Talia can already tell by the way that Peter is shifting that it’s not going to be a good day for him.
It’s well into winter, and even though the den is well-built and the entrance tunnels are crooked to keep out the drafts, the air has a frostbitten tang to it. Makes her wrinkle her own nose, as she stretches and works out the kinks in her spine, and then combs a few fingers through her hair. Her own bones are aching from it, though she knows that that will eventually ease off, so long as she gets up and gets her blood moving. The worst for her will be when she goes outside, and the cold, bone-dry air parches her scars and leaves them itchy and flaking; she’ll have to watch that she doesn’t scratch herself to bleeding again.
Peter’s scars run deeper, even years after the fire, and some days he’s so stiff that he can barely crawl. Once she caught him dislocating his knee to force the muscles to move. And when he can’t move, when he feels trapped, even though they’re safe now—he’s fangs and claws first, with a black temper that snarls and slaps at her to forget that they’re brother and sister.
She has a hard time blaming him. Once that would have been because she is his sister, whatever he does or says—nowadays it’s because his bad days aside, Peter is, shockingly, the more peaceful of the two of them. So she can’t begrudge him the odd irritable spell when he spends most of his time keeping her from acting like the dominant alpha she used to be, and getting them both killed in the process.
There’s a scuff in the tunnel and the air isn’t blowing right for her to get a scent, and Talia instinctively shifts out, crouching into the wall, her ears lying flat. Peter pauses, then rolls over, grunting in pain and annoyance. “Calm down, it’s him,” he hisses.
She huffs in acknowledgement, but stays shifted till the footsteps resolve into a familiar gait. In the meantime, after a few increasingly frustrated looks her way, Peter struggles out of the bedfurs and wrestles himself till he’s propped up on his arms. He reaches out and snaps his claws, striking a spark for the wick of a nearby lantern. The flaring light throws gruesome shadows over his scarred face, then settles into a small yellow circle that just washes him out, making him look wan and exhausted.
Just before the last bend, the newcomer barks once, both a greeting and a test. Talia replies similarly, but Peter draws a deep breath and then lets out a low whine.
He sounds much less pained than he is—she can see how the corners of his mouth tighten—and Stiles isn’t fooled either, dropping the fresh-caught pheasant as he rounds the corner and then stalking over to Peter to sniff and poke.
“You smell all twisted,” he mutters, prodding at the scars running down Peter’s back. He drops into a crouch over Peter, bending to run his hand over a spot that makes Peter growl and jerk roughly.
Peter grimaces, immediately catching himself, and Talia catches a flicker of nerves in him as he moves off his arms, lowering himself so Stiles can push and knead at his thigh. “Suppose I slept wrong,” he mutters, turning his head to track Stiles’ movements. “Not used to having so much of the bed to myself. We were wondering where you’d gotten off to.”
“Well, I told you I’d probably be out, and not to stay up.” Stiles says that in an offhand tone, pulling himself back to wipe off a smear of blood on his mouth. His eyes aren’t red at all.
He’s not even looking at Peter, but Peter winces again, his shoulders slumping slightly. And then Peter glances over, but Talia’s already taken herself over to the pheasant. She checks that over—Stiles slit the belly and ate some of the guts but otherwise hasn’t dressed it at all—and plucks off the feathers while Peter changes the subject to whatever Stiles was doing last night.
Their long-time host is a werewolf like them, but he’s a different breed, one that even Peter, with his insatiable curiosity, knew very little about when they first came to his den. They’ve been sharing quarters for years now and they haven’t added much to that; Stiles can and usually is very talkative, but he’s very good about telling them just about everything except what they’d really like to know.
So he tells Peter all about the herd movements, and a shooting star he saw, and a hellebore patch he came across and that he wants to root up later, and a badger he chased off his favorite berry bushes. He throws in a few tangents about winter omens, solstice magic, misunderstandings about hibernation, all of which tempt Peter into a few questions before Peter manages to rein himself in, but he doesn’t say a thing about why he’d abruptly left last night, or what he’d obviously been hearing before he went.
Peter shoots Talia a couple more looks, but they’re of the leave it to me, don’t you dare variety, even though he’s dancing around the subject like he and Stiles are partnering each other at some village fair. Anyone else, he would’ve shoved his claws into their throat by now, but with Stiles he suffers patiently.
“Also, I picked up a couple wolf scents,” Stiles says suddenly. He’s in the middle of massaging out Peter’s back, and as he speaks, his hands slide in winging motions out from Peter’s spine, curling around the shoulderblades.
“What?” Peter half-snaps, half-groans. It hurts, what Stiles is doing, but even from across the den Talia can see how the muscles are releasing under Stiles’ hands. And also, he wants to know.
They both do. Talia drops the bird and has one hand to the wall, about to leap over, when Stiles tsks at her. She pauses, then sighs and wipes off the bloody, befeathered streak she’s left on the plaster. “Omegas?” she says. “It’s winter, they’ll be ranging out—”
“Yeah, I know, I’ve been here a while,” Stiles says dryly. He’s still working at Peter, pointedly kneading his hands up towards Peter’s neck as Peter tries to lift and turn his head to peer at him. The two of them get in a little battle of wills before Peter gives, flopping down with a slight shiver. “And I don’t know, maybe, but they’re kind of well-fed for omegas. Also, there’s two going around together, and I think I caught a third scent nearby.”
Talia growls before she can help it. Even if this isn’t really their territory, and anyway, they’re a broken pack, her instincts are screaming at her to get out there, investigate, defend.
“You couldn’t have been that far out,” Peter says, while giving her another warning look. His lip lifts to flash a fang as Stiles’ fingers probe an especially sore spot, but when Stiles’ hands slip down over his shoulder, he makes the tiniest motion of his head towards one, almost nuzzling it. “Shouldn’t we have heard a howl?”
“It was a couple days old, so they might’ve been there during the storm,” Stiles says. He sits back, rolling his shoulders; one of his hands runs completely off Peter but the other lingers, and Talia can see Peter half-close his eyes and hitch that shoulder, as if to push the hand onto the back of his neck. “So I’m okay with showing you as long as you don’t go—”
“I’m not about to declare a war without your permission, Stiles,” Talia sighs. She goes back to the bird, gathering together all the cast-off feathers, rubbing her hand at where the blood’s going sticky on the floor. “But I think it’d be useful if one of us went with you. If it’s someone we know…”
“It’s probably someone we don’t want to know we’re here anyway.” Peter tries a roll onto his side, hisses, and slips back onto his belly, pressing his hand against his thigh. “I can’t think of a pack who wouldn’t take advantage. Can you, sister?”
The first part of that’s to reassure Stiles, but the second part is Peter’s temper showing, albeit much more mildly than usual. Talia clicks her claws at him, just to let him know she’s onto him, and then shakes her head for Stiles. Who’s still wary, eyeing the both of them. For all that he’s much younger, he’s got the reflexes of a battle-scarred wolf twice his age—depending on how bitter Talia is feeling, she’d credit him with even more caution than she used to have.
“Okay, well, tonight,” he finally says. When Talia opens her mouth, he shakes his head decisively. “We’re not going to lose the scent, I marked it all out. But I’m not going out earlier than that. There’s a rut-mad moose bull wandering around the valley, nearly smashed me into a boulder. We’ll go out when it’s gone to sleep.”
“That sounds fine,” Talia makes herself say, even though her hands and arms and shoulders are itching in denial. She fidgets with the feathers she has, then jerks her head towards the entrance. “I did want to hunt—we’re running low on dried meat. I was only thinking about going to the water hole.”
“Oh, that’s fine, it wasn’t that close,” Stiles says, turning his shoulder to her. He’s frowning at Peter, who’s still holding his thigh. “Get one of the roe deer, what do you think?”
Talia moves the denuded pheasant to the side and then steps over it as she starts to shift. Not a full shift, she needs her hands to carry out the feathers. And since she’s thinking about that, she grabs a spare skin to wrap them in. “I could stop on the way and get some more chestnuts.”
“It does feel like—ah—the temperature’s dropping, a roasting fire sounds nice,” Peter chimes in, as Stiles pushes his hand out of the way and then presses into his thigh. He catches her eye a last time and he’s not exactly grateful, her brother, but he likes her idea.
Then Stiles digs at him again and he hisses, unable to hide the muscle spasm. Talia jerks towards him, then pulls back immediately. Both of them ignore her: Stiles is dropping to his hands and knees, nuzzling at Peter’s thigh, and Peter has buried his head in the bedding so she can’t see his face. But Peter’s kneading the furs, first tight and white-knuckled, and then, as Stiles starts to move his head in short strokes, working up till Talia can see the strangely broad, flat tongue laving at her brother’s scars, Peter’s hands loosen up, go almost languid in how they push into the bedding. Peter whines again, much more softly, inviting, his hips humping up as his knees hike to either side of him, and at that point Talia leaves.
She pauses again once she’s emerged from the den, both to adjust to the sudden chill and to make sure that the pair of them don’t suddenly quarrel. It’s happened before; Stiles’ saliva has a degree of healing power—one difference between them—and sometimes all he wants to do is treat Peter’s injuries, and it’s always been in Peter’s nature to push for more than he’s given.
But as Talia listens, all she hears is Peter’s increasingly breathless whining. Then Stiles’ rumble joins in and she breathes a sigh of relief, and moves on. She dumps the feathers a short distance away from the den, then finds the stream and tracks it down towards the watering hole. A quick, easy kill, and a little time to herself, she thinks. That will be a good start.
* * *
Neither she nor Peter have completely worked out what happened. They know it was the Argents who were responsible, and probably it was the daughter, Kate, who was leading it. And they know that someone in their family was also involved, but since everyone’s gone but them, they don’t know the how or why, or the who. They’re not even really sure how they survived.
Peter’s scars have slowly faded from their worst, though he’s still far from the strapping mischief-maker who used to drive her and everyone within range to distraction. He shows the effects of the fire more than she does because, contrary to the end, when they’d all gone down into the basement, he’d gone up, straight into the flames. And as it’d turned out, that choice, even though it’d resulted in him almost burning to death, had gotten him high enough so that when the house collapsed, the timbers thrown with him had broken the ash circle. He’d crawled till he was just clear—when she stumbled over him, embers were burning only a few inches from his head—and then had collapsed.
But Talia had gone down with the rest of the pack, and had watched them suffocate on the burning air, one by one, while she clawed herself bloody trying to break an opening for them. She’s heard of alphas managing to defy the mountain ash but for all her vaunted fame, when it had been her turn, she’d failed. The circle had held, and everybody she loved, everybody she was responsible for, they’d all died in front of her.
She’d survived on smoke and sparks because she was an alpha, she assumed. Had managed to live just that moment longer, until suddenly that invisible wall was no longer there and she’d fallen heavily on a pile of fire-cracked bricks, shocked, still trying to understand that her whole family was gone.
Talia remembers scrambling away through the burning pieces raining down on her, coughing up blood and charred, cooked-meat bits of her lungs, instinct forcing her to move even as her heart pleaded to just die, to lie down and stop with the rest. Peter says he didn’t call her but she remembers hearing something, realizing that she still had one, and she’d found him.
There’s a gap after that. They’d run, obviously. They know she killed at least two hunters who were following up on the fire, and Peter suspects he took a third, based on interrogations of a few they’d captured and killed after those frantic, nightmarish first weeks. Peter was barely alive, and they’d kept going to ground in whatever spots she could find, ditches and tree hollows and thickets, Talia curling up around his scabbed, fire-flayed body, in a desperate parody of the way they’d nestled together as children. She’d draw on his pain, trying to keep him with her, but then she’d have to leave him for water, for food, and she’d come back and the light would be fading from his eyes. And she’d sob and grab him and do anything, everything, to drag him back.
The last time, she remembers grabbing his hand. He remembers hearing her heart stop, and lashing out on instinct, biting her arm till he heard it again.
They’d both woken up, but Talia’s eyes weren’t red anymore, and Peter wasn’t dying. Crippled, still dangerously weak, but he was firmly among the living.
He says that he tried to reason with her afterward. He probably did; she wasn’t totally healed herself and losing the alpha strength slowed that even more, and on top of that she knew they were still being hunted. She wasn’t much more than an animal, driving them on and on, trying to shake the threats on their trail. She wasn’t following any direction except her fear, and Peter wasn’t in any condition to do anything but come with her.
So they’d wandered out of their old territory, farther north to lands still unclaimed by any pack. Or they’d thought, until one bad storm had sent them tumbling down a hillside and straight through a snowdrift, into a buried tunnel. Which had turned out to be one of the exits for Stiles’ den and he’d tripped over them, huddled together, fully shifted and still nearly frozen.
He’d taken them in, and they’d lived with him ever since.
* * *
Stiles seems to be in an affectionate mood, his thumbs dipping to stroke along Peter’s inner thighs as he licks the ache out of Peter’s muscles, but Peter still keeps an ear for his sister’s departure. Talia’s run back to intervene before.
He doesn’t exactly wish she wouldn’t stop and check on him. Peter once had resented his sister to the point that he believed he’d rejoice at her passing. He doesn’t necessarily think he was wrong then. But they’ve both changed, and now the thought of her dying leaves him even stiffer and colder than his near-useless, pain-wracked body.
That said, part of those changes are that he’s gained considerable awareness, and even a little grudging acceptance, of his limitations. He knows very well that if he pushes his mate too much, he won’t earn anything but loneliness and hurt, and he’s learned that these days, he does prefer to compromise rather than to add to his already extremely generous share of misery. And he knows better than Talia that he might consider Stiles his mate, but the other werewolf doesn’t reciprocate. He appreciates her concern but he’s not stupid.
“How’s that?” Stiles asks. He gives Peter’s hip a last swipe of the tongue, then leans back.
Peter twists half-over, fighting down a grimace as tremors of pain shoot down his spine and burst in his shoulder and elbow and knee. “Better,” he says, honestly, because it is compared to when he’d first woken.
“Oh, good,” Stiles says, grinning. He absently drags his hand across his mouth, then rubs it back over the side of his head, making a face at it. “Ugh, I still smell like that moose. I should’ve stopped by the stream and washed off.”
He does, but Peter can put up with a lot more than herbivore stink. “I don’t mind,” he says, raising his hand when Stiles moves. He pauses, and then shifts the rest of the way onto his back, lifting his chin in a slight invitation. “And I could help with that. Return the favor, if you’d like.”
“You’re just trying to get out of having to go outside,” Stiles laughs, nudging Peter’s knee with his foot. Still, he’s bending over, shifting onto his elbows, and his eyes are warmer than the lantern flickering its light over them.
Peter lifts his chin higher, purring, and Stiles snorts but he slides closer, his arm brushing along Peter’s side. Then he leans across and his chin just skates Peter’s chest before he dips his head, nuzzling at the edge of Peter’s jaw. He pauses to sniff at a small trickle of sweat running from Peter’s hairline, then laps at it, a soft, rolling noise coming from his chest.
He’s built much leaner and longer-limbed than either Peter or Talia—Peter sometimes wonders if that’s characteristic of his kind—but his purr is deeper than theirs. Sometimes it goes so low that it feels like it’s coming up from the center of the earth, rather than the slim youth who’s nosing into Peter’s throat, nipping along the tendon to draw breathless moans from Peter.
Stiles nips a little hard, and Peter likes it, he wants it like that, wants at least marks of what they do, if he can’t have the vow, but the shudder it provokes goes on too long and Peter can’t keep back the pained hiss. Of course, Stiles immediately rises and Peter shoves aside his frayed, ever-traitorous nerves, pushing himself after the other man, whining before he can help it.
Sometimes that’s the worst thing he can do, but today it brings Stiles back. Pushing his forehead against Peter’s cheek, rumbling again, his hand running soothingly down Peter’s chest as he climbs more onto Peter. “Okay, okay,” he mutters, as their mouths finally slip together. He resists, half-heartedly, shifting so Peter can’t quite seal their lips. “Just—okay, if you’re gonna—if we’re gonna—”
“I can take it, I’ll manage, just, please,” Peter pleads, doing his best to kiss the man back down. His damned body keeps betraying him, muscles in his shoulders and arms knotting up so that he can’t pull Stiles to him, but that’s just as well; Stiles hates being caged as much as Peter does.
“Yeah, fine, just, okay, just, back, lie down, I’ll do it.” A little edge leaks into Stiles’ voice, not angry, just firm. His hands push Peter into place, and then linger, tracing the lines of Peter’s belly so the flesh there spasms in an entirely pleasant way.
Peter purrs to encourage him, and persuades one arm to rise enough so that he can just hook his hand over Stiles’ upper arm. He can’t do much more than that, with the way his nerves are protesting, but at least he’s touching his mate, showing he wants it. And Stiles senses that, a lower, rougher note entering his voice as he sucks at Peter’s lower lip, dropping his hands between Peter’s legs.
“You’re wet already,” he says. Lifts his head, sniffs, then laughs affectionately as Peter licks the underside of his chin. He cups his hand under Peter’s thigh, lifting it so he can press a fingertip against Peter’s hole, dabbling in the slick just beading on its rim. “I guess you weren’t having that bad a night, with those kinds of dreams.”
“Dreamed about you,” Peter half-groans, struggling to get his knees up. Stiles pushes his legs down to the side and he fights a little, then subsides with a shiver that’s only part-pained when Stiles bites his neck again. “About you coming in, warming up, oh, please, yes, Stiles—”
Who’s mounding up the furs under Peter’s knees, getting them some support so he can sprawl between them, still playing one finger on the edge of Peter’s hole. He laves along Peter’s throat, urging Peter to tilt back his head. “Perve. Smells pervy, too, this your heat coming? You’re all sweet all of a sudden.”
Peter tenses, but Stiles doesn’t stop touching him. The man’s just musing aloud, as he does. And then his finger finally slips into Peter and Peter shudders himself out of his nerves, shudders hard enough that it even burns away the ache of his body for a few brilliant seconds. “No, doubt it, you know I—I haven’t—just—just the season probably—”
“Yeah, well,” Stiles says, his voice odd.
But before Peter can check on him, Stiles snakes down and pushes his head between Peter’s legs, and it’s his tongue curling up next to that finger, stroking Peter from inside out, and all Peter can do is clutch at the bedding and whine. Such an odd tongue, even when the man’s unshifted, broad and flat and thin enough to easily double up on itself, flexible in ways that even a finger isn’t. It works into Peter and blankets that spot that can override everything else, pain and sense and even hate, and then it ripples, hot and wet and toying at Peter’s nerves in a way that leaves him helplessly trembling and he loves it, loves that, wishes it would never stop.
Stiles laps at him as he whimpers and hitches, the little that his crippled body allows. When his weaker thigh starts to slide, Stiles puts up a hand to catch it and then rubs his fingers along it, teasing pleasure even out of that sense-dulled, rough scar tissue. He’s never so much as blinked at Peter’s disfigurement, never even seemed to register it. If he wasn’t such a reader Peter might wonder whether the man was blind.
Sometimes Peter still wonders whether Stiles was raised away from other people, if he just hasn’t seen anything better. It’s an ugly thought, fitting the one who came up with it, but Peter shoves that away before he can spoil this.
Because this is beautiful. Stiles pushing back up, mouth and chin sheened over with Peter’s juices, eyes hot with desire, fangs dropped and peeking from behind his lips as he bends hungrily over Peter. His hands pressed against Peter’s body, petting and caressing, plucking a nipple to a hard peak before he suddenly grins, takes a playful swipe at it with his tongue while Peter rocks and moans. Running up to cup Peter’s twisted cheek, thumb soft against the hard ridges of the scars. Kissing Peter like he wants nothing else, while his cock slowly, achingly, fills Peter up.
It’s beautiful, and Peter has it for now, and he’s not going to let it go any sooner than he has to. He puts his hands on Stiles’ arms, and then, as Stiles humps up, straightening his arms so they’re out of reach, he moves them to grip at Stiles’ thighs. Weak, but still, he’s doing something. And when Stiles looks down at him, panting, seated as deeply in Peter as possible, Peter mewls and arches his neck and gives up everything he has for it.
Stiles keeps his word, does the work, holding Peter by the hips as he fucks into Peter with short, careful movements. It’s so good it’s brutal, turning Peter dizzy with the waves of heat building in him, but he thinks it can’t be so good for Stiles, not that slow, that restrained. He tries to fix it, bucks his hips, but his back spasms and then Stiles snarls at him, eyes bleeding red.
Peter whines, dropping back, and Stiles drops forward, following it up with a kiss that steals whatever breath is left in Peter’s lungs. Stiles’ hand wraps around his cock, sticky with his own slick, and pumps twice and then lets go to pin Peter by the shoulder, keeping him from whipping hard enough to tear some of those lock-prone muscles when he comes.
He whines again as he falls slack, apologetic, wishing he could do more for his mate. Thinking that that isn’t the way to keep one, that’s a paltry showing, and Stiles twists his cock inside Peter so Peter cuts off, then shudders into a moan instead. Stiles keeps going, still careful, but he stretches over Peter, rubbing his whole body so he smears Peter’s come between them and the scent of it spices the air, mixing with the salt sting of their sweat and it’s so heavenly that Peter opens his mouth to take it in.
And Stiles is purring, too, not the usual werewolf purr, but that deep, low one, sending shakes through both of them, that Peter’s only ever heard from Stiles. He ducks his head under Peter’s chin, nose-tip just grazing an arc over the length of Peter’s throat, and as Peter’s still shivering from that, Stiles follows the same back with his fang tips. Peter’s soft, so soft it aches and nothing short of a bolt of lightning could get him back up in time, but he feels that sharp, starving want, that craving for release. For a bite.
Peter rides up into Stiles’ mouth, almost hoping for blood, and Stiles doesn’t give him that but Stiles does close his lips over Peter’s skin. Sucks it up against his teeth, hard enough that he can feel the blood drawing close to the surface, even if it doesn’t spill out—and then Stiles’ hips stutter twice against him and the fingers of one hand sink into the meat of Peter’s shoulder, and inside Peter can feel the man’s come painting him.
Stiles rests on him a few seconds, panting, and then he pulls out and the smell of them mixed together crests and Peter moans longingly, already anticipating the fade. The other man looks at him, a little reserved, and Peter starts to tense, but then Stiles shakes himself, dabs his fingertips in the sweat pooling on Peter’s belly. His eyes have lost their red.
“Come on, you’re going to get all stiff again,” he says. He grunts and moves further back, and then rubs at some of the come on his stomach. “Get stuck to the bed, too, and we’ll have to peel it off you.”
“It could be worth it,” Peter offers.
Stiles glances at him, and then at the outside of his thigh, which is pinked—if already paling—with fur rash. Then shakes his head again, climbing off the bed. “Trying too hard, Peter. You can do better than that.”
“Well, I’ve only just woken,” Peter mutters, pride a little pricked. Though then he rolls onto his side, meaning to follow Stiles, and all his aches seem to rush back in at once. He doesn’t roll back but he does concentrate on his breathing for a second, making it steady and regular. “So these other werewolves.”
The other man’s disappeared into one of the tunnels, probably in a storeroom. They spend the most time in the main den, but the burrow is actually quite extensive, clearly the product of much time and work. And, Peter and Talia think, meant for more than one, although nowhere near enough to fit an average pack of their kind. Still, Stiles can hear him from wherever the man is, because a sigh filters back into the den.
“Talia’s thinking it over for now, but she’s going to be worried,” Peter goes on. He takes a deeper breath, bracing himself, and then pulls himself to the edge of the bed with his arms. He can’t quite make it to a sitting position, but he gets up enough so that he can wipe himself off—though honestly, he wouldn’t mind smelling like this a little longer. “And I think she’s right to be. Three together…are you sure about that?”
Stiles comes back after a few minutes, with a bucket of water from the spring—the burrow’s even big enough for its own water source—and cleaning cloths. He tidies himself briskly, then sits down by Peter to help him. “Yeah, and I didn’t want to say in front of her, but it wasn’t just scents.”
Peter looks sharply at him, and finds that Stiles is studying him just as closely, if with less obvious nerves. Stiles might bed him and not his sister, but the man’s made it clear, repeatedly, that he’s not interested in siding with one of them over the other. Of course, that doesn’t mean he won’t use Peter to handle Talia, and vice versa.
Still, he’s never done that but to just keep things calm, and he certainly doesn’t play the pack politics that they’re used to. It’s been one of the hardest things to adjust to. “What else?” Peter asks carefully. “You…you didn’t see them…”
“No, but they left scratches on some of the trees.” Stiles hesitates, watching Peter’s face, and then makes a pinching gesture with his fingers. “Some bits of fur, too. I think there might’ve been a fight, actually.”
Peter sucks in his breath. He’s always concerned when they come across signs of other werewolves—even omegas are tricky, with him crippled and Talia a beta and Stiles…complicated—but if there was a fight, then a pack has to be involved. Omegas don’t fight each other, short of starvation or madness; they’ve got nothing to fight over.
“Two on one, I’m thinking,” Stiles adds. He rubs a cloth over Peter’s leg, leaning his shoulder into Peter’s arm as Peter sways, and then drops it into the bucket to soak. “So the tracks were going away from here, but I didn’t follow them too far out. I…I kind of…I don’t know, I kind of don’t think you should be in here by yourself when Talia and me are checking them out, but it’s over a couple ridges. It’s going to be bad even if we take turns carrying you.”
“We’re in the mountains, it’s always bad,” Peter mutters. Though he’s surprised that Stiles would even bring up him going, let alone offer. They’ve left him before to run off other werewolves, and even hunters. “Did you think they had a magic worker?”
Stiles shakes his head, and from the way he looks, he hadn’t even thought of going in that direction. “Oh, nah, nothing like—sorry, didn’t mean to worry you. It’s not that I think they can get in here, it’s more like…like if it’s a pack, we might be out a while, right? She’s gonna want to find them.”
“Well, yes, and much as we don’t want to see them, we would need to know who we’re dealing with to do that properly,” Peter says after a moment. “No, you’re right, I should go. Talia’s…her memory isn’t as good as mine, you know that. I might recognize them when she won’t.”
“I was thinking that,” Stiles says, but he’s a little reluctant. “So…she going to—”
“I’ll tell her,” Peter immediately says. He pauses, then makes a face. “Better coming from me, I can put it in—I don’t think you’ll have the…the context to give her. It’ll be fine, she’ll fuss but it’s the reasonable thing to do.”
Stiles still looks a little uncomfortable, but he just nods. Then he starts to reach for the bucket, but stops when Peter turns into him. They’re still pressing shoulders together, and Peter uses Stiles’ as a brief lever to get his chin up, and then to press a kiss to the other man’s mouth.
“Thank you.” When Stiles arches a brow, Peter kisses him again, and then rubs his forehead against Stiles’ cheek. “For asking me.”
“Well, I wasn’t going to just tell you two you should come,” Stiles says, blinking. He tips towards Peter, so they’re sharing breaths, and then pushes away, grabbing the bucket. “You guys are so weird.”
Without his support, Peter slowly slides back to lie along the edge of the bed, but Stiles runs his hand through Peter’s hair and then across the back of Peter’s neck and Peter doesn’t mind at all. “We try to keep you interested,” he says to Stiles’ back.
“Weird,” Stiles says, flapping one hand at him. “Let me know when she’s back, okay? I’m going to check our stocks, now that Talia’s mentioned it.”
“All right, Stiles,” Peter says, and he’s smiling, even though the situation far from warrants it.
The show appears to be mostly going with gray wolves, but there are several species of wolf (and wolf-like canids). Not all wolf species have strong pack structures--a couple species do form packs, but mostly for territory-defending activity, and the rest of the time they break up into mated pairs.
Peter and Talia are gray wolf types, while Stiles' kind is a made-up mix of multiple non-gray wolf types, but mainly the maned wolf and the Ethiopian wolf.
Peter remembers better than his sister, because the healing she did to him—which was nothing like how it was described in the books, feeling like she was pumping fire and soul into him, and he still has odd echoes from her memories—cost her a good deal more than her red eyes and her alpha power. But he still has blank spots, since he was unconscious most of the time.
His sense memory is a little better. He remembers the rigidness of his sister pressed against him, the cold damp dirtiness of the many holes they hid in. The smell of her blood, far too often, and that ominous whiff of rot that’d clung to her for weeks, even after they fell into Stiles’ burrow. She didn’t and doesn’t have the degree of physical scarring that he has, but he thinks they threw wolfsbane into the fire, too, because her lungs still aren’t fully healed.
And he remembers when that changed, to warm soft furs and runny but rich-tasting soups poured down his throat, heavy with marrow and liver and herbs, damp cloths cleaning the sweat off him and the sound of somebody purring soothingly as Talia threw up.
Talia was nearly at the end of her strength when Stiles found them, and Stiles nursed both of them for a while. How long, he’s never said, but it was long enough that when Peter was finally awake enough to have an intelligent conversation with the man, Stiles had a routine for hauling them out of bed for relieving themselves, bathing them, and plopping them back in bed. And he could do it while half-asleep, without even opening his eyes, guided just by smell and hearing and memory.
Peter actually recovered before Talia, but once she was awake, it wasn’t long before she was mobile again. Insisting on contributing something, trying to go out and hunt, and that had led to their first argument with Stiles, who’d pointed out, rightly, that she’d just undo all his work. But Talia had pushed, pride and a sense of gratitude driving her, but also, those old habits as the alpha, the one who managed everything, and then Stiles’ eyes had flared red.
It’d been—odd. Like seeing a deer but smelling a raccoon. He didn’t…he didn’t come off as an alpha otherwise. He didn’t have the usual frisson of power around him, though as they came to know him, they realized they just didn’t have the right senses for his kind. But he’d been quicker than them to pick up on their sudden obedience, and had ordered Talia back to bed.
Later he’d apologized, saying he just didn’t want her to reinjure herself, and Peter thinks his sister has forgiven the man. In fact, if anything, Peter suspects that Talia might wish—as he does—that Stiles would slip a little more easily into their idea of an alpha. He already ticks so many of the boxes: he feeds them and gets them water, he provides them with shelter and defense, he keeps them company.
He does care for them, to some degree. He spends more time with them than he has to—he’s let them continue to sleep in the main den, even though there are other rooms that they could use. He sleeps with Peter, of course, but he’s shown some fondness for Talia as well, letting her teach him games with pebble markers and a board etched onto a piece of wood to pass the time.
Stiles is pack to them. But they have no idea what they are to him.
Peter’s read about other types of werewolves. And other types of weres, of course, but he and Talia are almost positive that Stiles is a type of wolf. If he were a werefox or a werecoyote, the way he barks and purrs and howls would give him away, but the differences are much more subtle than that.
They’re frustrating, frankly. Nothing that Peter’s read seems to apply to Stiles. The other types of werewolves he knows about are essentially variations on the same theme, with mostly cosmetic changes, but Stiles clearly comes from a different foundation.
The man understands the concept of pack but he doesn’t feel it like they do—he loves to quiz them about it, in fact, always coming up with new scenarios to test the parameters of pack hierarchy and politics. A couple of times he’s actually managed to jog Talia’s memory with his questions; it’s painful for her, remembering what she used to be, and sometimes for Peter, remembering what he used to put up with, but they suppress that because those conversations tend to be the most enlightening about Stiles. He may not tell them much about himself and his kind, but his questions say a lot about what he’s not familiar with.
Otherwise they’re mostly limited to what they can observe. He lives differently, far more comfortable underground than they are—he even hunts burrowing prey. Where they’d catch rabbits on the run, he tends to stalk their burrows and catch them in the tunnel mouths. He’ll venture into the caves that pepper this region, willing to take the chance and kill in tight, dark spaces. And when he hunts prey on the hoof, he can wear them out with tracking like they do—or would, if they were healthy—but generally he’ll stalk them for longer than either Talia or Peter have the patience for, almost catlike in how he uses the rough terrain to his advantage.
He eats differently. They’re werewolves, none of them can live on pure meat alone, but Stiles eats far more vegetables and fruits, almost like a regular human. In the summer when the passes are open, he and Talia sometimes venture into the valley towns to trade furs and he loves bread. Peter admits to a sweet tooth, and Talia likes her roasted nuts, but Stiles will devour a whole bakery if he can.
And while they’ve never seen him shift all the way, he’s gone far enough for them to think that he has a full shift. He was surprised to hear that that ability is limited among their kind. Talia can still do it, one of the few powers she still has, and Peter can now too—he assumes it has to do with her healing of him—although it’s very painful for him.
He certainly has an alpha form, which is much rangier than one of theirs, though when Peter called it that, he’d looked startled. And then he’d told them that his kind always have red eyes, and an ‘alpha’ form—one of the few times he’s volunteered information.
Talia asked him once where he’d come from, and how he’d gotten here, of all places. He’d clammed up then, but a few weeks later, when a storm had kept them in and they’d been telling stories to entertain each other, he’d let slip that one of his tales, about a wolf and a snow fairy, was from his homeland. And then he’d shrugged and added that his mother had liked to travel, and had met his father on one trip and then settled with him.
The way he’d held himself, and not looked at either of them but had instead stared fixedly at some of the den’s support beams, had kept them from pressing him, but Peter tends to think that the burrow might be his parents’ burrow. Of course, that begs the question of what happened to his parents.
That question, and the question of why he’s stayed on anyway, and why he’s stayed alone the whole time. But there Peter’s curiosity abruptly dies, and he is truly grateful that his sister sees the sense of leaving it alone, too. Because he remembers, far, far better than her, what it was like to be on their own, with nothing but their killers at their backs. It might worry him to distraction that he doesn’t understand why Stiles keeps them company, but better that than driving the man away.
* * *
Talia returns in a few hours, with the chestnuts and a fresh-killed buck that she skins and portions for smoking while she argues with Peter. “You’re safer here,” she keeps saying, as if repetition has ever been the key to his mind. “It’s not three on three, Peter, it’s three on two at best.”
“Yes, sister, I’m well aware that I’m useless in a fight,” Peter finally snaps.
“Peter,” Talia starts, sighing.
He snarls at her, then flops down where he is, still at the edge of the bed. The ache in his back and leg flares up and Peter digs his fingers into the furs, his attention diverted from his irritation into simply—enduring. And then, once the pain’s dulled to merely awful, he takes a deep breath and tries again. “I’m as useless here as I am outside, and if I go with you, at least you won’t bring someone all the way back here before finding out they lied about how we used to deal with each other.”
“Peter,” Talia says again, much more sharply. Her temper’s shorter these days, although he’ll admit that he’s still quicker to lash out. “Peter, don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m not. I’ve never been ridiculous, you’ve just never bothered to pay attention to anything I ask you to, so I have to engage in silly dramatics to get you to look at me—at it. Damn it, just—” Peter resists the urge to simply twist away from her and bury himself in the bedding “—he wouldn’t ask if he thought there wasn’t a need for me.”
“I know, but there’s more than just whether we need you with us,” Talia says. She’s also struggling to keep an even tone. Her claws skew awkwardly in the carcass, cutting a wedge instead of an even strip, and she stabs her claws into the meat and snarls at it in frustration. “Peter, for the love of—I don’t know if I can defend you, if it comes to that, all right? You’re not the only one who thinks they’d be useless, and he can’t cover both of us at the same time.”
Her tone is so bitter that Peter pauses. “You’re not obligated to,” he finally points out, softer than planned.
Talia flicks her eyes up, and then resumes working on the deer, but her movements are jerky. She’s all but shredding the meat, so badly it’ll be good for nothing but stew, and she doesn’t seem to care, her mouth set in a thin line, her gaze twisted inward. “You are being ridiculous. This again, honestly, it doesn’t matter if I’m not an alpha, I’m still your sister and I’m older and—”
“I’m not telling you to abandon me,” Peter says, quite reasonably. “I’m just saying, I think we’ll avoid more trouble if you just stop fighting us on this.”
“And I don’t know why you think we’re fighting,” Talia mutters. “That’d mean I even have a say. You don’t have to listen to me and he never did.”
“So you’re just laying out your position for posterity, when it all goes terribly wrong?” Peter says.
His sister’s lip curls again. She gives the deer a last rake, and then stops her mangling of it. Talia’s slumped all of a sudden, the hard anger gone out of her body and replaced by a sad resignation he more tastes than smells.
“I just don’t want you to die because this time I don’t have the power to do anything about it,” she sighs. Her finger rises, extends over the deer and then comes feebly down so that her claw barely catches in the thick white membrane casing the muscle. “If it goes badly, we don’t have any fallback. I thought…don’t you always want to have a fallback?”
Peter thinks she might be trying to lighten the mood with that last comment, or at least soften the rawness of her tone, but all she does is end up sounding so wistful that—he’s outraged, actually. For her to wish now for all the things about him that she’d tried so hard to discourage before…and then he looks at her, the defeat in her bent posture, and he might have wished for that before but the reality is…is sobering.
Terrifying, in the quietest, most implacable of ways, if he’s honest. His sister was always the strongest point of his life. He’s railed against that so often he’s lost count, but to lose it is something he honestly had never imagined. It makes him feel more than a little sick.
“We’re not going out and challenging them,” he finally says. He shifts up on one arm, grimacing as his side twinges. “Ideally, they won’t even notice us. I don’t think Stiles is in any hurry to make more friends, and I think we’re…we’re…”
“We’re not exactly social these days either,” Talia acknowledges with a wry twist of her mouth. She pulls herself up, looking a little more like herself, and Peter can’t help relaxing. “Well, I can’t tell you what to do, Peter. I never could, really. So why are you asking me?”
She looks up and Peter blinks hard. Then he looks at her for a few seconds, not quite believing she’s serious, but she doesn’t waver. And Talia has more of a sense of humor than her saintly reputation ever recognized, but it’s still not of the straight-faced outrageous type.
“Considering you’ll be taking on half my burden, it seems just good sense,” he says, shrugging. “I’d appreciate it if I wasn’t lectured all the way there, and perhaps bounced into the odd tree trunk.”
“That sounds more like how you’d handle it,” she says dryly. She glances down, looking over the mess she’s made of the deer, and then sighs and starts to scoop up the flakes of meat into a nearby pot. “All right, fine, just don’t kick me in the chest when you start feeling nasty.”
Peter snorts. Then, after setting his jaw against the pain, he gets up from the bed and slowly hobbles his way over, lying down on the other side of the carcass. He can’t help her cut up the meat, not today, especially if they’re going out later, but he takes the hide and he starts to sweep the good strips into it. “I don’t kick.”
Talia lifts her brow, twisting over to drop another handful of meat bits into the pot, and then she grunts sharply. Her head dips with it and she pauses, then sighs as she looks at him. “Don’t start.”
“If you’re going to throw my weakness in my face, then I think I’m entitled…never mind,” he says, looking more closely at her. He sniffs. “You smell clear.”
“Nothing’s coming up, it’s just dry out,” she says. She’s reluctant, but she at least doesn’t try that act with the next cough that racks her. “I’m fine.”
“Relative to current circumstances,” Peter corrects, ignoring her irritation. He coils the last strip into the hide, then pushes himself up and lets out a short howl towards the back tunnel, so Stiles will know he can come back. “If it makes you feel better, I have no plans of staying for a fight.”
“So you’ll run,” Talia says, looking him over. “Relative to current circumstances.”
He snarls at her, but it’s half-hearted. There’s more heat in how he shoves away the bundled-up hide, but for some reason that makes Talia laugh at him. And he smiles instead of snaps at her. Sourly, true, but he still does.
“It’s probably just some lost werewolves skirmishing over nothing. Any luck, they’ve already run back to their pack,” she mutters. She moves what’s left of the deer aside, licking at her claws to clean them, and then steps over him to get a lid for the pot of meat. “I hope.”
“We’ll see,” he says. She looks down at him, then squats down and he shifts away. Then sighs, and tilts his head, and lets her ruffle his hair; she stopped doing that when she started having children, and he supposes she’s started again because she doesn’t have them anymore. “We need to see. Then we’ll know what to do.”
“I’m not arguing, Peter,” Talia says. A little sharp, and her fingers pause in his hair.
She drops her head, but doesn’t move any closer. He debates it, then sighs and makes the effort to crook his neck. He’s not going to crawl over, with his body as sore as it is, but once he makes the invitation, she does the rest, leaning in and pressing her cheek against his neck.
“Just remember to run,” she says, pulling back. “I know I don’t have to remind you, but…run. You know I can’t help you.”
Talia says almost casually, her attention taken up by Stiles’ footsteps in the tunnel. So she misses how Peter presses his lips together, and almost jerks his head towards her. He—doesn’t want to dwell on it, and so by the time she turns back, he’s wiped that from his mind. He just tells himself it’s all probably much ado about nothing.
* * *
Peter rests up all day, dozing as Talia and Stiles make trips in and out of the den to build up their food stocks again, and eventually Talia settles down next to him for a nap. That cough really is nothing but an annoyance, and she’s nervous enough to wish she could just wear herself out with mindless chores, but if Peter’s going to be risking his neck this time, that leaves her to be the sensible one. But she takes forever to fall asleep, fighting back old instincts to interrogate Stiles about the three strange werewolves—he’ll just walk off if they ask him too many questions—and so it seems like she’s barely closed her eyes when Peter’s pained grunts wake her.
Her brother’s shifting, jerking and twisting slowly from man to wolf. It’ll be easier that way for him to manage the trek, but it always takes so long and causes him so much pain. By the time he’s finished, the entire den reeks of his distress, and Talia, who’s long since shifted out, can’t help pawing at him, trying to draw out the hurt.
Peter bats at her, then snaps weakly. He doesn’t come anywhere near biting her but she reluctantly moves off, while Stiles edges in and then slings his arms under Peter’s belly to help Peter to his feet.
It’d be better if Stiles just carried him to start with, or slung him across Talia’s back, but Peter’s having an ornery moment and insists on limping out. He’s going to exhaust himself that way, and Talia almost shifts back just so that she can point it out. Of course Peter senses it and twists his head back and snaps at her again.
She snorts, then tosses her head, settling for just sliding up against his shoulder so that she can help support him. He doesn’t turn that down, even with all the irritated growling.
“We all settled now?” Stiles says. He’s moved off to watch, half-concerned, half-amused, and when Peter huffs at him, he shrugs and lopes off towards the den entrance.
He leads them slowly towards the northeast, threading through ravines and hills and gradually working them up the mountainside. It’s not an area where they spend much time, mostly barren with little fodder and thus little prey, and it’s difficult terrain. The fact that it hasn’t snowed recently, so what’s still on the ground has at least compacted, helps somewhat, but it still isn’t long before Stiles just picks Peter up and slings him over one shoulder.
Peter whines irritably, but he’s too tired to do more than that. Besides, it’s Stiles, and so Peter’s always a little reluctant to be temperamental around him.
“Another hill, then down past the gorge, the one where we killed those cave lions last year, and we’re there,” Stiles says. He’s been unusually quiet, and he lingers where he is, wary and tense, looking in that direction.
He’s got Peter’s forelegs over his shoulder, the rest of Peter cradled in his arms like one would a child. Peter runs large as wolves go, and his thick winter fur makes him look even bulkier, so that Stiles almost disappears under it, nothing but his pale hands and glittering eyes and a pair of knobby knees underneath. But for all that, Stiles carries Peter’s weight without so much as a huff of effort.
So it’s not that Talia thinks Stiles is weak. But she’s never seen him fight, and he’s so young into the bargain, and she just—she doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to assume, what he’ll do if somebody goes for his throat. She does know, from personal experience, how hard killing can be, even if you have all the cause in the world to do it.
“It’d be quicker to go straight down, but then we’d be low the whole time and could get jumped,” Stiles adds after a second. He pauses so Talia can veer over, realizing he wants to discuss this. “I was thinking we’d go up the rim of the gorge and look down instead. I cut off some of the bark that they scratched and left fur bits on, cached it there so you can still smell.”
“That could tell us who they are, but that might not say why they’re here,” Talia says. “If they left a message—if any of those scratches were supposed to be—”
Stiles makes a face at her; she and Peter have gone over spirals and vendettas and the other signs of their kind with him, and he’s faintly offended that she wouldn’t just assume he remembered that. “I didn’t see any. It just looked like a fight to me. I mean, once we get up top, I can sketch out what they were doing, you’ll be able to get a better idea anyway—”
“Did you see it? I thought you just came on it later,” Talia says, frowning.
“Well, because I did,” Stiles says, looking even more annoyed. Then Peter shifts in his arms and he grunts, pulling his hands through Peter’s fur to adjust. “I’m just saying, it’ll be easier to picture it.”
Peter shifts again, hitching up and then letting Stiles tug him back into place. And shooting Talia a little look, which makes her suppress a sigh. If it was anyone else, Peter would be railing at them for even thinking of not taking a close firsthand look.
“All right, we can start there,” Talia says. “But if we see that it’s clear, is there any reason why we wouldn’t be able to go down for a better look?”
Stiles looks uneasy, but in the end he shakes his head. “Just that it’s a dead-end gorge, kind of bad to be in it if somebody comes up on you, but…yeah, fine, I guess if we don’t see or smell or hear anything…”
He keeps muttering to himself in that line as he moves off. Talia falls in behind, ignoring Peter’s continued looks, and works in a zigzag, checking for scents and other signs as they hike up. She starts picking up hints as they get closer, but they’re not fresh at all. They smell sour with aggression, but it’s been too long for her to get any nuance, like age, state of health, things like that. She doesn’t recognize them and since Peter doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t either.
Once they get to the top of the gorge, Stiles sets Peter down and explains more fully what he thinks happened. There were definitely two wolves traveling together, and from the way they meandered, clearly lost. Maybe trying to hide, since none of them heard any howls or roars. A third werewolf intercepted them, and there was a scuffle but very little blood came out of it.
“They weren’t trying to hurt each other?” Peter says skeptically. He’s shifted human, his scarred leg bent up and trembling as he rubs his hand repeatedly over the shin. Stiles brought along furs to keep them warm, and Peter’s sharing his with a distracted Stiles. “That doesn’t seem right.”
“No, not really…I mean, it looked like the pair were going for it, they really smashed up a couple trees, but the other one was holding back. I mean, I’d say he was just warning them off, except all of them were coming into other people’s territory,” Stiles says. He’s staring into the gorge and chewing his lip, occasionally scratching at his head. “And…and…yeah, something’s not right…”
Talia twists her fur up around her shoulders, and then pushes onto her feet. “Or it’s an alpha trying to drag back a pack member.”
“Like for punishment?” Stiles asks. “Wouldn’t they just do that right then and there? Why would you play nice if you’re going after somebody for that?”
Next to him, Peter stiffens and then deliberately avoids Talia’s eye. Stiles senses it enough to casually bump his shoulder into Peter, then drops his hand to pull the fur higher up Peter’s neck, but he’s still looking into the gorge. He doesn’t notice at all how Peter looks at him, or angles his body so it’s curling into Stiles, or any of the thousand and one ways Talia’s brother has changed himself for a werewolf who won’t mate him back.
Talia bites the inside of her mouth and makes herself push that away. She likes Stiles, and more than that, owes him more than she could ever repay. And anyway, she’s not alpha now; she’s just Peter’s sister. “Any number of reasons. If it was a misunderstanding. If they took something that was the pack’s with them. If they did something so horrible that it’s necessary to take them back and show the rest of the pack that they’ve been dealt with.”
“Huh,” Stiles says. Not judging, just thoughtful. And still not entirely paying attention. “Does that look funny to you?”
“The gorge?” Peter says. He shuffles around and peers over. “What are you looking at?”
“I don’t know. I just…I feel like I’m missing something,” Stiles mutters, rubbing at his head again. “I haven’t been this way in a long time, but…”
“Well, it’s clear down there, and for a couple miles around,” Talia says. She rolls her shoulders a few times, waiting to see if Stiles will object.
He doesn’t look comfortable, but he doesn’t say anything, or stop her. So Talia drops the fur, shifts out, and then goes down into the gorge.
The steep, snow-padded sides are tricky, even in four-footed form, and Talia wrenches her joints a few times before she gets to the bottom. She stops there to catch her breath and wait for her legs to steady, and then she starts circling out. Aside from the samples Stiles took, it doesn’t look as if there’s been much change in the place. The gorge has protected the fight scene from the weather so all the scratches, broken tree limbs and cracked rocks attest to a series of events just about how Stiles read it.
Talia patiently retraces the action anyway, winding around and around the patch. Above her Peter and Stiles look to have settled in, probably talking over whatever has Stiles so puzzled, so she takes her time. She’s not an alpha, and she’s not even much of a beta, but she hasn’t lost any of her knowledge about werewolf fighting.
She’s almost worked her way to the exit trail when something catches her attention. It’s not much, just an odd-looking footprint in the snow. It looks just a little off and she can’t pinpoint why, but her hackles rise. She pauses, glancing up at the rim—Stiles is pacing back and forth, gesturing restlessly, while Peter is clearly trying to lure him back to sitting—and then decides to follow up before calling them down. By the time Stiles calms down and gets Peter up in his arms again, she’ll probably have found the source anyway.
So Talia backtracks the footprints, all the way to the side of the gorge. A recent rockfall’s piled up debris and she has to pick between the jagged pieces. She still stumbles, and in trying to avoid slicing her paws open on a rock, Talia knocks a few other rocks into tumbling away.
She smells something. Under the rock, something alive, and then the shimmer of magic ripples haphazardly over the debris pile, just as Stiles shouts at her.
Talia jerks her head up, sees his wildly waving hands, but all she hears is remember – tunnel and she remembers so many tunnels, so many, where her family could’ve hid and survived but not a one of them did and—
The rocks suddenly explode upwards, an alpha roar threading through their crashes and thuds, and then a dark, hulking shape appears. Peter roars back from the rim—his voice and lungs are in much better shape than hers, and in some situations just the appearance of a surrounding pack might be enough to intimidate.
Not in this one. The alpha’s already mid-leap, and Talia barely scrambles in time from the rock back to smoother ground, where she can maneuver. It’s a male, not a full shift but young and strong and handily outweighing her, and the ground shakes as he lands. He immediately rushes her, claws raking out, and Talia hustles back but keeps her face to him, vulnerable flanks clear. She snarls and then two other werewolves crawl out of the rockfall.
Talia humps up her shoulders to make herself bigger, even though that’s pointless with three of them. Her old instincts as alpha are demanding that she stand her ground, but she knows that’ll get her killed.
Peter roars again, more urgently, a thread of desperation in his voice that makes the alpha grin in anticipation. He feints at Talia and she jumps back, only to almost roll off her feet as she lands on some loose, ice-covered rock. She scrambles up and then lashes out wildly as claws just miss her belly, kicking frantically as she hauls herself out of lunging range.
She needs to run. But the alpha will be faster. So long as she’s facing him, he has to at least think about how to strike at her, least a lucky blow kill him. The moment she turns her back to him, she’s leaving herself wide open to him grabbing her by the ankles and dragging her back. But the longer she delays, the more time that that gives the other two to close in on her, and she needs to—
A dark shape slams into the alpha from behind. He’s so burly that it barely rocks him, and then he gets his arm around and grabs them and flings them into a tree, and Talia’s more than halfway to charging him when she realizes the attacker isn’t Peter. Or Stiles.
It’s a young beta, a small, badly-beaten girl with blonde hair, who nevertheless snarls gamely as another beta, a boy, bigger but still no match for the alpha, tries to rush the alpha from the other side. The alpha easily deals with him, but that at least keeps him busy till Talia’s on him.
She’s not strong or fast but in wolf form she’s far more flexible than a human ever would be. When she leaps, the alpha laughs and slaps at her, and his claws sink into her hip but she rakes over his face and shoulders. Gets an eye, judging from the sudden scream of pain, and then she’s off him and landing badly on the slippery rockfall.
Talia tries to get up and liquid fire blows up through her leg, the unclawed one. She can feel her bones grating wrong; she growls and wrenches herself to the side with her forelegs, trying to get clear so the break will heal in time. But the alpha whirls faster, and he’s going straight for her belly, arm swinging in a gutting swipe, his face twisted up in rage, blood and a dark thick jelly running from one eye, and she can’t get clear—
Another alpha lands on his back, slamming him face-down just inches from Talia’s hindpaw. They’re—they’re in full shift, a red-eyed wolf with reddish fur, but their shape is so strange, with long, almost ungainly-looking legs. And then they rear up, pulling bloodied claws out of the first alpha’s back. The claws look normal at first, but as Talia watches, they suddenly lengthen and broaden, with less of a curl. Like the blade of a spade, and then Talia thinks she’s being absurd.
The alpha smashes the odd claws down and the first alpha’s head snaps up, eyes wide with surprise—and already glossing over with death. Those claws went through the alpha’s spine like…like a spade, into mud, and when their owner pulls them out, the first alpha’s head almost rolls away, held only by thin strips of skin. And maybe Talia’s initial impression hadn’t been so ridiculous.
Then the alpha looks at her and she instinctively crouches low, dragging her still-healing leg in towards her body. He—it’s a he—frowns and cocks his head, then suddenly bobs it in an awkward, chagrined motion and of course it’s Stiles.
Talia huffs out in a mix of relief and renewed shock and Stiles makes a rumbling, embarrassed noise. He takes a step towards her, absently knocking the dead alpha’s head with his paw, and then abruptly whirls, snarling as the two strange betas immediately cringe.
“No, no, we’re not—we don’t want to fight,” the girl says, shaking her head. She and the boy move towards each other and Talia notices again how bruised and bloodied they look, with layers of wounds on them. “We just want to get the hell out.”
“Ennis bricked us up in there,” the boy adds. “We didn’t want to be here, he made us, and we just—just let us go, and we’ll—we’ll go—”
He’s interrupted by a frantic burst of barking. Both Talia and Stiles swing around, and then Talia loses her grip on her shift, changing back to human and limping heavily over as her idiot brother finishes his painful slide down the gorge.
Stiles beats her there, grabbing Peter up and then almost immediately sitting down, shifting his grip so he can hold onto Peter’s spasming leg by the knee and hip. He’s trying to steady it as Peter buries his head in Stiles’ throat, that and drain off Peter’s pain, but Peter’s nerves are acting up too much, and it’s not till Talia gets over and puts her hands to Peter’s thigh that his shaking starts to subside.
“Don’t start with me,” Peter mutters into Stiles’ neck. He doesn’t make any attempt to get away from them.
Talia wants to—to shake him, and also, to cradle him against her like she used to when he was small enough to fit on her lap. She settles for just keeping a hand on him and reaching down to straighten out her leg before the break sets wrong.
She grunts as the bones click, and then sighs and looks over the gorge. Then stiffens again, the dead alpha catching her eye. “Ennis? Wait, we…we should know him.”
“Because of the Alpha pack?” the blonde girl calls over. “Yeah, he’s one of them.”
“The what?” Stiles and Peter say together.
Peter struggles up and then looks over. His eyes narrow, and then he sinks back against Stiles, but that’s as much because he’s too busy thinking to fight it as because he’s worn out. “No, it’s him,” he mutters. “He looks a lot diff—but what is he doing all the way out here? His pack’s based—”
“His pack’s all dead because he killed them,” the boy says sharply.
Peter and Talia look at each other. Stiles looks at them, and then he gets up, one hand pushing at the side of his head. “Okay, well…um, so I’m Stiles,” he says to the boy and the girl. “This is Peter and Talia, and…I don’t know what the story is here, but we’re not big on killing each other.”
“That’d be a nice change,” the girl mutters bitterly. But then she takes a second look at Stiles. Her packmate frowns at her, but she gives him a dismissive jerk of the head and keeps looking at Stiles. Puts her hand up to start combing at her hair. “I’m Erica.”
She smiles at Stiles. Peter sucks in his breath and Talia glances at him, and then she gets a better whiff of the two betas as the wind shifts, and damn, Erica’s either near or just over her heat. Talia grimaces and grabs Peter’s wrist; his upper lip curls a little but he drops his head. And then, as Stiles blinks and lifts his hand in a tentative hello, he chokes back a growl.
Stiles looks down, concerned, and Peter doesn’t go with it and simply lean into the other man, even though his leg is still spasming. He looks oddly torn instead, and then his face closes up and he grunts and slides so that he’s hiding that in Talia’s shoulder. He doesn’t even stiffen as she puts a careful arm around his shoulders.
“Don’t start,” he mutters again.
“I think maybe we should go…you know, get clean and get some food, and, um, talk this over?” Stiles suggests.
Talia sighs and strokes Peter’s arm. And then shoots that girl a silent snarl as she comes over a little too enthusiastically. “We should go home,” she tells her brother. “We’ll deal with it better.”
Peter’s dubious about that, just from the way he tilts as she helps him over onto his side for the painful shift, but he doesn’t argue. He does, however, settle with the smallest sigh of relief as Stiles picks wolf-him up without hesitation. Erica and her friend watch that with undisguised curiosity, and Talia makes very sure that she’s between them and her brother for the long walk back.
* * *
“I forgot at first because I’m never over there, but there’s a cave in the side of the gorge, and that rockfall covered up the entrance. Well, one of them, there’s another one that comes out about a half-mile away, right onto a stream,” Stiles says, handing around strips of dried deer meat.
The last to get one is Erica, who smiles in thanks and tilts her head so that her now-clean, shiny blonde curls slide off the side of her neck. Her companion Boyd has the decency to hunch his shoulders and prod her in the ribs, but Erica leans over his elbow, much more than she really needs to, in order to take the meat from Stiles.
“Ennis had some stuff from this druid the Alphas were using for a while too, that would’ve hid our scents and all that,” she says. She starts to slice up the strip into smaller pieces, pauses, and then frowns at her broken claw. Then she puts that finger in her mouth, nibbling coyly at the claw as she looks up at Stiles. “We think the plan was to keep us in there, so our pack couldn’t find us.”
“He said the rocks were something special, that they’d block out the moon and make us weak,” Boyd adds. He hunches even more at the memory, enough so that Erica drops the preening and looks over in concern. “Make us crazy.”
“Hecatolite?” Peter mutters. He’s tense against Talia, and every time Erica looks at Stiles, he fists his hands in the blankets, but he can’t resist a puzzle. “Why would you want to make your prisoner unmanageable?”
Erica sobers. “Well, because that’s what they do. They go in, they kidnap a beta, and show up the alpha for being weak, and then they watch as the pack tears each other up.”
Talia bites her lip, then deliberately settles back. It’s hard to reconcile that with the Ennis and Kali and Deucalion she remembers, but for all her inappropriate looks at Stiles, Erica doesn’t show any signs of lying. And Boyd is so clearly traumatized by whatever Ennis did to them that Talia doesn’t even think the boy is capable of lying.
Then again, Talia hadn’t recognized Ennis when she’d seen him. Killing his whole pack might have made him stronger, but it’d also done something to his scent, and to his…to his feel. He’d just come off as sour and sick to her, in all senses, and in one of the brief moments Talia had gotten with Peter on the way back, Peter had concurred.
“Um, though we were…we were actually running from our pack, when they found us,” Boyd volunteers, with clear reluctance. He steadies when Erica slips her hand into his, but he’s still staring at the floor, and barely picking at his food. He looks less injured than Erica but he’s having more trouble than she is believing they’ve really escaped. “Our alpha…she’s not like the Alpha pack—”
“She might be looking for us, actually. Or her asshole brother,” Erica mutters. “They’re kind of that—they’re kind of stubborn like that.”
“Like control freaks?” Stiles says. He comes over and sits down next to Peter, who immediately relaxes.
Erica’s brows tick up slightly and she eyes Peter in a way that makes Talia’s hackles rise. But she’s civil enough when she answers. “No, just…like she tries to order us around, but she obviously doesn’t know what she’s doing, and it just keeps getting us into trouble. We told her we were leaving because honestly, we could do better at looking after us than she could.”
“Who’s your alpha, again?” Peter asks.
On purpose, because Erica and Boyd have been dancing around that as much as Talia and Peter have avoided dropping their last name, or any other indication of who they used to be. And as much as Stiles has been avoiding Erica’s questions about what kind of werewolf he is, though to Peter’s increasing agitation, he’s been significantly more patient about that than he is with Peter and Talia.
Erica’s mouth curves and her teeth show, and it’s not a smile she’s giving Peter. She is a little amused, and Talia reluctantly gives the girl credit for her spirit, but she’s also wary in a way that puts Talia’s teeth on edge. Whatever Ennis did to the pair of them, he hadn’t had them for more than a week, and from their story, the Alphas haven’t been after their pack for more than a month or two. And yet they act like born soldiers.
“We don’t want to say because even if we left, we don’t want to make more trouble for her. For the rest of our pack, anyway,” Erica finally says. She shrugs with a nonchalance that her hard eyes and slightly curled hands, claw tips free and clear of the ground, doesn’t back up. “They’ve got enough to deal with, with the Alphas coming in right after the hunters—”
Both Talia and Peter stiffen. “Hunters?” Peter says sharply. “Who?”
“They’re dead,” Boyd says slowly. “They’re not going to be coming.”
“Yes, well, that depends on whether they work alone, or they’re with one of the known families,” Peter says acidly. “I’m not sure how knowledgeable you are, but—”
“Okay, okay, calm down.” Erica rubs her hand absently against a half-healed slash on her leg, looking at Boyd, and then she shrugs again. “I guess that doesn’t hurt to say, but…the last of the Argents, that’s who. But like Boyd says, they’re all gone now.”
Talia doesn’t quite hear the last part of that. She doesn’t realize she’s lurched up and is snarling either, until Stiles’ snarl cuts across hers. He’s still sitting but he’s pivoted around so he can jump over Peter and at her if he needs to, eyes red and fangs dropped.
Peter’s helping that along by flattening himself between them, though not because he’s trying to sneak away. In fact, he’s pushing towards Talia, even though Stiles has a hand on his leg and clearly wants him out of the way. He ignores that and presses his cheek against Talia’s arm, and then her elbow, purring soothingly as she struggles to control herself.
The sheer—incongruity of that, more than anything, that’s what shocks Talia enough to knock her anger off its sharp rise. Of all people, Peter should be the one—he should be the one who’s furious that the Argents died before the two of them could heal enough to seek retribution. But here he is, trying to ease her down, and calm enough about it to include a cautioning look when she’s together enough to see it.
“If it upsets you, let’s not talk about it,” Peter mutters.
“Guess you’ve run into them,” Boyd says, almost as the same time.
He and Erica have pushed into each other, but they relax as Stiles sits back and Peter twists over so he can put his weight against Talia’s side. Erica looks interested under her nervousness and Talia silently curses herself for giving that much away. Even though the Argents have operated widely, and damaged a fair number of packs—their gutting of the Hale pack was a huge coup, and one they would’ve trumpeted as much as possible.
“They’re kind of known. Hence, known family,” Stiles says dryly. “But they’re dead?”
“Yeah, Kate and Gerard, that’s who showed up,” Erica says, with one eye on Talia. “They were the only active hunters left, and yes, we’re sure.”
Talia narrows her eyes, watching the way that Erica tosses her hair over one shoulder. The girl isn’t lying, but there’s something a little too artificial about her attitude.
“Well, okay, fine, we’re—I’m not really interested in tangling with other—with other alphas,” Stiles says. He’s never very comfortable about taking on their idea of an alpha, and his shoulders twitch and his smell is shot through with nerves. “So, you know, I’m not going to kick you guys out if your alpha shows up and is all, hey, give me my betas back. But at the same time, we’re not exactly in good shape for a bunch of angry alphas to invade.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Erica says, glancing at Peter’s scars. Boyd has the decency to elbow her, and she starts to say something about not meaning it like that. Then she realizes that never helps, stops herself, and sensibly moves onto a different subject. “But you were pretty awesome against Ennis. You’re a better fighter than even D—anybody in our pack.”
Stiles grimaces and looks down, hunching into a very un-alpha posture. He starts picking the hairs off the edge of one fur, and when Peter discreetly tugs that away, he grimaces again and flicks out a claw—in regular werewolf shape—and picks at its peeling sheath instead. “It’s not actually something I’m big on. I’d rather—if you know which of the alphas might show up, and can tell us anything about them, I maybe can do something with herbs or magic and that’d be a lot better.”
“Is that why you look different?” Boyd asks. “Magic?”
“No,” Stiles says, looking more than a little disturbed. He actually shifts back on his heels, as if to get up, and then Boyd ducks his head and whines apologetically and Stiles looks even more uncomfortable, but stays put.
Peter purses his lips a few times, then cautiously shifts off Talia and towards Stiles. He stops when Stiles turns his head, but Stiles doesn’t actually look at him, and Peter creeps over till he’s leaning against the other man’s hip. Stiles doesn’t seem to lose any of his tension, but he does put his hand on Peter’s shoulder for a second. Then he lifts it and rubs at his eye.
“No, I’m just—I’m a different kind of werewolf,” he says abruptly. He wiggles his fingers oddly, and then Talia realizes that Stiles has changed his claws to the other shape, the spade-like one. “We…so we hunt in caves and burrows, and really, I just think that it’s different fighting styles, and as soon as they see more of mine, they’ll figure it out and I just really—I’m not—”
“Oh, hey, we weren’t going to make you fight for us or anything like that,” Erica says, looking a little alarmed. She shakes her head hard, pauses, and then shakes it again. “We’re definitely not—not after how our pack—anyway, just, you were really cool back there, and we appreciate you saving us, and inviting us back but…we get it if you aren’t looking to build up your pack.”
“We’re not,” Peter mutters.
Erica glances curiously at him. Stiles looks a little annoyed, all of a sudden, and he abruptly gets up, grabbing a lantern as he goes. “Well, look, you’re welcome to stay till you’re healed, obviously,” he says. “And if this Alpha pack comes for you before that, I guess we’ll deal with it. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
Then he stalks off down the back tunnel, mumbling something about setting a couple new alarm runes for now. Peter had stiffened when Stiles had gotten up, and his head had turned back and forth to follow Stiles’ every movement, his face transparently dismayed. He sinks back now, chewing his lip, and then starts sharply when Erica clears her throat.
Talia puts her hand on Peter’s shoulder and his upper lip curls, and then he swings around and outright snarls when Erica giggles. “Well, you seem to have gotten over your captivity quite quickly,” he says.
Boyd snarls back, but grudgingly settles when Erica grabs his arm. Erica’s not so amused now either, says her hard eyes, but she’s relaxed enough that Talia grudgingly settles back herself.
“You should try it sometime, getting shut up and waiting till you’re crazy enough to get put out as bait for your old pack,” she says. She looks at Peter, strangely weary all of a sudden. “And believe me, thinking I was probably going to get my heat in there was just the icing on the cake.”
“And now you’re not,” Peter presses.
Talia digs her fingers into his shoulder a little. “Peter.”
“Yes?” he says.
“If you’re going to fight with her, do it over what she’s done, not what was done to her,” Talia says sharply. She meets his mutinous look head-on, till he huffs and drops his eyes, and then she levels the same look at a surprised Erica. “As for you, I’m sorry for you, but hurt us and I’ll be happy to finish quickly what Ennis wanted to drag out.”
Boyd hisses. Erica grins, and tightens her grip on him. “I don’t think I want to get into that. I mean, aside from just getting out of being tortured, I kind of want to compare notes with you now,” she says. She pauses, and then laughs ruefully, dropping her hand from Boyd so that she can hug herself and glance over her shoulder. “Though really, he’s a pretty nice catch to not have mated up already. You’re really lucky you live way out in the middle of nowhere, ‘cause I can’t see how you’re not beating people off him with sticks otherwise.”
“Why use a stick when you have claws,” Peter mutters, but he’s strangely, abruptly subdued.
Erica catches on and is just a little arch with her next question. “Any reason why you’re waiting?”
“None that are your business,” Talia says.
“Talia, just…” Peter’s angry at her, and then he’s not angry, just bitter and depressed and slumping into the furs. “We’re not waiting. Technically, there’s no claim. So technically, there’s no basis for me to object to you.”
Erica’s brows rise and fall. She looks at Peter, with more thought than Talia honestly wanted to credit her with, and then she shrugs and turns around. She and Boyd will be bedding down in the main den, but they’ve heaped up some spare furs on the other side of the hearth and the pair of them move over there. Boyd first, with a speed born out of gratitude at getting out of a conversation he doesn’t like, and then Erica, glancing over her shoulder.
“We’re not looking for another fight when we just ran from one,” she finally says, mostly to Peter. “Anyway, you don’t exactly seem the type who needs a rule to say he can do something.”
Peter isn’t quite amused, but he gives her an acknowledging nod. Erica starts to make herself comfortable next to Boyd, and then she pauses and she gives Talia an exasperated look.
“I’m gonna take it out of here if I can, all right?” she says. “But look, if we’re getting hunted down, and I gotta stay in, and—I don’t know, he is interested—”
“Use your fingers,” Talia says.
Peter coughs. Then again, and then his head bumps up against her arm and she realizes he’s laughing, and trying very hard not to. Talia stares at him, as he muffles his wheezes into the furs, shaking, and finally flops his hand over hers and pats it in time to his chuckles. Then she sighs, and lies down, and starts tucking the furs around him. Much as she knows her brother, sometimes that’s enough to just know how much she doesn’t know him.
Stiles jumping down and stabbing into the neck from behind is modeled on the Ethiopian wolf, which hunts mostly burrowing rodents. They sneak up and then strike from above to snap the neck.
In terms of conflicting fighting styles, when you pit fighting styles that focus on targeting different areas of the body and/or that use dramatically different types of strikes, you sometimes do see one style slaughter another. When mixed-martial arts fighting first started out, you had pure boxers (only knew to use their fists, aimed at the head and torso) get absolutely wiped out by fighting styles which used hands and legs and which aimed at knocking your legs out from under you, then pinning you. Which is why MMA fighters now basically all practice at multiple different styles.
Alphas don’t have heats, betas do. At least, for the kind of werewolves that Peter and Talia are. But then, they don’t really have heat, their health too ruined by the fire. They just have a frustrating few weeks each year when their bodies feebly try to prepare for it, making them irritable and a little feverish, their slick coming a little easier, and then they’re left aching and tired without any real release.
Stiles goes into heat. Real heat. Because his type of werewolf, since they don’t differentiate between alphas and betas, all do that.
Heat seems to be one of the few things that functions the same for them. Stiles’ heat seems to be milder than theirs—he works at controlling his more physical impulses, but it’s clearly not a hard struggle—but his scent changes the same way, he feels the same needs.
The first two years, before he and Peter started sleeping together, he’d go out and he’d fuck with what smelled like any passing werewolf. Because while the area is remote, omegas do travel, and especially during heat. And Erica’s right; Stiles is the kind who’d catch another werewolf’s eye. He’s young and apparently unattached, and heat is supposed to be as much about the search for a mate as it is about the mating itself. It’s not unusual for unmated werewolves to have a couple years of seasonal orgies before they find somebody they want for the rest of their life.
But once he accepted Peter’s advances, Stiles…he didn’t fuck other werewolves, but then, he didn’t fuck anyone during heat. He would just go out and hole up somewhere, and come back smelling solely like his own come, tired and a little cranky and completely wiling to turn around and go straight back out if Peter was too insistent with him.
For a long time Peter assumed it was some misguided attempt to cater to him, since even if he’s gotten better, even if Stiles is careful, he is, in no way, shape or form, going to last through all of Stiles’ heat. But he can certainly participate for some of it, and he wants to. He’s so limited these days in what he can offer, and lying in bed and giving his mate pleasure is one thing he can do. That he likes to do. That feels better than it hurts, usually, and that makes him feel like he’s actually close to whole.
His sister understands that a little better than she understands some of his other complaints, and she’d done her best, temporarily bedding down elsewhere in the burrow complex to give Peter and Stiles some time alone. She’d even helped Peter hunt down a few heat offerings; traditionally, the alpha provides that, but Stiles provides them with everything so it felt right to have it the other way around for once.
But that’d ended in unmitigated disaster. Because Stiles had understood, perfectly, what Peter was trying to do and he’d outright fled from them. Had stayed out of the burrow for a good week and a half after his heat was over, dropping dead deer and other foodstuffs at the entrance when they were asleep. Talia had stormed out and around, looking for him, only to exhaust herself to the point that she couldn’t quite drag herself back and for a few hours Peter was left sitting in the den, alone, thinking that he’d lost the last family member he had.
Peter had howled for him. Begging. Peter hadn’t begged, even after the fire, when Talia was hauling his pain-wracked, semiconscious body all over the place and sometimes the only thought his trapped mind could form was that death might be better, but he’d begged for his mate, and it hadn’t done any good.
Talia thinks that the fire changed Peter. Made him nicer, she won’t ever say, but he knows she thinks it. The fire wasn’t it. If anything, the fire burned off the soft parts of him, the parts that looked at mischief as fun, and left behind only the hard bones of vengeance and hatred and loyalty. But he can lie in the den and rail and plot all he wants, and that won’t bring Stiles back.
And he can run through all the scenarios where he would drag Stiles back, make him come, triumph over the other werewolf and…recoil from every single one, in an immediate, visceral way that leaves him weaker than any of his physical injuries. He wants a mate, his mate, and not a mere trophy.
He loves him, and he wants Stiles to love him back.
But he isn’t Stiles’ pack, because Stiles doesn’t think of the world in those terms, and he isn’t Stiles’ mate either. And when Stiles finally had returned that time, stiff and awkward and sorry in that painful way where he’d still made it clear he wouldn’t give in out of sheer pity—which Peter just loved more, because Stiles never pities him and pity maddens him—the only explanation he’d offered was that he couldn’t take the gifts.
So Stiles spends his heats alone, and Peter spends them waiting for him. If Peter’s lucky, Stiles will come back a few times during it, just to sleep, and Peter at least can curl up around him and smell him, and press hard enough so that Peter will smell like him, a little. Stiles sometimes pets him back, nosing at his throat, scenting him, but he won’t bite down, not hard enough to mean anything. And he won’t have sex with Peter when he’s in heat.
Werewolves, when they mate, usually do so for life. Even now, with her mate dead, Talia hasn’t shown a flicker of interest in finding a new one. Her lack of heat actually seems to be a relief to her in that respect. And Stiles doesn’t hate Peter. Stiles sleeps with Peter, and just Peter. When the odd werewolf strays too close to the den, and inquires about the other werewolves they can smell, Stiles warns them off. Stiles gets angry when they ask specifically about Peter.
So there’s only one reasonable answer, Peter thinks. Stiles had a mate, and lost them, and doesn’t want another one. And even back when Peter could and would plan to do anything to get what he wanted, he couldn’t plan to change what had already happened. Peter’s just too late.
* * *
Much to both Peter and Talia’s surprise, Erica’s word is good. Her heat hits in earnest a couple days after they meet, enough time for her physical injuries to heal but certainly not enough time for her to stop having nightmares. Still, she moves out of the main den, to an empty room much closer to one of the entrances, and she tries to go out as much as she can. She stays close but downwind, to keep her smell out.
Boyd goes everywhere with her, though they don’t seem to be romantically involved. “That’s a good friend, I gotta say,” Stiles observes.
Peter’s leg has been spasming on and off since the fight, and Talia’s been limping badly as well, so they’re back to having Stiles help them to the well for bathing. He eases Peter down next to a dozing, wolfed-out Talia, who cracks open one eye and then grudgingly twists to human form—which will dry faster—when Peter rubs a disapproving hand over a damp spot she’s left in the bedding.
“I don’t know, it seems like he might get a few benefits to offset the trouble,” Peter mutters.
“Hah, you would,” Stiles says, nuzzling his shoulder. Stiles is in a better mood, getting used to their guests, which both irks and worries Peter. “No, really, I think they’re the kind of friends where it’s actually really, really hard for Boyd to be around her like that, and he still does it. Not that he’s grossed out, it’s just, you know, he doesn’t see her like that. I used to have—”
Like someone cut the words out of his mouth, Stiles abruptly stops and jerks back. He rubs at his face, then twists on his feet as if he’s going to leave. “Any sign of anyone else?” Peter asks.
“No,” Stiles says, a little sharply. Then he rubs at his face again. He glances at Peter, sighs, and abruptly ducks to press his cheek against the side of Peter’s neck. “Nah, nothing, though if the good weather holds, I was going to take Erica and Boyd up the mountain a bit, point out the passes. They seem interested in going west, once they’re better.”
Peter is too surprised to comment, both because of what Stiles is saying and because of the way the man is pushing up against him. Stiles can be affectionate but he’s sliding more and more of himself against Peter, cheek and shoulder and side now. Long, smooth strokes, his head rising at the end so that his breath sweeps across Peter’s face and puffs out over the top, stirring a purr in Peter’s throat, and, lower down, a faint but growing heat in Peter’s belly.
Then Stiles twists away, just as unexpectedly, and for a moment Peter’s left chilled and unsteady. Peter bites down on his disappointed hiss, then quickly twists around to follow the other man. Talia’s fully awake now, watching them, and Peter wills her to just keep out of it. “Are they talking about soon?” Peter asks.
“I mean, I guess. Nobody’s thrown around dates but they seem to want to get moving. Erica’s pretty sure their alpha’s going to keep searching for them, and there are the other members of the Alpha pack to think about,” Stiles says. He’s hopped over to dip up water from the drinking bucket, slurping quickly and messily. Some slops down his front and he jerks back, grimaces, and then paws at his chest as he puts the ladle down. “Anyway, Boyd was saying it’d help if we hauled Ennis’ body to the border and I think that makes sense. And I guess I should, I don’t know, roar a couple times too.”
“If people don’t already know we’re here, I think it’s actually better to keep up that impression,” Talia says.
Stiles waves his hand at her but he’s distracted, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Well, I think they might. I mean, Ennis, right, wherever we leave his body, it’ll be obvious that he didn’t do it to himself. And I think Erica’s right, nobody’s going to believe she and Boyd did it. I’m gonna be out.”
With that he gets up and stalks off down the tunnel. Talia starts to call after him, and then rolls onto her feet, and Peter wrenches his side lunging over to grab her first.
She immediately stops, and a good thing, since the pain is bad enough to make him drop his grip and curl up in the furs. “I wasn’t,” Talia says.
Talia pauses, looks Peter over, and then sighs and drops back down next to him. Puts her hand on him to draw out the pain; he shakes her off once, but the second time she tries it, even he has to admit he could use the help. If he wants to be able to move around at better than a crawl any time soon.
“He’s a little early this year, but that’s close quarters for you,” Talia says after a few seconds. “Erica’s also very—”
“I don’t see why you have to say aloud everything we both know,” Peter grates out. The muscles in his side are beginning to unlock, but that doesn’t lessen the hurt so much as make it spread, up into his shoulder and down into his hip, an ever-widening pool of blindingly hot twists and dull after-aches. “Talk about something else.”
“Fine. We should think of something to deal with this Alpha pack before Stiles runs into them.” Talia slides her hand from Peter’s arm to his shoulder, then back. She uses her other hand to prop up her chin as she looks down at him. “I still can’t believe that Deucalion, of all people…”
Peter resists the urge to shrug, which will just start the spasm all over again. “Tragedy changes people.”
“It wasn’t so much tragedy as misguided idealism where he was concerned,” Talia says dryly. Her eyes flick over his shoulder. “Well, I suppose that that doesn’t sound so different, if he’s as they say. But still, taking it out on other packs…doing things like torturing people to insanity…Ennis liked other people to think for him, from what I remember, and Kali was less independent than she liked to appear. But Deucalion had a sense of logic. I thought.”
“I don’t think I can help your memory much there. I wasn’t invited to those talks, as I recall.” Peter breathes out slowly, concentrating on a muscle group at a time to relax. First the ones in his belly, then up around his ribs, and last, going across to his back. “Too young, I think you said?”
“I’m being serious, Peter,” Talia says. Though if anything, that’s a hint of amusement in her voice. “And you would’ve been. I know you hated it when I kept your nose out of things but—”
“You didn’t want me to spoil your talks, yes, yes,” Peter mutters.
Her eyes snap back to him. “I didn’t want them to kill you, you idiot,” she says. She pulls her hand off him and rolls onto her belly, then grimaces. Pushes her arms under herself, but for support, not to get up and leave. “You’ve had years to think it over and I do remember, you sounded just as petty about it then and—”
“Well, because I wasn’t a complete neophyte. And if I didn’t know things, it’s because you stopped making any attempt to teach me once your children were old enough to be lectured,” Peter snaps. All of a sudden he’s angry. Truly angry, not just annoyed, but the kind of anger that makes him want to rake out his own blood, for having a body too weak to let him just rise and leave like Stiles does, when things get unpleasant. “I would’ve been happy—I wanted to learn that. Your children were bored to death and they hated it and I was dying to hear it, but no, you always got them and not me.”
“Because I had to, because with a dead mate—you certainly weren’t going to do it, were you?” Talia snaps back. “Sometimes I honestly thought you wanted them dead, and you were just a few years older than Laura.”
Peter doesn’t think. “Well, because I did. With dead parents, Talia, and just a sister who let hunters into our home.”
He regrets it, even before Talia rears up in shock. They still don’t know how the Argents got into their house, but he’s long since realized that that lack of knowledge is as much, if not more, of a canker in Talia’s mind than his own. And anyway…anyway, she came back for him.
He still doesn’t understand that either, to be honest. She came back and she stayed with him, she’s always stayed with him, and he doesn’t understand it. Before the fire, he doesn’t even know that he would have expected it. But now he doesn’t doubt it, even if it confuses him. And he does cherish it. It means more to him than any lesson she did or didn’t teach him in the old days.
Talia gets to her hands and knees, then twists over. She doesn’t get off the bed but she gets as far from him as she can, staring at him with a mix of disgust and contempt. Her mouth works a few times—so does his, he’s so clever, supposedly, but he can’t come up with the words to fix this—and finally she just jerks her arms under her breasts, clutching at herself as she glares at him.
“I had four of you, not three,” she says. “You, and my kids, and you think everyone was nice to you, with the kinds of stunts you pulled, just because they liked me? Just because—because I could full shift? I thought you were smarter than—symbols and crushes don’t win respect, Peter. Fighting does. I fought for that, I fought for all of you. And if I didn’t tell you everything…I taught you till I realized if I told you more, they’d start coming after you, too.”
“I was grown anyway, if you’re talking about challenges,” Peter says slowly. It’s not what he should say. He should apologize. He’s trying, but she keeps looking at him like she expects him to meet her, not roll over, and deep down he’s never actually liked disappointing her.
“I’m not.” Talia tightens her arms around herself. “I’m talking about exactly what Erica and Boyd went through. You’re a smart young beta, you get lured off, you get killed and they whittle your pack down that way. Deucalion used to be different but he isn’t the first alpha who’s used that tactic.”
“Well, then why not warn me?” Peter says. “Did you think I wouldn’t—I would have listened. I may not have done what you wanted with it, but I would have listened.”
“I know you would have. And that’s why they’d come after you first,” Talia says. She moves her knees up too, small and hunched and so different from the sister he grew up with. “Because you knew too much. You first, then my children. I saw it, Peter. You want to know why you didn’t go to those talks, well, that’s what you were missing, hearing about what pack’s gone under this time. If people were going to come after us, I wanted them to come after me and just me, and that’d give the rest of you time to get out.”
Then she falls silent, staring at the floor. She doesn’t have to say, it didn’t work that way. He can see the words in the way she slumps, how the flesh of her arms is turning white under the pressure of her fingers. Where she’s bleeding a little from her own claw.
“I never thought any of the other alphas liked me,” Peter starts slowly. “I hadn’t even…before I even did anything.”
Talia shifts roughly and he thinks she’s still angry. But then she lifts her head and he can see her face and she’s…she’s bitter, but it’s leavened with a little black humor. “They didn’t. All that nonsense about respecting me…they were jealous, every single one of them. Or—or Deucalion, he was worse, with his fawning. You think it was funny, well, he never saw me as human. He was as bad as a hunter, in his way. I wasn’t perfect, Peter. I messed up, with you, with the kids, with the rest of the pack, but he insisted I was some—goddess.”
“He was very fond of his pedestals. I remember wondering that his poor beta hadn’t snapped earlier than that, putting up with all the silly pack-risking ideas he had,” Peter says. He moves a little closer to her; she looks at him but doesn’t tense up, so he crawls up till he’s by her feet. “Talia. I…I didn’t mean, I wanted to kill your…I didn’t think that. Really. Just…”
“Just wanted them out of the way? Back to just you and me?” she says. Because she is his sister.
Peter wants to lie. He hasn’t yet. He wants to, but not for the usual reason of it being easier, more likely to get what he wants. He wants to lie because for once he doesn’t want to see what the truth does to his sister. “Something like that,” he hedges, and then he sighs as she looks at him. “Murder, no. But get them out of the house, get them off your hands. Make them grow up. They could’ve fended for themselves more than they did. I did, and they’re your children so I know they had that ability. But nobody ever made them.”
He’s bracing himself, but surprisingly, Talia doesn’t look angry. She’s intent on him as she listens, and she doesn’t like it, of course, but she seems very calm about it. And then she shrugs and there’s something very disturbing about how resigned it is. His sister has always fought, always, even when he’s thought her a fool for it. Even when she’s too weak for it. And now she’s not fighting.
“Nobody ever made you, either,” she says. She smiles like she’s teasing but her shoulders still have that defeated slant. “We were hereditary, Peter. Do you know how rare that is? I didn’t. Not till our parents died, and I started talking to other packs, because they didn’t tell me either…only one of a hundred packs lives long enough to have children, raise them into the pack. Everyone else grows their pack with bites. That’s why they hated you. You were born into it, they weren’t. And that’s why I didn’t want them near you, or the kids.”
“Because I was starting off at a deficit in earning their affection?” Peter says. “Well, I’ll admit I didn’t exactly make that up—”
“You never were going to. It’s just like the full shift,” Talia says. “They’d always hold it up to you, and you were so resentful anyway. I knew you’d try to show them up, and it’s not even worth it. I just…I didn’t want you wasting your life trying to prove yourself when you didn’t even need to.”
“If I want to waste my life, it’s my life,” Peter points out, but softly.
He looks at her for another moment, then leans his head against her leg. Tentatively, till he feels her fingers on his hair, and then he lets his weight settle into her. “I know, but you’re my brother, and maybe it didn’t seem like it, but I never forgot about you,” Talia sighs. “Never, Peter.”
“I know you didn’t.” He leans a little harder.
She breathes in deeply, petting his head. Then she twists herself around, wrapping up in a fur as she goes, so that they’re lying side by side, half-rolled into the fur. Talia puts her head on his shoulder, and then, when he tucks his head under her chin, she purrs and rubs her cheek along his nape. They used to bundle together like that as children—all that’s missing is one of their parents lying nearby, telling them stories, and Peter hasn’t missed his mother and father in a very long time but he suddenly feels a pang, recalling the memory.
“I suppose the first step is just making sure that nobody runs into anybody till people’s heats are over,” he says, trying to push that away. He doesn’t miss them so much because he resents them for dying so unexpectedly. He’d been very young, which was why Talia had ended up raising him in the first place, and he still thinks his parents should have kept that in mind before they’d taken on certain challenges. “I almost think I should just tell Erica to get it over with and go after him. At least then it’d end faster, and he’d be back here.”
Talia stiffens. Then she shifts around so she can turn her head and look squarely at him. “Don’t you dare,” she says. “You never listen to me, but Peter, just once—don’t do that.”
“Because it’s so romantic to sit around and pine away,” he mutters, rolling his eyes.
“Because that girl doesn’t want him for mate. And if he wants nothing more than a fuck, then he should come out and say so. If he wants more, then you shouldn’t make yourself into less,” she says sharply. She moves restlessly against him, then down so that she can rest her chin on his back. “He’s a fool to not have mated you by now, anyway. And I know what you’re going to say, and I know what he’s done, but still. He is.”
Peter huffs irritably, but under that he can’t help feeling a little pleased. Talia’s outrage isn’t going to sway Stiles’ mind one jot, but it makes Peter feel better, just for a while, and he will take even that small a crumb.
“I think I might go out later.” Talia pats Peter’s arm as he tenses. “Only if Stiles comes back. If they’re going to go do any roaring, I should go.”
“Your roar sounds like somebody took a half-fed omega and took a winepress to their lungs,” Peter points out. “You’re my sister, but still.”
“Well, that’s why I should go. They’ll know Erica’s and Boyd’s roars, and you or Stiles will sound too strong. They’re looking for packs, for alphas to challenge, aren’t they?” Talia says. “Not weak, lone omegas, who would only be there if absolutely nobody else was around.”
It’s not a bad idea, Peter has to admit. He even wishes he’d thought of it. “What if it brings in somebody who’s looking for the weak?”
“Then I think we can deal with that. Erica and Boyd are healing, and they’ll be around a little longer,” Talia says, sensibly enough. “Peter, if you hate it when I try to protect you, you can’t honestly do the same to me.”
“I never claimed to be consistent,” he says, snorting into the furs. “Fine. We’ll see if we can talk Stiles into it.”
She laughs at him, then gives Peter a careful squeeze. Her breathing’s starting to slow towards sleep again, and he frowns and listens to it for a few seconds, making sure she isn’t starting to wheeze or sound congested. Werewolves shouldn’t get sick, not like humans do, but their health is so unpredictable these days that they’ve been contradicting all sorts of received knowledge about their kind.
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs suddenly. “I’m sorry, you know. I wish…I wish I’d been a better sister.”
“I could have been a better brother,” Peter says after a long moment. It’s true. It’s also something he means, not just something he’s stating. Once that would have been the other way around, but…he’s had time to think. Nothing but time for that, and he’s changed too. “I’m—I’m glad you didn’t die in the fire. I didn’t—I don’t think I would’ve wanted to be the only survivor.”
Talia’s very still. Then she stretches over him, curling closer, purring quietly. He purrs back and she rubs her hand over some of the scars on his shoulder, then moves her other arm so he can pillow his head on it. And they doze off that way, together.
I wanted to play around with a different variation on heat cycles rather than the usual fuck or die craziness.
Also, I was thinking about it, and it's a little weird that the Hales and related people seem to be the only born werewolves in the canonical universe, but nobody ever raises it? Especially considering the whole theme that pack is tighter than family (not that the show seems to take that particularly seriously--looking at your absurd backstories, Kali and Ennis).
Laura, Derek, Cora. Her beautiful children. Cora had been home, and Talia had lost her in the frantic rush to escape, but Talia does remember howling for someone, anyone after she’d gotten out of the fire. She’d howled her heart out—she thinks that, more than the wolfsbane Peter thinks was thrown on the fire, was what had damaged her lungs.
She’d howled loud enough to bring hunters on their trail afterward. So pack should have come too, if there’d been any pack left.
For the longest time, Talia couldn’t even think about them. Couldn’t bring herself to remember their names, their faces, their scents. If Peter mentioned them, even in passing…she couldn’t leave him but she would go as far from him as she dared. And she’d howl again, drowning out anything that he had to say. She didn’t expect an answer; she knew they were dead. She was howling in grief, in anger, in a constant, gut-eating guilt that worked at her day and night.
Her children, and she’d let them die. Cora in the fire, and she can only assume that Laura and Derek were taken by hunters before the brands were set to their house. She didn’t even have their bodies to bury—she had nothing of them left, nothing but memories that she couldn’t stand. If she hadn’t had Peter to look after, she sometimes thinks, she may well have just laid down on the ground and starved herself, or let the hunters come upon her. She’d failed as an alpha, and that was hard, but to fail as a parent, in that way—that was unconscionable.
Talia still thinks that. She hates heat season because even with her reduced heat, it still feels like her body’s forgotten it all. Craving company, whispering to her that she’s still young enough for more, that she’s a werewolf, that she still has time to rebuild. But she can’t do that. Not to another child.
She’s used to it now, that knife twisting inside her, and nothing, not anything that happens to her, not anything Peter says, nothing is ever as bad, but she’s used to it. She is a werewolf, and she can live with wounds that would kill others. She will live with it, because she can do that much to honor her children’s memories, even if she still can’t quite face up to them.
She misses them.
* * *
Stiles returns after only a few hours, with a load of scavenged winter berries and a few squirrels for the stew pot. He’s a little too cheerful, and too careful about not touching Peter, but both he and Peter seem too relieved to find the other not holding a grudge that Talia leaves it be.
He’s a little quick to agree to her coming with him, too, but that’s easy enough to understand when Erica and Boyd come in to eat and both he and Erica stiffen. Then they twist away from each other, almost perfectly in concert. Boyd gives Talia a long, thoughtful look as he silently positions himself between Erica and Stiles, and after a second, she nods in appreciation and does likewise.
It’s an awkward meal. Nobody talks much, except to ask for this or that to be passed about. Erica’s far enough into heat that the insides of her thighs are a little wet-looking, though she does her best to keep them squeezed together and hidden, and Stiles keeps ducking his head into his shoulder and blowing out his nose. When it’s over, there’s a collective sigh of relief.
Then Peter gets up. “I need some air,” he says, pushing off Talia’s hand. He takes a shaky, tilted step towards the tunnel, and then a quicker, heavier one, almost falling into the wall as he slaps his hand against it. “I need—I’ve been in here all day—”
“All right, all right,” Talia mutters. She pushes her bowl away and slings a fur around herself, since it’s clear he’s not planning to shift any time soon, and then goes over to help him.
But she’s barely put her hand on him when there’s a cut-off growl. Talia instinctively whirls about, blocking the way to Peter, and then stares as Stiles sheepishly scrubs his hand over his mouth.
“I’m, uh, I’ll, fuck, I’ll meet you out there,” he mutters. And then he flips over, shifting fully in that second he’s airborne, and darts forward.
Years they’ve guessed at his wolf form, and now they’ve seen it twice in less than a week. Talia looks after him, holding onto her brother’s arm, trying to tell herself it’s an irrational thing to be resentful over, and then she starts again.
“Sorry,” Erica says, her hands up in the air. She holds them there a little longer, then gets up, twitching at the fur they’ve given her to cover herself. “So…I was wondering what your whole deal was, but I’m guessing he’s an idiot?”
“Your ignorance is showing,” Peter says, his eyes flicking insultingly over her.
Boyd bridles, but Erica just laughs. She’s starting to fidget, her knees rubbing together, and her hand strays towards her legs before she catches herself. “Okay, let’s just…Boyd and me, we’ll go out first, and I’ll rinse off this mess before we get started, how about that?”
“That’s fine,” Talia says, before Peter can.
He snarls at her anyway. She ignores that, and starts helping him along; if they wait till Erica and Boyd start moving, they’ll be far too long and Stiles may just leave without them.
The other two take the hint and head out, and when Talia finally hauls her brother into the cold night air, Erica smells mostly of snow, with just a faint sweetness leaching through. But she’s excited, bouncing from foot to foot, and when Stiles—eyeing Peter but keeping his protests to himself—gives them the nod, she races off so quickly that Boyd can barely keep up.
Stiles goes next, at a slow enough pace that Talia and Peter won’t lose sight of him. For a while, much longer than normal for him, he’s silent, but eventually he starts calling out to the two werewolves ahead of him. He disposed of Ennis’ body while he was out, and now he’s showing Erica and Boyd up the mountainside so they can see the surrounding terrain.
It’s not far to a good viewpoint, but Peter is heavy, and unhelpfully stubborn about letting Talia know which parts of him are hurting before they lock up. “Can’t possibly have the energy to keep an eye on me,” she mutters, hefting his arm over her shoulder.
“Be surprised at my abilities, sister,” he grunts back. But he tugs at his arm, till she lets go, and then he caves and shifts so she can carry wolf-him in her arms.
That slows them, and by the time they get up onto the cliff, Stiles is almost done explaining the various passes and trails to Erica and Boyd. Erica’s attentive, asking smart questions, and Boyd quietly traces out the directions with a claw in the snow as Stiles talks. The three of them…they look like a young, healthy, promising pack, Talia can’t help but think. More like one than she and Peter and Stiles do.
Peter bumps his chin against her arm. It might be because he’s thinking the same, or because he just senses her sadness and wants to break the spell, or because he’s hurting and wants to change position. Doesn’t really matter. She shakes her head and puts him down, and then walks with him up to the others.
“Okay, so, I was thinking…well, wondering, really, what kind of call it should be,” Stiles says, seeing her. He shifts away from the other two and she’s not quite sure it’s deliberate. The way his hand slips towards Peter and then jerks into the snow is definitely unconscious, and then conscious. “Search call’s not what we want, obviously, but challenge or defend territory doesn’t seem to fit either.”
“Maybe you could just sound heat-ridden? Just, cranky and venting?” Erica suggests. She’s starting to smell strongly again, and keeps scratching at her hips.
“That was about where I was landing,” Talia has to admit. And it won’t be too much of a stretch for her either, she figures.
Stiles doesn’t object, and neither does Peter. So Talia steps up to the edge of the cliff and takes as deep a breath as she can, and then sings out.
The sound is pathetic. It’s burred instead of clear, not the sweet bell of a healthy wolf but a rough rattle. But it carries well. They can hear echoes for nearly ten minutes afterward, and she thinks that the call may have reached beyond the mountain range into the wooded flatlands.
Talia howls twice more for good measure, then steps back. “That should do it,” she says.
“It doesn’t sound as bad as it used to,” Peter says. He’s still panting from his shift back, and he sounds a little rigid. But that’s all from the shift, says the dancing glint in his eyes. “You’ve got most of your high notes back.”
She drops down next to him so that she can push at his shoulder. They’re both being a little sharper than usual, to take their minds off the heat-smell coming from the others. “Do I sound like when I was a teenager, is that what you’re saying?”
“No. No, it’s definitely from a grown wolf. The nuance, that could never be someone young,” he says. Then he sobers a little, the same thought striking both of them. “I don’t think anyone who knew you at that age would recognize—”
A wolf howls back. An alpha, young and strong and far too close. Stiles is up in an instant, his claws out, peering down the slope. Then he jerks around, raising one hand as Erica and Boyd let out shocked, fearful whines.
“It’s our alpha,” Erica says. She shakes her head, getting up and then sitting down and then getting up again, giving the treetops disbelieving looks. “It’s her, but—no way did she track us, no way, she’s—”
“Talia,” Peter says sharply. “Talia. It can’t be her. It’s a trick, it’s—it’s got to be the other Alphas, remember, Deucalion and Kali both met her, they’d remember what she sounded like—”
“But it’s not the same. It’s not—it’s not her as a child, it’s—that’s—and if it is them, how dare they,” Talia half-snarls, half-stammers. She swerves from Peter’s outstretched hand, and then again, as Stiles steps towards her, and then she spins and she launches herself through the snow.
Peter calls after her, swearing, and Talia forces herself to shift mid-run. It hurts to bring it on so quickly. She loses her balance and tumbles, half-shifted, and then again as a wolf, and when she comes back up, the leg she’d broken in the fight with Ennis is aching badly, but she just throws herself forward. She has to stay ahead. If Stiles comes after her, really comes, he’ll easily outrun her and she can’t let him. She has to see first. She has to know.
She keeps running. Her lungs start to burn, and then to feel like they’re weeping tears of fire on the insides. Her ribs turn into iron bars, slicing through her flesh, and she keeps losing her footing, falling as much as she’s racing down the mountain, but she pulls herself up and then she drags in the air and she cries out again.
The alpha answers, so close that they have to be within sight distance, and Talia stumbles around a boulder and then flounders into a heavy snowdrift, trying to correct her heading. She flails at the snow with her forelegs, hauls herself out and then coughs as her lungs seem to jam right up into the roof of her mouth. And then the wind shifts and she gets a scent and that can’t be faked. There’s nothing to fake it with—everything of theirs burned.
Talia steps into a hole hidden by the snow and her leg wrenches and she screams, twisting in agony, falling out of shift. Her human form sinks into the snow, and that pulls her arm free but she’s still screaming her child’s name when a werewolf looms out of the dark.
It’s not her daughter. It’s a strange beta, a blond boy with blue eyes, who’s followed closely by another boy with gold eyes. And then—Talia freezes halfway to her feet, staring at the man in front of her.
“Mom?” Derek says, white-faced and shaking.
He’s—he’s grown, but she knows him. She knows him. She’s shaking her head because she knows him, so she knows it can’t really be him. He’s dead. If he wasn’t, she’d know. She’d—she’d called, and he hadn’t come, and he’s so handsome and tall and he’s her son. She knows him.
Then their alpha shows up. Her Laura, rising out of the brush, just as white as her brother. “Mom!” she says. “Mom! You’re—you’re alive—how are you—”
Talia sucks in her breath, and the world blurs. She raises her hand to her eyes and her fingers are immediately wet. She doesn’t wipe her face for a moment, terrified that if she does, they’ll disappear with it. But the scent—she can smell them. She can smell them.
She makes her hand move. Clears her eyes, and looks up again, and then she sees him.
“Wait, no, Mom—” Laura says, voice starting with horror and moving swiftly to an alpha snarl.
Talia doesn’t care. She was an alpha before, she still feels that duty, and her children are back and there’s an Argent at their backs and she won’t stand for it.
She leaps at him. He swears, his eyes widening, and throws himself to the side. Laura whirls and grabs Talia’s wrist as Talia passes her, but her grip isn’t solid and Talia shakes it off. Yanking herself around, snapping her teeth, her claws stretched out for the man’s throat. He’s fallen against a tree and she can recognize him now, she knows him too, he’s the son and she’s going to kill him when a girl steps in front of him, a crossbow leveled at Talia.
The bolt flies at her. She’s going to let it take her in the shoulder, because that pain is nothing and it won’t keep her from ripping through the girl for him. But a hand intercepts it, and then Derek’s there, shoving the girl out of the way. He’s snarling at her and she’s screaming back, and as they struggle, Talia shoulders around them.
Her claw tips just scrape Chris Argent’s shoulder when she’s dragged back. It’s the gold-eyed beta, hauling her by the waist. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but you need to listen,” he says.
“They killed my family!” Talia screams. “They burned them alive! I saw them die, you brat, all of them, they burned, their skin melted like candle wax and they died on my hands, the children, the parents, my whole pack—”
“My dad wasn’t there!” the girl shouts.
So she’s an Argent too—Talia almost spits blood, she’s so angry. She should’ve known they weren’t gone. “I don’t care, he’s the son, and you’re a daughter. You’re a leader,” Talia snarls at her. “Your people’s deeds are on you, that’s what a leader is, and we did nothing, we didn’t even break your damned code, you just burned us. We burned and burned, and have you seen somebody burn to death? Have you? Do you know what they look like? Do you know what it looks like, when their eyelids curl off from the heat? I saw that, you made me see that, you let that happen and I’ll kill you before I let it happen again.”
The werewolf holding Talia loosens his grip for a moment, gagging, and she almost breaks free. But he grabs her up again, and then hauls her back. He’s strong for a beta, and she’s too weak, she’s just too weak these days and she’s crying in frustration now, all the faces of her dead flooding back to her.
“My family,” she sobs. “My family. I lost them. I loved them, you bastards, and you killed them all and I had to watch. The children, they wanted me to make it stop. They said they couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t do anything, and I watched. I watched. Their hair, it fell to cinders in my hands, and I couldn’t even hold them as they died. Their skin was burnt off, it just hurt them more.”
Chris Argent’s still up against the tree, staring at her. He’s grey in the face, his eyes wide and staring and he’d be a corpse but for that drained look of horror in them. As if he cares. As if his daughter—Talia slews herself around in the beta’s arms, looking for that girl, and she’s staring just like her father. Her crossbow is down and she’s visibly shaking, as if she has any right to be shocked.
“You’re responsible,” Talia says, gasping. “Even if you weren’t there, they were your family. I couldn’t save mine, that’s on my head, but you put them to death. That’s on yours.”
“Mom,” Laura says. Her voice is jerky, and she lets out a pained whine when Talia starts at it. “Mom. Mom, please.”
Her daughter. Her living daughter. Talia suddenly wants to laugh, enraged as she is, because she’d thought—and that’s not true either. It’s as if the world has suddenly ended, and then restarted, and she has to relearn everything up to and including how to look up.
Laura steps towards her, one hand out. To touch her, Talia thinks, and she’s already bracing for the pain of that—but welcome, like blood rushing into a numbed limb—when Laura shifts sideways. She’s stepping between Talia and Chris Argent, and she’s holding her hand out to keep Talia back.
“Mom, you can’t kill him, or Allison,” Laura says. She takes a deep breath that doesn’t steady her in the least. “I know—I know this doesn’t seem right. But let me just explain—”
“Where were you?” Talia says. She should be shocked. Should be still. Should be deaf and dumb with all the shocks, but somehow she’s not. She’s not even surprised, she thinks. She knew it couldn’t be right. Her children had died. “Where—you, Derek, I thought you were dead.”
Derek jerks forward then, reaching for Talia, but he freezes when she flinches. Talia elbows her way free of the beta holding her, and then stares at her daughter.
“I called,” Talia says. “I called and called, and nobody answered but Peter and hunters.”
“Peter—uncle Peter—” Laura says, starting.
“I called for you,” Talia goes on. “I called for anybody. Where were you? Why didn’t you answer? I thought you were dead.”
“I…” Laura opens and closes her mouth a few times. Her arms rise but her hands hang limply from them. “Mom, I…we didn’t know what happened. Derek, he saw the fire, and he told me and we heard screaming and we—we didn’t know what happened. We just—we thought hunters, and we—I was trying to keep us alive.”
“I called for you,” Talia says again. Her vision is blurring, but she doesn’t wipe her eyes. “I called. I called till I had hunters on our trail, and Peter was barely alive, and they were trying to finish us off, but I called, Laura. Why didn’t you answer? Didn’t you—didn’t you hear—”
“No,” Derek says abruptly, turning to stare at Laura.
Laura’s head jerks slightly. She doesn’t quite look at him; her eyes are fixed on Talia and they drag back her head. “Mom, it was just crazy. I couldn’t have gotten up there. I was scared, we knew hunters were at the bottom of it but not who or how many or where they were and I just—just get away, just make sure they didn’t get us.”
“But I called,” Talia says. Her voice breaks. It makes her angry again, and she drags her hand over the side of her throat, and only realizes she’s clawed herself when Laura’s eyes widen and her daughter reaches for her. She smells her own blood. “No, don’t—I called. I stayed and I called. I didn’t want to leave in case someone else was left and I waited, and they almost caught us and I—I called you. You’re my child, I wouldn’t have left if I’d known.”
Laura’s face twists. “Mom,” she says, reaching out again.
“And they did it. Their men, their plan.” Talia jerks back, looking from her daughter to her son, and then waves her hand at the Argents. “And now you’re…you’re telling me, you won’t let me kill them, won’t let me at least do that for all our dead, and you’re protecting them. Peter’s crippled because of what they did, and I’m not alpha anymore and we’re both—we’ve been out here for years thinking we were all that was left and you were alive and you ran from us and—”
“Mom, wait,” Derek says.
She snarls at him. His outstretched hand falls and he looks stricken and he’s her son. He’s hurting and that hurts her, but he ran from her. She can’t understand it.
She doesn’t know him. She doesn’t know Laura, she thinks. She doesn’t know them, and Talia takes a step away from them, then another. And another.
Laura sucks in her breath, then shakes her head. “Mom, stop,” she says, alpha command in her voice. “Don’t make me—”
“Okay, I didn’t hear all of what went down here, but you and your pack don’t make anybody around here,” Stiles says.
And Peter’s there. Wheezing, collapsed at Stiles’ feet, but he raises his arms and Talia turns and drops and folds herself into them like she’s crawling into his skin to hide. Tucks her head into his neck and clutches at his arms, even when he hisses in pain, and that’s when she realizes how badly she’s shaking.
“Stiles!” says one of the betas. The one who’d held her back. “Stiles, wait, what are you—”
“Scott, hey,” Stiles says. He doesn’t sound surprised. He does sound brittle and tight, and a step from anger, or grief. “And…you’re a werewolf now. Please tell me that had nothing to do with me and my parents.”
“What? I—that’s a long—you’re okay?” Scott says. “You look…you look okay. How are your parents?”
Stiles stops breathing for a second, and Talia senses Peter craning up to look at the man. Then, as if each word is broken glass, Stiles spits out his reply. “They’re dead, thanks. Never really got over being driven out of town by a village mob, because you went and decided it was better to be honest about just how we saved everybody from that lindorm. And you? You smell like you’re mated up with some Argent hunter girl, on top of wolfing up. Seems a little awkward.”
“Oh, damn,” Erica mutters. Her and Boyd’s heartbeats are a few yards behind Stiles, and they’re both fast, but not as jumpy as would be expected.
“You two, where have you been?” Derek suddenly snaps. “Did you miss that the Alphas have been trying to hunt us down?”
“No, because they got us, and Stiles and Talia and Peter here broke us out, and fuck you, Derek, for not asking why we still look like shit,” Erica shoots back. “Wow. Why on earth would taking our chances with the Alphas on the loose look better than you.”
Peter chokes back a laugh. He shakes his head, tilting it so that he’s nuzzling at Talia’s temple at the same time, and then snorts again.
“I can’t believe you’re both alive,” Laura says.
She sounds like she’s moving towards them. Talia tenses, and she’s about to twist around when Peter’s arms suddenly tighten. He lifts his head and he snarls over her shoulder, and she can hear Laura and Derek both suck in their breaths.
“Mom,” Derek says, soft but urgent. “Mom. Look, it’s—there’s a lot you don’t know, and that we really need to tell you. And I don’t know what Peter might’ve told you, but I don’t think he—”
“Only a few minutes into our reunion and you’re already blaming me,” Peter rasps. He’s going to be sleeping for days after this, whining in pain; she can already tell from how exhausted he sounds. “That rules out your being an imposter.”
“You’re not helping,” Laura says. “You never help, Peter, just—Mom. Mom, look, we need to talk, can you…can you just come with us, just for a little bit? Just…just let me explain.”
“You want me to go,” Talia says after a moment. She looks at them, and then at Peter, who’s stony-faced but who relaxes in surprise when she tightens her hold on him. “Just me. Not Peter. Your uncle. Who got out of the fire but who would’ve died on his own. Did you think about that? Did you think that you might be leaving pack who could use your help? Didn’t I teach you—”
“You taught me to look after my brother and sister,” Laura snaps, her eyes flaring red. “You taught me that, because you let Peter keep suckering them in, getting them into trouble. Or did he figure out how to wipe your memories, Mom? Did you forget that he’s the one who tricked Derek into killing that girl?”
“I remember that, and I also remember I taught you that pack is pack, for good or bad. And if they’re bad, you still deal with it yourself,” Talia says. “You should’ve at least checked if you needed to kill anybody so the hunters wouldn’t get them. You don’t leave your own for them, Laura.”
She gets to her feet, and then she reaches down for Peter. He’s dead weight for the first few seconds, staring at her, and she’s worn out enough to struggle with him. And then he pulls himself together enough to get his arm over her shoulders. He swings in close and she thinks he might have lost his balance, but then his face is pressed into the side of her neck and she relaxes. Peter purrs into her, a soft, whining noise mixed into it, surprised and pleased and raw with gratitude.
“I don’t care what you have to say,” Talia tells her daughter. “Your actions said enough.”
Laura rocks back as if the words are a slap. Then she starts forward, only to pull up as Stiles snarls at her.
“I’m not gonna even think you’re going to be sensible and just go away, and stop making people feel shitty,” he says. He shoulders in front as Talia helps Peter backwards, his claws shifted to the odd spade shapes. “But Talia doesn’t want to talk to you, and Peter’s about to fall over, so we’re going to go for now, and you’re going to let us. We’ll pick this up when I don’t think somebody’s going to pass out.”
“And who are you again?” Laura says incredulously.
“Oh, come on, Scott yelled his name for all of us,” Erica says. She and Boyd step out, both opening up to let Talia and Peter through, and flanking to either side of Stiles.
Derek snorts, jerking his head to the side to crack his neck. Laura doesn’t look impressed either, but then Scott walks out. He stops when he’s between Stiles and Laura, turned so he can look at both of them.
“Don’t,” he says to Laura. He holds her gaze for a few seconds and he’s young, he can’t be more than Stiles’ age, but she looks uncomfortable. Then he takes a deep breath, and he looks over at Stiles, his expression going wistful and sad. “Listen, Stiles, I’m—I’m really glad to see you. And I’m sorry about your parents, and what happened…and I want to talk to you about that, but I don’t…we’re not here to make trouble. And if you don’t want to talk to us, or they don’t want to talk to Laura, I’m not going to let them get at you.”
Talia can’t see Stiles’ face now, but she can see how his back stiffens. His hand goes up a little, then sharply down, and when he speaks, his tone is all tangled in pride and affection and resentment.
“You’re such an idiot, Scotty, even as a werewolf,” he says. He pauses, and then takes a backward step; Erica and Boyd go with him and Talia can tell Stiles is checking her children’s reactions by the tilt of his head. “Well, yeah, we’re gonna go. So…”
“If Erica and Boyd want to go too, it’s cool,” Scott says.
Derek stiffens and looks at Laura. Stiles laughs, sounding much warmer. “Such a moron. Okay, look, we’re—we’re going. And please don’t be stupid and try and sneak up or something, I’m not in the mood.”
Scott nods, oddly earnest. He turns so he’s facing them, clearly aligned with Laura’s pack, but he spreads his arms a little to either side of him like a barrier.
Stiles pauses again, then sighs. “And hey to you, too, Scott,” he says, finally turning around.
The other werewolf looks hopefully after him, but Stiles doesn’t hesitate anymore. He jogs up to Peter’s other side, slipping under Peter’s arm and then taking his weight just as Talia’s starting to sag under it. Talia still stumbles, suddenly weak as a baby, but somebody else catches her.
“Sorry,” Erica says.
She takes her hand away. Then puts it cautiously back, as Talia reluctantly leans towards her. Much as Talia wishes she didn’t have to rely on the other woman, she—she wants to get away from here. Quickly. And she can’t do that on her own.
Erica waits a few seconds, then drops her arm and circles Talia’s waist. She’s a fair bit shorter, but she’s regained most of her strength and takes Talia slumping over her head with just a small grunt. Boyd trails behind all of them, keeping an eye on their backs, as they head back to the den without another word.
“She asleep?” Stiles asks Peter, and then the other man winces. “Sorry, I didn’t just jinx it, did I?”
Peter’s too weary to mind. He glances over his shoulder, listening to his sister’s heartbeat, but it remains a slow, trudging rhythm, so he just lowers himself to lie next to Stiles. They’re at a bend in the entrance tunnel, just shy of the outside, and weak grey light is beginning to lap its fingertips around the bend. The bend’s to confuse strangers, and also to keep out drafts, but this close to it, Peter’s shivering.
He wraps his fur more tightly around himself, absently clenching his teeth at sore muscles and aching bones. Stiles watches, frowning, and then starts to say something. Stops, flops himself the other way, and curls up at Peter’s back.
“So I’m debating whether to go and just order Boyd and Erica to get in here before they pass out in the snow,” Stiles says after a few minutes. He drapes his arm carefully over Peter, his fingers dangling down to surreptitiously tuck the ends of the fur under them. “You know, I really got the impression that Boyd was the reasonable one, but he’s just as bad, going on and on about whether it was that tree scratch or whatever and it’s really not their fault that they got tracked by Ennis and—um. Your. Um, your…”
“Yes, my niece,” Peter mutters. “Laura.”
Stiles hums in acknowledgement. He’s shifting every few seconds, and Peter belatedly remembers the man’s starting heat. But when Peter tries to make a little space in between them, Stiles puts his head down on Peter’s back and inhales against Peter’s hair, and Peter isn’t a saint.
“They’re out by the stream,” Stiles adds, as Peter settles where he is. “Been out there for a good two hours now, arguing about whether they should run now or stay and yell at Laura, and which one is better for getting them off our backs. I thought about pointing out that they’re probably not why Laura’s going to stick around, but I think arguing is actually making them feel better.”
Peter huffs a grim laugh, and then works his head and arms so that he can turn to face Stiles. “I wish I could say the same.”
“Yeah, I, I um, I heard.” Stiles nuzzles in behind Peter’s ear for a moment, then pulls back. “So, you know, if you’re done with talking about it, just let me know and I’ll shut up. I’m just babbling here because—honestly, because I have no idea what to do. Just, the odds of everything being this screwy…”
“How are you?” Peter asks, abruptly remembering Stiles’ exchange with Scott. “Are you…”
Stiles stiffens and his face closes down. Peter immediately puts his head against the floor and whines quietly, resisting the urge to clutch at the other man. He doesn’t have high hopes, but Stiles just jerks his head to the side, breathes out slowly, and then shrugs.
“Oh, yeah, so…Scott. Used to be my best friend. I mean, my family, we used to live in an actual house and all that,” Stiles says. His tone is abrupt but the words come out quickly, as if they’d been penned back. “He lived down the road, and he knew I was a werewolf and he was cool about it, actually. And…well, you heard the short version.”
“Are you worried?” is what Peter settles on after some thought.
“What, that he’s gonna bring another mob? No, he’s not—Scott’s actually a good person, he’s just…bad at lying, and he…I don’t know, I’m still mad at him for being an idiot but I’m not mad at him, if that makes sense. He stood up for us against the rest of the village, and when that didn’t work he helped us get out, and…” Stiles looks down at where he’s idly etching circles into the tunnel floor with one claw. His mouth twists bitterly, and then untwists so that he can look wistful. “He couldn’t come because of his mom, but he promised he’d come find me again when it was safe. I kind of forgot about it—you know, you say stuff when you don’t think you’ll ever see people again.”
Peter nods slowly, but he’s only half-listening. Any other time he’d be hanging onto every word; glimpses of Stiles’ past are so rare, and voluntary ones even rarer. But he’s been reunited with his niece and nephew, and…
He feels numb. He thinks—he knows he should feel more than that. Much as Peter had resented Talia’s children, they’d still been pack. And he’d had moments where he’d tried to make friends with them, had tried to see something in them besides other demands on Talia’s attention. Sometimes he’d had fun with them. When he’d thought them dead, he’d felt less without them, he’d mourned them along with the rest of the family. Had wanted vengeance in their name.
And speaking of vengeance—Chris Argent and his daughter, not only alive, but under a Hale’s protection. Incredibly enough, Peter had almost entirely forgotten about seeing them, but now that he remembers, a hot surge of anger goes through him. His hands twitch and Stiles makes an inquiring noise, and Peter needs a second before he can shake his head.
Then they both stiffen as the breeze shifts and brings werewolf scents into the tunnel. Stiles looks at Peter again, then gets onto his knees, keeping one hand on Peter’s shoulder. The heartbeats down by the stream suddenly jump and Stiles half-sucks his breath, then lets out a low snarl.
“What part of, give us a second to get over your asshole reappearance do you not get?” he says.
Scott and…Derek, Peter tentatively identifies, are probably within Erica’s and Boyd’s sight, but that still puts them just on the edge of werewolf hearing. Still, Scott immediately answers. “I know, I know, and we’re not here to fight or anything like that. So Laura’s not here.”
“Is my mom okay?” Derek asks.
“She’s not going to talk to you,” Peter says. He catches himself kneading the edge of his fur and makes a face at himself. “And I don’t care what you think I’m doing, Derek. She’s my sister and I’ve been looking after her while you’ve been wherever you went to, and she doesn’t need you right now.”
Derek goes silent. He’s too far to hear a heartbeat, and the wind’s changed again, taking his scent away, but even over this distance Peter can sense the resentment.
Peter genuinely doesn’t care, he realizes. And it’s not for mischief, or his own ego, or anything like that. Talia’s only just gotten to sleep, after hours and hours of sobbing, asking over and over again what she’d done. He’s never seen her break down like that, never. Not even right after the fire; she’d had some moments of pure rage, and some of frozen despair, but she’d never just…shattered on him. And now that she has, he knows he never wants to see that again. He does care about that, about her, and if he thought letting Derek talk to her would help, he would gladly bring his nephew in. But he knows it won’t.
“I just wanted to talk a little, maybe catch up,” Scott says, when Derek continues to be silent. The wind carries in the end of a flustered laugh. “I know that’s…that sounds pretty lame, but I really do. I missed you, Stiles. I missed you and your parents, and I’m sorry it took me so long, but I still—I still want to be friends, if you want.”
Stiles makes a strangled noise, rearing up, and then he abruptly drops his head to suffocate the rest of that noise into his arm. He presses his face into the crook of his elbow for a couple seconds, nothing but muffled wheezes coming out, and then his arm falls limply from his face. “You see what I mean?” he says, looking at Peter with wide, incredulous eyes. “He just—and he means it! He always means it. He’s Scott, that’s just…”
“I’m not really part of Laura’s pack either,” Scott adds more tentatively. “I was helping them, because I’m friends with Isaac, and he’s friends with Erica and Boyd, but I don’t—talking to me isn’t like you’re doing anything with her, and…”
“Can we talk?” Derek says suddenly. “I mean you, not Mom.”
Peter blinks. “Why?”
“What do you—why? Peter, we thought you were dead too!” Derek snaps, voice rising in irritation. Then it cuts off, and there’s some indistinct mumbling—“Scott,” Stiles sighs knowingly—and Derek snarls at somebody. “And you didn’t look—you and Mom, you both look—”
“Like we were burned alive and didn’t have a pack around to help heal us?” Peter says.
“Erica and Boyd are heading our way,” Stiles mutters. “I think Boyd and I can chase them off, if you don’t mind me beating on your nephew?”
Peter snorts, startling himself. He looks up at Stiles and Stiles smiles nervously at him, and Peter just—wishes sometimes, so badly.
“I didn’t hear you howling, or Mom,” Derek says. His voice fades a little. There’s a pause for breath, and then it firms up. “Also, if I had, I would’ve—I would’ve stayed. Laura said we had to go, and we just went, and I just…Peter, I wasn’t that old, and…okay, call me an idiot like you used to, but I’m glad Kate didn’t get you.”
“Okay, I’m gonna go,” Stiles says.
“Wait,” Peter forces out. He can’t get more out through his constricted throat, or clenched jaw, but he looks at Stiles and he wills the man to stay. And when Stiles does, Peter breathes out. Makes himself relax, and think about it, no matter how much he’d rather just claw his fingers to stubs against the tunnel wall. “Wait. No…I want to talk to him.”
Stiles tilts his head. “You really, really don’t,” he says, but he’s already shaking his head. He rubs his hands against his legs, then sighs and bends to scoop Peter under the arms. “But okay, fine. If that’s what you think you gotta do.”
“Thank you,” Scott calls. He sounds like he’s starting forward.
Peter hisses, but he can’t speak because Stiles is hefting him to his feet, and that’s stolen all his breath. So Stiles speaks for him. “No, you stay put,” he snaps. “You don’t, I’ll just take Peter inside, and then I’ll kick you off the mountain. We’ll come out. And…and Scott, back up. I’ll drop Peter off with Derek and then come to you.”
“Okay,” Scott says, sounding confused.
“Wait a second,” Derek says.
“No, our way or you get your ass iced,” Stiles says. “Scott, I’m willing to listen about working this out, but if Peter doesn’t want to be around an Argent, or somebody who’s connected with them, nobody’s going to make him. And I don’t care what the nuances are—he doesn’t want a reminder, period. Okay?”
“Seconded!” Erica calls.
Stiles is glancing at Peter at the same time that he’s talking, and when Peter gives him a grateful nuzzle under the jaw, he huffs in relief. “I’ll try and find out what the hell that’s about, anyway,” he mutters.
“If he’s important to you,” Peter starts. Then he falters, because it would be very easy to lie, just to reassure Stiles. And because Peter’s not sure whether it would be a lie, or even could be a lie. “Well, if you want to talk to him, for now. Talia and I aren’t about to leave.”
“No, well, good, because you’d get about three steps and faint,” Stiles grunts. But he rubs his cheek over the top of Peter’s head on their way out, too hard to just be a polite thanks.
And when they finally get in sight of Derek, impatiently stalking back and forth on the far side of the stream, Stiles lingers after setting Peter down on a patch of frozen grass. He fusses a little with the fur wrapped around Peter, his fingers dragging up onto Peter’s throat before pulling away. Derek frowns and steps closer and Stiles swivels to face him, shoulders back, head up. It’s aggressive, but more than that, it’s bordering on possessive. Especially the way that his hand swings over again and brushes its knuckles across the side of Peter’s neck.
Peter wants to purr, press back, invite a bite, but…he knows better. He leans a little into the touch, under the guise of gripping the fur more tightly, but he keeps himself in check. Reminds himself it’s heat behavior.
“Scott’s back that way,” Derek says, hooking his head behind and to the left. His eyes flick up and down Stiles, faintly puzzled under the hostile expression. He’s taller and more heavily-built than Stiles, but he’s at least developed enough sense to not overtly challenge the man. “By the birch stand.”
“I can still hear you guys from there, and it’d just take me a couple minutes to get back,” Stiles says to Peter. “Can’t see you, are you okay with that?”
Derek starts to object. “That’s fine, but can you not go any farther?” Peter says.
“Wasn’t planning on it.” Stiles walks parallel for the stream for a few yards, with Derek turning his head to track him, then leaps the water and lopes up the riverbank.
Derek watches him for a few seconds, before stepping closer to the stream. “Isn’t he younger than me?” he says. “He and Scott know each other, then he’s at least—”
“If that’s what you wanted to talk about, I want to go back,” Peter says.
“It’s not,” Derek starts, his face screwing up in annoyance. He looks much closer to how Peter remembers him that way.
It’s—it’s jarring. It reminds Peter of how much time he’s lost out here, struggling with Talia to…not even to get back to where they were, but just to put together some semblance of a life. Suddenly he wants to go back to the den and curl up with his sister and just pretend none of this had ever happened, with a desire so strong that it hurts.
“Okay, this isn’t how…just…just wait for a second, please?” Derek says. He’s reading some of that, from the awkward way he gets down onto his knees, taking on a less aggressive stance. “Damn it, Peter, I couldn’t get you to leave me alone before.”
“I’m different,” Peter says slowly. He pulls his knees up under the fur, then rubs them together as he twists and untwists his fingers in the fur’s edge. “If we’re going to be civ—forget civility. If we’re going to have any conversation at all, you need to understand that.”
Derek looks sharply at him. His nephew is healthy, Peter thinks idly. Broad, solid muscle that shifts easily with every movement, and a natural poise that takes on a dominant tinge, even though he’s still a beta. He doesn’t act like someone who’s been hiding underground for most of the past few years.
“So, your…they’re all from the fire?” Derek finally says.
“My scars?” Peter says. He stares at the other man till Derek gives him a grudging nod. “Yes. Well, there are one or two from hunters we ran into afterward, but I don’t think you really notice them, with all the other damage.”
“Do your legs work?” Derek asks.
Peter sighs. “Did it look like Stiles was moving them for me?”
“I’m just trying to…forget it. What about Mom?” Derek says. “She doesn’t—we knew it was her howl, but it sounded bad.”
When Peter doesn’t immediately answer, Derek shifts back on his heels and frowns. He starts to say something snappish, stops to cock his head as Stiles growls, and then rolls his eyes but settles down. Stiles and Scott are talking too low for Peter to catch more than every other word—Stiles probably also drew privacy runes—but Stiles spares a moment to growl again, and Derek jerks in surprise. And doesn’t roll his eyes this time.
“Scott and I just told Laura we were going to see Stiles, and try and negotiate with him since he and Scott used to be friends,” Derek says, looking back at Peter. He hesitates, then shuffles closer to the stream. “I don’t know why you’re acting like if you tell me, I’m going to use it against you, but I can just not tell Laura we talked.”
“Because you were always such a wonderful liar to your alpha,” Peter says.
Derek grins blackly. “Well, you haven’t been around for that part, but I’ve been practicing.”
He looks like Talia like that, Peter thinks suddenly. Like how she used to be—farther back than that, actually. Like how she used to talk to Peter, when their parents had been alive and they’d been just brother and sister, and not alpha and beta. When she’d been willing to leave off her training and come play with him.
“I’m not trying to hurt you, or Mom,” Derek says, his grin fading. He shifts closer, and then back when Peter stiffens. “Peter, look, I…I know you didn’t like me, and I didn’t really like you, but you were—you’re my uncle, and you’re pack, and I didn’t know you were alive but now that I do, I…listen, I’m sorry. It was all—it was all my fault.”
Peter’s still stuck on how much his nephew looks like his sister. He’d heard that said, plenty of times, but he’d never really seen it himself. Laura looked less like her mother, but she’d gotten Talia’s determination and insistence on command and it was easy to see the relation there. Derek, on the other hand, had been quiet with his family, loud and obnoxious with his friends, and smart with neither. He’d had too much of his father in him for Peter’s taste.
“Your fault?” Peter says blankly.
Derek hunches over, his eyes dropping. “Yeah,” he says softly, staring at the thin sheets of ice fanning along the edges of the stream. “Yeah, I…Kate Argent, she…she talked me into…I thought she loved me, and I told her about how to get in, because she said she wanted to see my bedroom, and…”
“You…you…” For a second Peter can’t understand his nephew. He puts the words together, and then again, and he sees the obvious shape that results but he can’t. He can’t understand it.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I never should’ve—it was my fault. And when I smelled the smoke, I knew what’d happened and I told Laura, and she was—Peter, she was so mad. She was screaming at me, things like where were they, how many were coming, and I didn’t know what to say and then I think she knocked me out,” Derek says, in one single rushing breath. He takes a long, harsh breath, looking up, and then he winces at what he sees but he doesn’t drop his eyes again. “I was panicking, I get why she did that. But…but I didn’t know you and Mom were still alive. And Laura—she never said anything about hearing Mom.”
His voice turns rough and angry at the end, and that’s what snaps Peter out of his daze. “I was dying,” Peter says after a moment. He sounds odd, he thinks. Calm and light, like it’s nothing, when really it’s everything that he’s ever stood on. His pack. “I looked like a piece of burned jerky, Derek. My legs didn’t work, your mother had to drag me around wrapped up like a baby, and I was still dying and she gave her alpha status to just to get me to this. This, hiding, only able to walk myself to the toilet every few days, and then your mother. You killed her, Derek. You killed her. You killed my sister, and she’s been dying in front of me ever since.”
“But that’s it, nephew,” Peter snarls. “You don’t. You weren’t here. And now you’re going around with Argents who are supposed to be dead—”
“Chris and Allison weren’t my idea, and I still think they shouldn’t be around,” Derek breaks in. He straightens up for that, looking Peter in the eye, and then he slumps again. “And I wasn’t saying that. I meant…I know I can’t make it up or anything, and saying I’m sorry just…but I wanted you and Mom to know what really happened.”
“Why, because it makes your guilt a little better?” Peter snaps.
Derek jerks his head up again. “Because you should know, so you can figure out what to do. You were the one who was always saying, get all the facts first. Well, you’ve got them, so…”
He gestures aimlessly, his head dropping to just show the vulnerable nape. Peter stares at it, and then—he laughs. He laughs, and leans on his arm to support himself and his hand slips out from under him, cracking his elbow and sending pain jolting down his shoulder and back, but he keeps laughing.
“What?” Derek says, looking up. He frowns in confusion at Peter. “What?”
“You’re—so—ridiculous,” Peter wheezes, struggling to push himself back up. He shakes his head, pressing his hand to his mouth in a half-hearted effort to calm himself, and then lets out one last laugh. “You always were. And your timing, Derek, of course you’d remember everything I actually tried to be serious about with you after I’m burnt up and crippled and can’t…I can’t walk on my own, Derek, if you want to give your neck up, you’d better bring it over the damn stream and get my arm for me.”
“I’m just,” Derek starts, exasperated. He lifts and lowers his hands, and then runs one back through his hair. “I’m just…I’m sorry. And I want…I want to do something. I know I can’t make it up but I don’t want—I don’t want to just leave you and Mom again. And I don’t want your alpha boyfriend to come kick my ass for thinking I’m mauling you or something.”
“You learned some common sense,” Peter says, looking up.
His cringing, mutinous nephew. He’d resented Derek, yes, and he’s not even close to understanding what Derek did, let alone anything like forgiving the man. But…it’s something else too, he thinks, something strange and tenacious, to have family back. He’d thought that bond was broken but now that he’s looking at Derek, he realizes that it’s in better shape than his body is.
“Yeah, well, with this pack somebody had to,” Derek mutters. Then he grimaces and glances at where Stiles and Scott have gone.
“What do you mean?” Peter asks.
“I don’t know, it’s just—I don’t know about Laura right now, honestly,” Derek says. He hesitates, then gets to his feet. Checks that Peter won’t object before he gingerly hops the stream. He sits down a comfortable distance away, but he’s close enough to drop his voice to levels that Stiles and Scott won’t be able to hear. “We were way, way east, and then we got lured back by Kate and Gerard Argent. They’re dead, by the way—Laura and I made sure, cut them in half and buried the parts separately.”
Peter gives him a grudging nod. “If you’d only listened so well when I had to watch you.”
Derek makes a face at him, but goes on as if there’d been no interruption. “Chris and Allison did help with that, but only after his wife tried to kill Scott, and then Allison was going to kill me for stopping her, and—whatever, that’s Scott’s problem. Anyway, Scott was already a werewolf. No idea who turned him, he won’t say, but he was on his own and making a lot of noise, and Laura decided we should stay and show him how this all actually works.”
“Is that where the other betas came from?” Peter says.
“Isaac and Erica and Boyd? Pretty much,” Derek says. “They all knew Scott, and Scott wasn’t really listening to us, so Laura thought it might help if he didn’t feel like we were lecturing just him. But then the Alpha pack showed up and Scott still wasn’t acting like pack—it’s like he doesn’t even feel it, and I don’t understand him at all.”
“Well, that does make sense if his idea of a werewolf is Stiles,” Peter mutters thoughtfully.
Derek cocks his head, interested, but Peter’s sense catches up to his curiosity just then and he shuts his mouth. Which makes Derek frown more. “Erica said Stiles killed Ennis,” he says.
“He did,” Peter says curtly. “What’s Laura up to? I assume defending against the Alphas—”
“That’s what I mean,” Derek snorts. “I mean, she is, but she also wanted to move everybody east again. Scott wouldn’t go—because he knew Stiles was over here instead, I guess. And Erica and Boyd ran off because they don’t think that’s going to work, and honestly, I think they’re right. Deucalion wants to kill an alpha, he’s not just going to say bye. And he’s really got it in for Laura because of Mom.”
Peter pricks alert, but he catches how Derek’s watching him and he swallows most of the questions burning in his throat. “Well, were you stupid enough to bring any of the Alpha pack along with you?”
“We tried not to. We’re keeping an eye out, we’ll get them first if they come,” Derek says. He shifts impatiently, then gets up and starts kicking at rocks. “So how’s Mom?”
“Her lungs were damaged in the fire, and then she gave up her alpha healing,” Peter says after a long moment. “That’s physical, of course. It went against everything she was to live when her pack died, I hope you realize. If I hadn’t been there to take care of, I’m fairly sure she would have let herself die. She still—she wouldn’t ever talk about you or your sisters by name.”
Derek sucks in his back, spinning around to look at Peter. The blood is draining from his face, and when he drops down to sit again, he moves like a puppet whose strings are being cut one by one.
“Can I stay?” he says suddenly, a desperate, pleading note in his voice. “If she’s that upset, I can…I’ll find a place downwind, she doesn’t have to see me. But the Alphas are around, and Scott could find trouble in an empty room, and I don’t even know why Chris Argent keeps coming with us, and…just, Peter, please. I want to help.”
Once Derek would’ve rather slashed his own throat than ask Peter to help with anything. And in his turn, Peter probably would have considered it a crowning achievement to have one of his sister’s darling children coming to him instead.
Now Peter sits and he thinks about his sister, knotted into the bedfurs back in the den, layers of tear tracks on her cheeks and a horrible, broken slackness to how she’s lying. He looks at his nephew, who let the fire into their house and who still, somehow, has survived so he can even look hopeful, and he thinks that he can’t remember the last time he felt that. He can’t even work up the rage to want to kill his nephew for sheer stupidity.
“I don’t know,” he finally says. He’s being honest. “I don’t know how Talia will…I’ve never seen her like this, Derek. I thought she was getting better.”
“Well, can I—” Derek stops himself, even as Peter’s hackles are rising. He deliberately backs up a step, though he’s obviously reluctant about it. “Can you…can you just tell her? What I said?”
“You didn’t seem so trusting in my ability to tell her things before,” Peter can’t help saying. “And those were a little more minor than how our family really died.”
Derek makes an annoyed noise and then bites it off. He goes off a pace, then comes back. “Because you used to be like that. Don’t pretend you weren’t, you know you were. And I’m older now—”
“Wiser?” Peter says.
“I can think for myself,” Derek says, a little edged. He pauses, then squats down again. “You hurt me, and Laura and Cora. But…you stayed with Mom, when we didn’t. I don’t want to fight you over what happened before, Peter. I just want to try and help and if I can make you better too, I would. And—and anyway, she should know. She should know what I did.”
He’s there, silent, just looking soberly at Peter, for a few more seconds. Then he goes back across the stream. He’s half-looking behind him and the reason why becomes apparent when Peter hears footsteps, and then sees Stiles come out of the trees. Stiles is by himself and he looks agitated, but he straightens up and composes himself when he sees them.
“Hey,” he says, raising his hand. “Scott and I are—are done, so…I can come back in a couple minutes if you need more time.”
“No,” Peter says. He gingerly moves himself back, then yawns suddenly and widely, the joint of his jaw popping painfully. He hasn’t slept all night, on top of an exhausting sprint down the mountain, and an unexpected family reunion, and he’d wondered if the adrenaline would ever wear off. And now it is, with a vengeance. “No, I can go.”
Derek presses his lips together, glowering at Stiles. He doesn’t move back as Stiles comes down the bank and then crosses the stream, but he doesn’t move forward or otherwise object either.
Stiles starts to help Peter up, but Peter’s been sitting so long that his thighs have seized up. He can’t work them and when Stiles realizes that, he moves around and gets his arms behind Peter’s back and legs, and just lifts Peter entirely off the ground. Normally Peter can’t stand that, even from Stiles, but he’s so tired and in pain that his pride doesn’t stir a bit.
“Derek,” Peter does say, before Stiles starts off. “I’ll tell her. I just—I don’t know.”
His nephew looks so relieved that Peter has little confidence Derek’s heard the second part. But Peter’s already falling asleep on Stiles, and has no more time or energy for Derek.
It isn’t as if Peter and Talia haven’t discussed who in their family might have been responsible, and why. They’re gone over it a thousand times, piecing together their memories, going over old quarrels and feuds, nominating this or that candidate. Each of them has had their favorites at one time or the other, but ultimately, they’ve always had to reject the suspects. Because so far as they knew, all of them had died in the fire, and it makes no sense to invite a hunter in only to die yourself.
In the end, they just didn’t know their own family well enough. Neither of them has never come out and said as much, but that’s the truth.
So really, it was Talia who was responsible, and it doesn’t matter exactly who was the one who let the Argents into their house. She was alpha. It was her job to know each and every member of her pack, and to know who would be capable of such a thing, and because she didn’t, they all burned. Peter has never so much as said that either, for all that he’s been quick to blame her for other things.
She’s fairly sure he’s thought it. She can’t see how he wouldn’t have. After all, it’s what she thinks herself.
* * *
When Talia wakes up, her brother’s shivering next to her. She reaches out for Peter’s arm, and then presses her hand against the middle of his chest, trying to gauge how bad the attack is this time. When he doesn’t even stir at that, even to whine in protest, she swears and gets up and looks around.
Stiles isn’t in the den. Erica and Boyd are, and Erica sleepily raises her head, but Talia ignores her and listens as hard as she can. But she doesn’t find Stiles’ heartbeat, so he’s well away from the den.
Talia swears again, then starts trying to bundle up the furs while also keeping a hand to Peter, so she can drain what pain she can. Which, as it turns out, is very little; her shaking fingers drop off and she nearly faints.
“Oh, hey, are you all right?” Erica says. She’s leaped over and has Talia by the shoulder, and doesn’t let go when Talia pushes at her. “Okay, look, you look like hell, and Boyd and I have been wondering for an hour what to do about him, and just say what you need.”
“Get some water, and build up the hearth,” Talia grits out. That will be helpful, and also, it’ll get the girl’s hands off her.
Erica still reeks of heat, though it’s starting to smell dried up. She nods and goes off, and Talia props herself on her elbows and purrs in between pants, trying to at least let Peter know she’s there. He keeps shivering, but she thinks he might be a little less ragged in his breathing.
“What’s the matter with him?” Boyd calls softly.
“He’s worn out, that’s what, and where is Stiles?” Talia mutters.
“Scott came by again,” Boyd says. He pauses, looking at her. “It’s been a couple days. I think Laura and Derek wanted to know how you were.”
Talia freezes at the names of her children. Her children. Her living children. Who’d run from her.
“Damn it, Boyd,” Erica says, coming back just as Peter arches, a pained whine spilling from him.
Talia snaps out of it and then makes herself forget what Boyd had said. She concentrates on Peter, rearranging the furs so that they’ll help keep his limbs straight, and lessen the chances that he’ll tear a ligament or pull his muscles—or if it’s very bad, dislocate something—and then piling the remaining ones up over him. Sometimes warmth alone will put him into a deeper sleep, one where he’s too limp to hurt himself.
“I got the water,” Erica says from the hearth. She’s also got a pot, and is fiddling with it while a contrite Boyd stacks more logs on the fire. “Are you brewing something?”
“Yes, I need…no, just half-full,” Talia says, moving off the bed. Her joints bite at her, and overall she feels grimy and withered and old.
She makes herself keep moving anyway, joining Erica and then digging through Stiles’ stocks of herbs till she finds the relaxing tea. Talia uses her cupped palm to measure out the dried leaves, crushing them before letting them drop into the pot of water, and then she reaches for the handle.
Erica pulls it away. “I got it. You want it to boil, or simmer, or…”
Talia bites down on a sharp word. The other woman’s helping, and like it or not, Talia needs that. “Put it on the edge, so it won’t boil up too quick, and let me know when it does boil.”
As Erica does that, Talia returns to the bed. She’s only got a thin fur for herself and she uses it to lie on as she stretches out next to Peter, grimacing as her bones pop. Peter whines again, more softly, and Talia purrs till he stops. Then she huffs to herself, and wonders just what this Scott has done to earn that sort of time from Stiles, who should know better than to leave Peter like this.
“For what it’s worth, Peter’s been sleeping the whole time too, so I don’t think Stiles left him on purpose,” Erica says. When Talia looks up, Erica shrugs with careful diffidence and pretends to study the pot she’s sitting by. “Stiles also hit his heat yesterday, so his sense of smell’s probably off.”
“Wonderful,” Talia mutters. She doesn’t exactly revise her thoughts about Stiles, but she lets her anger uncurl a little.
“I can go try and get him, if you think that’d help,” Boyd says. He and Erica look at each other, and then he starts to pull himself up, rummaging around till he finds his shirt. “We didn’t before because…”
“Well, it’s Scott, and now that we know Stiles is the friend and all…and anyway, whatever, Boyd can crash the party.” Erica leans over, peering into the pot, and then sniffs. Then she quickly turns her head and sneezes. “Huh. Peppery.”
Talia scratches at her side, twisting over to make room as Peter shifts, and then pushes her legs under herself. Then stretches out again as Boyd disappears down the tunnel. And then she gives up and she gets up. Her joints pop again, especially her knees and hips, and an itch starts up around the edges of her breast binding.
She rubs her arm against it as she checks the pot. Erica moves over for her, then reaches for the pot handle and gives Talia an inquiring look. It’s barely boiling, only a few bubbles breaking the surface, and Talia reminds herself that even alpha werewolves don’t have the ability to make water heat faster.
“What’s the matter with him?” Erica asks, nodding at Peter. He’s relaxed a very little, but he’s still shivering under the furs. “Is he sick?”
“His healing’s not right,” Talia reluctantly admits. “When he does too much, it starts to lash out at him.”
Erica nods, absently flicking her claw against the pot handle. The pot has three stubby legs to keep it from rolling, but even so, it rocks a little and Erica ducks her head in chagrin, steadying it. “That…you have that problem too? You were—um, really deep asleep. Peter and Stiles were sort of discussing it…”
Talia stares at the water. One bubble becomes three, and then five, and then they’re coming in flurries too quickly to count. She reaches out and takes the pot off, but barely gets it a few inches away from the fire before she has to roughly put it down, and fall onto her elbows next to it, panting. It’s so heavy.
“Where do you want it?” Erica says, all but grabbing the pot up. She shifts on her heels, uncomfortable and slightly belligerent at the same time, and Talia’s oddly reminded of Stiles in their early days, reluctant to use his alpha status against her.
“Just bring it over to him. It’ll cool by the time I get there,” Talia mutters. As Erica obeys, Talia takes a deep breath and then wills herself into crawling back to the bed.
Peter’s eyes crack open as she slides her arm across the furs. He immediately looks from her to Erica, and then she knows he’s counting heartbeats because a flicker of yearning crosses his face in between winces. And then, for some reason, he tries to jerk his chin at her. “Talia—”
His teeth snap with an audible click as the spasm takes him. Talia swears and burrows her hands into the furs around him, getting his head and shoulders up, and then she realizes that she hadn’t gotten the ladle.
“On it,” Erica says, bouncing back across the den.
She comes back with the ladle, but Peter’s being uncooperative, mumbling about needing to tell Talia something, and their family, and her son—Talia stiffens, then breathes in sharply. “Shut up, if you bite your tongue off, I’m not putting it back on for you,” she hisses.
“But I—” Peter says.
“Well, do it after you’re not breaking your jaw to talk,” Talia says. She finally gets Peter’s head onto her knee, and then holds her hand out.
Erica puts the ladle, which she’s half-filled from the pot, into it. She leans forward, flicking cautious looks at Talia and then at a very grumpy Peter, and then gingerly slides her hands out to catch the drips from Peter’s mouth. Peter snarls weakly, but he at least doesn’t try to spit it back at Talia.
Just as well, since the snarl alone uses energy he doesn’t have. His shivers finally start to slow after the second ladle, but by then he’s drooping, struggling to stay awake. Talia has to heft his head up her side and pinch it between that and her arm, keeping it tilted so that gravity will run the tisane down his throat.
She gets in a third ladle, and then decides that’s enough for now. Peter will need more before his muscles fully unlock, but she doesn’t want him to choke in his sleep, and he needs that too. So Talia pushes him back into the furs, and then she drinks a little of the tisane herself, suppressing a groan as her limbs and spine complain. “You can put it back by the fire for now. Don’t put it so close that it’ll boil again. We just want to keep it warm.”
“Sure,” Erica says, carrying the pot away. Once she’s got it down, she grabs up a cloth and rubs it around with her foot, mopping up some spilled tisane. Then she picks up the cloth and looks at Talia. “So…I could stick another pot on, if you wanted to clean off or anything.”
She glances at Talia’s belly, which is wet with tisane and a little of her brother’s spit. Talia grimaces and dabs her fingers in it, and then grimaces again as she realizes just how badly she smells. It must have been a few days, she thinks. She scratches herself and a thin, disgustingly oily film comes off on her nails.
“You don’t need to waste the cooking water like that,” she mutters, as Erica reaches for that second pot. “Stiles showed you the spring.”
“Yeah, but it’s not a hot spring, and trust me, you’re gonna appreciate a warm bath,” Erica says, cheerfully disregarding her. The woman even digs into the herbs, pulling out chamomile and lavender.
Talia opens her mouth, then closes it. She’s too tired for this. She’s too tired for all of this—for having her life, broken shadow that it is now, upended yet again, and she just can’t manage one uppity beta the same age as her—
—she can’t, she thinks dully.
“So, um, since we have to wait a bit, I was wondering if…if you wanted to know anything about Scott?” Erica offers tentatively. “Because I’m totally happy to serve up anything you want to know. He’s not nearly as bad as—sorry, sorry, won’t mention them, but…or I could shut up. Just say. I just…I feel bad.”
“Because your alpha followed you?” Talia mutters. “That’s ridiculous. That’s what alphas do.”
“Yeah, I know, that’s what Stiles said, and Peter sort of said the same thing. And I totally did not know about everybody’s connection to each other, I swear,” Erica says. She pauses and Talia hears her stirring the new pot with something. “Though I feel kind of stupid, not guessing it. I mean—Boyd and I didn’t know everything, but we knew…we knew our alpha had something happen to her old pack with a fire, and you really look a lot like D—shit. Seriously, Erica, talk about something else…”
Talia concentrates on Peter’s heartbeat for a few seconds, and then she tells herself that she has people she cares about, and who she needs to care for, and that she will put up with any kind of discomfort to make sure she fulfills her duty this time. “Talk about Scott,” she says.
“Oh! Sure.” Erica sniffs at the pot, then gets up and pokes around the den, gathering up various cloths and one of the scrapers they use to clean off hides before tanning. “So…well, I guess first, what do you already know?”
“We didn’t know he existed before this,” Talia says. When Erica stops, dumbstruck, Talia fights down the irrational twinge of defensiveness she feels. “Stiles doesn’t like talking about what happened to him before he came here, and…he’s hosted us for years without asking for anything back. He doesn’t owe us any answers.”
Erica looks thoughtful. She changes her mind about her reply, busy carrying her burden over to Talia, and then she sits down by the end and starts to arrange the cloths around her. The biggest one goes down first, folded in half, and Talia slowly realizes it’s meant as a pad for her; she needs to move off the bed or they’ll soak the furs around Peter.
“Well, lucky for you, Scott cannot stop talking about his best friend he lost,” Erica finally says. She quirks her brows at Talia, making a brief trip back to the hearth to check on the water. That’s warm enough so she brings the pot back with her, then dips one of the small clothes into it and holds it up.
Talia shifts, and then bites down on a wince. Moving around should make her less stiff, but instead she feels more and more rickety every time she gets up, as if she’s slowly petrifying. In the end she doesn’t even bother to get up, but just slithers from the bed onto the cloth pad.
“He never told us Stiles’ name, but he basically told us everything else,” Erica says. She pauses, then shakes her head. She also starts rubbing the damp cloth down Talia’s leg before Talia can reach for it. “Okay, so he didn’t mention that Stiles is some new kind of werewolf, but looking back, that makes a lot of sense. He doesn’t act like any other werewolf I’ve ever met either, and he drives—um, certain people in the pack crazy with how he’s always doing his own thing.”
“What kinds of things did he say?” Talia asks. The chamomile’s coming out strongly, filling the air with a sweet, calming scent, and the water’s not hot, but body warm, just perfect for easing her muscles. “Did he talk about Stiles’ parents?”
“Some. Stiles’ dad was a village elder, and I think his mom did some healing. I think maybe his mom bit his dad, too.” Erica isn’t really scrubbing at Talia, just mopping at her, and it feels good but it also isn’t going to do much to get that oily layer off Talia’s skin. But just as Talia’s going to point that out, Erica lays the cloth over Talia’s hip and then picks up the scraper. “So he and Scott were buddies from birth, from the sound of things. Stiles sounds a lot different back then, honestly, which I guess is why I didn’t…well, guess. Scott makes it sound like Stiles was always poking his nose into everything and getting them into trouble.”
Before Erica touches the scraper to Talia, she looks over for permission. Talia doesn’t want to find the energy to raise her head, so she simply rolls her leg towards the other woman.
“According to Scott, they were crawling around in a cave when they found an old lindorm egg,” Erica goes on. “It was so old it looked like a rock, but Stiles fooled around and got it to hatch. He was gonna give it as a gift to this girl he liked.”
“Girl?” Talia says.
“I’ve met her, I wouldn’t worry about it,” Erica says dismissively. She makes a few tentative passes at Talia’s leg, then grins a little when Talia growls impatiently at her. Then she presses down with the scraper, hard enough to actually take off a thick, yellowish grime that she then wipes off with the cloth. “Anyway, the lindorm grew faster than they thought, and got loose. Stiles and his parents kept it from destroying the town, but they wolfed out to do it. And then Stiles’ mom was…sick or something, and she accidentally shifted in front of some other people, and they were arguing about what they saw and Scott decided to tell them all the village would’ve been destroyed if it hadn’t been for werewolves.”
Erica’s gone back to the cloth, working it up Talia’s hip and side as she talks. She runs it around the wraps Talia wears about her breasts and around her groin, but instead of making Talia feel cleaner, the trickle of water from the cloth just starts up more itches. Talia surreptitiously pushes at her breast wrap, then sniffs and wrinkles her nose. The wraps reek the most, actually, and she ends up just twisting them off.
“Oh, all right.” Erica pauses to let Talia undress, her eyes widening a little. When Talia’s eyes cross hers, she flushes, and her scent suddenly sweetens with heat. It’s far from peak, but it’s still noticeable. “Damn. Sorry. If you want to do those parts yourself…”
“You can’t be serious,” Talia says after a moment. She snorts and presses her cheek to the ground for a second, digging her fingers under one breast. “I don’t think you need to flatter me that much—”
“Come on, you’re a born wolf,” Erica says, a little irked. She gestures at her nose. “Do you think I’m faking that? I mean, sure, you’re older and all, but the one thing Derek and Laura have going for them sometimes is how they look and clearly they had to get it from some—shit. Damn it, I’m sorry, I won’t talk about them.”
Talia closes her eyes, mid-deep breath. She listens to Erica shifting uneasily beside her, the sound of water dripping, the almost-whine the other woman makes low in her throat, and then she opens her eyes. “How did they treat you?” she says. “My children.”
“Not—they didn’t hurt me or Boyd,” Erica says, blinking rapidly. She’s surprised, and she fidgets with the cloth and scraper before abruptly bending over Talia again, rubbing the cloth in firm circles across Talia’s belly and up over her breasts. “I mean, they weren’t like the Alpha pack, all mindgames and torture. Boyd and I didn’t leave for that. We left because L—because alpha was making stupid choices. I…I don’t mind fighting. I figured when I saw the claws and fangs that you probably didn’t get those to just carve your name into trees. But I want it to be worth something, for something, and they just never could agree on anything. Them and Scott.”
“I see,” Talia says.
“Look, I don’t know the whole deal with your family, but if you don’t want to deal with them, I’m gonna help Stiles keep them off,” Erica says earnestly. She drops the cloth and gives Talia’s belly a few scrapes, and then puts the scraper down too, lowering herself so that she and Talia are almost eye to eye. “Boyd and I told them, we’re leaving, and we’re not going to change our minds just because Laura followed us. That doesn’t mean she’s any better at being alpha than she was when she left.”
Talia can’t help a smile. It sounds absurdly simple in those terms, and she’s tempted, she has to admit. But she had been an alpha, and in her heart of hearts, she knows she’s still one, her body be damned. “It’s not something to throw away, you know. Your pack. Especially one who’s willing to come for you even when you’ve turned your back on them.
“Yeah, well—look, I don’t know the whole story, and I hate to sound like Scott, but this one seems really complicated just with half the facts. But that just seems even shittier to me,” Erica says. “Boyd and I are just a couple kids they bit because they needed numbers, and because we were hanging out with Scott. You’re their mom, and they never even went back to check for bodies? That’s…I don’t even know.”
“Well, you’re not the only one,” Talia says.
She’s speaking to herself, and when Erica moves she deliberately closes her eyes. She doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, and she doesn’t want to see what the other woman thinks because even a little anger, that might be enough to get her mind started on it again.
Erica inhales to say something, holds the breath instead, and then lets it out in a soft, apologetic sound. Talia doesn’t open her eyes but she caves enough to grunt, so the woman knows she’s not really upset at Erica.
She’s not expecting Erica to do anything except slip away, so she starts a little when she feels the cloth moving over her again. It stops, but after a moment, Talia turns over onto her belly and arches her shoulders, and Erica resumes wiping her down. Without trying to talk, just mopping and scraping, mopping and scraping, and slowly making Talia feel human again.
It doesn’t do anything to make Talia stop stiffening up, but when Erica finishes, Talia inhales and smells herself and thinks that if she has to take a half-hour to drag herself back to the bed, it’ll still have been worth it. And then Erica brings her fresh wraps on top of that, and helps her knot them around herself, and for once Talia feels a little pampered instead of humiliated by it all.
“Thank you,” she says, once Erica’s gotten her back to the bed.
“Any time,” Erica says. She clumps up the used cloths into a little pile, and then picks up an unused one, looking between that and the pot. “Well, I should probably do myself, too, before Stiles and Boyd come back and hit a whole cloud of me. Stiles is kind of stressed anyway.”
She grabs the pot and trots off down one of the side-tunnels with it, and Talia realizes she’s watching a little too long when Peter suddenly chuckles beside her. “A little raw, but not bad, sister,” he says.
Talia’s annoyed enough to almost not be relieved at how much better he sounds. “Maybe I’m going into heat. Whatever passes for it with me, anyway.”
“There’s no shame in looking. You don’t need to make excuses for yourself,” Peter says, even managing an airy lift in his voice. But he grimaces at the very end, shifting uncomfortably. And then he grimaces again, shaking his head as Talia eyes the pot of tisane near the hearth. “Leave it, I plan on going right back to sleep. But I needed to talk to you.”
“About the children,” Talia says flatly. When her brother’s silent, she snorts and burrows her head into the furs. “I can’t think of much else that’d make you fight like that.”
“Derek came by while you were asleep,” Peter says after a long silence. He’s studying her, she can sense his stare on the side of her face, and he sighs when she doesn’t look up. “He did have some things to explain. And he wants to come back.”
Talia snarls into the bedding. “The last thing you used to want was my children around me.”
“And you used to want us to all work together, and I suppose that’s just a lesson that neither of us can ever have the other how we want them,” Peter says sharply. But then he presses up against her, leaning his head against her shoulder. “Talia. Listen. I…being your brother matters to me now, in a way it didn’t before, and…I have my own ideas about this—”
“—but all I’ll say to you right now is, you know it’ll eat you up if you just stay in here and pretend they’re not out there waiting for you. And I will not see you end like that, not after we’ve gotten this far,” Peter goes on stubbornly. “We survived so that we would have the chance to make our own lives again. So think about that.”
“I hate you sometimes,” Talia mutters. She turns over, careful not to knock his head off her, and then moves her hand up to tousle his hair. “You need to rest up first. I’m not going out while you’re in this shape.”
“Well, if you were awake I wouldn’t be the one taking your children’s messages.” Peter rolls his eyes at her, and then pretends he doesn’t notice he’s already broken his word about what he’s saying about her children. And then—then he sobers, and grabs the arm she still has lying on the bedding. “One more thing. The Argents. I don’t care what Laura or this Scott say, don’t—”
“The only time I will ever want to see a member of that family is if they’re bleeding out at my feet,” Talia says, looking him in the eye. “And I won’t let them get near us. Not again. I swear, Peter.”
* * *
Talia sleeps for only a few hours this time, curled up around her brother, and when she wakes, the first thing she hears is Peter sleepily arguing with Stiles that he doesn’t need another ladle of tisane.
“Don’t be an idiot, Peter, I’ve got enough of them running around the place right now,” Stiles snaps. Then he jerks back, pressing his hand to his face and sighing.
He smells like heat, like something languid and enticing, like a slow stroke down the back that presses you to the ground before you’ve even realized, and Talia isn’t remotely interested in him. She huffs out her nose, and she thinks she does it discreetly, but both Peter and Stiles’ heads snap around to glare at her.
Sensibly, Erica and Boyd aren’t in the den, and Talia decides she might as well go too. She’s rested up enough that her muscles only twinge when she gets up and walks down the entrance tunnel, and while the rag bath Erica gave her helped, she still smells a little. A good blast of winter air should clear that up.
Talia doesn’t want to go too far, in case Stiles and Peter descend into another quarrel, so she circles the den entrance a few times to walk out the worst of her cramps. She can hear Erica and Boyd’s heartbeats a few hundred yards off, with a third werewolf; Talia trots to higher ground so she can see them, and they’ve got a tall blond boy with them. By process of elimination, he has to be Isaac.
He spots her and stiffens. Erica catches on, turns around, and then grabs Isaac by the arm and starts leading him away. So going that way is out.
Talia heads back to the den, but from the sound of things, Peter’s sleeping and Stiles is purring at him. She…well, she thinks at least one of her and Peter should have some pleasant things, so she walks from there down to the watering hole, with some vague idea of seeing if she can catch something for dinner.
Oddly enough, it looks like somebody’s already been at that: a partly-dressed deer is lying on the boulder where they put their fishing lines in the summer. For a moment Talia thinks Stiles must have been working on it when Boyd went to retrieve him, but if that was true, she can’t see why the two wouldn’t bring it in with them.
Besides, she realizes as she gets closer, Stiles doesn’t dress deer like that. And whoever did mostly used a knife, not claws—which makes Talia stiffen, and then sidle back to a nearby tree, sniffing and trying to hear if anybody’s nearby. She doesn’t pick up anybody, or any scent…but lack of scent alone tends to mean it wasn’t a werewolf kill.
“Hunter,” Talia hisses, putting the pieces together. She stares at the deer and she wants to fall onto it and rip it apart. To shatter its bones and pick up the pieces and stab them into the people who’d killed her family and pack, to—
—she makes herself turn away, but she can’t quite bring herself to leave the kill. Something will have to be done about it; she can already see the buzzards circling, and the other scavengers will be thick soon, eager for food during the leanest part of winter. But every time she even whiffs the deer, she feels sick. As if her family was burned because that was what they were worth, nothing more than meat.
Somebody barks at her and she starts sharply, shifting, and then she recognizes Stiles’ voice. When she looks over, he’s standing there with Erica trailing a few yards behind him. “Hey,” he says. “You went out without a fur.”
“Oh,” Talia says. She hadn’t noticed, but as soon as he points it out, she realizes she’s shivering.
“I got you one,” Erica says, holding up the fur. She circles around Stiles and then comes down the bank a few yards, darting curious glances at the meat. “You want me to finish that up?”
“No,” Talia snarls.
Erica’s brows rise. Stiles had been fidgeting and looking away, smelling of heat and frustration, but he slews back around to stare, too. “Something the matter with it?” he finally asks.
Talia tries to say, and she can’t get the words out of her throat. She’s so angry, she thinks, and as if that was the key to loosening up her muscles, a harsh laugh comes from her. “I don’t want to take anything from that family.”
Stiles frowns. “You…think one of the Argents left it?”
“Isaac was saying something like…” Erica mutters, looking between them. She’s edging down the bank towards Talia, but Stiles hisses and she stops. Then throws her shoulders back in irritation, crossing the rest of the way to toss the fur to Talia. “Look, you and Scott, I guess you’re buddies, but when it comes to his girlfriend, Scott can’t see anything but her side. Trust me, you’re gonna learn.”
“He said she was staying out of it,” Stiles says, looking unhappy. He actually starts off a few paces, and then he jerks himself back. “Damn it. Look, let me—I’ll go tell them to stop. Right? You want that?”
“I want their heads on a platter is what I want,” Talia says, stalking up the bank. Something moves beside her and she shies before realizing it’s Erica; the other woman gives her an apologetic head dip and then moves to the side so she’s still following Talia, but easier to see. “I want my family back. I want my brother to be whole. I want my children to have never left—”
“Calm down,” Stiles says.
He’s not particularly sharp about it, just—firm. He’s used that tone with Talia before and she’s never minded. She knows he doesn’t want to rule her any more than she wants an alpha over her. But today it stings, his tone, and she whirls and snarls at him before she quite knows what she’s doing.
And Stiles normally takes their tempers in stride, but he’s in heat, and on top of that, he’s been staying much closer to them than he usually does. He jerks his head up and spreads his shoulders, and his snarl is so loud it’s verging on a roar. He’s alpha, in a way that he never is, and Talia’s cringing from it as much as she’s bridling.
Erica leaps back from both of them and lands into a deep drift. The snow spray she sends up catches Talia’s eye and she almost turns, then jerks herself at the mistake. Shrinks down low, making as small a target of herself as she can, burying her hands in the snow so that Stiles can’t see her extended claws.
But Stiles isn’t pressing his advantage. Stiles stares at her, his jaw working, his eyes bright red but strangely uncertain. Then he abruptly shakes himself. “Damn it,” he says, putting his hand to his head. The rest of his body falls out of its aggressive stance, though he’s still got his claws out. “Damn it. Okay, to hell with it, I’m just—I’m just—I’m gonna go. Yell at them. Something like that.”
He twists around and then leaps up, and when he comes down, he’s fully shifted. And then he keeps going, not quite at a flat out run, but he’s moving quickly enough so that by the time Talia straightens up again, he’s almost disappeared into the trees.
“He’s in heat,” Erica says, a touch sharp. She eyes Talia as she climbs out of the drift and dusts herself off. “Also, look, you and Peter clearly are winning the drama contest here, but he’s kind of got a situation too.”
“Well, so do you,” Talia snaps. She’s breathing a little fast. She tries to catch her breath, but when it doesn’t slow soon enough, she gives up and starts off towards the den.
“Yeah, but I’m pretty sure my problem is totally distracted by your problem, and…okay, right, never mind, I’ll just—move that deer somewhere it’s not going to stink up the water,” Erica sighs. “Boyd’s inside, by the way, we aren’t leaving Peter by himself again.
She swings wide as she moves past Talia, sensibly watching for an attack, and for some reason that makes Talia’s anger dissolve straight into a deep, chilly depression. No, not some reason—Talia knows. Her children must have known, to have run off the way they had, and now this beta sees it too. There’s something wrong with her. That’s why. That has to be why.
Numb and alone, Talia drags herself back into the den. She ignores Boyd’s tentative wave and just goes straight to the bed. Peter’s sleeping again, though it’s not a peaceful rest; his brow is furrowed, and his fingers pluck restlessly at the bedfurs. When she puts out a hand, he starts and she thinks he might wake for a moment. But then…then he rolls over, towards her, and he sighs and his body goes slack again.
Talia wishes she could say that that makes her feel better, but it only makes her feel worse. Peter doesn’t have a choice but to put up with her, just like he doesn’t have a choice in having a mate who doesn’t return his feelings. It’s all just wrong.
Peter’s always thought of his sister as the stronger, better, one, even when they disagreed. Even when he’d think to himself if I were alpha… She was so much older, and she’s been his alpha for most of his life, and before that she was his older sister, the one who knew everything first and who would teach him before their parents got around to it.
So it’s taken him a while to see just how the fire hurt Talia. She tried to hide her physical injuries, and he caught onto them sooner because he’s more used to finding what she’s trying to hide. But she didn’t try to do that at all with her other injuries, and it took him even longer to realize that that was because she didn’t know she had them. He still doesn’t think she sees them.
The problems with her memory, Talia knows about those. She’s been unexpectedly straightforward about them—and about Peter’s former tendency to spin a story to change how people remember something, because she might not remember everything but she still knows him. She’ll ask him whether he’s making up something, and she doesn’t sound accusing or wounded or anything like that. It’s just like she’s asking him whether it’s raining outside today, and it’s extremely disorienting for him. To be honest, he’s almost completely stopped lying to her because of it.
But the other problems. When she couldn’t bear to hear her children’s names, or to have any other reminder of them. When sometimes she lied to strangers who asked whether she’d ever had children. When she has nightmares.
Peter has nightmares. He dreams about being surrounded by fire, and smelling his own flesh cooking. He dreams about the screams of his family, and about those minutes when he was lying nearly dead, before Talia found him, and he honestly thought he was the only one left. He has nightmares, and sometimes he whimpers till Talia or Stiles wake him, and sometimes he wakes them with his screaming. It’s…unpleasant, to say the least, but he thinks that it’s…that’s how it should go. Living through what he has, it’d be unnatural to not react like that.
Talia has nightmares too, but she doesn’t act like that. She goes stiff and quiet, and doesn’t stir. Sometimes she’s almost a corpse, and Peter’s panicked more than once and clawed her to the point of drawing blood, trying to wake her, but in those times nothing short of an alpha snarl from Stiles will do it. And then she wakes up, and she always just says that she doesn’t remember what she was dreaming about, and he can smell her and hear her heartbeat and anyway, he knows his sister, and he knows that she’s not lying. She doesn’t remember.
Stiles asked her once if she’d like them to try and pull out the memories for her. So she could face up to them, and deal with them, and hopefully make them happen less often. She pretended she didn’t hear him, and he didn’t push it.
It’s a sign of how much Peter’s changed, he supposes, that he didn’t push it either. But he’s never been very good at helping people. He can see the flaws and the breaks, but not the way to rebuild, and as they say, it’s always easier to destroy than to create. He doesn’t want to destroy Talia, hasn’t for a long time.
Anyway, she’d been having them less often on her own. So he’d just hoped that eventually, they’d disappear. His sister’s always been so determined, and so resourceful. He might not have liked the way she came up with, but she’s always come up with a way to get out of a situation.
He just wanted to believe she wasn’t that different.
* * *
When Peter wakes up, Talia’s sleeping beside him and Erica and Boyd are curled up across the den. Boyd’s asleep. Erica’s awake, paging through one of Stiles’ books at a speed that tells Peter she’s just looking at the pictures, but she has the decency to pretend to keep reading as Peter painfully gets up, stretches himself out, limps around for some water to drink and to rinse his face and hands.
“Stiles went off to yell at somebody, probably Scott,” Erica says, filling Peter in about the deer incident.
Peter chuckles sourly. Perhaps it’s because he’s the more physically crippled of the pair, but he’s spent so long dwelling on revenge dreams involving the Argents that they’ve become comfortable, well-worn thoughts. Oh, he still has vicious feelings about them, but he doesn’t have that sense of urgency. “A prey offering. Classic.”
Erica looks curious and Peter remembers she’s a bitten, and one indoctrinated into werewolf life by his niece and nephew, who’ve managed to botch a miraculous reunion, and Scott, who decided to become a werewolf to find his friend and then ended up falling in love with an Argent. It’s rather surprising that Erica’s turned out so well, given the circumstances.
“You know werewolves have rituals for declaring a vendetta?” Peter says. When she nods, he sighs and puts aside the cloth he’d been using to wipe his neck. “Well, they have ones for ending them, too. Making retribution for the wrong, basically.”
“With just one deer?” Erica says skeptically.
“Well, that’s the opener, and it’s more of an initial proposal. Since obviously you can’t make somebody forgive you if they don’t feel like it.” Peter’s stomach twists and he reaches for the herbs before realizing it’s actually hunger.
Erica jerks her head at a pot sitting by the hearth, and then puts the book aside and straightens up. She watches Peter feed himself from the stew in the pot, wrapping her arms around her legs. “So what’s it mean that I hauled that deer downstream and then threw it to a fox family?”
Thankfully, Peter’s just swallowed his current mouthful. He looks up at her, then smiles at her. “That they can keep their pity. We didn’t need them to hunt for us before, and we don’t need them now.”
She laughs, but smart girl that she is, she’s already moving on to the next question. “Are you two going to call vendetta on them now? Chris and Allison?”
And that is a very good question, Peter thinks in a sudden surge of bitterness and frustration. Not that he’s had much time to think about it, what with Derek and passing out and having a bad attack, but what are he and Talia going to do about those two?
They still don’t know how the Argents ended up gaining the protection of a werewolf pack. Derek seems reluctant about it, from the little he’s said, but he also doesn’t seem likely to challenge his sister’s decisions any time soon. Though in all honesty, Peter is not sure how much he cares about what his niece and nephew are doing. He was as shocked as Talia to see them, and he did feel relief—and, which was probably the most confusing, joy. But now that he’s had time to sit with the idea of them living, he mostly feels nervous and angry.
He doesn’t want his sister to be like this, torn open like a bleeding wound and raving like a madwoman. He’s always loved Talia—truly, no matter what other people think they’ve seen—but he likes her now more than he’s probably ever liked her in his life. He wants to stay with her, and yes, selfishly, he doesn’t want her dragged off by other obligations yet again. And he doesn’t want to go under his niece’s leadership. His life right now is hardly ideal, and he certainly isn’t content with it, but he’s not looking for a new Hale alpha. As far as he’s concerned, he’s already got the only alpha he’ll ever need.
And therein lies the other complication for him, Peter thinks. He already doesn’t know where he stands with Stiles, but he can tell that Scott means a great deal to the other man. And Scott’s entangled with the Argents.
“Speaking of, I think he’s coming back,” Erica says, lifting her head. She cocks her head, then hurriedly grabs up her book as the sound of Stiles’ footsteps come into range.
She also throws a concerned glance Talia’s way, and then ignores how Peter quirks a brow at her. Talia hasn’t shown the slightest bit of interest in anyone since the fire, and even if she were, Erica doesn’t fit the mold of anyone Peter’s ever seen his sister pursue. But the girl has bravery, and she can think for herself, and she hasn’t been caught up by whatever the Argents have done to enthrall the others. Talia could certainly do worse.
But that’s just idle musing, for which Peter hardly has the time to spare. He’s barely moved the pot back and limped to the bed when Stiles comes into the den, carrying a brace of hares.
“Oh, hey,” he says. He looks at the pot, which Peter wasn’t able to put right where it’d been. “I was going to make up something fresh, since that’s been a couple days. With everything that’s going on…yeah, well, kind of been forgetting to cook.”
“It still tasted fine,” Peter says, settling back down besides his sister. Though he can’t help a sniff or two; the rabbits are so fresh that Stiles must have caught them right by the den.
Stiles notices, and grins as he grabs a cup and starts draining the blood into it. “Bet you could use a little something, if you’re up for good now.”
“It wasn’t really my choice to sleep that much,” Peter mutters, trying not to be too irritated. Really, by now he should be used to his body not doing what he wants.
He’s not successful, judging from how Stiles shoots him a look. The other man brings him over the cup, and then sits on the edge of the bed, leaving the rabbits near the hearth. “I promise these were all me, too,” Stiles says, more softly, less teasing. “Not a gift or anything.”
Erica inhales a little. Stiles’ shoulders hitch up, but he doesn’t look away from Peter. Who takes the cup and sets it where he can lap at the blood and still look at Stiles. “That’s very diplomatic of you,” Peter eventually says.
“Yeah, well…okay. So. Scott is with Allison, and it’s pretty serious,” Stiles says. He starts fidgeting, rubbing his hands against his legs. He still smells like heat, but slightly past peak, and he’s certainly much more in control of his temper. “He also knows what the Argents did to you, but Chris and Allison say they weren’t involved and didn’t know what Kate was doing till afterward, and look, I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear any of this—”
“It has to be discussed, and we might as well get it straightened out with me first.” Then Peter glances at his sleeping sister. He just means it as a reminder to Stiles, but his eye catches for a moment on the tight, tense grooves around Talia’s mouth. “Even if I wanted to, I’m not in any position to go storming off and killing anyone, so I suppose that makes me the sensible one.”
“I’m pretty sure if you really wanted to, you’d figure out something to do from here,” Stiles says. He twists over, moving his knees onto the bed just shy of Peter’s cup so that he and Peter are facing each other, and his hand lifts and almost skims Peter’s arm before he pulls it back. “Anyway, I hate to put it all on you, but…that’d probably be the best way to deal with it. Because I’m with you two, okay, I’m not just gonna swallow their line. But I also just don’t want to—I don’t want to start killing everybody, because Scott—I mean, he’s an idiot, but he was—he used to be—and he actually, he said he’d look for me—”
“I know,” Peter breaks in. He shifts away from the cup, propping himself up on his arm as he looks up into Stiles’ increasingly nervous face. “I know. He kept his promise. I…I can see he means a great deal to you, Stiles.”
Which is the wrong tack to take, since that just agitates Stiles to the point that he jerks up and knocks his knee into the cup. He grabs it before it spills, but then he also grabs Peter’s wrist, hard enough to actually drag Peter a little over the furs.
“I know, but so—I’m not just going to dump you either,” Stiles says. He’s leaning over Peter, their faces barely inches apart, and he might be past the peak but he’s still in heat.
He smells—he smells—and his body warmth, the way it filters down over Peter, and just the press of his fingers around Peter’s arm. They’re too tight and it hurts, but it’s a different hurt from what Peter puts up with all the time. It’ll be a different mark, if his grip leaves a bruise on Peter, and for a second Peter has a whine building in his throat and an echoing heat in his gut, for all that he’s too damned ill for a real one, and—he wishes. So badly.
“Shit,” Stiles says, abruptly letting Peter go. His fingers dart back and touch Peter’s arm as he grimaces, and then he shifts himself back a couple inches. He starts scrubbing at the side of his head. “Okay. So anyway—”
Peter breathes in very carefully, trying to pick up every last trace of Stiles in the air, and then he breathes out. He’s not so warm now, with the other man pushed away, and he makes himself think. “So how exactly did they convince the others of their story?”
“Well, they did help track down Kate and Gerard,” Erica says. She’s come out and is skinning the rabbits that Stiles left. Stiles starts at her voice and then looks at her, and she smiles innocently and waves her bloody hand at him. “I’ll give them that, we wouldn’t have gotten those two without their help. But then Chris was all, let’s just lock them up—”
“I see he’s still a stickler for that code of his, however impractical it is,” Peter says dryly.
Erica nods. “Yeah, Derek kind of pointed that out. But anyway, it didn’t matter ‘cause Laura went and killed both of them while Chris and everybody were arguing. And Scott was pretty upset about it, but Allison got over it pretty quick.”
“Scott says that Allison didn’t really know Gerard, and that she didn’t like Kate anyway. I mean, if we’re going by who likes who, and not who murdered whose family,” Stiles says. He’s half-sarcastic, half-nervous. He stops trying to rub off his hair, but starts picking at one of his claws. “So I sort of talked to Allison too, and her parents didn’t even tell her about werewolves till just a couple years ago? I don’t know, she seems to have made up the lost time pretty fast, but…I guess it’s possible. She’s not that old. But Chris, I can’t believe he didn’t know anything.”
“That doesn’t matter anyway. They’re still Argents,” Peter says.
“Yeah, well, that’s kind of…not true. Kind of. So they’re not using that as their last name anymore,” Stiles says slowly, eyeing Peter.
“When I said all the Argents were gone, I wasn’t trying to lie to you or anything,” Erica chimes in. “They told us the family’s dead, and they’re not Argents now, they’re—some other people, and I don’t know how the whole hunting family thing works and every time I asked Laura or Derek, they were all just, talk to Scott.”
Stiles snorts, but he’s still watching Peter. “Scott seems to think that that is a huge symbolic whatever.”
“It is a huge symbolic whatever,” Peter says, mimicking Stiles’ diffident tone. He watches for the flash of amusement in Stiles’ eyes, and then he pushes the cup away and looks at his sister. His own amusement fades, and in its place rises a sudden, surprisingly intense stab of disgust. “And it means nothing to us. So they changed their name, abandoned their family. That didn’t save a damn person from our family, did it?”
His arm starts to shake, and whether from anger or exhaustion, he doesn’t know, and doesn’t care. Peter shifts off it and lies down, and he’s about to tug the furs back up Talia where they’ve slipped when Stiles suddenly twists in behind him, even putting an arm around Peter’s waist.
He freezes, and Stiles’ hand runs lightly up and down his belly before settling just below the bellybutton, a warm, comfortable, distinctly possessive grip. It’s heat, of course, and Peter’s reminding himself of that when he feels a huff of breath on the back of his neck. And he stops thinking for a second, and just feels, and Stiles presses his nose and mouth into Peter’s hair, breathing in, deep and long. Drags his nose down along Peter’s spine, breathing like that. Scenting Peter, and once or twice his lips graze at Peter’s skin too and Peter shivers and it doesn’t hurt at all.
“I was telling Scott about the same. Big deal, whatever they’ve done to try and make up for stuff, they’ve been doing it with Laura and Derek at best.” Stiles sighs, leaning his forehead against Peter’s nape for a second. His fingers curl in towards Peter’s belly, light ticklish brushes of their tips. “He was always trying to see the best in people, that’s kind of why I let him know I was a werewolf in the first place. But he’s still thinking of stuff like that, not like a werewolf or a hunter.”
“He’s a weird werewolf,” Erica agrees. She’s watching them with a kind of delighted curiosity, but she also times her comment just as Stiles nuzzles at Peter’s neck.
He startles, pulling back just before Peter folds entirely and arches his throat at the man. His arm comes off Peter, who barely bites down on his disappointed whine, and then goes back on. But he’s just got his hand on Peter’s shoulder now, though at least he’s still close enough for Peter to feel his body heat.
“Well, so I was trying to make it clear to Scott, I wasn’t going to pressure you guys to do anything,” Stiles says. He sounds a little tense at first, but gradually calms down. “He really wanted to know if you or Talia were planning on going at Allison and Chris again and I said I didn’t know, and wasn’t going to ask, and—and if you outright told me, I guess that’d be…complicated, but maybe you can just…”
Peter hates to dislodge Stiles’ hand, but he can’t have this conversation looking at the back of his sister’s head. So he rolls over, and his hand happens to bump up against Stiles’ hip and Stiles doesn’t move, so Peter doesn’t either. “Leave you out of our murderous plans?”
Stiles’ head almost dips in a nod, and then he makes a face. “Okay. That’s…not workable, and this is complicated. But I just…I don’t want you—”
“Just what is Scott looking to get out of this?” Peter says. “And don’t tell me it’s the sheer joy of peacemaking. He’s too young to be that much of a saint.”
“Yeah, well, martyr, yes, saint, no,” Stiles mutters, with a long-suffering expression. He twitches as noises come from the hearth—Erica’s just sweeping the rabbit guts and a few bones into a waste pot—and then he grimaces again. “To protect his girlfriend, for one. But Scott’s not a total asshole, he is thinking of you guys, and…and I think maybe he wants to help you go home. You know, Laura’s taken things over in Beacon Hills again—”
“Till the Alpha pack showed up,” Erica says.
Stiles flicks her an annoyed look. “Yeah, that, thanks. Anyway, he was saying…you should be able to go home. You shouldn’t be stuck out here for the rest of your life. He gets that much.”
There’s a strange note in Stiles’ voice—bitter, Peter thinks. “Shouldn’t he be saying that to you?”
“Huh? What, because of my parents?” Stiles looks surprised, enough so that Peter immediately thinks he misread the man before. “Scott and me, we both left that town because they were ungrateful assholes. That’s not home to me, or him. I mean…yeah, this is far out, but I don’t know, I kind of like it here. I’ve—I think I’ve grown into it.”
That note comes back into Stiles’ voice, but before Peter can identify it, Stiles sits up. Across the room, Boyd is grunting and stirring; Erica goes over to quiet him, but not before Talia abruptly shifts. Peter glances at her, and then looks up at Stiles, who is getting out of the bed. Who is always leaving, always, and there is so little that Peter can offer him, to get him to stay, and—and Peter hates the Argents, will always feel what they’ve done to him and to his family. Even if his body was whole. He knows the nature of scarring intimately at this point, and knows which ones never truly disappear.
But he wants his life more than he wants his hate, he realizes suddenly. And perhaps they go hand in hand, because he absolutely refuses to see the Argents take one more thing from him, let alone one of the few things he’s ever genuinely cherished.
“If Scott would like to come and explain exactly how he thinks Talia and I can come home, and have any faith at all that we’ll be safe, I…am willing to hear it,” Peter says. He can barely get the words out; he can’t hide his revulsion, but he can force himself to keep talking. He’s used to forcing himself. “I’m certainly not going to enjoy it, and I make no guarantees—about me or about Talia. But I suppose it’ll be interesting to hear what he comes up with.”
“Interesting? That’s what you’re going to call it?” Stiles says skeptically.
Peter works his mouth a few times, meaning to add some sort of platitude, but he can’t quite get the words out. It’s so easy to throw in nothing lies, and yet he can’t do it here.
“I mean, not that I—I do appreciate the offer. Really appreciate it,” Stiles hastily says, as if he’s the one who might’ve offended somebody. “Just—if you really mean it—”
“If it turns out Talia and I aren’t interested, and simply want them all out, I think we’d still have to hear your friend’s side first,” Peter sighs. “I don’t know him but—”
“You’re still pretty good at guessing how he’s like,” Stiles says, smiling a little. He pauses, half-crouched by the bed, and then he dips down.
He nuzzles at Peter’s cheek, which is innocent enough, and then he starts moving along Peter’s jawline, back towards the throat, raising a prickling heat wherever he touches. And his lip slips and for a second Peter feels his teeth—not the tips, not even close to a bite, but it’s enough for Peter to crook his neck and let out a small, begging whimper.
“Oh, damn it, I—okay, so I’ll go—I’ll go talk to him,” Stiles says, half-hissing, as he jerks away. He scratches at his leg hard enough to draw blood, but either doesn’t care or doesn’t notice because he doesn’t even swipe off the blood. It just drips down his leg after the cuts heal, as he’s hurrying out of the den.
Peter breathes in, and then out. He should be used to disappointment, he thinks savagely, and then he sighs and, as always, slumps back beside Talia.
“If it makes you feel better, I went over with him last time and Scott’s like an ice-water pond for him, apparently,” Erica says. She’s handing Boyd some meat off one of the rabbits to eat, and looking genuinely sympathetic. “For real. Stiles and he start talking, and Stiles’ heat scent goes down by half. It’s weird.”
“I don’t think I’d say I feel better, but I appreciate the information,” Peter mutters.
He’s lying. A tiny part of him unravels from its worried knot, and that’s when he realizes he was worried about that in the first place. Wondering just what kind of friends that Stiles and Scott had been, what kind of hold Scott might have on the other man.
One less thing. A very small thing, considering everything else they have to deal with, but one less nevertheless. “I’d also appreciate it if you didn’t tell my sister yet,” Peter says, thinking of another. “She’s upset enough.”
“I don’t think not telling her is the way to keep from upsetting her. Also, I was told multiple times that werewolves can’t lie to each other,” Erica says.
“And I find the idea of you not figuring out the truth even less likely than Chris Argent not ever suspecting what the rest of his family were doing,” Peter says dryly. He looks at Erica till she breaks and drops her eyes, which is a few seconds longer than he would’ve predicted, but which still happens. “You don’t have to lie to her. Tell her I’m talking to Scott, if you like. Just…don’t talk about going home, and especially not about somebody else doing it for us. You might not—she was alpha, you have to understand. In her eyes, she failed to keep us safe at home, and it’ll be another failure if she only goes back by somebody else’s good graces.”
That strikes a chord with Erica. She still looks a little reluctant—and Boyd beside her looks entirely confused by everything—but finally she nods. “Okay. Okay, yeah, I…I’ve never been an alpha, but I can get that. Okay. Just…try and not pass out again when you get back? Because I don’t know her that well, I’m not gonna be able to do anything about her if that happens.”
“I don’t think I’ll be gone that long,” Peter says. “Trust me, when you’ve been through what I have, it takes more than a little idealism to make you believe again.”
So yeah, generally in societies where something like a vendetta concept exists, there are also mechanisms for resolving them. Otherwise communities would wipe each other out.
I'm kind of playing off the concept of weregild here.
Talia knows within seconds of waking that her brother’s up to something.
He and Stiles are both gone, but Stiles’ scent in the den is still heavily laced with heat. Stiles might be staying closer to the den than usual because of their visitors, but he’s still insisted on keeping away from Peter when he can. And even in normal times, he generally doesn’t leave the den with Peter unless Talia is with them, just because Peter suffering a bad attack can test the strength of even an alpha to manage.
“Scott keeps coming around to talk to Stiles,” Erica offers. “I’m guessing that’s what it is. They did say they’d be back by evening.”
She’s trying to offer Talia a rabbit braise Boyd made. It smells delicious, and Erica makes a point of emphasizing that Stiles had caught the rabbits, but Talia turns it aside, trying to figure out how long she’s slept this time. “For someone who said he won’t push, he’s testing the line quite often.”
“Yeah, well, Scott,” Erica shrugs. She gives up on the food and gets up as Talia gets up, snagging a spare fur. At first she drapes it around herself, but as they move towards the tunnel entrance, she takes it off and offers it to Talia.
She has a shirt and rolled-up trousers on, while Talia just has her wraps around her breasts and hips. They’re werewolves and they tolerate cold better than regular humans, but Talia’s not a healthy example of one; she grudgingly takes the wrap, and then can’t help an envious stare as Erica pauses, ankle-deep in snow, and stretches herself right into the cold outside air with a comfortable sigh.
The envy passes quickly enough, as it becomes apparent that Erica’s going to follow Talia wherever Talia cares to go. Down to the stream, back up to the den entrance, and then off to a grove where they hang up hides to dry in good weather. “Which of them was it?” Talia finally snaps.
“What?” Erica says, confused.
“Don’t play stupid, one of them told you to keep an eye on me,” Talia says. She turns and stalks away from the den, up the mountainside. “Probably Peter.”
Erica tags along, of course, but she’s wary enough to swing well out of lunging range. “It’s kind of eerie how much you two sound like each other sometimes,” she mutters, and then she shakes her head. “Nobody told me to watch you. Really. I just…want to follow you around?”
Talia glances over, and almost slips on an icy patch at the same time. The furs slides off her shoulders and she stupidly scrabbles for it rather than righting herself, and comes perilously close to bloodying her knees before she’s finally steady again. By then Erica’s wiped any kind of uncalculated emotion from her face, and is smiling innocently at Talia.
“You’re off your heat,” Talia says, sniffing.
“Yep,” Erica says, unruffled. “Finally. Man, talk about a lousy winter. Getting caged up by Ennis, and then hitting heat while your brother and Stiles do their little dance…what’s up with that, anyway? Are they mated or not?”
“None of your business,” Talia says, but she admittedly pauses for a moment. Not because she’s going to betray any confidences, but because she badly wants to tell Erica what she thinks of that.
Maybe Stiles and Peter have gone off to finally resolve their situation. Talia pauses, and then she snorts away that absurd little glimmer of hope. If that was it, she would have woken up because Peter certainly wouldn’t have been able to keep quiet. He’s been waiting so long, and wants it so badly. So much so that sometimes she’s not sure she sees her brother anymore, and she resents Stiles a little for that, for reducing Peter to simply wishing for crumbs. She knows better than Peter that people can’t be forced into things—just look at their relationship before the fire—but still. Stiles could handle it better.
“Are they waiting for something? Peter to get better, or what?” Erica persists.
Talia turns and snarls at her, viciously enough that Erica’s eyes widen and she skips back a few yards. She’s graceful in the air, coming down so lightly that she can take another step before her feet sink into the snow, and then she looks so young and so surprised and so…so hurt. It almost makes Talia apologize.
That’s the mother in her, Talia thinks, and then she snarls again, but at herself. What mother—she turns away, and continues stalking up the mountain. She doesn’t have any particular destination in mind, and only wants to get upwind of the den, which smells far too strongly right now. They haven’t been able to clean it properly since Erica and Boyd showed up.
“Hey,” Erica says, hurrying after her. “Hey. I’m sorry—hey, I’m really sorry. I wasn’t—I wasn’t trying to needle you or anything, I’m just kind of—they seem really into each other, and it looks like you had an okay life going before we showed up, and—”
“It wasn’t okay,” Talia says under her breath. “It was—it was—living and we had each other but everything was bent where it wasn’t broken and we just pretended not to—”
Her head swings around. She’s disoriented and a little nauseated at first, not knowing why, and then her hearing catches up with her nose and she picks out the voices. Her brother’s, rising and irritated, and two other voices breaking on top of his. One belongs to a woman, the other to a man, and then Stiles growls.
It’s a warning growl, the kind used for a boundary dispute, and its low rumble travels a long way, seeming to roll out for miles past Talia. She stiffens, and then she twists towards it.
“They said they were going to talk to Scott,” Erica says nervously. She’s heard too, and hopped near enough to Talia that she can pluck at the fur Talia has wrapped around herself. “Just talk.”
“That’s what they say, but what does Scott say? Do you know that?” Talia says. She doesn’t run, not this time. She walks, as steadily as she can, and she pushes the other woman aside when Erica angles herself to cut across Talia.
“No, but Scott’s—you don’t know him, okay, but he is the most incredibly non-bloodthirsty werewolf,” Erica says, still trying to grab at Talia. When Talia slaps at her, claws out, her eyes widen again but she dodges and then switches to kicking snow into Talia’s way, persistent and annoying, even if it has no real practical effect. “And just, you just got up. And not to be an asshole or anything, but the last time you stormed in, you kind of wore yourself out, and—”
Talia ignores her. Peter’s voice is rising again, and she’s close enough to make out that he’s telling somebody it doesn’t matter, if he doesn’t want to talk, he doesn’t want to talk. Then the male voice—Scott—breaks in, insisting that he needs to listen. Stiles interrupts and Scott’s voice suddenly increases in volume.
It also deepens, and gains a hard, ringing note that makes Erica cringe and Talia stop. She doesn’t hear what Scott is saying. All she hears is alpha.
Talia shifts, springing out of her fur wrap, and then runs the rest of the way. They’re all in a little grove on a slight downslope, so that when she barges into it, the snow makes her skid past Stiles and her brother, and nearly into Scott’s feet. Scott jumps back, blinking, and Talia plants her forelegs in the snow and snarls at him and the Argent girl.
“I knew this was a bad idea,” Stiles is muttering. “Scott. Scott, listen, I just think—”
“Talia?” Scott recovers and squats down to look her in the eye. He’s not defensive at all, save for the arm he’s thrown out across the Argent girl’s path, and even that seems more to bar her from Talia than the other way around. He’s even smiling at her, pleasant and reassuring. “Talia, hey. I’m Scott, and this is—”
“Scott, damn it, I’m telling you, just stop,” Stiles snaps.
“Talia.” Peter’s hands sink into Talia’s ruff, dragging at her.
He’s tired; she can hear his breath stagger, but she shakes him off and shifts and then she rises to her feet, looking down at this stupid, presumptuous boy. “How dare you,” she says. “How dare you treat my brother like that.”
Scott blinks, his eyes rounding, but he doesn’t move. His—his paramour is a little more sensible and she steps back. Her hand moves to her hip, and then behind her back.
“And how dare you bring her?” Talia says, catching that and catching the flicker of consideration in the girl’s eyes. “You aren’t pack, and even if you were—if you were, I would throw you out for such a thing.”
“She didn’t hurt your family!” Scott protests, getting up. “Allison and Chris, they’re—”
“How dare you tell us who hurt us!” Talia snarls. She can feel her shift coming back, she’s that angry. Not just her claws and fangs, but other parts of her body. The muscles of her shoulders bulking up, her vocal cords changing to allow for a true growl. “Were you there? Did your family die? Were you?”
“I—no—” Scott says. Then he shakes his head. “But Allison wasn’t either. And she doesn’t follow her family’s code, she’s got her own, and—”
“I don’t care!” Talia shouts. “My family is still dead! My brother is still crippled, and I’m still too weak to look after us without help! And I should drop all of that, I should forget all of it because you say so? When I look at that girl—I see my dead family, I hear them crying to me to save them, make them stop burning, and are you going to stop that? Where were you, all these years I’ve been hearing them scream?”
Scott doesn’t answer. He stares at her, swallowing hard, and finally looks like the foolish child he is.
“I’m sorry!” the Argent girl all but shouts. She drags her hands out from behind her; she can’t quite lift them but she shows that they’re empty. “I’m sorry. I am. My family was wrong. They shouldn’t have—”
“And what do your words matter?” Talia tells her. “What does an apology do? You give it but are you going to make me take it? Is that why he brought you here?”
“Allison,” snaps a new voice, and Talia nearly shifts all the way to wolf before she catches himself.
Chris Argent steps out of the woods. His hands are up, empty, but Stiles snarls at him and his own daughter looks angry at the sight of him. His jaw tightens but he continues forward till he’s standing next to his daughter. “No,” he says. “No. We won’t make you. But I won’t have a vendetta on my daughter’s head. She’s innocent.”
‘Talia,” Peter says urgently. He has her by the arm, and he’s squeezing that hard enough that she thinks the bruise might last, and no matter that they’re both betas. “Talia, not now. Not here. It’s not in our favor.”
“It’s never been in our favor, not since your family came into our lives,” Talia hisses at Argent. “You want to talk about vendettas and innocence, well, what would you know about it? What do you know?”
“I wasn’t involved. I didn’t know before it happened,” Argent immediately says. He draws a deep breath, setting his shoulders, and then steps past his daughter. “But I…ignored signs. I admit that. And if you want—”
“Dad, no,” his daughter says, stricken, grabbing at his arm.
“Look, you and me, but leave her out of it,” Argent continues, twisting out of his daughter’s grip.
She grabs him again, a small sob coming from her. Scott turns his head and looks at her, and then looks back at Talia. He wears his resolve so blatantly, it’s all that Talia can do to not claw it from his face.
“You can’t just—go around hurting people who didn’t hurt you,” he says.
“Who says they didn’t?” Talia snaps. “Did they stop their family afterward? When? Why did they wait that long? Why only after my brother and I were hunted out of our home? After we had to come here to hide? After we’d been nearly killed over and over, when we were already weak from being burned alive?”
“I’m—listen, I know you’ve been through rough times,” Scott starts.
“You don’t. You have no idea. Look at you.” Talia sweeps her eyes up and down him, her lip curling. “Can you run when you feel like it? Can you breathe, and it never hurts? Can you look at yourself in the mirror and see—”
Peter snarls at her, sharply enough to make her stutter. She half-turns to him and he shakes his head, then deliberately limps back to Stiles, who slings an arm around Peter’s waist to keep him up. “That’s my burden,” he says. “Leave it out.”
Talia stares at him. He raises his chin and her anger spikes, and for a moment she has an overwhelming, irrational desire to strike him. Which he sees and smiles at.
Biting it back, Talia turns to Scott again. And she thinks she sees a tinge of victory in his face, and her anger surges again. “Then have you lost children?” she says. “Have you? Do you know what it’s like to give birth, love them, raise them, and then lose them? And think for years and years that they’re gone, that you failed in the one way you absolutely could not, and—”
“But Laura and Derek are alive!” Scott says.
“But Cora still isn’t. And so many years I didn’t know that two of them had lived,” Talia snarls. “So many. I’ve lost those years, I can never get them back. And they’re not my children now. They’re grown, they’re different, I don’t know them.”
“Look, I’m just saying, it—wouldn’t it be better if nobody got hurt from here on?” Scott says earnestly. Desperately. He’s sounding alpha again, red bleeding into his eyes.
A tiny part of Talia tells her that that is odd. That that is something she should pay attention to, something that should matter to her. But it doesn’t. All the things she used to be, all the things she used to know, everything she cared about and wanted and respected—it all went into the fire. And what little that came out still bears the flames’ mark.
“Then why are you hurting me now?” she says, very deliberately. She pauses. Lets the lack of understanding in Scott’s face slowly shift to a faint horror; he doesn’t need to understand why she hurts to see, unmistakably, that she hurts. “I grieved for my family. I still grieve for them. And now you tell me—I can’t grieve? I can’t be angry at what happened to them? I must swallow all of that, and feel whatever you want me to? That hurts me. It hurts more than the fire.”
“Look, let’s just go,” Stiles abruptly says. He steps back and Peter goes with him, and then he stops to look at Talia. “Let’s go. Scott—we’re gonna leave. This was a bad idea.”
“That’s—that’s not what I meant,” Scott says quietly, his shoulders slumping. The red is gone from his eyes. “I just…I want to make things better.”
Talia laughs. “You want to make me forgive. You want to make me like what you like. You’re no better than them, thinking you can fix me the way you want and you don’t even ask what I feel, much less what I want.”
“Well, people can’t just keep dying! That doesn’t help either,” Scott insists. But he’s losing. He knows that, smells like it, looks it. “If we go back to killing each other, it doesn’t bring anybody back to life.”
“If I forgive, it doesn’t either,” Talia says. And then she looks over at Argent, just as he makes to step forward. “Stay. Stay with my daughter, my son. Get them killed too. You can do whatever you like, say whatever you like. It’ll still be a lie you’re using to make yourself feel better. You—” she looks at the daughter, who flinches but who at least holds her head up for it “—you’re more honest as hunters. You hurt us. You do nothing but hurt us. No, I won’t declare vendetta on you, but because even that would only hurt. It doesn’t help, leaving you alone.”
She twists then, and can’t keep human. Wolf is better when she’s so blindingly angry. Wolf is easy, is sense and instinct and simple motion. All she has to do is turn her muzzle into the wind and let the scent take her home.
“I’m sorry,” Stiles says to her.
Talia stumbles, then flounders in the snow. A hand grasps her ruff and rights her, and she nearly stumbles again, seeing Erica. The other woman dances back, Talia’s fur wrap bundled under one arm, and then gives Stiles a curious, wary look.
“Yeah, just…I don’t know, I don’t know what the—I don’t know what Scott was thinking,” he goes on as they walk away, glancing at Peter. “I just—we should’ve just left, as soon as we saw her. That wasn’t the deal, and I’m so fucking mad he even thought—I don’t know, maybe I don’t know him anymore. Maybe he’s not my friend.”
“It certainly didn’t go to plan,” Peter says, half-dry, half stalling. He flicks a look past Stiles to Talia, who’s still too angry to tolerate his—his infatuation with Stiles, his inability to hold even common sense against the man.
She turns her head away and Peter sucks in his breath. They’re all quiet for a few paces.
“You didn’t speak for me,” Peter says abruptly. When Talia drags her head back, he smiles with his teeth showing. “On vendettas.”
Talia huffs, and then irritably shifts back to human. She has to pause and catch her breath afterward, and Erica jiggles the fur under her arm, then tentatively holds it out to Talia. “No, I didn’t,” Talia finally says, taking the fur.
Both Erica and Peter look surprised. Talia grimaces and turns away, and finds herself looking back the way they’d come. And looking right at Chris Argent, who’s watching them go.
“Oh, for…” Stiles steps a little away from Peter, muttering an apology when Peter stumbles, and then roars. Thunderously, a clear order in it, even for non-werewolves.
Argent flinches, and then Scott appears behind him, tugging him back. Scott looks over one shoulder at Stiles and Stiles stiffens, a pained expression crossing his face. Then Stiles roars again, just as firmly as the first time. Scott stops as if he’s going to say something, and Argent pulls him away.
Stiles stares for a second. Peter’s looking at him, and when Stiles turns roughly away, Peter leans into him.
“It’s not—don’t apologize or anything stupid like that,” Stiles mutters.
“He matters to you,” Peter mutters back.
“Peter should matter,” Talia snarls, unable to curb her tongue any longer. Her brother is angry with her for it, so angry that she thinks he might try and strike her, and she still can’t stop herself. “He does everything you want. He’d make himself forgive them if you wanted it, and you can’t even bring yourself to tell him you’ve already mated.”
“Talia,” Peter snarls.
She ignores him. And lets the fur drop again, shifting back to wolf, and this time, she runs.
Peter’s sister is—is—
He doesn’t know anymore. He makes himself look calm, sound calm, because one of them has to, but beyond that he’s never felt so horribly close to losing her. Possibly because the thought never crossed his mind before the fire; he considered leaving her authority, and some of those fantasies had been murderous, but that’s different. They’re different. And now she’s so very different that…he doesn’t know if they’ll stay together.
“Erica’s fast, and she’s pretty much healed from what Ennis did to her,” Stiles is saying. “I’m sure she’ll keep up. Talia can’t keep going for that long.”
“I don’t know,” Peter says, as Stiles sets him down for a rest near the den entrance.
It’d be better if Stiles went after Talia. He’s been around her for longer, and more importantly, he’s an alpha. Even if she doesn’t want to listen, he has more ways of bringing her to heel than another beta will. But Stiles can’t just drop Peter in the snow and go, not with Argents still lingering around and that idiot friend of his, and Peter can’t move quickly. So Stiles and he have to limp along, while Talia’s anger drives her—Peter makes himself stop.
“I’ll get her. I swear,” Stiles says, dropping down next to him. He touches Peter’s arm, then takes his hand away to scrub at his head. “I feel like such an asshole. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have—I should’ve just told you to forget about it. Screw Scott, he’s my problem.”
He still smells like heat, under all the stress, and Peter can’t help but notice. It’s a…to be honest it’s a little nauseating, having the half-suppressed, sickly urges of Peter’s body crash straight into his fretting about Talia, and for a moment Peter has an irrational desire to shove his face into the nearest pile of snow to try and freeze out his nose.
“He matters to you,” Peter says, trying to be careful.
Stiles looks sharply at him and Peter only suppresses his wince because he knows that that will just make the other man more suspicious. “You keep saying that, and please tell me you didn’t go along with it just because you’re trying to make me happy,” Stiles says.
Peter opens his mouth to deny it, and…doesn’t say anything. He looks up at Stiles and Stiles looks down at him with increasing dismay, and Peter just can’t bring himself to lie.
“Seriously?” Stiles says. He half-rises in disbelief, then plops back down as Peter almost reaches for him. Shakes his head, and then stares at Peter again. “Peter, just—why would—your whole family…I mean, they actually died, and it was on purpose. My parents made it out, and Scott—okay, look, he blurted it out but we’d slipped a couple times and somebody was going to catch on and…just…why would you…for me?”
“My family isn’t something I’ve forgotten, but you—you’ve been…very generous to us over the years,” Peter says. He’s fumbling, and he sounds like it, and he has to swallow hard to keep from growling at himself in annoyance.
“But come on!” Stiles says, flinging one arm wide. “Come on. A roof and food and nursing you guys, that’s just—I mean, sure, that’s nice, but that’s not worth dropping revenge for your family.”
Peter makes a face. “I never said that I was.”
“Yeah, you did.” Stiles suddenly stiffens, his eyes widening a little. He stares at Peter a little longer before his shoulders slump and he abruptly looks at the ground. “You did when Scott showed up with his girlfriend and you thought about it and you didn’t try and attack her. You didn’t say the actual words but I saw your face, Peter. You can’t stand her any more than Talia can, but…but you did. You did that, for me.”
And he looks back up at Peter, so startled and raw, and sometimes Peter sees very much the difference in their ages. And once in a while, like now, Peter sees how fragile that is. Stiles doesn’t have the chronological years but he’s seen enough of betrayal and danger to understand Peter. But the cynicism, that isn’t quite as deep with the other man, and Peter can see that and it makes him hurt. It makes him want to fight to keep something whole, unshattered.
“I love you,” Peter says. He pauses, hearing how those few, simple words break that final, tissue-thin illusion they’ve both been hiding behind. Because that is what Peter inevitably does, he thinks with no little bitterness. He’s never been good at anything else. “My family…I can’t do anything for them now. I realized that a long time ago—Talia and I both know that, I just…I’ve come to terms with it more than she has. Hazards of being dragged down by your body, I suppose. You can’t maneuver around the truth so easily. But I love you, and I’d—Stiles, if I were even a little—if I was any stronger, had even the slightest wealth to offer, I’d prove my worth as a mate. But I can’t do that. So…your friend means something to you, Stiles. I can at least—”
Stiles seizes him. It’s so sudden that Peter rears up after the man’s arms have already closed around him, and makes them both sway. But he doesn’t have the strength; that barely lasts a few seconds before he subsides, panting. With Stiles’ head pushed deep into the crook of his neck, one hand sliding with dangerous intimacy up his nape to tangle in his hair, while the other clenches itself into a hard knot against his back.
“You idiot,” Stiles says softly, fiercely. “Damn it, Peter, this isn’t a competition. I don’t—the courting you wolves do, I don’t do it. Just—”
His teeth graze at Peter’s throat. It could be a mistake, an accident, he’s agitated and he’s trembling against Peter. It has to be a mistake, Peter thinks wildly, holding his breath, but then Stiles rubs his cheek against the side of Peter’s neck and the tips of his teeth prick into Peter’s skin and there’s no mistaking the deliberation in the move. The man doesn’t bite down, but he clearly isn’t hesitating. He’s holding himself back from it, and Peter can feel the strain it puts on him.
Stiles withdraws his teeth, just enough to whisper. “I’m not—I haven’t had a mate yet. And I would’ve mated you forever ago, dumbass. It’s just you—I thought you were leaving.”
“What?” Peter says. “Leaving?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know this isn’t your territory, and you and Talia, you’re always talking about how you got kicked out and how you’re going to get your home back someday and I just—I didn’t want to make it any harder,” Stiles says. His fingers tug painfully at Peter’s hair, but it’s worth it because once he has Peter’s head tilted, he presses in and noses along the side of Peter’s neck, leaving a streak of warmth in his wake that only continues to heat. “I’m okay here. I didn’t want to hold you back, and—I just didn’t want to get attached. It’s hard to leave people, I know that. I had to do it before, and I didn’t want to put either of us through it.”
“I’m not,” Peter says, barely hearing him. He’s too drunk on the sudden closeness of the man, the way he smells and feels. The way their scents are beginning to mingle, and even if Peter can’t have a heat, he can luxuriate in Stiles’. He nuzzles at Stiles’ shoulder, dragging his arm around so that he can rest his hand against Stiles’ hip. “I’m not—I don’t want to leave.”
Stiles stiffens again, and then he pulls them apart. Peter whines in protest and Stiles rumbles reassuringly at him, ducking in to press their cheeks together, but then he backs off again. “But you were saying—”
“We said that, but it’s been so long, and things have changed, and—and I want a home, Stiles. But I don’t know that I’ll find that in Beacon Hills anymore,” Peter says. He looks at the other man and he’s a little shocked at how hopeful Stiles suddenly looks, and at how intense that hope is. “And now that Laura and Derek—and if they’re running things, if it’s their pack…it’s their pack, not mine. That’s clear. I don’t know about Talia, though I think she—but it doesn’t matter. I want to stay here.”
Stiles sucks in his breath. His eyes are wide again, and almost frantic in how they dart over Peter’s face. Then he grabs both sides of Peter’s head, even though Peter’s not moving an inch; Peter lets him. Lets the man do whatever he wants, whatever he needs to see Peter means it.
And then Stiles smiles. His fingers curl a little against Peter’s cheeks, their tips grazing Peter’s cheekbones, and then he dips down and presses their lips together. It’s quick but heated—Peter’s tongue flicks out instinctively as Stiles draws back, and a corresponding flash goes through Stiles’ eyes. Stiles laughs. He still sounds incredulous, but it’s a warm, affectionate disbelief, and when he kisses Peter a second time, he lingers long enough for Peter to slip his hands about the man’s waist.
“I gotta find your sister,” Stiles says, breathless, when he breaks off this time. He nuzzles his way along Peter’s jawline with a warm, wet mouth, and when he gets to Peter’s throat he lips at it, stirring a longing whimper from Peter. He holds Peter back from pushing in and getting the real bite, but he’s just as reluctant about it. “Gotta find her, and make sure she’s okay, and then screw it, I’m fucking in heat anyway, let’s just do it.”
Peter whimpers again. He’s not protesting, just—he can’t really make any other sound right now. He just—he can’t believe it either, and he crushes himself into Stiles, burying his face in the man’s shoulder and neck till the warmth and smell of him makes Peter start to think it’s real. Stiles rubs at the side of his neck, purring, and then gives him a small, light bite, barely a touch of teeth. But even that makes Peter sway into him, whining.
“Please,” Peter manages. “Mate.”
“Yeah, for years, why do you think I always spent heat outside?” Stiles says, lapping at the bitten spot. “Knew I wouldn’t be able to not do it, if I stuck around you.”
“Stiles.” Peter shudders and has to grip the other man for support for a few seconds, and then he breathes out, and he feels as if he’s ten times lighter. He tilts his head, hesitates, and then lightly bites Stiles’ neck. When the man rumbles approvingly at him, Peter whines and presses his brow to the spot. He holds that pose, just—memorizing everything about it, just in case, and then he makes himself pull together. “St—alpha?”
“Um, that’s…still sort of weird,” Stiles says, though he doesn’t stop petting Peter’s neck.
Peter laughs, and half-apologizes with a brush of his lips over Stiles’ neck. “Well, all right, then mate. My sister…just find her. Drag her back if you have to, but she’s just—she’s too upset right now, she needs to just rest, I think. Then she’ll have a clearer head.”
“And if we didn’t keep interrupting that with people popping up and insisting on immediately waving the forgiveness wand over years and years of bad history…I’m gonna yell at Scott too,” Stiles says. He loosens his hold on Peter, grudgingly looking out towards the forest. “Yeah, he matters to me, but so do you two. And I’m not the guy who had to run away from our town, and he’s not the guy who had to watch me do that, and if we can’t adjust to that, then…well, he’s gotta see that. I’m gonna make him see that. Don’t worry about it.”
“Just be careful,” Peter says. “Watch out for the—”
“Oh, trust me, I’m not in any hurry to buddy up with the Argents,” Stiles says. He rubs his hand over Peter’s neck a last time, then sighs. “You think you can get the rest of the way in by yourself?”
“I’ll be fine,” Peter says. He leans over and nuzzles at Stiles’ throat again. “Just get Talia, and then we can just deal with all this nonsense. I’m so tired of running, Stiles. I want to stop.”
“You and me both,” Stiles says. He starts to get up, then twists back for a last quick kiss. Then he does get all the way to his feet, and he starts to sober as he looks at the trees. “Yeah, all of—”
A werewolf howls. Long, desperate, calling for anyone to help. Stiles wheels around, the start of an answering cry on his lips, when another werewolf howls. And this werewolf, this is the cry of an enraged alpha. It’s murder and madness, and it’s a howl Peter hasn’t heard since the fire.
It’s his sister. Peter gets almost to his feet on sheer shock, and then he stumbles. But Stiles already has him by the waist, and is howling urgently as he drags Peter back out of the tunnel. Reply howls start to echo from all corners of the mountainside, but over them rises Talia’s roar.
Peter’s already short of breath, but he digs his claws into Stiles’ shoulder for support. He draws blood but he can’t even afford to wince, let alone to apologize. He needs all his air for the single, wavering cry he sends up, telling his sister to wait. Wait for him. Wait for pack.
She doesn’t answer.
“Shit,” Stiles grunts. He looks at Peter, then shakes off Peter’s claws and steps back. “Shift, come on.”
He changes, but stays on two legs. Peter wills himself to shift, fighting his crippled body till the last strand of fur is in place, but then he can’t get up onto his feet, no matter how he tries. Stiles huffs and hauls Peter up into his arms, and then he takes off in the direction of Talia’s roar, as fast as they can go.
* * *
Erica is quicker than Talia, and could easily overtake her. Talia has height and reach on her, and even weakened, has the experience to tumble Erica if she tries to get too close.
So the girl is smart and hangs back, out of lunging range but within eyesight. Once or twice Talia doubles back and rushes at her, trying to chase her off, and Erica scrambles up a tree or skips into the drifts, but her blonde curls inevitably bob back into the corner of Talia’s eye. She’s persistent, and if it were any other time, Talia would admire her for it.
But right now Talia just—well, she doesn’t know what she wants, but she doesn’t want a scrappy little beta tagging along for it, as if Erica really has any idea what Talia’s capable of. She hadn’t lied to Chris Argent. She doesn’t want to kill him or his daughter, not anymore. She and Peter had talked about it, wistful in the way of prisoners passing the time, describing what they’d do if they only had the power. But seeing the man in person, hearing him mouth those apologies, and her family still dead and broken and scattered, and what’s left of it only seeming to break all the more—
She hadn’t thought she had anything left to break. Talia stops in a whirl of snow and then slashes her claws across a nearby tree. It’s too cold for the sap to run and instead thin needles of it grow out of the wounds her claws have left, like a lacy frost spreading over the marks. Like a fungus, or a cancer.
That’s how she feels, she thinks, falling out of her shift. They’re a cancer, the Argents, and no matter what anyone does, they always seem to come back and eat up her family. So she doesn’t want to kill them, no. “I want to wipe them out,” she whispers, looking at the gashes. “I want to make them like they never were, and like everything was like it used to be, and I want my children. I want my babies, oh, what happened—”
A twig snaps. Talia half-hears it, almost uncaring if anyone comes now and sees her like this. She raises her hand and rubs it against her knee, absently wincing as her finger joints and palm ache. She’s run very hard and long.
Another werewolf barks sharply in warning and Talia finally turns. Erica comes towards her, back to Talia, and then twists around just as Talia wonders why the girl would drop her guard now. The tension in her face says she hasn’t, and then she jumps onto a low-hanging tree branch and Talia sees why.
Laura and Derek walk through the snow towards them. Laura’s slightly ahead, while Derek’s dragging because he’s got his hands tangled in something—he shakes his fingers free and a bloody piece of moose hide drops into the snow. They both have blood and bits of fur stuck to their claws and dirt smeared over their clothes, but their faces are clean. They must have just finished a hunt.
“Mom?” Laura says, hopeful and pained and wary all at once. “Mom? Please—please—don’t run off. Just—we’ll just talk, okay.”
“I’m pretty sure we were postponing that,” Erica says.
Laura looks at her and Erica bridles, flakes of bark chipping off where her claws are sunk into the branch. “Go away,” Derek snaps at her. “This is private, not pack.”
“And I’m not your damn pack now, so shove it,” Erica says.
Derek snarls at her, and then takes a step in Erica’s direction. She snarls back but her hand goes up to the next-highest branch, ready to pull herself higher.
Talia snarls at her son. He starts, swinging around to stare at her, and then he and Laura both look at each other. “Mom,” Laura starts again. “We—can we talk?”
“Are those hunters here?” Talia says.
“No. No, Chris and Allison are way—they’re somewhere else. Way far off. And if Scott starts shoving his girlfriend in your face, I’ll make him go away, I swear,” Derek says earnestly. He takes back his step towards Erica. Almost looks at her again when she relaxes and her claws scrape off the branch, but then he rolls his shoulders and fixes his eyes on Talia. “You don’t ever have to see them.”
He tries to step towards Talia and without thinking she bares her teeth at him. Derek stumbles, eyes widening, and then drops back into a confused crouch. Laura quickly retreats to stand at his shoulder, looking anxiously between him and Talia. Then she sucks in her breath and puts her hand on Derek’s shoulder, and also looks at Talia. But her head is up and she’s taking advantage to look down.
“The Argents were my call,” she says. Her voice trembles just at the end. “They’re my responsibility, Mom.”
“They killed your sister, your cousins and your—” Talia has to twist her head aside to make herself stop. She fights with her own body for a moment, forcing back the shift, and even then, her voice is such a growl that only another werewolf would be able to understand her. “What could they have done? What’s worth more than your family?”
“They saved us, Mom,” Laura says after a long, strained moment. She sounds reluctant, unhappy. Embarrassed, even. But not bitter, not like the taste of ashes in Talia’s mouth. “They saved our lives. We owe them.”
“How could you owe them!” Talia snarls, twisting back to face her daughter. “How could you let that happen!”
“I didn’t—I was doing the best I could!” Laura says. Her face reddens as if Talia’s slapped both sides of it. She leans back, and then straightens up. And bats away her brother, who’d tried to grab her arm and pull her down. “I’m sorry, Mom, but everything literally went up in flames. I did what I could. I kept me and Derek alive so at least we wouldn’t die, and I’m sorry, I wish I’d gone back and found you, but I was scared and we didn’t know what was going on—”
“And she didn’t want me to get hurt,” Derek breaks in suddenly. Now it’s Laura’s turn to grab at him, and for him to shake her off. He stays in a crouch but he pushes himself off a yard or so from his sister, looking with a strange intensity at Talia. Then he swears under his breath, abruptly dropping his gaze. “He—did he not tell you?”
“Who?” Talia says.
Derek snarls over whatever Laura had been about to say to him, and then hunches in on himself. “Peter. I told him—I wanted him to tell—Mom, it was my fault. It was all my fault. I let Kate Argent in. I let her trick me, and she got in because I let her, and—and when the fire started I told Laura and Laura had us run because—”
“Because I had to get him away first, before any of you hurt him,” Laura says. She glares at Derek, who doesn’t look at her, and then turns back to look at Talia. Her chin rises slightly, but it’s a brittle bravado. “I didn’t know who was alive and who wasn’t, okay? But I knew you’d all go after him when he didn’t even know what Argent was up to. He thought she was in love with him—she tricked him, Mom. So I got him away. I was going to come back, but it was just—hunters everywhere. We couldn’t stop moving.”
“I told Peter,” Derek says again. He’s barely audible. Little drops of red are spangling the snow under his hands, which he’s twisting around each other. “I told him. He said he’d tell you.”
“Whatever he said, Derek didn’t know.” Laura’s voice rises angrily. “Peter’s always tried to split us up, and you let him get away with it, and that’s why we had to go, Mom.”
“Why? Because your uncle nearly died, because you were foolish?” Talia says. She looks at her eldest daughter and she thinks she’s seeing a stranger. “He’s family, Laura. And he didn’t say anything. He said Derek talked to him, that’s all. And I let—”
“You let him get away with murder. You let him get away with coming after us, and you let him drive Derek into going places where somebody like Kate Argent could find him and play him, and you did this to us too!” Laura suddenly shouts. “Did you think I wanted to take over? Do you think I want to owe the Argents? You let this happen! You were alpha! You were our mom, and you didn’t notice Derek was sneaking out—”
“Laura!” Derek hisses, swiping at her. He looks in alarm from her to Talia, and then he pushes up and he outright grabs at her shoulder. “Laura, stop it, don’t, that’s Mom—”
“And I took care of us without you,” Laura snarls, ignoring him. “I did that for years, and the first thing you do when you see us again is tell me I did it wrong, and you have no idea, no idea what we’ve been through, and I missed them all just as much as you, Mom. I missed them. I missed you, I even missed Peter, and we’re all here now but you look like you hate me—”
Talia can feel the shift pushing at her, melting her bones, burning across her skin. An agonized, furious growl squeezes out of her throat and her daughter freezes, hearing the challenge note in it. She doesn’t. She shifts her feet back and plants her hands in the snow, her lips curling back from her fangs.
“You left us all,” Talia says. “The one thing I wanted you to learn. And you pushed it away. You left. I would have died for you—for both of you, and you left us, and took up with our enemies—”
Her daughter hikes her shoulders back, eyes flaring red, her face broadening as she shifts. Laura’s voice drops into the alpha register and Talia sees her throat expand, and realizes that her own child is going to try and roar her into staying human, is going to make her and she can’t. She was, is, has always been alpha. Even when she lost her power, she didn’t really turn beta. She grew weak as one but she was ripped into, not remade, and the pieces that are left are those of an alpha.
“Mom, no!” Derek tries to dive in between them.
Laura fully shifts, but instead of matching Talia’s lunge, she grabs Derek’s arm and swings him out of the way. Then she tries to whip back to face Talia. She’s stronger and younger and healthier, and she’s quick enough to seize Talia’s arm. Her claws go straight into Talia’s flesh.
Talia barely notices. She’s too used to pain these days. And Laura’s expecting her to wince and twist away, so when she simply powers on to knock Laura to the ground, Laura is a beat slow in responding. And then Laura’s on her back, her throat exposed to Talia’s teeth.
“Oh, we can’t have that now,” says someone.
Talia jerks her head up and shifts human. There’s a new werewolf. A few of them. A pair of twins standing over Derek, holding him by the arms as he desperately tries to free himself. A woman crouched on Erica’s tree branch, clutching Erica’s arm so Erica drops the rock from her hand; she’d been aiming it to fling at Talia. And then a man, standing only a few feet from Talia and Laura, smiling and slowly clapping his hands.
“Well, well, it has been a very long time, Talia,” says Deucalion. He gestures to his milky eyes. “Most people would say something about how it feels to see you, but…never mind that. Let’s not waste the time, and move straight to business.”
“Vulture,” Laura hisses at him, even with Talia’s hand on her throat. “You can’t do a damn thing but go after your own.”
“Now, as I recall, I was more than fair. I gave you warning, and laid out my proposition, and even gave you time to consider it, as well as some…concrete proof of my intentions,” Deucalion says, glancing at Erica. He smiles as she pales, and then he turns back to Talia. “Your daughter rejected my offer. Very well, it’s not for everyone. But you, Talia…you remember, don’t you, the duties of an alpha? You remember what it means to be pack. And I always had the utmost respect for your judgment. So—”
“He wants you to kill Laura,” Derek shouts, just before one of the twins claps a hand over his mouth.
Deucalion shakes his head. “How inelegantly phrased. True, you’ll have to kill your daughter, but really, Talia, I couldn’t help but notice you were already in the middle of that. Because she’s not done her duty by you, has she? She’s turned her back on the true meaning of pack.”
“You killed your own,” Talia says after a moment.
“They turned on me. I did everything for them, everything, and the moment they saw an opening, they threw that all away,” Deucalion says, his voice suddenly sharp with bitterness.
The twins shift uneasily and between them Derek wrenches free one arm, only to be slapped roughly into the snow. Red lines trace out from where claws have slashed across the back of his shoulder. Laura’s nostrils flare, smelling it, and she snarls. Then her anger fades, and she just looks frightened and desperate as she looks up at Talia. “Mom? Mom, please, don’t listen to him. He’s just trying to twist your mind—”
“I’m trying to free you, Talia,” Deucalion says. He has a cane with him, and stabs the tip down just an inch from Laura’s eye. It takes a few strands of her hair with it. “I’m trying to show you the truth. The true werewolf pack, where you don’t have all these parasites sucking the lifeblood from you, but strength. Strength, Talia. Equals. And all you have to do is what you were going to do anyway. Kill her.”
“True pack,” Talia says slowly, turning her head to look at him. And then at Kali, and the twins. “This is a true pack.”
Laura inhales as if the air is cutting her throat, while Derek changes from snarls to sobs as he’s pressed into the snow.
“Yes,” Deucalion says.
Talia’s shift ripples back over her. “No,” she says, and she leaps at him.
He’s not expecting it. They’re so close that his cane gets in the way, and keeps him from getting his arm up to block her. He goes over under Talia’s weight, shifting, but her teeth have already gone in and out of his shoulder, and then she rakes him over with her claws as she wrenches herself into two-legged form. She grabs him and it takes everything she has, but she lifts his struggling, growling body and she flings it straight at Kali.
His cane spirals out in the opposite direction. Kali and Deucalion crash out of the tree, and then Kali flips around to leap over Deucalion and come straight at Talia. But she’s two-legged, and Talia’s back to four. She kicks out at Talia, then slashes down with her claws. They’re smooth, confident strokes, like an alpha, and Talia feels blood and pain lance over her side but she lunges through it, and as Kali’s eyes go huge with surprise, Talia’s teeth clamp over her neck.
A howl splits the air. Erica, crying her lungs out, as one twin goes for her, while the other struggles with Derek. Laura barrels into that one and knocks him off, and then Erica jumps from the tree and gets the twin to follow her straight into Derek’s claws and fangs. The two men tear at each other, rolling over into the snow, and then the twin yanks himself free. His brother’s also gotten away from Laura, and they’re reaching for each other when Talia rises and throws Kali’s corpse between them.
She roars like she hasn’t roared in years. She doesn’t hurt anymore. She’s whole, she thinks, and it’s so alien that for a second she thinks she must have died.
The twin cringe and fall out of shift. Derek and Erica flatten themselves, and even Laura ducks her head. The whole mountainside is ringing with noise now, werewolves howling from all directions, but Talia’s louder than any of them. Stronger than any of them. She’s alpha.
She turns, and she looks at Deucalion. He looks back, his red eyes focusing perfectly, and she bares her teeth at the ridiculous deception. “True pack,” she spits back at him. “You don’t know anything about it. None of you. You left your pack and you were alpha. They needed you and instead you let the Argents in, and when they took you to task for it, you killed them.”
“Talia,” Deucalion gasps. He has blood down his front. He’s healed from her wounds, but he knows he won’t heal from the next set she gives him.
“They’re my children, you fool,” Talia snarls. “You’re not pack. And you ask me to kill my own children for you—”
She springs at him. He braces himself, she can see that as she’s flying towards him, and then he charges at her. But he’s that little bit careful of himself, and she isn’t. She hasn’t been since the fire. And she’s not whole, she thinks as her claws and teeth sink into him, as his blood splashes up into his mouth. She’s alpha again, she’s strong, but she’s not whole and she will never be whole. This gap in her, she can’t heal it. All she can do is tear it open, and let out the blood.
Deucalion claws at her, ripping close enough to the soft part of her belly that she twists to avoid him. He slashes at her face and she lets go of him. Then jumps onto his back as he tries to crawl from her. She jabs her claws into his spine and his legs abruptly stop working. He stops snarling and starts screaming, as she drags herself up him and then gets her hand around his neck, and her claws are on his spine.
“You kill families!” She’s screaming too, she realizes. “You don’t know pack, you break packs, you do that all because yours hurt you and you can’t think of anything better than to make everybody hurt the way you do, and you won’t have mine! Not again, never again, I won’t lose more—”
“Don’t kill him!” somebody shouts. “Stop!”
“Please, Talia, mer—” Deucalion gasps.
She rips her claws across the back of his neck. She cuts out part of his spinal cord before that severs, too, and then he’s dead. And she’s lifting her head, looking for the person who wanted her to stop.
A twin looks back at her, shaking with terror. “Please. Please, we’ll stop, please—”
He drops his head, goes on his belly, and then his brother shouts and throws himself over, because Talia’s still running towards him. But the one gets tangled up in Kali’s body, while the other looks up but he’s frozen, he isn’t going to move and she’ll kill him too. She can smell her family’s blood on his claws. She’ll kill both of them. All of them.
“Mom!” Laura shouts. “Mom! Don’t! He’s submi—”
Talia whirls and she’s going to roar her daughter into silence when something makes her hesitate. Her head cocks and she just traces out Peter’s voice in the cacophony of howling wolves. Pack, pack, he’s saying. Wait, pack, we’re here.
Brother, she thinks. He stayed. They’ve stayed together, they are pack.
And then her daughter goes and snarls at her. “He gave up, Mom. Stop, okay? You can stop now.”
Talia swings back around. Laura realizes her mistake, and then she compounds it by taking a backwards step. She’s ceding ground.
“No, Mom!” Derek barges in, knocking both his sister and himself aside as Talia throws herself at them. Then he rolls himself up onto hands and knees before his sister, growling, as Talia shakes into full wolf form and prowls towards them.
He’s trying to growl, anyway. His voice keeps breaking.
“Hey!” And then Erica flings a double-armful of snow into Talia’s face.
Erica jumps back into a tree and Talia rams into it, shaking it so hard that the other woman, who hadn’t had the time to get a good grip, falls right out. But Erica kicks out as she falls, sending another freezing, stinging wave of snow into Talia’s face.
Talia jerks back, just from the sheer cold of it. She shakes her head, but the snow’s melted a little and is sticking to her muzzle. She steps back and paws at her face to get it off, and then she looks up and for a second she doesn’t remember who she is or what she’s doing or why she’s doing it. She’s just—she’s just so lost and tired.
“Hey, hey, oh, what hap—” says a new voice.
“Get back!” Erica snaps.
It’s too late. Scott’s still skidding to a stop, staring in horror at the dead bodies, when Talia rushes at him. He stands his ground, surprisingly, and when she hits him, he grunts and sways but he doesn’t fall over. And then he grabs her by the ruff and a foreleg, and flings her into a snowdrift.
Talia flips herself free and then a twin crosses her vision. She roars at him and he immediately drops into the snow, groveling. An easy target, except at the last second he’s yanked out from under her paws.
She turns and Scott’s snarling at her, the twin stuffed behind him. His eyes are flickering red, but then something else moves behind him. That girl. The Argent, and she’s leveling a crossbow at Talia.
“Stop,” Scott says. “Stop. Talia. Stop. You’re going to kill everyone.”
“We give up! We give up! We’ll stop, we’ll leave, we’ll do anything, just please—” begs the twin.
Talia snarls and her body twists to two-legged. “And what have you already done?” she snaps, eyeing the point of the Argent girl’s bolt. “How many families have you killed? Who have you tortured? You’ll give up just because I’m stronger, because you’re weak—you hurt packs when you were stronger. You’ll hurt them again if I get weak. Giving up now means nothing.”
“I swear, if you let us live, we won’t touch your pack ever,” the twin says. His brother joins him and they have to lean on each other, they’re shaking so badly.
“I’ll make sure of it. I’m not going to let anybody else get hurt,” Scott says. He drops halfway out of his defensive crouch, putting his hand out towards Talia. “I promise.”
“Who cares what you promise?” Talia snaps.
“I do,” Scott says, and his eyes go fully red. “I won’t let you hurt people either.”
“Back off,” the Argent girl says.
“Or you’ll lay my body next to the rest of my family?” Talia says. She jerks her eyes to the girl and watches her stiffen. “You’re no different from yours. You’ll kill all of us, one way or the other. You have no code. You just kill.”
The girl tightens her hands around her crossbow, but the weapon suddenly dips as if it’s tripled in weight. Her eyes are tearing up. “No. No, I—please. Please, just—please just give us a chance. We can make it—”
“Mom,” Laura says. “Mom. Stop. Stop, please, this isn’t you, you’ve never been—”
“Because you left!” Talia cries. “You left, and I wasn’t alpha, I failed, I let you all go and I don’t have anything. I have nothing, nothing, I lost all of it and I can’t never get it back. I can’t get them back. I lost them, Laura. I lost them.”
“Not us. Mom, we’re back. We’re back, and I swear, I swear, we won’t ever leave you again,” Derek pleads. “Please, just…please don’t—”
“You have to stop!” Laura says. “Stop! If you keep going like this—”
Talia turns on her. Scott inhales sharply, and then he jumps onto Talia’s back, but he’s too slow and she easily shakes him off. The Argent girl is too slow, not getting her shot off before Derek swerves in front of Laura, and Talia hears her cry out in frustration, pulling the crossbow aside. And Laura. Laura backs up, then rushes forward again as Talia slaps Derek down.
Derek whimpers in shock and Talia freezes, staring at him but seeing a much younger, smaller version of her son. And Laura had lunged with all the expectation that Talia would turn to meet her instead, and when Talia doesn’t, she can’t pull out of it. Her claws scrape at the side of Talia’s neck and then she jolts, pushed sideways by something else. She falls down in the snow, staring at Talia’s blood on her hands, an arrow sprouting from her shoulder.
Talia jerks around and traces the arrow’s path back to Chris Argent, who deliberately drops his bow when their eyes meet. And then he steps around in a semi-circle, not nearly quick enough to avoid Talia’s charge at him, but quick enough to block his daughter from shooting Talia.
He gasps as Talia throws him into the snow, and then waves his arm wildly. Not to block her, but to signal to someone else. “No, no, it’s—”
“Dad!” his daughter cries.
“Allison, stop,” he says. He grunts in pain as Talia flexes her claws in his shoulders, and then levers his head over to look up at her. “We can’t make up for it. We can’t. Your family’s dead. We can’t give you them back. But—but my daughter, Allison, she’s already made a new life, so it’s just me. So kill me or turn me, just let it stop there.”
“Turn?” Talia says. She’s surprised enough to forget her rage for a second. “That’s same as kill for you.”
“No, it’s—if you turn me, I’ll stay,” Chris Argent says. He stares at her, struggling to breathe with her weight on him. “You can get new pack, even if you can’t get your family back. And then we’re gone. All the Argents will be gone. Allison’s not an Argent, and I won’t be one. And you can stop. You need to, Talia. You can’t keep doing this. It’s not going to bring them back either.”
She snarls at him, and then snarls to either side without looking up. She can hear them circling her. Treating her like enemy, like the unwanted. And—and that’s what she is, after all. She’s not whole. She’s not right. Laura was right. She was wrong, and she failed, and she lost everyone because of it. She’s not an alpha.
She’s just a killer, same as the Argents.
“You’re who you are, no matter the skin you wear,” she tells Chris. “When you think I’m weak, you’ll come after me, too.”
And then she bites him.
The show plays it as such a huge betrayal when Marco tries to kill a newly-blinded Deucalion, but...really, this is after Deucalion's attempt to have peace talks with Gerard Argent, despite multiple people telling him it's a bad idea (also, wrong person to talk to if the Argents really do have female leaders, which the show doesn't truly enforce), gets a lot of his pack slaughtered by Gerard. I think I would have serious doubts about the quality of Deucalion's leadership too, if I were a surviving pack member.
Stiles and Peter are the last to arrive, despite an effort that leaves Stiles stumbling with exhaustion. And on top of that, Stiles was howling constantly, trying to get updates, adding warnings for the Argents, demanding Scott leave Talia alone. So by the time they get there, Stiles simply collapses and lets Peter slide off him.
Then he rises, only to go still next to Peter as he takes in the tableau.
Peter knows the rest of them are there, but he only has eyes for his sister. Who’s just lifting her head from Chris Argent’s shoulder, fresh blood smeared over layers of the stuff around her mouth. She looks at the bite she’s just made, blinking slow and hard, and then she climbs clumsily off Argent. Stumbles twice, and rights herself as if she’s either drunk or in a daze, before she sees Peter.
Talia goes stiff, and then she suddenly rushes over to him. Behind her Peter can see both Laura and Scott starting forward, looking alarmed; he snarls at them and then forces his arm to get up as Talia smashes herself into him, sobbing before her head even hits his shoulder.
“Your eyes are red,” Peter can’t help saying. He looks again, and this time he sees the bodies. His hand tightens on Talia’s arm.
“Peter,” Talia whispers, before he can ask. “Peter. I’m not—I’m not right. I can’t—this isn’t right. I can’t do this. I can’t—I can’t—I’m not an alpha. I shouldn’t be an alpha. You need to—”
Somehow he understands. He goes stiff, not even breathing. A thousand thoughts come into his mind all at once. She can’t be asking; she is asking. He dreamed of her asking. He never thought she would. Once he wanted to make her beg for it and now she’s begging and he doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t sound like his sister and she sounds so much like her that he wants to be sick.
“You’re—it’ll heal you,” Talia goes on. “Just—make it—I don’t—stop it—”
“Stop,” Peter finally manages to choke out. He nudges at her, wanting to see her face, but she clings tighter and he doesn’t have the strength. So he just leans against her. “Stop. Stop. What—what happened—”
“What the hell,” Stiles is saying in the background. “What the fuck did you people do to her—”
“Dad. Dad, please, oh, my God, are you okay, please tell me you’re okay,” the Argent girl is saying.
Her father’s trying to tell her something, but her voice rises to a near-shriek and he can’t be heard. Peter’s head jerks up and he looks past Talia just in time to see Stiles shove the girl over into the snow next to her father—wood cracks, pieces of her crossbow stick up beneath Stiles’ foot—and then lash out at Scott.
“I don’t give a fuck if she’s your soulmate, Scott, if she doesn’t stop pointing that damn thing at us—” Stiles snarls.
“Wait, wait, Stiles, just—” Scott’s glancing frantically between Stiles and the Argent girl, who’s mercifully shut up and is just clutching at her father. And then he stiffens, half-twisting as Derek and Laura snarl at him, the pair of them stalking up so that they’re between him and Peter and Talia.
They’re careful to stay away from Stiles, and the rest of them, Erica and Boyd and Isaac, hang further back. Erica’s bouncing on her feet, straining forward, but Boyd has her firmly by the arm. He and Isaac both look as if they’ll bolt any second.
“I can’t do this,” Talia keeps saying to Peter. “I can’t, I can’t, just—you always wanted to, Peter, I know you did, just kill me—”
Derek whirls about first, a horrorstricken look on his face. Laura spares a moment to give Scott another snarl, then turns more slowly, but with no less shock. She and Peter lock eyes for a second and her lips start to pull back in a warning growl.
“You hated me and you were right, you were right, I’m not right, I’m not a good alpha,” Talia is saying.
“I’m not—” Peter says, still staring at Laura. He knows why she’s looking like that at him. But it—just feels like so long ago, when he was like that. It’s like dreaming, remembering how he used to be.
Talia drags at him, and her claws dig into his arm, drawing blood. Peter hisses and Talia whines, a low, horribly crushed noise that Derek echoes, taking a half-step forward before Stiles suddenly breaks off his yelling at Scott to snarl Derek back. Derek’s eyes widen, and then Laura yanks him out of the way and steps up to square off with Stiles.
“Peter. Peter, you have to. You’ll be better. I made you this way, I’m so sorry, it was all my fault,” Talia whimpers. “It’s wrong, everything is wrong but if you just—just do it, just make it right. Make it better. Please.”
“Talia. Talia, stop it.” Peter tries to compose himself, or at least sound like he means it. But he’s shaking, all of him is shaking. His voice is shaking. “Stop it. That’s not what happened.”
His sister clutches at him so hard that he whines in pain; Stiles jerks and swings a hand behind himself, towards Peter, but he keeps staring at Laura. And then Talia starts jerking at Peter, her voice rising in agitation. “Peter, I remember,” she says. “Don’t lie to me. I remember that. I remember, don’t you? I hurt you. I ignored you, I just worried about my children, I didn’t tell you things, I—I took things from you. I took them! You don’t remember but I made you not remember—”
“Stop it, stop it, you’re—” Peter bites down on the hurting me. He stops fighting her too. He doesn’t have the strength to resist so he turns himself into dead weight, simply trying to wear her out. “And I do remember. I remember the holes, and I got some of it back when you healed me—”
“But I did that!” Talia cries. And then she shoves so hard that Peter goes over onto his back.
He gasps, winded, but she’s on top of him and keeping him down. Her claws are stabbing into his shoulders, and a couple of them are scratching dangerously close to his neck. He sucks in his breath, trying to twist away, jerking his head back and pulling at his shoulders, but that just makes her haul him closer, moving her claws further onto his throat.
“Oh—shit, Peter,” Stiles suddenly says. He’s out of view but Peter can hear the fear in his voice. “Peter—Talia, Talia, get off him. Get off! Now! Or—”
Talia isn’t listening to him. She isn’t listening to anyone, not even to Peter. Her eyes are wide and blank, disturbingly empty compared to the near-fury of the despair in her voice. “I did that! I got them killed, I got them all killed, I lost the children. I lost them, Peter—”
“Mom!” Derek shouts. Someone at least has the sense to hold him back, but he keeps yelling. “Mom! Mom, we’re right here—”
“—you’re—you’re all scarred, I did that, I did that too.” Talia’s claws skitter over the side of Peter’s neck, stinging as they leave a few light scratches. “I made you like this, I made you, I made you—”
“Talia,” says Stiles, just short of a roar.
She stiffens and cracks show in those blank eyes, and for a second Peter hopes that they’ve gotten through to her. But then Talia wrenches her head to the side and down, and her teeth are coming at his throat and Peter whines desperately, begging her, begging his mate, even as he yanks up his arm with all his strength to try and push her away.
He doesn’t manage to touch her. She grabs his wrist first, squeezing it painfully as her teeth click just short of his throat. “Kill me,” she says. She inhales, sobbing, and then pulls his hand to her chest. “Peter, I’m not right. I’m not right. I can’t be wrong again. I can’t.”
Peter opens his mouth and she jerks his hand up and he cries out. They both shudder for a second, unable to speak.
And then Talia looks at him. She’s confused, almost to the point of wonder, and he’s shaking even harder, because he can feel a few drops of blood in his hand and he can’t believe he managed to fist his fingers in time, keeping the claws from going into her.
“No,” he says. “No. Talia, no.”
“But why?” she asks him, and she looks so pitiful, matted hair swinging into her face, dried blood flaking off her skin. Her eyes are red but they’re the dull, beaten red of worn-out earth. “Why?”
“You’re my sister,” he says. He has to struggle for enough breath to go on. “My sister. You stayed, you didn’t leave. You can’t leave me, Talia. Not now. You’ve stayed so long, please—please don’t leave. Please.”
She goes still. Someone gasps in the background, and someone else mutters that that was the wrong thing to say. There are a few snarls, and somebody orders Chris to stay down. Talia doesn’t react to any of it. She just stares and stares at Peter, and for the first time in his entire life, Peter thinks that she really is hearing just him.
“I’m sorry,” Talia says. “I’m so sorry.”
Peter goes stiff, then pulls together what’s left of his strength and wrenches at himself, trying to pull out from under her. He gets his head and throat clear, and one arm that he flings out and then uses to claw at the snow. He looks up and Stiles is lunging towards him, while Scott and Laura are coming around from the side.
But then Talia grabs him again. She jerks him back under her, belly-down, before the others can reach them and then she flattens her hands against his skin and there’s a sudden, wild spin and it’s like Peter is upside-down and outside of his own skin at the same time, a shock of energy slamming into him, and he can’t breathe or think and then he can’t feel—
He comes back to himself very slowly. Very strangely. It takes him several seconds to figure out that the strangeness is mostly because something’s missing: all the pains that normally color every waking moment. When he moves, it’s even stranger because he does so with his usual care, but his body moves so smoothly that it makes him feel as if it’s not his own.
“Oh, good,” Stiles is saying, voice shattered with relief. Then his breath puffs against Peter’s neck and it’s so oddly intense, that simple sensation, that Peter whimpers. Stiles purrs in apology, nuzzling him, and…
Peter puts his hand up. He touches his neck, and then, with his new, bizarrely capable limbs, he pushes himself up against the other man’s cradling embrace to look at himself. At his—his unscarred skin, his straight leg.
“I’m sorry,” Talia says, just as panic starts to grip at Peter. She’s sitting next to him and Stiles, her head hanging so her hair hides her face. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He knows even before she looks up at him, but he still inhales when he sees her blue eyes. Peter inhales again, more slowly, and then he slowly pulls himself out of Stiles’ hold. He shifts to within a few inches of his sister, watching her almost flinch from him, and then he dips his head.
An agonizingly long second later, he feels her forehead press against his own. He purrs and she doesn’t purr back, but she makes a soft, acknowledging noise, and then her hand slips over his. “I’m sorry,” she says again, without her earlier hysteria. “I—I keep failing.”
“I don’t remember that,” Peter says quietly. He turns his hand over under her palm, and then curls it loosely around her fingers. “You’re my sister, Talia, before you were alpha. You’re my sister without being alpha. You’ll—you’ll stay, and we’ll get better than this. We said that. You said that. You promised me, remember?”
She sobs a little. And then she nods, and she falls against his shoulder again. He wraps her arm around her and then he looks up at Stiles, who’s risen to stand over them.
“We’re going,” Stiles says, staring at the rest of them. “Erica and Boyd, you can come too if you want, but the rest of you are going to stay away till we call you to come over. And I mean it this time. Anybody shows up and I will send them back in pieces.”
“Okay,” Scott says. He glances over his shoulder, then deliberately steps in front of Laura. “Yeah. Yeah, we got it.”
The Argent girl stares at his back, but he doesn’t turn around. He looks at Stiles, solemn and determined. And just the faintest bit wistful, although that doesn’t really show till Stiles gives him a curt nod and then turns on one heel.
Stiles pauses as Erica and Boyd skitter up, and then he offers Peter his hand. Peter takes it, pulling himself and Talia up onto their feet, and they start off towards home.
* * *
Talia’s in a daze for perhaps a day and a half. People tell her things, and she hears them, but it’s like hearing somebody recite a story about someone she doesn’t know. Only a few times does something truly register, and it’s always something that Peter says. Telling her they’re back, telling her he’s going to be in the main den, telling her he’ll be around when she wakes up.
She washes herself off and eats and sleeps. When she wakes up, her brother and Stiles are dozing next to her, wrapped into each other. Stiles still smells like heat, but it’s diluted, the dregs of a very deep, sustained rage still laced through it. But she can tell the heat’s starting to override everything else, and she thinks that he’ll probably—
They’ll probably go. Peter’s healed now. He’s not in heat, but he’s healthy and he can keep up with Stiles. She ends up staring at him for several minutes, trying to puzzle out the lines of the brother she’s used to in the handsome, unmarred shapes of his face and body. Then she shakes herself out of it. She feels—aware again.
Talia goes into the entrance tunnel. She doesn’t go all the way out of the den, but she goes far enough so that the drafts blow fresh air over her. Far enough that she’s shivering a little when she hears footsteps behind her.
“You always think I’m cold,” she mutters.
“Well, you never remember to grab a fur.” Stiles pauses as Talia starts and whirls about, and then hands her the fur with a half-amused, half-apologetic expression. “Erica’s kind of worn out too, but I’m sure as soon as she’s finished her nap, she’ll be up to stalking you again.”
Talia continues to look at him and Stiles starts to look uncomfortable. He presses his lips together, then abruptly drops to sit next to her.
“So. Um. So I’m gonna mate your brother,” he says. He starts to pick at the dirt with a claw. “There was a little bit of a misunderstanding about that, and I know you were really pissed off with me that I kept pushing him off, but look, I actually really love him, and I’m—”
“You’re an alpha, you don’t need to ask my permission,” Talia says. It’s odd, but she even manages to be a little amused at him.
“Yeah, well, you’re not an alpha, but I still want to know you’re okay with it,” Stiles shoots back. Then he grimaces, flicking a pebble away. “Talia, I…I know we work differently about the pack thing, but you’re kind of family to me, even without the whole me and Peter thing. You’ve been living here for how many years? That’s…kind of significant.”
“If you say so,” Talia says. She tugs the fur around herself, and then lets it droop off her shoulders as she looks down the tunnel. “I’m fine with it, Stiles. I’m—I’m happy for you, and for Peter. You make him happy, and I want him to be happy.”
“Oh. Oh, well, good. And, um, thanks. Really, I mean it, I really wanted—your opinion about it does mean something to me.” Stiles mutters a little longer, mostly insults to himself about his smooth talking, and then he falls silent for a few minutes. He’s still fidgeting but it’s an absentminded kind of fidgeting, toying with pebbles. It’s not particularly nervous and so it doesn’t bother Talia. “So how are you?”
Talia winces before she can help herself. She presses her lips together and thinks about not answering. And then she sighs, and looks over at him. “I don’t know why I acted like that, Stiles,” she says. It’s all she can do to keep her voice from breaking, but she makes herself get the words out. “So many years, like you said. So many I managed, and then…I am wrong, aren’t I? Healthy people don’t do that.”
He looks away from her. She thinks he’s disgusted with her, but then he snorts under his breath and leans so that their shoulders touch. “So I went a little crazy, right after my parents died,” he says. He waves his hand around them. “You can see that here, you know. If you were wondering why it’s so big—even when they were alive, we didn’t need this much space. And then it was just me and I…couldn’t stop. I just thought, we came out here to start over and show those assholes we didn’t need them, and I gotta keep it up even though Mom and Dad are gone, and I kept digging and expanding and I didn’t stop till you and Peter blew in.”
“I didn’t know,” Talia finally says.
“Yeah, you two were mostly passed out while I finished up where I was, but…it’s probably a good thing you weren’t awake much for that,” Stiles says ruefully. “I hadn’t talked to anybody else in so long, and I wasn’t even used to seeing other people. I kept looking over and seeing you two and freaking out, and I think I was a different kind of nuts for a while. I had to get used to having people around again. And anyway, what I’m trying to say…we got fucked up, Talia. And it’d be nice if it worked like Scott seems to think, and you just forgive people and suddenly you’re over it, but it doesn’t.”
Talia looks over at him again. He’s looking back, sober and calm, and his experience with what he’s describing shows in the way he cocks his head, the easy but firm tone he uses, the quiet sympathy in his eyes.
“It’d be a lot easier if you could just kill your way through it, but I don’t know that that works either. Not that I’m saying you should’ve not killed those alphas—Erica was very impressed, by the way—but…I used to think about storming back and killing all the people who hurt my parents.” Stiles grins briefly, and then goes serious again. “Okay, maybe I still think about it. But I’m pretty sure now that it wouldn’t make me happy. Because what makes me happy—Peter makes me happy. You make me happy. Erica and Boyd are kind of growing on me, and—honestly, as infuriating as he is, knowing Scott survived makes me happy, too.”
“I used to tell my pack that vendettas are about death, plain and simple. And if that’s what you want, so be it. But it won’t get you life, if that’s what you’re looking for,” Talia says.
Stiles nods. “Makes sense.”
Talia smiles and it hurts a little. “I used to make sense. I don’t know what happened. I…I don’t know what to do anymore.”
“Well, you don’t have to figure it out all at once,” Stiles says, getting up. “I’ll keep the others off while you think it over. Okay?”
“Yes, that’s—thank you, Stiles,” Talia says, looking up at him. “Thank you. That’s—that’s the way I should be acting.”
“I still don’t know about this alpha pack leader thing, but we’re friends,” he says. “I’m just trying to be one.”
“I know,” she says. “I know, and thank you.”
It’s so strange, being healthy. Peter tries to keep close to the den, both to reassure Talia and to reassure himself about her, but he wants to test his renewed body and he doesn’t want to look like a fool. So he sneaks off into the woods when she’s asleep.
The third time he goes, Stiles catches him at it. They’re still in winter. It’s cold. Thin plates of ice rim the edges of streams and ponds, and Peter is childishly, and with great satisfaction, breaking them with his paws when he catches a whiff of Stiles’ scent.
And then he’s bowled headfirst into the pond. Peter’s yelping mouth draws half a lungful of icy water into him. He comes up spitting it out, angrily clawing his way to the bank, only to get tumbled again. This time he at least stays on land, but a heavy, squirming body slides over him, holding him down.
Stiles is in wolf form as well, and he’s laughing, little grunts of amusement as he noses and nuzzles behind Peter’s waterlogged ears. His forepaws push at Peter’s shoulders, and then he swings his hip into Peter’s side. Peter growls, still irritated, and Stiles bumps him again, more pointedly. And then Peter lifts his head to try and raise himself and he smells Stiles, just as he feels the paws on his back twist into fingers.
Those hands drag through the fur ruffed around his neck, firm and deliberately slow, as Peter shifts too, still marveling at how painless that is. Then Stiles bends down and nuzzles his neck again as he groans, dropping back onto his belly, spreading his legs as the other man’s cock starts to nudge up against his thigh. “You feel nice,” Stiles mutters, licking at Peter’s jaw. “’m too damn hot.”
“Jump in the water,” Peter says, half-serious, even as he’s kneading his fingers into the snowy bank. He’s shivering a little but he doesn’t notice the cold so much now, and he’s certainly not feeling it where Stiles is pressing into him. And the smell of the man, it’s like spiced wine, going down warm and then spreading further, tingling into every part of Peter. “I’m not your toy now just because I’m better—”
“Nah,” Stiles says.
He’s laughing, laughing and leaving a stinging tease of a trail down the back of Peter’s neck, nipping and sucking, his hands smoothly palming down Peter’s sides to cup Peter’s hips. He hunches up and his cock wedges gently between Peter’s buttocks, and then he rocks up. Not in, not forcing it, just letting Peter feel the pressure of him and Peter moans and Stiles rumbles over the noise, lightly catching the skin of Peter’s throat between his teeth for a dizzying second.
“Nah, never was dicking around, but I’m almost over, Peter, and I really, really don’t want to wait another year,” Stiles goes on. As he speaks he lays little licks across Peter’s back, working from shoulderblade to shoulderblade. He keeps rocking too, gradually working his cock till it’s almost against Peter’s hole and Peter can smell himself starting to slick up. “Fuck, seriously, we finally got that straightened out and—”
“Yes, please, yes,” Peter moans. He drags one hand back and scrabbles till he catches some part of Stiles, and then he pulls at it till Stiles grabs his wrist, pins it to the ground. “Damn it, yes, now, before—someone else we used to know shows up and—and wrecks—”
“Fuck that, once we’re mated, that happens and I’ll—” Then Stiles lets out a high, delighted laugh, pushing Peter down as Peter snarls and tries to twist around to grab him.
His teeth prick into Peter’s throat. His hands cup Peter’s shoulders, his knees squeeze Peter’s hips, and for a second he just wraps Peter, his weight and his warmth and his smell and everything he is, just sinking into Peter. He rumbles and Peter purrs, then drops into small, begging whines, shifting his hips into the tiny amount of space he has.
Stiles does play with him, whatever the man says. He works a hand down and fingers Peter open, nipping at Peter’s throat whenever Peter tries to hurry them. In between he traces out every muscle in Peter’s nape and along Peter’s jaw, and across both of Peter’s shoulders. The lines of spit chill a little, in the winter air, and then Stiles rubs against them. The heat of his body is startling, provoking shudders and gutshot groans from Peter.
When he finally does take his fingers out, he does it with a sloppy flick that smears slick up Peter’s thigh, and then he adds another smear over one buttock as he grabs Peter by the hips. The smell of it mixes into the smell of Stiles’ heat, till it’s almost one scent, indistinguishable, and that alone would bring Peter to his knees if he wasn’t already lying down.
Stiles arches over him, cock head pushed into Peter, and then he sinks fully in with one swift press. His breath gusts across Peter’s back and riffles Peter’s hair; Peter whines in encouragement, dragging his own erection against the melting snow till Stiles worms a hand under him and catches hold of that. They’ve done this before, slept together. This isn’t new. Peter being able to enjoy it without reservation, without even thinking about what it’ll cost his body, that is new. But that’s sensation, easy to drop into.
When Peter first feels Stiles nose at his throat, he forgets for a moment what else is new and he doesn’t respond. He’s used to trying his hardest to not come off as too needy, too insistent. Stiles noses him again, and then nips him, and Peter gasps and starts so roughly that he almost comes off the ground. His hands slip as he catches himself and Stiles has to put one hand down too.
But then Stiles tries again, running his teeth along Peter’s neck, and Peter remembers and he just glories in it for a second, glories in the fact that he can. And then…
He offers his throat, and his mate accepts, teeth firmly closing down. Peter shudders to the point he can’t breathe. And he’s not the one in heat, he’s not the one who should be worried about his control, but he doesn’t have any right then. It’s all disappeared and he arches up and cries out and comes, his claws stabbing through the last of the snow and into the soft earth beneath.
Peter’s a little embarrassed, once he gets his breath back. He should last longer. Even when he’d been crippled, he’d lasted longer. But Stiles doesn’t seem to care, continuing to move slow and deep in him, and soon Peter’s hard again and he’s able to actually see to his mate. For once.
“It’s not like you were crappy before,” Stiles says, amused, as they’re half-heartedly cleaning each other. He leans over and licks the sweat from Peter’s jaw, and then laves at the still-healing bite on Peter’s throat. “Shit. I’m on the downhill side and I still wanna just keep screwing you.”
“Den?” Peter suggests. And then grimaces, remembering.
“I don’t think the others will appreciate that. Even Erica would probably be more frustrated than anything,” Stiles says. He scrubs a handful of melting snow over his leg, then helps Peter up, grinning as Peter moves a little stiffly. “You okay with that?”
“The girl sniffing around my sister, or you giving me a limp again right after I lost it?” Peter says. When Stiles elbows him, he snorts, and then he dips his head and purrs for the playfully reprimanding nip Stiles gives his jaw. They lean into each other for a moment before Peter reluctantly looks back towards the den. “Well, if Erica still thinks she’s up to it…I’m not one to judge people on what risks they take.”
Stiles laughs, but he’s sobering too. “Except you kind of are.”
Peter starts to glower at him, and then stops and just shrugs. “If she wants to keep trying with Talia, I have no objections. So far she seems to understand the basics of dealing with past trauma. Namely, don’t make it worse.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I don’t know, you know, maybe I should’ve…we ran off everybody who came around before this. Maybe if Talia had had somebody…you think?” Stiles says, glancing sideways at Peter.
“She didn’t want anybody. I still don’t think she’s prepared to think about it,” Peter says after a long moment. It’s occurred to him too, especially thinking about why his sister, the famous alpha, renowned for her wisdom and strength, has ended up this way when he hasn’t. She wasn’t even as seriously injured in the fire, and yet—he supposes they were wrong about that, too. “You can’t force people.”
“True.” They walk on for a few paces, and then Stiles takes a deep breath. “So, hate to bring this up so soon after good times, but…she bit Chris Argent. And we haven’t heard howling or anything, so I’m guessing he survived and turned.”
Peter presses his lips together. He’s silent the rest of the way to the den and Stiles lets him be. Stiles looks a little uncomfortable at first, but soon he seems to realize that Peter’s not angry with him, and then he’s just…he just keeps Peter company for the walk. He’s worth mating for so many reasons, and this is a small one amongst them, but still, for a moment Peter wonders. Why him, and not Talia?
It doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter not because he doesn’t care, but because it isn’t going to stay that way. His sister will live, and fight another day. She always has, and if nobody else will, Peter will see to it that that doesn’t change.
“I thought about it and I’m not planning on declaring a vendetta. Not right now, at any rate. I make no promises about their future blunders,” Peter finally says, just before they go into the den. “It’s not—I’m not forgiving them. But it’s hard not to see how going after them just seems to damage us worse. Having them as pack—well, it’s not something we’ve tried yet.”
“Not something you sound like you’re looking forward to, either,” Stiles notes. “Do you have to call them pack?”
Yes, Peter almost says, and then he stops himself. Instead he looks at Stiles. “He’s not family to you, is he?”
“What, just because Talia bit him? That’s not how we work,” Stiles says. He pauses, and then reaches over to rub his thumb against Peter’s throat. The bite’s almost healed but the slight pressure makes Peter purr anyway, and Stiles smiles at that. “I mean, if you two say, I guess I can consider him…an associate or something, but for me you have to earn family status.”
They can hear the others now. Boyd and Erica appear to be discussing dinner, and when they emerge into the main chamber, Peter and Stiles find them pulling apart a smoked salmon. Stiles bounces over to add in his opinion, while Peter retreats to where Talia’s sitting on the bed.
Her nostrils flare. She restrains herself till he sits down, and then she reaches over and taps the fading bite mark. Peter makes a face and pushes her hand away, so she ruffles his hair instead.
“Finally,” she says.
“You’re annoying,” Peter says.
Talia smiles, but it’s thin and brief. Once it fades she goes back to huddling with her knees clutched to her chest. “He was asking about Chris Argent.”
“For headcount purposes, I think,” Peter says. “I don’t think any of us are in any rush.”
“Peter, I made a beta, and my kids are still hanging around,” Talia says. If she didn’t sound so drained, she’d come off as sarcastic. Then she sighs and she shifts to lean her head on his shoulder. “I’m not…I still don’t—I’m worried that if I—”
“So don’t,” Peter says. He looks at her. “Argent should know how to be a werewolf without any help, he’s hunted enough of us. If not, well, he has his daughter’s boyfriend for that. And as for Derek and Laura…they’re family. But they’ve also survived on their own. Regardless of how that happened, Talia—they survived. You raised them so they could do that.”
She inhales sharply. Erica looks over, while Stiles pretends he isn’t monitoring them and Boyd flat-out buries himself in pulling out pinbones. Peter bites his lip, cursing his too-relaxed attitude—he forgot how pain-free sex could do that—and then he starts to take back his words.
“I know,” Talia says lowly, interrupting him. “I know, but…that doesn’t feel right either. And I can’t—we said we’d be better. So I want to be. I don’t want to hide in here all the time, and when I go out, I don’t want to have to worry about running into them.”
“We could make them go away,” Peter can’t help saying, even as surprise and relief spread through him.
“That’s not going to make me stop worrying,” she says irritably. She sounds closer to her old self. “Peter—”
“If you want to try and deal with them again, fine. Just do me a favor and let’s stop these accidental encounters that turn into disasters, all right?” Peter says.
She looks at him and he resists the urge to drop his eyes, staring pointedly back at her. Which irritates her more, and then she suddenly grins and wraps her arm around him. “I missed you,” she says. “I missed my little brother who criticizes all my decisions.”
“I never left,” Peter mutters. He lets her pull him over, and then he sighs and presses his cheek to her neck. “I’m still here. I’ve always been here.”
“I know,” she says. Her amusement fades. She nuzzles the top of his head, then turns hers to gaze at the far wall. “I know. And they’re here, too, and I…I need to learn how to live with it, Peter. We survived too, and I want—I want us to be able to accept that.”
“All right,” Peter says after a moment. “All right. We’ll try.”
“I, um, I figured I should come and say sorry,” Scott says. “To all of you, but especially to Peter and Talia.”
Stiles blinks, then looks at Peter and Talia. When they don’t say anything, he turns slowly back to Scott. “I—okay. I mean, okay, you’re saying that, but—”
“Derek and Laura and I all talked when we got your message, and they really didn’t want to…to…” Scott waves his hands vaguely, and with increasing speed.
“Just spit it out,” Stiles says, rolling his eyes. “Don’t be tactful, you take forever that way.”
“Okay, well, we did talk. But they keep getting really upset and I finally told them if they can’t keep it together when they’re talking to me, maybe it’s a bad idea for them to come over,” Scott says. He pauses and he and Stiles look at each other, and then he sighs. “Fine, I told them they don’t get to come till they calm down. And I figure if you can talk to me without me getting you upset, that’s a good sign.”
“And you don’t mind if you get mauled because Talia does get upset,” Stiles mutters. He rubs at his face and then shoots Scott a look that’s half-resentful, half-impressed. “Damn it, Scott, why is it even when I’m mad at you, I still want to make you see sense?”
Scott suddenly straightens out of the slight hunch he’s been in since he walked up the hill. They’re well away from the den, though Erica and Boyd should be able to see them where those two are keeping watch right on top of the den. “Stiles, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I know I barged in and after what happened with your parents, I told myself I was going to be better about that, but I wasn’t. But I just—I’m really happy to see you, and I still hope we can be friends again.”
He’s so earnest it makes Peter’s teeth ache. Peter shifts and Stiles glances at him, and Peter makes himself shrug. They haven’t discussed the matter of Scott’s girlfriend, but officially mating just confirmed Peter’s feelings. It hasn’t changed them. He still wants to see Stiles happy, and if that involves Stiles’ former best friend, then he’ll figure something out.
“I’m not going to stop seeing Allison,” Scott goes on, looking at them. He’s more hesitant, but not because he doesn’t mean what he’s saying. “But…I get why you might not want her around, and so does she. If you don’t want to see her or hear about her, I can…she’ll stay away, and I’ll descent before I come visit—”
“That’s kind of the polite thing to do anyway,” Stiles says dryly. He pauses, glancing at Peter again, and then presses his hand over his face. “Okay, look…the Allison thing, I can’t really speak to that, that’s not me. But I’m glad to see you too, and—and seriously, Scott, we never were not friends. It’s just—don’t just grin like an idiot, you idiot, are you kidding me? You went and werewolfed yourself and whatever and came to find me, and—man, I do not understand you sometimes, but—but yeah. I’d like to…to catch up.”
Scott keeps grinning and eventually Stiles smiles too. They stare at each other with such affection that Peter can’t help but fidget, even with a morning-sex bite from Stiles still fading from his shoulder, and not a flicker of arousal in either man’s scent.
“Neither of us are about to go after your Argent friends,” Peter says. “That said, I personally feel no urgency to get acquainted with them, either.”
Scott’s smile fades. He looks Peter solemnly in the eye and nods firmly. “Okay. I’ll let them know.”
“I want to speak to Chris Argent,” Talia says abruptly. She looks at Peter, then touches his arm as she steps forward. “Just him.”
“And I’ll absent myself from that discussion, too,” Peter mutters. Though she and he both know that doesn’t mean he won’t involve himself, or be watching Talia’s back. It’s just that…much as he meant it when he told Stiles he isn’t interested in declaring a vendetta, he knows himself too well to test his determination when he doesn’t have to.
“Um. Okay. I’ll…I’ll tell them that too,” Scott says, blinking rapidly. He looks about to ask her a question, and then he shakes his head. “I’m sorry I just—assumed getting them to apologize to you would make things better for you. You’re right, I don’t know how you feel. I’ve never lost people like that. And I really…I can tell you’re hurting, and I just want to help people when I see that, but I shouldn’t just think I know how to fix somebody. I should’ve asked you.”
Talia hesitates, and then looks at Peter.
“I’m sorry I had Allison come to talk to you without telling you,” Scott says to Peter, before Peter can say anything. “That was really stupid. Even though she really is sorry, surprising you like that is…it’s not a great way to show that we’re being honest with you, and that we don’t want to hurt you anymore.”
“We’re not going to go after you either,” Peter finally says. He’s not quite ready to accept an apology from the man, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to waste energy on staying angry with him. And not just because Scott is Stiles’ friend, but also because Peter himself doesn’t want to have the man on his mind. “I will say that getting an apology out of the Argents is more than anyone except for Stiles has ever done for us.”
“You were stupid,” Talia says bluntly. She pauses. Then she tilts her head as she looks at Scott, and something about the way she holds herself reminds Peter of when they were young and she used to pull him out of trouble. “But you’re young. Learn before someone else tries to kill you.”
“I will, I swear,” Scott says, looking relieved. He waits, looking between them, and when nobody says anything, he takes a backwards step. “Okay. So I guess I’ll—”
“Thank you for helping my children,” Talia says more softly. “I…may not like what you’ve done, or who you keep company with, or who they keep company with. But I’m—I want them to be alive. I appreciate—whatever you’ve helped with there, thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Scott lets his mouth hang open, as if he’ll say more, and then just nods sharply. He gives them a few more seconds, and then he turns and he slowly walks down the hill.
Stiles looks after him for a few minutes, with an expression Peter can’t quite read. Peter shifts a little nearer and Stiles twitches, then ducks his head and rubs his nose. “So that’s kind of why he’s—he was—I mean—” he mutters.
“He remembered you,” Talia says. She’s also staring after Scott, but just as the hairs on the back of Peter’s neck start to prickle, she abruptly turns away. Talia gives Stiles a long, calm look, and then she starts to walk back towards the den. “Losing people you care about is—hard. It’s better if you don’t.”
“So…” Stiles says, eyeing her. He moves his arm to wrap around Peter’s waist as Peter nuzzles into the side of his neck. “Is that a blessing, or an order, or what?”
“It’s…it’s an opinion. You can do what you like with it, I think,” Peter says.
His mate hums thoughtfully, rubbing his nose against the side of Peter’s face. “Yeah, well, what do you think?”
Peter starts to turn his head, and Stiles drops his to bump gently at the underside of Peter’s jaw, pushing him up when he should be deferential. Though he’s never liked those rules much, and now that he’s officially tied to someone who wasn’t raised with them to begin with…and he and Talia, they’re not the kind of pack they used to be anyway. He wishes his sister wasn’t so damaged, but there are things about their past he’ll gladly leave there.
So he lets his head ride up, half-closing his eyes as Stiles’ lips brush his throat, and then, when the other man withdraws, he lets it naturally sink back.
“You still miss him, don’t you?” Peter says, looking at Stiles. The other man hesitates, looking a little reluctant, and Peter presses his forehead to Stiles’ temple. “There’s nothing wrong with liking you to be happy, Stiles. I don’t want to get to know his girlfriend. I don’t know that I want to get to know him either. But I admit he has good enough taste to want to keep you around.”
“You’re such an asshole sometimes, I don’t know why I find it funny,” Stiles says, laughing. He kisses Peter on the mouth, and then lets his teeth graze along Peter’s jaw before he withdraws. “All right, then. I’ll hold off on the dinner invite, but I guess it won’t hurt to hunt with him once in a while. Just—just promise you’ll tell me when he makes you uncomfortable, all right?”
“I promise,” Peter says.
“Good,” Stiles says. He rubs his fingers along Peter’s throat, then purrs as Peter pulls them off to kiss their tips. “And thanks, you know. You don’t have to do this.”
“But I do want to, Stiles,” Peter says softly. “I want to. That’s why it’s fine.”
His mate smiles at him, and then pulls him over for another kiss.
* * *
Since Talia killed Kali and Deucalion, Erica has kept a little distance between them. Talia assumes that it’s because the girl has sensibly changed her mind, but when the time comes to speak with Chris Argent, Erica bounds forward to volunteer.
“Hey, I’ve seen them operate. I know you’re all awesome alpha and whatever, and Peter’s sneaky, but I can just tell you if Allison’s sitting in a tree with a bow,” she tells Stiles.
Stiles glances at Talia, who shrugs, and so Erica goes along. And she keeps Talia company almost all the way to the meeting place—a neutral hillock with plenty of sightlines in all directions—even though Stiles and Peter both peel off well short of it. Peter intends to stay within hearing distance, and Talia suspects that Stiles, still the more restless of them, will be circling the spot more closely, but nevertheless, neither of them want to come with her, and not just because they themselves don’t want to speak with an Argent.
“To be honest, I don’t mind Chris so much,” Erica says upon being asked. She hesitates, her bravado wavering, and then straightens her shoulders. “Allison is…well, she can be nice. She might be okay in a few years. But she gets mad and she gets a little crazy, and people do that but she kind of pretends she’s not like that. Chris just straight up admits it. That said, I don’t feel real strongly about him…”
“I don’t understand why you think it matters whether I approve of what you think of him,” Talia says, distantly amused.
They’ve reached the final stretch and she can see Chris waiting for her. He’s a small figure standing on the hillock, all by himself, and Erica thinks he truly is alone. Not even Scott with him, and Erica noted that with no little shock to Talia.
Erica almost looks shocked again now, although her expression has a shade too much wariness to it. She glances at Talia, digging at the snow with her foot, and then turns to fully face Talia. “I like you,” she says. She flushes a little but her gaze doesn’t waver. “And I’m pretty sure you don’t care, and even if you did—I get bad timing and all. I’m not going to be pushy or anything. But aside from all that…you know, you had some really shitty things happen to you, and whatever you think, you’re still standing. And I just think…I just think it’d be unfair if everybody avoided you.”
“It’s not unfair so much as safer. Isn’t it?” Talia says.
“We’re werewolves,” Erica says. “Safety isn’t exactly what our lives are about. Anyway…yeah, you were terrifying. But you stopped, you know. You still stopped. And so what if you lose it again? I still know you’re the kind of person who stopped once, so if we’re gonna talk about whether you can do it again—I want to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
Talia looks at her and Erica looks back, and the girl just seems so certain of that. Not so certain of herself; she’s still blushing, and her foot’s kicking up small sprays of snow. But of Talia, she is, and…and she’s very young, and despite having her share of bad experiences, a little naïve to Talia’s eyes. And yet—it makes Talia feel something to hear that from her. Something that doesn’t hurt.
“Yeah. So. I’ll just—I’m guessing you want me to head off now,” Erica says, finally dropping her eyes. “I’ll—”
“You can wait here,” Talia says. Her voice lifts at the end, making it sound too much like a question, and she grimaces at herself. “You can. If you want.”
Erica blinks hard. She is very young right then, with the way the hope almost crashes into her eyes before she pulls herself back. “Yeah. Yeah, sure, I’ll hang out. Take your time.”
“Thank you,” Talia says. For another second she hesitates, and then she makes herself turn and walk up to Argent.
She and he size each other up in silence for the first few minutes. He doesn’t seem to have suffered much for the bite; his smell is a little different but it’s not sickly, not full of pain and blood like Talia’s and Peter’s have been for so many years. They’re both betas; she catches his head twitching downwards once, but he seems to have no trouble raising it.
“I don’t need you,” Talia finally says. “I bit you because before Peter showed up, I—”
“Thought it’d get me to kill you. Or Allison would kill you,” Argent says, his voice heavily weighted with resignation. “I figured.”
Talia tilts her head. “Then why…”
“I meant it.” Argent hesitates, and then slowly raises his hand to gesture between them. “What I said, about knowing we can’t make it up, but wanting to…give back something, for once. And that’s about me, I know that. You don’t have to help me out. But I…I understand family, and losing them. I do. And I—I would like to help you. You would get something out of it too.”
“What about your daughter?” Talia says.
“We’ve talked. She understands.” Then Argent grimaces. “Well, she doesn’t—totally understand why I want to do this. But she understands that it’s important, and it’s my choice, and she understands that she shouldn’t hold anything I choose against you.”
He doesn’t sound condescending—if anything, he sounds as if he’d like to start apologizing again. But Talia resents the idea that he even has to intervene on her behalf. That after everything that’s happened, she still isn’t strong enough to deal with matters on her own. And her temper flares, and although she doesn’t make a sound, something of it must show in her face because Argent sucks in his breath.
Argent doesn’t move or say anything, and the anger disappears as fast as it’s come. Because that is reality, after all. Talia has to rely on others.
She’s not alpha now, she tells herself, and she’s thought that a thousand times before, in a thousand different ways, but somehow it feels different this time. She’s strangely calm about it; there’s no bite in the thought. Not alpha, but she has pack. She has her brother, and her brother’s mate, and then there’s the odd, inexplicably loyal girl who’s watching them. And Boyd will follow where Erica goes, that’s clear enough now. She can rely on them and that is different from has to.
Maybe she’s just forgotten altogether what pack means, she suddenly realizes. “What would you do, if you stayed?” she says.
“I—well, whatever you need,” Argent says, clearly startled. “You don’t…I can take care of myself. You don’t have to see me, I can stay on the border and just patrol that.”
“If you intend to be pack, then you should act like it,” Talia says. She pauses, seeing the—sensible—wariness in his face. “We don’t like you. I don’t…I don’t want you sleeping in the same den, and Peter won’t either. But why have you and pretend you’re not there? That won’t make my nerves any better.”
“All right,” Argent says after a moment. “Then how do you want to do this?”
“I have to talk about it with Peter, and Stiles and the others. But…wait.” Talia draws back a little.
Argent looks at her, clearly searching for what to say or do. He’s younger than her, she thinks idly, and then she’s bemused all over again at Erica’s odd attachment to her.
“You’ll call me when you figure it out, I’m guessing,” Argent says. He waits a second and she inclines her head. At that he gives her a crisp return nod, steps back, and then turns and walks away.
“Huh,” Erica says, coming up a few minutes later. “You sure about this? I’m with Peter, you don’t have to take him.”
“I don’t know,” Talia starts. She breathes in and out slowly, and then she wraps her arms around herself, still looking at where Argent had been. “I don’t know…but my old pack is dead. And…and I think I want to bury them, finally, and…I didn’t see them so much, when Argent and I talked just now. I think I just need to try.”
Erica looks at her again, and then shrugs. “Well, it’s your call.”
“Thank you,” Talia says, which makes Erica look puzzled. “For waiting.”
“Oh, that.” Erica flaps her hand at Talia, and then smiles as Talia swings around to walk next to her. “Like I said. I’m okay with not being in a rush here.”
They go a few steps, and then Talia smiles as well. It feels very strange, like she’s never done it before. She’ll have to see about that too, she thinks.
* * *
“Um,” Stiles says, loping up to where Peter’s keeping an ear on his sister and Chris Argent. “Incoming. Do you—”
“No, let’s see,” Peter sighs. Because that’s why he decided to come, after all. Stiles and Erica between them could deal with anything that the Argents came up with, but Peter knew his family wouldn’t be able to stay out of it.
His niece and nephew at least have the sense to not bother their mother, and instead emerge out of the woods to Stiles’ left a few minutes later. They have dark circles under their eyes, and their scents have the slight sour tinge of people who haven’t slept very much, but they seem well-fed and free of injuries.
Derek suddenly stops short, sniffing, and then he looks sharply between Stiles and Peter. His eyes widen a little and he opens his mouth, and Laura backtracks to grab the back of his head in a rough caution. “Alpha,” she says to Stiles, tone and posture both formal.
“Um. Okay. We’re gonna be polite now, which…okay, even though it’s weird timing,” Stiles says after a second, glancing at Peter.
“Well, look, whatever—whatever keeps us from ending up in another fight, all right?” Laura says, as exhausted as she is irritated. She looks at Peter for a long second, and then she steps further back to take in both him and Stiles. “So how do you want to be addressed?”
“Does the mate thing mean something different to you guys?” Stiles mutters out of the corner of his mouth. “Did I—no, I really haven’t asked that before. Huh.”
Derek looks a little curious, but Laura still has a grip on his hair and so he doesn’t say anything. “I think we might want to have that discussion later,” Peter says. He can’t help being amused; he can help whether he leans into the other man, but he doesn’t feel like it. “Anyway, I see nothing wrong with using our names. We all know each other.”
“Sort of,” Stiles says. Then he grimaces, while his hand slides up Peter’s back to loosely cup Peter’s nape. “Oh, damn, you two are in-laws now. I knew there was a reason I was waiting.”
Peter snorts. Laura is stiff except for her eyes, which dart nervously around, and then she takes a deep breath. “Are we?” she says, looking right at Peter.
He…doesn’t know how to answer that question, because he doesn’t know what she means, or intends. And suddenly his statement seems a little glib, even to him. They do know each other, and then they don’t. Laura is his niece, but looking at her now, he suddenly realizes how strange she is to him—and how strange he must be to her. He’s been so caught up with Talia, he thinks soberly. He hasn’t thought about her children—his family too—except for how they’ve affected her. He hasn’t really thought about how they’ve affected him.
“We said some—things,” Derek starts awkwardly.
“Mostly I said them,” Laura says.
“Oh, you mean the asshole things?” Stiles says.
His nonchalance is exquisitely delivered, making both Laura and Derek wince. Peter presses back against the hand Stiles still has on his nape, warm affection spreading through a body that only days ago was twisted with pain, and has a generous impulse. “They weren’t entirely untrue,” he says.
“Asshole and lying aren’t actually synonyms,” Stiles says, giving Peter a sidelong look. Then he smirks as he looks back at Laura. “You know, in case you were wondering if I was brainwashed or something. Nah. I just like him.”
“Noted,” Laura says dryly, her brow quirking.
She looks like Talia for a moment—like Talia in the days right before the past had come crashing back to them, when they were still half-healed and bitter but before they’d realized quite how deep their wounds ran. It’s disorienting and Peter shifts his weight, trying to steady himself. Stiles glances at him, then straightens up and Peter instinctively makes a soft, negating noise. His mate glances at him but stands down, with obvious reluctance.
“Look, Derek and I were—we were talking, because—because whatever happened, we’re all still alive and that’s unbelievable and I just think we can’t lose this chance,” Laura says abruptly. She’s pushing for the opening she sees, like a good alpha, like a good werewolf, but at the same time it’s not just about the advantage. She’s in earnest, as much as Scott was. “And you were—you were a psychotic asshole, Peter, but you were family, and you didn’t deserve getting burned up in the house. You stayed with Mom too and—and you’re different. I don’t actually think I know what kind of person you are now.”
“I suppose I’ll take that as a compliment,” Peter says.
“I’m not saying that I’m going to trust you right away,” Laura immediately says.
Stiles growls and Derek pulls himself up. Peter shakes his head at both of them, and then smiles with genuine appreciation at his niece. “Well, I won’t hold that against you, provided you understand why I might feel the same.”
“I do, actually.” Laura pauses to take a deep breath, and then nods. “I do, and I even…I get where Mom’s coming from. I just—but we’re coming from somewhere too, and it’s not just, we were horrible kids, bad pack, all right? And Derek and I, we just want a chance. To—to talk about that, and just…get to know you and Mom again.”
“We’re not saying we all have to be pack again,” Derek says. He’s lying. At least, he’s clearly wishing for something far different than what he’s saying; he’s still as poor as ever about hiding his feelings.
“Just…Peter, we know we can’t do this unless we’re all in it,” Laura says. “And Mom listened to you back there, and you—you stopped her. So please. Let us do something.”
But he’s trying, and that’s more than Peter remembers. “You are different,” Peter says after a moment. “You’re asking me first. You’re asking me to help you. Me.”
“Yeah, well, you seem to be pretty calm about things, and every time Mom sees us she just…” Derek drops his gaze for a second, and when he looks up again, he’s a shaken little boy in a grown, hulking man’s body. “She’s okay, right? We figured if she’s talking to Scott and now Chris—”
“My first piece of advice, don’t get jealous over those two,” Peter says, watching Derek wince and Laura grimace at him. He admits he still likes to amuse himself at their expense, but that’s changed too. If it happens, it happens, but he’s not actively pursuing it. He no longer feels that vicious, urgent drive to tear them down, and in its space, he…he’s not sure what he feels.
So maybe he should just get to know them as them, and not as Talia’s children, this time. They’ve never had the time and space to do that before, none of them. And Peter wouldn’t call that a silver lining, but he does think Laura is right. It would be a shame to let the opportunity go.
“Talia’s only trying to put things right by talking to them. She’s always done that, you know. It’s just that…that what’s right has changed a good deal from what we used to know,” Peter says quietly. “She’s still your mother. She still does love you.”
Derek’s head shoots up. Laura never dropped hers, but for a moment she’s perfectly still and yet she’s as shaky as a melting icicle. She looks at Peter and she’s never quite looked at him like that before, like she really might be happy and he’s the reason why. And he’s never wanted that from her, but now that he’s looking at it, he—doesn’t mind it, at least.
“I’m not going to fight you for her,” Peter adds after a moment. He pauses, feeling Stiles nudge into his shoulder, offering silent support. “I will make you go, if you make her worse. She’s my sister first. But I won’t…it doesn’t have to be the way it was, with us three. I…I was not good to you, either as family or as pack, back then. I don’t care to recover that part of the past, personally.”
“Okay,” Laura says. “Okay. We can—we can start with that. I’m okay with it…Derek?”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure, why not,” Derek says. He’s dismissive enough to make his sister turn on him in irritation, and then he has the temerity to look surprised about it.
“I’m starting to see some family likenesses,” Stiles mutters to Peter. Then, before Peter can make a face at him, he stretches up so that he can peer past Laura and Derek. “Hey, Chris is leaving. And I think—”
Laura and Derek turn and look just as Talia, with Erica tagging a little behind, emerges into a break in the treeline. Talia’s still far enough away that Peter can’t make out her expression, but he almost doesn’t need to at this point to sense her unease.
He presses his lips together, looking back at her children. Derek started, but has since pulled himself back, his hands in fists at his sides. Laura looks equally tense, although she has herself a little less obviously in hand. They’re not going to make the first move.
Talia stands there and looks back at them for several minutes. Erica starts to fidget beside her, and next to Peter, Stiles can’t help shifting from foot to foot either. Derek abruptly puts his hand out and grabs Laura’s, twisting their fingers together, and Peter sees Talia’s shoulders move roughly. Then again.
Peter steps back, and then shifts to wolf form. He sits down; Laura jerks her head around, almost asking something, and then changes her mind and turns back to look at her mother. Who’s dropped down and shifted as well, and is now standing on four legs. One foreleg raises slowly and then goes back down into the same place.
Then it rises again. It inches forward and comes down. Another minute passes, and then Talia takes another step.
She comes forward a couple hundred yards before she stops. She’s close enough now for Peter to see how she’s trembling, and he finally can’t wait. He gets up and pushes past Laura and Derek, with Stiles—now shifted as well—close on his heels. As he passes them, Talia seems to relax, but she tenses again once he’s about ten yards ahead of them.
Peter stops and he and his sister look at each other. Then Peter turns. Laura and Derek stare back at him till he barks, sharply but not aggressively.
Laura starts, glances at Derek, and then pulls herself and her brother forward. They trail behind Peter as he walks out to Talia. At first they’re fairly close, only a yard or two behind, but as they get closer, they start falling behind, so when Peter and Talia finally touch noses, Laura and Derek are a good twenty yards back.
Talia shoulders up alongside Peter, rubbing their heads together, and then she rests her chin on Peter’s back for a second, looking behind him. She’s still trembling, but she gradually stills, and then she takes her head off him.
He turns around. Stiles circles past him to go with Erica, while Peter settles himself slightly behind his sister. It takes another couple minutes, but Laura and Derek eventually come up. Derek’s first, and he looks at everyone for cues, nervous as a spooked deer, before he stoops a little and holds out his hand palm-first for Talia to sniff.
Talia backs up and Derek winces. He’s almost taken his hand away when she clumsily shifts forward, putting her nose just close enough for a whiff. Derek still has Laura by the hand and he almost drags her off her feet, grinning, as he jerks himself back into place.
Laura’s still uncertain, but then Talia swings her muzzle over to the join of Derek and Laura’s hands, and Laura too begins to smile. “Mom,” she says softly. “Mom. We’re—we’re so glad to see you.”
So my life got a bit busy, and then this just kept going on and on and man, it wasn't supposed to be this long. Anyway.
This was supposed to be a meditation on how things might've gone if Talia had survived, and if the morality holes of the show were plugged up, and if grief got a little more complex than just a one-way trip to Psychotic Vengeance Crazy Town all the time. Because God, but the resolution of season three annoyed me. Yes, let us just basically handwave what happened to Boyd and Erica in the name of high school romance, and let's let the show continually do its damnedest to make Peter an implausible cardboard villain, and let's continue to iron out any interesting facets from the rest of the Hales' characterizations, as well as repeatedly reduce female characters to plot devices.
Initially this was also going to have Talia/Chris in it, but it was already so long, and to get Talia and Peter to realistically be at the point that they'd be okay with that would probably require another 60K words. I wanted actual Erica/Talia action too, but even that would need way more wordage. So wrapping it for the time being.