over trust and distrust. Stiles panicked when he was out of sight, but often hid or explored or straight up left. It was maddening.
In a bad moment, Stiles swore—spitted between gritted teeth—that the second Derek turned his back on him, he was vanishing. It was a petty mean thing to say, at least to Derek, who was already invested in Stiles’ wellbeing. Who was already keenly aware that Stiles had vanished once, cleanly and without fanfare.
So Derek kept looking for a quick route at night. He spent his days shuffling around like a zombie, navigating the minefield that was conversation with Stiles and catching quick naps when he could.
On the fourth day, hope shone on the horizon. Instead of heading into the kitchen to complain about breakfast, Stiles veered off to the living room. Munching on cereal, Derek picked up his bowl and followed. He almost inhaled a fluffy bit of wheat when he saw Stiles grab his keys. He looked over his shoulder at Derek with a worried expression before slipping out of the cabin.
Derek watched from the doorway as Stiles approached Derek’s car, circling it once. Swallowing visibly, he opened up the driver’s side.
Derek wasn’t sure what happened. He wasn’t sure what triggered Stiles. All he knew was one moment, Stiles was sliding into the car, and the next, he was flinging himself out of it, gasping and pale. Derek dropped everything and ran over, rubbing soothing circles in the center of Stiles’ trembling back. As soon as Stiles got his heart rate back under control, he led Stiles back inside and to the couch, piling blankets high on top of him.
He went back to the car later, hoping to find something overt, something he could remove so Stiles could try again. Instead, he could find nothing but the scent of animal fear, the same kind they kept finding in odd places around the house where Peter used to lock up his human friends “for fun”—sheer panic and terror embedded in the walls.
Derek rested his head against the driver side door, sighing. This was hard on them both, but Stiles wasn’t just being stubborn. He was trying. He was trying so hard, he pushed himself over the cliff and into a panic attack. Poor guy.
And now Stiles was sullen, beating himself up over this, thinking that the only thing he was successful at was running.
When the cabin door swing open that night, Derek wasn’t even surprised. His chest seized up in resignation and, for a moment, he wondered if he should just let Stiles go. He knew which way town was now.
But it was November. It was cold. If Stiles wanted to hike to town, there was a better way to do it. Derek rolled off the couch and to his feet. A moment later, he grabbed something from the arm of it.
By the time Derek caught up with him, Stiles’ nose had gone almost completely numb. A branch behind Stiles snapped, deliberately loud, and some part of his spine loosened. He was relieved. He hated himself, but he was relieved.
“I know which way is back. I just wanted to figure out how you were tracking me.”
The moon wasn’t full, but it was bright nonetheless, highlighting branches and rocks all along the ground. Stiles was wearing two layers of Derek’s clothes and one of his jackets, but he was still cold, hugging himself tightly.
Finally, behind him, Derek responded, “Scent. Disturbed earth. Noise. Like most people would, I imagine.”
Stiles snorted and not without amusement. The longer Stiles knew him, the more he started thinking Derek was the Batman of the forest. His smile dimmed. What did that make the Great Hunter? The Joker?
It was about time he confessed something, wasn’t it?
“Derek, I…” Stiles stopped, biting his lip. He half-turned, not quite facing Derek. He pinned his gaze to the floor. “I know I’m not making this easier for you. But I’m trying. I-” Stiles stopped, grimacing. He shook his head. “I don’t want you to be that guy. I don’t. But I can’t… I can’t be sure. He messed with our heads so much, anything you say to convince me otherwise sounds like one of his traps, one of his lies.”
Stiles looked over at Derek then, worried. There was something tight about the way Derek was holding his arms, less intimidating and more protective.
With a grim expression, Derek closed the distance between them, unfolding something he had hanging off one arm. Telegraphing his moves, he swung it—the blanket—over Stiles’ shoulders. It was still achingly warm from Derek’s body heat. Stiles shivered, gripping it.
“Oh, you’re-” You’re cute. The thought wasn’t new.
Derek tucked the blanket around Stiles more securely. “I want to protect you,” he said quietly, frowning. “Please. Tell me how.”
Stiles felt horrible. He stared at Derek longer, at a loss for words. But when Derek stepped back, accepting his silence as a rejection, Stiles’ hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. He didn’t let go. Derek ran pleasantly hot. He wanted to explain but had a hard time figuring out what to say.
Then the words came.
“Once, he said he was impressed by us. He said he was inspired by our strength. He let us compete against each other and said he would let the person who won leave.” Stiles’ mouth twisted in a thin smile. “We all… we all fought so hard and bitterly over that spot. I got fifth place. A kid named Aiden won. He head butted his own twin just to get a step ahead of him.”
He had Derek’s full attention.
“After he won, the Great Hunter took him out of his cell and paraded him in the hallway in front of us all. Some of us could see, some could only hear. I could see.” Stiles swallowed. “I saw the Great Hunter gut him in front of us in that hallway. He screamed, feet from us all, and none of us could help him. The Great Hunter dropped him there. It took him seven hours to die, Derek.”
The Great Hunts often had some sort of lesson attached—something about the importance of skill, intelligence, wit, or endurance. This one, he thought, was all about the futility of hope.
Derek looked sickened. This galvanized Stiles.
“Another time, we went to get our meal only to see someone set out a banquet for us in place of the usual crap. Bread, meat, 3 kinds of juices. There was even cookies there. We didn’t think, we just stuffed our faces. Then we found out it was poisoned. It hurt so much. And when we’d all succumbed, falling to the floor, the Great Hunter came in and flipped coins to see who would get the antidote.”
“Stiles-” He tried to pulled away. Stiles tightened his grip.
“Another time, he locked us in this room with snares and pits and blunt projectiles. The first person to fall was killed, if the trap didn’t kill them first. I fell first the last time, but I hid and let another guy die instead, and he knew it to. God, when he died, there was this… wet sound-”
“Stiles!” Derek snapped, looking revolted.
“What, Derek! You wanted to hear it!” It was then that Stiles realized how deeply his nails were digging into Derek’s wrist. He released him, shocked, his head buzzing.
Derek rubbed his wrist, but he didn’t step back, cool gaze assessing Stiles.
Stiles swallowed. “I’m- I’m sorry.” Derek stared at him for a long moment before nodding, accepting it.
Stiles dropped his eyes to the floor.
“Derek, you see, I…” Stiles sighed, pulling the blanket to himself tighter. “I want to have escaped, I really do. But I’m not sure I have.” He yanked his gaze back up. “Your offer, your protection—it doesn’t soothe me, okay? Because if you’re not the predator in this scenario, you’re a prop. And I can’t stand the idea of you-”
Stiles’ chest went tight. But finally, weak and plaintive in that cold air, the truth came out, “I can’t stand the idea of you getting hurt.”
Derek looked stunned. Stiles burrowed deeper in the blanket in self-defense, feeling his ears burn. Derek huffed out a small breath and Stiles suddenly and fiercely did not want him to say anything. But Derek didn’t. All he did was reach out and pull Stiles in his blanket fortress into a loose, but very, very warm hug.
In that moment, out in the cold and fenced in by trees, that was exactly what Stiles needed.
Derek woke up the next morning to the smell of eggs cooking. He rolled over on the couch until he was facing the ceiling. He yawned, looking at the clock. A faint twinge of guilt made him grimace. For the first night since Stiles came, he hadn’t gone out to try and find a way to town. Being with Stiles after his revelations seemed more important.
Derek’s bleary gaze dropped to the table. Page after page of report filled the surface. Once he was on board with sharing, Stiles really shared—and he had almost a month’s worth of experiences to unload.
Derek scowled darkly. He wasn’t a violent person, but he really wanted to kill this Great Hunter. But, in the meantime, Stiles was slowly coming around to the plan of letting Derek bring the police to him if he couldn’t manage the other way around. He wasn’t there yet, but he was more open to the idea, especially since his last two attempts at the car last night ended in disaster.
Stiles sailed in the room then, carrying two plates stacked high with eggs and toast. Derek sat up in time for Stiles to drop down next to him, plunking a plate in his lap. He was clearly in a good mood, practically humming. He was... well, perky wasn’t a strong enough word for it, was it?
Stiles immediately dug into his food. Between bites, he said, “So what are you? Selkie. Wendigo. Werebird. Grumpy crow?”
His thigh was pressed distractingly into Derek’s own. The food was good too. Shaking his head slightly, Derek echoed, “Grumpy crow?”
“There are two crows that hang around here. I’ve seen one around you, but not both.” He flicked his finger at Derek in an Ah Ha gesture, clearly pleased with himself.
After a beat, Derek understood. “You mean Rom and Rem.” He put his plate down on top of the papers and opened up the front door. He whistled twice before heading back to the couch, sinking back into the cushions. A moment later, a grumbling, complaining crow the size of a small cat waddled in. Seconds later, another glided in, perching himself on the back of a chair. Stiles looked mildly disappointed.
“This is Rom”—Derek pointed at the first crow—“and this is Rem.” The second crow flapped over to the table at his name, cawing loudly. Derek put his plate down again and carefully moved the papers out of the way of his claws. “I found Rom when he was a baby. He’d blown out of a tree and didn’t appreciate being approached by a supernaturalis. I tried tending to him, but he was very angry at me for my attempts.” Derek turned. Stiles was smiling at him softly. He wasn’t sure how to read that, so he continued, voice a little bit thicker. “Rom mellowed out when he realized I wasn’t going to turn him into a meal. He left for a while and brought Rem back with him. Rem’s the nicer one.”
Rem’s tail feathers pointed up as he rudely ate what was left of Derek’s breakfast.
“Is he now?” Stiles said wryly. Derek pinched his ear in retaliation and stood, swiping one of Stiles’ pieces of bread. He was swatted on the back of his thigh for his efforts.
The day went on. Derek continued on his latest project, resealing the bottom of a tub. It was a huge aluminum thing, likely used back when this area was inhabited by lumber and agricultural types of people. Derek found it a mile away from the cabin a few months back and figured it must had been used for storage. Now he had a new purpose for it—taking a bath.
Once he’d verified that the sealing was holding, he started boiling water. The only hot water out here was water heated on the stove. They didn’t have a shower either. Or, correction, they did, but it was some rusted, twisted monstrosity he’d locked up in pure suburban-raised horror. Derek lied and said it was a closet with a busted knob. Stiles hadn’t challenged him on that.
Stiles likely had an image of him as some rustic outdoors-y, handyman type. Derek wasn’t vain, but he’d hate to disappoint him with knowledge of the nightmare shower or how he’d almost called it quits within two weeks of that first summer when the lack of air conditioning reared its ugly head. Weaning himself off the internet had been ugly too. And a mistake, as it turned out.
Stiles stared incredulously at the three foot high and four foot long tub sitting in the kitchen. “Please repeat that again? I don’t think I understood it the first time.”
Faintly embarrassed, Derek nevertheless repeated himself. “I thought you might want to take a more thorough bath.” They were both using the sink, an army of washcloths, and soap, but it wasn’t good enough.
“You assume a lot.”
Derek shrugged. “It’s up to you.” He stuck his hand in the water, swirling it around. “Either you use all this warm water… or I will.”
When he made to take off his shirt, Stiles’ hand shot out. “Wait!” he bleated. “You had me at warm water.” He yanked his own shirt off at this point, stumbling to the tiny tub.
Derek backed off, smiling. It occurred to him then that he’d only found Stiles five days ago. How long ago that seemed. He still had a tiny clump of mud in his hair from Derek yanking him out of a river bank. Derek stopped him, working out the mud from his hair with his fingers before releasing him again to use the water.
Stiles wasn’t tiny. Thin, but not tiny. In hindsight, the concept of him squeezing his body into the tub would be hilarious. In the moment, though, it wasn’t. Because Stiles’ still lingering pain was all too obvious to any who watched.
Derek helped him get over the lip of the tub, subdued. Stiles had kept on his boxers, to no one’s surprise. Or rather, Derek’s boxers, if he was going to be precise. And he still had his weird little metal file tied to his arm, ready to pull out at a moment’s notice.
There wasn’t really anything to laugh about here.
Stiles sat down stiffly, groaning—and not in a good way. He was sore still and bruises were blooming darkly all over his body. To make matters worse, his dominant hand was out of commission, scraped up and wounded from his fall into a creek.
Bothered by all this, Derek busied himself, moving soap and washcloths within reach. When Stiles slowly starting washing off his front, grimacing, Derek offered, “Need help?”
Stiles froze. He hesitated, then said yes. Derek scooted to the left, dragged a rough, soapy cloth over his back.
They worked together in silence that way, Stiles handling his front and Derek handling his back. Stiles remained hunched over, knees practically to his chest and gaze straight forward. His whole body was tense.
Derek ignored this, taking over Stiles’ hair and rubbing shampoo in the slightly too long spikes. Stiles let out a shaky noise at this, but it wasn’t… necessarily… bad.
Derek washed out the shampoo with cups of water before picking up his cloth again, rubbing over Stiles’ neck and the back of his ears. It was then that he noticed the prickle of goosebumps against pale skin. He wet the cloth again and went back to his task. Slower, this time. More lingering.
The water was still fairly warm. Stiles was folded over awkwardly, ears bright red. His arms were wrapped around his legs, clutching them to himself, and he’d completely abandoned his own cloth.
When Derek shifted, senses opening up, he heard Stiles’ heartbeat, slightly elevated. He felt micro-tremors under his fingers, through the cloth, and his nose was full of something spicy and interesting that was rising and deepening with every pass he made. And when he dropped the cloth, using his fingers instead, the scent thickened and Stiles let out a soft, involuntary noise.
He also buried his head in his arms, knowing now that he was caught.
“It’s a completely natural reaction,” Derek assured him, picking the cloth back up again.
Stiles didn’t lift his head immediately, instead letting out a peep that sounded like air slowly coming out of a balloon. Then he unclenched, tipping his head back.
“Yes, Derek, I too have fallen for your manly, manly wiles.” His words were sarcastic but his tone was too shaky to pull it off. He glared at Derek over his wet shoulder. “That anyone would want to sex you up should come of no surprise.”
“It doesn’t,” Derek replied. Stiles made a face at him. “Don’t be so embarrassed.”
“Embarrassed? Are you kidding me? I was born ready for this! I have trained for every awkward sexual situation the internet has provided me. I even have dialogue ready.” He cleared his throat obnoxiously, making Derek’s eyes roll. “I like every bone in your body, especially mine. Your body is 75% water, and I’m thirsty. Those are great pants, but they’d look better on my floor. You’re so fine, you’re so fine, you blow my mind, hey-” Stiles collapsed in a mess of helpless giggling.
Derek found himself smiling fondly, watching those pale shoulders shake with mirth. “Hand.”
After a beat, a palm was offered. Derek deposited his cloth on it and stood. He paused, hesitating. Stiles looked up at him, eyes still bright, face flushed and amused.
“You know,” Derek said quietly, “if you asked me seriously, the answer wouldn’t be no.”
He turned and left, shocked silence following him.
“I can smell your temper from here,” Derek called out from the other room. “Let it out. Don’t let it build.”
Stiles fumed in silence, yanking a borrowed shirt over his wet hair. He slammed his knee into the metal tub, sending the bathwater sloshing over on both sides, soaking the knee of his borrowed pants. He swore bitterly, backing up.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. His fingers were going faintly numb, his makeshift sheath pulling tight with weight of water. Annoyed, Stiles picked at the knots, unraveling the fabric for the first time since he’d jumped into the river. He dropped it—and his file—on the kitchen table. Then he gripped the back of a chair, letting himself have a full ten count to try and get his temper under control.
Nope, didn’t work. He spun around and headed to the living room. Confrontation was always better.
Derek was sitting on the couch, a book in hand. Soft eyed, sleepy, and literate—a danger combination for Stiles’ self-control. Stiles shook his head, trying to focus.
“What the hell was that about?” Stiles jerked his thumb back into the kitchen. “In there.”
Derek didn’t look up. “I gave you space to cover yourself.”
Stiles flushed at the reminder. “Not that—much appreciated, but not that!” When Derek didn’t say anything, Stiles shifted anxiously before hissing, “The sex thing.”
That got him Derek’s eyes—and an incredulous look. “The sex thing,” Derek echoed with zero humor. “Is that why you’re angry?”
“Sex always makes me angry,” Stiles said stupidly. As far as instinctive defenses went, it was weak and not even remotely true.
And, judging by the increasing arch of Derek’s eyebrows, he knew it too. “It shouldn’t,” he said slowly, setting his book aside. “Sex can be a good thing—a lot of good different good things to a lot of people. Stress relief, therapy, bonding, a spiritual experience-”
“With you, I bet,” Stiles quipped. His cheeks felt hot and his stomach squirmy.
Derek squinted at him, gold flickering in his eyes. He looked confused. “You smell aroused, but your tone is angry. What did you want to-” He stopped talking because Stiles’ palm was over his mouth.
He didn’t fight it off. Instead, their eyes caught, held. Slowly, Stiles shuffled even closer until he was gingerly straddling his lap. Hands settled at his hips—not holding, barely even touching, but emboldening nevertheless.
Stiles replaced his palm with his lips—too quickly, too eagerly, but not eagerly enough. He was good at this, good at kissing, but his nerves were too tightly wound right now. He had a terrible feeling he was doing a great impression of an aggressive, but cold fish right now.
But then Derek took control of it. He gentled it, coaxing Stiles to relax. He cradled his jaw, soothing the ticking muscle. By the time Derek pulled away, Stiles was a puddle of pliant jello in his lap.
He stroked Stiles’ bottom lip with his thumb. “Hey, talk.”
Stiles fought the urge to burrow under the inviting crook of Derek’s jaw, even if only to dodge the man’s current soft, but penetrating gaze. “You hate talking.”
“Not to you.”
Stiles turned his head, pressing a sigh against the firm resistance of Derek’s shoulder. “I’m just… pissed. That it couldn’t be under different terms.” He looked at Derek again. “That I couldn’t have met you somewhere else. Before this. Before being so useless and broken and-“
You would have liked me, he thought.
Derek frowned at him. “You were kidnapped. Assaulted. Terrorized. Imprisoned. And yet you survived the weeks. You survived a jump into a river.” Stiles pressed his face into Derek’s palm wordlessly. “Useless and broken is not how I would describe you.”
Something like a smile pressed at his lips, wanting to break free. He frowned instead, picking at a thread hanging from Derek’s collar.
“I want you, Derek,” he said slowly. “But I don’t think I could stand having you on top of me… for the same reasons I can’t stand being in a car with you.” He looked up apologetically at that.
Derek smiled faintly. “We can work with that,” he whispered, pressing a kiss to Stiles’ forehead. It was ridiculous how such a simple gesture could get his heart pounding.
But that was nothing in comparison to the galloping it did when Derek pushed up, getting to his feet. When Derek took his hand and drew him back to the bedroom. When Derek pulled him gently on the bed.
Derek laid back on the pillows, half-seated. Stiles found himself immediately tucking into the warmth of him, nearly face planting on his shoulder. He breathed in deeply, his mind calming. Smell was intrinsically tied to memory. Derek didn’t smell like anything but Derek to him, like wild things and sweat, things Stiles had come to associate with this place, with safety.
The Great Hunter had smelled like sour metal and old blood.
Derek seemed content just to lay with him. Can't have that.
Stiles snuck a thigh between Derek’s and set his teeth once in his shoulder, looking up at him mischievously.
Derek groaned. “What, Stiles.”
Stiles let go of his mouthful with a pop. “Cuddling is good. We can revisit this topic later. But-” Stiles scooted the rest of the way over and into Derek’s lap. “Sex was on the table and now you’re stalling. What’s the deal?”
Derek was hard under him. Stiles idly rolled his hips—for science, of course—and Derek let out a small grunt. His hands shot out and gripped Stiles’ waist hard, but not in a way that stop Stiles from what he was doing, he noticed. Derek’s cheeks were warming with a pleasant flush.
“I was just remembering I ran off to hide in a cabin in the middle of the woods.” Derek’s face was a full on grimace now.
“So,” Derek said, drawing out the word. “I haven’t bottomed in a while and I wasn’t planning on entertaining.” Pressing a hand to Stile’s lower back to keep him in place, Derek leaned over to his nightstand. It was quite a stretch. He yanked open the drawer with a grunt and pulled out a half used bottle of lotion, dropping it on the mattress.
It took Stiles a second to understand what Derek was trying to say. When he did, he cackled. “You’re such a 14 year old boy! Lube. Lube is a thing, even for solo performances.”
“Screw you,” Derek huffed. He was clearly trying very hard to scowl.
“Aw.” Stiles leaned in, biting on his smile. “Kiss and makeup?”
Derek allowed it—more than allowed it, even, sliding the tips of his fingers down the back of Stiles’ pants.
They undressed gradually, languorously pulling articles of clothes from each other. Derek’s chest was as beautiful as Stiles remembered, but covered with a soft layer of hair he’d somehow missed in the dark. He didn’t have a single scar—perks of being a supernaturalis—but laved worshipful attention over Stiles’ own.
It was good. Stiles was good. Stiles felt… great, even. Loved. Engaged. And yet…
He was starting to feel queasy, and guilty for it. Because here was a beautiful man, one who was kind and gentle and had given him more chances than he deserved. And Stiles couldn’t turn off the part of his brain that was imagining a target plastered between his naked shoulder blades.
Derek eventually noticed that he was closing off—how could he not? Stiles tried to hide it, kissing Derek fiercely to hide the fact that his skin was prickling with unease. Derek kissed back, but turned it into an intimate, gentle thing that scattered Stiles’ thoughts.
Then he was gone, moving out from under Stiles and getting up from the bed. He was out of the room before Stiles scrambled up on his knees, bewildered and flustered by this new development. He felt like crap. Had he really screwed this up so horribly?
Before Stiles’ mind could spin off into worse and worse scenarios, Derek was back in the room, carrying something. Between his hands was what Stiles had left on the kitchen table just before confronting Derek—his file and makeshift sheath.
He gave it to Stiles wordlessly, sitting on the edge of the bed. Stiles took it from him. Something settled in his stomach, chasing away the uneasy feeling of being hunted. How did-
How did Derek know?
Stiles stared at him incredulously. Derek just cocked his head, looking puzzled at his expression.
Stiles instantly pounced on him, flattening him to the mattress.
The rest of their clothes went away in a flash. Derek sat up, dragging Stiles back into his lap. Then he took them both in a slicked up hand, lining them up together for an experimental squeeze. Stiles almost choked on his spit. He dove forward, digging his face into Derek’s shoulder, overwhelmed. He clutched at his arms, panting, aware that the rough flat side of the file was probably irritating Derek’s bare skin, but too gone to care.
Derek drove them higher and higher, punching little wounded sounds out of Stiles. For the most part, Stiles stayed still, clamping on Derek so hard with his legs that his knees creaked. He found that ninety percent of his focus was on that file, peeking rigid and wrong over the pleasing curve of Derek’s shoulder.
Finally, Derek gripped his hair, pulling it back until Stiles willingly arched his neck.
Thankfully, he didn’t look mad. “Want to see you,” Derek panted. “Kiss you, know you’re here-” His nails scraped over the back of Stiles’ neck, making him rock down, hard. Derek’s fingers tightened. “Good boy.”
Stiles shuddered, but didn’t hide his face again. Instead, he dragged Derek into a sloppy, open mouthed kiss. A thumb rubbed hard over the head of his cock, making him hitch hard into Derek’s laughing mouth.
“Dick,” he breathed.
Derek’s eyes danced with equal heat, amusement, and fondness.
That was the last time they spoke.
Heated breath skated over Stiles’ cheek as they parted to pant and breathe as the tension built up tighter and tighter. Soon enough, Stiles found himself panting up at the ceiling, leaning back as Derek pressed a sucking kiss under the crook of his jaw. He tightened his thighs around Derek, whining softly.
Needing an extra hand, he dropped the file, burying it in Derek’s hair. The other dropped to their laps, clasping around the both of them and squeezing.
Derek’s breath hitched sharply. Suddenly, there were warm spurts over his cock. Stiles, on a hair trigger at this point, went off like a shot, shouting with the intensity of it.
He came down from the high of it to the feeling of Derek rumbling contently in his throat, nuzzling Stiles’ collarbone with both teeth and tongue. Stiles kissed him fiercely, opened mouthed and possessive. Rocking against him gently and all Stiles could think was that he could definitely go for another round.
And for that sweet moment, Stiles’ mind wasn’t on anything but Derek and the space between them.
Derek woke up alone in his bed. He stretched, inhaling the new smell in the room. Sex had been had here, he thought lazily before flipping over, nose buried in a pillow. It smelled like Stiles. Smiling sleepily, he pulled it to him.
Stiles, Stiles, Stiles. Derek yawned, rolling over again and taking the pillow with him. He blinked blearily at the ceiling.
He’d had sex with Stiles. Twice, actually. And it was good. Not that he hadn’t expected it to be, of course, but he’d half-expected to be stabbed. He would hate having to deal with the aftermath. Derek would heal, but Stiles would be very upset.
Derek sat up, planting his feet on the ground. He found himself smiling still. He felt very… dopey. Happy, kind of. He wasn’t really sure why. Sure, he’d had a long stretch of, how did Stiles put it, solo performances.
But it wasn’t like he hadn’t had sex before. He usually wasn’t so…
He was happy. He remembered Stiles pressing a hand to his heart last night. He remembered Stiles laughing four inches away—at his expense, of course—but so bright and uncontained in his mirth. He remembered Stiles staring at the way Derek’s had threaded their fingers together. He remembered Stiles pulling their hands to his mouth, pressing a kiss to Derek’s knuckles, thick dark eyelashes swooping low.
Yeah. He was really happy. Such a fragile, strange feeling.
He could hear Stiles’ heartbeat in the kitchen. Before he knew it, he had on a pair of boxers and was heading out of the room on bare feet. He found Stiles in the kitchen, dressed in three layers of Derek’s clothes. He had a mug of coffee in front of him, but it was being ignored in favor of the radio. Running long fingers over the exposed wires, he squinted at it thoughtfully. His other hand was propping up his chin.
Derek felt an unexpected shot of arousal at the sight. He wanted, suddenly. Most ardently. He wanted to press nipping kisses from Stiles’ feathery hair line down. He wanted to press Stiles against the table and drop those pants. He wanted to yank those noises out of him that he’d tried so hard not to make last night while simultaneously muffling them with his mouth. He wanted.
Then Stiles looked over at him. After a beat, he shot Derek a wan smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Derek’s desire shifted to something more intimidate, more lingering. He pulled up a chair next to Stiles, facing him. “When you want to talk, I’m here.”
Stiles snorted, but not cruelly. He shot Derek a complicated, sheepish expression. “I’m making it hard for you, aren’t I,” he asked without inflection. He smiled thinly. “You’re trying to be good to me, and I won’t even get in the car with you.”
Derek swallowed. “It’s okay. You have to protect yourself.” Then, slowly, because it hurt, he said, “You aren’t sure I’m not that guy.”
Stiles shook his head. “Lack of trust was only a part of it,” he admitted. He cocked his head slightly, tucking the heel of his other hand under his chin as well. “Did I tell you where he took me from?”
Derek thought back. “Your dorm room,” he recalled.
“My dorm room,” Stiles echoed sadly. His smile took an angry edge. “In a building of a hundred people. On a campus that overstaffed its security and armed them with cameras on every corner of every building.” The horrid smile fell. His voice dropped into a whisper. “All that, and he still took me.”
“Stiles-” Derek started. Then he stopped, not knowing what to say.
“If I go to the cops, I’ll go back to that place he so easily took me from. Taking me from a hotel would be like stealing candy from a baby. And if I went home”—here, his eyes became distressingly shiny—“well, he’d take me from my childhood bed, wouldn’t he? And who knows who he would hurt along the way.”
Derek didn’t remember reaching for Stiles’ hand, but there it was—cold and pale between two of his own.
“It’s like Green Eggs and Ham, you know?” That terrible smile was bad. “Not safe here, not safe there, not safe anywhere-”
Derek couldn’t take it anymore. He pulled Stiles to him, folding him into a hug. Stiles didn’t hug him back, but he leaned into him, shuddering.
Life went on after his mini-breakdown. The sky didn’t fall. The world didn’t end. The Great Hunter didn’t knock on the door, asking for a cup of sugar. Derek took great pains not to put pressure on Stiles, but he did start up his nightly excursions again—and yeah, Stiles knew about those. Derek never brought it up again after that first fight, but Stiles connected the dots on his own and knew Derek was trying to catch a ranger or a cop—or anyone—somewhere near the cabin.
It made Stiles feel like shit, like he was an asshole for not letting Derek go during the day—with or without him.
He tried to give Derek permission once, but ended up almost choking himself the anxiety of just thinking about Derek being too far away. Derek calmed him, assuring him that he’d run into a hiker sooner or later. It would be fine.
It wasn’t fine.
The only thing that was fine was them. Their relationship was great—give and take, snark and snarkee. There was a level of intimacy to it that Stiles wasn’t used to, but it was mutual. Stiles told him about his dad, his mom, and Scotty, his almost-brother. He told him about his friends and what college was like. Derek told him about his mom. About his family. About Laura.
They didn’t talk about supernaturalis. It hit a raw nerve with Derek every time.
But the sex was fantastic. He still couldn’t stand weight on him. For science, he grabbed one of Derek’s heavy legs one morning and threw it over his own. He couldn’t take it for more than forty seconds before bolting up, throwing it off him. He vengefully rearranged the kitchen after that, trying to beat down memories of being shoved down, stepped on, almost crushed in the rush of a Great Hunt.
Subdued by the reaction, Derek let him be.
But, no, the sex was awesome. That morning, he’d even gotten his mouth on Derek, which was great. He was tentatively breaching bottoming for him, but had a feeling it wasn’t going to happen. Not with their current supplies. Stiles pined for his industrial-sized lube.
He wasn’t as worried about condoms. Melissa would hit him over the head for such thoughts… but he just wasn’t, you know? Supernaturalis didn’t carry diseases or develop cancer or any of the other small millions of things that plague sapiens. Pregnancy wasn’t a risk either.
Though, personally, Stiles did prefer condoms, but that was more because of the mess. He’d jerk off in a condom in he wasn’t so clumsy and liable to slingshot it across the room.
Stiles was… good. Calmer and calmer with each day. Feeling less and less like he needed to keep looking over his shoulder.
So… it didn’t make sense why he was feeling worse. This scratchy shaking feeling was building up in him.
He was in this bubble of isolation—safe, not thinking, just existing. It was the height of selfishness, and he knew it. It was a miserable hole in the world, that abandoned building. All he could think about was the number of guys who been there with them when he was capture. How quickly they were replenished.
Most of all, he thought about how many guys were before him. And how many guys came after.
He might have been strong enough to survive, but he wasn’t strong enough to stand up, to make his continued existence worth it.
He might as well have died in that river.
There was something wrong with Stiles. Derek didn’t push, and so two more days passed before Stiles would give words to whatever was making him so jittery. When they kissed, he did so hard, fiercely. When they spoke, he was cutting and rude. When Derek tried to reach out, he snapped back at him, then reeked of guilt and misery.
Finally, he ended up stabbing his thigh. On accident, of course. Derek kneeled between his knees, dressing it apprehensively. He was dreading the outcome of this, anticipating Stiles complaining bitterly about being patronized.
But when Derek looked up, Stiles was staring down at him. His eyes were huge and wet.
Derek immediately tried to retreat. He flinched when Stiles reached for him, clapping his cheeks between his hands. “Don’t, don’t,” Stiles pleaded in a thick whisper. He pressed their foreheads together, eyes wide and filled with pain. “I need you.”
Derek swallowed, palming Stiles’ knees. Then, quickly, he nodded.
They breathed in each other’s air, staring at each other for a long, drawn out moment. Then Stiles smiled faintly back mere inches.
“Tomorrow,” he said, a flicker of unease passing over his face.
Derek was confused. “What?” He’d wanted to have his cake and eat it too for so long—could this really be happening? Was there really a version of events where he could satiate both his desire to protect Stiles and his desire to keep Stiles’ opinion of him intact?
“Tomorrow,” Stiles repeated. “Tomorrow, we can go.” He looked troubled. “Come with me?”
“Of course,” Derek replied dubiously. “But what if you’re triggered?”
Stiles rolled his eyes. When he replied, he sounded more like himself. “Then knock me over the head and take me anyway.”
“I might do that on principle.”
Stiles pinched his cheek. “Ass.” Derek captured the offending hand, holding it hostage. When he looked up, he saw that Stiles’ eyes had softened. “I… trust you. I do.” Stiles took in a deep breath, voice strengthening. “I trust you.”
Derek hid his smile in the tender skin of Stiles’ wrist.
They didn’t even wait in the end. Stiles got jittery and panicky an hour after his decision. When Derek tentatively broached the topic, Stiles was all on board. They ate first, then gathered everything they needed.
For Derek, that was his keys and his wallet. For Stiles, that was potential evidence—his old clothes, Greenberg’s ID card, his metal file, Derek’s notes, his notes—even his old bandages from that first night, much to Derek’s disgust.
Stiles packed it all in one box and gave it to Derek, who packed it in a black Jeep. It was almost a twin of the one he had outside of his dorm room, except it was a new model. Derek ended up pocketing his file when Stiles kept putting it in and taking it out of the box. Stiles surprised at himself when he was more interested in flirting than fiddling with his security blanket. Huh.
So. Yeah. Stiles kind of really… liked the guy. To the surprise of no one, he was aware. But still…
What did this mean for them? He hated to cling, but if anyone was worth clinging to, it was Derek. Maybe they could talk about it on the way down to town. He could feel out Derek and where Stiles stood in the future of one Mr. Derek Hale.
Stiles was in charge of doing a last sweep of the cabin, but somehow got distracted along the way. He felt odd sort of preemptive nostalgia for the place—for the fire place that had warmed him that terrible first night. For the crows that swung by during meals, scratching at the windows with their beaks. For the bed he eventually shared with Derek for both fun and comfort. For the kitchen table holding up the still broken radio, which was…
Making noise? Stiles crossed the cabin, frowning. He tried to make out the voices, but it sounded like when someone was flipping through all the frequencies at once. There were human voices there, but they rose high and lose, muddling together and making no sense. An electronic whine started overpowering them, mounting higher and higher until something audibly popped within it—popped several more times, shedding sparks.
And then it was silent. Stiles was frozen near the doorway, his hair standing straight up.
Outside, he heard Derek’s voice. That dragged him back to reality. He let out a shaky breath, rocking back on his heels. “Not all of us have supernatural hearing, Derek!”
Still rattled, he headed outside. He tried to remember his conviction to do right by the other guys. He tried to remember Derek’s support and the early light of the morning when Derek gently kissed him awake. He could do this.
The Jeep doors were open on both sides. It was still outside and strangely silent. Even nosy Rom and Rem, who were swooping around just an hour earlier, were missing. There was a heaviness to the air he couldn’t decipher, like the breeze before lightning struck.
“Derek?” Stiles called out, voice wobbling. He rounded the Jeep.
Derek was there, alright. He was face down on the ground with a pick axe in his back.
Stiles didn’t scream. He didn’t cry. He just stood here with a hollow, cold feeling in his gut. He tilted his head slightly to the side, expecting the voice behind him.
“Long time no see, Stiles.”
There was a pinch to the back of his neck. The drug dropped him almost immediately. He didn’t fight it. And because he didn’t fight it, he was dropped right next to Derek, paralyzed and numb, with a perfect view of Derek’s sightless, closed eyes.
Then Stiles was dragged away.
When Stiles woke up, it was with life.
He screamed and screamed until his throat went raw. It rang with rage and loss and hatred. It echoed off familiar walls, the same walls he had stared at for almost a month, thinking any day was his last.
He was back in the lumber building. This time, Derek was with him, a bloody mess on the floor, pick axe still embedded in him.
Stiles crumbled next to him, strength retreating. He sat there limply on his knees, forlorn.
Hours later, the door opened behind him. Stiles blinked slowly. He felt cottony, like he was falling backwards off of a cliff. “Why couldn’t you leave us alone.”
There was a faint laugh. Stiles’ head was roughly rubbed, almost with affection. Then it was shoved aside as the Great Hunter, deer skin and all trudged past him. “I must show that I am proficient in all forms of the hunt, including catch and release.”
“And him?” Stiles watched dully as the Great Hunter set a foot in Derek’s shoulder blade.
“Your friend here was just bait,” was the careless reply. The pick axe was abruptly ripped out, and with some force. Stiles had the faintest impression of a missed opportunity, and nothing more.
The pick axe was leveled at his throat. He lifted his chin, staring blankly along the end of it where the handle was being gripped. The face above it was pulled, of all things, into a wide, appreciative smile. “Congratulations, Stiles. You’ve exceeded all expectations.”
Stiles couldn’t care less. The last of him had been carved out and laid to rest besides a black Jeep. He licked his lips. “Who the hell are you?”
“To you? Your god. To others, well…” The Great Hunter hesitated, making a face. He swung the pickaxe down, away from Stiles’ throat. “I guess some have gotten away with calling me Theo.”
Theo, Stiles thought. What a boring name for such a hateful person.
Theo leaned over, clapping Stiles’ shoulder briskly. He looked at Stiles up close, satisfied with what he saw. “The second phase starts tomorrow.”
“Second phase,” Stiles echoed without inflection.
“Yes. What would a hunter be without an apprentice?” Theo made a parting gesture near his head. “Rest up.”
He left, taking the pick axe with him.
Stiles listened as the latch outside closed, as the padlock clicked shut. He took in a solid breath, realizing he hadn’t in a while. Then he took another, then another, each one quicker than the last. Finally, he hiccupped, hands crashing to his face as he finally came face to face with reality. Under his palms, his nose was scrunching up from the force of trying to choke back the tears already pouring down his face.
It wasn’t cathartic. Just pathetic.
Pathetic or not, he couldn’t leave Derek on the floor. He crawled closer, smearing his wrist over his eyes.
Through much effort and force, he dragged Derek’s pliant body onto the cot. At last minute, he set Derek on his side. This way, he could-
He could pretend, just a little. He cradled Derek's hand.
Derek was still so warm. His skin still had give to it. Stiles pressed his forehead to the curve of Derek’s hip, eyes clenched shut in grief.
A moment later, though, he pulled away. He dug his fingers into Derek’s pocket and pulled out a file. His file, to be precise, bits of fabric still hanging haphazardly from the end.
Stiles woodenly sat down on the door next to the bed, rewrapping his makeshift sheath around his forearm. He pulled his sleeve—Derek’s sleeve—over it, hiding it from view. Finally, he tipped to the side where he sat, laying on that hard floor until, eventually, his will gave out.
Stiles woke up with a start, rocketing off of the hard floor he’d made his bed. He was kept from going very far by the hand clamped hard over his mouth. Panicking, he lashed out, digging nails into the thick bicep closest to him. Then he saw who the hand belonged to.
Derek caught the back of his head before it hit the floor. His skin was faintly gray around his vibrant eyes, but he was as warm as ever. “Ssh,” he said unnecessarily. He peeled his palm off of Stiles’ mouth.
In turn, Stiles gentled his grip on his arm, but didn’t release it. “You’re… you’re alive,” he croaked, eyes darting all over his face. “How?”
Derek’s mouth twisted. “I told you already. I’m a monster.” As if to prove his point, his eyes were flickering a grumpy, intermittent gold.
Stiles swallowed harshly. He scooted back and into a seated position. “But you- you looked dead.”
“Then we’re even.” A hint of humor pulled at his mouth. “Please check for pulses before signing any death certificates in the future.”
“Hypocrite,” Stiles replied dully and with no enjoyment. Derek frowned at that. Stiles barely registered the expression change. Instead, he reached out, skating the tips of his fingers over Derek’s right temple, pads catching on dried blood.
“He clocked me with the pickax,” Derek said, sounding annoyed. He rolled his shoulder, looking pained, and his eyes flared gold for a solid thirty seconds.
Those same eyes widened when Stiles threw himself forward, wrapping his arms strongly around his upper back. He buried his face in Derek’s neck, breathing in the familiar scent of him.
“This is where he kept me,” Stiles told him matter-of-factly.
Derek’s chest expanded against his. Arms curled protectively, uselessly, across Stile’s lower back. “God, Stiles,” Derek whispered, “what did he do to you?”
Stiles was standing just a few feet from him, arms crossed tightly over his chest. His long sleeve shirt—Derek’s, really—highlighted how thin he was. It hung loose across his chest, forcing the collar to dip low, and tight across his shoulders. Besides that, Stiles didn’t look all that much different than he had a few hours ago, when they had plans to leave. A little dirtier, maybe. No less healthy.
If there wasn’t any overt sign of his damage, then it had to be just that dead eyed stare that Derek was reacting to.
He hadn’t seen those eyes in days. Hadn’t thought he’d ever see them again. Had hoped he wouldn’t, actually.
Damn it. He shouldn’t have been so selfish. He should have ran all night that first night. He should have got Stiles the help—the protection—he needed. He shouldn’t have indulged his need to make things better.
Because everyone knew he only broke things in the end.
Derek bracketed the door of the room with this hands, examining it. Not this time. Not this person. Not Stiles.
“It’s padlocked shut,” Stiles informed him.
“Uh huh.” Derek straightened to his full height.
There was a pause. “Derek, it’s-”
Wood hit the hallway with a might crash. The other half of the door—the one that hadn’t gone flying—swung wildly inward, still connected by a hinge. Derek lowered his foot to the ground and stepped out into the hallway. He glanced at the intact padlock, then back at Stiles.
Stiles didn’t seem thrilled but he followed Derek out regardless, squinting into the flickering lights. Immediately outside of the room, they were faced with a decision. To the left was a long hallway that opened up into a large room. At the end of this room was a door with windows on either side. Through these windows shone appealing afternoon light.
To the right was dim, barely lit darkness that headed further downward with a flight of stairs. There was nothing appealing about this choice, except for one thing.
The bastard that attacked him, knocked him out, and kidnapped Stiles? His scent, recently left behind, went down that staircase.
Derek’s mouth flattened into a thin line. He lifted his arm, pointing to the left. “Go now.” He started going right.
Stiles caught his arm. “Hey, hey- what are you doing?”
“Bad guy is down that way.”
Stiles’ face screwed up in irritation. “And that makes sense, how?” He curled both arms around Derek’s elbow, pulling his arm to left. “Let’s leave. Both of us.”
The plea almost undid him. “I can’t- I can’t leave him here. You’ll never be safe. You’ll never be able to sleep. I have to do this, to protect you.”
“Are you kidding me?” He wasn’t impressed. “This isn’t some guy you beat up because he makes fun of me. He’s a serial killer!”
“And I’m supernaturalis,” Derek said, pulling his arm out of Stiles’ grip. He went down the hallway, to the dark stairway that went to who knew where.
“That only goes so far,” Stiles called after him. “He’s very good at killing people, Derek!”
Derek went down the steps and quickly out of sight. The lighting was bad up on the previous floor, but it was worse in the stairs. Old light strips flickered and sparked impotently, casting shadows oddly over the trash and debris that littered the space. But Derek didn’t need much to see, so he headed steadily down two flights of stairs until it evened out into another hallway.
The only way forward was through a thick metal door with faded caution symbol painted on its surface.
Behind him, someone crashed down the steps with more speed than efficiency. Derek turned, raising an eyebrow at the sight of Stiles bad-temperedly pulling his foot out of a bucket. When he finally got free, he shook off his shoulders, jutting his chin out challengingly.
“I go when you go, asshole.”
“I-” Stiles’ eyes glittered with suppressed fury. Derek changed tactics. “Fine. You stay close to me, okay?”
Stiles agreed, though only sullenly. He fell into step behind Derek. Together, they appraised the door.
“It’s the inner kill center,” Stiles revealed, voice thick. He glanced over at Derek. “It used to be a cutting and distribution center for lumber.”
“Anything useful left?” Derek asked, thinking quickly.
“No. Just random pits, platforms, and saw blades.”
“So you’ve said before,” Derek murmured, approaching the door.
“You got anything to add?” Stiles snapped cattily.
He closed his hand around the knob. He paused, thinking. Then he said, “Only one thing.” He opened the door a fraction, hesitating still. “I’ve never smelled so much old blood before.” It was nauseating.
He opened up the door the rest of the way, blinking in the bright fluorescent lights above them. Stiles’ description had been true to form. Pits built into the floor had their gates torn up, drops exposed. Platforms were set at different levels, some sturdy looking, most not. Canvas and rope, chains and boxes connected and divided everything. And, if Stiles was to be believed, every other step was a trap waiting to happen.
Derek glanced back at Stiles. At the movement, Stiles turned to him, a questioning look on his face.
Derek cycled through a couple of responses before settling on one. “I smell human.”
Just then, chains rattled across the room, stealing their attention. And then, like some massive battleship had put down its anchor just next door, a great horn went off. Alarmed, Stiles grabbed his arm.
Then something snapped like a rubber band—a catapult launching concrete blocks. Derek and Stiles scattered, jumping away just in time to watch the block take a chunk out of the wall.
Derek only had a second to watch Stiles duck nimbly under a swinging log before his leg was yanked tight, upside down, and into the air. He quickly clawed at the rope, landing back on the ground. A swinging wood post caught him hard in the side, driving the air from his lungs. He dug his heels in, catching and breaking a spear as it flung itself towards his neck.
Quick footsteps pounded on the metal platform above him and then, suddenly, weight dropped on him—a grown man’s worth. Rust scented claws dug into his neck without finesse. Derek threw himself back into one of the makeshift walls, denting it with his attacker’s body.
His hat—or hood—slipped off. It was a hideous thing, sour smelling with antlers jutting out the top.
His heart racing, Derek pulled away quickly, watching a man he didn’t recognize groan and pull himself free. The man spat blood out of his mouth and turned snapping, pale, livid eyes on Derek.
With a furious roar, the man ran at him, digging metal gauntlets into his side. Gritting his teeth, Derek sidestepped him, raking a claw mark from hip to shoulder.
Half the traps weren’t even active, Stiles discovered. The Great Hunter—Theo—hadn’t been expecting them. Or, if he had, he hadn’t had enough time to set up his usual entertainment. Hadn’t had enough time to cover up his tracks. Hadn’t had enough time to lock the back door.
Past the internal screaming, past the sense that he was finally back where he belonged, a little voice in the back of his head whispered that it had a hunch. That the infallible was fallible. That this balloon of evil and nastiness had a hole in it.
He made it to the back of the kill center at a half-run. He looked up at a small black box set high in the corner. It blinked a red light at him. Scowling, Stiles dropped down to his hands and knees under the security door. It was usually padlocked shut—not today.
There were a couple of rooms behind here. The first one looked like a lobby. Besides the rolling door itself, the only things was a series of boxes covered in dust. A quick peek revealed granola bars and water—the same kind they were fed as prisoners. Skittish, Stiles backed away from that and headed to the next room.
There was an impressive little set up there. Stiles sat down, staring up a vast array of monitor—security cameras. The feed was live. He looked at each one, breath tight in his chest.
There was a camera in every cell. There was seven in the main kill center alone, three in the cafeteria, and six outside. There was even one in the communal bathrooms.
It didn’t take him long to find Theo. When he did, he stared, stunned.
If he thought Theo was bad when they tried to fight back, this was a hundred times worse. Stiles flinched when Derek was kicked off a set of stairs. Theo sprung down after him, armed with a pipe. Derek rolled just in time to avoid getting his head smashed in. Theo roared at the insult, shifting his hold on the pipe from hitting to stabbing. Derek was hit straight in the sternum.
Stiles clapped his hand over his mouth, horrified.
They were fighting over the pole now. Then Theo stopped pulling and started pushing. He pushed until Derek was forced over and into a pit of spikes.
Panicking, Stiles slapped at the controls in front of him until he found the right camera angle. It wasn’t as dire as he thought. Derek landed near the wall and was spared many unyielding points. He was already breaking the spikes apart, dragging himself closer to the wall. He watched Derek grit his teeth, his ears long, his cheeks furry, healing before his eyes. But there was a huge length of spike quivering in his thigh.
He was incapacitated for the moment. He was vulnerable. Stiles took over the controls again, switching through the feeds. If Theo acted now-
Wait. The Great Hunter was gone.
Stiles’ fingers froze over the keyboard, heart pounding in his ears. Dread threatened to choke him. Derek was incapacitated at the moment. Contained. Theo only had one more rat running free of the cage, and he never did like them roaming free.
Stiles was Theo's next target.
Swallowing harshly, Stiles lurched to his feet, knocking the chair over. He headed for the third room, the darkest of them all. He saw only metal shelves at the entrance and assumed it was a storage space.
It immediately revealed itself to much bigger.
He ran into something hard and unforgiving in the center of the room, covered in paper. He groped around blindly until his hands found another metal edge. Then he darted towards it, crouching low behind it just as the lights flicked on.
Stiles blinked spots out of his vision. Once he could see, he peered through the gaps of the shelves. He was quickly distracted by the shelves themselves, which were heavy with personal belongings—bags, cell phones, music players, laptops, and more. He had a hard time telling if they were Theo’s trophies or if they were investments—things to sell to keep up the murder business.
Stiles dropped that line of thought entirely when he saw what was in the middle of the room. It was… an effigy? Maybe? It was constructed of hay and wood. There was no legs, feet, or arms, but there was a massive torso and, above it, a great head with an even greater set of antlers. Some kind of horned god.
That wasn’t even the strangest part. Drawings were there too—detailed little things. Blueprints, diagrams, brainstorms, they were all attached to the effigy, making up a paper armor over the wood and hay exterior.
Stiles' eyes widened in surprise. The drawings were the traps.
“Glorious, isn’t it?” Stiles flinched, shooting up to his full height. He turned, recoiling at the sight of Theo just behind him, cleaning his gauntlet, his metal claws, with a blue cloth. He had sidled up to him without making any noise.
Contrary to the rage and hatred with which he attacked Derek, Theo was regarding him with something that resembled good humor. Stiles stared. Theo was no longer wearing his hood or his horns. Used to seeing his jaw, his neck, Stiles found his eyes darting all over the rest of the picture.
Theo was smiling. He was good looking, but not too good looking. Tall, but not too tall. He was white and his hair was black. He looked like Stiles. They weren’t twins, but there was enough similarities in their looks to make his gut clench. He was pale from blood loss and had an impressive cut from hip to shoulder.
Theo nodded to the effigy behind him. “His name is Cernunnos. God of the Hunt.” He laughed. “It’s really, really hard to get the favor of a god. Even if they’re interested in you.” He shot Stiles a bright smile as he passed, stopping just under the effigy. “They’re not good at returning their calls.” He tapped his metal hand against the papered surface reverently before abruptly spinning, gesturing at it. “But here is the evidence of my prowess! I have successfully proven to him that I am proficient in every type of hunt. It’s only a matter of time before he honors me for the diversity of my skills.” He gestured from the top of the effigy to the very bottom of it, as if inviting Stiles to share in its genius.
Psychotic and braggy, it seemed.
Stiles’ eyes jumped from page to page, recognizing some traps, but not others. But he was his father’s son. The pattern jumped out at him immediately and, stupidly, he muttered, “…Diverse?”
Theo stiffened. “Commentary, Stiles?” His eyes swept back, locking with Stiles’. They were very, very cold. “That’s not very smart of you.”
Stiles’ eyelids fluttered with unease. He swallowed. Backtracking, he pointed at the horned god. “Y- you want an A+ from your god of choice, but you won’t take constructive criticism from one of your rats in a cage?” Please buy it, please buy it, please oh please buy it.
Theo’s eyes were narrow. Finally, he let out a low laugh, shoulders loosening. “I’ll allow it.” He gestured for Stiles to come closer with an exaggerated bow.
He didn’t really have a choice, did he?
As Stiles approached, Theo’s smile curled. Stiles distinctly remembered him climbing on top of a boy and choking the life out of him when he dared to fight back. Stiles shivered, looking up at the effigy itself. Exhaustion weighed on every inch of him.
There was only one way this was going to end.
Theo was going to kill him.
Nevertheless, he went on with the farce, touching the effigy with the tips of his fingers. His eyes moved sluggishly from drawing to drawing as he gathered his thoughts, collecting his final words. Finally, he knew what he wanted to say.
“Always feared, never fearing. Always chasing, never faced.” Stiles lingered on an early drawing of the kill center of the old building. “How many people have you killed with deceit and lies instead of straightforward pursuit?”
“Even deer hunters use traps,” Theo said in a mocking voice. Stiles could hear his smile.
“Certain types of deer hunters use traps,” Stiles corrected. “And some use them exclusively.” Stiles’ voice sharpened. “But you’re the one who set a higher bar for yourself, remember?”
Theo wasn’t smiling any more. “Explain.”
Stiles stalled, looking at the lake trap. Easy, simple. Train your victims to fear and listen to you, then drug them and set them out on the lake for a fishing trip—with them as the fish, of course. Stiles ripped down the drawing in a fit of pique. Then another. Then a third. As he ripped down a fourth, he spat, “It’s all one type of hunt dressed in a bunch of different skins, you know that?” He couldn’t stop. Rage was building in him, turning into venom. “Traps, tricks, and lies. Your work is not revolutionary. It’s derivative. Pathetic-”
“And you could do better?” Theo retorted, voice turned ugly. “What, you think Cernunnos would favor you over me? You don’t have what it takes!”
“I don’t know, I’m not a murderer, Theo-”
Suddenly, there was the faintest sensation of motion behind Stiles. Alert, he instantly threw himself back, colliding with Theo. He spun around, driving the man into the closest shelf. He twisted Theo’s arm until he dropped the knife.
Then he wasn’t there anymore. He was panicking, he was running, there was a horn blasting behind him-
Theo head butted him. Stiles cried out, staggering back. Pain blinded him for a moment. It cleared in time for him to see Theo on the ground, lunging for his knife. Stiles kicked out, a lucky shot that hit Theo in the gut. Theo rolled away several times, grimacing and holding his stomach, but, somehow, still moving-
Desperate, Stiles fell on the knife, trying to grasp it between slippery, sweaty fingers.
He was hitting the water in a violent slap, he was clamping his hands over his ears, trying to drown out the wet wrench of a pick axe being torn out of Derek’s back.
An ancient lacrosse stick cracked against the side of his head. Stiles fell to his knee, dropping the knife but getting up seconds later. He tucked his body low, threw his shoulder into Theo’s chest. He took them both to the ground with a painful thud.
He was being hunted, he was being shadowed. He was surrounded by dying people-
Theo managed to roll him over on his back, pinning him. He clamped his metal hand around Stiles’ neck, pressing down hard. Unable to breathe, Stiles dug his fingers into Theo’s open wounds and tore.
Theo screamed in pain and punched Stiles in the head. Then he curled on himself, pressing hands over freshly bleeding injuries. While he was distracted, Stiles yanked up his sleeve and wrapped his fingers around metal.
He drove his file into the soft meat of Theo’s neck.
Derek was lucky he wasn’t dead. Healing factor or not, if he’d fallen in the pit the wrong way…
Well, he didn’t. He only had one spike left in him, one injury left to heal, but he didn’t hurry. Judging by the sound, he was already too late to help.
A shadow fell over him. He looked up. Stiles stood over him, blood up to his elbows. Derek closed his eyes, regretting every choice he’d made that came to this. He looked up again, still wanting to see Stiles.
Stiles looked… well. Sort of. His eyes were shiny and his lips were bitten raw. He had a couple of new bruises on his face too. But he was alive and there was something looser about his shoulders. So there was that.
Stiles reached down for him, not pushing.
Between the two of them, they got Derek up and out of the pit. He hissed the whole time. The wound on his thigh still nasty, so he ended up laying down half on his hip. With Stiles’ help, he pulled out the last shard of spike keeping him from fully healing. Stiles palmed it first, keeping it in his hands. It was tucked close to his belly.
Something about that sight had Derek’s hair standing on end. He sat up, painfully shifting until he was upright, panting over the exertion. He grabbed the spike out of Stiles’ pliant hands and threw it away from them hard.
“We should have left,” Derek muttered. His eyes were fixated on Stiles’ hands, red and loosely curled in his lap.
He’d been so stupidly arrogant. He’d picked up the human notes in the Great Hunter’s scent and had assumed… what? That a big mighty wolf could take down a human? He didn’t even bother to take a moment to wonder why a bunch of healthy young men hadn’t been able to overtake the Great Hunter themselves.
Tricks, traps, and psychopaths, he thought.
“No, you were right,” Stiles replied faintly. “I wouldn’t have been able to sleep.” There was misery in his scent, but no hint of it on his face.
There was silence between them, a whole of bunch of uncomfortable minutes of it. They had a hard time even looking at each other.
Then, sharply, Derek declared, “It was self-defense.”
Stiles immediately disagreed. “If you saw what I did, I don’t think-“
“It was self-defense,” Derek repeated stubbornly. Stiles’ face was a mask. “You did good.” When Stiles looked away, Derek’s grabbed the back of his neck, forcing eye contact. “Hey. You did good.” As Stiles continued to stare at him, Derek’s voice softened. “You did good. You saved people. You really did.”
For a moment, it was like talking to a wall. Then, suddenly, something broke through. Stiles blinked rapidly, eyes bright. He let out a wobbly breath, clearly bothered. Hurting, aching, self-hating, but alive and present.
Derek rubbed a thumb over Stiles’ pulse. He relieved to see it—to see him. Stiles Stilinski was still there.
They sat together for a long time, shoulder pressed against shoulder as Derek’s leg healed. Derek kept his head buried in Stiles’ hair, needing the anchor of his scent.
Time passed. It wasn’t comfortable or nice, but it was something. Especially after the day they just had.
“Hey,” Stiles said finally, pulling away. His voice was thick and his nose was red and snotty. “You told me you were a monster.” Before Derek could respond, Stiles swatted his ear. “Werewolves aren’t monsters, dick head. I of all people should know what monsters are.” He turned away. “I just killed one.”
Chapter 4: Epilogue
Stiles went home.
After all the fanfare and parading of cops and press conferences, he went home. He wanted nothing more than to curl up in his childhood bed and pull the covers over his head. He desired nothing more than to have his dad orbited around him, to see the sunrise through his mother’s favorite window, to bicker with his future stepmother as they made dinner.
It took only about twelve hours for him to realize his error. He needed to return to the scene of the crime, as it was. He needed to go back to school. He was going out of his mind here.
He emailed his professors. He’d missed a month of school, but all were helpful, considering his extreme circumstances. He spent twelve hour days at the library back home in Beacon Hills, hammering out all of the assignments he missed.
By the time Christmas came and passed, he was on schedule to go back to school that next January.
It caused a couple of fights between him, his dad, and Melissa, regrettably. But they supported him when it mattered.
He got special permission to move into his new dorm early. Melissa and his dad came with him. All three of them were on edge. This year, given his probable PTSD, he was allowed to move into a single person dorm. While he was moving in, the security guards came by not once, but three separate occasions to touch base with his dad.
They were shaken and were cooperating fully with the authorities. At least a tenth of the guys snatched up by Theo were taken under their noses. Only two of them had been officially taken under suspicious circumstance, according to them, revealing the fundamental flaw with how they handled missing students.
Melissa and his dad stayed the entire weekend. On the last day, someone knocked on the door. Melissa suspiciously checked the peephole before abruptly yanking on the knob to let their visitor in.
A huge duffel bag came through the front door first. Behind it was Scott, attractively tanned and clearly deeply exhausted. He was back a term early from his yearlong study abroad session, but he waved off the rapid fire questions, veering straight to Stiles.
He dropped the massive bag on the floor and swept Stiles up in a huge hug. “I got your back, bro,” Scott whispered. Stiles didn’t doubt him for a second.
“I met someone,” Stiles told him later over video games.
“What are they like?”
“I’m not sure. It’s… difficult. I don’t know.” Stiles’ responses were quick and sharp. He almost ready to drop the topic before it really even started. Knowing he was sounding defensive, Stiles shrugged. “Bonding under unusual circumstances. I don’t know.”
Scott paused the game and looked at Stiles seriously. “Do you want to know?
Derek finished packing up his Jeep. He ached for his mother, for his pack. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t miss this cabin or this place in the middle of the woods.
Derek looked at the floor. “Well, Rom, Rem. I won’t assume you’ll come with me.” The crows pecked at the ground indifferently. “Didn’t think so.”
He locked everything up and decided to do one last run around the area, just for old time’s sake. It took longer as a human, but it was doable. There were no lost hikers or well-intentioned outdoorsy types anywhere. It was too cold, as it was now December.
Anyway, if anyone else got lost, that was completely Braeden’s responsibility. Not his own.
He had done enough of his own botched rescuing, thanks.
By the time Derek made it back, there was another Jeep outside the cabin. This one, however, was older and looked rundown. It had peeling blue paint and a wide circular spot of rust on the passenger side door.
Its owner wasn’t very far away. Derek rounded the cabin, sticking his hands in his pockets. His breath formed faint clouds in the crisp as he walked. There was no snow yet, but it was on its way.
He found the interloper in front of his door, trying to force it open.
Stiles jumped a mile. “Oh my god! Oh- hey. You.” He spun around, looking harassed and vaguely relieved. “I was looking for you. The place looks abandoned.”
Derek’s hands were in fists. His shoulders were tight. He looked down at the ground, fighting for a neutral expression. “That’s because it’s about to be. I’m moving back with my family.”
Stiles beamed at him. “That’s great! Where do you live?”
“That’s great,” Stiles repeated, smile widening. Derek stared back at him dully. Stiles looked…
Stiles looked good. There was color in his cheeks. His hair was both longer and neater. His desperation seemed burned out, completely gone. He wore his own clothes too. Derek often imagined what Stiles was like before he’d been kidnapped, but he hadn’t imagined so much plaid.
“What do you want, Stiles?” he demanded. Let this end now, he thought.
Stiles’ smile wavered. “I wanted to thank you. For the patience. For saving me. For giving me space.”
The only thing Derek felt was nausea. “You’re welcome,” he said flatly. He took a step towards his car. “Is that it?”
Stiles’ voice was very quiet. “I… I guess.”
Derek nodded once sharply and walked away. As he did, he couldn’t help but think how easy things were when Stiles wouldn’t leave. Couldn’t leave. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? What happened between them was more like Stockholm Syndrome than anything else. Derek had to give Stiles his space, no matter how unhappy that made Derek himself.
A clot of mud suddenly splattered against his jacket. Incredulous, Derek spun on the culprit.
Stiles faced him, red faced and angry. “What the hell is with the Ice Prince act, huh?” he demanded. “If I was just a diversion, let me know. Don’t just-” His expression twisted. He dropped down to grab more mud to throw instead of using his words.
Derek closed the distance between the two of them in second, catching Stiles’ hand at the very moment. He forced it open and smeared across Stiles’ face. Stiles yelped and jumped back, grabbing another handful of dirt. Derek did the same.
It was ridiculous-
It was dumb-
Stiles was pressed up against him, whining as Derek clapped a good clump of mud into his carefully styled hair. Then Derek’s heel got caught in a root.
They went down, Derek guiding it as best as he could. Stiles didn’t seem to notice Derek’s weight on him. Instead, he cackled as he got a last blow in, smashing mud into the v of Derek’s shirt. Derek hissed—it was cold. He grabbed Stiles’ hand. Then he held it there for a minute, pressing Stiles’ palm flat against his heart.
After a beat, their eyes caught.
“When you look at me like that, you make me think you never want me to go away.” Stiles’ voice was a little shaky.
“Have I ever made you feel otherwise?”
“You did just now,” Stiles commented reasonably. Derek winced, hanging his head. Stiles patted his cheek—smearing more mud, most likely. “You know, Hill Valley is pretty close to my school.”
“Trust me, the thought crossed my mind.”
Just then, Derek realized where was—planted, weighing Stiles, violating a trigger. Alarmed, he froze. Then he immediately tried to jerk away.
Stiles just dragged him back down, huffing at him. There was dirt smeared over his cheeks and a leaf in his hair. He looked lovely.
“Date me,” Derek blurted out. Heat infused his cheeks. “I’m not great, but date me anyway.”
Stiles looked stunned. “I- okay?”
“Okay?” Derek echoed, hurt. Was it really so unexpected? So unwanted?
“Okay,” Stiles said firmly. Then, with a smile, “Okay.”
Finally, Derek understood. He smiled broadly and dropped his full weight on Stiles, his spirits lifting at Stiles’ surprised laughter. He felt invincible.
And, for once, he had no great urge to wait for it inevitably go belly up.
It was nice.
“Stiles told me that Theo was seeking the favor of an old god,” Derek announced. He stood still, arms crossed over his chest. He was in the middle of the office of their region’s emissary, Alan Deaton.
Emissaries, while still supernaturalis, were widely considered an “in-between” species and were used as such. It was common practice for local law enforcement to call in their region’s emissary to figure out if any suspicious looking crime was committed by a supernaturalis. Non-emissaries tended to look on them with distrust because of this. This often meant emissaries were dealt with a double-dose of prejudice—once from normal sapiens and then again from their fellow supernaturalis.
Alan Deaton seemed above such mundane considerations. And Derek was sure that, if he had a choice, Deaton would have focused one hundred percent on his veterinary practice rather than all the other random things that came through his door too. Deaton was an odd emissary, but an old friend of the family. One thing trumped the other.
“Cernunnos is the name,” Deaton said with a nod. He looked over Derek’s shoulder. “Ring any bells?”
A low female voice rose behind him. “Can’t say it does,” Talia said with a sigh.
Derek stared at his shoes. As a courtesy to her position in the county, Deaton was allowed to fill his mother in on major supernaturalis-related crimes. In turn, Talia was allowed to bring one other person from her pack. Usually this person was a mate or a valued enforcer or a second—not a disobedient son who ran off to play omega for a couple of years.
He didn't belong here. He hadn't earned this.
As if she could sense his thoughts, she stepped up to his shoulder and cupped the back of his neck briefly. It was a warm touch, friendly, familiar, affectionate. His doubt dissipated.
He was worried about Stiles. That was why he asked to come. Somedays, he couldn’t help but feel like Theo robbed something vital from Stiles, something person-shaped. Then something small or endearing would happen and Derek would be reminded again that Theo, despite all of his attempts at being something more, was nothing more than a blip on Stiles’ radar. His influence was indelible, like ink on water. Stiles was stronger than he was.
But that didn’t mean Derek couldn’t double check on things, right?
“Is this Cernunnos going to be a problem?” Talia asked—and for good reasons too. People who were also supernaturalis tended to lean towards developing god complexes. It was bad enough when they took up legitimate pursuits and flaunted their superiority. It was even worse when they picked up criminal activities and started developing cults and followings. Peter was a great example of that second type.
They didn’t talk about Peter.
“I’m not sure he’s real,” Deaton admitted. “There’s no evidence of his existence other than a few carvings and a handful of passed down stories.” He shrugged. “There’s just as much of a chance that he doesn’t exist—even more, I’d argue.”
“And if he doesn’t exist,” Talia drawled, “you could say that Theo’s attempt was the reflection of some kind of mental breakdown, some sustained delusion.”
“That’s the explanation the police are going with,” Deaton said quietly. There was a file spilled out in front of the three of them—evidence and pictures of misdeeds. Derek got distracted by a picture of the effigy and noticed, too late, that his mother was running her finger down a lengthy list of names.
“All this effort for nothing,” she said bitterly. It took him a moment to realize she was committing names to memory—maybe even mode of death, knowing her.
He gently pulled the list away from her, flipping it over. Her eyes rose to meet his.
“You’re not the reason why those people died.”
“Neither are you the reason why Laura was murdered,” Talia commented. She reached out and patted his fit. “And yet that didn’t keep you from thinking it, huh?” Heat immediately rushed to his eyes. He hadn’t known-
He didn’t think-
He didn’t think she even knew. He stared at his shoes.
Kindly, she turned her attention to her old friend. “What does the favor of an old god look like, do you think?”
Deaton frowned. “I’ll tell you when I know.”
Someone slid an envelope under his door. Bare chested and still a little wet from his shower, Stiles leapt on it like a starving wolf on a four course meal. It was crisp and pretentious.
Stiles spared a moment to entertain the ridiculous—romantic—thought that it was from Derek. But, no, Derek was practical. Texts were practical. Handwritten invitations to the date they already spoke about and agreed to? Redundant.
Muttering to himself, Stiles set it aside and finished threading his belt through his best pants. He changed shirts three more times before settling on a dark red one. At one moment, he bitterly questioned why he was even bothering. Derek had seen him naked and bloody and dirty beyond all belief. What was the point of dressing to impress?
Well, besides the fact that he could show that he cleaned up nice. Or that he could be nice. Or that he could be civilized. Or even that he owned more than two pairs of socks.
Derek was surprisingly judgy about socks.
Stiles completely forgot about the note until about ten minutes before he was supposed to meet Derek outside.
“First date, first date, first date,” he chanted, jumping obnoxiously on his occupied couch. Grumpy, Scott swatted at him until Stiles laughed and vaulted off, running his fingers through his wet hair.
“You look terrible,” Scott growled, throwing his pillow over his face. He had reconnected with Lydia over Skype and they were currently in the “will they/won’t they” part of their repeat relationship. As of last night, they were on “won’t.”
Stiles rubbed Scott’s hair affectionately before heading over to the door.
It was then that he saw the letter he’d dropped. He paused, idly picking it up and opening it. He pulled out a sheet of paper as pretentious as the envelope and wrinkled his nose. He unfolded it quickly, reading the odd message.
Congratulations on your daring feat, it said in fancy curling script. But the envelope had weight to it still. Curious, Stiles peeked inside and was unable to make sense of it, so he poured it out on the closest shelf.
He heard the dull impact of it as if from a room away. His stomach dropped. Blood roared in his ears.
There was metal file on his shelf. It wasn’t his metal file—no. It was crisp, clean edged. His was in an evidence locker somewhere, having been shoved in someone’s trachea.
Stiles flinched when Scott leaned into his shoulder. “Your heart is going crazy,” he said mildly, explaining. Half of his hair was flattened by the couch. He looked endearing, but serious. His eyes dropped to the file. “Another troll?”
Stiles took in the breath he’d been denying himself and nodded several times. “Must be,” he said grimly, thinking of the “Great Hunter” news piece on repeat on the local channels. It was the latest, hottest thing. He only watched the first few minutes of one before backing out.
“That’s the tenth one this week,” Scott complained, sounding annoyed. Matter closed, he clapped Stiles’ shoulders twice and shuffled off to the kitchen, yawning.
Stiles wasn’t as easy to pacify. But… it had to be another troll, right? That made the most sense. After all, Theo was dead and his method of kicking the bucket, well…
It was public record, wasn’t it? And enough so that his asshole peers called him Killer behind his back. That his quieter study buddies avoided being alone with him. That his teachers couldn’t maintain eye contact.
Annoyed, Stiles threw the envelope on top of the file, not wanting to look at it again. Noticing the time, he yelped and went back to getting ready. Finally, he sat down on the couch to put on his good socks, grunting faintly at the exertion.
He looked up a second later, certain he’d just seen the faintest impression of horns.
There was nothing there.
After a beat, Stiles shrugged and headed out the front door, sliding into a jacket. He closed the door behind him.
The shadow passed over the window again, stopping over the letter. Then Scott walked in and the darkness instantly vanished.