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Monsters in the Woods

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There once was a little town, tucked away in the foothills of the tall, dark mountains. It was named Beacon, because it shown in the middle of those feral woods like a lighthouse through a storm. Many a lost traveler had been saved by following its faint glow on the horizon.

Stiles was not lost, but he still felt relief upon seeing that glow and knowing it wasn't too much longer until he would arrive. He pulled his hood closer about his frozen cheeks and continued trudging through the soft snow. All about him the woods were unusually silent, save for the crunch of his boots and his soft, huffing breaths that curled around him in silver-white clouds. Even the wind was calm, carrying with it only the scents of pine and cold and...hearth fire?

Slowing to a stop, Stiles took a long inhalation through his pink-tipped nose, only to conclude it was indeed the scent of fire burning in the hearth of a nearby home. From his calculations, however, Beacon should still be a ways off yet, too far to be able to scent its fires on such a lazy breeze.

To his left a stick snapped, and he spun to see a pair of big, bright eyes framed by flowing hair as black as a raven's wing. Her skin was snow white, her lips rose red, and she was far too young to be out in these woods by herself. Adults far more capable than even he had ventured into these woods, never to again be seen. Yet, here this little girl--she had to be no more than seven in age--was standing there with no fear in her eyes and a smile on her lips. Releasing a giggle, the child dared to step from the trees and out onto the snow-smothered path, moving ever closer to Stiles.

"What is that?" she asked, motioning with a delicate hand at the pole end of Stiles' axe, where it stuck out over his right shoulder.

He glanced at it, at the wood smoothed with use to the point that the intricate carvings and complex runes were fading amongst the grain. "This is my axe," he said, reaching a hand back to run his fingers reverently along the pole.

The little girl tilted her head, inky hair spilling in perfect, curling waves across her thin shoulders. "Are you a woodsman? Do you chop wood and hunt, like Poppy?"

Stiles assumed that Poppy must be her father, and he smiled warmly down at the child. "Something like that, yes. Is your Poppy close?"

She returned his smile and nodded before suddenly darting away down the path. As he watched her go, Stiles was reminded of a rabbit giving chase. Only, she was no rabbit, for she did not keep going until she was safe and home. Instead, she paused on the path ahead, turning to watch him with her striking eyes, obviously waiting for him to catch her up.

On they went like this for a while, her laughter ringing through the still trees, and Stiles growing enamoured despite himself. Eventually they came to a great iron gate, and beyond it a winding road surrounded by overgrown bramble and trees that reached out at them with twisted branches. More than once, Stiles had to wrestle his axe's pole loose or carefully unsnag his hood. The girl was small, however, and so the branches left her alone to dance and run and twirl in the gently falling snow. At the end of the old road was a manor, or at least the remains of one. It stood as little more than a blackened skeleton of something that must have once been grand. There was a wing that still more or less stood intact, with obviously fresh construction standing starkly out against the singed remains.

It was there the girl led him, calling out to her Poppy as they drew nearer. A chimney was slowly leaking grey smoke, and Stiles knew this must be the hearth he had scented. Out of a heavy wooden door stepped a man of Stiles' height, but of broader shoulder. The man possessed the same light eyes as the girl, with messy hair just as dark. While the girl was garbed in bright, merry blues and greens, he dressed in cloths and leathers dyed dark and dull, so that he blended right in with the burnt-out home around him.

"Rose, I told you to stay near the house," the man reprimanded, with a voice that wasn't nearly as deep and gruff as his scruffy appearance would suggest. Through the scolding tone, it hinted at warmth and kindness. Stiles instantly longed to hear more words spoken in its unique timbre.

"Poppy," exclaimed the child as she scurried around his legs, all smiles and ruddy cheeks. "I found someone who can help you chop wood! You'll get it all done sooner, and we'll have more time to play!"

Stiles felt a tug at his heart, and he smiled at the girl. So that had been why she'd led him here to her home with such playful eagerness. "Forgive my intrusion," Stiles said to her father, offering a deep nod that bordered upon a bow. "I only meant to see that she arrived home safely. I've heard stories of these woods, and could not on good conscious leave her to fend for herself."

The man eyed Stiles with suspicion, his gaze lingering on the pole of the axe he must recognize as certainly not belonging to a woodcutter. "How considerate, sir. As you can see, though, she is now home safe and sound. I appreciate your concern, but now must respectfully ask you to leave." His words were courteous enough, but his tone was flat and clipped off at the ends.

Sadly, it seemed that the man was another example of beauty wasted on someone with the personality of an ass.

----

Derek tried his best to scent the stranger without being too obvious. There were smells of human, but with strange undertones of herbs, ash, metal, leather, and blood. Rose was too young to know any of those scents, or to necessarily associate any of them with danger. It was the blood, more than anything, that bothered Derek. For reasons even he could not explain, he did not think that it smelled like animal blood, such that a huntsman would carry.

"I'm Stiles," said the stranger, ignoring Derek's blatant dismissal and daring to extend his hand in greeting. His hand was wrapped in a well-worn leather glove, strong with the scent of wood and strange herbs. When all Derek did was stare at the hand, Stiles slowly withdrew it with a rueful smirk. "I'm here to visit with an old friend of mine. Perhaps you know of him? Scott McCall?"

At his knee, Rose unleashed a joyous squeal and it was only Derek's hand on her shoulder that kept her from flinging herself at Stiles. "Scotty! Poppy, he's a friend of Scotty!" She continued to make delighted sounds and clapped her hands in happiness.

Still wary, Derek did not join in her rejoicing. Instead, he continued to study the stranger and puzzle him out as best he could. Stiles wore a hooded coat dyed the dark, burnt red of dried blood. Derek wondered if perhaps that was exactly what had given it such a hue, and explained the clinging, coppery scent. A travel bag was slung over one shoulder, looking heavy and well-made. Then, of course, there was that axe at his back, its pole far longer and more decorated than any tool.

Stiles' smirk widened, his large brown eyes watching Derek watch him in turn, and he tilted his head not unlike a bird. "Trying to determine my vocation, sir?" Stiles asked, his teeth flashing beneath the shadow of his cowl. "I'd have thought the axe and hood would give me away, but perhaps our ranks have become rare enough to be lost from memory."

Just like that, it clicked, and Derek's grip on Rose's shoulder flinched. He was torn between pulling her behind him protectively and telling her wonderingly about the legend she'd brought home like a puppy. "You're a Scharfrichter," said Derek, his soft-spoken words strangely loud in the still afternoon.

"My axe is sheathed," corrected Stiles, patting the pole like a pet, "so I am just a Richter at present."

They locked eyes and allowed for silence to creep in amongst them, even as Rose wiggled with curiosity and tugged beseechingly upon Derek's shirt. "You have questions," Richter Stiles said, breaking the silence and smirking once more. "I can see them gathering behind your eyes."

"You come only to visit with a friend?" queried Derek, a strange little spark of hope daring to kindle deep in his soul. It had been so long since he'd written to the Order; had they finally answered his request?

The Richter lifted a finger to his smirking lips, and he gave only a small shake of his head. A Richter's business was never spoken aloud, until his weapon was drawn and his title changed.

"I wonder," said Richter Stiles, glancing around curiously at the remains of Derek's family home and the surrounding clearing, "if you may know the best course to the village? I am afraid that this little scamp," there he paused to wink at Rose, matching grins splitting both their faces, "has led me astray."

"I can show you!" declared Rose, bouncing in her boots.

Derek hesitated, but he was weak to the child's sweet eyes and excited pleas, so he nodded reluctant agreement. "We will take you into town, Richter."

"Thank you, Poppy!" His heart stuttered happily as the child leapt to throw her arms around his neck and pressed a sweet kiss to his unshaven cheek.

----

Stiles was not surprised when little Rose led him right to a great manor on the city's square, exclaiming that here they would find his Scotty as well as her Uncle Peter. While talking with her Poppy, Stiles had already sussed out that the burnt-out husk of a home had once been Hale House. Scott had long ago written to Stiles about his mother's new marriage to the wealthy landowner, Peter Hale, current head of the remaining Hale clan.

Scott greeted him with enthusiasm and many claps upon his back, dragging him deeper into the manor with Rose dancing about their legs. They had once lived in the same small town, from birth till their twelfth year. It was that year that they each lost a parent, and Scott's mother relocated them to her family’s hometown of Beacon. By the next year, Stiles was chosen by the Order, and would only be able to communicate with friends and family through missives, until his training was deemed complete.

This reunion was the first they'd had since they were children, and so Scott was treating it like a grand holiday. "First day here, and you already perform a miracle!" exclaimed Scott, looking from Stiles to Derek with a grin. "Derek has not come into town for at least a year."

"Not so," Derek objected, and Stiles had to hide his smile at finding the man's pout so fetching. "I brought Rose to the Christmas feast."

"Which was a gift beyond words." They turned at the new voice, and there stood a handsome older man, his bright eyes dancing with mirth. "Nephew, welcome. How did you happen upon our guest?"

Derek acknowledged the older man with a nod of his head and a murmured "Uncle." Rose was far more enthused in her greeting, crawling up the man to sit proudly upon his shoulders. "I found him, Uncle Peter!" she explained with a triumphant grin. "I thought he could help Poppy out with his chores. He has an axe, see?"

"That he does, little one. However, his axe is not the same as Derek's." Peter reached up and took her under the arms, swinging her down to be hugged. He moved without effort, as if the child didn't weigh more than a feather.

"How so?" Rose asked as she cuddled close to her great-uncle.

The adults exchanged glances, but it was Stiles who answered, his smile an echo of the one worn by his mentor, Richter Deaton. "My axe fells the wicked instead of trees."

Rose studied him then, a serious mien taking over her playful features. "You are not a hunter?" she inquired, her tone conveying a meaning other than a simple woodsman. Derek's posture stiffened, not at the suggestion, but at the secret the child had inadvertently let slip with her implication and second-quick flash of red in her eyes.

Stiles' smile grew warmer still and he gave her a reassuring shake of his head. "I am not.

----

Richter Stiles was an interesting man, Derek decided. A stranger to his family, Richter Stiles nevertheless blended as if he were a Hale born and bred. Rose was not the only one who took to him instantly, as Uncle Peter had hardly stopped laughing since they all sat down to eat. Scott and Aunt Melissa had a past connection with the Richter, which could explain some of the ease with which the man became integrated amongst them. Still, Derek even found himself drawn to Richter Stiles.

It wasn’t just the way Richter Stiles’ hands moved while he talked, or how his eyes caught the firelight and flashed amber-and-gold. It wasn’t just the way his sharply-bowed lips tilted up in a smirk or parted in a mocking gasp at Peter’s scandalous jests. Though Derek, if pressed, would admit to liking Richter Stiles’ voice, which was a pleasing rumble that belied the youthful look of the man.

Mostly, though, it was the way the Richter never ignored anyone in the room, never left anyone out of his conversations or considerations. It was the way the Richter was observant even beyond them, eyes always sweeping the room, checking windows and doors, before returning to the faces of his hosts. It was the way Derek knew he could trust this man, feel safe in his presence. Richters were living Justice, men and women without malice or treachery in their blood. A Richter was not capable of betrayal.

“You will be staying here tonight, won’t you, Derek?” Uncle Peter asked, drawing Derek out of his own head. “We’ve plenty of room for you and Rose to stay, as well as Richter Stiles.”

In his peripheral, Derek could see Rose practically vibrating in her seat beside him, but it was Richter Stiles to whom he glanced before replying to his uncle. “For the night,” he agreed, knowing that he’d likely end up staying longer than that. Something was telling Derek that he’d be staying in town as long as the Richter was there.

When dinner was done and cleared away, Richter Stiles moved to sit with Scott in a corner of the family room near the large, stone fireplace. Derek sat with his aunt, uncle, and Rose to the other side of the fireplace, allowing the two young friends some time together. He tried to focus on his aunt’s words about the different wounds and maladies she had treated that week, offering a small chuckle to the tale of farmer Greenberg’s latest blunder. Still, he could not help but to tune into the Richter’s rolling voice.

It seemed Rose was much the same, as eventually she slid from her chair and scampered across the room to the boys. There she insinuated herself onto Scott’s lap and demanded that Richter Stiles tell her a story.

“Shall I tell you a love story or a scary story or both?” the Richter asked, eyes twinkling from the shadow of the hood he’d yet to lower.

Rose wiggled excitedly and leaned forward on Scott’s lap to clap her hands down upon Richter Stiles’ knees. “Both!”

Everyone ended up listening to the tale, enraptured by Richter Stiles’ voice wrapping around each word. “There once was a maiden,” he started, which was a perfect opening to snag a young girl’s attention, “and her name was Lydia. She had hair the color of the sky at sunset, and eyes the shifting hues of a summer forest. All who gazed upon her fell in love, but none so deeply as the demon who lived within the haunted woods. Every day he would venture to the edge of the woods, just shy of where the sunlight shone, and watch the beautiful maiden go about her tasks.”

“Such attention speaks more of obsession than of love,” Uncle Peter interrupted, voice rife with skepticism. Beside him, Aunt Melissa raised her eyebrows and tipped her head in agreement.

Richter Stiles slanted them a sideways glance, smirk tilting across his lips. “To be sure, there is obsession in this story. But not on the part of the demon. You see, the demon could only content himself with watching because he was afraid.”

“Why would he be afraid?” asked Rose, blinking her large eyes up at Richter Stiles as she toyed with her long hair. “Aren’t demons strong and powerful? They shouldn’t be afraid of anything.”

That made Richter Stiles’ face soften, and his eyes looked almost sad. “He feared that Lydia would be unable to look upon him without terror and contempt. He felt himself to be too ugly a creature for her, his skin scaled and green, his eyes like a snake’s, and his teeth all sharp as little knives. What was worst of all was that his claws were tipped with a venom that would paralyze any they touched. So, you see, he could never be with her.”

Rose looked nearly on the verge of tears, and Scott wrapped his arms comfortingly around her little shoulders. “That’s so sad,” she sniffled. “It’s unfair.”

“Indeed it is,” agreed Richter Stiles. “But he felt he could at least be her guardian. There were men in the village who were not so good at heart, and they would sometimes think it was their right to take Lydia forcefully to their homes. Any men who tried, however, would suddenly freeze and fall to the ground paralyzed. The demon had moved quickly, so all Lydia had ever seen was a flash of green and a rustling bush. Still, she knew that someone had saved her, and for that she was thankful.

“An unfortunate side effect, however, was that Lydia had gained the reputation of being either cursed or of being a demon herself. There was one young man named Matthew in the village who fancied himself an expert on all things dark and dangerous. He began to stalk her, certain he would find her doing ill. While he shadowed her, however, he could not deny her beauty. Soon he became enamored with her as well, and was convinced that they were meant to be together. Truly, he thought, fate had led him to her because she was the one meant only for him.

“But when he approached Lydia to ask for her hand, she refused him. Angered, he demanded she marry him or else he’d tell the village she was a monster, that he’d seen it himself with his own eyes. It would be easy to convince them, he pointed out, because so many already believed it to be so.”

“Did she strike him?” Rose asked, leaning closer, eyes flickering red. “Did the demon eat him?”

“Oh, better yet,” answered Richter Stiles, bending closer to her as if sharing with her some great secret. “For Lydia was not any ordinary maiden. She was a sidhe living amongst humans.”

“A fairy?!” The revelation left Rose looking fit to burst.

“Of a sort,” hedged Richter Stiles, leaning back and allowing his gaze to sweep across every corner of the room again before returning to his hosts. “You have heard of the bean-sidhe, yes?”

“They cry when someone is about to die,” Rose answered, seeming torn between pride at knowing the answer and horror that the fair maiden was a portent of death.

“Just so. And Lydia began to cry, the tears coming fast and uncontrollable, her sobs giving way to ear-piercing wails. Frightened, Matthew began attempting to comfort her. He apologized, said he would not sully her reputation, if only she would calm herself. Eventually Lydia lifted her tear-streaked face to him and said, ‘I am not crying for myself, but for you.’ Then she seemed to vanish before his very eyes.”

“Where did she go?” asked Rose.

“To the woods. She had grown weary of that horrible little village, and felt she should move on. Many bean-sidhe are tied to specific families, and her family had already moved on to other places. As she walked through the woods, she happened upon the demon, who had followed her until his curiosity outweighed his fear. She did not shriek in fright, nor recoil from him. Instead, she smiled, held out her hand, and said, ‘Your claws cannot do me harm.’ They continued on her journey together, an unlikely but true love growing between them.”

Rose did not seem satisfied by this ending. “But what of Matthew? You said what she did was better than a strike or him getting eaten!”

Richter Stiles chuckled softly, the sound like a caress down Derek’s spine. “Matthew suffered a horrible end, falling beneath the ice of a frozen lake. There he was trapped, and drowned as his body locked up in shock. Some think the lake was guarded by a nixe, who took issue with his treatment of fair Lydia, and lured him to his doom. Others say Lydia cursed him with her wails. But in every one of the seven days leading up to his death, his mind was plagued by Lydia’s cries. His nights were sleepless, for nightmares greeted him the moment he closed his eyes. What Lydia had done was better than a physical attack, you see, because she had ruined him as he had tried to ruin her. Justice is balance.”

----

The next day, Stiles had business in town. Scott volunteered to show him around, but was called away midday by his mother. A family had fallen ill, and so both of the town’s healers were needed. In his place, Derek came to continue Stiles’ little tour.

“You say you have business here,” Derek said as they walked, “but Scott described only aimless walking. Even now, you don’t seem to have a set destination, and are content in following my lead.”

“My business is being conducted even as we walk,” Stiles explained, watching as a hooded beggar drew back into the shadows of an alleyway. He then looked around at the fine, sturdy houses, the people who went about their days without seeming to be in want of anything. “Tell me,” he prompted Derek, even as he continued to take in everything around him, “why do you hate coming into town so?”

“Why do you think that?”

“Well, your family says it, actually. You hardly come into town, it seems, if you can help it.” A line of crows rested along the roof of a house, but watched another house with unwavering scrutiny. “Why is that?”

Derek shook his head and scratched at his stubble. “I like neither town nor the woods, to be honest. If it weren’t for Rose, I would leave this entire place. It feels rotten to me, and sets my very bones on edge.”

“Then why stay? And why in the woods, within the remains of your old home?” Stiles watched through a shop window as an older man with bearded scruff and squinting eyes gave him a greeting nod of respect but completely ignored Derek. The small sign hanging from the door was the silhouette of an anvil. Above the window were large letters proclaiming “Smithing,” with faded marks above where other letters likely used to hang as well. Beneath the letters were painted a ring, a horseshoe, and a dagger. An elderly man began to approach the other man in the window, but glanced quickly out at Stiles and Derek before disappearing deeper into the shop.

“After the fire, we all lived in town--the few of us that were left. It was Peter, myself, and my older sister. She had already been wed before the fire, to a young man named Timothy. Rose is their daughter.” Derek then paused as Stiles looked to him with a start. “No, Rose is not mine own.”

“So then where are her parents?” Stiles asked, though he suspected he knew the answer.

“Laura, my sister, had become the Alpha upon the death of our mother. Her husband was human, and a successful merchant in town. One day, he left to bring some goods across the mountains for trade. When he failed to return, Laura left to find him. Neither have been seen since. Little Rose would insist I take her down the mountain path every day, where she would call for her parents and wait. Eventually, I thought it easiest to simply move back to the House, so she could remain in the woods as she waited for her parents to return.”

They walked in silence for a short while after that, Stiles processing it all and comparing it with the information he’d already obtained. “So she is unaware of what it means that her eyes turn red,” he eventually said. The thought hit him harder than he anticipated, but he supposed it had much to do with memories of his own mother’s passing.

“She does not,” confirmed Derek. “Peter is acting as Alpha in her place until she is of age, and she is aware that her eyes are different in color from our own. Still, she does not yet understand what any of that means. Or, perhaps, simply refuses to accept it.”

“She calls you ‘Poppy,’ though. Is that not a sign that she has moved on and accepted the passing of her parents, to identify you as her father?” Stiles asked, eyes on a beautiful young woman who tried to hop around a frozen patch on the road, only to skitter-scurry as she nearly slipped. It reminded him of a fox he had seen once, playful and silly.

“She called her father Papa, so I think she’s still differentiating between me and an actual parent, while still acknowledging that I’m her current caretaker.” Derek smiled a little. “She is very bright, for one so young.”

“It’s in the blood,” said Stiles, offering him a wink. “I’ve heard the Hales are all as brilliant as they are beautiful.” It was not the cold that turned Derek’s cheeks and ears such a dark shade of red in that moment. The look was quite fetching on him, and Stiles mentally vowed to see how many more blushes he could bring out upon those handsome features.

After a few more paces in silence, Derek cleared his throat and asked, “That story you told last night? Is that really how things ended?”

“How do you mean?” Stiles took a small break from his constant observations to focus entirely on Derek. “What makes you think the ending is wrong?”

“You spoke of balance, yet he died. If all he had done was stalk and harass a girl, why would he have died in such a way?”

Stiles studied Derek’s face, caught again by his striking eyes. Hales really were remarkable. Brains that match their beauty, indeed. “I told her an abbreviated tale,” Stiles eventually confessed. “The full story is, I think, too dark for one as young as she.”

Tilting his head, Derek studied Stiles back. It seemed for a moment that their gazes caught upon each other, and they both slowed their steps to a halt. “And what is the full story, then?”

“He was an assignment.” Stiles’ words made Derek jerk back a little, as if shocked by a spark. “Three girls from the village had gone missing, and the Order was contacted. I met Lydia on my way, and she told me much of what I said last night. She also confided that the dead whispered around him, in voices of sad girls begging to be set free. Hearing that, I figured my job would then be an easy one. It was, well...far easier than anticipated, actually.” He chuckled a bit at the memory, twisted and sick though it was. “I said the truth last night, about how her wails had driven him mad. By the time I arrived at his residence, he had unearthed his victims where they’d been hidden in his garden. I found him in the process of filling their mouths with stones, babbling about how he kept hearing them scream.”

Derek did not recoil, but his lips parted and his bushy brows came down low over his eyes. Shaking his head, Stiles continued, “Is that not depraved? Bad enough he raped and murdered the poor girls, but then to defile their corpses, as well?” He allowed himself a deep breath before relating the rest. “I had to go fetch someone from the village proper, to serve as witness to my judgement. Either my words were overheard, or someone else had spied his mad happenings, because by the time my witness and I returned, Matthew had been drowned in the nearby pond by none other than his first victim’s mother.”

“What then did you do?” Derek asked, voice hushed. “Surely you didn’t pass judgement upon her?”

“No,” said Stiles, “for she had simply carried out my work for me. Justice, I deemed, had been rightly served. Sad it could do nothing to help his victims.” It was the part of the job which bothered Stiles the most, how nothing could ever undo what atrocities had been done. All he could do was punish the guilty and prevent more victims.

“You help their souls to find peace,” Derek assured, reaching out and resting a comforting hand upon Stiles’ arm. Then he seemed to realize what he was doing, and quickly pulled his hand back. He let out a little cough, using that hand to cover his mouth, then nodded down the road. “There is a little more of the town to see. Shall we continue, then head in for something warm to eat?”

“Sounds perfect,” said Stiles. When they resumed their walk, Stiles may have shifted to be a bit closer to Derek, allowing for their shoulders to brush on occasion. Derek may have leaned in closer still, and their hands may have teased at each other between them.

----

Derek stood outside Richter Stiles’ door, feeling horribly forward. The day they’d spent together had been pleasant, and he had noticed the Richter frequently cast him admiring glances. It had been a long time since Derek had allowed himself to look upon anyone with any sort of desire. The first and only instance had led to the slaughter of his family, which had soured him to any thoughts of romances thereafter.

Richter Stiles was different than Kate Argent, though. She was a liar and a murderer, while Richters were by their nature and training free of all ill intent. Plus, the man would only be in town for a short while. While a dalliance may not be entirely satisfying, it would serve better than nothing, and Derek had little time to waste in hesitation over the matter.

Steeling his nerves, he rapped softly upon the Richter’s door. When the door opened, Derek felt his cheeks heat and quickly cast his gaze to the floor. Before him stood Richter Stiles without his ever-present red coat, as well as even a scrap of cloth upon his torso. He wore only his fitted leather trousers. Staring down at the floorboards, Derek could also spy Richter Stiles’ bare feet. Derek was unsure of the protocol for witnessing a Richter without his coat and cowl, and so felt flustered and overwhelmed. Part of his mind chided his reaction, since his very purpose in visiting the Richter’s chambers involved a significant lack of clothing. Honestly, did he expect to divert his eyes the entire evening, should things go as hoped?

“Does my state offend you, Derek?” Richter Stiles asked, a bit of tease to his voice. “I was preparing for bed, but I can don some clothing. If it please you?”

Derek glanced back over his shoulder, then dared to reach out and press at Richter Stiles’ chest in order to push him further into the room. He followed quickly after, closing the door fast behind him. It wouldn’t due to have others see the Richter in such a state of undress. “You please me just fine as you are, sir,” he confessed, finally allowing himself to look up to meet Richter Stiles’ eyes. His face looked even more striking when free from the shadow of the cowl, and Derek felt himself take a step closer.

Richter Stiles licked his lips, then smirked at Derek. “I could likely find ways to please you better. Is that not the reason for this late-night visit?”

It was almost a relief to have the subject laid bare like that. Nodding, Derek moved closer still. “If you’ll have me, I am yours. Even if just for this night.”

A sadness seemed to pass across Richter Stiles’ face. “Only for tonight?” he asked with barely a whisper. Then he shook his head and seemed to force a smile that did not meet his eyes. “Of course. My time here is brief, and you’ve a ward to raise.”

Derek was confused by Richter Stiles’ words and mannerisms, wondering if maybe he had truly thought they were capable of having anything more. It was a nice fantasy, but Derek knew it could only be that. Without saying anything else, he closed what little space remained between them and leaned in to steal a kiss. He felt Richter Stiles eagerly return the kiss for all of a second, before he pushed Derek gently away.

“Have you been with a man before?” asked the Richter, eyes searching Derek’s face. For what, Derek did not know.

Shaking his head, Derek confessed, “I’ve only been with a woman before, and it was years ago.”

The Richter gave a slow nod, and he stepped away to retrieve something from his travel bag. “Do you trust me?” Richter Stiles asked, turning back to face Derek. “I want only to bring you pleasure, the likes of which you have never felt before. But only if you trust me implicitly.”

It was such a silly thing to ask that Derek nearly laughed. “Of course I trust you,” he said. “You’re a Richter. I trust you more than anyone I know.”

That seemed to please Richter Stiles, as he ducked his head in a sweetly shy way and smiled with a softness Derek hadn’t seen him display before. “Surely not,” he protested weakly. “You barely know me.”

“I know what type of person a Richter is said to be,” Derek explained, moving to regain the closeness of moments before. “And, I have seen how you act and talk, these past two days. There is no doubt you have your secrets, but I am convinced that none of them are malicious in nature. At least, not towards me or my family.”

The Richter chuckled in amusement. “A Richter is not to have any element of their person be malicious in nature.”

“Exactly.” Derek smiled at him and reached a hand out to wrap around Richter Stiles’ slim hip. “So, I trust you, Richter.”

“Please just call me Stiles. We are far too close for such formalities. Or, well, at the very least, we are about to be.” Stiles had a pretty blush, so Derek leaned forward to kiss it. First he kissed one warm cheek, then the other, then the tip of Stiles’ cute, upturned nose. “May I confess something to you?” asked Stiles, his voice hushed and seemingly filled with awe.

Derek drew back enough to look him in the eye. “Of course. I’d hope you trust me at least as half as much as I trust you.”

Stiles licked his lips again, glancing quickly at Derek’s mouth before maintaining eye contact. “I feel more afraid in this moment than I ever have passing judgement.”

That confused Derek and filled him with more than a little trepidation. “Do you not want this?”

Suddenly Stiles was wrapping his arms around Derek’s waist, pulling him closer. On his back Derek could feel the cold press of the mystery item Stiles still held. “It is the intensity of my want which scares me. I barely know you,” Stiles sighed, nuzzling along Derek’s cheek despite his words. “I shouldn’t want you this much.”

“Would it help if I told you I feel much the same?” Derek slipped his own arms around Stiles to join in the embrace. Oh, but he felt so warm and solid against Derek’s body. A hunger burned through Derek that had nothing to do with food. “I haven’t felt such urges in a long time, yet I find myself unable to keep my eyes off you. Your voice...Christ, but your voice drives me to madness.”

“My voice?” Stiles asked with a chuckle before nipping at Derek’s ear. Then, he said quiet and deep, “I hope there’s more you want of me than my voice.”

It made Derek’s knees feel momentarily weak, a sensation not felt since he was a boy. “I want every part of you.”

Without warning, Stiles was pulling away again and slipping from Derek’s arms. He stepped to the bed and set the object in his hand upon the nightstand. It was a small jar, and it made a dull tap-clunk as it came to rest. Then Stiles’s long, nimble fingers began to unlace his trousers, and he darted Derek a devious look from beneath his lashes. “I want every part of you, as well,” Stiles confessed, his voice a delicious rumble. “Will you show me?”

Derek was quick to divest himself of his tunic, boots, and trousers, until he stood naked as a babe before Stiles’ gleaming eyes. Only then did Stiles slip off his own tight trousers, revealing himself and his obvious desire. “Lay yourself out on the bed, please,” Stiles coaxed gently, his hand moving to his groin so that he could grip himself and administer a few lazy tugs.

When Derek began to do as bid, and crawl onto the bed face-down, Stiles stopped him with a soft, “No.” He stepped close to run a warm hand along Derek’s rough cheek. “On your back. I want to see you.” Then Stiles leaned in and planted the sweetest of kisses upon Derek’s lips, before shifting back to allow Derek to turn.

Once Derek was properly situated, Stiles joined him on the bed, slipping between Derek’s spread legs with a look of absolute adoration and reverence shining in his warm brown eyes. “Tell me if you feel any discomfort with anything we do,” Stiles commanded with sincerity. Then a smirk peeked through as he added, “And also feel free to praise me for any pleasure you may experience.”

Derek’s chuckle choked off into a gasp as Stiles leaned down to run his tongue up along the length of Derek’s cock. Then he was engulfed in wet heat, that devilish tongue twisting and wriggling against his sensitive flesh. Derek had never experienced such a thing before, not even in his few couplings with Kate. Certainly he had heard other men in town speak of such an act, but he hadn’t even given thought to why it should feel that good. In that moment, though, he understood with absolute clarity.

Drawing his knees up, Derek tilted his head back and panted harshly into that dim room. He tried desperately to remain quiet so as not to wake anyone else, but it was difficult to keep enough of his wits about him to hold all of his moans back. The sounds he made seemed to please Stiles, for it caused him to moan in turn, which set off an entirely new set of sensations along Derek’s cock. Stiles’ hands then grabbed Derek’s, and directed him to that nest of messy brown hair. So he did as silently bid and clutched at it, unintentionally pressing at Stiles’ head and pushing him further down Derek’s length.

Stiles moaned around him again, and that was enough to tip Derek over the edge. It had been far too long since anyone had touched him intimately, including himself. Making delighted sounds, Stiles drank Derek’s offering down as if it were a delicious treat. Derek could not believe it would taste that pleasant, for he had an amazing sense of smell and knew very well what its scent implied of its flavor. “Do you honestly like that?” he asked, breathless and weak-limbed, but still immensely curious.

Pulling out of Derek’s now lax grip, Stiles licked his lips and grinned. In that moment, he looked more like a devil or a sidhe than he did a human. “Most is swallowed down my throat and never really touches my tongue. But what I do taste isn’t bad,” Stiles explained. “It’s the texture which is odd, more than anything.”

Curiosity growing, Derek glanced down at where Stiles’ length still stood hard and flushed. “I could try tasting you,” he offered, mouth actually salivating at the thought.

With a little shake of his head, Stiles chuckled. “Another time, perhaps. Tonight I want to try something else. If you want a taste, though, here.” He moved up Derek’s body and kissed him deeply. Derek could taste himself on Stiles’ tongue, and it was strange but not altogether bad. Focusing on the flavor, Derek tried not to think too much on the careless promise of “another time.”

After a few more kisses, Stiles shifted to grab the jar on the nightstand. “Remember what I said. If you dislike anything we do, tell me.” At Derek’s agreeing nod, Stiles uncorked the jar and set the cork back upon the stand. Then he dipped his fingers into the jar and withdrew them with some sort of viscous substance clinging to them. It glistened in the low light, and looked like thick water.

The jar was set aside but close, and then Stiles took one of Derek’s legs with his clean hand. He lifted it so that it draped over Stiles’ shoulder, and then he nudged Derek’s other leg with his knee until Derek was spread wide. “Are you aware of how men have sex?” Stiles asked, studying Derek’s face.

Feeling his face heat, Derek nodded. Just as with the mouth thing, Derek had heard stories. Stiles nodded back at him. “I am going to touch you there. Is that alright?” asked Stiles, still watching Derek’s face to monitor his expressions. When Derek nodded again, Stiles lowered his slick-covered hand until the fingers pressed cold and slippery against Derek’s hole.

He couldn’t help but wriggle a little, the sensation new and strange. Then one of the fingers breached him, and the strangeness seemed only to increase. “It’s odd,” said Derek, scrunching up his face.

Stiles smiled warmly down at him, his fingers still sliding and gently prodding. “It is at first,” agreed Stiles. “But trust me, it will start to feel worth it in a moment.”

“I trust you,” Derek reiterated, then his breath caught as a second finger joined the first inside him. They pressed deeper, caressing him in the most intimate way he had ever been touched. Still, it was a strange sensation more so than a pleasurable one. His entrance, though, he noticed started to tingle in ways that felt oddly good.

Stiles was slow and careful as he worked his fingers inside of Derek. Eventually he slid in a third finger, and it made Derek feel stretched and full. The pleasant tingling seemed to spread, until Derek felt himself thrusting up into Stiles’ ministrations in search of more. Then the fingers brushed something which had Derek nearly cry out in sudden bliss. “And that’s why men couple this way,” Stiles whispered with amusement lacing his tone, before proceeding to pay incredibly welcome attention to that magical spot inside of Derek.

Derek’s cock began to harden once more, as his entire body trembled and his hips rolled into every thrust of Stiles’ fingers. “Please,” Derek husked, unsure even what he was begging for. “Please.”

The fingers left him, which had him reach out in alarm. He hadn’t known what he wanted, true, but he didn’t want that! Stiles was suddenly leaning over him then, soothing him with gentle words and soft caresses. “I want to have you,” said Stiles, catching Derek’s eyes with his own. “May I?”

“Yes,” Derek replied, nodding frantically before reaching out to try to pull Stiles closer. “Please, yes.”

Stiles huffed out a small, happy laugh, before untangling himself from Derek’s grasp. “Patience,” he chided playfully as he sat back and retrieved the jar. Derek watched him scoop up some more of the oil and then coat his own cock. It struck Derek then that he had yet to feel the heat and girth of Stiles with his hands, but was about to feel him elsewhere. ”Another time,” Stiles’ voice repeated in Derek’s head.

It was a bit thicker than Stiles’ three fingers, but not by too much. Derek’s rim stung a little at first, but then once he was breached, the sting turned into a more intense form of the earlier tingles. Stiles wiped his hand off on the bedding, then grabbed up both of Derek’s legs in order to manipulate them as he pleased. Derek was confused as to why he was doing that, until he felt Stiles’ cock suddenly pressing right up against the spot inside he loved best.

“You are like something from a dream,” whispered Stiles, his hips moving so that his cock slid back and forth across that pleasurable spot. “I wish you could be mine.”

The words managed to pierce through all of the pleasure, and Derek blinked up at Stiles. “I am,” he said simply, because to him, in that moment, it felt to be that simple.

Stiles released a sound that could have either been a laugh or a sob, and his hips began to work harder and faster. Derek had never felt something so amazing, and wanted more, doing his best to rock with Stiles. Releasing one of Derek’s legs, Stiles wrapped his hand around Derek’s cock and began to stroke him fast and sure. Still sensitive from his earlier release, it drove Derek’s pleasure to the edge of pain.

Derek’s climax struck him like the thrust of a blade, sharply piercing through to his core. Absently, he felt his stomach splashed with warmth. When he felt Stiles pull out of him, he couldn’t withhold a whimper of protestation. Then he opened eyes he couldn’t remember closing, and watched with a simmering hunger as Stiles finished himself off with his own hand. Stiles’ release soon joined Derek’s across his belly, and it drew a happy rumble up from Derek’s chest.

Smiling through his panting, Stiles leaned in to plant kisses on Derek’s lips. “Never have I seen someone so pleased about getting so dirty,” Stiles whispered with a chuckle.

“I like it,” confessed Derek, blushing a bit but refusing to look away in shame.

“It suits you,” Stiles agreed amiably, glancing down at the mess before casting Derek a heated leer.

Derek gave a little snort and swatted playfully at Stiles’ shoulder. Rolling with the motion, Stiles rose from the bed and snatched up what appeared to be a rag from his travel bag. “Cork the jar, if you would, please,” requested Stiles, as he moved to the wash basin and poured some water from the pitcher. Derek felt around the bedding for the jar and did as asked, watching with mounting curiosity as Stiles dipped the rag into the water.

“Now lie back again,” Stiles urged upon returning to the bed, plucking the jar from Derek’s hand and setting it away on the nightstand. Once Derek was again reclining, Stiles began to clean him with the rag. When he finished with Derek’s belly, Stiles brought the rag back to the basin and rinsed it. Then he proceeded to clean Derek down between his legs, where they had coupled. The touches were careful and slow, soothing and soft. It made something in Derek’s heart twist and ache, because it felt like this was more than it was. They felt like lovers in that moment, instead of simply two people trying to scratch an itch.

Satisfied that Derek was clean, Stiles rinsed the rag again, then brought the basin over to the window. When he opened it, the cold winter air flooded the room, smelling of pine and snow and something oddly sweet. Stiles hesitated for a moment before tossing the water, but then he did not close the window.

“I didn’t realize it was so late,” Derek murmured drowsily. “It smells as if the baker is already at work, so it must be nearly day.”

“No.” Stiles’ voice startled Derek, because its sharpness was a contrast to the gentle tones of moments ago. Then Stiles was quickly setting the basin aside and moving to get dressed. “Check on Rose,” he ordered, voice hard and dark.

Confusion and fear spiked through Derek, and he sat up in the bed as he strained to listen to the rest of the house. “I don’t hear her heartbeat,” he gasped, then bolted from the bed to follow Stiles’ example and dress.

“Get Peter and Scott,” Stiles suggested, as he finished fastening his axe’s harness. “The scent is coming from the woods, so we need to head that way. With luck, we’ll get Rose before she reaches the source.”

Still not fully understanding what was going on, or indeed how Stiles even knew any of that, Derek rushed from the room to fetch his uncle and cousin.

----

They found her, surprisingly enough, heading back into town on the mountain road. She looked up at them in surprise, and then her big eyes began to fill with tears. “I’m sorry that I snuck out,” she cried. “But it smelled so yummy, and there was a lady outside my window who said she’d give me all the pies I wanted if I visited her in the woods, but I had to right away.”

Derek fell to his knees in the snow beside her and wrapped his arms around her tiny shoulders. “We’re just glad you’re safe,” he soothed.

“What’s going on?” Scott asked, looking between the other men and the girl. “Why would some woman try to lure Rose away?”

“I know who it is,” said Derek, as he scooped Rose up, then stood and passed her to Peter. “And I know why.”

“But my question is,” Stiles interrupted, stepping over to smile at the little girl, “how did you escape the evil woman’s trap?”

All at once Rose stopped crying, and her face lit up. “The wolf helped me!”

The men exchanged confused glances, then refocused on the girl. “What wolf?” asked Stiles.

“She is a black wolf with glowing blue eyes, like Poppy and Uncle Peter have! She approached me on the road and nudged me away. She kissed my cheek and whispered that I should run back home.”

“Blue eyes,” murmured Peter, looking out at the forest with something like hope. “Maybe someone else of our family survived the fire.”

“But why wouldn’t she come to us?” asked Scott, his own eyes flashing the gold of a bite-made werewolf. “Why stay in the woods as a wolf?”

Derek looked doubtful, as if trying to battle off the hope already creeping over Peter. “It’s possible she could have been hurt so badly, that she’s been trapped in that form while she heals.”

“But it’s been years,” objected Scott.

“Werewolves don’t heal fire damage well,” Peter explained as he caressed the curling waves of Rose’s hair, “if at all. There’s also the possibility that it’s someone who hadn’t even been in the fire, but was injured in the woods at a later date.” He gave Derek and Scott a significant look over Rose’s head, before glancing pointedly down at the girl.

Stiles understood his meaning as well, thanks to Derek’s words the day before. It was worth investigating, and he’d certainly keep an eye out for info about a black wolf with blue eyes. For the moment, though, he had someone else to track. “Take Rose back,” he told the other men, before turning to start back up the road and further into the mountains.

Moments later, Derek was at his side. “I’m going with you.”

“But Rose-”

“Peter and Scott will watch over her,” Derek explained, his jaw clenched and his eyes glaring fiercely ahead. “I won’t let you face this monster alone.”

The night was strangely bright, thanks to the waxing moon’s light being reflected back by the blanket of thick snow. Stiles watched the path ahead for a bit, before saying softly, “You know her. The woman.”

“Remember when I said I had been with one other?” Derek asked quietly, guilt and regret weighing down his words. “Her name is Kate.”

“Why are you so certain your ex-lover is behind this? Was she so angered by your dismissal of her that she seeks revenge?”

The laugh that broke from Derek’s throat was harsh and bitter. “Hardly. What we had was a lie, a deception woven by a devil with an angel’s face, all so that she could get close to my family and murder them in their sleep.”

Only his years of training kept Stiles from displaying his shock, his feet maintaining their pace. “You suspect she burned down Hale House.”

“I suspect nothing. I know she did. She had been strangely concerned that I was certain the entire family would be there that night, and then she vanished from the town before dawn even broke.” He drew in a long, slow breath. “It was only later, after we had to bury what remains we could find, that I learned her family, the Argents, have a long history of killing my kind. Hunters, they call themselves. Monsters would be more accurate.”

The sweet scent of pie grew stronger, and a glow could be seen just up ahead. “If she is guilty,” said Stiles, “I will know, and she will be judged accordingly.”

Shortly they came upon a small cottage that looked to be ill-maintained. As they entered, Derek began to sway and hold his head. “I feel strange,” he complained through grit teeth. “Like my head is stuffed with cotton, and my lungs sting as if I’ve inhaled splinters.”

“Wolfsbane,” Stiles quickly assessed. “Likely it was used in the pies to serve as poison. Wait outside for me, and keep a safe distance.”

Derek seemed reluctant, but eventually nodded and slipped back out into the night. It was evident that whoever had been there was already gone, as the cabin had but the one room. Pies were lined up along the windowsills, and candles were still lit all about the room to keep it bright and welcoming. The room was still warm from all the baking, and now that Stiles knew what to scent for, he could detect the floral notes beneath the typical smells of spices and sugar.

There was nothing much else to the place, except for some old, decaying furniture. A tattered cloak was carelessly tossed over the back of one chair, and Stiles picked it up. It was familiar, he knew. Raising it to his nose, he inhaled the scents of refuse, dirt, sweat, and the unmistakable combination of coal smoke and burnt honey that clings to any forge. Snagged upon the fabric was a long strand of blond hair.

Setting the cloak back on the chair, Stiles gave the room one last visual scan before leaving. When he met up with Derek outside, he tilted his head to indicate they should return back down the path. “Was Kate a blonde?” he asked as they walked. He didn’t even need the verbal response Derek was quick to offer; the werewolf’s stiffened posture was confirmation enough.

“Seems I’ll be paying a visit to the smithy tomorrow,” Stiles mused with a smirk.

----

When they returned to Peter’s, Stiles and Derek found themselves paused at the top of the stairs. “I’ll not pressure you,” whispered Stiles, who looked as if he wanted desperately to reach out to Derek, “but I’d gladly welcome you to stay with me for the night.”

Derek listened to the rest of the house, and assessed that Rose was safe and sound with Peter and Melissa in their room. “I would like that,” he allowed himself to admit. Then Stiles’ hands were upon him, only to draw the two of them closer for a quick kiss.

They slipped away to Stiles’ room, and stripped back down before curling up together in bed. The room smelled so strongly of them, and Derek again felt himself wishing it could be something real. He knew that soon Stiles would pass judgement on Kate, and his job in that town would be done. Richters never stayed in one place too long, their services needed throughout the lands.

Heart heavy, Derek held Stiles tighter and fell into a troubled sleep.

----

Chris Argent wasn’t a bad man. Stiles had caught him in the early morning, before he’d quite reached his shop, and had started the conversation off pleasantly enough. “You’ve a daughter in the Order, have you not?” Stiles asked.

“I do,” said Chris, nodding and smiling a little with pride.

“Allison, I recall,” Stiles continued. “We trained together at times. She said her family were once silversmiths, hence the name Argent.”

Chris nodded, and motioned towards the shop. “We have since expanded our range of smithing. my father was especially skilled at weapons.”

“Your sister, too, I’ve heard, from neighboring towns. As I traveled here, there were more than a few people who suggested she see my axe and potentially improve upon it.” Stiles patted the pole of his axe and grinned pleasantly as he watched for Chris’ reaction.

All at once, the friendliness fled the older man’s face. “My sister isn’t here. She’s been gone for years.”

“Oh?” Stiles offered up a startled look, then glanced back at the shop. “So you no longer sell weapons?”

“We do,” Chris grit out, his eyes narrowing. “I forge them. And sometimes we receive a shipment from her.”

“I see.” Tutting, Stiles allowed his features to reflect his absolute disappointment. “With a daughter in the Order, I would think you’d know you cannot lie to a Richter.”

Chris took a step back, looking uneasily between Stiles and the pole of the his axe. “I’ve committed no crime,” he objected.

“No, but you are hiding someone who has.”

Across the street, an elderly man exited the home that the crows liked to watch. It was the same man from Chris’ shop the day before. Once again the old man took one look at Stiles and turned to hurriedly walk away. A large bag was slung over his shoulders, and the weight of its contents bent the man’s back so he stooped very low. Overhead, the crows took flight and began to circle.

“Is that your father?” Stiles asked, tilting his head toward the old man. Chris darted a quick glance then offered a reluctant nod. “Do you know why he would have any reason to fear a Richter?”

It looked then as though Chris was going to break down in tears. “Please, sir, they are my family. You have to understand; whatever they have done, I still love them.”

No, Chris Argent was not a bad man. He just helped bad people.

Turning back to the old man, who was rapidly approaching the road towards the mountains, Stiles called out, “I’d be careful in the woods today, sir! I hear there are monsters about.”

His warning only served to make the old man walk faster.

----

Gerard Argent was getting far too old to traipse about in the woods. Still, his daughter had failed the night before, and so he had to pick up her slack. The horrible beasts weren’t going to exterminate themselves, after all.

As he approached a little deer path, he thought he heard a woman crying. ”Serves her right,” he thought with a huff as he kept walking. ”She probably came out here on her own and got lost. Damn fool probably doesn’t even realize the town’s not even that far off.”

He kept walking until the crying became very faint and he was sure he was alone on the road. Then he found a nice spot just within the treeline that was still visible to any passersby, and set down his heavy load. From his sack he pulled a strong, steel trap with teeth as sharp as blades. Carefully he set it, then sprinkled snow and leaves over it, before gently baiting it with a pretty doll.

“That doesn’t seem very nice.” The voice came from behind the old man, startling him up from his task. When he whirled around, he saw before him a handsome young man with dark blond hair, big blue eyes, and a chiseled jaw. “A child might get caught in that thing,” chided the stranger. Something about him unnerved Gerard. The woman’s crying seemed to be growing louder.

“Mind your own business,” Gerard snapped back at him, furious that he was caught. First this man had spotted him, and now it also sounded as if the crying woman would be upon them in no time.

The stranger wagged a finger at Gerard, before reaching out and tapping him once upon the neck. Oddly, the tap stung as if he were pricked with a small knife. “What did you-” Gerard started to say, before his body began to seize up. He watched in horror as the man’s comely features melted away to reveal a demon with skin and eyes like a snake’s. The woman’s crying turned to wails and screams.

Gerard tried to cry out, but not even his voice would work. His body swayed backwards and then he was falling. Down. Down. Right onto the trap. It snapped upon his head, and he could neither hear the woman’s wails nor see the demon’s face, for his life was snuffed out.

----

“It wasn’t my fault,” said the demon, holding his clawed hands up in front of himself and offering Stiles a shrug. “I only meant to subdue him until you arrived.”

Lydia wiped at her eyes and glared at the old man’s corpse. “I hate that I must cry for such a wretch,” she complained bitterly. “Why could I not be bound to a better family?”

Stiles merely sighed. “The Order will start to think ill of me, if all of my assignments are handled before I’m even able to unsheath my axe.”

“He was setting a trap for a child,” cried the demon. “You want me to stand back and allow such a thing?”

“No, Jackson, I’m sure he’s not mad at you,” Lydia soothed, moving to comfort her love. “Are you, Richter?” Her eyes promised pain should Stiles not agree.

“He has a name now, does he?” Stiles asked in deflection. “It’s nice.”

The demon, Jackson, puffed up a bit in pride. “I thought so.”

“It sounds very regal,” Lydia agreed, stroking her lover’s cheek.

“Stiles!” called Derek, rushing up to him on the road. “I heard you came this way after speaking with-” Upon spotting the other two, Derek drew up short. “Oh. Hello.”

“Derek, this is Lydia and Jackson,” Stiles introduced amicably. “Lydia, Jackson, this is Derek Hale.”

Derek gave a quick, startled nod of greeting. “Stiles has told me much about you,” he said. “I’m pleased to meet you.”

Lydia eyed Stiles with suspicion. “He told you only good things, I hope?” she asked Derek.

“Of course,” said Derek. “He spoke of your beauty and your power, and of Jackson’s nobleness in his love for you.”

That made Lydia beam, but then her tears began to flow again, and she huffed in exasperation. “I truly hate this.”

Just then both Jackson and Derek stiffened and turned their heads towards the trees. Stiles followed suit, and was shocked to spy a large, beautiful black wolf with glowing blue eyes. “This way,” she seemed to whisper, though her mouth did not even move. It was as if the sound was carried upon the very wind itself.

She then darted back into the woods, and Stiles and Derek were quick to follow. Jackson and Lydia stayed behind, but Stiles could hear her crying grow louder even as the distance between them increased. The one for whom she wept would die very, very soon. On his back, the axe felt as though it were heating up, until it was as if a fire pressed against his skin.

The wolf led them to the narrow entrance of a cave, and whined as she pawed at the ground around it. “She cannot enter,” Stiles realized, as he stepped closer and saw a line of dark ashes across the entrance floor. “This is likely the ash of a rowan tree.”

“There’s a heartbeat somewhere inside,” said Derek, eyes glowing blue as he tried to see through the darkness of the cave. “Only one, and it’s weak.”

“Likely not Kate,” Stiles reasoned aloud. “Her heartbeat would be strong and healthy, I’d imagine, if she’s still able to forge weapons.” He then knelt and broke the ash barrier with a sweep of his hand. “Go,” he told Derek. “It could be another victim. I’ll guard the entrance, should Kate return.”

Derek nodded before rushing into the cave behind the she-wolf. They had barely disappeared before the cracking of twigs nearby announced someone’s approach. Stiles stepped away from the cave entrance and listened carefully. Crows were gathering, and he followed their collective gaze.

Sure enough, that was exactly where Kate came storming out of the trees. She looked half mad and held before her a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other. “Where is my father?” she roared at him. “What have you done to him?”

“Kate Argent,” Stiles pronounced, projecting his voice to be heard loud and clear, “you have been accused of multiple accounts of murder by way of fire.”

Kate spat at the ground towards him. “They were rabid dogs. I was doing this town a favor.”

Stiles’ eyebrows rose. “You admit to your guilt?”

“I admit to exterminating vermin, not to murder,” Kate corrected, smiling sharply and adjusting her stance.

“Well, which is it?” asked Stiles, cocking his head. “Were they dogs or vermin?”

“Does it matter?” snapped Kate. “Either way, they weren’t human!”

“Some of them were.” Derek’s voice had Kate faltering for a moment, but it merely made Stiles have to fight back a smile and maintain a serious composure. “Just as Timothy, here, is,” he continued, as he emerged from the cave with a frail and sickly man in his arms. The wolf followed at his heels, looking up at Timothy as she whined.

In the distance, Lydia had begun to wail.

“Kate Argent,” Stiles repeated. “It is my judgement that you are guilty of the crimes brought against you. As such, you are hereby sentenced to death by beheading. Do I have a witness?” he asked, per tradition.

“I will be your witness,” Derek responded, voice nearly a growl.

“Very well. Kate Argent, prepare for your sentence to be carried out.” Reaching back, Stiles unclipped the fastenings that secure his axe to its sheath. He swung it around to grip in both hands. “My weapon has been drawn, thus changing my designation. Does the witness acknowledge?”

“Aye, Scharfrichter Stiles,” Derek responded dutifully.

Kate began to laugh. “You really think you can take me, kid? Fine then, let’s dance!”

She lunged at Stiles, and her form was good. No doubt the weapons she held were of her own making, and likely perfect in balance and blade. Yet, the Danish axe Stiles held was of longer reach. So, while she charged, he had but to swing just right, and her head came tumbling to the snowy ground.

Lydia’s wailing came to an abrupt stop.

“Kate Argent has been executed, as decreed. Does the witness acknowledge?”

“Aye, Scharfrichter Stiles. And may she burn in Hell.”

----

Rose came running up to them as soon as they arrived back at Peter’s. Derek felt himself start to cry tears of joy when he saw how excited she got upon seeing her father in his arms. The wolf followed them all inside, and no one stopped her. Derek was fairly certain he knew exactly who she was, and it made more tears flow.

“Set him here,” Melissa ordered, clearing the table for Timothy. “He doesn’t seem to be injured, just malnourished.” Her hands were on him as soon as Derek stepped away, feeling at his neck, instructing him to open his eyes or his mouth. “He may be sick, as well, but nothing serious. We can have him back to full health by spring, I’d wager.”

“Was he really being kept for years in a cave?” asked Scott, baffled and horrified. “Why?”

“Likely because he’s human,” Peter said quietly. He looked fit to resurrect Kate simply to bring her to justice again. “It probably goes against whatever sick, twisted code they have to kill a human. But since he knew who they were, they couldn’t just let him go.”

“Papa!” Rose was crying, too, and trying to crawl up onto the table to hug her father.

Timothy laughed weakly and reached for her. “My Rose. Oh, my darling…” His voice was faint and gravely, and Derek did not know if it was from illness or from years of screaming.

The black wolf gave a yip, which drew Rose’s attention from her father. She slid carefully back to the floor and reached out a tiny hand to place it upon the wolf’s head. “You’re hurt,” said Rose, frowning. “You are filled with so much pain.”

Everyone then watched in wonder as black tendrils moved beneath Rose’s skin, as if flowing from where she touched the wolf. Drawing out pain like that was something many werewolves could learn to do, but they had never seen such a thing with one so young. It also went on much longer than was normally healthy for the werewolf, but neither Derek nor anyone else seemed able to say anything to stop it.

Rose’s eyes lit up, burning bright red, but then they began to flicker to blue. In turn, the blue glow of the wolf’s eyes began to flicker red. As soon as the colors evened out so that Rose’s eyes were solid blue and the wolf’s were solid red, the wolf jerked back with a pained cry.

Suddenly the wolf changed, and Laura was there before them, naked and gasping in pain. Melissa was the first to move, rushing to grab a blanket and drape it about Laura’s body. Laura began to cough and gag, until she was vomiting black fluid. Rose stumbled back, shocked.

Once the gagging stopped, Laura slowly lifted her head, eyes blazing alpha red. “Rose?”

“M-” Rose stepped closer again, lips parted. “Mama!” She didn’t seem to care about the black puddle beneath her boots as she flung herself into her mother’s arms.

----

“You know, I hear that Richters sometimes travel with a witness.” The voice startled Stiles, who hadn’t heard anyone else on the road. He spun around and gasped when he saw Derek standing there. The summer sun was dappled through the thick forest canopy, and danced patterns across the skin of Derek’s bare arms. Stiles swallowed as he remembered the feel of those arms around him.

“How did you find me?” Stiles asked, stepping closer as if compelled.

“You’re not actually that hard to track,” Derek responded with a teasing grin.

Unable to hold back a smile, Stiles asked, “How are Laura and Timothy?”

“Both well. They and Rose are living together quite happily in town.”

“And you?” asked Stiles.

Derek shrugged. “I felt I could finally leave that place, and it’s been...refreshing...to be away.”

“That’s good,” Stiles agreed.

“Still, I’ve not been faring as well as I could be.”

“Well that’s no good,” Stiles corrected himself, stepping even closer. “Are you ill, perhaps?”

“Some call it a form of sickness, yes.” Derek affected a pitiable look. “A condition of the heart, to be precise.”

“Oh?” Stiles reached out and placed his hand in the middle of Derek’s chest, trying his best not to laugh. “Your heart seems fine to me.”

“That’s because the remedy is here,” husked Derek, who took Stiles’ hand and used it to draw him in closer. “I’m feeling better already,” he said, before kissing Stiles like a promise.