"And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial."
--Antony, Julius Caesar
"Death can not stop true love; all it can do is delay it for a while."
--Westley, The Princess Bride
“Stiles.” Genna is already running up as he climbs out of the second car, scowling as she looks him over. “Well, you've still got all your limbs, at least. What the hell?” she demands. “Jonas called over the radio, said you'd been hit. What happened? You look fine.”
“Yeah; he overreacted a little.” Stiles glances over at the kid currently sliding out of the passenger seat and doing his best to stay hidden behind the car. “I got some claws to the back, but nothing major. It doesn't even hurt much; just kind of itches.”
“You let it get behind him?” Genna glares at Jonas, who looks about ready to piss himself. Stiles can't blame the kid; the most unhinged werewolves he's ever seen have nothing on the power of Genna's glare, especially with her grey eyes gleaming nearly silver in the moonlight. “You had one job, damn it! Watch the flank, sound the alarm if anything closes in. How hard is that?”
“Go easy on him,” Stiles says quietly, laying a hand on her arm to pull her attention back to him. “It was a mistake; it happens. You know how hectic it can get out there, and he's just a kid.”
“Exactly,” she hisses under her breath, turning her glare on him. “He's just a kid. He wasn't ready to go out tonight, and I never should've let you talk me into agreeing to it.”
“Hey, everyone's gotta get their first time out of the way sooner or later, right?” Stiles says, and smiles when she snorts. “Maybe this is even a good thing. I'm not hurt that bad, and he's scared shitless now that he knows what can happen if he gets sloppy. Think of it as an important life lesson.”
“I'll think of it as evidence that he needs to get his ass back in basic training for at least a month before he goes out again,” she counters, loud enough for Jonas to hear. “But you're not wrong about the other thing.” She sighs, rolling her neck from side to side. “Jonas, help Tucker get the gear inside, and make sure it's cleaned properly this time, or I'll have both your asses.”
“So what did poor Tucker do to get on your bad side?” Stiles asks as they head into the house; Genna glances over as they walk past the glowering mountain of a man sulkily gathering the bags from the back of the SUV. “He call you by your full name again?”
“Said my new haircut makes me look like Draco Malfoy,” she says dryly, and Stiles bursts out laughing.
“Not true,” he chuckles. “You're way too tall to be Draco.”
“Oh, thanks, I feel so much better now.”
Genna sighs, unlocking the back door and stepping into what Stiles has affectionately labeled the War Room—a once-cozy den now cluttered with charts and old news reports, the walls covered in maps stuck with multi-colored pushpins. It's empty this time of night; everyone else is asleep or gone home, and the other members of their teams start filing through on the way to the kitchen, talking and laughing quietly.
“I don't like that you got hurt,” she finally says, stripping off her jacket and hoodie in the heat of the house, leaving her in a black tank top that reveals a fresh scattering of bruises along the pale skin of her upper arms.
“Likewise.” He raises his eyebrows at her when she looks up, surprised, and glances significantly at her arms. “What we do is dangerous; people get hurt sometimes. Hell, I've gotten worse than this before when I was on a hunt with you.”
“Exactly,” she snaps. “You were with me. I was there, I had your back, I knew you'd be okay.”
“I am okay,” Stiles says irritably. “I'm not some damsel in distress here, Genna; I've been trained for this.”
“That doesn't make me any less responsible for you. You're part of my crew, and it's my job to keep you safe.” She crosses her arms and stares up at him, eyes narrowed and jaw clenched. “You weren't safe tonight.”
“I was as safe as I could be, doing what we do.” He moves to stand beside her, bumping her shoulder with his. “You know what I think? I think you're just pissed my team got to the target first,” he says, and from the corner of his eyes, he can see her fighting a smile.
“Maybe that, too.”
“Hey, I told you the harbor was our best bet; you were the one who insisted on checking out the Fens.”
“You're trying to distract me.”
“You're observant,” Stiles says teasingly. “Look, there's just no reason to get worked up over this. We did what we set out to do, didn't we? A monster off of the streets, innocent lives saved, all that.” He bumps her shoulder again. “That's a good thing.”
“Yeah.” Genna uncrosses her arms and runs a hand through her hair. “Yeah, you're right. I'm sorry, I'm just . . . I get worried.” She glances up at him, and he's abruptly aware of how close together they're standing. “I'd feel better if you were with me.”
“I know. But I'll be fine.” It would be easy, so easy to take that extra half-step closer, to lower his lips to hers and take what he knows she's offering. And there’s a part of him that wants to. But instead he finds himself stepping away, rounding the table to peer down at the map of the city that’s spread over its surface. “And there's one less psychotic werewolf out there now, so I'm counting tonight as a win.” He glances up at her. “You should get some sleep; you've been running yourself ragged for the past few days.”
“Can't sleep.” She shakes her head, pushing the disappointment from her face with a visible act of will. “I'm always wired after a hunt; you should know that by now.” Hands braced on the edge of the table, she bends to study the map. “Gonna stay up for a while, try to get an idea of what our next move should be.”
Stiles glances at the map, taking in the scattered pushpins that mark the sites of murders or maulings that fit the pattern they're looking for. “What about Beacon Hills?”
Genna frowns, leaning forward a little, and Stiles has to force himself to look away from the cleavage that’s on sudden display. “There hasn't been any activity in that neighborhood,” she says.
“I’m not talking about the neighborhood; I mean the town. Beacon Hills, California.”
She looks up sharply. “How the hell do you know about that?”
“Um, I have adequate powers of deduction and pay attention to the world around me?” Stiles lifts his eyebrows. “There’s a blanket call for reinforcements every couple of weeks, and Amanda's walking around with a perpetually concerned look on her face. Things have gotten worse, haven't they?”
“You shouldn't be intercepting communications.”
“Yeah, I know, my naughtiness is a constant source of shame for me. How bad is it?”
Genna huffs out a sigh and straightens. “Bad. Things were holding steady there for a while, you know; Amanda actually thought hostilities might've been settling down. The first civilian casualties didn't come until a couple of months ago, but there've already been three so far. No one's sure if they're attempts at turning gone wrong, or if the pack has just started killing for the fun of it, but either way it's nothing good. The whole place is such a disorganized clusterfuck, our intel is spotty at best. The Argent girl out there is pretty much just a figurehead; she's not doing anything but keeping someone else with actual leadership skills from moving in.”
“That'd be Allison, right? Isn't she married to one of the betas?”
“She's gone native,” Genna confirms, and Stiles frowns.
“She get the bite?”
“Not as far as we know. But she might as well have; after what happened with her father, word is she swore official loyalty to the pack. Which is probably the only reason she's still alive, honestly. Derek Hale went after the whole family up there like a punishment out of Greek mythology.”
“Yeah.” Stiles crosses his arms. “I heard about the fire.”
“Three people dead when he burned down the main house, and general consensus is that we got lucky. Hale hasn't been willing to stray more than a few miles outside of his territory since his mate died, which means that at least we’re dealing with a minimum safe distance.” Her gaze flicks to the doorway that leads to the kitchen, where light and muted laughter are spilling into the room. “All our people know enough to keep a low profile—there have been a few incidents, some fatalities, but those were mainly freelancers or ex-fosters who were stupid enough to go in guns blazing.”
Stiles frowns. “Are we sure that isn't the best idea after all? Overwhelm them with numbers and clean up this mess once and for all?”
“That would be fine, if we had any accurate idea of what their numbers actually are. But they've got omegas coming and going all the time; some might even be joining the pack, we don't know. Rumor is they've got a warlock on their side, and god knows what else. And as long as Allison Argent is still officially the warden for that area, there isn't a hell of a lot we can do without her say-so. We need more information, we need a solid plan; we need patience, Stiles.”
“Right, because patient is what you need to be when innocent people are dying.”
“Patient is what you need to be if we don't want any more of our people to get killed unnecessarily.” Genna glances back down at the map, her jaw working like she's trying to figure out what to say. When she looks back up her eyes are hesitant, but her shoulders are squared and her jaw is firm. “Amanda told me she's thinking about letting me lead things up, when we've got enough intel to head out there.”
“Wow.” Stiles blinks at her for a moment before he breaks into a grin. “Wow, Genna, that's freakin’ huge!”
“Yeah.” She smiles at that, lets herself relax again. “It is. I'd get to have a hand in putting the team together, too, and . . . I want you to come with me. There's no one else I trust more to have my back. And you're shaping up as a pretty decent lieutenant.”
“'Pretty decent', huh?”
“Well, stop hassling me to put green recruits out in the field, and you might swing an upgrade.”
“I'll see if I can manage that before we head west,” Stiles grins, and something in the set of Genna's shoulders seems to loosen.
“Good. I want you with me, Stiles.” She steps forward, poking a finger into his chest. “But for that to happen, you've gotta stay alive long enough for us to get out there. Which means no more stupid risks, all right?”
“Fair enough,” Stiles says, holding his hands up in surrender. Genna nods once and steps back again.
“You want something to eat?” she asks with a nod towards the kitchen. “Before your team finishes their swarm-of-locusts impression?”
“Hey, I'm not the one responsible for Sanderson,” Stiles reminds her. He glances over his shoulder, towards the light and the chatter and the scent of someone burning the hell out of their toast. “I'm not really that hungry,” he decides, turning back with a shrug. “Think I'm just gonna head upstairs and take a shower.” He gestures vaguely at his back. “Get this cleaned up before it gets infected or something.”
“You need a hand with that?”
“No.” He steps back before he thinks about it, an automatic retreat that he tries to cover with a smile. “Nah, I've got it. Thanks, though. Try to get some sleep tonight, okay? I'll see you in the morning.”
He leaves the room without waiting for a response, making his way quietly through the darkened first floor and taking the stairs two at a time. Amanda and Michael will be asleep by now, and judging by the closed door to the guest room, the hunter in from Alabama probably is, too. Stiles can't quite remember his name at the moment, but he sends up a silent prayer that the guy is a heavy sleeper—his room is directly across from the bathroom, and he hadn't seemed like the type to react graciously to being woken at past three in the morning. Stiles hadn't been kidding about needing a shower, and actual violence in the house is rare enough that he’s willing to risk it, but you never knew with out-of-towners.
Stiles goes to his bedroom first, not thrilled with the idea of having to carry his filthy clothes and shoes back there after he gets cleaned up. Even after almost a year he still can’t help but marvel at having a room of his own—it's the smallest of the upstairs bedrooms, but compared to the barracks that the fosters share in the basement it's the fucking Hilton. He knows it's a perk of the fact that his parents had been old friends with the branch of the Argent family out west, and sometimes he still feels a little bit guilty about the preferential treatment.
Not bad enough to give up his privacy, but still.
He winces a little bit as he starts stripping off his clothes; he’d downplayed things for Genna, but the scratches on his back sting like a sonuvabitch, and he can tell from the way that his undershirt peels away from his skin that they've bled more than he'd been hoping.
Twisting to get a look in the mirror, Stiles can see that there's blood smeared all over his back, some already drying to brownish streaks and more seeping out slowly in a thin red dribble. Between the blood and his tattoo, it's difficult to tell the real extent of the damage; that will have to wait until he gets cleaned up. He shucks off his boots and jeans as quickly as his aching muscles will allow, folds his robe in half to wrap around his waist without getting it bloody, and heads for the shower.
The bathroom light is bright and harsh; Stiles lets out an involuntary hiss as he hits the switch, and ditches the robe on the sink to fiddle with the shower taps through eyes slitted nearly closed. When he steps under the spray he has to grit his teeth against the volley of curses that want to spill out of his throat. After the cold outside it feels like being pelted with burning needles when the water hits his back; his hand curls into a fist where it's braced against the tiles and he stands still, taking harsh breaths through his teeth until the pain dies down. When he's sure the wounds have been rinsed well enough he washes quickly, grateful for the first time in a while for his mandatory and hideous exercise routine that's made him flexible enough to reach his entire back with the washcloth.
Stepping out of the shower, he feels better and worse all at once. He’s warm and clean, and that's a pleasure not to be taken lightly; but he also feels achey and drained and loose-limbed enough that he's a little surprised he doesn't just collapse in a heap there on the bathroom rug.
“Just a few more minutes,” he mutters to himself, wrapping a towel around his waist before he fetches the first aid kit from beneath the sink. “Just gotta get a bandage on and you can sleep for a year. Or at least long enough that you stop talking to yourself again. C’mon, Stiles. Eye of the tiger.”
It's going to be difficult to patch himself up on his own, he knows; he should probably just suck it up and go downstairs, tell Genna he's changed his mind about needing help. But just the thought sends ice crawling down his spine, makes his chest tight until he has to brace his hands on the edge of the sink while he struggles to breathe. Stiles hasn't had a full-blown panic attack in years—long enough that his memory of the last one is vague and hazy around the edges—and he's not about to break that streak now. He focuses on his breathing, on dim memories of a warm hand on his shoulder and a low, gentle voice whispering reassurance. Eventually he manages to straighten, to feel more or less like a person again as he opens the first aid kit with trembling hands.
No, help with this isn't an option. Cursing under his breath, he glares at himself in the mirror. It's stupid; completely ridiculous. He trusts Genna, he knows she wouldn't do anything to hurt him. But the idea of another person's hands on his back while he's wounded and vulnerable is as mindlessly, irrationally terrifying as ever, and maybe a qualified therapist would be able to help him work through that, but right now he's just going to have to fucking deal with doing this on his own.
Stiles turns, swiveling his neck so that he can get a look at the cuts in the mirror. They've stopped bleeding, and he says a silent word of gratitude that they're not as deep as he'd feared. Scratches, like he'd said; deep scratches, maybe, but at least it’s nothing that will require stitches. He frowns, twisting his torso for a better look. Four angry red lines start at his right shoulder and run diagonally across to his left shoulder blade, just past the middle of his back. Two of the scratches, he's irritated to note, have swiped across the very edge of his tattoo.
“Son of a bitch,” he mutters, even as he starts dabbing antibiotic ointment over the stinging marks.
He likes his tattoo; even if it's pretty much always hidden under two or three layers of clothing, he still feels like it makes him just a little bit more badass. It stretches over his back from the bottom of his ribs to the curve of his shoulder, a stylized tree with a trunk and branches made up of a complicated twist of symbols that covers a full quarter of his back. Now one of those branches has an angry red mark through it, and it might not be deep enough to need stitches but he isn't sure he'll be able to avoid a scar.
Well, whatever. It'll be fine. He's been thinking about getting the design expanded for a while now, anyway; if he has to get it touched up, maybe he can look into some ways to add on.
He manages to get a large bandage affixed over the worst of the scratches and carefully slips his arms into his robe. Then it's a shuffling walk down the hallway back to his room, where he falls face-first onto the bed without bothering to change into pajamas.
It's good to be inside again, to be warm and dry. The hunt tonight was a brutal one, and somewhere in the third hour of crouching in the shadows and the cold, misting rain, Stiles had started thinking wistfully of home. Even now, it's a feeling that hasn't entirely dissipated. He's grateful to the Argents here for taking him in, for helping him build a life after his parents were killed; but as nice as this house is, and as well as he's always been treated, it's never truly been home. Home is a half-remembered feeling, an idea that his mind shies away from even as he longs for it. Home is something dead and gone, and better left forgotten.
Nevertheless, as he slides quickly into sleep it isn't far from his thoughts: his mother's smile and his father's hand on his shoulder, and a warm, strong presence that speaks of family, and safety, and love.
There’s a shabby motel just outside of town with a cheap nightly rate, wifi, and a desk clerk who looks more interested in his fishing magazine than whatever Stiles might be carrying in from his car. It’s perfect, provided he doesn’t accidentally get caught up in a drug bust or prostitution sting, but he’s got a scanner and a sixth sense about police activity, so he’s not too worried. He pays for the room and doesn’t bother to drop off any of his stuff—he doesn’t trust that his laptop would still be there when he gets back, and like hell is he leaving any of his weapons behind.
With a knife at his hip and another one strapped to his ankle, Stiles gets back in his car and drives the last mile and a half into the Beacon Hills city limits.
It’s taken him three days to get here, and he’s barely slept since he left Boston. Every time he closed his eyes along the way the dreams came back, the same ones that had sent him shooting out of bed in the middle of the night to throw clothes in a bag, filled with the sudden certainty that he needed to get gone. He’d left the house at just past four in the morning, a bag of weapons in the trunk of one of the sedans, and a generous helping of the household’s petty cash in his pockets. He’d left a note for Genna saying he’d call her when he got where he was going, stopped on the way out of town to pick up a couple of prepaid cell phones, and left without a backwards glance.
He’s half-surprised that they haven’t sent anyone after him. It’s a ridiculous thought, he knows; it’s not like he was a prisoner. He’s always been free to leave anytime he’d like. People do all the time. Still, he couldn’t stop looking over his shoulder at every stop, waiting to see a familiar face come to haul his ass back home.
Stiles spares a glance at the phone sitting on the passenger seat beside him, his fingers tapping idly against the steering wheel. He should call Genna, he thinks, like he promised he would. But if she knows that he’s in Beacon Hills there will be people sent to fetch him, to pull him out of harm’s way, and he can’t risk that yet. He has something he needs to do here, and while that indefinable something might currently be limited to no more than a vague conviction as long as he’s awake, that doesn’t make the certainty any easier to ignore.
There’s an uneasiness settled in his bones that goes beyond the fact that he’s headed into the heart of werewolf territory—though the fact that this particular pack is known for its maul first, ask questions later approach to hunters is certainly reason enough to be wary. The closer he gets to the center of town the stronger the feeling grows, like deja vu and yet not quite; like flashes of something from a half-forgotten dream. He did dream of this, he thinks, of quiet streets and lived-in houses, the feel of a town on the small side of things with the empty stillness of a rainy mid-week afternoon.
He passes the high school and has to pull over when he realizes that he knew what it would look like before he saw it.
Stiles scrubs his hands through his hair as he watches the drizzling rain collect on the windshield. He’s not psychic. He doesn’t think he is, at least; and if it turns out he’s wrong then quite frankly he’s going to be pissed, because he’s spent almost two years putting his life at risk, and a few helpful premonitions would’ve really been appreciated. But this doesn’t feel like being psychic, or at least not like he’d always imagined that it would. This feels like something else—like something deeper, something coming from a part of himself that he’s forgotten.
It’s ridiculous, he decides as he shifts the car back into gear. The school only looks familiar in that way that all high schools do, a well-remembered combination of vitality and oppression. He pushes it from his mind as he continues down the street.
The downtown area has the look of a hundred other small California towns that he’s seen before: a wide boulevard edged with double-story storefronts, gold-rush era architecture covered with a shiny new finish. The buildings get simultaneously newer and less well-maintained as the streets radiate out; he passes one with boarded-up windows that makes his heart beat faster, his skin prickling with the inexplicable beginnings of arousal, and for a second he thinks he tastes something thick and cloying at the back of his throat. Then he’s past and the feeling vanishes as if it never was, nothing left but a bitter aftertaste in his mouth.
“This town is fucked up,” he mutters to himself, and starts cruising for a place to park.
There’s a convenient spot with a ten-hour meter a block away from the main drag; Stiles slips the phone into his coat pocket and tugs the hood of his sweatshirt up as he jogs across the street to a bright little corner market. He takes a pack of gum and a two-liter of Coke up to the counter, handing them over along with a ten-dollar bill.
“Hey, Darcy,” Stiles grins, checking out the small bronze name tag pinned to her shirt. “Could I get a couple bucks in quarters?” he asks, nodding his head towards the windows. “Meter.”
“No problem.” She flashes him a grin in return and tucks a strand of bright red hair behind her ear as she starts to count out his change.
“So.” He casts a glance through the windows, eyes flicking quickly over the alley across the street, just behind where his car is parked. “Pretty awful thing that happened over there, huh?” When he looks back she’s holding out his money, and her easy smile has been replaced with a critical stare. “What?”
“You’re not a cop,” she says bluntly, eyes narrowed as she looks him up and down. “And you don’t really look like the sex-and-death type. What are you, then, a journalist or something?”
“No. Just, uh. Just sort of a crime buff.” He offers her a sheepish look, pocketing his change. “I’m on a road trip, and when I read about the attacks here I thought I’d just stop by . Kind of gruesome stuff.”
“I guess so.” She shrugs. “They had it cleaned up by the time I came into work. Probably nothing that would interest you, though; the cops said it looked like an animal attack. Mountain lion, maybe, or wild dogs.”
“Right.” Stiles’s grabs a red-and-black compact umbrella from the display next to the register, fishing another bill out of his wallet and sliding them both across the counter. “Sounds like a reasonable theory.”
She shoots him an annoyed look and holds up the fifty he’s handed over. “We can’t break this.”
“Really? You can’t break a ten?” Stiles asks innocently, and he grins again when her eyes go wide a split second before she rolls them dramatically. “So.” He braces a forearm on the counter and takes the five she hands back as his change while she pockets the rest. “Animal attack?”
She looks around, as if making sure that there’s no one lurking nearby to overhear. “I think,” she says quietly, “that a mountain lion and a freaking pack of wild dogs doesn’t make it all the way downtown without being seen. And what; a wild animal wandered into town, had one late-night snack and just decided never to come back?” She snorts. “Please.”
“Fair point.” He glances out the window again. “I heard there’d been a few attacks, though.”
“Three altogether, all about a month apart,” she says immediately, shrugging when his eyebrows fly up. “What?” She has a full, heavy mouth, and the smirk that tilts it up is a good look for her. “You think only guys can be crime buffs?”
“Okay then, Nancy Drew,” Stiles grins. “What else have you got for me?”
“Three attacks, once per month. And all of them just happened to fall within a day or two of the full moon.”
He laughs, and hopes it doesn’t sound as forced as it feels. “Tell me you’re not going where I think you’re going with this.”
“That depends on what you’re thinking. It’s not unheard of for a serial killer’s sprees to be tied in with the phases of the moon, you know.” She leans a little closer, her brown eyes bright as she lowers her voice. “Plus, I read once about this guy who made himself, like, these creepy-ass dentures from plaster and old animal fangs, so you know.” She leans back again, shrugging. “Who knows?”
“You think someone made themselves a pair of animal dentures and then mauled three people to death?”
“Oh, like that’s really more far-fetched than an invisible pack of wild dogs carrying out perfectly timed monthly attacks?”
“Well, when you put it like that.” Stiles shifts his weight, uneasy. If civilians are starting to notice things, the situation might actually be worse than anyone had thought. “Have you seen anyone hanging out in the area? Anyone suspicious?”
“I see lots of people; it’s a busy area. And it’s not like I have formal training or anything,” she says evasively, looking away. “All I’ve got is a stack of true-crime paperbacks at home.”
“Yeah, but you’ve got a guess, don’t you? C’mon, I can tell.” He tries a smile again. “I promise I’m not gonna rat you out.”
“I don’t want to say anything that’ll get someone else in trouble.” She meets his eyes again and sighs. “I dunno. If you did want to poke around, I guess I’d say the Full Moon Cafe’d be a good place to start. It’s a couple blocks from here, on the other side of Main.”
Stiles’s stomach clenches almost painfully at the name, but he manages to keep his voice steady as he asks, “Why there?”
“There’s just . . . I mean, it’s a nice enough place, killer coffee, but. A lot of weird people hang out there, that’s all.” She shrugs, visibly uneasy now. “Look, I’ve gotta get back to work, there’s shelves to restock and . . .” She bites back a sigh. “If you wanna play Hardy Boys, that’s where I’d start. That’s all.”
“Payback for the Nancy Drew comment?”
She grins faintly. “Sharp, aren’t you?”
“Okay. Thanks for your time.” He turns to go.
“Hey.” Stiles pauses when she calls, turning around with one hand on the door, and finds her staring quizzically at him. “Do I know you from somewhere? You seem familiar.”
“I don’t think so.” He smiles. “Like I said, I’m just passing through.”
“Huh. Well.” She bends down, straightening again with a box of snack cakes propped against one hip. When she steps around the counter and down from the raised platform behind it, she proves to be a tiny pixie of a thing. If it weren’t during school hours, Stiles would guess that she was still in high school; as it is, she can’t be too long out of it. “Try not to get mauled while you’re here, I guess. Full moon’s coming up soon.”
“I’ll be careful,” he promises. “You do the same.”
Stiles stops at the car to feed a handful of quarters into the meter, trading the two-liter for his laptop while he’s there, and sets off in search of the cafe.
It’s not hard at all to find; his feet start walking there as if they already know the way, across Main Street where more and more people are braving the cold, drizzling rain in the name of mid-day shopping. He turns down the second side street he comes across and there it is—or so he assumes, in any case. There’s no name on the front of the building, just a wall of windows lit with a warm, golden glow, and a small placard painted with a blazing silver moon hung beneath a green-and-white striped awning.
For a moment Stiles simply stands, taking in the sight from beneath the thin cover of his tacky five-dollar umbrella. It feels as though there’s a hook centered just behind his navel, reeling him in whether he wants to go or not. He feels warmer just staring at the light spilling out into the grim, grey day, at the tables scattered over the small patio beneath the awning where he’d imagine that in better weather it would be pleasant to sit and enjoy the view. At the moment there’s only one person willing to brave the chill: a young man with longish hair pulled into a short tail at the back of his head, the steam from his mug mingling with the trails of smoke that drift up from the cigarette dangling lazily between two fingers. It’s not until the man looks up that Stiles realizes he’s been just standing across the street, staring.
“Hey,” he says when he’s hurried over, shaking out his umbrella as he steps beneath the awning. “I’m looking for the Full Moon Cafe. This the place?”
Up close, the guy looks to be a few years younger than Stiles. Indifferently brown eyes match his hair, and his grey wool coat looks expensive without being extraordinary. There’s something unnerving about him, something that Stiles can only qualify as dangerously mundane. His eyes travel in a quick, encompassing glance up and down Stiles’s body, lingering just long enough at his hip to have Stiles fighting back the urge to tug his own coat—an army surplus number, battered but still serviceable—more tightly around himself. Then the man stretches out his hand—black fingerless gloves, Stiles notes, as nondescript as the rest of him—and taps the ash at the end of his cigarette into an ashtray.
“Yeah, this is it.” His voice is smooth; paradoxically, it sets Stiles’s teeth on edge.
“Great.” Stiles glances at the half-empty mug on the table. “I heard they have killer coffee.”
The answering smile is sweet and endearing, bracketed by deep dimples on either side. “I’m drinking tea.”
“Right.” Stiles nods, at a loss. “Well, uh. Enjoy.”
He turns away as the man pulls out a cell phone and begins to fiddle with the screen. Resigned to turning up as an embarrassing you wouldn’t believe the guy who just tried to pick me up story on some social networking site or another, Stiles sighs and opens the cafe door.
He doesn’t know what happens, exactly, as he steps inside—only that it feels as if he’s suddenly being torn apart by warring urges. There’s a part of him—a surprisingly large part—that wants nothing more than to stretch out and settle. Inside, the cafe is all solid brick walls and softly scarred wood floors, with deep-cushioned booths lining the perimeter and a scattering of tables in the middle, all the same rich red-gold wood as the front counter. A line of coffeemakers and an espresso machine separates the register from a brightly-lit display case, stocked with pastries that have Stiles’s mouth watering as soon as he sees them, and the air is rich with the scents of coffee and what he’s guessing is the tomato soup he can see a middle-aged woman eating at a table nearby. Everything about the place feels safe and warm and welcoming, like returning to a home you didn’t even realize you were missing.
At the same time, the instincts that Stiles has built over nearly two years of hunting monsters are screaming at him, doing their best to push him into fight-or-flight right then and there. The cafe is mostly empty, but every single pair of eyes seems to have turned on him at once, and the hair on his arms and the back of his neck are standing on end as an electric buzz starts to sizzle beneath his skin. The last time he felt anything like this was a year ago, when he’d accidentally stumbled into a derelict house where a half-crazed wolf had been squatting for a month. What he’s feeling now is the same sense of invaded territory, of trespassing in the monster’s lair and oh, fuck.
He’d come here for information, expecting to find perhaps a handful of werewolves unable to resist the irony of the place’s name. The reality, he’s realizing all at once, is so very, very much worse.
He’s just managed to stumble headlong into a freaking den.
All of this flickers through his mind in a handful of breaths, followed swiftly by the knowledge that there’s nothing to do now but brazen his way through it. He lowers his hood, shaking free some of the moisture that’s collected there, and one by one the people staring at him go back to their business, turning their attention back to their food or phones or computers.
The woman behind the counter is still watching as he walks up, deep brown eyes fixed on him in a distinctly predatory gaze. She’s gorgeous in a familiarly dangerous way: her skin is a deep, dusky bronze, the hair that’s pulled back into a ponytail black and thick, and both fairly glowing with good health. Her face is broad, with high cheekbones and a mouth that widens in a smile just a little strained around the edges.
“Welcome to to Full Moon Cafe.” Her voice is bright and friendly, with a hint of an accent that he can’t quite place. The fact that she’s still looking at him like she thinks he might make a good lunch creates a weird cognitive dissonance, leaving him briefly wrong-footed. “What can I get you?”
“I was hoping to get something to eat. Can I order here?” he asks carefully, and watches one of her eyebrows wing up.
“That’s what we’re here for.” She grabs a rag from the apron tied around her waist and starts wiping her hands with it. “Anything particular in mind?”
Stiles glances up at the menu. “Is tomato the soup of the day? It smells fantastic.”
“You want a sandwich to go with that? Can’t go wrong with grilled cheese, and ours is the best in town.”
“Sounds good. I’ll take that and a . . . what’s in an ‘Adrenaline Junkie’?”
She glances back at the menu as well. “Triple-shot of espresso and about a metric ton of sugar.”
“That’s my kind of drink. I’ll take the biggest size you’ve got.”
“Gearing up for a heart attack?” she asks dryly, but starts ringing up his order nonetheless. “Ten eighty-one. You can sit anywhere; we’ll bring it out to you.”
“Good deal. You have wifi?”
“We do.” She takes the money he hands over, eyes lingering on his fingers as she does. One last push of a button has the register chiming open. “We don’t see many hunters around here this time of year,” she says casually.
Their eyes meet again. Stiles’s heart is pounding in his chest; he knows she’ll be able to hear it, but he keeps his face as blank as possible as he takes his change.
“What makes you think I’m a hunter?”
Her eyebrows quirk again, her mouth working like she’s trying not to laugh at the question. “Your hands,” she says at last, leaning a hip against the counter. “I have a friend who likes to bow-hunt; she’s got calluses like yours. It’s the off-season now, though.” The smile fades from her face. “Nothing left to hunt here that isn’t protected.”
“Guess it’s lucky for me I like to fish, too.” Stiles hitches the strap of his laptop bag higher on his shoulder. “Sit anywhere?”
She nods tersely, pushing away from the counter again. “My name’s Kat; yell if you need anything.”
Stiles chooses a booth in the corner where he’ll be able to keep an eye on the counter and the door at once, opens his coat for swift access to his knife, and pulls out his laptop. He doesn’t know what to make of this place. What the hell kind of werewolves willingly serve food to hunters? Given the current state of things, he’d have assumed walking into a pack-run establishment would’ve been an open invitation to get his throat ripped out. A quick double-check of the files he copied from Richard’s computer show no mention of a Full Moon Cafe at all, which either means he didn’t get everything, or that the people they have gathering intel are amazingly incompetent. Much as he hopes it’s the former, he starts typing up a report just in case.
Kat has dropped off his coffee and disappeared into the back by the time he moves on to checking his email. His first sip jolts him like he’s been hit with a taser; his spine stiffens and his teeth clench involuntarily as his heart gives a hard, protesting thump in his chest.
“Awesome,” he mutters with a grin, and takes another drink.
There are five emails from Genna waiting in his inbox, and he winces. He feels like an ass for leaving without saying goodbye, but there’s not a doubt in his mind that she would’ve talked him out of it if he’d waited. Skipping over the first “Where are you??” and the subsequent three with subject lines that are nothing but increasingly inventive strings of profanities, he clicks on the most recent. The subject line is ominously blank for that one, and he knows Genna well enough to recognize that as a fairly dire sign. The body of the email is only six words long:
Amanda wants to talk to you.
He’s gearing up to send a response when he catches movement out of the corner of his eye, and Stiles looks up in time to see a mountain of a man come through from the kitchen. Well over six feet tall, he moves with a grace that belies his size; the overhead lights gleam over the dark, close-shaved skin on top of his head as he moves around the counter, freezing for a moment when he catches sight of Stiles. The man starts drifting closer, and Stiles’s hand drops to rest against his thigh, fingers just brushing the handle of his knife. Not that it’ll probably do much good against a werewolf this massive if it comes down to fang versus blade, but Stiles has to hope that the guy knows better than to shift in public, in full daylight and in front of a solid wall of windows.
The giant’s nostrils flare as he steps within reach of the table; whether his lack of pretense as he takes in Stiles’s scent is a good or bad sign he can’t decide, but he watches the man breathe deeply and doesn’t move a muscle. Then a heavy shudder shakes the massive frame, and despite eyes that are wide and confused where they’re resting on Stiles, the voice that comes out is deep, steady, and entirely normal.
“You had the soup and grilled cheese?”
“Yeah.” Stiles finally notices the plate that the guy is carrying and drags his hand back up to the table, closing his laptop and sliding it aside. “It, uh. Smells great.”
“Sure.” The man sets the plate down, nudging it across to Stiles. He opens his mouth like he’s preparing to say something, breathes deeply once again, and shakes his head. “You need anything else?”
“I think I’m good, thanks.” He picks up the sandwich—which looks amazing: thick, lightly-toasted bread with at least three kinds of cheese spilling out the sides, and god, he’s starving—and shoves nearly half of it in his mouth in one bite. “Oh m’ g’d,” he moans a moment later, fighting the urge to let his eyes roll back in his head. “Th’s’s incr’dble.” The guy’s still staring at him like Stiles might vanish if he’s not properly attended. “So, um.” Stiles washes the bite down with another nerve-sizzling gulp of coffee. “Do you two own this place?”
“It’s—” His eyes flick over Stiles again and he takes a step back, jaw clenching. “It’s a family business. If you need anything else, holler for Kat.” He moves back towards the counter, restrained determination in every step.
“How late are you open?” Stiles calls after him.
“Kitchen closes at six.”
It’s not exactly an answer, but it’s not like it really matters. It’ll be dark by then anyway, and Stiles isn’t crazy about the idea of wandering around town after nightfall; especially not when he’s been made as a hunter by at least two of the local wolves. He’ll go back to the motel, he thinks, and give Genna the call he promised her. Probably get his ass chewed out by Amanda, too, he thinks with a wince. It’s possible that taking one of the cars was a step too far.
He’s picking up his spoon, hoping that the soup is even half as good as the sandwich, when he hears raised voices coming from the back.
“—from that one picture, which doesn’t—”
“Just call Scott! He doesn’t smell right, but he’ll be able to tell if . . . shit—”
They quiet almost immediately, as if they’ve just remembered that their voices carry, and no matter how Stiles strains to hear he can’t make out so much as a whisper. The name Scott sounds vaguely familiar; he shoots a glance towards his laptop. Part of the pack, certainly, but beyond that he’s having trouble remembering. There’s a frustrating lack of information available on even any of the confirmed pack members. Stiles spent most of his nights on the trip here poking around online instead of sleeping, and there’s just . . . nothing. Like someone has gone through the internet with a fine-toothed comb and erased everything they could find.
He’ll look the name up again after he eats, and then he’ll take a walk around downtown. Maybe check out the attack scene more closely, see if there’s any evidence that the police might’ve overlooked—hardly outside the realm of possibility if their main suspect is some sort of wild animal.
He still has half of his soup left when he starts eyeing the cinnamon rolls in the display case. Running low on cash or not, he’s getting some of those to go. He’s pretty sure that he can talk Amanda into wiring him more money, provided she doesn’t put a hit out on him first.
Food, investigation, contact, Stiles tells himself. And then, maybe, he can finally try to get some sleep.
It's a struggle back to consciousness, one that hardly seems worth it as pain suddenly registers everywhere at once: the dull, throbbing ache at the back of his head, the burn in his shoulders from the way they're stretched, the sharp scrape of rope against his wrists where they're bound behind the chair. There’s a throbbing pain where claws had dug into his shoulder when he’d tried to wrestle away, and his skin itches with drying blood. Stiles pushes it all aside and focuses his senses beyond himself, trying to work out where he is. There's some sort of makeshift hood over his head, obscuring his sight, but he can hear the hum of a generator and scuffling footsteps echoing off of concrete; the air is thick with the smell of dust and blood and a faint, familiar musk that can only mean one thing.
He'd anticipated that the pack might capture him, obviously; just not quite this soon. Or, he's embarrassed to admit, quite this easily.
He feels someone looming over his shoulder, feels their body heat radiating like a furnace, and smothers the instinct to lean into it. Wherever he is, it's barely warmer than it was outside, and despite the danger he’s in, the heat feels like a balm. Or it does, at least, until he feels whoever it is leaning in close, hears an indrawn breath just inches from his ear and the low, dangerous growl that follows.
Suddenly there are more bodies crowded around him, all of them sniffing and growling out their displeasure, and fear sends Stiles's heart trip-hammering inside his chest. They can smell it on him, he knows—sour and sharp as old milk, he remembers, words sneered out of the darkness in the seconds before Stiles's arrow had hit home—and he hopes they choke on the stench of it. He thinks he hears, from the back of the group, something high and desperate, like the whine of a kicked dog. Then the press of bodies fades back, leaving him alone in the cold, empty air, with just enough time to panic over what might be happening before the hood is ripped away.
The light isn't especially bright—a handful of industrial lights strung up by their extension cords, high-watt bulbs beaming out of orange plastic cages and illuminating just enough to plunge the rest of the space into shadow—but after the darkness it's blinding, and Stiles spends several moments trying to blink his eyes clear. There are still occasional rumbles from all around him where the pack is spread out in a wide, loose circle. And in front of him, the rough black hood still clenched in one fist, is a man whose face is obscured by the light haloed behind him, alpha-red eyes glowing like embers.
“Hey. Wow.” Stiles's voice cracks a little, and he clears his throat. “Um. Points for theatricality. Really, this is very impressive staging. Just the right sort of industrial, serial killer vibe; consider me properly terrified.”
The alpha steps forward then, and Stiles's heart stutters as claw-tipped fingers grasp his chin, pulling his head up until his throat is vulnerable and exposed. He still can't make out more than those bright red eyes burning into him, and despite everything he knows and all of his training, he can't stand to face them for another second. His eyes squeeze shut as he waits for the pain of claw and fang. Waits to die.
What he feels instead is a hand pushing back the hair at his left temple, a faint trembling as fingertips brush against the scar just below his hairline. Stiles's lips drift open in surprise, and suddenly those hands are gone like Stiles skin has burned them; when he opens his eyes again it's to find that the alpha has retreated, far enough for the light to finally reach his face.
When they're not shifted, his eyes are a changeable sea-green, sunken and shadowed but still striking He has the worn, haggard look of someone who hasn't eaten or slept properly in longer than they can remember, dark stubble barely disguising the hollows beneath his cheekbones. Seeing him now, Stiles can't help but think that it's a wonder he's able to stand, much less command what’s become the most dangerous pack on the West Coast. Although he doesn't look weak; in fact, he looks like he could take out every single werewolf that Stiles has ever gone up against and walk away without a scratch.
Not exactly comforting when he's staring at Stiles as if he's a horror worse than any of the other monsters in this room.
“What are you?” he snarls.
“Human,” Stiles snaps back, irrational offense abruptly overriding terror. “As I'm sure you've smelled by now.”
“You're a hunter.”
“Well if you already know the answer, then why did you ask?”
“You don't smell like—” The alpha's jaw clenches. “You smell wrong.”
“What?” Stiles says, frowning. “No, I don't.” He ducks his head quickly, sneaking a sniff at his own shoulder. A little sweaty, maybe, but under the circumstances he doesn't think that's unreasonable. “I smell fine. And not that it isn't a thrill being the surprise guest at a kinky werewolf bondage party and all, but could we maybe lose the ropes?”
“You come to my territory packing wolfsbane, and you think I'm going to just let you loose around my pack?”
“Hey, you don't go into a war-zone unarmed unless you've got a pretty spectacular death wish,” Stiles says. “I don't. And unless you neglected to search and strip me before you tied me up, I don't have anything on me anymore.” He smiles, his eyes as wide and innocent as he can make them. “I'm harmless.”
That whine sounds out again, and Stiles's eyes dart over to the figure pressing forward out of the shadows. It’s a man who looks like he's about Stiles's age, mid-twenties or thereabouts, all shaggy dark hair and a beard that doesn't quite cover the jagged scar on his jaw. He fits the werewolf image like he's studied for it, though the whole look is undermined by his big brown puppy eyes, fixed on Stiles like his heart is breaking as he edges closer. The alpha snarls and thrusts out a hand without looking over, and the man stumbles to a halt.
“Derek.” There's a wealth of meaning in that single word. It sounds like pain and please and a million other things that Stiles can't quite decipher.
“No, Scott.” The words are a low growl, more warning than threat, and something sizzles down Stiles's spine like lightning. “You said you’d trust me on this.”
“Hey, Scott. I'm Stiles.” He tries an encouraging smile. “It's nice to meet you; I'd shake your hand, but, well.” He struggles against his bonds a little bit, for emphasis more than anything. “And you're Derek Hale,” he adds, his eyes drawn back to startled green ones.
“You know me?” Derek asks. The tension in his body ripples out, spreading through the room until the air is thick with it.
“I don't think there's a hunter in the country who doesn't know about the Beacon Hills alpha,” Stiles says as casually as he can. “You've made quite a name for yourself.”
“Is that why you're here?” Derek drifts forward again, his face gone carefully, deliberately blank. He doesn't look frightened; he doesn't look angry; he doesn't look like anything at all, which is somehow more unnerving than any deliberate display of aggression could hope to be. “Are you the Argents' secret weapon, maybe, come to take me out?”
Stiles's stomach is pitching wildly at the very suggestion, which doesn't make any kind of sense. Maybe it's finally seeing Hale like this, live and in the flesh instead of a blurry figure in surveillance photos or shaky hand-shot video, worn and tired with nothing like the violent, swaggering confidence he'd expected. He thinks of the dreams that he hasn't been able to shake, of warmth and comfort and home, a loss and longing that feels so fresh it's easy to see the mirror of it in Derek's haunted eyes. Maybe it's pity that makes the thought of hurting him feel like bile in his throat, or maybe it's something as simple as empathy.
“No,” he finally says. “I'm here because . . .” He doesn't know why, any more than he knew when he left Boston last week. But somehow, staring up at Derek now, an idea that he hadn't even realized he had is slowly working its way to the front of his mind. “I'm here to help.”
Derek just continues to stare at him like Stiles is a bomb rigged to explode at any moment. “Help us?”
“Yes.” As soon as the word is past his lips, Stiles realizes that it's true. He doesn't know what he's doing, but since letting his mouth run hasn't failed him yet, he decides to just keep going. “Because you know what I think? I think you're as tired of this war as we are. I think that innocent people are getting hurt, and if you were really the monster you want people to believe you are, I'd be dead right now instead of sitting here having what I'm pretty sure passes for a fairly civilized conversation.”
“Is that what you think?” Derek asks quietly, and Stiles has to swallow back a new wave of fear.
“Yeah,” he says defiantly. “It is.”
“Do you even know what's going on here?” Derek asks. “Do you have the first clue why we started this war?”
“You . . .” Staring up at the haggard, haunted man before him, the words are harder to say than Stiles would've guessed. “Your mate died.”
Derek makes a half-choked sound at that, like a man who wants to laugh but can't remember how. And suddenly he's crouching down in front of him, and holy hell, what is Stiles supposed to do with that? He can hear the restless noise of the pack around them, hesitant steps forward and quiet, uncertain sounds. Because Derek Hale, the alpha who has half of the hunters in the country out for his blood, has lowered himself in front of Stiles, is looking up at him, and Stiles's heart has forgotten how to beat.
“No,” Derek says, his voice dry and cracked and caught somewhere between a laugh and a scream. “No, he didn't die; he was killed. Chris Argent and his cronies lured him out and stole him away in the dead of night. They tore him to pieces, and when they caught me, too, they told me that he died screaming. Waiting for someone to save him; for me to save him. He was human. He was good, and strong, and kind; he was pack; they took him because he was mine, was ours and they laughed when they told me how they butchered him. All they left behind was—”
He blinks as if he's come out of a trance, eyes widening as he finally realizes what he's doing, and surges to his feet. Stiles watches him make a visible effort to pull himself together and shake off that sudden burst of vulnerability.
“His shirt,” Derek finishes tersely. “Gave it back to me; a memento, they said. They destroyed him,” he says, his gaze no longer meeting Stiles's, “because they knew that it would destroy me. I'm not looking for civilians to get hurt, but as far as I'm concerned, anyone who gets in the way now is just collateral damage.”
“I—okay, no, I don't understand. What that must've been like; I can't. Not really. I knew the basics of what happened, but not . . . I'm sorry.” Stiles needs his hands free, needs to cross his arms or tug at his hair or . . . something. He'd thought he was prepared, with the files and reports that he’s been poring over for months; he hadn't been anywhere close. “But the way you talk about him—there's a war zone in his hometown; two people died in the showdown two weeks ago, and that's just a drop in the bucket over the past couple of years. If he was as good and kind as you say he was, do you really think this is what he would've wanted?”
Derek starts like he's just been punched, and Stiles braces himself for retaliation. To his surprise, when the answer comes it's quiet, almost fond.
“For himself? No; he never would've believed that he was worth it.” He looks back at Stiles then, searching his face; though what he's searching for, Stiles can't begin to say. “But he'd have burned the world down for me. For any of us. I know that, and I won't do any less for him.”
“Is that really what it's going to take, though?” Stiles demands. “Turning everything around you to ashes, yourself included? How the hell is that honoring his memory?” He takes a deep breath. “Look, I don't blame you for wanting the people who killed him to be punished. I hunt monsters for a living, okay? I get it, and I'd help you take them out myself. But you're not talking about retribution; you're talking about vengeance. Chris Argent has been dead for over a year now, along with every known collaborator, but that hasn't stopped anything. Not all hunters are evil, Derek. We live by a code—”
“A code?” Whatever Derek was looking for, he doesn't seem to like what he's found, and Stiles is surprised to realize how much that matters to him. “That code is a bedtime story hunters tell themselves to deal with being killers. It's a fairy tale.”
“Not for me, it isn't,” Stiles says quietly. “I didn't come here looking to kill anyone. But if you hurt anyone else who isn't actively coming after you first, I will.”
Derek lifts his eyebrows. “Big talk for the guy still tied to a chair. In case you haven't noticed, you're not exactly in any position to be making threats.”
He starts to move slowly closer; prowling, Stiles thinks. In a heartbeat the broken, grieving man has gone, and a hungry predator has taken his place. Stiles waits for the terror to come again, the certainty of death. Instead, all he feels is a buzzing sort of energy, an electric surge beneath his skin.
“I could do anything to you right now,” Derek says, “and how would you stop me?” He's looming again, close enough that Stiles can smell the leather of his jacket, the clinging scent of fresh rain and fallen leaves. “I could give you the bite right now,” he murmurs almost to himself, his eyes lingering on the fragile skin at Stiles's throat, bared as he tilts his head back. “I wonder what would happen then?”
“You're not going to find out.” Stiles's heart is racing, but not with fear; with anticipation. He watches Derek's eyebrows lift again as he leans closer, just another inch, until he suddenly seems to be surrounding him.
“No.” Stiles's voice is steady, and that's a welcome surprise. “You're not going to kill me, or bite me, or hurt me at all.”
“And what makes you think that?”
“I don't think; I know. Look, I'm not proud to admit it, but you guys could've killed me when you grabbed me earlier. If you were going to hurt me, you'd have done it by now; you sure as hell wouldn't have spent the past half an hour telling me about your dead mate. You want me on your side for something, and that means no roughing me up. So save the threats for someone who's buying them, okay? Because I'm not.”
Derek's eyes narrow, and his mouth twitches in some sort of aborted something that Stiles can't quite decipher. “You may be right,” he says quietly. “I might be willing to deal. I'll agree to talk, at least, if you can get me what I want.”
“And, uh.” Stiles licks his lips nervously. “What is it that you want, exactly?”
“I want what they took.” Derek tears his gaze away from Stiles's lips to meet his eyes instead. “I want him back.”
Stiles's stomach sinks. “Really? Isn't the 'impossible ultimatum' bit a little cliched? You might as well grow a big black mustache while you're at it; hell, you're already halfway—”
“That's the deal,” Derek interrupts. “Take it or leave it. If you can figure out how to get my mate back to me, we can put an end to all of this. If you can't—if it's . . . not possible—” He sets his jaw. “Then you really are going to have to kill me, because I won't stop until every last hunter has been wiped off the face of the earth.”
“Why do you think I can help with this, exactly?” Stiles asks weakly. “I'm not a freakin' necromancer, man. And you know, even if I were, the whole zombie thing really never ends well.”
Something almost like a smirk tugs at the corner of Derek's mouth. “I think you can do just about anything you set your mind to.” He backs away, fading into the shadows like some sort of B-movie villain, and Stiles can hear the rest of the pack retreating as well. “I'll see you later. Stiles.”
Goddamn cryptic werewolves, Stiles thinks, and starts working at the ropes in earnest. His best time at this with his bare hands is three hours and seventeen minutes; not something he's looking forward to trying to beat in a freezing-cold concrete prison in the heart of werewolf territory. Even if said werewolves are apparently unwilling to hurt him until they realize that he doesn't have the first idea of how to resurrect anyone.
“Can we maybe find a less pressure-filled task for me?” he mutters under his breath, and—
It can be pretty extraordinary what the force of your own will can accomplish.
The words come to him like a half-faded dream, in a voice he doesn't quite recognize. But maybe, he thinks . . . maybe. After all, he made it through a face-to-face with the Beacon Hills alpha without losing any body parts; clearly fortune is smiling on him.
“Oh, yeah,” he sighs. “Raising the dead is gonna be a piece of cake.”
By the time he finally works the ropes loose he’s stiff with cold, and his wrists and fingers are scraped raw. Huddling deeper into his coat, he hobbles over to the nearest light and picks it up by the base. For a moment he lets himself do nothing but enjoy the heat radiating off of the bare bulb, shamelessly warming his hands one after the other until their normal range of motion returns. Then he angles the beam around as he tries to get an idea of where he is—and, more importantly, how to get out.
The high, exposed ceiling and metal-and-cinder-block walls make him think ‘warehouse’; as the light skims over cracks and pits in the concrete floor he tacks an ‘abandoned’ onto that. There are plastic tubs stacked along one wall, marked with masking tape labeled in neat block letters: Erica is the only one he can make out clearly from here, though he thinks the one beneath it might say Medical. There are what looks like jugs of water nearby, but no sign of a sleeping area. Not a den, Stiles thinks, so much as an emergency bunker, someplace to lie low and patch up between battles. He wonders how many others they’ve brought here. How many others have made it out alive.
Not many, he’d guess.
His careful sweep finally turns up a door set in a far wall, and he hurries over to it with a silent prayer that it will lead outside and not just further in. The last thing he’s in the mood for right now is to star in his own personal remake of Silent Hill.
The fresh air hits him as he wrenches the door open, and Stiles has to spend a moment leaning against the frame, almost dizzy with relief. He finds himself staring into an alley between buildings, evenly-spaced floodlights breaking up the blue-black darkness and glinting off of the wet asphalt. It’s stopped raining, but the clouds show no sign of breaking up—but it’s early April in Northern California, and Stiles wouldn’t expect anything else. He glances to his right. His car is parked at the building’s edge, and he nearly breaks his neck hurrying down the short flight of concrete stairs to street level.
A quick check has him cursing with mingled relief and disappointment. His arsenal is missing from the trunk—no surprise there, but still, it’s annoying as fuck—but his laptop, thank god, is still in its bag tucked securely beneath the glovebox.
“Guess you didn’t trust me to pull off a miracle without it, huh jackass?” he mutters, and climbs into the driver’s seat.
The clock on the dashboard reads just shy of midnight, and Stiles lets out a new volley of curses. He’d stopped for gas at around seven, which means he was probably out cold for at least hour, maybe two. Not exactly the sort of restful sleep he’d had in mind. It also means it’s about three in the morning on the East Coast, and the thought of waking two women who are already furious with him, and who could probably kill him with both hands and one leg tied behind their backs . . . well, it doesn’t exactly appeal.
“Okay,” he mutters under his breath. “Focus.” The keys are in the ignition, and he counts that as a small blessing as he starts up the car. “First thing’s first, Stiles: get yourself cleaned up. No telling the last time that blonde bitch washed her hands.”
He pulls forward slowly, snorting as he carefully makes his way through the industrial park. The last time something like this happened to him, he’d woken up with the overwhelming urge to drive three thousand miles across the country. Part of him can’t help but wonder where he’ll want to go this time.
The motel room takes an old-fashioned key, which would’ve been a safety concern a few hours ago. Stiles isn’t worried about the pack now, though, and he’s confident he can deal with anyone human who tries to break in, so he just locks up behind himself, makes sure the window is latched, and starts stripping on the way to the bathroom.
His coat, he notices, has bloody holes in the left shoulder now; he tosses it into the rust-spotted sink to scrub at it later, leaves the rest of his clothes on the floor and turns the shower on as hot as it will go. Sadly, that means just barely more than lukewarm, which has his muscles screaming in protest as he scrubs down as quickly as possible before the water turns cold. The marks from the blonde’s claws aren’t especially deep, but they’re throbbing like five individual points of fire.
The lowest one is the worst, where her thumb had dug its way in. He climbs out of the shower and twists to look at it in the tiny mirror. It’s deeper than the others, torn through the skin just off-center of one of the knots in his tattoo; as he looks, he would swear that he can see it throbbing in time with the beat of his heart. There’s an itching buzz around the wound, like the sudden scurry of ants beneath his skin, and he watches in wide-eyed horror as the ink from his tattoo begins to fade, drawn towards that red, angry hole. A trickle of blood leaks out and turns black, thick as tar as it slides down his skin. He can see more gathering beneath the surface, can feel it, a bubbling fullness in muscle and bone. He has the sudden sick certainty that the slightest pressure would squeeze it all out at once, a release of pressure that would burst through his skin and leave it shredded.
As if in a dream, he reaches back to catch a drop on the tip of his finger. His head reels from the stench of death and he staggers, slick black sliding off of his finger and onto the edge of the sink. It hits the porcelain and shatters, scattering into ash and filling the air with the smell of gunpowder.
When he looks back up it’s gone, all gone. The wounds on his shoulder are nothing but small red marks, no worse than he’s done to himself when he’s lost his gotten careless handling weapons.
He barely makes it to the toilet before he starts throwing up.
Afterwards he feels exhausted, wrung out; it’s almost too much just to get a bandage on, and thankfully the scratches from three days ago have healed enough to be left alone. He just barely manages to summon the energy to dress and finally send a quick text to Genna letting her know where he is. When he falls onto the bed he’s shaking, wracked with bone-jarring shudders down the length of his body.
Shock, he tells himself. Just shock. Delayed reaction from a fucked-up, life-threatening ordeal.
He’s still telling himself that when he finally falls asleep.
The harsh jangle of his phone wakes him what feels like seconds later; he has just enough presence of mind to be grateful that at least he didn’t dream as he fumbles at the nightstand.
According to the display he’s been asleep for nearly three hours, and there’s one incoming text from Genna’s number.
Get your ass on Skype. Now.
Stiles doesn’t quite have the energy to laugh, but he manages a smile as he struggles up and snags his laptop, scrubbing his hands over his face while it boots up. He snaps the bedside lamp on as an afterthought; his involuntary wince as the light comes on makes his heart catch in his throat, and he enters his password to unlock the computer with unsteady fingers.
“Get a grip,” he mutters to himself, forcing himself to take a series of deep breaths before he opens the program. “Freaking out isn’t going to help anything; you’re fine, you’re in bed, just calm the fuck down.”
Only when he’s fairly sure that he looks more or less normal does Stiles log in. He’s barely been connected for a full five seconds when Genna appears on his screen, wearing a Boston College sweatshirt and looking pale, drawn, and furious.
“You are such a fucking asshole,” she spits out, and Stiles doesn’t even bother to hide his grin.
“I know. Sorry.”
“Did I wake you up? I hope I did; I hope I pulled you out of the best goddamned sleep of your life. It’s not bad enough that you couldn’t be bothered to tell us you were taking off, you had to go to the one place you’re explicitly supposed to steer clear of?”
“Look, I don’t know how to explain it.” He rubs his fingers over his mouth, trying to find the words he needs, and in the end he simply settles for the truth. “I just had to. There’s something I need to do out here. I don’t know what it is,” he says before she can interrupt. “But I know in my gut that it’s true, and you’re the one who taught me to listen to my instincts.”
“I also taught you to follow your freakin’ orders,” she snaps, glowering. “Or at least I tried to. We’re not supposed to have a presence in Beacon Hills; not yet. We’ve been orchestrating plans for eight months, and if you screw it up because you got itchy goddamned feet—”
“I’m not an official presence here,” he assures her. “I’m not representing anyone but myself; as far as anyone’s concerned, I’m just another loner hunter. I’m not going to threaten any alliance you’re working on, or disrupt any of your plans. But I’m in a position to get some serious intel on the situation here, and you’ve gotta admit that’s something we’re in pretty desperate need of.”
Genna snorts, crossing her arms in front of her. “You’re gonna have to take that up with Amanda. I just wanted to talk to you first to tell you you’re an asshole, and to remind you that if you get yourself killed out there I’m not flying out to fetch the body.”
Stiles smiles. “I miss you, too.”
“Damn it.” She sighs, and for the first time he sees a hint of genuine worry on her face. “Just . . . try not to get hurt, all right?”
“Heh.” His smile turns wry. “Yeah. I’ll do my best.”
“Don’t hang up,” she warns. “I’m gonna put Amanda on.”
That’s all the warning he gets, however, before the screen tilts and jostles as it’s handed over, and Stiles swallows nervously when Amanda’s face appears. It’s early enough, even three hours ahead, that she hasn’t put on makeup yet, and her usual riot of curls are pulled back into a sloppy knot at the base of her neck. She narrows her eyes at him, and he tries out his most endearing, sheepish grin.
“Uh. Hey? Wow.” He clears his throat. “I, um, didn’t know it was possible for someone to look that intimidating in a fuzzy blue bathrobe. Kudos.”
“Stiles,” she snaps, and he winces.
“You stole one of our cars.”
“Borrowed! Just borrowed, and it’s fine, no damage even—it’s fine.”
“You’d better give me a damn good reason for your being there in direct disobedience of your orders. This isn’t a game, Stiles.”
“I know that,” he says, more harshly than he’d intended, and he briefly closes his eyes on a sigh. “I already told Genna, I can’t really explain why I felt like I had to come here. But,” he adds quickly, “now that I’m here I can tell you it’s a damned good thing I am.” He takes a deep breath. “I’ve made contact with the Hale pack. And, y’know. I’m alive to talk about it, so hey. Doing better than most everyone else so far.”
Her brow furrows in concentration, and she leans slightly towards the screen. “What do you mean you’ve made contact? How?”
“I’ve, um.” Stiles clears his throat. “You know, the how really isn’t important; what matters is that I’ve spoken to Derek Hale. Like, face-to-face. And I think I’ve convinced him to at least consider peace talks.”
Stiles has never seen Amanda’s eyebrows lift quite as high as they do at that. “Really. What’s he asking for?”
“That’s . . . complicated.”
“You’re not really doing much to inspire my confidence here,” she says dryly.
“I know. But it’s sensitive, okay? He barely seemed to want me to know about his terms; if I start talking about it with other hunters, he might pull back altogether. It’s nothing I can’t handle, though. For now. I think. And anyway,” he hurries on when her face only grows less impressed, “I’m in a unique position here. Unless you’ve got some serious goods on lockdown where I couldn’t find them, we know pretty much jack shit about this pack, about this town, about this whole fucked-up business. They’re willing to let me stay here as long as I’m still working on . . . their problem. This is as close as anyone’s going to be able to get to them; that’s an opportunity we can’t afford to just throw away.”
He can hear Amanda’s finger tapping against the table as she considers him. “I’ll expect daily reports,” she says at last, and Stiles practically has to sit on his hands to restrain the urge to pump his fists in celebration. “If I’m not satisfied with your progress in any way, I will pull you out of there, even if I have to fly to California and do it myself. Is that understood?”
“Yes, ma’am. Absolutely.”
She lets out what Stiles thinks of as her ‘annoyed mom’ sigh, but there’s a glimmer of fondness making its way back into her face. “Where are you staying?”
“Beacon Motor Lodge, about a mile outside of town.”
Amanda rolls her eyes. “We’ll get one of the safe houses set up for you; I’ll have Genna send you the address later.” She shakes her head. “Try not to get dead, okay?”
“I will do my absolute best.”
“Good. And get some sleep; you look like hell.”
The connection cuts off, and Stiles is chuckling to himself as he powers the computer down again. He’s never doubted the fact that she cares about him, but Amanda’s never been the type for emotionalism. You can’t be, he thinks, when you’re in her position—training the next generation of soldiers in the fight against nightmare monsters doesn’t leave much room for sentimentality.
He switches out the light, scratching absently at his bandaged shoulder as he lays back down. An odd sense of relief is spreading through him, a confidence he hadn’t let himself feel before. Derek’s request still seems as patently insane as ever, but somehow it no long quite seems impossible. Stiles stretches out on the scratchy sheets, and as he drifts into sleep again, he lets himself believe.
He just might be able to pull this off.
The house itself is nothing fancy, just a little two-bedroom place towards the center of town; but then, Stiles really doesn’t need fancy. It’s got central heating, water that stays hot all the way through his shower, encrypted wifi and what looks like a former dining room converted into a small library. He sets up in the master bedroom purely because he can, and because after years of sleeping in a narrow twin it feels like a decadent luxury to sprawl out on the king-sized bed, taking up as much space as humanly possible. It could probably fit three or four people, but it’s all his.
He only stays like that for a minute, though, before he’s up, throwing sheets and blankets on the bed while he still has the energy. Unpacking his bag mostly seems like a waste of time, but a glance through the closets and dressers unearth enough extra clothing that fits well enough to provide a comfortable supplement for his wardrobe. He’s always loathed doing laundry, and the longer he can manage to put it off the better. A quick tour of the house also reveals a pantry well-stocked with enough non-perishable food to last through a major siege, but it’s not until he hits the garage that he finally finds what he’s really been looking for.
Stiles opens up the armory cabinet, going for the knives first. As he slips one into the sheath on his boot he feels the itch between his shoulder blades begin to ease, settling into the comfort of finally being armed again. He leaves the rest for later and heads back into the house, detouring into the kitchen for a quick swig of soda that hasn’t been in the fridge long enough to get cold yet.
A quick glance through the shelves in the library turns up an armload of texts that he hopes might give him a place to start on his efforts to retrieve Derek’s mate from beyond the veil. Considering the guy’s been worm food for going on two years now he figures he shouldn’t hold out much hope, but the small thrill of confidence that hit him at a quarter to four that morning still hasn’t dissipated. He hauls the books and his laptop to the table tucked in the little nook off of the kitchen and settles in, shifting between historical texts and modern websites as he eats peaches in heavy syrup straight out of the can.
By the time he’s finished the peaches and two cans of fruit cocktail, Stiles is ready to admit that this particular attempt at research is heading swiftly towards a dead-end. The books—at least the parts that he can make out—are more focused on body disposal than retrieval; the few mentions of necromancy they contain are mainly limited to accounts of dealing with warlocks: information on countermeasures, safety precautions when taking them on, that sort of thing. Nothing useful about pulling off some corpse-raising of your own, unless you counted the unspoken message that trying it is a good way to get yourself hunted. The internet hasn’t been much better—mostly a mixture of dire warnings, campfire stories, and things he recognizes as having been cribbed from cheesy movies and TV shows.
His lack of progress and the sugar from the canned syrup have him pushing back from the table, jittery and restless. He should get out and do something, come back to this when he’s cleared his mind a little. A little legwork is what he needs, to get out in the fresh air and see what he can find.
One of the bodies was found at the edge of the nearby preserve. Stiles figures that’s as good a place to start as any.
He finds a nylon bag stashed beneath the weapons locker in the garage, and stuffs one of the bows and a quiver of arrows inside. His hand hovers over the guns, as well, and the cases of bullets—mundane, silver, wolfsbane—before slamming the cabinet closed again. This isn’t a kill mission, after all. He has enough to protect himself; that’s all he needs.
The trip to the preserve isn’t a long one, and he drives it with the windows down, radio set to a local classic rock station and blasting into the cool spring air. If he sometimes likes to pretend that he’s starring in an old TV show, he figures that’s no one’s business but his own. The sedan’s a far cry from a muscle car, but hey. Nothing’s perfect, right?
He takes a turn onto a service road and drives for a mile and a half before he pulls over, double-checking the map he’s brought along as he kills the engine. The first body was discovered out here, a couple of miles off the road. Stiles isn’t really sure what he’s expecting to find; the attack happened months ago, and a forest isn’t exactly the best environment for preserving evidence. Still, he can’t help but feel that this is where he needs to be right now, and even if his instincts haven’t led him into the best situations so far, they haven’t gotten him killed yet, either. He heads out with the bow and the quiver of arrows strapped to his back, hoping that the paper target he’s stuffed in his pocket will be enough to convince the authorities he’s not out here to poach if he’s unfortunate enough to get caught.
The air smells rich and damp, musty with rain and leaves and stirring earth. Beneath his feet the ground is soft, fallen leaves over mud, and he’s grateful for the thick, winter-weight boots he’s wearing. It feels familiar in a way that he’d almost forgotten living in Boston, amid concrete and the constant press of people. It’s a solitude that’s comforting instead of isolating, full of the sense of homecoming that’s been constantly gnawing at the back of his mind. He has memories, vague and hazy, of playing in woods like these as a kid; his mother’s smile amidst shrieks of delight as he throws handfuls of leaves at another small figure, some childhood friend now faded to obscurity.
Stiles shakes his head, letting the memory fade away again. It’s the present that concerns him now—the mystery of a pack that will savage civilians, but leave a hunter alive and practically unmarked. He doesn’t like not knowing, not understanding. There’s more to this situation than what it looks like on the surface, of that he’s absolutely certain, and if it’s the last thing he does he’s determined to—
The sound of a gunshot jars him out of his thoughts and he freezes, heart hammering in his chest and one hand locked on the hilt of the knife at his hip. In the open air the shot had seemed to echo, and he strains his ears trying to catch a clue as to which direction it came from. A moment later a second shot rings out, followed by a high, pained howl, and Stiles bolts towards the sound, his feet already moving without his brain’s consent.
“Tell us where your den is and we’ll make it quick.” Stiles hears the voice before he sees anyone, leading him in towards whatever the hell is going on. “Well,” it follows up with an audible sneer. “Relatively speaking, anyway.”
There’s a snarl and the snap of teeth, and Stiles crests a hill to find three men facing off down below. Two of them he doesn’t recognize, but with their clothing and the guns they have leveled at their opponent, Stiles would have pegged them as hunters in pretty much no time flat, even without what he just overheard. The closer one’s left arm is hanging limply, a bloody slash across his bicep where their prey must’ve landed a swipe before they pulled their weapons.
The last man, Stiles realizes with a jolt, is familiar: Scott, he remembers, of the overgrown hair and the puppy-dog eyes. Half-shifted now, those eyes are red and furious, and Stiles will admit that the hair works better with the full wolf-man treatment. He’s clutching at his side with blood-soaked fingers, glaring at the hunters as he snarls through a mouth full of fangs.
“Talk about hurting my family again and I’ll rip your throats out,” he growls, and Stiles draws his bow as the uninjured hunter pumps a round into his shotgun.
“Maybe we ought to just put you down here and now. Can’t be too hard to track where you’ve been.”
Scott growls again, legs tensing as he prepares to leap. Another few seconds, Stiles knows, and there’s going to be a bloodbath. If he’s going to help, he’s got to do it now.
The first arrow flies in front of the shotgun-toter’s face and he flinches back, eyes whipping towards the hill where Stiles is standing. It’s all the opening Scott needs, and he lunges with a savage snarl, sending the gun flying as he knocks the man to the ground. The second hunter is already turning, firing quickly as his partner grapples with Scott, and Stiles lets out a yelp. His feet slip on the damp ground, sending him tumbling down the short hill, and he drops his bow as he slips and slides and rolls. He lands in a breathless heap at the man’s feet and sweeps his leg out automatically, tangling it with the other hunter’s and toppling him, as well. The gun discharges into the air as he falls; Stiles scrambles towards it immediately, wrestling it from the man’s weakened grip and tossing it away.
He’s shoved away to land hard on his back again, and he scrambles quickly to his feet as the hunter does the same. Stiles darts in, drawing his knife, and in seconds he has the blade pressed against the other man’s throat. Confused brown eyes lock onto his.
“What are you—”
“He hasn’t killed anyone.” Stiles struggles for breath, for the last shreds of sanity that seem to have deserted him. “He hasn’t killed anyone,” he repeats, “so we don’t kill him. That’s the fucking code, you psycho.”
“Right.” There’s a spurt of laughter. “This is war, son, the code don’t mean shit out here. And what makes you think he hasn’t killed anyone, huh? He was out here where that poor kid’s body was found, wasn’t he?”
“So were you. Maybe you killed him, then.” He presses the knife a little closer, and the man winces as a thin trickle of blood begins to slide down his throat. “What kind of an idiot hunter are you?”
“You’re the one about to slit a human’s throat for the sake of a werewolf; what the fuck kind of hunter are you?”
Stiles sets his jaw, trying to calm his frantic heartbeat. “That’s a good question,” he says. He pulls the blade away and watches relief light the other man’s face an instant before Stiles brings the heavy hilt crashing down on the side of his head.
“Stiles.” Scott’s voice hits him as the hunter crumples to the ground. “Stiles, are you okay?”
“I’m . . .” Stiles looks from the knife in his hand to the two unconscious bodies, to Scott sprawled panting on the carpet of leaves. His face is human again, and Stiles lets out a weak, thready laugh. “No. No, I’m fucking not okay. You’re a werewolf, and I just helped you take out a couple of hunters, and I’ve gotta be honest with you man, I kinda feel like I’m losing my mind here. Fuck. Is that guy . . . did you kill him?”
“Just cut off his air supply. He’ll have a headache when he wakes up, but he’ll be fine.”
Scott pushes himself to his feet, clutching at his side again and wincing. It strikes Stiles that he’s hardly dressed for the weather, decked out in nothing but sweatpants, a worn grey t-shirt, and running shoes. Not much cushioning there to absorb whatever the hunters did, and a sharp spike of worry catches him off-guard.
“Are you okay?”
“I’ve been better,” Scott says wryly. “Fuckers shot me while I was out running. I’ve gotta—shit.”
He starts to topple, and Stiles darts in to catch him, arm wrapped tight around his chest to keep him upright.
“We’ve gotta get you somewhere safe. Shouldn’t you be—hey, hey, what are you doing?” He stares in horror as Scott plunges a claw-tipped finger into his own side, clenching his teeth against the pain. “Are you insane?”
“It was just a regular bullet, but I’ve gotta keep the wound from closing up before it’s out,” Scott pants. “Ow. I’ve got stuff in my car, it’s just . . .” He nods his head vaguely to the left.
“Okay. Crap, okay. I really am out of my damn mind. Just . . . wait here a minute.” Stiles props him carefully against a tree trunk and darts away, skittering around the hunters’ bodies to retrieve his bow and the discarded guns. “I’m not leaving these here for Trigger-Happy Jack and friend to pick up when they come to.” He empties the chambers and sticks the handgun in his waistband, and after a moment’s thought jams the shotgun into the quiver still strapped to his back. With Scott’s arm around his shoulders again he heaves him away from the tree with a grunt of effort. “All right, Cujo. Let’s go.”
“I’m not Cujo,” Scott protests as they start to move. “He was a St. Bernard.”
“Fair enough,” Stiles chuckles. “You’re more like a labrador, right?” He catches Scott’s glare out of the corner of his eye and laughs. “Also,” he adds thoughtfully, “Cujo bit people.” He glances over at Scott. “Why didn’t you? Those guys were hardly better than amateurs; shouldn’t have been any problem for a seasoned vet like you.”
“I’m an alpha,” Scott says shortly. “I’m not going to bite anyone who doesn’t want it.”
“Is that what happened to you?” There’s no answer, and Stiles sighs. “How does that work, anyway, with you being an alpha? I thought you were part of Hale’s pack.”
“That’s . . . complicated.” They stumble on for a few minutes in silence. “Derek doesn’t want us talking to you,” Scott finally adds, and Stiles whips his head around so fast that he nearly sends both of them toppling.
“What?” he squawks. “Why not?”
Scott shoots him a veiled look. “He’s afraid we’ll get our hopes up. About you being able to do it, you know. Bring him back.”
“Well,” Stiles huffs. “I hate to say it, but he kind of has a point. I’ve been looking all morning and found exactly jack squat as far as useful information. I think . . . okay, this sounds crazy, but I think I can do it; I mean, I think I’m capable of it. But not without some sort of roadmap. I mean, how the hell do you just figure out how to raise the dead, right?”
“Actually—ow.” They pause for a moment for Scott to catch his breath and dig into his side again while Stiles pulls a face and averts his eyes. “Sorry. I was gonna try to find you after my run. I’ve got something I think might be helpful.”
“Really?” Stiles starts them moving again, frowning in confusion. “But you just said Derek—”
“He’s not the boss of me,” Scott says, a little petulantly. It makes Stiles want to ruffle his hair. “And besides. He’s not the only one who lost someone.” He glances over at what Stiles assumes must be his stunned expression, and shrugs. “About the same time, my best friend . . . I miss him,” he says simply. “I’m hoping you can find him for me. Oh, thank god, there it is.”
Stiles looks up to see a vague blue shape in the distance, one that resolves itself into a battered Jeep as they make their way closer. By the time they get there his shoulders are aching, and he slips Scott’s arm off to let him fall against the sturdy metal door.
“I’m sorry about your friend,” he says awkwardly, rolling his shoulders as Scott reaches in through the open window and pulls a box out of the glove compartment. “Is he . . . I mean, did he . . .?”
“Die?” Scott is stripping out of his shirt and digging a pair of forceps out of the box while Stiles determinedly doesn’t think about what he’s about to do. “I used to think so. But now I think he’s just . . .” He closes his eyes and breathes deeply. “Lost. He was pack, too; he was family. If there’s a chance I can get him back, then Derek’s just gonna have to suck it up and deal with me getting involved.” His eyes open again over a wry smile as he lifts the forceps. “You might not wanna watch this.”
“You know, I’m pretty good with emergency first-aid. I could help.”
“I’m okay; I’d rather do it myself. There’s something in the back for you, though. Take a look.”
Glad enough for the distraction, Stiles moves around to open the back of the Jeep. There’s a plain brown paper sack behind the seat; he tosses his gear down and opens it up.
“Books?” He’s already flipping through the pages, past cryptic symbols and thin, spidery writing in faded ink. “Where’d you get these?”
“A friend of mine.” Scott sounds out of breath, and a moment later there’s a muffled grunt of pain that sets Stiles’s teeth on edge. “He said there might be something useful in there. We had Boyd take a look, since he’s usually our best bet for research, but magic just isn’t his thing. He couldn’t make much sense of them.”
“Yeah. You met him yesterday at the cafe.”
“The big guy. Right.” There’s one book out of the three that Stiles keeps coming back to, running his fingers over the mottled red cover. It feels almost alive in his hands; it feels powerful. “What about your friend?” he asks absently, opening the cover and drinking in the smell of old pages. “The one who gave you these. Couldn’t he do something?”
“Could, maybe. But he won’t. Ever since this whole thing started, he’s declared himself Switzerland. Doesn’t want to get involved. I can’t really blame him, I guess; helping us out almost got him killed a few too many times.”
“Huh.” One of the entries has caught Stiles’s eye, and he lowers himself to the bed of the Jeep, rubbing at his aching back as he pores through it. “Derek said they didn’t return his mate’s body, right?”
There’s a long pause, then, “They didn’t. Why?”
“Because I think I can—jeez.” Stiles jumps a little, hand pressed to his chest when he looks up and sees Scott standing in front of him, wearing his bloodied shirt again. “Make a noise when you walk, seriously. There’s something in here about finding lost souls.” He turns back to the book. “It says it’s usually used as a tracking device, but there’s a reference here to a containment spell that . . . look, if I can find his soul or spirit or essence or whatever, I might be able to—I don’t know. Bind it, maybe? I don’t know what good it’ll do without a body, but it’s a possibility. This is possible.” He hops up, wincing as his back twinges painfully. “Motherfucker. I’ve gotta stop getting the crap beat out of me; I’m too young to be getting too old for this shit.” He stuffs the books back in the paper bag, wrapping them up tightly. “It says the body is usually used as like, a focus, but do any of you maybe have something of his? Anything personal?”
Scott hesitates, then nods. “Derek does. I’ll take you to his house.”
“Oh. Uh. Right.” Stiles swallows heavily. “No problem, just . . . you know, my car is out here.”
“No problem; we’ll get it on the way.” Scott slams the back of the Jeep closed and tosses Stiles a set of keys. “You drive.”
It’s no big deal, Stiles tells himself as he follows Scott’s directions to the road he’s looking for, wincing every time they hit a bump that rattles them both in their seats. He’s heading to an alpha’s den, sure, but Derek didn’t kill him the last time he had the chance. Plus, Stiles just saved Scott’s life, so he’s reasonably sure that the guy won’t stand by and let him get turned into a chew toy. He’ll be fine, and the colony of butterflies in his stomach can just migrate on out anytime they see fit.
“You st—you think really loud,” Scott pipes up after a minute, looking up from the text he’s been sending. “Left here; it smells like there’s a car down that way.”
“I think loud?” Stiles asks as he makes the turn. He shoots Scott a suspicious look. “What are you, psychic? Is that, like, some weird alpha power?”
“I’m not psychic,” Scott chuckles. “You just . . . look like you’re thinking really hard. That’s all.”
“Yeah, well. For the record, there are people waiting for me to contact them tonight, and if I don’t they’re gonna be both freaked and severely pissed off. You know, just in case your pack was thinking about abducting me again. Or eating my liver or something.”
“We don’t eat livers,” Scott protests, sounding horrified.
“Yeah, well, I knew a werewolf who did, once. Or, okay, I didn’t know her, exactly. I hunted her, though. Got her just before she took out liver number five.”
“Ugh.” Scott looks like he might be sick. “Is that what you were doing in Boston? Going after organ-harvesters and stuff like that?”
Stiles shoots him a sharp look. “How did you know I was in Boston?”
“I, uh. Sort of saw your driver’s license?”
“Right. Yeah.” Stiles shakes himself. “We don’t hunt people just because they’re different, you know; what we deal with are the ones that are a danger to people. We’re not all like—” He clears his throat. “I mean, I don’t have anything against werewolves, in a general sense.” He winces. “Okay, that sounded better in my head.”
“No, I get it. Hey,” Scott grins, “some of my best friends are human.”
“Cute,” Stiles snorts. “Is that who you were texting?”
“Sort of. My wife is out at Derek’s house with the kids; I just let her know we were coming. Is that your car?” He points as they round a curve, and Stiles sees the sedan waiting up ahead.
“That’s it. So.” He slows to a stop next to it, pulling the parking brake on the Jeep as he glances over at Scott. “You okay to drive?”
“I’m healing up fine,” he nods, that same soft grin still stretched over his face. “Just follow me.”
Stiles nearly says something else, but he closes his mouth before he can figure out what it might be. He hops down, rounding to the back again to grab his gear and the sack of books, tossing them in his backseat before he climbs in. Scott clambers over to the driver’s seat and pulls away slowly, waiting for Stiles, and Stiles feels his anxiety fading away as he turns his car around to follow. Strange as it may be, he trusts Scott. It doesn’t feel like he’ll let anything happen to Stiles, not if he can prevent it.
The drive to the Hale house is surprisingly short—shorter, in all honesty, than Stiles is completely comfortable with. He hadn’t realized that the body had been found so close to the heart of the pack’s territory, and he has to admit that knowledge doesn’t exactly bode well for their innocence. Even so, the idea still doesn’t quite sit right with him; he can’t resolve the idea of a group of cold-blooded killers with an alpha who will risk his own life rather than turn someone unwilling.
Nor does the house fit with his mental image of a murderer’s lair, if Stiles is being honest. It looks like a home, with a wide wrap-around porch and pretty whitewashed shutters. The garden in front has fallen into slight disarray, as though no one’s taken the time to properly tend to it lately, but Stiles can imagine it the way it probably used to be, with neatly-trimmed grass and rich green beds with herbs and flowers sharing space together. He can imagine it so clearly, in fact, that for a moment he’d swear that it had transformed before his eyes. Then he blinks again and it’s back to weeds and leaves no one has bothered to clear out, plants gone to seed and others spreading unchecked.
He’s still trying to clear his eyes when the front door opens and a woman runs out, fair skin offset by close-cropped dark hair and big brown eyes. She all but flings herself at Scott when he climbs out of the Jeep, pulling him into a fierce hug before thrusting him back to run careful hands over the blood-stained hole in his shirt. Scott simply smiles and lets her, glancing over his shoulder and nodding for Stiles to join them.
“—hadn’t heard anything about new hunters in the area, or I never would’ve let you go out alone,” the woman is saying frantically. “Were they . . . oh.” Her eyes widen, hands tightening on Scott’s shoulders as Stiles exits the car. “You really did bring him here.”
“Hey.” Stiles shoves his hands in his pockets. “I’m—”
“I know,” she says, before snapping her mouth shut. “I, um. I was there last night. I’m Allison.”
“Allison Argent.” His eyebrows wing up. “Right.”
Her arms drop to her sides. “You know who I am?”
“He seems to know quite a bit about all of us.” All three of them turn to see Derek standing on the porch, hands in the pockets of his leather jacket as he stares down at them. “What are you doing here, Stiles? Results already?”
“Not, uh . . . not quite.” He clears his throat. “There was—”
“He helped me out of an ambush,” Scott says, edging forward until he’s between the two of them. Stiles rolls his eyes.
“Thanks, man, but I can speak for myself.” He steps around Scott, moving closer to Derek despite his screaming nerves. “I have a lead on a way to get your mate back.” He swallows heavily. “Maybe. But I need . . .”
“What?” Derek demands, making his way down the steps. “What do you need?”
“Something personal,” Stiles blurts out, aware of the others hovering hesitantly off to the side. “Something of his, to make a connection. The closer the better; I need something that was a part of him. Do you, uh.” He meets Derek’s eyes. “Do you have anything like that?”
For a moment Derek simply stares, as if he’s trying to comprehend what Stiles is saying. Then he nods, looking away, and Stiles feels suddenly weak, like that gaze had been a set of invisible strings holding him up.
“Stay here,” Derek says tersely. He glances over at Scott. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” Scott meets his gaze, oddly defiant. “Thanks to Stiles.”
Derek just grunts. “You’ll wanna get cleaned up before the kids see you,” he says, and disappears back into the house.
“They’re napping, so you’ve got a little bit of time,” Allison says, tugging up the hem of his shirt to get a better look at the wound and making a frustrated sound. “You couldn’t have cleaned it up at all? I know I packed gauze and alcohol in that kit, so don’t pretend you couldn’t. You might have quicker healing than a human, but that doesn’t mean—”
“Hey.” Scott puts his hands on her shoulders and pulls her in, tucking her head against his shoulder. “I’m fine. We’ve all had worse than this, right? This is nothing.”
“If you die on me, Scott, I swear to god I will have Stiles bring you back from the dead just so I can kick your ass.”
“Wow.” Stiles lets out an awkward laugh. “We’ve all got a lot of faith in my thus-far untested skill at necromancy, don’t we?”
Allison straightens with a smile. “I guess you’ve just got a trustworthy sort of face.”
“I’m gonna go get cleaned up,” Scott says, pressing a kiss to his wife’s cheek. “Stiles, I’ll see you around.”
“Uh. Yeah, I guess . . . sure.”
“I should probably go check on the kids,” Allison says as Scott makes his way inside. “Kara might wake up when she smells her dad is home, and I don’t want her seeing all that blood.” She backs towards the porch, smiling hesitantly at Stiles. “It was nice to . . . meet you, I guess. Officially.”
“You—yeah, okay,” Stiles mutters helplessly as she books it inside as well. “No problem, just leave me out here alone, waiting for—Derek. Hey.” He shifts his weight uneasily from one foot to the other. “So, did you find . . . oh.” Derek is stepping forward, and Stiles’s eyes finally fall on the lump of red fabric clenched in his fist.
“He bled on this,” Derek says, holding it out, his eyes sharp and intent when they lock onto Stiles’s. “It’s the only thing I have that still smells like him. That personal enough?”
“Yeah. I.” Stiles clears his throat, climbing slowly up the steps to meet him. It’s the first time they’ve stood this close together; they’re very nearly the same height, and for some reason the realization makes Stiles’s heart stutter in his chest. “A blood bond should do the trick almost as well as a body, I think.” He reaches out, carefully taking hold of the folded sweatshirt. “You’re sure you’re okay with giving me this?”
Derek is staring again in that way that makes Stiles feel stripped bare. It’s an unfair look for someone with his face, and despite his fear that Derek might yet decide to rip his throat out, Stiles can’t quite manage to fight the magnetic power in those hazel eyes. He finds himself fighting the urge to lean in, to fit his lips against the firm line of Derek’s mouth.
“I’m sure,” Derek says at last, and Stiles blinks, nodding a little frantically. “Will it . . . will you be able to give it back to me?”
“I don’t know. But I’ll try.”
As Derek loosens his grip and Stiles moves his hand forward to tighten his, their fingers brush for just a moment. An electric thrill races up Stiles’s spine, and for just a moment his fingers reflexively curl into the contact. Then he jolts back, sweatshirt clutched to his chest as he nearly topples backwards down the stairs.
“Right. I’ll . . . I’ll let you get back to—whatever it was you were doing.” He trips his way down the stairs. “I’ll let you know how it goes. Later.”
He’s halfway back to town before he lets himself pull over, clutching the steering wheel with trembling fingers as he curses his own stupidity.
Getting a crush on the big bad wolf is absolutely no way for a hunter to behave.
The sheets are cool beneath Stiles's cheek, soft and thick with a familiar, comforting musk. It makes him want to settle back down into sleep, into warmth and safety and comfort. He’s so sleep-muzzy, in fact, that it takes him several long moments to realize that he can hear someone else in the room with him. He tries to stir, to jump to his feet, but his body feels heavy and content, more inclined to burrow deeper into the bedding than to ready itself for battle. Instead he stretches, loose-limbed, enjoying the kiss of cool air against his bare skin.
Though he can’t see properly in the dark, there’s no question in his mind that it’s Derek who settles on top of him, draped over his back like a heavy, living blanket. Stiles’s heart is in his throat as fear and arousal seize him, tearing him apart until it feels as if there’s two of him, one gibbering in terror as the other arches eagerly against the body above him.
“You know that you’re mine.” Derek’s voice is deep and low, and the growl that lies beneath the words is a dark shiver along the length of Stiles’s spine. Teeth just too sharp to be fully human scrape against the back of his neck, and he quails even as his lips part on a keening moan. “You’ve known it since you first saw me.”
Stiles can’t seem to find the will to speak, can’t answer at all beyond the barest shift of his hips beneath Derek’s weight. He can feel the hard press of Derek’s erection through the sheet draped over his hips, feel the warm, smooth skin of Derek’s chest against his back. Hot breath against his ear as soft lips brush against the shell.
“Give yourself to me,” Derek whispers. “Give me everything.”
Stiles jerks awake with a jolt, stomach clenching like he’s fallen as he stares, panting, at the ceiling. His stomach is wet and sticky; he’s running baffled fingers through the mess there before he realizes what it is and springs out of bed, as if standing on his own two feet will somehow erase the embarrassment of coming all over himself like a kid just starting puberty.
His skin is tacky with semen and drying sweat, and he stumbles his way into the shower, turning the water unnecessarily cold and shivering under the punishing spray. As he scrubs himself clean he tries to center his breathing, to erase the remembered feel of Derek’s skin pressed hot against his. It was just a dream, after all, and hardly even a surprising one now that he’s calming down enough to think about it rationally. There’s something magnetic about Derek Hale, a compelling charisma that, combined with that face and body, are practically a recipe for unwise sexual attraction.
Add that to the fact that it’s been at least a year and a half since Stiles last got laid, and an inappropriate sex dream is practically inevitable.
His teeth are chattering by the time he climbs out of the shower. The claw-marks on his shoulder are healing nicely; he should be able to stop bandaging them in another couple of days, he thinks. There’s a scattering of other scrapes and bruises that he catalogues automatically, but nothing worth worrying over. Back in the bedroom light is beginning to glow through the blinds as he dresses in a triple layer of shirts and the pair of jeans that aren’t mud-caked from yesterday’s tumble down the hill.
Five minutes later he’s sliding into his car, the collar of his coat turned up around his neck and a wool hat he dug out of one of the closets covering his still-damp hair. He starts down the street past front lawns covered in a thin layer of frost that’s already melting in the first weak rays of sunlight, the heater blasting and the windows rolled down just enough that he can hear the trill of early morning birdsong. Stiles has never been much of a morning person, but the cool, crisp air helps to clear his head as he sets off on an aimless drive.
The streets are deserted this early in the morning, and only a handful of lights are on in the houses he passes. As he drives he begins to wonder if maybe he has been here once before; on a family trip maybe, long enough ago that the memories have all but disappeared. It’s been years gone since he could ask his parents about such a thing; any possibility of guidance from them was ripped away by slavering jaws, and he doubts anyone else would know at this point. Still, it’s a theory that makes sense, one that explains the maddening sense of deja vu that haunts him down every second turn. A street sign at the end of a block lined with trees with twisted trunks; a big grey house edged in white trim; the sheriff’s station where his eyes trace familiar patterns in the peeling paint.
He remembers how Scott had looked at him yesterday, the hope and fondness in his eyes, and shoves the thought aside.
It’s somehow not a surprise when he finds himself downtown, pulling into a space in front of the Full Moon Cafe. There’s already a steady stream of people heading in and out, most of them dressed for work and clutching steaming to-go cups as they hurry back outside. Inside the air smells of cinnamon and roasting coffee; there’s a group of three high-school-aged girls standing by the register, giggling flirtatiously at the tall, lanky man working the espresso machine. Stiles joins the line, and though he does his best to hide a smirk as the barista gets progressively more flustered, he doesn’t bother when he sees the tips that the girls leave as they take their drinks.
“Not a bad strategy,” he says dryly as he steps up, and finds a pair of big blue eyes staring back at him.
“Hey. Uh.” The man fiddles with the rag in his hands, wiping down taps and wands that are already clean. “What are you—I mean. What can I get for you, Stiles?”
Stiles takes a moment to study the man’s face. “You were there the other night.” He doesn’t bother to make it a question. “You’ve got me at sort of a disadvantage here, don’t you think? You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”
There’s a second’s hesitation, and then, “Isaac.”
“Okay, Isaac.” Stiles leans against the counter. “What would you recommend?”
“Well.” Isaac takes a deep breath. “That depends on what you’re in the mood for.”
“Something with as much caffeine and sugar as the human body can handle without actually dying. I had an Adrenaline Junkie the other day; but then, I also got kidnapped by werewolves later, so I think I’ll try something else, just in case.” He glances behind him; there’s no one else waiting at the moment, so he turns back to peruse the board. “Interesting names you guys picked.”
“They’re sort of . . . thematic.” Isaac’s fingers twitch on the rag again, but the corner of his mouth is curling up as well. “A Red Eye Shift might be good.”
Stiles narrows his eyes. “I don’t think that’s really for me,” he says flatly, but he cocks his head thoughtfully at the menu again. “I’ll have whichever one is yours. Large.”
Isaac scowls a little bit, but he grabs a clean pair of shot glasses and starts measuring out the espresso grounds. “You want that for here or to go?”
“What the hell, let’s make it for here.” Stiles raises his eyebrows at the way Isaac’s hands are flying, building the drink like he could do it with his eyes closed. “Well? You gonna tell me what I just ordered?” he asks, and gets and irritated huff in response.
“A large Puppy Love.” He shoots Stiles a look at the laughter he can’t quite choke back. “I didn’t name it. Go on and take a table; we’ll bring it out when it’s done.”
“Sure,” Stiles chuckles, fishing out his wallet. “Should I—?”
“You can pay later.” Isaac sounds aggrieved, but he looks like he’s fighting back a smile, as well. “When there’s someone else working the counter. Just go and let me finish making your fourteen-year-old-girl drink.”
It’s weird, Stiles thinks as he chooses a free booth with a good view of the exits; definitely weird to find himself sitting so comfortably in a place like this. Strange as it may be, given that he’s been injured more in the past three days than he usually manages in a two-week spread, the town is starting to grow on him. It’s already begun to feel like home in a way that Boston never really did; like a place where he could maybe put down roots for a life beyond constant drills and hunts and days spent scouring the obituaries.
Of course, staying in town—staying alive, more likely than not—depends on him getting the pack to agree to a ceasefire. He thinks he might already have an ally in Scott, which is frankly one more alpha than he’d been counting on. But Stiles isn’t fooling himself; Derek is the one leading the aggressions here, and he’s the one he’s going to have to convince. Which means tracking down the mate he can’t let go of, even after all this time.
Under the circumstances, Stiles knows that he probably shouldn’t be wasting time having a leisurely morning coffee. Then again, it’s not even seven-thirty yet, and he wouldn’t normally be up for another couple of hours at least, so he figures he can cut himself a little bit of slack.
“One frothy girly drink, and an order of oatmeal.”
Stiles only jumps a little, cursing himself for getting so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he hadn’t even noticed anyone approaching his table. He’s sure as hell noticing now, though, as a bowl and an oversized mug with a mountain of whipped cream are set in front of him; a familiar blonde woman plops into the seat across the table, smirking at him over a crisp white carry-out bag.
“How’s your shoulder doing?” she asks. The bandana holding her hair back matches her ruby-red lips, which are curving into a wide smile now as he stares uncertainly back at her. “Hope I wasn’t too rough on you.”
“I’ve had worse.” Stiles glances down at the bowl in front of him. “I didn’t order oatmeal. Or catch your name.”
“Erica, and I know you didn’t. You didn’t order anything to eat, which seems a little irresponsible, if you ask me. If you’re going to drink something like that,” she says with a nod to the caramel-drizzled monstrosity in front of him, “you ought to at least eat something healthy with it.”
“Funny,” Stiles says dryly, picking up the spoon despite himself, “you don’t look like my mother.”
For just a moment her smile turns brittle; then her shoulders lift in a careless shrug, and she darts a hand out to swipe her finger through a melting rivulet of whipped cream.
“Lord knows you’re nowhere near pretty enough to be any son of mine.” She licks her finger clean, smiling wickedly when Stiles shifts involuntarily at the sight. “Go on; give it a try.”
Half-expecting something horrible but reasonably sure he’s not about to be poisoned, Stiles lifts a bite of oatmeal to his mouth. The taste doesn’t burst across his tongue so much as roll—a rich, nutty flavor, thick with cream and spiked with sharp bursts of cinnamon and the sweet-tart tang of berries.
“Huh.” He takes another, bigger bite. “That’s . . . perfect, actually. I make it like this at home when I have the time.”
Erica shrugs again. “Who wouldn’t? Black-and-blueberry’s the flavor of the day, and it usually sells out fast.” She leans back, crossing her arms as she studies him. “Scott says you helped him out of a tight spot yesterday.”
“I was there. Lucky timing, really.”
She hums, entirely noncommittal as Stiles picks up his drink, watching him closely as he takes a sip. “What do you think?”
Stiles swallows, searching for the right words. “It tastes like a teen television drama,” he says at last, and Erica throws back her head on a laugh.
“Oh, man, I am never gonna let him live that down.” She grins over at the counter. “That’s what you get for putting in extra caramel,” she adds, not bothering to raise her voice as she sneers at Isaac. “You don’t have anyone to blame but yourself.” Erica turns back to Stiles, her eyes contemplative once again. “If the shoulder starts giving you trouble, you should go see Dr. Deaton at the animal clinic. He’s pretty good with . . . let’s say, unusual injuries.” She stands, grabbing the bag off of the table. “I’m heading to the station,” she says, calling out this time, and Stiles wonders how many normals this place usually sees in a given day.
“Now?” Isaac pokes his head around the register, looking harassed. “We’re about to hit the morning rush, Kat took off last night, and you’re going to leave me here alone?”
“I’ll be back in twenty minutes,” Erica says, shrugging into a chocolate-brown leather jacket. “Boyd’s in the back, and Allison will be here to go over the books in half an hour. Quit your bitching.” She shoots Stiles an unreadable look. “Try not to send yourself into a diabetic coma with that thing,” she adds, and heads out the door without a backwards glance.
“Looks like I’m settling up with you after all,” Stiles comments, grinning when Isaac groans and disappears again.
Snark aside, the coffee is actually pretty good, despite the fact that it makes Stiles feel as if his teeth are rotting even as he drinks it. Totally worth it, if you ask him. He finishes and pays, shaking his head in amused sympathy as the morning crowd starts to build in force and Isaac looks increasingly more desperate with every order he has to fill. It’s good to see the place doing steady business—comforting in a way that he chooses not to examine too closely.
He lets himself imagine, as he leaves to hit the hardware store he’d passed earlier, what it would be like to actually build a life for himself here. A morning routine of coffee and snark at that cafe; people who know him and what he is, what he does; he lets himself imagine Allison giving Genna the go-ahead to take over as warden of the area, of having his friend with him as he learns the ins and outs of Beacon Hills. It’s a tantalizing dream: a home that he can make for himself, a place where he can belong in a way he can hardly remember ever having felt before.
Stiles is heading towards the checkout, lost in his thoughts again when a small body collides with his, sending him rocking back and very nearly crashing into a display of wood varnish. A wet warmth is soaking through his jacket and shirts, and he wrinkles his nose at the strong smell of bitter herbs that hits his nose when he looks down.
“Oh, crap, I’m sorry.” There’s a hand brushing ineffectually at his chest, and when Stiles looks up he gets an eyeful of fire-engine red hair. “That was totally my bad, I wasn’t looking where I was going, I—oh.” The girl finally looks up, recognition sweeping over her face. “Hey. It’s the junior crime watcher.”
“Nice. Darcy, right?” Stiles holds the front of his jacket away from his chest in an utterly futile attempt to keep the moisture from soaking through to his skin. She winces, and he shakes his head. “Hey, it’s my fault as much as yours; I wasn’t paying attention, either. Again,” he mutters. “No offense, but what the hell is this stuff?”
“Sorry,” Darcy says again, wincing. “Tea.” She holds up the mug she’s carrying. “I lost my travel cup, so . . . yeah. I probably should’ve just left it in the car.”
“You actually drink this stuff?” Stiles takes another sniff and jerks his head back immediately. “Did you lose your tastebuds in a tragic car accident or something?”
“Funny. It’s an acquired taste, but it’s supposed to help lower stress and strengthen the immune system. My crappy apartment has equally crappy heating, so I figure better safe than sorry, right? I’m actually here to pick up a space heater; they were sold out last week. And you’re . . .” She looks down at his basket. “Um. Avant-garde art project?”
He follows her gaze to the basket full of utility candles, a tarp, paintbrush, and a small can of paint. “Sort of.”
“An amateur crime buff and an aspiring artist?” She lifts an eyebrow. “I guess you decided to stick around for a while, then. What, are you going to recreate a crime scene with mixed media?”
“I think I’ll let that remain a mystery,” Stiles says with a smile, and Darcy nods hurriedly.
“Yeah, absolutely. Sorry, I didn’t mean to . . .” She shrugs. “I’d better go grab one of those space heaters before they sell out again. I’ll see you around . . . um. I don’t actually know your name; I’ve just been calling you Frank Hardy in my head.”
Stiles snorts out a laugh. “Well, at least you made me the smart one. I’m Stiles.”
“Interesting name,” she says, smiling widely. “Well, maybe I’ll see you around, Stiles. Good luck with your . . .” She gestures to his basket. “Whatever that is.”
“Thanks. Try to stay warm.”
Back at the house he immediately throws his jacket and shirts into the laundry, adding in his clothes from the previous two days, since he might as well get them all done at once. Mud and grime and bloodstains he can handle, but the smell of that tea is making him skin-prickling, head-spinning sick to his stomach. He starts to feel better as soon as it’s gone. He starts to look another shirt, but after a moment decides to just turn up the thermostat, unwilling to contemplate another load of laundry if he gets paint on whatever he puts on next.
There’s a screened-in porch at the back of the house where he hauls his supplies, and he pours himself a glass of soda to drink while the paint dries, because apparently he hasn’t ingested enough sugar or caffeine so far today. He spends another fifteen minutes puttering around the house, switching out his laundry and making the bed, wiping down the bathroom and rearranging one of the kitchen cabinets before he admits that he’s stalling. Stiles has never considered himself a coward, but he’s having trouble bringing himself to take this next step. Which doesn’t even make any sense. If this works, he’ll be one step closer to achieving his goal. If it works, he’ll be on the road to bringing this place back to something like a state of peace.
If it works, he might actually be able to bring Derek’s mate back.
It’s a stupid thing to give him pause, but still, he can’t help but wonder. If he can’t do it . . . if this guy is really gone forever, would there maybe be a chance . . .?
He can’t even finish the thought. It’s ridiculous, and self-destructive, and beside the fucking point. Stiles has a job to do here, and it’s past time he sucked it up and got to work.
The paint is set by the time he heads back out to the porch, and he checks the symbol against the book again, just to be sure. He doesn’t have any experience with magic beyond television reruns and trashy fantasy literature, but he’s willing to bet that fucking up the spooky symbol is still something that you generally want to avoid. The rest of the candles get placed in a ring big enough for him to settle cross-legged inside, and once they’re lit he has to admit that the effect is pretty freakin’ mystical despite the utilitarian blue tarp beneath it all.
Stiles steps over the candles, two books in hand, and settles down. He’s decided to try a test-run first, just to make sure he knows what happens to the focus object. He gets the feeling that damaging the sweatshirt Derek gave him might actually end in a prolonged, grisly death, and that’s something that he would frankly like to avoid. Instead he places one of the books that Scott gave him in the center of the symbol and opens the red one in his lap, skimming through the passage one more time.
It seems fairly simple. According to whoever wrote the spell, ritual, whatever you call it, the energy of the object’s owner will have formed a sort of metaphysical link to the object itself; all he needs to do is add his own energy to the mix, and he should be able to follow that link back to the source. Stiles unwraps the kitchen knife he’d sterilized beforehand, contemplating the blade for a moment before he pricks the tip of one finger, wincing slightly as he smears the welling blood across the edge of the painted symbol.
For a moment, nothing happens. Stiles sticks his fingertip in his mouth, sucking at the wound there and fighting a surge of disappointment when suddenly, his nose wrinkles. There’s an odd smell in the air, like . . . rubbing alcohol, he thinks vaguely. And something else underneath: the heavy musk of animals, and with it the sound of them, of claws clacking against metal and the occasional bark or mewl for attention. He blinks, temporarily overwhelmed, and sees a pair of hands, too dark and broad to be his own, spread over soft fur as the cat they’re holding tries to wriggle free.
Stiles sags as his vision clears, struggling for breath like he’s just raced up a dozen flights of stairs. He contemplates the book still sitting innocently in front of him. The animal clinic, he thinks. Scott got these books from the Dr. Deaton Erica had mentioned at the cafe.
“Son of a bitch,” Stiles mutters under his breath, feeling loopy and punch-drunk and fucking victorious, because holy shit, he just did magic. “It works. It actually freaking works!”
All of his previous reservations fly away in the face of the high he’s currently riding, and he doesn’t think twice before he swaps out the book for the sweatshirt waiting outside the circle. It takes several deep breaths to center himself again, to fight past the energy that’s buzzing along his skin and calm himself enough to focus. The power he’s feeling is like a drug, and he already wants another hit. He concentrates as hard as he can on the sudden well of certainty that’s rising within him, sizzling like sparks along his fingertips. Another quick jab with the knife brings up new blood, and he swipes it across the paint with a confident stroke.
The pain comes immediately, spearing through his head like lightning, so fast he doesn’t even have time to scream. Images batter his mind, there and gone again before he can hold onto them, leaving only broken fragments behind: a pool of light surrounded by deep shadows; the glint of a blade lowering towards him; a familiar, bitter smell; a blood-filled tube leading out of his arm; and more pain, searing like fire over his back, burning him, branding him. Voices he can’t remember beyond their cruel, sneering tone when he forces his eyes open, fingers curled into claws and black still edging his vision.
He’s lying on his side, hunched in on himself against the pain. Half of the candles have gone out; some were knocked over when he fell, and slowly cooling wax is hardening in puddles on the floor. His head clears before anything else, blinding pain receding to a dull, throbbing ache at the back of his skull. The agony spreading over his back is as fresh as ever, though, so hot and sharp that it takes him several deep, careful breaths to realize that it’s localized to the upper left side, burning there like lines of fire.
Stiles stands, stumbles, knife still clutched in his hand as he drags himself to the bathroom and the wide mirror there. He’s gone ghostly pale, he notices absently, with dark circles under his eyes that weren’t there the last time he looked; he looks, frankly, like he’s just gone through hell. With one hand steadying himself on the sink, he turns until he can see his back in the mirror.
Around the lines of his tattoo the skin is red and inflamed, like it was when . . . when . . . Stiles’s fingers curl tightly around the edge of the counter. Was it like this when he first got his tattoo? It must have been; that’s what the aftermath of needles jabbing repeatedly at your skin does. But he doesn’t remember. He doesn’t remember, he realizes, how long it took to heal, or what made him choose the design in the first place, or even where he had it done. This is some serious body modification, and he has no memory of how it happened.
His eyes catch on the bandage on his shoulder, the scabbed-over slashes that broke the first line. The tattoo was damaged, and that night he had a dream.
A dream that brought him here.
His breathing is surprisingly steady as he lifts the knife and rests it against his skin, over one of the twisting black lines that skims the curve of his ribs. A quick flick of the wrist and the blade slices through with a fresh wash of pain that loosens his fingers until the knife clatters into the sink. Stiles grabs a towel and presses it against the bleeding gash, his jaw clenched so hard he can hear his teeth grinding.
By the time the bleeding stops he doesn’t feel any different. The skin on his back has faded from red to a pale pink, and the pain there is nothing more than a sharp sensitivity when he tests it, like pressing his fingers against a sunburn. He cleans himself up, tossing the towel in a sink full of water to soak, and dresses the rest of the way.
Stiles doesn’t know where Scott lives, but backtracking from the Hale house is a piece of cake. The drive takes him twenty minutes; he’s up the front steps and banging on the door before his engine even starts to cool.
“Stiles.” Derek somehow manages to sound surprised without a noticeable change in inflection when he opens the door. Under other circumstances, Stiles would probably be impressed. Derek’s nostrils flare as he takes a deep breath, and his eyebrows furrow. “Something’s wrong.”
“Very astute observation, big guy. Really, top-notch.” Stiles jams his hands in his pockets, wincing a little as the movement tugs at the new bandage over his ribs. “We need to talk.”
“Something’s not right, okay? Something is seriously fucking far from how it’s supposed to be, but I don’t—” He pushes inside without thinking it through, as if he has a right to be here, only to stop short when he finds himself in a room with half a dozen werewolves staring back at him. There’s a brief moment of fear before his eyes fall on Scott and he steps forward, finger lifted in an accusatory point. “You! You know something.”
“Stiles, what’s wrong?” Scott stands, coming closer with concern etched across his face. He glances over Stiles’s shoulder. “Derek?”
A large hand grasps Stiles’s shoulder and spins him around. “Why do you smell like blood?” Derek demands.
“Oh, it’s this new aftershave I’m trying out,” Stiles says glibly. “What do you think? I cut myself. But nothing happened, and I want to know why. There’s something going on with me.” He turns back to Scott. “What do you know about tattoos?”
“What kind of tattoos?” Derek cuts in again.
Stiles glares at him for a moment, taking in the intensity of his stare before shrugging and lifting the hem of his shirt.
“The kind you don’t remember getting.”
There’s a sudden press of bodies around him as everyone gathers closer to look. It’s claustrophobic, uncomfortably reminiscent of being tied to a chair, helpless and certain that he was going to die. Stiles is about to demand some room to breathe, but Derek snarls before he can open his mouth and the rest of the pack eases back—all but Scott, whose hands are still hovering just about Stiles’s skin.
“This looks . . .” Scott lifts his head, looking past Stiles to Derek again. “I think we need to go see Deaton.”
“Dr. Deaton?” Stiles lowers his shirt, stepping back. “The one who gave you those books?”
“We’ll take you there,” Derek says, a scowl building over his face. “Whatever that is . . . it’s way out of my area of expertise.”
“But don’t you have a tattoo?”
The entire room goes still as his own words hit him, and Derek takes a cautious step forward.
“How,” he says in a low, quiet voice, “do you know that?”
“I . . .” Stiles shrugs. “We’ve got files on you. All of you. It’s . . . something on your back, right? Spirals, or something?”
There are several long seconds of silence as everyone around him trades looks. Stiles has stepped in something here, he can tell, though he doubts that anyone will be willing to fill him in.
“I’m going, too,” Erica says abruptly, breaking the tension as she steps forward, Boyd’s hand sliding off of her hip as she moves.
“Erica,” Scott starts, but cuts off at her scowl.
“I’m. Going.” She rolls her shoulders and sends Stiles a smirk. “I need the fresh air.”
“Okay, great. Field trip. Let’s go.” Stiles moves towards the front door. “But I swear to god, if I don’t get some answers when we get there, I’m gonna start busting heads.”
It’s edging towards dark by the time they pull up to the animal clinic, and Stiles takes a moment to let himself pretend. Pretend that it’s monsters lurking in the lengthening shadows that he fears, and not whatever waits inside the bright lights spilling from the building’s wide front windows. The first fear is better. Manageable. It’s the fear of claws and fangs, of dripping poison and ravenous hunger—things that are horrifying but familiar, and more importantly, things that Stiles knows how to fight. He doesn’t know what answers are waiting for him inside, and wanting them doesn’t make him any less terrified.
It takes a concentrated force of will to unclench his fingers from around the steering wheel, to unfasten his seatbelt and open the door, to take that first step towards the light. The others are already waiting, gathered around the front of Scott’s Jeep. Stiles had refused to let any of them in his car, and he’d nearly drawn a knife at the suggestion that he ride with them instead. They seem to get that his mood hasn’t changed, yet; once they seem sure he’s not just going to drive off, Scott and Erica file in through the front door without waiting for him to come closer. Derek keeps a solid five feet of distance between them, but he doesn’t move until Stiles passes him. Watching their backs or making sure that Stiles can’t make an easy run for it; he really isn’t sure, and he doesn’t feel like taking the energy to figure it out.
He feels better with Derek covering their flank like this. He doesn’t want to think too much about that, either.
“Is every place in this town either deserted or overrun with werewolves?” Stiles asks testily as his eyes sweep over the conspicuously empty front desk. “Have you people all just lost the ability to recognize how incredibly creepy that is?”
“Technically, we’re closed.”
The man who comes out of the back room is largely unremarkable. Medium height and build, with richly brown skin a few shades darker than Amanda’s and a short fuzz of hair. His eyes are bright with amusement and something else that Stiles can’t quite define. There’s something about him, though, that makes Stiles’s head buzz; he thinks it feels like looking at a giant humbled into human form, a sense of enormous power very carefully contained. Stiles wants to run away and step closer at the same time, repulsed and attracted in equal measures.
“You should think about locking your door, then,” he hears himself say, and a slow, broad smile spreads over the man’s face. “I’m guessing you must be Dr. Deaton?”
“In the flesh. And you’re Stiles.” His eyes flick over to Scott, and a look passes between them. “I understand you have some questions you think I might be able to help with.”
“In the back,” Derek says tersely, sending a pointed glance towards the windows. “Please.”
Deaton nods and steps back again, Scott and Erica following behind him. Stiles hangs back just long enough to glance at Derek over his shoulder, eyebrows lifted.
“You have a problem with common courtesy?”
“Me? No.” Stiles shrugs, discomfited by the nearly overwhelming urge to grin. “I’m a little surprised that you don’t, though.”
Derek stares at him for a moment, long enough for Stiles’s good humor begin to evaporate as quickly as it had appeared. “You don’t really know me,” he says at last, and flicks the deadbolt on the door before he brushes past Stiles to follow the others.
By the time he makes it to the exam room where the others have congregated, it feels as if a hard, heavy rock has settled in Stiles’s stomach. There’s a single overhead light on, spilling its illumination over the large metal table in the center of the room. Everything else is relegated to varying degrees of shadows, though that’s not enough to disguise the fact that the entire place seems deliberately designed to be as cold and unwelcoming as possible.
“Okay, but really,” Stiles blurts out. “Is the torture-porn aesthetic, like, a conscious choice with all of you? Because at this point I have to say it sort of seems like you might be trying a little bit too hard.”
“He’s got a point,” Erica mutters, holding up her hands when Derek lets out a warning growl. “What? I’m just saying, would it kill him to have something more comfortable to sit on than bags of dog food?”
“You really shouldn’t be sitting on those at all,” Deaton says blandly, and looks singularly unimpressed by the glare she throws his way. “Now, some of us have dinners we’d like to get home to, so why don’t we get down to business?”
“Right.” Stiles takes a deep, careful breath. “These two,” he says with a nod towards Scott and Derek where they’re both standing cross-armed, as far into the shadows as they can get, “seem to think you might know something about tattoos. Of a possibly . . .” He flutters his fingers. “Mystical nature. Or something.”
“Where is it?” Deaton asks. “Let me take a look.”
“Uh.” Stiles has rocked back a step before he makes the conscious decision to move, hands up as though to ward the older man away. “I’d rather not.”
The look Deaton gives him at that is so eloquently annoyed that Stiles finds himself reluctantly impressed.
“If you want to try to diagnose yourself, go to Web M.D., kid. If you want my professional opinion, I’m going to have to actually see what I’m talking about.”
“Stiles,” Derek barks out, and Stiles turns to glare at him.
“You,” he says, jabbing a finger in the air, “are not the boss of me.”
“You tell ‘im, sweetie,” Erica drawls, smirking unrepentantly when Stiles and Derek both turn their glares on her instead.
“We’re trying to help,” Scott puts in softly, almost pleadingly. “Isn’t that why you showed up at Derek’s in the first place?”
“Fine,” Stiles snaps out. “Fine, geez, whatever.”
He strips slowly, uncomfortably aware of the four pairs of eyes locked on him as he sheds layer after layer. It’s been a long damned time since he was half-naked in front of anyone else; he’d moved pretty quickly past the limited privacy of communal living at the Boston house, and it’s been longer than he cares to admit since he’s found anyone he wanted who moved beyond a handful of adrenaline-fueled kisses. He feels self-conscious, jittery—but not, he’s more than a little bit unsettled to realize, precisely unsafe.
There’s a strangled noise from across the room as he strips out of his final shirt, but Stiles can’t bring himself to look and see who made it. Instead he turns further away, angling himself so that Deaton can get a view of the twisting, curving lines spread over the left side of his back.
“Well now.” The older man steps close, and though Stiles is expecting the touch, he’s surprised when the first dry brush of fingertips is over the back of his neck, the curve of his bicep. “You look like you’ve seen a bit of battle and then some.”
“Those are just . . .” The memory slips through his fingers, so long ago it’s faded into unimportance. He shrugs. “Training scars. No big deal.”
“I see.” The other marks are next—the slashes across his shoulder back, the punctures on his shoulder, the new bandage over his ribs. “And these?”
“Look, I came here to find out about my tattoo, okay? Not recount a personal history of every time I’ve scraped my kn—ow!” He flinches away from the sharp flick to his ear, staring incredulously at Deaton. “What the hell?”
“You figure out a simple tracking spell and you think you know enough about magic to tell me how to do this? If you want my help, you’ll lose the attitude and answer the questions I ask you.”
“You’re a doctor,” Stiles grumbles, still rubbing at his stinging ear. “What the hell happened to the Hippocratic Oath? And how did you even know I’d tried a tracking spell?””
“The Hippocratic Oath is for M.D.s. And as far as the magic goes: you reek of it,” Deaton says bluntly, glancing towards the waiting werewolves. “In a metaphysical sense, anyway. Like burning ozone, which means it didn’t work quite the way you were hoping. Am I right?”
Stiles shuffles his feet. “Worked okay to track you down,” he says defensively. “Apparently it wasn’t strong enough to pierce through the veil of death or whatever, though, and it made my tattoo nearly burst into flames the second time, so . . .” He sighs. “The scratches are from a rogue wolf back in Boston, and the holes in my shoulder,” he says with a glance in Erica’s general direction, “are from the blonde one over there getting handsy the other night.”
“And this one?” Deaton asks, tapping a careful finger on the new bandage.
“Butcher knife.” There’s another sound of distress from the peanut gallery, and Stiles shoots them a quelling glare. “I said I cut myself, didn’t I? Don’t get all precious about it now.”
“And if I may ask,” Deaton says calmly, edging around to examine Stiles’s back more closely, “why the fuck did you do that?”
Stiles can’t help it—he snorts out a laugh at that. “Seemed like a good idea at the time?” He shrugs. “I thought . . . there’s something beyond my life’s usual levels of supernatural weirdness going on with the tattoo, and I couldn’t . . .” He forces himself to swallow past the lump in his throat before his voice does something humiliating like actually break. “I don’t remember when I got it. Or where, or fucking why. And the weirdest of the shit I’ve been dealing with didn’t start happening until it started getting damaged, so I thought I could sort of. Y’know. Like, test it out.”
“By slicing yourself open with a butcher knife.”
There’s a heavy sigh behind him. “And to think, I thought I’d put the bulk of dealing with idiots behind me when I stopped being the Hale family practitioner.” Deaton traces a careful finger over one of the lines near Stiles’s shoulder, and Stiles shudders. “You’re blocked; that’s why this flared up when you tried the mystical GPS spell. The magic you were channeling came in contact with the magic in this ink, and . . . well, you know the old question about the unstoppable force and the immovable object?” He steps around to face Stiles again, crossing his arms over his chest. “Frankly, you’re lucky you got away with just a little bit of a burn. Considering the power you were dealing with, it probably should’ve killed you.”
A thousand questions all swarm into Stiles’s head at once, but the one that makes its way out of his mouth is, “Why did the first one work, then?”
Deaton leans a hip agains the exam table, arms folded over his chest. “The tattoo is like a stopper in a bottle. That stopper’s been loosened, thanks to Ms. Reyes’s . . . enthusiasm,” he says dryly. “Trying to find me wasn’t much of a challenge, and it didn’t take much energy to make it work; you could say it sort of trickled in around the obstruction. The harder the thing you’re looking for is to find, however, the more energy it requires. Basically, you unleashed a metaphysical fire hose on yourself, and the pressure caused a pretty serious backlash The only reason it didn’t kill you is because of that little bit of give the block has developed now.”
“Not that this isn’t an utterly fascinating series of revelations,” Derek says shortly, the words tight and clipped, “but why don’t we get back to the original question?” He points angrily at Stiles’s back, eyes flashing red. “What. Is. That?”
“I can’t be sure.” Deaton glances from Derek to Stiles, then back again, shaking his head. “There are tests I’d have to do, things—”
“You’re lying,” Scott growls, and it’s the angriest Stiles has heard him sound since they met. He’s staring at Deaton with something like betrayal, dangerous and volatile. “You might not have proof, but you know.”
Deaton sighs again, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “I have a strong suspicion,” he finally admits.
“Oh for fuck’s sake.” Stiles throws his hands in the air, rolling his eyes so hard that for a moment he’s afraid they might get stuck in the back of his head. “What is it with the crypticness? Is it just, like, a supernatural thing? You gain freaky superpowers and lose all ability to communicate in a clear and concise manner?” He takes a step towards Deaton. “Because let me tell you, I am not in the mood. If you know what’s going on with me me you’d damn well better start talking, because so help me god, even your little werewolf protectorate here won’t stop me from beating the answers out of you if I have to.”
“Stiles,” Derek snarls, “calm down.” Stiles is already opening his mouth to snarl back when Derek adds, “We’re on your side here.”
Deaton’s mouth thins, but Stiles thinks there’s something like approval in his eyes as he crosses his arms again. “It looks like a birch tree brand. I’ve never seen one that big before, but . . .” He nods. “I’d bet my last vial of lethe water that’s what we’re dealing with.”
“What the hell is a birch tree brand?” Stiles asks, oddly gratified to see the others looking just as lost as he feels. “And—seriously, lethe water?”
“Brave new world, isn’t it?” Deaton says with a minuscule grin. “My last apprentice got it for me, back when I was still practicing. It seems like a fitting thing to gamble, considering what that kind of mark does.”
“Which is what?” Erica demands, her eyes bleeding yellow.
“Gives you a new beginning. Weaves you something new out of the threads of something you’d rather forget. Stiles, would you climb up on the table here, face-down? I want to get a better look.”
Stiles’s stomach feels like ice, but his need for answers is outweighing his discomfort, and he clambers up, spreading his shirt out beneath him to keep his bare skin away from the cold metal surface. He focuses on his breathing; on keeping his heartbeat steady; on the comforting weight of the knife at his ankle.
“The process is simple enough, when you get right down to it, though it’s not exactly pleasant,” Deaton is saying, standing back so that he won’t cast a shadow over Stiles’s skin. “There’s an oil that an alpha wolf’s claws secrete, as I’m sure you all recall. When it’s introduced to the bloodstream, something in it affects the memory center of the brain.”
“It’s how they take memories,” Derek says.
“Or plant them,” Scott adds, his voice unsteady. “Are you saying an alpha has to be involved with something like this?”
“Not directly,” Deaton admits, shifting around the table to Stiles’s other side, and Stiles turns his head to track him. “Not necessarily. The oil can be . . . harvested. Not easily, and not particularly kindly, but there’s a market for that sort of thing. Whichever way it happens, however, the first step is an incision. For the purposes of this type of mark you need a symbol that represents what the person wants to forget. It’s cut into the skin, either with an alpha’s claws or with an instrument coated in the oil, and sprinkled with ashes from a birch tree. The result is . . . well.” He gestures at Stiles’s back.
“You’re saying someone carved all of this into my skin, and I just don’t remember?” Stiles asks, trying to ignore his tightening lungs. “Because, you know, that kind of seems like the sort of thing that would stick in the mind.”
“Did you miss the part where it overwrites your memories?” Derek snaps, and Stiles turns his head to glare at him.
“I’m just saying, this is all sounding a little bit far-fetched.”
“Trust me, Stiles.” He turns back to see Deaton untucking the hem of his shirt. At his waist, settled a few inches above his hipbone and half-hidden by his belt, is a twisted, curving symbol that could have been taken directly from the design on Stiles’s back. “I know what I’m talking about.”
“Let’s just say I wasn’t always a veterinarian.” Deaton tucks his shirt back in and leans over to inspect Stiles’s tattoo. “I don’t think this one started out this large, though; I don’t even recognize all of these symbols, and I’ve been studying for a very, very long time. The way they’re not just touching, but actually intertwined . . . I’d guess it started out with one, and spread from there. I’ve heard of things like that happening once or twice before, when someone tries to forget something too close to the center of who they are.”
“Right.” Stiles’s own voice sounds tinny and far-away. “I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Nothing’s ever that easy, right?”
“Something like that. If I had to take a guess, I’d say it was something here, in this part that looks like a trunk. The heart of it, as it were.” There’s a sudden wash of heat as Derek leans over as well, hovering over Stiles’s prone body. “Probably somewhere around here.”
Deaton’s fingers against his skin are like a bolt of electricity this time, stealing Stiles’s breath until he’s half-rolling, half-falling off of the table. He scrambles backwards, fighting to pull air into lungs that feel as if they’ve clenched like a fist. As his back hits the wall he realizes that the knife from his boot is clenched tightly in one fist; he doesn’t remember drawing it, doesn’t remember anything but the feeling of being vulnerable and exposed, helpless to do anything but lie on his stomach and pray for it to be over, for everything to just stop.
Stiles doesn’t know how long he stands there like that, brandishing his knife as he stares them down and tries to remember how to breathe. His chest aches from the lack of air and the frantic pounding of his heart; he feels abruptly weak, trembling and sore and on the verge of exhausted, humiliated tears. Adrenaline crash, he tells himself, noting absently the way Erica’s claws have dug furrows into the wall behind her, the way Derek’s hand is clamped hard around Scott’s shoulder as if he’s holding him in place.
“I don’t . . .” Stiles’s voice doesn’t sound like his own. It sounds weak and thready, uncertain and vulnerable, and he takes a moment to fight for his composure. “I don’t like people touching my back.”
“Noted,” Deaton says calmly, and Stiles takes as deep a breath as he can manage.
“How do we undo it?” Derek is saying as Stiles continues his trip back down. His face is blank but his voice is fierce, almost animal. “Destroy the tattoo, right?”
“If that worked, wouldn’t something have happened when Stiles cut himself?” Erica asks, her fingers still curling into the drywall in a deep rhythmic, grind.
“No.” Deaton’s eyes linger on Stiles for another long moment before he turns carefully to Scott. “You remember when I explained the mechanics of mountain ash to you?”
“Yeah, I . . .” Scott looks torn between tears and the urge to violently maim something. Derek’s hand tightens visibly on his shoulder and he finally manages to tear his eyes away from Stiles and focus on Deaton. “Something about a spark, right?”
“That’s part of it. But more to the point, mountain ash creates a barrier for the supernatural. Humans can interact with it, cross over it—ingest it,” he adds with a significance that Stiles can’t understand, but makes everyone else wince. “And they’re also the only ones that can control it; they’re the only ones who can break its influence.”
It’s Derek who makes the connection first. “This works the other way.”
“Mundane means can’t undo it,” Deaton confirms. He looks at Stiles again. “It’s why the tattoo remained unaffected until your run-in with a werewolf. That first scratch is what opened this Pandora’s box for you.”
“Okay, so a werewolf’s claws can do it?” Erica pushes away from the wall, fangs extended and eyes blazing. “No problem. We’ve got three of them right here.”
Stiles tightens his grip on his knife, a fresh flood of adrenaline hitting his system as she approaches. He feels his lips pull back in a matching snarl, daring her to come closer. Before she can make it three feet, however, Derek releases his grip on Scott to dart between them, letting out an ear-splitting roar directly in Erica’s face. She roars back for a moment, and it’s not until Derek’s face begins to twist into a shift that she finally backs down, whimpering but still glowering.
“It wouldn’t work that way,” Deaton says, his quiet voice cutting through the noise like a scalpel. Stiles latches onto it like a drowning man to a life preserver, the only human voice in a room full of animals. He watches the way that Deaton’s eyes have locked on Scott’s, shutting the others out. “Scott, I think you know why.”
“Like the mountain ash.” Scott’s voice is wrecked but growing steadier, gaining force as Deaton nods encouragement. “The action isn’t enough; it needs a spark. A force of will.”
“What does that mean?” Stiles demands. “What does any of this mean?”
“It means that none of this can be undone without your consent.” Deaton crosses his arms again, turning to pin Erica with a fearsome stare. “Without that, all he’ll get for your troubles is a lot of bloody, shredded skin. He has to want to get back what he lost.”
“So.” With an almost unmanageable force of will, Stiles lowers the knife and tries to marshal his thoughts. “The first time?”
Deaton shrugs. “Coincidence, really. Whatever you were thinking about when you were attacked, it happened to be in the what corresponded to the area that was damaged. Do you remember—”
“Home,” Stiles says roughly. “I was . . . just, it was cold, and wet, and I was tired, and.” He shakes his head once, hard. “I just wanted to go home.”
“And you came here.” Scott is staring, his face filled with so much hope that it hurts Stiles to look at him. “You came ba—”
“No.” Stiles slides along the wall, farther away from the lot of them. “Look, I don’t know what—you want me to believe all this, that I’m some sort of, like, lost prince from a fairy tale or something. I’m not,” he says furiously, glaring at all four of them like he’s daring them to contradict him. “You say whatever happened to me took an alpha? Well there are two of them in this room right now, so if you think for one second that I’m just going to start blindly following you people, you’re out of your freakin’ minds.”
“No!” He jerks back, scrambling into his shirts again. “You can’t just . . . drop this on me and expect me to—I can’t, okay? I don’t understand, and I just. Can’t. Not right now.” He shrugs into his jacket, eyeing Derek warily as he steps forward, but sheathing his knife nonetheless.
“You need time.” The words are gentle in a way that sets Stiles’s teeth on edge. He doesn’t want gentle. He wants to scream and rage, to hit something until the world makes sense again, and he has the oddest feeling that Derek would let him. That more than anything is what has him holding back, because if he’s right then he’ll have to figure out what that means, and he just can’t even handle the thought of that right now. “We all understand that,” Derek goes on, watching Stiles like he still expects him to bolt at a moment’s notice. “But I need you to know that none of us did this to you. We wouldn’t. Not to . . .” He swallows back whatever he had been about to say; Stiles wishes he could rip the words off of his tongue. “We wouldn’t take something like that from you. From anyone.”
“Yeah, but who would?” Erica’s frowning thoughtfully now, entirely human nails tapping on the edge of the exam table. “It couldn’t have been Ar—someone human,” she says, throwing a look Derek’s way. “Right? Even if they used harvested alpha oil—which, by the way, gross—if someone was just human then they couldn’t have done it. Gotta have that spark to get the fire going.”
“Peter.” Scott’s voice is a low, dangerous rumble, his claws growing and retracting with every flex of his hands. “It must have been.”
Stiles doesn’t miss the way Derek’s eyes slip closed for a moment, the way his jaw clenches. It looks like pain—the old, deep-rooted kind that never really goes away—and Stiles is surprised by his sudden urge to reach out, to somehow make it better, or at least try.
“Maybe,” Derek says, his eyes opening again. The pause had lasted the space of a breath, and no one else seems to have even noticed. Scott just growls, low and deep and threatening.
“No maybe, Derek. It must have been, who else—”
“He’s dead, Scott,” Derek bites out. “Even if it was him, there’s nothing he can do now that he’s six feet underground. He’s not a threat anymore.”
“Yeah,” Scott snorts, “I remember the last time you thought that.”
“Okay, kids.” Stiles blinks, unsure what had just made him say that. The others are staring at him, and he takes a careful step back. “Look, it’s great that you guys think that you’ve solved this Scooby-Doo mystery and all, but to be honest? I still don’t know why I should trust any of you.” He shouldn’t trust them, really; the fact that he does anyway is irrelevant. “I mean, maybe I chose this. If it takes my consent to break it, it probably takes agreement to form in the first place, right?” A glance at Deaton’s face is enough to tell him that’s not true, but Stiles soldiers on regardless. “I just.” He sighs. “Like you said,” he tells Derek in a quiet voice. “I . . . I need time.”
Derek nods, though he doesn’t look particularly happy about it. “All right.”
Stiles glances around the room one last time before he turns tail and books it out of there as fast as his still-shaking legs will carry him. He can make out the sounds of the others arguing behind him but he doesn’t stop, doesn’t even slow down until he’s back in his car with the doors locked, sparing a single longing glance at the Jeep parked next to him. That’s what he wants right now: something massive and heavy, solid steel and an engine you can repair with chewing gum, string, and a can-do spirit. Something that will make him feel blissfully, if temporarily, impervious.
Every muscle in his body aches; all he wants is to crawl into bed and sleep for a year, to wake up and discover that this has been nothing but a ridiculous, terrible dream. He can’t be one of the Lost Boys of Beacon Hills. The very idea is laughable; he’s not Scott McCall’s missing best-friend-forever, no matter what the guy seems to think. It’s a mistake at best, a con at worst, and just because he can’t see the percentage in it doesn’t mean that there isn’t an angle that they’re playing. Hell, for all he knows, the tattoo on his back is keeping him safe, warding against supernatural manipulation. Maybe that’s why they want it gone so badly—get themselves a nice, pliable former hunter with the inside scoop on the other side of this war they’ve started.
His phone buzzes in his pocket before he can carry that thought much further. He fumbles it out, grateful for the excuse to simply sit for a while longer. Genna’s number is flashing on the screen, and he flips it open with a sinking feeling in his stomach.
“What the hell is going on there, Stiles?” she hisses, fury limning every word. “I thought you said you had the situation with the Hale pack under control.”
“I do.” Stiles frowns out at the clinic, where the lights are still burning bright. “What’s going on?”
“Amanda is flipping her shit.” Genna’s voice is quiet, like she’s trying not to be overheard. She’s probably not supposed to be calling him, then, which. Shit. It doesn’t bode well if she’s freaked enough to be stepping outside of the chain of command. “We just got word that there was another attack tonight.”
“What?” Stiles leans forward so fast that he nearly brains himself on the windshield. “Where? When? Fucking—” He slams his hand against the dashboard, grounding himself in the pain that throbs through his bones. “Okay, start over. What the fuck happened, and how many bodies are there?”
The silence over the line is more terrifying than anything she could have said. At least, that’s what Stiles thinks until she finally answers.
“No bodies. One survivor. She’s in the hospital right now. Amanda’s on the verge of flying out there right now; apparently all the cops got from the girl before she passed out was something about a red-eyed monster.”
“Oh, shit,” Stiles breathes, squeezing his eyes shut. “Shit. So—wait.” His eyes fly open again as he frowns at the building, and a mad urge to laugh bubbles up in his chest. “No, Genna, wait. When did the attack happen?”
“About an hour ago. Why?”
Stiles does laugh then, unable to help himself. “It’s not them! Look, it’s not Der—it’s not this pack, it can’t be, not if it was an alpha attack. I’ve been with the alphas for the past hour and a half, at least. It wasn’t them. It must’ve been . . . uh. Shit.”
“Alphas? And there’s another one?” Genna’s tone is nearly as horrified as his, though he’s willing to bet that she doesn’t feel like she suddenly has a giant cartoon bullseye on her back the way he does. “So.”
“So.” Stiles heaves out a sigh. “Good news, bad news, I guess. You wanna tell Amanda, or should I?”
Stiles has never, if he’s being totally honest, felt entirely comfortable with a bo. Oh, he went through the training, learned to make the shots he’d need to when the shit hit the fan, but it had never quite felt right in his hands. And since that’s a feeling he can’t afford when he’s out in the field, well. Practice.
“Focus, Stiles,” he mutters under his breath, notching another arrow and pulling the string back to his cheek, squinting down the shaft at the target. He does his best to push everything else out of his mind, focusing instead on the faint burn in his muscles as he holds the bow drawn, the smell of the resin, the feel of the fletching where it brushes against his skin.
When he looses the arrow it hits closer to center than all but one of the others, sunk into the trunk of a tree a little over twenty yards away. Not terribly impressive as far as distance practice goes, he’ll freely admit, but the best line of sight he could manage in this part of the woods. Why it had to be this part of the woods in particular is something he’s more comfortable not investigating at the moment.
It just doesn’t make sense. None of it makes sense; not the tattoo on his back, or the way it had reacted to the spell he’d tried, or the fact that he’d felt comfortable enough in a room full of werewolves that night to actually strip half-naked in front of them. Certainly not the way that Scott had looked at him, like Stiles was a missing part of him that he’d given up hope of ever getting back. Like Derek’s hand on his shoulder and the caution in his eyes was the only thing holding him back from making sure that Stiles knew it. Like Stiles was . . . is . . .
So no, it doesn’t make a damned bit of sense. Stiles isn’t anyone’s long-lost friend; this is real life he’s living in, werewolves be damned, and there’s no happy ending waiting for them. The friendless again shall be bros, he thinks, and his helpless puff of laughter sends his next arrow veering off-course, barely clipping the edge of the target.
Concentration’s always been his weak point, he thinks wryly as he reaches back for another arrow. He knows that about himself; knows it firmly and absolutely, as sure as he knows his own name. And that’s what makes the rest of this so utterly unbelievable, isn’t it? Stiles knows who he is. For better or worse, he’s a hunter—that’s what he chose, after the rest of his world caved in, and despite the hardships he’s never regretted it. He takes a deep breath, loosing the arrow to sink into the tree trunk with a heavy thunk.
He’s not a part of anyone’s pack.
He reaches back again, but his quiver is empty. Muttering annoyed curses under his breath, Stiles lets the bow fall to his side and starts to make his way over to retrieve the arrows.
“Not a bad shot.” The voice from somewhere to his right makes Stiles jump, nothing but pure force of will holding back what he would definitely term a manly bellow and in no way a startled, high-pitched yelp. A moment later a man steps into sight, stooping to pick up the arrow that had bounced off of the tree instead of sticking the landing. “For the most part, anyway. Really, though, what did that poor tree ever do to you?”
“How freakin’ big is this pack?” Stiles demands, trying and failing to get his heart back into something like a normal rhythm. The man blinks back at him for a moment before he smiles, dimples fluttering shyly as he saunters closer, still sliding the arrow lazily between his fingers.
“Not as big as it used to be. But big enough. What made you guess—”
“I remember you. The first day I got to town, you were sitting outside the café. Not too hard to put the pieces together now that you've started putting on the werewolf creeper vibe.” Stiles carefully hefts the bow at his side, testing his grip. He knows the pack isn’t interested in hurting him at the moment, but that doesn’t mean he likes the way this guy has casually planted himself between Stiles and his arrows. “What, are you on stalker duty today or something?”
The guy laughs. “That’s harsh. I just think you’re interesting, that’s all. I saw you at the hospital yesterday. My name’s Bryce, by the way.”
“Right. Great. What were you doing at the hospital, Bryce?”
“Same thing you were, I’m guessing,” he says with a shrug. “I wanted to make sure that poor girl was okay. Lots of unsavory types hanging around, waiting to see what happens with her.” He tucks a strand of hair behind his ear and fixes Stiles with an intense stare. “There’s a rumor going around that her injuries have already healed. There are a lot of people who’d be very interested in getting their hands on her.”
He’s not wrong. Stiles had seen a few of them himself: hunters he hadn’t recognized, but unmistakable as anything else, waiting to see if the girl pulled through, ready to make sure that she wouldn’t. He’d been ready to camp out himself, but he’d let himself be reassured by the sight of a pair of sheriff’s deputies stationed outside her door. It hadn’t even occurred to him that Derek might’ve sent one of his own to check in, though in retrospect it probably should have.
“She’s not gonna be under guard forever, though.”
The second voice, when it comes, doesn’t make Stiles jump like the first had. He’d been expecting it on some level, and he turns carefully to face the second man sauntering up behind him, stepping back to keep both of them in his sight at once.
The man walking towards him now is . . . beautiful. There’s no other word for it. His clothes are unremarkable—jeans and a baggy hooded sweatshirt over a dark t-shirt, the kind of outfit that Stiles sees on hundreds of students every day in Boston. His face, though. His face is a work of art: thin and almost delicate, with skin a smooth, mellow brown that makes Stiles think of caramel, of his usual morning coffee, of a dozen other things that make his mouth water. High cheekbones and a sharply pointed chin are softened by a close-cropped beard that skims his jawline, and framed by a few loose waves of thick black hair that have escaped from the low, messy tail gathered at the back of his long neck. He smiles slow and wide as he moves closer, and it’s only then that Stiles realizes he’s gaping open-mouthed at his approach.
That’s also about the time that the words sink in, and Stiles’s blood goes cold. His hand tightens on his bow until his knuckles go white, and he glances back at Bryce.
“You’re not part of Derek’s pack.”
“And the penny drops.” The second guy is still smiling, trailing his eyes up and down Stiles’s body like he’s sizing him up for sex, or possibly a midday meal. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Stiles.”
They’re closing in on him, slowly but surely, edging closer so slowly that he almost doesn’t see it happening. “How do you know who I am?”
“Small town. Word travels. And you’ve been leaving your scent all over the place.”
“Right. Funny how that happens.” Stiles’s throat clicks as he swallows, his free hand drifting to the knife at his belt. “So do I get to know your name? I’m just saying, if you’re gonna eye-fuck me like that it seems like common courtesy.”
“Hmm.” His smile widens. “I don’t think so.” Deep-set brown eyes flicker over to Bryce, then back again. “Not all of us like to go around giving our names to every cute hunter we find hanging around the woods.”
“Sure, yeah, makes sense. Okay, I’ve gotta ask,” he says, stalling for time as he tries to size up the situation. Two strange werewolves—omegas, or part of this new alpha’s pack, he isn’t sure yet—versus him armed with a bow but no arrows, a couple of knives, and no backup within three thousand miles. Yeah. He’s screwed. “Are all werewolves just preternaturally attractive?” he asks anyway, because he might actually be physically incapable of not finishing a thought once he’s started talking, especially when his nerves get the better of him. “Like, is that something that comes with the bite? Because I’ve gotta say, if it is, that’s almost enough to sell me on the recruitment pitch.”
Mystery-man’s smile is more shark than wolf. “Baby, I was born this way,” he says, and Stiles groans.
“Really? Really? I’m trying to have a serious showdown-between-mortal-enemies conversation here and you’re quoting Lady Gaga at me?”
“It’s a thing he does,” Bryce says apologetically, still idly twirling the arrow between his fingers; it’s hard for Stiles to focus on anything else. He’s seen a werewolf fling an arrow back at a hunter with almost as much force as a bow would give it, and he’s not terribly eager to recreate the experience. There’s a crossbow in the trunk of his car—more importantly, there’s transport out of here back at his car—but the mystery man’s standing in the way. Though there’s no way he can hope to outrun a pair of fully-grown werewolves unless he does some damage to them first in any case. “Oh, don’t try what I think you’re about to try,” Bryce adds, snapping him back to the moment. “That’ll just make this take longer, and I really don’t want to hurt you.”
“I do,” his friend chimes in, all charm and smiles and the sharp edge of danger. “But not until you ask me nicely.”
“Oh, good. That’s comforting.” Abandoning pretense, Stiles slides his knife free. “You know, in that way that’s totally not.”
“Do we really have to do this the hard way?” Bryce asks, his gentle voice at odds with the claws that are clicking against the arrow’s shaft now, the way both men’s eyes are glowing gold. “If you’ll just come with us—”
“Go with the two strange werewolves menacing me in the middle of a deserted stretch of forest?” Stiles interrupts. “Sorry, but that doesn’t exactly strike me as a particularly good life decision.”
“I love it when they’re feisty.” The other man’s eyes seem especially bright beneath the thick, dark slashes of his eyebrows, his smile less charming now that his fangs are sliding into place. “I could just eat this one up.”
That’s all the prompting Stiles needs. He flings his bow as hard as he can to his left, hoping it’ll tangle Bryce’s arms, but not waiting to see before he whips his right hand out as well. He’s only ever been adequate with a bow, but when it comes to knives he’s never fallen behind the curve; a second after his release, the blade he’s thrown is sunk to the hilt in the stranger’s thigh. There’s an ear-splitting roar as the man goes down to one knee, and Stiles only pauses long enough to pull his second knife from his boot before he’s running, taking off at top speed towards his car. If he can just be fast enough . . . if he can just get to his car—
He doesn’t make it. Doesn’t make it halfway, even, before a heavy body is crashing into him from behind, sending him slamming to the forest floor. All of the breath is knocked from his lungs in a sudden rush as strong, clawed hands scrabble at his shoulders to turn him over. Twigs scratch and scrape at his cheek as he’s wrestled onto his back; his quiver presses painfully against his spine, forcing his back into an awkward arch. Above him, Bryce is fully shifted into beta form, silky curtains of hair tangled in the thick, scraggly fur that’s sprouted at the sides of his face, lips pulled back in a vicious snarl with his fangs bare inches from Stiles’s face.
Weakened from the fall, Stiles barely manages to keep his fingers clamped tightly around the hilt of his knife. He stabs upwards before Bryce can pin his arms; there’s a deafening howl, a hot spurt of blood over his hand, and a sick sense of satisfaction races through him as he twists the blade into soft flesh. Still, it hardly slows Bryce down. His fingers clamp around Stiles’s wrist, slippery with blood until he squeezes so tight that pain makes starbursts bloom behind Stiles’s eye. His other hand is around Stiles’s throat, claws pressed menacingly agains the skin while Stiles thumps and shoves ineffectively with his free hand.
And then, suddenly, the pressure is gone as Bryce is lifted up and flung away, his fingers around Stiles’s throat thankfully gone slack in his surprise. Stiles doesn’t wait to see what’s happening, just scrambles immediately to his feet, dazed and woozy but still trying to shift into a fighting stance. The second werewolf is hauling Bryce to his feet, the knife he’s pulled out of his leg clenched in his other hand as they both snarl at Derek, now standing between them and Stiles.
Stiles is still trying to clear his head when Derek lets out a roar of challenge. The other werewolves cringe back, and a second later they’re running, taking off as fast as they can with a duo of stab wounds that are still healing over. Derek’s shoulders look tense beneath his jacket, coiled beneath the leather like he’s about to give chase. It takes several long moments for him to relax, letting out a dismissive huff of breath that makes Stiles’s lungs burn as he attempts to laugh.
“Are you okay?” Derek asks, finally turning around. For some reason, Stiles is disappointed to note that Derek’s face is human-normal, without so much as a hint of red in his bafflingly-colored eyes. Those eyes go wide when they finally fix on him. “Are you hurt?”
“Me? Nah.” His voice is a little rough with a combination of adrenaline and the after-effects of a preternaturally strong hand around his throat. He gestures carelessly with the bloody knife. “I’m peachy.”
“You’re covered in blood.” Derek takes a step forward before he checks himself. “Did they—are you—”
“Relax, alpha man. None of it’s mine.” He reaches up to scratch at his cheek and winces; when he pulls his fingers away, they come back red. “Well. Hardly any of it, anyway,” he amends, and starts walking over towards his target, pushing through the burning in his lungs. “Bastard took off with my other knife,” he mutters, and starts pulling arrows out of the tree. He glances back over his shoulder to find that Derek has followed him to stand just a few feet away, hands shoved in his pockets as he watches Stiles work. “Thanks,” Stiles says awkwardly. “For, you know. The save. I was pretty much screwed before you showed up.”
“You were doing okay.”
Stiles snorts. “Not from where I was standing. Actually, not from where I was lying flat on my back, pinned by a pissed-off werewolf.”
Derek shrugs. “Scott told me what you did before—how you helped him out with those hunters. You saved him from two of your kind; I saved you from two of mine. I figure that makes us even.” He stares at Stiles, considering. “Gotta have balance, after all.”
“That’s the rumor.” Stiles leans a shoulder against the tree trunk. “What’s with the timely rescue, though? What, do I have werewolves on both sides of the line stalking me now?”
“I wasn’t—” Derek huffs out a frustrated breath. “You’re almost at the boundary of our pack’s territory.” He fixes Stiles with a sharp look. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You knew you’d be safe.”
“I . . . I just needed a quiet spot where none of the neighbors would call the cops on the crazy guy shooting arrows in his backyard. Don’t read anything into it.” Stiles turns back to the target, yanking out the next arrow with more force than strictly necessary. “And it’s your pack. Not mine.”
“It could be,” Derek says, so quietly that Stiles almost misses it. “If you’d let it.”
“I’m not who you people think I am,” Stiles spins around to shout. “This paragon of virtue you people lost? Who was good and kind, the best friend could solve all of your mystical, magical problems with a wink and a smile? That’s not me.” He lifts the bloody knife between them with a sneer. “This is me. I’m not a savior; I’m a killer.”
“It’s possible to be both.” Derek’s voice is infuriatingly calm, almost amused, even. “I’ve never known a perfect person in my life; I’ve sure as hell never had any in my pack. No one’s asking you to be perfect, Stiles. All we’re asking—”
“Is to trust you, right?” Stiles shoves the knife back in its sheath, blood be damned. It’s not like he has any way to clean it up out here, anyway. “Trust that I’ve just forgotten who I really am—which just happens to be someone who’s firmly on your side. Sure, that doesn’t seem suspect at all. But say you’re right; say I’m one of the missing links in the not-so-perfect pack you used to have, and the big bad spell took all of that away. How do I know that isn’t what I wanted? Maybe I wanted to forget. Did you think of that? Maybe I finally realized how fucked up it is to voluntarily tie myself to a bunch of monsters.”
The look on Derek’s face makes his stomach twist, like he’s eaten something rotten. It’s pain and betrayal and horror all mixed into one, along with something else that Stiles doesn’t want to consider—something that’s far too close to resignation for his own peace of mind. And then there’s nothing at all but an expression gone so blank that his face might as well be carved from stone.
“I’m sorry,” Stiles sighs. “I am. That was way out of line, and I didn’t mean . . .” He cuts off with a frustrated sigh, leaning back against the tree. “I don’t actually think you’re monsters, you know. Not inherently, anyway; no more than people can be.” He scrubs his clean hand through his hair, dislodging a small shower of leaves and dirt and god knows what else. “It’s just difficult for me to believe . . . I don’t trust . . .”
Stiles looks up, takes a deep breath. “I don’t trust how much I want to trust you.”
Derek blows out a breath, rolling his eyes in a way that manages to convey equal parts irritated exasperation and grudging acceptance.
“I know the feeling,” he admits, and the sick twisting in Stiles’s stomach ends. Just one more thing to add to the list of reactions he’s choosing not to examine. “I only . . . we only want to help you, though. That is, if you can manage to get your head out of your ass long enough to let us.”
Stiles shoots him a wry look as he goes back to pulling his arrows free. “Why do I get the feeling this is a major case of the pot calling the kettle black?” he asks dryly, and sighs. “Look, if we’re going to help each other—at all, I mean, not just with . . . anyway—we’ve gotta be up front about things. Agreed?”
“Sounds reasonable,” Derek says cautiously. “What did you want to know?”
“I’ve read the files on your pack, all the data that’s been collected over the past couple of years. Which is all we have to go on, I should note, due to that pesky information blackout I’m pretty sure you guys engineered. Which is incredibly obnoxious, but also really freaking impressive. Just for the record. Anyway. There’s one name I’ve been looking for that I haven’t found in any of our intel.” Stiles steels himself against the frisson of unease that runs through him. “Who’s Peter?”
Derek’s silent for a long stretch, long enough for Stiles to glance back just to make sure he’s still there. “Don’t you know?” he asks at last, and Stiles rolls his eyes.
“I’m well-informed, not omniscient.”
“Right.” Derek stares at him for another long moment, searching Stiles’s face. “He was my uncle,” he finally says. “The rest of it doesn’t matter; he’s dead now.”
“Yeah, I got that much the other night.” Stiles turns and takes a few steps closer, as if increased proximity will somehow lend his words weight. “Why did Scott think he had something to do with . . . with all of this?”
“Probably because Peter was a psychopath. We should go,” he says abruptly, glancing up at the overcast sky as he turns away. “It's going to storm, and it’s not safe out here after dark.”
“It's not safe out here now,” Stiles mutters.
He crunches his way back over the carpet of leaves to retrieve his last arrow, glaring at the tree trunk like this entire thing is its fault. There are gouges in the bark, claw marks old enough to have healed over, deep enough to have scarred. His fingers brush curiously against them, and for just a moment—
Stiles shakes himself and pulls the arrow free, snatching his bow off of the ground as well, shouldering it as he lopes after Derek towards—
“Uh.” He stops suddenly, not nearly as surprised as he thinks he should be when Derek stops as well, turning back to see what the hold-up is. “My car’s . . .” Stiles gestures vaguely to the left, shuffling a half-step in that direction. “So, I guess I’ll see you—”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Derek says, rolling his eyes again before they fall in a pointed gaze at Stiles’s right hand. “You go driving around town like that, you’ll get arrested in about three and a half seconds. With everything going on recently, that’s something you probably want to avoid even more than usual.”
“Right.” Stiles looks down at his hand, at the blood spattering his clothes, the hilt of the knife stuck in his belt. “So then. We’re going . . . Where?”
Derek’s lips twitch just a hair. “Back to the house. We’re only a few minutes away on foot, if you don’t bother with the roads. You want to share information?” He jerks his head in the direction they’d been walking. “That’s where we have all of ours. Plus running water, in case you’re interested in trying to look a little bit less like a serial killer.”
“You know, it’s almost cute when you try to be funny,” Stiles says, biting his tongue a second too late to keep the words from coming out. Derek, thankfully, only raises a single eyebrow and starts walking again.
“It’s just as well that I found you here,” he says, making his way easily over the uneven ground. “Scott keeps saying that he has something you need to see, but he hasn’t been able to find you anywhere.”
“What could he possibly have that I need to see?”
Derek shrugs. “He didn’t say.”
“Yeah, but you know, right? Aren’t you, like, the boss alpha or something?” Stiles stumbles a little as his foot sinks into a deceptively deep drift of leaves. “There’s no way you’re telling me you’re not ultimately in charge of this little Red Dawn tribute you guys are working here.”
“God, I’d forgotten about the pop culture references,” Derek mutters, and Stiles’s heart gives a hard, alarmed thump.
“That’s bullshit,” he manages to say, and Derek casts an unreadable glance his way.
“Yeah,” he says quietly. “It is.”
They walk the rest of the way in silence, something that Stiles quickly concludes is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, he doesn’t need any more insinuations that he’s something he’s not, something that he can’t be. On the other hand, however, the silence leaves him with nothing to distract him from his thoughts—thoughts that are far too focused on the offhand way that comment had dropped from Derek’s lips, as though he hadn’t bothered to think before he said it. As though he hadn’t had to think. To say that the implications are nothing that Stiles is comfortable with would be an understatement of epic proportions.
“Not that it’s any of my business,” he finally says as they scramble—all right, as he scrambles and Derek gracefully climbs—over the crest of a hill to find the house waiting for them on the other side, “but aren’t you at all worried about hunters finding this place? As I recall, the last time you had your family gathered in one place like this it didn’t exactly end well for anyone.”
Derek glares at him. “We have precautions set up,” he says shortly, making his way towards the house.
“Precautions?” Stiles hurries after him. “Like what . . . land mines or something? Because if it’s land mines, I’d really appreciate a heads-up before I end up with, heh, a literal heads-up.” He’s mostly joking, but he starts paying close attention to where Derek steps, just in case.
“There are no land mines.”
“Okay. Good.” He looks around. “So then—”
“Wards,” Derek says tersely. “The only people who get through are the ones we let through.”
“Oh. So, then. I guess I got in because Scott invited me that first time?”
Derek throws him another unreadable look, and Stiles can honestly say that he’s getting pretty damn sick of those.
“That’s one of the theories.” He takes the front steps two at a time. “Come on.”
He leads them around to the back of the house, in through the kitchen where it’s surprisingly warm and clean and bright. Stiles heads straight for the sink, dumping his bow and quiver on the table as he goes. He strips out of his jacket and over shirt, turns the water on as hot as he can get it, and starts to scrub.
“So, where’s this intel you’re so keen to share?” He glances back, but he’s alone in the room, no Derek in sight which . . . should make him more uncomfortable than it does, he thinks. Luckily, the fact that he’s not freaked out has him freaking out, so that’s almost the same thing, right? “Ooookay,” he says under his breath, pulling out his knife to scrub that down as well. “I’ll just clean up and get the hell out, then. Don’t know what I was thinking, following a werewolf back to his freakin’ den. Jesus, Stiles, are you fucking new?”
“Not according to our records.”
“Jesus fuck,” Stiles yelps, water spraying from the blade of his knife as he spins around. Boyd is standing in the doorway that leads to the rest of the house, a file clasped in one hand. He raises an eyebrow at Stiles and doesn’t move. “Do any of you make actual noise when you walk?”
“Erica, when she wears her stilettos,” he says dryly. There’s a hint of a smirk on his face that dies when his eyes land on the table and the bow and arrows sitting there. “You wanna finish up and put the deadly weapons away?”
“I . . .” Stiles sighs, letting the tension bleed out of his body. “Sure. Why the hell not.”
He turns back to the sink, pumping another dollop of soap into his hand to scrub the last of the blood away. When he’s finished he looks around, eventually depositing the knife in the draining board next to the sink. The blood on his clothes isn’t too noticeable unless you’re looking for it, so he leaves them on the counter and walks over to the table where Boyd’s already sitting, drying his hands on his jeans as he goes.
“So.” He sweeps the bow and quiver up, propping them against the table next to him as he sits. “Derek said you guys were in a sharing mood.”
“We’ve got some information on that monstrosity on your back.” Boyd slides the file across the table. “I couldn’t decipher all of it,” he says as Stiles begins to flip through the pages: grainy enlargements of photos of his back that someone must have taken the other night; sketches of some of the individual symbols; pages and pages of photocopies and print-outs and notes written out in neat block letters. “Our resources here are kind of limited. But we sent the pictures off to the best person we know for something like this. Or, the best person we know anymore, anyway,” he adds.
“They really do mean something.” Stiles feels as if the world is tilting around him as he leafs through the file. “I don’t . . . you could be making all of this up.”
“Yeah, I guess I could,” Boyd shrugs. “But frankly, I’ve got better things to do with my time.”
Stiles traces his fingers over one of the photographs. “Boyd.” He takes a deep breath and looks up, setting his face in determination. “Tell me the truth. Was I really a part of this pack once?”
Big brown eyes meet his gaze, unflinching. “The thing you've gotta understand is, a pack isn’t something you can just casually step in and out of. It isn’t just a family; there are similarities, but it’s not the same. And as hard as family is to walk away from . . .” His eyes drop to the table between them as he takes a steadying breath of his own, and when they rise again they’ve lost their hard shell of apathy. “You were,” he says quietly. “There’s at least a part of you that always will be.”
“We were sort of afraid you’d never come back here again.” Scott edges into the room before Stiles can get his breath back, looking hopeful and hesitant all at once. He’s wearing a t-shirt with a ridiculous cartoon wolf on the front, and mountain-man scruff aside he looks about twelve years old. “I’m glad you did.”
“You look like a total dweeb in that shirt,” are the first words out of Stiles’s mouth; he can’t do more than blink in surprise when Scott beams back at him.
“I think that was sort of the idea. It was a gift.”
“From someone who hates you?”
“Okay, this?” Boyd puts in. “This I didn’t miss.”
“Derek, uh.” Stiles clears his throat, suddenly uncomfortable again. “He said you’d been looking for me. You have something you want to show me?”
“Yeah. Uh. Sort of?” There’s guilt on Scott’s face now, and it’s setting off warning bells. “He’ll be here any minute.”
“He?” Stiles stands as Boyd smothers a groan behind one hand. “He who?”
Scott swallows heavily, but he doesn’t look away. “Your dad.”
“Fucking—no. No.” Stiles stumbles back from the table, glaring at Scott like he’s going to be able to set him on fire with only the power of his mind. “Not my dad. My dad’s dead, okay, he and my mom were killed by . . .” His fingers flex, wishing for his knife. “A rogue werewolf got them. They weren’t even hunters anymore, but—two years ago,” he says angrily. “They’ve been dead for two years, okay?”
“Don’t you think it’s strange,” Scott presses, stepping forward despite the frankly furious look on Stiles’s face, “that all of these major changes in your life happened two years ago? That they just happened to be going on at the same time that Chris Argent was fucking up everything here to hell and back?”
“It . . .” Stiles sets his jaw. “Coincidence.”
“Like it’s a coincidence that you started taking damage to that tattoo and felt the sudden need to come here, right? Or that you happened to make your way to the café on you very first day in town? Stiles.” He takes another step, openly pleading now. “He just wants to know that you’re all right. He’s spent the past two years thinking you were dead. If it was one of my kids . . . Look, you don’t have to believe that he’s your father, okay? But please, just . . . let him see you.”
Outside, a car door slams. Stiles feels his hands begin to shake, and shoves them in his pockets.
“This is only going to disappoint him,” he says unsteadily, and Scott’s beaming smile comes back full force.
“Thank you. Dude, I swear you won’t regret this.”
“You’re an asshole,” Stiles mutters.
“Look who’s talking,” Boyd says under his breath, smiling broadly when Stiles turns his glare on him. He stands as well, heading for the door. “I’m just gonna clear out.”
“Oh. Right, yeah.” Scott watches him go, then turns back to Stiles. “Do you want me to—”
“Don’t you fucking dare leave me alone for this,” Stiles grits out.
“Sure, man, no problem. I’m just gonna—oh. Uh, hey, Mr. Stilinski.”
Scott scoots away from the door, giving Stiles a clear line of sight to the man standing there, staring back at him. He’s wearing a battered green coat over a uniform with a Sheriff’s star pinned to the chest, which Stiles can't help but think explains a lot about this town. Deep wrinkles fan out at the corners of pale eyes, and there’s more grey in his hair than there probably should be for a man his age; Stiles wonders if he looked this ragged before he lost his son. Then the man is moving forward, almost trance-like, until he’s standing in front of Stiles.
“I didn’t want to let myself believe it.” The raw emotion in his voice, in his eyes, is almost too much. “Scott said, but . . .” He lifts a hand, but drops it again at the flinch that Stiles can’t quite control. “I haven’t seen your hair this long since your mother died.”
Something in Stiles’s chest contracts at that, as a hope he hadn’t allowed himself to acknowledge extinguishes. “I, um. I don’t . . .”
“Right. Right, they told me.” The pain in his voice is at odds with his expression, which is slowly shifting until he looks like nothing so much as a kid on Christmas morning. “I’ll be honest, I can’t quite wrap my head around it. You were always the one who could remember just about anything. Used to make Trivial Pursuit games hell.” He lets out a choked sort of laugh, and he doesn’t hesitate this time when he lifts his hands to frame Stiles’s face. His touch is warm and solid and somehow familiar, and Stiles can’t even begin to think about pulling back. “But you’re okay. Aren’t you?” His eyes are searching Stiles’s face, desperately seeking reassurance. “Even if you don’t . . . you’re alive, and you’re okay.”
“Yeah.” Stiles’s voice doesn’t sound like his own. “I’m okay.”
“Okay.” Those hands drop to his shoulders, and a moment later he’s being pulled in, strong arms wrapped around him in a hug he can’t quite bring himself to return. “Okay. That’s all that matters. God, I missed you, son. I missed you so much.”
The sheriff smells like stale coffee and warm skin and an aftershave that makes Stiles’s nose tingle, and when he finally lets him go Stiles has to tamp down the urge to pull him back, to bury his face back in the crook of his neck and just breathe. There’s pain etched around his eyes as he stares at Stiles like he’s trying to memorize his face.
“If you decide you want to talk,” he finally says, his voice rough and broken even as he tries to smile, “Scott knows where the house is.” He steps back. “Be careful, all right? I know you’re not a kid anymore, but . . . just, be careful.”
He turns and walks out, head low and shoulders slumped, and Stiles turns to brace his hands on the table. It’s suddenly hard for him to breathe properly. His head is buzzing, aching as his mind tries to strain towards something just out of reach.
“Stiles?” Scott says hesitantly, leaning in next to him. Stiles can see his worried face out of the corner of his eye. “Are you okay?”
“I . . . no.” Stiles laughs quietly. “No, I’m really, really not.”
“Shit. Um. Do you want me to call De—”
“D-do it? You mean call—”
“No, you—argh!” Stiles shoves himself upright and reaches back, yanking the back of his shirt up as far as it can go. “Boyd worked out the part that means ‘family’, so just do it.”
“Oh! Uh. Okay, just let me—oh, crap—” The pages in the file go scattering everywhere, and Stiles groans.
“Oh my god, it’s the one towards the bottom, the triangle thing with the lines through it.”
“I don’t wanna accidentally do the wrong one!” Scott wails.
“Just look for the one that looks like the Triforce!”
“Got it! I’ve got it. Dude, that looks nothing like the—”
“Would you just freaking do it already?”
There’s a sudden sharp slash of pain, and the itching trickle of fresh blood. The memory of that aftershave blooms sharp and fresh in Stiles’s mind, and carries whispers of other memories with it: a neatly-pressed suit and a proud expression amidst a seated crowd under the mid-morning sun; phantom pain on his cheek, his lips, across his ribs as strong arms hold him close and safe; patient hands correcting his grip as he stares determinedly at the Wiffle ball perched on the stand in front of him. Stiles’s hands clench hard around the edge of the table as he struggles for breath, fighting against a nearly overwhelming sense of vertigo.
Then he’s moving, his shirt falling back into place as he bolts out the door, racing along the porch to the front of the house. The sky is a dark, roiling grey, and the wind has picked up; Stiles is shivering by the time he stops at the top of the steps, staring down at the police cruiser parked in front of the house. The sheriff is standing, staring back, with the open driver’s side door between them as Stiles makes his way slowly down.
Any words he might have had are stalling in his throat, forced down by the weight of . . . whatever it is he’s feeling. Memories; deja vu; he doesn’t know, and can’t say, and sort of doesn’t care. He circles the door and leans into the car, reaching under the driver’s seat until his hand closes around a crumpled paper bag. For a moment after he pulls it out he can’t do anything but stare at the familiar logo, and when he looks up again it’s into eyes that look afraid to hope.
“I’m gone for two years,” Stiles says, his voice broken but determined, “and you’re still hiding your fast food trash under your seat? Really?”
His dad manages a single choked sound before he’s wrapping his arms around him again, pulling him in so tightly that Stiles can feel his ribs creaking under the pressure. This time his arms come up as well, his hands fisting in the back of that hideous green jacket while his father grips the back of his head as if he’s terrified to let him go. It’s too much, too close to the aching sense of home that Stiles has been missing; too many hazy memories that are gaining form again, and all he can do is hold on tighter.
“I don’t . . .” His voice breaks again, and he struggles to bring himself back. He’s a grown man, damn it; he can handle this. “I don’t understand what’s happening,” he finally manages. “Last week I knew who I was, where I belonged, and now—I don’t know what to do. Dad. I . . . I think . . . I think I believe that, but I don’t—”
“Okay. It’s okay.” A trembling hand strokes over the back of his head. “We’ll figure it out, all right? I promise.” He pulls away with a palpable effort, hands closed firmly on Stiles’s shoulders and a brilliant, broken smile stretched over his face. “My boy.”
It feels natural to say it; it feels right; but still, there’s a part of him that can’t quite believe that it’s true. That he might actually get his father back, after being so sure for so long that he’d lost him. He doesn’t know what to say, what to do. And he still doesn’t know what to believe.
“Right.” His dad’s smile fades just a little, but his eyes are still warm as he squeezes Stiles’s shoulders and lets his hands slip away. “Come by when you’re ready. Yeah?”
Stiles just nods, stepping back to let him climb into the cruiser. He stands there, watching as it pulls away, and the ache of disappointment in his chest feels almost like nostalgia.
He has his arms wrapped around himself, bracing against the wind when Scott steps up beside him. He hands over Stiles’s shirt and coat and pretends not to notice when Stiles reaches up to wipe his eyes clear.
“You want a ride back to your car?”
“Yeah.” Stiles sighs out a heavy breath. “That’d be great.”
It’s not until nearly midnight that he knocks on the heavy oak door of the little two-story house, but he’s somehow not surprised when it opens almost immediately. Stiles holds up the bottle of Jack in his hand and takes a deep breath.
“I remember her,” is all he says, and his father ushers him inside.
“I’m sorry; I really am.” Allison perches on the arm of the sofa, arms crossed over her chest. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Stiles, it’s just . . . okay, yeah, it is a little bit that I don’t trust you. Mostly I don’t trust your circle of acquaintances, and since the wards Scott and I have up around our house aren’t anywhere near as good as the ones Derek has here, I’m not exactly thrilled with the idea of advertising where we live.”
“I get it. Really, I do. I mean.” Stiles looks down at the picture in his hand, a pair of sleeping infants curled up with their foreheads nearly touching. There’s loopy handwriting on the back that reads, Kara and Remy, 2 mo. “We don’t really know each other.”
“Yes you do,” Scott says earnestly, his hand coming to rest on Allison’s knee. He nods towards the box on the coffee table. “You saw the pictures, you know—”
“Yeah, we all used to be bosom buddies, I get that.” Stiles sighs. “But we’re not family; I didn’t get any of this back the other day,” he says, gesturing at the box of odds and ends on the coffee table. “And it’s not like I’ve been frozen in carbonite for the past two years; you guys don’t really know who I am, either. Not anymore.”
“But you said you remembered me.”
“Well, yeah,” Stiles laughs. “My dad’s got pictures of you in our family photo album, dude. You’re pretty much the closest thing to a brother I have.”
Scott has a look on his face that reminds Stiles of nothing so much as a puppy who’s just been praised, and god help, him Stiles can’t help but think that it’s adorable. That pleased affection stays in place even as his expression firms; Stiles has to restrain the urge to reach out and pinch his cheeks.
“We’re all family, though. I can’t really be the only one in the pack you remember.”
“The two of you grew up together, sweetie.” Allison uncrosses her arms to sift a soothing hand through her husband’s hair. “It’s not the same.”
“Yeah, but still. There isn’t anyone else you remember? No one else you maybe think of as family?” Scott presses, and Stiles frowns.
“I have sort of . . . I guess you could call them, like, almost-memories of everyone else? I’m guessing there’s gotta be a better word for it, but you get the idea. It’s like I know they’re there, just out of reach, and I can sort of . . . feel around the edges, maybe? But I don’t really remember any of it.” His eyes fall to the picture again. He doesn’t remember anything about these two; doesn’t even remember Allison being pregnant, though she must have been showing before he . . . left. “Boyd was saying yesterday that it’s not the same. You know, family and pack.”
“He’s right.” They all look up to see Derek leaning in the door to the hallway; Stiles catches himself just in time to keep his fingers from clenching around the photo. He drops it back into the box, just to be safe. “There are similarities. And people can be both, like Scott is for you. But it looks like there’s just enough of a distinction for the brand to differentiate between the two.”
“Still, I’d have thought—” Scott glances at Allision, then back at Derek, and his mouth snaps shut. “Um. I guess not. So.” He grins, a little sheepish and a little smug. “Just me, huh?”
“Makes sense,” Stiles says, summoning a grin as he plucks a wrinkled piece of paper out of the box. “After all, you and I were the only ones who ever signed a . . . seriously, a Best Friend Contract?”
Allison laughs, one hand darting up in front of her mouth. “Really?”
“I found it the other day, when I was looking for pictures and stuff,” Scott says sheepishly.
“I, Scott McCall, and I, Stiles Stilinski, do hereby officially declare that we will be Best Friends Forever.” Stiles glances down to the bottom of the page, then looks up at Scott. “You know, I’m pretty sure this isn’t a legally binding document if I didn’t sign my real name.”
Scott snorts. “I’m pretty sure it’s not a legally binding agreement when it’s written by two seven-year-olds on a piece of Spider-Man stationery, but we didn’t let that stop us.”
“Even if Stiles calls Scott a stupid poo-head,” Stiles goes back to reading, choking back laughter, “or Scott spills grape juice on any more of Stiles’s Batman co—dude!” Stiles looks up again, gaping in shock and betrayal. “You spilled grape juice on my Batman comics!”
“You said you already remembered us growing up together!” Scott protests.
“Apparently not everything! I can’t believe you—how the hell are we still friends?”
“That, um. Might’ve sort of been what prompted the contract in the first place.” Scott points to the paper. “Keep reading.”
Stiles shoots him a look, but he turns back to the stained and wrinkled paper. “As long as we apologize and we’re really, really sorry after. Wow.” He can’t help but smile. “We were sort of nauseatingly adorable. And nerdy as shit; I can’t believe no one kicked the crap out of us.”
“They did,” Scott assures him dryly. “Until, you know . . .” He pulls his lips back in an imitation snarl, curling his free hand into a goofy-looking claw.
“Oh my god, you should still be getting your ass kicked.” Stiles puts the paper back, fingers skimming over the picture he’d left on top. “I hope I can meet them. You know. Sometime soon.” His eyes meet Allison’s again. “But you’re right; now’s not the time.”
Her hand tightens for just a moment in Scott’s hair. “Stiles. What aren’t you telling us?”
He takes a deep breath, and his eyes linger on Derek for a long moment before he pulls them away again. “You guys know about the girl who got attacked the other night.” It’s not a question; there’s no way they haven’t been keeping track of that sort of things with the situation as it is. “You know there’s another alpha somewhere in or around town.”
“They’re sending more people, aren’t they?” Allison’s eyes have gone cold. “The hunters you were working with back in Boston; they’re sending in reinforcements.”
“They’d always planned to,” Stiles says with a shrug. “This has just pushed up their schedule. We’re not just talking about the possibility of some out-of-control omega anymore. There’s an alpha here trying to turn people, trying to make a pack, or maybe build on the one they already have. Hell, for all we know the guys who attacked me yesterday could be part of it. And if another pack has been here long enough to start turning people in the middle of your territory—”
“No.” Derek steps forward to loom behind the back of the couch. “Whoever’s behind this latest attack, they must be fairly new to town. We have omegas coming and going all the time, whether they join up with out pack for a while or not; but there’s no way there’s been another alpha in our territory for the past three months without us knowing about it.”
“Are you sure?” Scott twists around to ask. “Not to be negative, but we don’t exactly have the best track record with that sort of thing.”
“You’ve had trouble with other alphas in your territory before?”
Derek grits his teeth. “Yes.”
“But it’s not the pack again, right? The alpha pack? They were hard enough to deal with last time, I really don’t want to—”
“Wait, alpha pack? Like, a pack entirely composed of alpha werewolves?” Stiles glances between the three of them, waiting for the punchline. “But . . . you know how insane that sounds, right? I mean, how would that even work?”
“Oh, no,” Allison groans with a roll of her eyes, “I am not having this conversation again. I refuse.”
“It’s not the alpha pack,” Derek growls, actual honest-to-god growls. Stiles tries to pretend it doesn’t send a shiver down his spine. “This isn’t their style; they haven’t left their mark anywhere, and if they’d come because of the war they sure as hell wouldn’t have waited this long to make themselves known.”
“So it’s just one instead of a whole pack of them. You should still be able to sniff them out or something, right?” Derek and Scott exchange another glance, and Stiles stifles a sigh. “No.”
“There are ways for alphas to mask their scent,” Derek says shortly.
“It’s a pretty convenient trick when your people are the ones who need to hide, but a pain in the ass when someone else is doing it,” Allison adds.
“Well, if we want to avoid a whole new mess of hunters showing up, and any hopes of a peaceful resolution getting thrown out the freakin’ window, we’re going to have to get the alpha quick. So it’s a good thing at least one of us has experience tracking down rogues without the benefit of being able to smell them.”
“How long do we have?” Allison asks.
“I don’t know. I talked with them before I went to my dad’s house last night.” Stiles scrubs a hand over his mouth. “But they were being cagey about the whole thing; I don’t know if they still . . .” He can’t hold back the sigh this time. “They might not trust me anymore.”
“Have you told them about . . .” Scott makes an encompassing sort of gesture. “You know. All of this?”
“No,” Stiles says firmly. “No, I don’t know if they know about it, if they were a part of it, if—maybe it’s stupid. They might have answers; maybe I left myself a note or something, explaining things.” Even as he says it he knows it sounds ridiculous, but he can’t bring himself to let go of that last bit of hope, that last slender chance that this was his choice, his decision—something that he gave up instead of something that was I from him. He shrugs. “I guess I don’t really trust them anymore, either.”
“Maybe I can stop it.” There isn’t much hope in Allison’s voice, but when Stiles looks up her face is set in determined lines. “According to the agreement my family signed, this is still my jurisdiction. They shouldn’t be able to send an official team in without my consent.”
“I doubt that’ll matter. As far as they’re concerned you’ve been shirking your responsibilities. You’re part of the pack here; your judgement and objectivity have been compromised. They don’t trust you, and if they think it’s necessary, they won’t hold back from using force to replace you.”
“Let them try,” she snaps, surging to her feet. She starts to pace the length of the room, hands clenched into fists at her sides. “Do they realize how much worse things will get if a hunting family establishes an active presence here again? The fact that I’ve kept any serious organization from forming is the only reason the body count in this war hasn’t gone through the roof!”
“You’re not wrong,” Derek says mildly, and Stiles shoots him a look that he hopes conveys how completely unhelpful he’s being. Derek gives him a small, quiet quirk of his lips in return; Stiles hopes that everyone will be considerate enough not to mention the way his heartbeat stutters when he sees it. Then Derek’s expression hardens, Stiles might as well have imagined the whole thing. “I’m not inclined to forgive and forget just yet. And Stiles hasn’t come through on his part of the bargain yet.”
“I know.” Stiles stands as well, hands shoved in his pockets as he tries to ignore the ache in his chest from what feels like his last ridiculous shred of hope being snuffed out. Stupid. “That spell is the only real lead I’ve gotten, and I’m just a little bit wary of trying again. You know, because of the searing pain last time.” He turns back to Allison. “So for now our best bet is still to get this alpha situation taken care of before they decide it’s time to take matters into their own hands.”
“Agreed.” Hands braced on her hips, a small, thoughtful frown crosses her face. “There’s no way we’ll be able to get into the hospital to question the victim.”
“What about your mom?” Stiles asks Scott. “She . . . your mom’s a nurse. Fuck.” He rubs at his head, feeling dizzy. “It’s weird, the way stuff comes back. Your mom, though. She could get us in, couldn’t she?”
“If she were here, probably,” Scott says morosely. “But she’s visiting my grandparents in Mexico.”
“Damn it,” Stiles sighs. “I was really hoping I could get out of being used as bait.”
“What?” Scott jumps to his feet as well at that, looking horrified, and Derek is glaring like he can set Stiles on fire using only the power of his mind. “No way, we’re not—besides, what makes you think that would even work?”
“Those two yesterday, they wanted me for something Monsters who just want to make a meal out of you don’t typically extend a cordial invitation to go with them.” He turns to Derek. “I’ll need the bow I left here yesterday. The knife, too.”
Stiles blinks. “What do you mean, no?”
“It’s a fairly common words used to signal a negative response. In this case, an unwillingness to acquiesce to a request or demand.”
“Oh, you’re hilarious. Really. So fucking funny. I want my bow back.”
“Guess you shouldn’t have left it here, then,” Derek says calmly. “Even if I were inclined to give it back now, it wouldn’t do you much good unless you think you can reassemble the pieces.”
“Oh my—you asshole.” Stiles fists his hands in his hair, just barely resisting the urge to yank it out. “You know, the more I get to know you the more plausible it seems that I got this tattoo just in the first place so that I wouldn’t have to remember knowing you.”
Derek’s jaw clenches. “I suppose anything is possible.”
“What are you even doing here, anyway? Just doing your part to spread a little bit of joy and news of personal property destruction?”
“This is my house,” Derek reminds him, and Stiles tosses up his hands.
“Great! There’s a huge remainder of rooms that we’re not in—go ahead and take your pick. But unless you actually have something useful to contribute here, I think we’d all appreciate it if you . . . um.” Stiles glances around. “Where’d they go?”
“Cleared out.” Derek looks suddenly tired, and lowers himself to the same arm of the sofa where Allison had been sitting earlier. “I guess old habits are still holding strong.”
“What’s that supposed mean?”
Derek shrugs. “They always used to hate it when you and I fought. The whole pack did; there were a lot of stale jokes about minimum safe distance.”
“Sounds like a healthy dynamic,” Stiles says dryly.
“It was . . .” Derek sighs and looks away, like he might be able to find the words he’s looking for by tracing the pattern of the wallpaper. “You never backed down from what you believed,” he finally says, “which could make things . . . tense, sometimes.”
“Obnoxious,” Derek adds, quirking his eyebrows at him, and Stiles can’t help but snort out a laugh. “But good for the pack. You were always more practical than Scott, but you had priorities that I could never quite—it was a good balance. Erica likes to call those days our Golden Age.”
Stiles settles onto the arm of the chair he’d been sitting in, close enough to Derek that their knees are almost touching. “I’m still finding it kind of hard to believe,” he admits after a minute. “That I was a part of this, that we were—that all of us were—” He looks up to find Derek watching him warily. “I don’t really have a lot of experience with magic. Not that I can remember, anyway, and it’s just . . . even if that’s all real, how do you forget something this big?”
Derek stares at him for a moment, visibly searching for the words he wants. “Do you want to remember?”
“I don’t know.” Stiles leans forward, elbows braced on his thighs. “It almost feels too big. My life wasn’t perfect before I came here, but at least I knew who I was, you know. Or I thought I did, anyway. Going back to who I was before, whatever that means . . . how am I supposed to know if I want that, when I don’t know anything about it? Maybe I don’t. Maybe being part of a pack just isn’t what I want.”
“Maybe,” Derek says quietly. “But I think you know I have to ask: if you don’t want to be part of this pack, why are you helping us at all? Why bother taking out rival wolves for us when you can just sit back and let your friends from Boston take care of it? What makes us any better than them?”
For a long moment, Stiles doesn’t know how to answer. He can’t say what he’s thinking; can’t say that though Scott is the only one he’s remembered anywhere close to fully, he already has more memories of Derek than any of the others. That there’s a part of him that’s disappointed at every confirmation that he’s not the lover Derek lost—part of him that can’t help but crave the unswerving devotion that Stiles can see whenever Derek speaks of him. The thought of Scott being hurt makes him feel ill, but the thought of anything happening to Derek doesn’t leave him much better.
“I told you,” he says at last, “I believe in the code we’re meant to follow. From everything I’ve seen, none of you people are monsters; anyone who’s been attacking civilians doesn’t get the same consideration. Besides, everybody’s gotta live somewhere, right?” He shrugs. “The way I see it, this is your little scrap of nowhere; they can go find their own.”
Derek lifts an eyebrow. “You're quoting Captain Mal to me right now? Seriously?”
“Hey, Captain Mal is always relevant. More to the point: you've watched Firefly?” Stiles can't help the grin that spreads over his face. “I don't think I ever would've seen that coming.”
The hint of amusement fades from Derek's face, and Stiles wants to kick himself. Or Derek. Or maybe fate itself, if he can manage it, for the fact that he's falling for a man still pining for a lover who's two years in the grave.
“You didn’t really wreck my bow, did you?” he asks, more quietly than he’d intended. Derek raises an eyebrow at him.
“I really did.” He waits a beat. “If you’re waiting for me to apologize for destroying Argent property, you’re going to be waiting a long time.”
Stiles’s shoulders sag on a heavy sigh. “Yeah, I kind of figured.”
“Please.” Derek rolls his eyes so dramatically that Stiles can’t help but smile. “There’s no way that was the only one you have access to, anyway. Stop with the kicked-puppy look.” He sobers again, almost nervous this time. “Still. I’d thought, maybe . . .”
“Maybe?” Stiles prompts, and Derek sighs as he stands, crossing the room to the doorway again.
“I thought you might want to use this, instead.”
He steps into the hallway, and when he steps back into the room he’s carrying a scarred and stained wooden baseball bat. Stiles takes it when Derek holds it out, testing the weight of it against his palm.
“You thought I might want to use a bat instead of a bow.”
“Okay. Um. Why?”
Derek shrugs tightly. “It was yours. Before.”
“I—” Stiles lifts startled eyes to find Derek staring somewhere just over his left shoulder. “Oh.”
“Scott gave it to you; some sort of running gag I never really understood, you’ll need to ask him about it. You were pretty good with it, though. Really good, actually.”
“Huh.” Stiles stands, takes a testing swing. The movement feels good; feels natural, even. Still, he’s skeptical. “So I went into battle against werewolves wielding a big stick. Did I possibly have some sort of a death wish?”
“It’s a theory I entertained more than once,” Derek says dryly.
Stiles laughs, swinging the bat again once, twice, again. He glances back over at Derek, considering. “Is this why you came in and rained all over our parade? To give me this?”
“It’s yours,” Derek says again. “It’s just been cluttering up the place.” He takes a careful step closer. “And I didn’t just come down for that.”
“No?” Stiles can feel his heartbeat trying to pick up speed, and he does his best to keep his breathing even, to tamp down the excited anticipation that’s trying to break loose. “So what else—”
There’s the sound of a car door slamming outside, and Stiles gets the feeling that the look on Derek’s face would be a wince if it were any less tightly controlled.
“We have reinforcements of our own coming,” is all he says, stepping back again. “I thought you should have a heads-up.”
“Some heads-up,” Stiles mutters.
There are already footsteps—at least two sets of heavy ones, and one set that’s quick and light, clad in what sounds like high heels—clattering loudly up the front steps and across the porch. Stiles, bat in hand, is already headed towards the door when it flies unceremoniously open and their guests storm inside.
Stiles is staring. He knows that. He figures he should get a pass, however, because the woman leading the way has stopped and is staring right back, and Stiles thinks, in an absent sort of way, that she might be the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Even in impressively high stilettos she’s nowhere near as tall as the two men behind her, though the force of her presence is so strong that she still manages to give the impression that she’s towering over them. Her long red hair falls in loose, shining curls over her shoulders, and Stiles has the sudden urge to bury his hands in it. She’s beautiful, radiant, and staring at him like she’s seen a ghost; it’s a look he’s been getting a lot lately.
She’s hesitant at first, almost unsteady as she starts walking towards him. Her hands are clenching and releasing uncertainly at her sides, and Stiles finds himself holding his breath, almost afraid to move. It feels like being approached by a wild doe: something gracefully delicate and cautious, something that’s always just on the edge of bolting.
Then her spine straightens, and her steps become a swift march. He has just enough time to think that he’s never seen anyone look actually regal before she reaches him, and her hand cracks across his cheek in an open-handed slap.
“OW!” Stiles stumbles back, hand clutched to his stinging face. The men who followed her in are laughing, clinging to each other’s shoulders for support. “What the hell?”
“Allison says you forgot me.” There are tears at the corners of her eyes—which Stiles thinks is hardly fair, considering he’s the one who got slapped—but she lifts her chin and brushes imperiously past him, into the living room. “That is completely unacceptable, Stiles.”
“Move it, Stilinski.” The shorter man, the one who looks like a pissy Calvin Klein model, shoves at his shoulder as he heads into the room. The other man follows close behind, dimples flashing as he offers Stiles something halfway between an apologetic smile and a smirk. “Figures you’d be the type to get in the way when people are trying to help your loser ass.”
“Why are you still standing there?” the woman snaps, pulling a sleek tablet computer out of her bag, hardly sparing him a second look. “Shirt off, Stiles, now.”
Stiles glances over at Derek and finds him leaning against the wall looking placidly amused. “Look,” he says slowly, “no offense or anything, but I don’t even know y—”
“Did they make you slow as well as an amnesiac? I’m well aware that you don’t know me; that’s the problem we’re going to solve as soon as you stop dragging your ass.” Her fingers are flying over the screen. “Boyd sent me the pictures of your freaky ink, since it turns out that actually living in the world means you have a greater variety of options when it comes to research resources.” She says that last with a pointed look in Derek’s direction and looks entirely unimpressed when he lets out a low growl.
“We have a war to fight here.”
“You have a pointless vendetta to carry out,” she snaps, and waves one perfectly manicured hand. “Whatever. I’m not here for this argument. I did my part, made my contribution. Excuse me for wanting to get on with my life.”
“Not that I’m not appreciating seeing you take Derek down a peg, because I really, really am,” Stiles cuts in, “but—”
Her glare turns on him. “I swear to god, if you don’t take your shirt off in the next thirty seconds, I’m going to have Danny take it off for you.”
Stiles just barely hears Derek muttering about turn-about being fair play, and the tall man with the dimples—Danny, he presumes—laughs again at that. The douchey model-looking guy starts groaning and complaining, and there’s general cacophony as a small argument breaks out while the woman and Stiles stare silently at each other in the middle.
“Stiles Stilinski,” she says quietly, stepping forward until they’re less than an arm’s length apart. “You told me when we were nine years old that you loved me. That you always would.” Her voice wavers just a bit, and she sets her jaw, glaring furiously up at him. “Don’t you dare go back on that promise now.”
Which still doesn’t really explain how he ends up braced against the back of the couch, his shirt discarded next to him and fresh blood sliding down his back. Jackson—whose name he caught while Lydia was directing him a moment ago—looks entirely too smug about the whole thing. Stiles wonders if anyone would really mind if he hit him with his bat.
“How are you feeling?” Danny asks, carefully cleaning the new cut.
“I’m okay.” Stiles takes a deep breath, focusing on the warm, wet slide of the towel against his skin instead of the way his head is spinning. “Hardly even hurt compared to the others.”
“I can always try again,” Jackson offers, and Stiles manages to summon the energy to flip him off.
“There’s really no reason to go as deep as the rest of these went,” Lydia says. She’s hovering nearby, looking belatedly worried. At some point the others had reappeared, and now Allison is standing with a hand resting on Lydia’s shoulder. “All it needs to do is break the skin. Draw blood.”
“Great, good to know.” Stiles straightens again and pulls his shirt back on, his hip still pressed against the back of the couch. “I’m just gonna.” He gestures vaguely. “Sit.”
To his surprise, Lydia is there immediately, lending him support as he makes his way to the closest seat. “You’re sure you’re okay?” she asks.
“Oh, yeah.” He offers her a weak grin as he settles into the corner of the couch. “Totally stoked to have those eight years of hopeless pining back in my head, thanks.”
“As well you should be. I am not someone that people forget.” Her eyes narrow. “You sort of look like you’re going to throw up, though.”
“No, I’m good,” he says as everyone takes an involuntary step back. “I’m just sort of . . . you know, lightheaded. Nothing major, I’ll be—oh, shit.” He buries his face in his hands, letting himself double over until his head is nearly between his legs.
“Stiles?” Scott, he thinks vaguely, though his voice has an oddly echoing quality, like he’s calling to Stiles through a tunnel. “What’s wrong?”
“Too much,” he manages to mumble. He’s struggling to breathe; he thinks he remembers how, pretty sure they didn’t take that away, at least. “Too fast. Shit. Wasn’t . . . wasn’t like this before.”
“He’ll be fine,” Lydia is saying. He thinks she sounds calm, despite the way her hand is digging desperately into his arm. “The coven I’ve been corresponding with said this might happen as more of the seals get broken. The fewer blocks there are, the faster things will start coming back; it might be a little overwhelming, but he’ll be fine. He will.”
“Really selling it there, Lydia,” Stiles mutters, sitting back up. “Next time, though, you might want to try—hey.” There are actual tears in her eyes now, tears that are suddenly horribly, sickeningly familiar. “What’s wrong? C’mon, you can’t go all drill sergeant about getting me my memories back and then get this upset when I start remembering you,” he tries, and she shakes her head.
“I didn’t know,” she whispers, eyes pleading. “I swear, Stiles, I—I thought you were dead. He told me you were dead, but I shouldn’t have believed him.”
“Lydia. No.” Allison lowers herself to the seat next to her, her hand as it rests on her friend’s back gentle despite the tightness in her face. “We all thought that. My dad—”
“Not your dad.” Lydia’s eyes are fixed on the floor now, her voice barely audible. “Peter.”
He’d thought that a walk would help clear his head, help him absorb everything that he’s heard in the past hour. Thirty minutes later, though, it still feels as if it’s just sitting on the surface of his skin, something that doesn’t really have anything to do with him.
Some things have come through loud and clear: Lydia’s tear-streaked face, broken and apologetic but furiously determined, is a sight that still feels like a knife in his gut. Something terrible happened to her, something that hovers just at the edge of the memories he’s regained, frustratingly unformed. She wouldn’t say what it was, and Jackson had snarled and snapped at anyone who seemed to be getting close to mentioning it, but he had vague memories of seeing her bloody and broken in a hospital bed, memories that had nearly made Stiles sick on their own. He almost regrets that Peter Hale is dead already; Stiles wants to rip him apart with his bare hands for what he did to her.
Though he must say, the fact that she cut the son of a bitch in half herself is doing a fair amount to ease his mind.
As far as what was done to him, though . . . nothing. His mind is blank, and aside from a sick crawling sensation in his stomach there’s no sense that anything anyone said has a thing to do with him. Sitting on Derek’s couch, a reassuring hand pressed to Lydia’s back, it had been like hearing about someone else’s life altogether. Kidnapped and supposedly killed by a psychotic hunter and an equally deranged werewolf. A deranged werewolf who had, apparently, mauled and mentally violated one of his best friends, slaughtered Derek’s sister, and nearly turned Scott into a murderous thought-slave, but who they’d still trusted enough to let him remain part of the pack. Who had repaid their trust and loyalty by manipulating a man’s grief until he was willing to destroy anyone in his path in his quest for vengeance.
That isn’t Stiles’s life; that’s a goddamned Grimm fairytale.
It had been too much to handle, sitting in a room full of people who were all watching him carefully, waiting for him to react when all he felt was a sense of detached disbelief. What had wrecked all of them had hardly touched him, and it had felt oddly intimate, being witness to the grief and horror unfolding around him. Leaving the house wasn’t running away, he’d thought; he was just making himself scarce while they sorted through the aftermath.
He has to admit, however, that it hasn’t helped much. The downtown streets are crowded with late-afternoon weekend shoppers, and Stiles is left wondering about each face that he passes. Were they someone that he’d known before? Had they shared a class together in high school; had they ever run into each other while Stiles was working a part-time job; had he seen them around town, a familiar face without a name and absolutely nothing to him now? It feels like a dream—the sort where you have two minutes before you’re supposed to be on stage, and no recollection of even being in a play until that very moment. He doesn’t know his lines, or most of the characters, or even the damned plot, but there’s nothing he can do about it now. All he can do is try to ad-lib his way through it, and hope that someone can help him out with his cues.
“Hey, Stiles!” The call catches him by surprise; he nearly trips over his own feet as he stumbles to a stop. Darcy is grinning at him from less than three feet away, where she’s sitting at one of the tables outside the cafe. He hadn’t even realized he was passing it. “What, were you just gonna walk past without even saying hi?”
“Sorry. I, uh. I didn’t see you.” He tries to smile. “Just a little distracted today.”
“Art project not going well?” She sips from the to-go cup in her hand. “My ex did metal sculptures; whenever was having trouble with them he turned into a total space-cadet. Of course, he was also a huge asshole, so.” She shrugs, frowning up at him. “Oh, man, you really don’t look too great. Do you need to sit down?”
“No, I’m—yeah, maybe.” Stiles lets out a sigh of his own as he sinks into the chair on his side of the tiny metal table. “Thanks.”
“No problem. So.” Darcy fiddles with the edge of the plastic lid. “I know we don’t know each other, like, at all, but . . . do you wanna talk about it?”
Stiles hunches his shoulders, hunkering down farther into his coat. “About what?”
“Whatever has you looking like one of the walking dead,” she says, and he glares at her.
“Thanks, that’s really flattering.”
“I don’t really do flattery.” Her grin is unrepentant. “Straight talk, though, if you wanna get anything off your chest, I’d be willing to listen.” She shrugs again. “Not like I’ve really got anything better to do right now anyway, and you look like you’re about five minutes away from flinging yourself off a cliff.”
“I do not.” Stiles frowns. “Do I?”
“Okay, maybe not that bad,” Darcy admits. “You do look stressed, though.”
“Stressed.” Stiles lets out a laugh that sounds slightly unhinged, even to him, and winces. “Yeah, I guess you could say that’s accurate.”
“Well. I know the smell is kind of foul, but if you want to give it a try . . .” She nudges the cup towards him, and he can smell the stomach-churning odor of the tea that she was drinking the last time he saw her. “There are a shitton of herbs in here that are supposed to be natural calming agents.”
Stiles’s lips twitch; he can’t help it. “You know, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that you’ve probably never thought about pursuing a career in advertising.”
“Oh, fuck off,” she huffs. “I’m just offering, you don’t—actually, shit, wait; you’re not allergic to peppermint, are you?”
“No.” Stiles’s fingers curl into fists inside his pockets. “Not as far as I know.”
“Okay.” Darcy looks relieved. “You’ll be fine, then. A girl I went to high school with was allergic to peppermint; she used my lip balm and ended up breaking out in hives over half her face. I got suspended for a week, which hello, how is that fair?” She rolls her eyes. “Uh. Anyway. Yeah, you can try it if you want.”
Stiles stares suspiciously at the cup. The scent of the tea is still making his stomach roil uncomfortably. But there’s something familiar about it, as well; just one more thing that’s lurking at the edges of his memory, tantalizingly out of reach. His curiosity is gnawing at him; and frankly, even if he can’t figure out why he somehow knows this smell, the idea of anything that can ease his nerves right now is a pretty damn big draw.
“What the hell,” he mutters, and grabs the cup to take a long drink, doing his best to keep from breathing through his nose.
The smell might be awful, but as he swallows and hands the cup back to Darcy he realizes that the taste isn’t actually bad at all. In fact, it’s . . . good. There’s the peppermint that she mentioned, and the thick sweetness of honey; chamomile, he thinks, and a dozen other things he can’t identify. The flavor seems to shift: smoky one moment, fruity the next, warm and sharp and bright all at once, and he finds himself staring into space as he tries to put his finger on what it is he’s tasting.
“That’s really good,” he says at last, and Darcy beams at him.
“Right? I had the blend special-made; I just wish it didn’t smell like ass,” she adds with a laugh.
“Definitely not a selling point.” He’s cold, suddenly, or possibly just suddenly realizing it. “I’m gonna keep walking,” he says, getting to his feet. “My legs are starting to go numb.”
“I’ll go with you.” Darcy’s eyes crease around the edges as she peers at him. “If that’s okay?”
“Yeah.” He doesn’t really want to be alone right now. “Thanks, that’d be cool.”
“I’ve got my phone,” she says dryly as she stands as well, “in case you go into anaphylactic shock after all and we need to call 911.”
Stiles laughs. “Glad to know you’ve got my back.”
“So.” They start to walk, heads down against the wind. “What’s got you so stressed out, Frank?” Darcy asks with a grin, and he rolls his eyes.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“I dunno.” She takes a sip of her tea and offers it to him again; he takes it after only a second’s hesitation. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed by now, but this town kind of tends to be pretty freakin’ weird. You might be surprised what I’d believe.” She takes the cup back. “Try me.”
“I, uh.” He wants to, he realizes. There’s something about her that feels . . . safe. Familiar. It’s a feeling he’s almost gotten used to since he’s come to town; one that he’s learned to trust. “Would you believe me if I said I have amnesia?” he asks carefully, and she snorts.
“I don’t know; are you suddenly a character on General Hospital?” She glances over at him, and a small furrow appears between her brows. “You’re . . . hold up, are you serious?”
He shakes his head. “Forget it.”
“No, you’re—okay, look, you’ve gotta tell me if you’re just screwing with me here, please. Are you?”
Stiles takes a deep breath. “I’m not.”
“Okay. Um.” They walk in silence for a few minutes as she darts occasional glances his way. “I don’t know what to . . .” She lets out a soft, self-deprecating laugh. “Would I sound totally insensitive if I said it’s sort of a weird relief? I’d been thinking I was just sort of forgettable.”
“You—what?” He blinks down at her. “Sorry, did I . . . did we—”
“Oh my god, you look like you’re about to have a coronary, chill out,” she laughs. “We just met once; really, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if you didn’t remember me even without extenuating circumstances.” She glances over at him again. “Do you remember anything at all?”
“A few things.” He focuses on his feet as they cross a set of overgrown train tracks, careful to keep from tripping on the weeds twining between the cross-ties. “A little bit about my friends. My dad.”
He’d pulled Lydia aside before he left, away from the living room where Allison was mourning for her father all over again.
“I just need to know . . .” he’d said, trying to keep his eyes fixed on her. It was difficult to keep them from wandering, no matter how much it hurt whenever they landed where they wanted to go. “The symbol you had Jackson break?”
“Love.” Lydia’s smile had been warm and sad. “You always said that I was your first love; that I always would be,” she’d said, her eyes still bright with tears. “I had a way into Peter’s head, even after all those years. I could’ve seen it; I could’ve stopped it, and I’m so sorry—”
“Hey.” She’d felt small but strong when he’d pulled her into a hug. “You did more than I ever managed. You killed him.”
“Should’ve done it sooner.” Lydia had pulled away, wiping at her eyes and frowning up at him. “Why did you ask what got unblocked? Did something go wrong? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” He’d turned away before he could look back at Derek. “Just wanted to confirm a guess is all.”
“It’s complicated,” he says now. He’s thirsty, so thirsty, and he takes the tea back without asking, finishing off the last dregs in the cup. “I don’t know how much of it I really want back. God, that sounds so stupid,” he groans. “Who doesn’t want to remember who they were?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know that I would, if I didn’t have to.” Darcy kicks at a rock in the road, sending it clattering away. “A few years ago—around the time we met, actually—well, I don’t really like who I was back then very much. I was weak, running with the wrong crowd . . . I made some bad choices I’d just as soon forget.”
“Easy to say when you still remember. I mean, I have people telling me these things, and it all just sounds completely unbelievable, but . . . if it’s true, then god, my life was so much more fucked up than I thought. And believe me, that’s a pretty high bar to reach.”
“You don’t trust whoever’s telling you this stuff?”
“No, I do.” Stiles sighs. “I just don’t know if I should.”
Darcy makes a humming, agreeable sort of sound. “In my experience, the only thing worse than not knowing who to trust is realizing you’ve trusted the wrong people.”
“Yeah, well, I’m probably screwed there either way.” She frowns over at him, and he shrugs. “Like I said. Complicated. It’s just—” He glances around, slowing to a halt. The sun is setting, and the lights on the buildings around them are still out, but he still recognizes the industrial park where the pack had taken him his first night in town. “Uh. How did we get here?”
“You walked.” A tall, slim figure rounds the corner in front of them, smile glinting almost red in the fading sunlight. “Well, strolled, really. A nice romantic walk, far away from any witnesses; that was thoughtful of you. My leg’s healed up fine, by the way, thanks for asking.”
“Shit,” Stiles mutters under his breath, and edges over until he’s standing between Darcy and the charismatic psychopath from the woods the other day. He’s unarmed aside from the knife stuck in his boot, but if he can make it into the building he found himself in before, he might be able to find some weapons stashed with the pack’s emergency gear. “You followed me here?” he calls out.
“Not exactly. You know,” tall-dark-and-psycho says, ambling closer, “it’s been pointed out to me that I was rude before, not telling you my name. Let me make it up to you. I’m Kaden. You’ve met Bryce already.” He glances off to Stiles’s left, and there’s a sudden shift of movement as Bryce steps out of the shadows. “And this is Anna. She’s new,” he grins. A girl appears on his right, tall and pretty, with dark skin and thick, curly black hair. Her eyes, large and deep, are oddly empty and fixed unblinkingly on Stiles. “And of course,” Kaden adds, “you know Darcy.”
The bottom drops out of Stiles’s stomach as a small hand settles between his shoulder blades.
“Just relax, Stiles.” Darcy’s voice is calm and soothing. “No one here wants to hurt you.” She circles around him until she’s smiling up into his face. “Not any more than we have to, anyway.”
“Oh, good. That’s reassuring.” It is, actually, in a strange sort of way, and he can feel himself despite against his better judgement. “I’m sure you just brought me out here to an abandoned industrial park at dusk to talk about my feelings some more, right?”
“I don’t want to hurt you.” She reaches up, fisting a hand in his hair and dragging him painfully down to his knees. “That doesn’t mean that I won’t. Your alphas now might not have enough self-respect to demand it from others, but that’s not a problem I have.”
“You’re the alpha.” Stiles feels like an idiot, kneeling in front of her with his head pulled back, his throat exposed, and he can’t help it. He starts laughing. “Wow. Okay, I have to admit, I didn’t see that coming. Hey, we’ve been looking for you.”
“I have to say, Stiles, I’m kind of disappointed.” Darcy still sounds almost frighteningly calm, as if they’re still talking about old boyfriends and art projects instead of the fact that she’s been behind the murders of at least three people here in town. “I wonder if maybe whatever took your memories might’ve taken some other things, too; I’m pretty sure you were smarter than this before.” She tilts her head, studying him. “Smart enough to help take out my old pack, after all. You and Hale.”
“Sorry.” Stiles shrugs as best he can in his current position. “Must not have been a very memorable occasion.”
Darcy smiles, wide and bright. There’s a gap between her front teeth; it makes her look almost sweet.
“You know,” she says softly, leaning down, “I really hope you make it. You might be my favorite so far.”
“You’re going to bite me? Really?” Stiles has to work to keep his eyes from darting around; he can sense the rest of her pack prowling restlessly around them, see the flicker of lights as the park’s timer kicks on. “That’s your master plan? No offense, but that seems sort of simplistic.”
“Sometimes simple is best,” she says. “It’s a win-win, see? You survive, and my pack grows. You die, and the hunters get an anonymous tip that the newest victim was found just yards away from what they’ll discover is one of the Hale pack’s little hidey holes. How do you think your friends back East would feel about that?”
Stiles stares. “How do you know—”
“Small town, sweets.” Darcy smiles. “Keen sense of hearing. And do you really think we came into this destabilized clusterfuck of a territory without keeping track of the hunter situation?” She tsks. “That would just be sloppy. And I have learned better.”
“Right.” Stiles swallows heavily. “There’s just one thing you overlooked. Even if you do turn me, there’s no way in hell you are ever gonna be my alpha, you psychotic bitch.”
He’s expecting a slap, a kick, a punishment of some sort. Anything that will get him out of her grasp, at least for a moment; anything that will give him a chance to run, as futile as the effort may be. But her face just falls into sweet, sympathetic lines as she strokes her free hand through his hair.
“Oh, sweetheart. It’s sort of cute that you think you’ll have a choice.” She tilts his head farther to the side. “Just relax,” she tells him again. “Try not to fight it. I really do want you to make it through this.”
Stiles grits his teeth, struggling with everything he has just to keep struggling. It’s not easy; Darcy’s voice is soft and reasonable, and he believes her. Believes that she wants what’s best for him; believes that she wants to keep him safe. Even as her eyes shift to red and thick, bristly fur sprouts over her face, even as her fangs lengthen and move towards his throat, it’s takes all of his willpower not to welcome it.
The first arrow hits her in the shoulder with enough force to send her reeling back two full steps. Darcy snarls and rips the arrow free, howling in pain as she does so, but another hits home in her chest even, and the air suddenly splits with an echoing cacophony of answering howls. There’s the heavy sound of pounding footsteps on the asphalt, and Stiles watches through dazed eyes as Jackson tackles Bryce to the ground in a vicious flurry of fangs and claws. There’s a joke about cat-fighting models in there somewhere, Stiles thinks, but he’s too fuzzy-headed to get to it.
“Stilinski!” He looks up to see Boyd sprinting up, and just in time to catch the bat that’s tossed his way. “Get your ass up and get to work!”
And that sounds like the best damned idea yet.
Erica is wrestling with Darcy, arms looped beneath her shoulders from behind to hold her in place. Lydia darts in, spraying her in the eyes with what looks like a can of mace. By the way Darcy screams, Stiles is willing to bet it’s laced with something even nastier; still, she’s too strong for Erica to hold for long. Darcy is an alpha surrounded by her own pack, and there’s no way that any of them can even hope to come close to matching her strength.
Not alone, anyway.
Darcy’s thrown Erica off and is advancing, snarling threateningly at Lydia, when Stiles comes up swinging. The bat catches her on the edge of her jaw with a loud, sickening crack and the sharp sound of shattered bones. Lydia sprays her again and darts back, grabbing the miniature crossbow at her hip as Stiles edgees around to line up another shot. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Boyd and Isaac squaring off with Kaden and Anna, and from the top of a nearby building Allison continues to send down a rain of arrows.
She fires two at once, hitting Bryce and Kaden with a single draw, and Stiles can’t help but feel a little jealous. He’s never been able to pull off that shot.
He swings the bat again and lets himself enjoy the way it feels, the way his body seems to know instinctively how to turn, and how much force he’ll need. His next swing smashes against Darcy’s left knee and she goes down with a screaming howl, rolling away and out of easy reach. She’s already healing by the time she climbs to her feet, however, and Stiles feels his insides turn to water because fuck, that’s terrifying. He’s never faced an alpha surrounded by a full pack before, never seen one heal as quickly as she is now.
Another arrow grazes her cheek, less than an inch from her eye, and Darcy turns to roar up at Allison. Then she glances at the battlefield in front of her and bares her fangs.
She throws her head back on a long, furious howl, and when she turns to run the rest of her pack follows.
“Oh come on, really?” Stiles demands. “Running away again?” He makes to go after them, but his head abruptly feels two sizes too big, and his legs stop working the way they’re supposed to. “Oh, shit.” He feels himself falling, helpless to do anything about it.
“Fucking hell, Stilinski.” Jackson catches him an inch from the pavement and hauls him upright. “Did you stop for a beer or what?”
“I wish. I think she did some sort of . . .” He gestures vaguely, nearly knocking himself off-balance again. Boyd places a steadying hand on his shoulder. “Thanks. I think she did some sort of alpha mind-whammy on me or something. I feel sorta out of it.”
“Okay, that’s great, but how about instead of standing around waiting for them to come back, we get the fuck out of Dodge,” Erica snaps.
“Are we clear?” Lydia asks, apparently to the empty air. It’s only after a moment that Stiles finally notices the finger she has pressed to her ear, and sees Allison disappear from the rooftop.
“Dude,” he grins. “We’ve gone all James Bond up in this shit.”
“Courtesy of our long-lost tech expert,” Isaac says. “Danny’s been tracking your phone’s GPS back at the house, just in case we lost sight of you.”
“Okay, but c’mon,” Stiles insists as they head to where the cars are parked, all of them keeping a careful eye out. “Let’s hear it, don’t be shy. My plan was awesome.”
“Stiles,” Erica says slowly, “your genius plan to use yourself as bait almost got you fucking eaten.”
“But only almost,” Boyd counters. “And now we know who our mystery alpha is, and what she’s doing here.” He nudges Stiles carefully with his shoulder. “You’ve had worse plans.”
“Oh, good. Glad to hear it.”
Since everyone flatly refuses to let Stiles drive, he ends up in the backseat with Isaac, trying to shake off the remnants of whatever Darcy did to him as he texts Genna to call him as soon as she can. Then he just leans his head against the window, breathes deep, and does his best to stop thinking for the rest of the drive.
He’s not doing too well with the last thing by the time they reach the house; he’s sent four more increasingly urgent texts, and though it’s only been fifteen or twenty minutes, he’s still concerned that Genna hasn’t called back yet. There’s no answer from Amanda, either, and she always keeps her phone on her for precisely this reason. They might have left their phones behind if they’re out on a hunt; but it’s not even eight o’clock in Boston yet, and he’s never known a hunt to start before midnight at the earliest.
Scott is almost embarrassingly glad to see him when he makes it inside, hugging him tight like he’s afraid Stiles will disappear if he lets go.
“I don’t like staying at home while you guys put yourselves in danger.” He’s scowling at everyone, but most especially at Allison and Stiles. “This was a crappy plan.”
“It was necessary,” Derek says. “Any other wolves would’ve been able to sense the two of us if we’d gone, which would’ve blown the element of surprise. We talked about this.”
“We didn’t, though,” Erica says, frowning at the others. “At least, I didn’t. Their alpha was there, and I had no clue until she tried to bite Stiles; and even that was just because her eyes went red—she didn’t feel like an alpha at all.”
“She tried to bite Stiles?” Scott yelps, and Stiles holds up his phone.
“You guys fill in home base here; I need to try to make a call.”
He steps into the hallway and dials Genna’s number, muttering pick up pick up pick up under his breath as the phone rings in his ear.
“Hey! Stiles.” The voice that answers is young, and male, and Stiles has just a moment to blink in confusion before he hears, “It’s Jonas. Sorry, man, I just saw that you’d been texting.”
“Jonas. Hey. Did Genna leave her phone at the house or something?” Every muscle in his body suddenly feels like it’s sizzling with electricity, energy trapped with nowhere to go. Pacing from one end of the hall to the other is hardly helping to dissipate it. “It’s early for a hunt, isn’t it?”
“She’s not on a hunt,” Jonas says nervously, “she’s on a plane. She forwarded her calls to my phone until she lands.”
“Until she . . .” He stops stock-still. “Until she lands where?”
“Um. You know, if they didn’t tell you, I probably shouldn’t—”
“Jonas,” Stiles snaps. “Listen to my voice. Do you really think this is a good time to screw around with me?”
“No. No, probably not. Amanda put a team together to head to Beacon Hills. There’s a rogue alpha there, Stiles.” His voice is nearly desperate, pleading for understanding. “The Hale pack was bad enough, but if things are that unsettled there—”
“How long before they get here?”
He hears Jonas sigh. “Their flight is supposed to land in Sacramento in a couple of hours; the way Genna drives, I’d say they’ll probably be in town by midnight.”
Stiles hangs up without bothering to say goodbye. Almost everyone in the room will have heard the conversation, but when Stiles steps back inside it’s Derek that his eyes seek out and lock onto.
“We’re out of time.”
“We’ve been holding our own here for two years now,” Derek says coldly. “I think we can handle another few hunters.”
“Can you? On top of another pack that’s out for your blood? Not to mention that Amanda knows a pack can have multiple alphas now, thanks to what I’ve told her about you and Scott; you really think they’ll just take it on faith that you guys weren’t involved with any of this?”
“Can’t you stall them at all?” Isaac’s looking at Allison, his hands locked around the back of a chair and about three seconds away from clawing it to bits. “You said there were channels people would have to go through, official crap. Hunter buerocracy.”
“Your friends from Boston?” She looks to Stiles for confirmation that she’s pieced things together correctly. He nods, and she lets out a quiet curse. “There should be,” she tells Isaac, glancing around to include all of them as she speaks. “But this is the first I’ve heard about a major incursion. If they haven’t contacted me, it means they no longer officially recognize my authority here.”
“We knew that was only a matter of time.” Scott rests a hand on her shoulder, clearly trying his best to look reassuring despite the worry plastered all over his face. “I’m surprised it’s taken them this long to move in, actually.”
“They never had enough cause before,” Stiles says. “Every hunter that’s been injured or killed so far has been within the pack’s territory, and the treaty you guys set up with the Argents still technically holds. No one’s been happy about it, but they also haven’t been willing to risk things here slipping to Defcon 1. Now that they think that’s the direction you’re headed on your own, they’re not gonna hold back. You’ve got enough human blood on your hands that they won’t lose any sleep over taking you out.”
“How many?” Derek demands.
“Shit.” Stiles goes back to pacing, hands fisted in his hair. “Amanda and Genna. Michael will still be back in Boston; there’s no one else Amanda would trust to keep things in order there. So the two of them, plus I’m guessing Tucker, probably Jack . . . five at least. Maybe more if there were any out-of-towners at the house who wanted in when they made the call. Not to mention the loners here who’ll rally around them—because make no mistake, they absolutely will.”
“That’s probably another five or six,” Allison puts in.
“So we’re talking something like a dozen total. Plus another pack with a bloodthirsty alpha on top of that; yeah, no problem, I’m sure we’ll be just fine.”
“Do you have a plan for how to deal with this, Stiles?” Derek demands, scowling. “Or are you just enjoying making a point out how monumentally screwed we are?”
“At least that much hasn’t changed,” Danny mutters, and Jackson snorts.
“I don’t have any answers,” Stiles says, sparing a glare for the two of them before his gaze finds Lydia. “But maybe I can get some.”
She takes a deep breath but doesn’t flinch. “Now?”
“Yeah.” He starts stripping out of his jacket. “There are two more branches left on this thing. You said they were about pack.”
“Technically only one represents pack; as best as I can figure, the other translates to something like ‘brothers-in-arms’.”
“Okay, no one asked for the footnotes, Lydia.”
“Precision is important,” she sniffs, eyeing him critically as he pulls his t-shirt off over his head. “So who gets to do the honors, then?”
“Um.” Stiles shrugs, trying to keep his eyes from giving him away. “Who hasn’t had a turn yet?” he jokes.
“Guess that’d be us.” Boyd stands, lightly cuffing Isaac’s shoulder as he rises. “Come on, man. Time for you and me to save the day again.”
“Figures they’d leave the most important job for us.” There’s nervousness lurking at the corners of Isaac’s eyes, but he’s smiling as he steps towards Stiles. “I guess we are the most reliable.”
“Excuse me,” Erica says, “who was the one who popped the cork on Sparky McGee here in the first place? If it weren’t for me he’d have never started connecting the creepy mystical dots in the first place.”
“You didn’t even do that on purpose,” Isaac protests.
“Oh for the love of—are you sure you people are werewolves?” Stiles crosses his arms over his chest, feeling exposed. “Because this feels an awful lot like herding cats.”
“Right.” Boyd fixes him with a measuring look. “You wanna, like, brace yourself or something?”
“Probably not the worst idea,” Stiles mutters. He steps over to the wall, ready to reach out and rest his hands against it when Derek appears by his side.
“Are you really sure about this?” he asks, his voice low as if almost every other person in the room won’t be able to hear him anyway. “You know there’s no going back after.”
“C’mon, man, you want the smart-ass, magic-slinging human back in your pack or not?” He’s pretty sure he’s failed to keep his tone as light as he’d intended to when Derek glares at him like he’s the biggest idiot in the history of the known world. Oddly enough, Stiles finds that more comforting than any heartfelt declaration could possibly be. “I’m sure,” he says more seriously. “Shit’s about to hit the fan here in a major way, and I’m not going to be any use to anyone if I don’t even know who the fuck I am. Who I used to be, at least.” He takes a breath, surprised despite his words at how certain he feels. “It’s time for me to pick a side. So step off,” he grins unsteadily, “so I can figure out which one is mine.”
Derek simply stares at him for a moment, weighing Stiles’s words. Then he nods, steps back, and glances at his betas.
The wall is cool and smooth beneath Stiles’s palms, and he tries to focus on that feeling as Boyd and Isaac crowd in behind him. The warmth from their bodies is comforting, as are the hands that come to rest on his shoulders, steadying and reassuring.
“Which one do you want to do first?” Boyd’s voice is a low rumble, and his hand gives a gentle squeeze.
“I . . . the same time.” Stiles swallows heavily. “Let’s just get this done.”
“All right. On three, okay?” Isaac says. There’s the gentle press of claws against his skin, spread a handspan apart. “One . . . two—”
It shouldn’t surprise him when the pain comes early, two sets of claws slicing across his skin in perfect synch. It’s nothing, really—a sharp sting, the burn of a fresh cut, the slick trickle of blood.
Stiles takes a single shallow breath, and then his world implodes.
His entire body aches like one big bruise—as far as he can tell, that might actually be the literal truth. Opening his eyes is difficult, almost not worth the trouble. He upgrades that ‘almost’ to ‘definitely’ when he finally manages to haul his eyelids up and catches sight of the tube running down his arm, full of sluggishly flowing blood. He makes an effort to keep from tracking the tube to wherever the blood is headed; he really doesn’t want to know. He also barely has the energy to move anyway, and tied up as he is there’s nothing much he could do about it, so.
Unfortunately, in his efforts to avoid looking at that particular horror, he finds himself looking straight into Chris Argent’s smiling face.
“Finally. I was beginning to think you’d sleep the whole day away. I tell you.” His expression is as calm and reasonable as ever, which only makes the madness lurking in his eyes all the more terrifying. “Young people today.”
Stiles has spent years ensuring that he has more than just his wits to get him out of danger. Hours spent bitching his way through training sessions, lessons on wards and belief and the good solid weight of a bat in his hand. And now it’s come down to this again, just him and his mouth and his powers of persuasion.
“You know you’re out of your fucking mind, right?”
Well, okay, that was less than diplomatic. To be fair, though, he’s a little out of practice.
“I’d say that’s in the eye of the beholder.” Argent crouches in front of his chair, holding up a single warning finger. “You should be counting your lucky stars right now, Stiles. The original plan was to kill you, after all.”
“Right.” Stiles swallows down bile. “Instead you’re just gonna use me against everyone I care about; that’s much better. You were our ally,” he spits out, unable to hold it back any longer. “We trusted you; you were ours.”
“The fact that you thought that made things a hell of a lot easier,” Argent agrees with a friendly slap to Stiles’s knee. Stiles wishes his hands were free. Wishes he could wrap them around Argent’s throat. “You think I’d just let what happened to my wife go?” His eyes harden, the hand still resting on Stiles’s leg tightening painfully. “You should know better, Stiles.”
“Your w—” Stiles can’t help it. He starts to laugh. “Are you fucking kidding me? Are you seriously trying to pretend that whatever you’re planning to do now is somehow comparable to your wife killing herself because of your bigoted fucking family? How is that anything even resembling justice?”
Argent surges up, seizing Stiles’s bruised jaw in a grip so tight he’s afraid that it might wrench out of the socket altogether. “This isn’t about justice,” he hisses in Stiles’s face, his breath hot and thick with a sickly sweet, nauseatingly familiar smell. “It’s about vengeance.” He releases his grip with a contemptuous flick of his wrist. “Another thing I thought you of all people would understand. Well. I’m sure he’ll get it, at least. See, it’s not about everyone, Stiles.” Argent stands, shaking out the sleeves of his coat. “Just him.”
Fade out. Mental static, like a channel that won’t come in. Sorry, kid. Blocked for your protection. And then—
“—not about either one of you. Not really.” Peter leans over him, all regretful smiles and apologetic eyes as Stiles tugs at the ropes binding his hands beneath the table. He’s been there long enough that the metal has warmed from his body heat, long enough that it’s started to grow slippery with his sweat. “You understand that, don’t you?”
“I understand that you’re both fucking crazy,” Stiles snaps. Why doesn’t this rope have any fucking give? Where do the others think he is; what do they think happened to him? What will they think if— “And no, I don’t actually believe that you picked us out as pawns for your twisted little sadistic mind games because we just happened to be convenient.”
“No, I didn’t.” Peter’s smile widens, like he’s impressed. Stiles wants to claw it off of his face. “Still, that doesn’t mean it’s anything personal. I like both of you, I really do.” His eyes harden. “But peace is a luxury. It’s something meant for people who haven’t lost as much as we have. That’s what the pack needs to understand. It’s okay to be afraid,” he says soothingly. “I’d imagine that sacrificial lambs usually are.”
Stiles tugs at the ropes again, fueled by desperation more than hope now. “Argent.” His voice cracks, and he sets his jaw against the fear that’s trying to swamp him. “He thinks you’re his friend.”
“I know.” Peter’s smile is nearly blinding. Handsome as a fallen angel. “There’s a delicious sort of irony there, don’t you think? Now. You’ll thank me for this later.” He pauses. “Okay, you probably won’t. Nevertheless.”
There’s nothing that Stiles can do to avoid the wadded-up handkerchief that Peter stuffs in his mouth, or the strip of cloth that he ties around the back of Stiles’s head to hold it in place.
“Aren’t you finished yet?” The door slams closed behind Argent, and Peter steps back from the table.
“Waiting for you. Never start a medical procedure without a nurse present. There’s more tea brewing, if you’d like some.”
Argent snorts, but walks over to the hotplate and pours himself a cup. “This is hardly life-saving surgery.”
“Isn’t it?” Peter’s teeth are sharp and bright. “I thought that was the whole point.”
The scratch of his claws over Stiles’s bare back is bad, but not unbearable. Slowly, methodically, he traces out a pattern, carving it into skin. The air grows thick with the scent of blood, and terror so strong that even Stiles can smell it. Blood is pooling warm and wet in the small of his back when Peter’s left hand reaches for the jar of dust on the rolling cart beside him. Black as charcoal, flecked with specks of white that look like bone.
Stiles can’t see, but when it hits his back he knows—it’s fire and flame, spreading beneath his skin until he’s screaming, screaming as it burns him from the inside out, turning him to ashes himself. Until all that remains is Peter’s hand on his shoulder as he whispers low and hideous in his ear to breathe, relax, it will all be over soon. That hand, that voice, holding him down as surely as the ropes, until every last trace of him has been burned away and—
He jerks upright, heart nearly beating out of his chest as he strikes out against the hand on his shoulder, flailing and uncoordinated in his panic. That same hand darts up to catch his fist mid-air, holding him still as his vision begins to clear. By the time he recognizes Derek he’s already being being let go, released with a haste that would be insulting if he weren’t so fucking grateful.
“Jesus fucking Christ.” Stiles slumps forward, face buried in his hands as he tries to stop shaking. “God.”
“Are you all right?” Derek’s voice sounds far away. “Do you need . . . water, or . . .”
“If you offer me tea I will fucking kill you,” Stiles mutters into his palms. “Oh my fucking—the tea.” He shoots upright again, and he turns to look at Derek in blossoming horror. “The tea that Darcy gave me, it’s the same kind that Peter used to drink. You remember: the shit he said was medicinal, that smelled like a graveyard. Goddamn it. That’s how he was keeping under the radar, why you didn’t realize when he became an alpha again. It’s probably why why you haven’t been able to sniff Darcy out, either; something in it must help mask what they are. And when he gave it to Chris—oh, shit.” He cuts off as his head begins to spin again. “It’s like a drug for humans; it must be. Makes us suggestible. That’s how she got me to go along with her, why I couldn’t—”
“Hey. Take it easy.” Derek’s hands are back on his shoulders, easing him down onto his back again, and Stiles is too busy trying to keep his head from falling off his shoulders to think about why that’s not upsetting him. “If you throw up on the bed I’m gonna be pissed.”
“Heh. Good to know you care.” Stiles squeezes his eyes shut, taking a handful of deep, steadying breaths. Someone has put his shirt back on; it scrapes against his recent cuts as he lies there, another reminder of how much he’s had to take in in less than twenty-four hours. His fingers flex against the softness of the comforter beneath him, and his eyes fly abruptly open. “Where the fuck am I?”
“We brought you upstairs when you fainted. You’re in my room. I’m dead serious, do not throw up on this bed.”
“Um.” Oddly enough, the idea of being in Derek’s bed is helping him relax, letting him focus on keeping a lid on his frustrated lust and shove what he’s just remembered to the back of his mind. “I did not faint.”
“Sure, Stiles. Whatever you need to tell yourself.”
“Damn right.” Stiles scrubs a hand over his face. “How long was I out?”
There’s a hesitation before Derek answers; Stiles is pretty sure that can mean nothing good.
“A little over three hours.”
“What?” Stiles shoots upright again. “Are you fucking kidding me right now? Why didn’t you wake me up sooner?”
“We tried,” Derek snaps. “You were fucking dea—” His mouth closes so hard that Stiles can hear the click of his teeth. “There was no waking you up. Lydia thinks it was too much for your mind to handle, breaking both of those blocks at once; we’re lucky we didn’t put you in a coma. Erica and Scott both said you probably needed to wake up on your own, anyway.” Derek eyes him with something like censure. “You scared the shit out of everyone.”
“Tell you what, next time I’m kidnapped by psychopaths and given mystical amnesia, I’ll try to be more considerate.” Derek looks like he’s trying not to crack a smile at that, and Stiles rolls his eyes. “So I’m guessing it’s happening soon, if you went against medical advice of questionable validity to wake me up?”
“Boyd and Erica went out to watch one of the hunters who’s been in town for a couple of months and tracked him to a place on the east side of town. Allison confirmed it’s one of her family’s old safe houses.”
“That’s a little sloppy, isn’t it?” Stiles eyes the side of the bed, but decides he doesn’t quite trust his own legs yet. “They have to know we’d know what’s going on.”
“I don’t think they care.”
“No.” Stiles thinks about it for a moment. Sighs. “No, they wouldn’t. They’d want us to know they’re here.”
“You keep saying . . .” Derek’s stare seems to steal all the breath from Stiles’s lungs. “You’re saying ‘we’ now.”
Stiles shrugs tightly, looking down. “I told you I wanted to figure out whose side I’m on.” He forces himself to look up again, to meet that frighteningly intense gaze. “I was willing to die for you. For all of you, for . . . you were wrong. There really isn’t a difference between pack and family. Not one that matters, anyway.”
“No,” Derek says quietly. “I guess there really isn’t.”
Stiles wants to kiss him so badly he can almost taste it, wants to lean across the empty space between them and hold on tight. But as soon as he starts sliding over Derek stands, and Stiles has to swallow back a sick wave of disappointment and self-recrimination.
“Everyone’s waiting downstairs,” Derek says, heading for the door. “I’ll give you a minute.”
“When they did this to me.” Stiles fights against a fresh wave of nausea, and Derek freezes in place. “It wasn’t really about me. They did it to hurt someone else.”
Stiles nods absently. “Did it work?”
Derek’s hand tightens on the doorknob. “Yes.” He opens the door and glances back. “Come downstairs as soon as you can.”
“Sure. Right.” Stiles takes a deep, steadying breath. “I’ll meet you down there. There’s just . . . one thing I need to do first.”
He finds what he’s looking for under the bathroom sink. It takes longer than he expects—he’s out of practice, and he keeps missing spots. Ten minutes later, however, he’s walking into the living room, trying to ignore the constant chill of cool air against his scalp.
“Oh, Stiles,” Lydia moans when she catches sight of him, her face falling into lines of horrified disappointment. “You finally had a decent haircut, and then you go and do something like this?”
“It’s symbolic, okay?” He rubs a hand over the short fuzz on top of his head. “Or something. Either way, shut up.”
“I like it,” Scott says with a grin, slinging an arm around Stiles’s shoulders.
“Thanks, man.” Stiles gives him a quick squeeze and a smart-ass grin. “But, you know, it’d be a lot more comforting if you didn’t have such questionable taste in general.” He laughs as Scott makes an outraged squawking noise and shoves him away. “Present company excluded, Allison.”
“Someone remind me why we thought it was a good idea to bring him back?” Danny is lucky that his smile is adorable enough to make Stiles forgive a multitude of sins, though that doesn’t stop him from flipping him off.
“Exactly what I was wondering,” Jackson chimes in. “Couldn’t we have maybe let him keep forgetting the more annoying parts of his personality?”
“It’s good to have you back,” Allison says quietly as Scott and Jackson start sniping at each other.
“I’m glad there’s still something for me to come back to. Don’t think I’ve missed who’s been keeping things from going to hell here.”
“Hardly?” Allison shakes her head, her expression edging towards a scowl. “Your friends from Boston are coming here because I fucked up. I was so angry with the whole idea of hunters—what happened with my mom, and then my dad . . . that life stole my entire family from me. I chose the pack instead, out of spite as much as anything. If I hadn’t—”
“If you hadn’t, then I probably would’ve killed you.” The room goes quiet and everyone turns to Derek, who’s leaning against the wall as if he hasn’t just casually talked about murdering someone. “Or you’d have had to kill me,” he continues. “As bad as things got . . .” He huffs out a breath, jaw working around words he clearly doesn’t want to say. “As bad as I let things get, your decision saved a lot of bloodshed. What happened here is my fault, not yours.”
“Not to burst your bubble—I mean, obviously you’re a really terrifying alpha and all,” Isaac says after a moment, “but if we weren’t on board, we’d have just fucked off like those three.”
“It’s true,” Lydia sighs as Isaac nods in her direction. “You people have always had a distressing lack of common sense.”
“I think we’re all missing the big picture here,” Stiles says. “Which is that Derek is a hot-headed jackass who nearly took everyone else down with him in his doom-spiral of epic manpain.”
“Why did I actually miss you, again?” Derek grumbles, and Jackson tosses up his hands in exasperation.
“That’s what I’m saying!”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Danny says mildly, “but wasn’t the point of this drama for Stiles to save us all with his magically restored brain or something?”
“Okay, one: your tone is hurtful, Danny. Really hurtful. And two: wow, hey, no pressure or anything.”
“He has a point,” Isaac says. “You’ve picked your team, now where’s the play?”
“The play is that I try to call Genna again, and try to convince her and Amanda to come out here.”
There’s silence for a moment. “That,” Jackson finally says, “is a really terrible idea.”
“Jackson, stop being an ass,” Lydia snaps. “But . . . yeah, it really is.”
“No,” Scott says, staring at Stiles. It’s a familiar look; Stiles remembers it now, finally remembers countless times when they were younger, when the sheer mad genius of one of Stiles’s plans would hit. “That’s good. I think we can work with that.”
“I’ve gotta side with Lydia and Jackson on this one,” Isaac counters. “How is this a good plan, exactly?”
“We’re protected here. There are wards to keep any non-pack folks far, far away; it’s safe as houses. Or, um.” Stiles clears his throat. “Possibly another phrase that’s less personally significant, given the histories of some of the people in this room. Anyway! We call them up, meet them at the boundary line, and have a good old-fashioned parlay.”
“If we take the time to actually talk to each other, we might have a chance of ending this without a battle I think we can all agree we’d probably end up losing,” Scott adds. “I know it’s been a while, but we do all remember that non-violent conflict resolution still exists, right?”
“Yeah, I have to say I’m pretty much over the idea of murdering anyone else right now.” Stiles grins. “No matter how obnoxious Jackson tries to be.”
“Please, Stilinski, you know you’d still gank me in a heartbeat if you thought you stood a chance.”
“No offense, but it’s been a long time since you were important enough for me to bother killing.”
“Stiles, make the call,” Derek interrupts. “Allison, get everyone equipped; Lydia, if you have any more tricks up your sleeve, now would be the time to speak up.”
Stiles is already heading out onto the porch before Derek’s finished giving orders, punching Genna’s number into his phone as he goes. It’s cold outside, but he doesn’t feel like detouring for a jacket right now, so he just sucks it up and shivers as he listens to the phone ringing in his ear.
“Hey Stiles,” Genna answers after just a few rings. She sounds cool and collected, as he’s only ever heard her a handful of times before, and it sends a chill down his spine. “I thought you might be calling tonight.”
“It doesn’t have to go down this way,” he tells her. No point in beating around the bush at this point. “There’s no reason this has to get any messier than it already is.”
“You’re absolutely right. I’m sure you’ve figured out where we are by now; come over and we’ll talk.”
“You have to know that’s not gonna happen.” Stiles shivers again. “Amanda’s standing right there, isn’t she?”
Genna sighs, and when she answers she sounds a little bit more like herself. “You know she is. Stiles, please. Don’t do what it seems like you’re doing.”
“What’s that? Trying to make sure everyone makes it out of this alive?”
“Not everyone always deserves to make it out alive, Stiles. You know that.”
Stiles winces. “But everyone deserves a fair shot.” A hand brushes against his shoulder and he nearly jumps out of his skin; he whirls around to see Derek smirking at him, Stiles’s jacket held out in front of him, and Stiles rolls his eyes but grabs for it gratefully. “Genna, please,” he says as he struggles to slip his arms into the sleeves and keep his phone in place at the same time. “You’ve been my best friend for the past two years. Just . . . please? Do this for me.”
There’s a long silence, and Stiles feels his heart sinking further with every second that it lasts. Then, finally, “What’s the proposal?”
It takes several seconds of flailing, overly-enthusiastic silent dancing before Stiles is calm enough to speak again. “We meet in the preserve and parlay. There are seven people in our group,” he says, casting a questioning look at Derek and getting a nod in return. Good; he’s seen them fight, and Erica and Boyd sitting this one out would be a serious handicap if things start to go badly. Which isn’t, you know, unthinkable right now. “You bring a group of seven too, and we’ll see if maybe we can’t talk this out before it descends into bloodshed. There’s always time for that in the morning, right?”
There’s a heavy sigh over the phoneline. “Are you—okay. Okay, fine, I’ll tell him! Amanda’s in agreement, and she wants to work out the details. I swear to god, Stiles, if this is some kind of a trap—if you’re using me to get to everyone because you’ve gone native—”
“Paranoia freak, it’s not a trap. Um.” He glances at Derek again. “I’m gonna give the phone to Derek; he knows the area better than I do, and besides, it should probably be, like, team leaders working it out, right?” Stiles worries at his lower lip. As mind-numbingly awful as some of his discoveries over the past week have been, he still can’t bring himself to believe that he was wrong about Genna. “I’ve missed you,” he finally says, and is rewarded with another sigh.
“Of course you did, moron. I’m awesome, and extremely missable. Put the freakin’ alpha on the phone and we can hug it out later, provided I don’t have to kill you.”
Stiles laughs and hands the phone over, wandering back inside as Derek and Amanda start to talk. In the living room, Allison is double-checking her bow while Lydia and Danny debate the merits of bringing along the canisters of wolfsbane-laced mace . The tension in the room is palpable, thick and cloying. There’s every chance, Stiles knows, that this really is a terrible idea. There’s every chance that someone could die tonight. But somehow, for the first time since he woke up, he feels the tension draining out of him, feels the horror of his memories begin to truly fade. In this place, with these people, he finally lets himself feel safe.
Scott sidles up, hands jammed in his pockets and a nervous grin stretched over his face. “Almost feels like high school again, right?”
“Yeah,” Stiles laughs. “This is definitely shades of our fucked-up adolescence. Except you and Derek aren’t bitching at each other about who gets to be in charge.”
“We have a system. I focus on keeping our pack from killing each other; he focuses on keeping anyone else from killing us. It works.”
“Will wonders never cease.”
“People grow up; things change. At least back then I wasn’t worried about my kids when we went into a fight where we were ridiculously outmatched,” Scott says. “Speaking of which.” He shrugs. “You know your dad is watching them for us tonight. After this is over, if we’re all . . . well, I thought you might want to come with us to pick them up. Say hi to your dad, and maybe just—I mean, they’ll pretty much be dead to the world, but if you wanted to—”
“Are you kidding me?” Stiles’s grin stretches from ear to ear. “Dude, yeah, I wanna meet your rugrats. I’m gonna be Cool Uncle Stiles; they’re so gonna love me best.”
“Please.” Scott rolls his eyes, but he’s grinning right back.
“Just wait! I’m gonna be the one they go to when Mom and Dad, like, totally don’t understand them.”
“Stiles,” Allison calls from across the room, “are you already making plans to corrupt my children?”
“No m’am.” He eyes her bow warily. “Absolutely not. No corruption going on here, nope.” Still watching her, he leans aside to whisper to Scott, “Seriously though, how young is too young to start teaching them about Call of Duty?”
“Why don’t we all wait to make our future life plans until we’ve seen how tonight goes?” Derek steps into the room, handing Stiles his phone as he moves past him. “It should take them about twenty minutes to get here, and we should be waiting for them. Grab what you need and head out.”
“Erica and Boyd aren’t back yet,” Stiles says quietly.
“They’re meeting us at the property line.” Derek glances at Stiles’s jacket. “Are you going to be warm enough?” he asks, and immediately looks like he wants to bite off his own tongue.
“I’ll uh . . . I’ll be good.”
Derek rolls his eyes and mutters, “That’ll be the day.”
“Hey Stiles.” Allison looks like she’s trying not to smirk as she tosses something his way. He catches it on instinct, a little surprised when he realizes that he’s holding a heavy hunting knife in a solid, well-worn leather sheath. “Just in case,” she says, with a quelling look at Derek.
“Thanks.” Stiles hooks the sheathe to his belt and grabs his bat from where it’s leaning against the wall. He hasn’t cleaned it, and the wood is still spotted with flecks of blood. “Well, I’m good to go.” He nudges Derek with the tip of the bat. “After you, o fearless leader.”
“Are you, like, constitutionally incapable of not being obnoxious?” Jackson asks as they all begin to head out the door.
“Sorry, man, but you’re still not gonna make it back on the list.”
“You know, if I were less secure in myself I might be a little bit concerned with this antagonistic flirting thing you two are so committed to,” Lydia comments, breezing by, and the sound of Danny and Allison’s laughter drowns out Stiles’s and Jackson’s sputtering protests.
Scott tosses Stiles the keys to the Jeep—his Jeep, his baby, and it breaks his heart to realize he’d forgotten her along with everything else—and the humans pile in while the wolves take off running.
“You know, the claim that we’re not expecting trouble doesn’t really hold water when we’re also making sure we can manage a quick getaway,” Danny says as he clicks his seatbelt into place. “Just saying.”
“We’re hoping there won’t be trouble,” Allison corrects from the passenger seat. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t expecting it.”
“Ah, just like old times,” Lydia sighs, her voice thick with faux-nostalgia.
“Come on, you know you missed this,” Stiles says, shooting a look at her in the rearview mirror. “At least a little.”
“Missed riding around in your smelly Jeep while I head into almost certain death, for my wardrobe if nothing else?” She sniffs haughtily. “Not likely.”
The four of them keep the snark going all the way out to the property line, an old patterns that Stiles hadn’t even realized he’d missed until he finds himself in the midst of it again. They pile out of the car where the rest of the pack is waiting for them and cluster together, checking and re-checking weapons in between glares from Derek that do absolutely nothing to quell their steady stream of chatter. Boyd and Erica have beat them there, and when Boyd starts asking Lydia about the process she used to develop her mace, Stiles edges towards the front of the group.
“They’re coming?” he asks quietly. Derek has gone still in the way that means he’s listening to something that human ears can’t pick up yet.
“Sounds like two cars.” Derek’s jaw sets as he glances over. “This is a big risk, Stiles. How sure are you about these people?”
“Amanda and Genna? Um. Eighty-five percent?” Stiles runs a hand over his head, still distracted by the way it feels now. “They’re good people, but I’d be lying if I said they couldn’t get a little trigger-happy. The rest of them . . .” He heaves a gusty sigh. “It depends who they brought with them. A situation this fucked-up, I think they’d pick some of the steadier people to back them up, but I’ve gotta be honest, none of the hunters I know could ever really be described as ‘emotionally stable’.”
“Thanks,” Derek grumbles. “That’s very comforting.”
“Yeah, well, you can have comforting or you can have the truth.” Stiles shrugs tightly. “Usually not both, though.”
There’s no more time to debate the issue; even Stiles can hear the cars now, the heavy rumble of SUV engines and the crunch of tires over the uneven dirt road. Everyone clusters tighter together on instinct more than design, back-lit by the Jeep’s headlights as a blaze of light hits them from the front. Scott and Allison both step forward, taking their place at the front of the pack.
When the two huge black vehicles roll to a stop they angle so that no one’s being blinded—a small consideration, maybe, but one that gives Stiles a tiny flare of hope. The less posturing they start out with, the better their odds of keeping things civil.
Amanda is the first to step out, sliding down from the driver’s seat of the lead vehicle and striding forward like she owns every inch of the ground beneath her feet. She stares at each member of their group in turn, sizing them up. She’s dressed for battle, all denim and leather and cotton for ease-of-movement, wild black curls bound back out of her face; but aside from the knife strapped to one leg she appears unarmed, and Stiles lets himself breathe a little easier despite the fact that the hunters filing out behind her apparently came loaded for bear. Genna steps up to Amanda’s right side, two bows strapped to her back, and rolls her eyes when Stiles winks at her.
“You picked an interesting meeting spot,” Amanda remarks with a raised eyebrow. Behind her, Jack is glaring at Stiles like he suspects him of puppy-murder, but the rest of the hunters are casting wary glances at the woods around them. “It seems like we could’ve had a more civil conversation at a—” She cuts off suddenly as she tries to take another step closer, frowning down at her foot where is seems to have frozen in mid-air. For a moment she tries to push through, but eventually she pulls her foot back and fixes Derek with another measuring look. “I see.”
“Stiles’s idea,” Derek says easily; if Stiles weren’t watching for it he might have missed the tension along the line of his shoulders.
“Way to throw me under the bus there, buddy,” Stiles mutters, but he steps forward until he and Amanda are nearly toe-to-toe. Even in her flat, practical boots she’s as tall as he is, and he centers his focus on her eyes, big and dark and hard as steel. “It seemed like a sensible compromise. If anything, it’s weighted more in your favor. Any of the tooth-and-fang contingent want to break the truce we’re working with and attack, they’ve gotta come out from behind this nice, protective barrier. Meanwhile, if you guys decide to start shooting, you can do that from right where you are.” He swallows heavily. “Which, um. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t. But still.”
“Genna told me, but I’ll be honest, Stiles, I was having trouble believing it.” She stares back at him, confusion and disappointment flitting quickly over her face. “You really have switched sides.”
“Returning to my roots, I like to think.” He hears his voice going hard, unable to stop it. “Who I used to be.”
“What are you talking about?” Amanda demands.
“Stiles.” Genna steps forward as well, looking genuinely concerned. “What happened? Your parents were hunters, just like mine were. You told me about them, remember? You’re one of ours; you always have been.” She turns a dangerous glare towards Derek and the others, her voice turning hard. “If you did something to him—”
“They didn’t do anything to me,” Stiles snaps.
“I took you in as a favor to your family.” Amanda eyes Stiles like he’s a bomb wired to go off. “Chris was friends with your parents, and whatever else his faults may have been—”
“You don’t know.” Stiles takes a deep breath. “I think you really don’t.”
“Whatever mental breakdown you’re having, son,” Amanda says in carefully measured tones, “I’d appreciate it if you could hold off until we’re finished with the business we came here for.”
“That’s part of it, though, isn’t it?” Derek finally steps forward as well, positioning himself to Stiles’s left. “What this all really comes down to. Trust,” he clarifies, offering what could easily be mistaken for a friendly smile. “Whether or not you all still trust each other enough to believe you’ve got people’s best interests at heart. Whether or not you trust Stiles when he tells you that we’re not the ones behind the civilian attacks.”
“Is there a particular reason we should at this point?” Amanda counters. “It seems to me we’re dealing with a case of Stockholm Syndrome at best.”
“That would technically only apply if I were being held captive.” Stiles holds up his hands at the look she gives him. “Right. Not the point.”
“Why are we even listening to him?” Jack demands angrily from the edge of the group, his face clearly flushed even in the questionable light. “Whatever the reason, he’s siding with monsters. I say we just—”
He doesn’t have a chance to finish. There’s a sudden movement behind him, a clawed hand wrapping around his throat, and a strangled scream that turns to wet gurgles as he’s yanked backwards into the shadows. Stiles has just enough time to see the horror blooming over Derek’s face, the stunned betrayal in Genna’s.
“Ambush!” Amanda shouts, wide-eyed she grabs the bow that Genna thrusts at her.
And then all hell breaks loose.
They really should’ve put tape down or something. He’ll be sure to mention that to Derek on the off chance that they both survive this.
“It’s Darcy’s pack!” he shouts to anyone who’s listening, darting out of the Jeep’s headlights and behind the shelter of the closest tree as the hunters start shooting at anything they can see.
“No shit, Sherlock!” someone calls back; Stiles’s answering laugh catches sickly in his throat.
The pack has scattered, trying to keep from giving the hunters any easy targets. Derek is yelling for the humans to get in the Jeep and head back to the house. Stiles can see Allison, crouched behind the rear bumper as she yells back that he must be dreaming.
Amanda is barking orders, trying to get the hunters gathered together, but some of them clearly aren’t used to working in an organized group like this; one of the women gets too close to the shadows and screams, high and ugly as a set of claws rake across her thigh. She goes down to one knee and something snags her ankle, yanking her backwards like a scene from their own live-and-in-person horror movie. It’s Amanda who drops her bow, sprinting over to grab the woman’s forearms and brace her weight against the pull of the thing that has her. Genna and Tucker are firing arrows as fast as they can at the shadowy outline where the wolf must be, but half-blinded by the glare of the headlights, hardly any of their shots are hitting home. And everyone else is distracted by what’s happening there, Stiles spots Kaden, shifted and slinking out of the darkness at the rear of the group.
Stiles steps out of his cover, grip tightening on his bat as his muscles tense, preparing for a burst of speed that he knows won’t be enough. Before he can make it more than two steps, however, Derek leaps past him, flinging himself at Kaden and knocking him to the ground.
“Are you actually insane?” Stiles screams, tearing across the road to where the two wolves are fighting, clawing and biting at vulnerable skin. He arrives swinging, clipping Kaden’s temple with the tip of his bat and sending him reeling back into the shadows, snarling as he goes. Stiles turns on Derek then, trying to drag him back the way they came. “They’re not gonna care which team you’re on! You stay out here, both sides are going to be trying to kill you, and eventually one of them’s gonna do it!”
“It’s my fault we’re all out here in the first place,” Derek growls, easily pulling his arm free. The hunters are starting to notice them now, though thankfully they don’t seem to be easy targets at the edge of the light like this. “Letting a rival pack decimate them during what’s supposed to be a peaceful discussion isn’t going to—”
Derek’s mouth drops open, fangs gleaming faintly as he lets out a pained, choking noise. Stiles’s eyes fall to the bloody arrow head that’s punched through his stomach; then Derek is stumbling, pushing him away even as Stiles tries to steady him, and Stiles can’t do anything but watch in horror as another arrow hits his back and sends Derek to his knees.
Genna is already notching a third when Stiles spots her. Her face is hard and furious as she takes aim, and Stiles doesn’t pause, doesn’t think. He drops his bat, leaving Derek behind as he runs straight at her, putting his body squarely between them. From the corner of his eye he can see the others rushing in, as if Derek’s stupid sense of responsibility has opened the floodgates. Boyd and Erica fly past him, already shifted and leaping at Anna, now crouched and snarling in front of Amanda. He can hear Lydia and Danny behind him, trying to calm the rest of the hunters down enough to explain what’s going on—Danny with compelling calm and Lydia through sheer force of personality. Stiles only has eyes for Genna, however, hardly even flinching when she pulls her shot at the last minute and sends it veering just past his head.
“Stop!” He holds up his empty hands. “Stop, Genna, it’s not—”
She doesn’t wait for him to finish. They’ve sparred together so many times that he ought to be able to see it coming, but she’s always been impossibly faster than him. He barely has a chance to blink before she drops her bow, darting a hand out to grab him by the collar of his shirt. His own momentum works against him when she pivots, and the world spins around him as he’s flipped over her shoulder to land hard on his back. She’s over him an instant later, knee pressed hard against his chest where his lungs are already struggling to pull in air again, and her knife is a bright, dizzying flash as she pulls it out to press against his throat.
“You son of a bitch.” She’s staring down at him in terror and betrayal, as if she’s wondering how long he’s been a monster without her realizing it. “We took you in; we kept you safe; we made you family. And this is what you give us in return?”
“Genna, please.” He can feel his heart hammering against the blade at his throat. His own knife feels heavy at his side; his fingers itch to reach for it, but he forces himself to keep still. “I didn’t. I wouldn’t. You know that. Think.”
For a moment—just a moment—her expression wavers. Then it hardens again and the blade presses closer, drawing a trickle of blood that slides slowly down his neck.
“No. We hunt those who hunt us. If—if that’s what you are now . . . if that’s what you’ve become—”
Neither of them see it coming. Something slams into her chest, knocking her aside, and Stiles tries to scramble to his feet. He makes it to his knees and falls back down, lungs burning as he tries to remember how to breathe.
“Stop,” he manages to croak, trying to rise again. “Don’t—”
He can’t focus properly, can’t see who it is that saved him, can’t make his own voice heard. For a moment he’s sixteen again, every moment as agonizing as crawling over broken glass as he drags himself across the floor, too late to save his dad, too late to do anything. By the time the memory clears there’s a dark, blurry figure moving towards him and he reaches out for help, needing to get up, to move, to act.
The hand that wraps around his left arm is small, covered in thick fur and tipped with claws that pierce past the thick fabric of his skin, through his skin and into muscle. Stiles cries out and tries to pull away, but a blaze of pain shoots up his arm as the claws dig in even deeper. He feels himself being dragged away, faster than he would’ve believed possible, his legs flailing uselessly, unable to find enough purchase to haul him up. The noise and light from the road fade quickly; bruises bloom along the back of his body as he’s pulled over the ground, scraping over hidden rocks and fallen branches. Each inch brings a fresh burst of pain in his arm, and his sleeve is slick and wet and sticky with blood.
Stiles can still hear sounds from the road at the edges of his awareness when they stop, and he’s finally yanked to his feet. His teeth rattle when he’s slammed back against a tree, claws scratching at his skin where fingers have wrapped themselves around his throat. The ones in his arm withdraw, and his head goes light with a sickening mixture of pain and relief even as the hand around his throat tightens.
There’s just enough moonlight filtering through the trees, still sparse with new leaves, for Stiles to be able to make out Darcy’s face in front of him. She’s naked, blood spattered over her pale skin as she shifts back to human form. Only her eyes remain unchanged, glowing red above her wide smile as she licks Stiles’s blood off of her fingers with a happy hum.
“I wish we could take our time here.” Darcy looks up at him, batting her eyes in sickly flirtatious mockery. “Sad to say, though, it’s probably good that we can’t. You’re not really the type to fall in line easily, are you Stiles? Not even for someone willing to give you what those sad excuses for alphas couldn’t.” She heaves a regretful sigh. “Guess I’ll just have to kill you after all. I mean, don’t get me wrong; it’s still fun that way, but I do wish I could’ve kept you around longer.”
“One of these days,” Stiles chokes out, “I’m gonna figure out how I keep attracting batshit-crazy alphas. Is it, like, a pheromone thing?” He can’t move his right arm without attracting attention, and the fingers of his left are weak and clumsy as he tries to unsnap his knife. “Maybe if I just started wearing, like, a really strong cologne.”
“Are you actually stalling for time?” Darcy laughs in his face. Her breath stinks of the blood smeared over her lips and chin. “Your friends are all busy fighting each other. They’ll kill each other off, and this territory will be mine. So thanks, sweetheart; I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Your pack’s gonna die, too.” He feels like crying when the securing strap refuses to unsnap, and black spots begin to bloom in his vision. “Don’t you care about that?”
“Why should I?” she asks as casually as if he’d said that he thought the weather looked like rain. “I can always make another one if I need to. It’s not like it would be the first time.”
Surprisingly, that’s what finally spurs Stiles into action. Pack isn’t something to swap out, to discard like a worn-out pair of shoes. The thought that Darcy could genuinely believe that makes him sick, makes him furious, and he lets the anger run through him like fire, lets it give him the strength to rip the knife free and plunge it hilt-deep into her belly.
The hand at his throat loosens, drops away, and Stiles leans heavily against the tree behind him, coughing and gasping as Darcy staggers back. A high, pained whine bursts out of her throat, her shaking hands wrapping around the knife and pulling it loose with a sick squelching sound.
“You,” Stiles rasps, fingers curling into the rough bark at his back, “are a shitty alpha.”
Darcy snarls, her fangs lengthening again as her brow lowers and fur begins to sprout from her skin. Stiles takes a deep breath and fixes his sneer in place, determined to show no fear, because he might be weak and unarmed and about to die, but she doesn’t fucking deserve it.
He doesn’t see what stops her at first, what makes her eyes go wide an instant before the red in them starts to fade. It's not until she stumbles, begins to fall, that the moonlight catches the arrow that’s pierced her throat. She hits the ground, and Stiles looks up to see Genna not a dozen feet away, lowering her bow.
“That—” Stiles cuts off, coughing again as she hurries over, but he manages to give her a shaky thumbs-up. “Great timing. Really. A+, would be saved by you again.”
“Seems likely.” She grabs him by the chin and pulls a mini-flashlight from her pocket, shining it in his eyes despite his attempts to squirm away. “Your pupils are responsive,” she says, stopping her attempts to blind him. “It doesn’t look like you suffered any sort of debilitating brain damage, at least.”
“What about you?” There’s an ugly-looking gash on the side of her head, making the hair at her temple look dark and matted in the moonlight. “Are you okay? Here, lemme shine that thing in your eyes.”
“I’m fine.” She batts his hand away, and it might be the near-asphyxiation talking but Stiles thinks he sees a hint of a smile on her face. “Grab one of her arms; we’ve gotta get her back to the others.”
Now that he’s listening for it, Stiles realizes that the sounds of battle have mostly died down, and his stomach suddenly feels like ice.
“What happened? Are they . . .”
“No. Arm, Stiles.” Genna leans down and he follows her lead, indulging in a vindictive sort of satisfaction as they drag Darcy’s body over the same ground she’d hauled his ass over. “Amanda’s not stupid; she realized what was going on pretty much as soon as you got carried off.” They walk in silence for a moment; it’s slower going dragging a body with only human strength, even with two of them working together. “Sorry for shooting your boyfriend,” she says after a moment, and Stiles nearly loses his grip.
“Derek isn’t my boyfriend,” he says automatically, and shoots her a look. “And no, you’re not.”
“I am.” She shrugs. “Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do it again in similar circumstances. Still, I knew there was another alpha in the area; I probably shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions just because I was . . .” She shrugs again, more tightly this time. “Anyway.”
They stumble out of the underbrush and onto the road, into a scene that Stiles doesn’t quite know how to interpret, something that looks like the strange hybrid child of a confab and a stand-off. Weapons are still out, along with fangs and claws, though most of the wolves have shifted back to mainly human, and Derek and Amanda seem to be conversing more or less civilly. That they’re doing so over the bloody body of the late, recently-turned Anna only registers as mildly disturbing; Stiles is pretty sure that he’ll be more disturbed by that later, when he’s rested enough to process things like a normal human being. Two of the hunters he doesn’t recognize are wrapping another body in a clear plastic tarp—Jack, he’s guessing, as everyone else seems to be accounted for.
Including, Stiles is shocked to note, Bryce. Dazed and spattered in blood, he’s standing in front of a wary-looking Allison as Danny binds his hands behind him.
“Um.” Stiles lets Darcy’s arm drop unceremoniously to the ground as every eye seems to turn to him at once; he lifts his right hand in an uncertain wave. “So, I’m guessing I missed some stuff here.”
“Where the hell did you—oh, shit.” Scott darts over and drags Stiles to the impromptu first-aid station they’ve set up in the open back of one of the SUVs, tugging impatiently at his jacket until he can get a look at his arm. “Are you okay? You disappeared and I didn’t see which way you’d gone, and what the hell happened?”
“It’s okay.” Stiles hisses as Scott peels away the tacky cotton of his overshirt. He looks at the bloody mess of his forearm and swallows down a sudden surge of bile. “Or, you know, it’s better than being dead?” he says, turning away. “So that’s almost the same thing.”
“Is it—” Derek has moved over next to them, his eyes fixed on Stiles’s arm. His voice sounds strained, though that might have more to do with the ragged, bloody holes in his t-shirt, thankfully free of arrows now.
“You really ought to be next.” Stiles wishes he hadn’t sat down, since his body seems to have taken that as the signal for an adrenaline crash of epic proportions. “Actually, you should be first. C’mon, Scott, the guy has holes in his torso, isn’t there any sort of triage system set up here?”
“There is,” Derek says before Scott can so much as look up. “I’m already healing; you’re not; you get medical attention first. Stiles, did she bite you?”
“What? No!” Stiles looks down at his arm, his stomach roiling as he realizes it must look even worse to someone who hadn’t been there to see it happen. “No, these were, uh. Claws. Really sharp, pointy, unpleasant claws, but . . . no teeth. And hey! We got the alpha.” He manages a weak smile as he lifts his free hand in a celebratory fist. “Go team!”
“Yeah, we figured that out when Mr. GQ over there went catatonic,” Scott puts in. “I think she’s been doing that same creepy-ass mindfuck that Peter tried to do to me. Dude, I can clean this up and bandage it, but you’re definitely gonna need stitches.”
“I’m not going to the hospital; there’s no way I could possibly explain how I managed to get punctures in my arm that happen to be spread out in the pattern of a human hand.” He looks up and finds Amanda watching him. “Besides. We still really need to talk.”
“We do.” She steps forward, arms crossed and eyebrows raised. “But maybe somewhere a little more secure this time?”
“There are still, uh. The bodies,” Scott says, almost apologetically. His wince mirrors Stiles’s as he sprays an antiseptic onto the wounds. “Sorry, sorry.”
“The girl is the one who was turned a few days ago.” All four of them look up as Allison walks up, bow lowered but still in her hand, her face as hard as tempered steel. “If her alpha was screwing with her mind, she might not have had much choice in what she did.” She locks eyes with Amanda. “She deserves better than what you’ll do with her body.”
“Maybe.” Amanda narrows her eyes right back, her gaze flicking between Allison and Derek. “You’re willing to take responsibility for it?”
“We can bury her out at the house,” Derek says. “There’s a place. We’ll make sure she gets the rites she should have.” He glances at Darcy’s body, still lying at the edge of the road, his expression torn between contempt and regret. “That one you can take charge of, if it’ll give you peace of mind. There’s a cemetery on the north side of town. Isaac.” He doesn’t bother to raise his voice, but Isaac comes jogging over nonetheless. “Help them find a grave to use if they want. Take Jackson with you.”
“The fact that you have several convenient places to hide bodies isn’t exactly reassuring,” Amanda frowns. “You realize that, right?”
“It’s practical,” Allison puts in. “And I’m sure you have the same back in Boston, so don’t try to pull any holier-than-thou bullshit right now. We’ll take care of business, get our people patched up, and meet again in an hour.”
Amanda casts a significant look at Derek. “I thought you were supposed to be the alpha here.”
“Don’t see any particular need to step in,” he says calmly, crossing his arms with a smirk. “Allison’s doing just fine on her own.”
“All right then.” Amanda lifts an eyebrow, but looks back to Allison. “What do you propose?”
“Smaller groups. I think we can all trust that we’re not out to kill each other now, and this many people is way too many if we expect to accomplish any sort of meaningful discussion. Two from each side, plus Stiles as a go-between, seeing as he’s the only one here who actually gives a shit about both sides.”
“I get to be the mediator.” Stiles pulls his arm back, twisting his wrist to test the bandage. “Awesome. There’s absolutely no reason to expect this not to work.”
Amanda snorts at that. “Well, if you start doubting your ability to be impartial, just remember that our side’s the one that saved your life tonight.” She raises an eyebrow. “One hour. Now where are we—”
“The cafe.” Everyone looks at Scott in surprise, and he stands up. “The Full Moon Cafe, downtown. It makes sense. No one’s gonna want to make any sort of potentially violent scene someplace where the cops might actually get called; besides, the whole idea when we started the place was . . . well . . .” He glances over at Stiles.
“Neutral ground.” It’s so strange to remember it now: all the hours he spent poring over business proposals and lease agreements and plans for the sigils he and Deaton worked into every surface they could manage. Strange to know that he’s been there with no recollection of the thing he poured so much of himself into building. “Which was actually on the short-list when we were naming the place. You know, because of the coffee pun? Well, the wolf pun was just as good.” He glances up at Derek, then back to Amanda. “It was supposed to be symbolic. Werewolves and hunters coexisting, you know. Scott’s right; it makes sense.”
“Plus,” Scott adds. “Snacks.”
“Point,” Stiles agrees.
“Well, now that we’ve settled the truly important question,” Allison says, sending a quelling glare their way, “we should get moving. We’ll see you at the cafe in one hour.”
“We’ll?” Derek asks once Amanda has nodded and walked away to gather her people. He doesn’t sound like he’s arguing, but Stiles recognizes the undertone of authority he’s injecting into his voice and rolls his eyes as Scott helps him up.
“Yeah, no shit Allison’s going. She speaks hunter, and this is still technically her territory.”
“And I’m going to make sure they know that.” Allison’s voice is still hard; there’s regret in her eyes as she very carefully avoids looking at Stiles’s arm, at Derek’s bloody shirt. “I’ve been so angry about what hunting did to my parents—what they let it do to them,” she corrects with an apologetic glance at Stiles, “that I let myself forget that I have responsibilities. The things I know, the things I can do . . .” She takes a deep breath. “The whole reason that hunters exist, the reason they should exist, is to keep people safe; to protect people who might not be able to protect themselves. I might trust your friends to watch out for other humans, Stiles, but I don’t want them anywhere near my family. And I’m going to make sure they get the hell out of my house.”
“You are so hot when you take charge,” Scott grins, and Allison rolls her eyes, but she smiles back.
“Not the point, sweetie.”
“Stiles, do you think you could, like, record the meeting on your phone or something so I can watch it later?”
“Okay, wow, I am so not getting in the midst of whatever kinky dominance games you two want to play. Save it for the bedroom, dude.”
“I’m surprised,” Derek says, and rolls his eyes when they all turn to look at him. “Not about that, no. But Scott, I thought you’d be arguing to be the one going with them.”
“The whole point of working together is that we have different strengths applicable to different situations, right?” Scott shrugs. “Unless you think that you should be the one talking to the fucked up beta in a fragile mental state while I try to negotiate territory rights with hunters predisposed to violence, this seems like a pretty obvious way to go.”
“Dude, did you just use the word applicable?” Stiles blinks at him. “And predisposed?”
“Yeah, Stiles.” Scott makes a face, throwing an arm around his shoulder. “Believe it or not, I didn’t actually revert to a tenth-grade reading level while you were gone.”
“Can’t blame me for being surprised; I’ve obviously always been the brains of this operation. Okay, so let’s get these massive holes in my arm patched up before we have to go to the Annual Beacon Hills Can’t-We-All-Just-Get-Along Summit. You’ve got stuff back at Derek’s place, right? I mean, I assume you do, since you guys haven’t gotten less disposed to getting the crap kicked out of you in the past couple of years.”
“Maybe some food would be a good idea, too,” Derek says, eyeing Stiles cautiously. “Before you completely crash.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Allison reaches into Stiles’s jacket pocket and pulls out his keys. “I’ll drive, okay?”
It’s a little surprising how efficiently they all still work together. Back at the house Lydia oversees the rites while Erica and Boyd bury Anna near the house; on the drive there Stiles had been filled in on the end of the fight, and he can’t help but wonder what happened to Kaden, how many others there might still be out there. They’ve earned a respite but not true peace, and it’s something that they all need to remember. Meanwhile Danny, armed with a taser and a can of Lydia’s wolfsbane mace, escorts a still-dazed Bryce to the holding cells beneath the house; when he comes back up to heat a can of condensed soup for him and Stiles to share, he’s blushing in a way that makes Stiles’s eyebrows shoot all the way up to his hairline.
Scott has set up a desk lamp on the kitchen table for extra light, and Stiles would swear that he holds his breath the entire time he stitches up the holes in Stiles’s arm. Allison tends to Derek as much as he’ll allow; Stiles is pretty sure that he only endures it because it gives him an excuse to hover and keep an eagle eye on what Scott is doing.
In less time than he would’ve believed possible, they’re all cleaned up and looking presentable enough to go out in public without worrying that someone might ask why, exactly, they’re all covered in truly distressing amounts of blood. It’s approximately two-thirty in the morning, and they’re already going to look suspicious as fuck meeting up in the middle of the downtown area. Luckily Stiles remembers enough now to know that this is actually only about two and a half hours before Boyd usually gets there to do the morning baking, and if pressed he’s pretty sure he could manage the necessary bullshit to explain their presence to the cops. Provided, that is, that his dad hasn’t had him declared legally dead when he disappeared; he makes a mental note to look into that.
Stiles is feeling stable enough to insist on driving this time, making sure before they leave to let Scott know in no uncertain terms that he’s expecting his Jeep back, thank you very much. The tension on the ride there is unignorable but not particularly uncomfortable; he doesn’t think that any of them are really expecting this to go poorly, possibly because none of them could imagine things possibly going worse than their first attempt. For the most part, Stiles is focused on trying to keep his eyes on the road and off of Derek. The clothes Stiles was wearing earlier are the very definition of lost cause, and he very intentionally neglected to ask whose sweater Erica found for him to wear. It might very well be his imagination telling him that its smells like Derek, but if it’s not . . . if it’s not, then he’s definitely not in any state of mind to consider the implications.
The fact that he’s definitely wearing one of Derek’s jackets is bad enough.
He parks on the street in front of the cafe; metered parking doesn’t begin until six, which Stiles is praying to god will be enough time, though he comforts himself with the knowledge that if it isn’t, any parking tickets will probably be in Scott’s name. One of the SUVs is parked down the block, on the other side of the street, as inconspicuous as a neon sign. Stiles watches Amanda and Genna climb out as Derek pulls out a set of keys, glancing his way but not saying a word as he unlocks the front door to the cafe. A high, regular beeping starts immediately, and he steps inside to disable the alarm.
“Um.” Allison glances at the approaching women, then back to Stiles. “I’m gonna make some coffee; Derek’s completely useless with the machine. Do you want any?”
“Thanks,” he says with a grateful smile. “I appreciate it.”
She squeezes his shoulder as she steps inside, and Stiles takes a deep breath as he meets Amanda’s eyes. They hold for a beat, two, three as she gets closer; then she steps onto the curb, glances over at Genna, and sighs.
“Be quick,” she tells them. “We have business that takes precedence over whatever heart-to-heart you two are about to have, got it? Five minutes.” She looks back at Stiles and her face softens; it’s not an expression that she often wears, and all the more meaningful for it. “We missed you, kid.”
“Thanks.” It’s all he can manage before his throat catches, so he just nods, and she smiles like she understands.
He thinks she really might.
She heads inside, where a handful of lights are already burning, and Stiles and Genna are left alone on the patio. Her arms are crossed as she studies him, her expression unreadable.
“You’re not coming back, are you?” she asks after a moment. They both know the answer already, but Stiles shakes his head.
“I belong here. And I don’t just mean in a philosophical, home-of-my-heart kind of way. I had a life here, a family; I think maybe even . . .” He shakes his head again. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Try me,” she says tightly. “And do it in, like, three minutes.”
“I can’t. I just—seriously, there’s literally no way I could make you understand before we have to go in there.”
“Is this about—” Genna shakes her head, setting her jaw. “Never mind; it doesn’t matter. It’s not like we ever . . .” She sighs. “I don’t understand.”
“I know. And I want to explain it so that you do, but . . . look, you’ve been my best friend for the past two years of my life. I don’t want to lose that just because I’ve found what I had before. I’ll tell you everything, okay? But it’s kind of a long story.”
A hint of a smile starts to tug at her lips, and she steps forward to bump her shoulder into his. “So buy me lunch tomorrow and tell me about it. I figure you owe me for saving your life tonight, anyway.”
“I swear, the things you’ll do for free food.” He reaches out and loops an arm around her shoulders, steering her towards the door. “Sounds like a plan, though. I know a good place.”
Stiles remembers everything from the time he spent in Boston, everything that happened when he thought that he was someone else. At least, he remembers as much as anyone ever remembers a stretch of time that long; not all the details, maybe—what he had for breakfast back in October, or exactly how many times he tried mastering the Lotus Kick before he finally accepted that it wasn’t going to happen—but the broad strokes. The biggest, most important things.
What he can’t remember is how he managed to make it that long without Lydia Martin having his back.
He might regret that phrasing later, but right now he’s finding it extraordinarily apt.
He’s spent the past three days working his way back into his old life as best he can: the legal work he’s been doing with his dad has been taking up the most time and energy, as he quickly discovered that coming back from the dead is a bit of a complicated process. Luckily it’s been made clear to him that he’s more than welcome to stay at his father’s house until he gets back on his feet, in his old room where hardly a thing has changed since the day he moved out.
Then there have been hours spent at the cafe, relearning all of the million little ins and outs of the business that he once knew by heart. And of course as much time as he can manage with his friends, and with the two eighteen-month-old terrors that he’s already hopelessly in love with. No matter what Allison says, he’s convinced that he’s almost taught Remy to say Uncle Stiles. Kara still isn’t anywhere close, but he suspects that’s just because she wants to make him work for it.
Every spare moment of time in between has been spent going over the notes that Lydia left him; texting her reminders that she and Jackson have promised to move back once she’s finished her Ph.D., and that Bryce can’t stop asking about Danny; getting messages back that she’s going to block his number, followed by pictures of the Beacon Hills real estate listings. Most of all, he’s been endlessly poking and prodding at his memories until he’s reasonably sure that there’s nothing still left waiting to be discovered.
Stiles reached that conclusion approximately an hour ago, and had immediately called Derek to come over. Since then he’s been pacing the floor like a bad cliche, and when the doorbell rings he nearly trips over the living room rug in his rush to answer it. He ends up hip-checking an end table and stumbles, cursing under his breath, to the entryway.
Derek’s expression, when Stiles finally manages to open the door, reveals absolutely nothing at all. If he knows why Stiles asked him here he’s not letting on, and Stiles feels his certainty falter before he ruthlessly shores it back up. He steps aside, nodding in wordless invitation; opens his mouth, closes it again, and grabs at his head in frustration when Derek isn’t looking.
“So. Thanks for coming. Over. Thanks for coming over. Y’know.” Stiles gestures expansively. “Here.”
Derek just raises an eyebrow, regarding Stiles like he’s moments away from speaking in tongues. “You said you needed my help with something.”
“I do.” Stiles takes a deep breath. “Do you want a drink or something?”
“No,” Derek says slowly. “What I’d like is for you to tell me what I’m doing here.”
“You mean besides making me question my own problem-solving abilities?” Stiles mutters. It looks for a moment like Derek is going to comment on that, or possibly lose his patience and just leave, and Stiles finds himself blurting out, “There are still some things I don’t remember.” He takes in the surprise on Derek’s face and sighs. “Okay, see, there was supposed to be, like, a build-up there. But yeah, basically . . . there’s still . . . stuff.”
Derek takes a small, cautious step forward, and that one movement has fresh hope blooming in Stiles’s chest.
“Have you talked to Deaton about it? You already broke through ever part of the brand; you should be remembering everything.” Derek looks worried, but that’s not all. He looks, Stiles thinks, just a little bit like he might be afraid to hope, too.
“The last of the branches, yeah. But—see, look.” Stiles darts back, into the living room where the file that Boyd gave him is scattered over the coffee table, interspersed with Lydia’s notes. He picks up a stapled sheaf of papers and turns to find Derek right behind him and Stiles’s heart thumps hard against his ribs. “This, right here.” He flips to the picture of his tattoo, tapping a finger against the complicated, twisting design at the center of the stylized trunk. “Lydia thinks that’s where it started—that’s the one that all the others grew from. Which makes sense, you know, since she thinks it means . . .”
Derek hardly bothers to glance at the picture Stiles is still holding out. He’s staring at Stiles like he’s trying to see into him, into whatever precious few secrets he has left.
Stiles clears his throat. “‘Center’. It was . . .” He takes an unsteady breath. “That’s the closest she could come; she said it looks like some sort of weird hybrid symbol or something. But the thing is—see, I need you to try not to be a jerk, and let me down easy if I’m wrong—but I’m pretty sure that the thing I haven’t remembered yet is you.”
“No, okay, listen. All right? I need you to listen. There are these holes, like . . . I know we own the cafe together, I’ve seen the paperwork, but I don’t remember that. I don’t remember a single thing about starting my own freaking business. Or my apartment when I moved out of this house; my graduation from college; god, meeting Darcy before—she said I had, that I’d fought against her pack, and I don’t remember it. And there are a hundred other little things, memories where everything else is all filled in around the edges, but almost the entire year before I was taken is just blank.
“I remember . . .” He lets his eyes fall closed as he forces the words out. “I remember how I felt about you. Wanting you. Being stupidly, hopelessly in love with you even when it seemed like you could hardly stand me. I mean, it’s not like I wasn’t used to pining over someone I’d never have a shot with, but . . .” Stiles forces his eyes open again, and forces them to meet Derek’s, still watching him steadily. “Did I? It feels like I did. You feel like mine, so I need—I really need you to tell me if that’s not true, okay, so I can just get to work digging straight through to the center of the earth, because—”
“Stiles.” Derek is trying not to smile; Stiles knows it as sure as he knows his own name—which, for the record, is a memory he could’ve done without getting back. “Turn around.”
His breath catches in his throat as he complies, already reaching down to grasp the hem of his shirt, slowly pulling it up towards his ribs. Derek doesn’t wait to slide his hand underneath, palm pressed firmly along the line of Stiles’s spine as his fingers splay out, unmistakably possessive. With one fingertip he follows the lines of the tattoo, tracing the loops and swirls until goosebumps spread beneath his hand. It’s only then that Stiles feels the first scrape of claws against his skin, and he focuses hard on the warmth of Derek’s skin and the comfort of his touch as his heart begins to lurch in remembered fear.
“Deep breath,” Derek says quietly. “I won’t hurt you,” he adds, and Stiles has to laugh.
“All change hurts. Also, you’re about to slice into my back. Just do it.”
It’s quick, and nearly painless, but vicious for all of that. Stiles’s hands tremble as a shudder wracks its way through him—like the aftermath of orgasm without the pleasure that goes along with it. He drops his shirt, belatedly realizing that Derek has already pulled his hand away, and shifts his shoulders. His skin itches, a persistent irritation that grows more and more intense with every passing moment. He’s on the verge of asking Derek to scratch his back for him, ha-ha, already did that, good joke, when the itching abruptly stops, replaced by a strange ticklish feeling against his skin. Stiles hears Derek catch his breath behind him, and glances over his shoulder.
Stiles starts to turn, slightly unsteady on his feet. He has to pause to regain his balance, and as he glances down he sees it: a drift of black against the thick pile of the carpet, like someone has been scattering ashes.
With a still-trembling hand he reaches back, beneath his shirt, and feels something gritty against his skin. His fingers are smudged with black when he pulls them out again; he stares, unable to look away as his head begins to spin.
“I’m . . .” He can’t turn around, can’t deal with even the thought of meeting Derek’s eyes right now. “I’m okay.” He is; a little dizzy, but nothing like last time. “I’ll be fine.”
There’s a warm, broad hand against his shoulder for just a moment. “You need to lie down,” Derek says, “before you fall down. We’ll talk when you’re ready.”
Stiles’s body seems to be growing somehow distant, removed, and he realizes that he’s not quite as unaffected as he’d thought. He thinks that maybe Derek is still there, holding him up, keeping him steady; he feels warm, and safe, and he lets his eyes drift closed as he falls. Into sleep, into dreams; into memory; into—
“It’s not even the full moon; why is something showing up now?” Derek might be downstairs, but Stiles knows he can still hear him, and he sees no reason for the fact that they’re on different floors to stop him from complaining. “You said this was an instinct thing. If they can’t control themselves two days before the new moon, we’re gonna have to send them all back to obedience school.”
“I think this one is from Jackson.” Derek must be on his way up; yes, there are his footsteps on the stairs, a little heavier than usual, and Stiles sits up in sudden alarm.
“Are you bringing it up here?” he squawks.
“You won’t come down to see them anymore.”
There’s laughter in Derek’s voice, the asshole, which is completely unfair; it’s still a rare enough sound that just hearing it makes Stiles want to laugh in return. Laughter is not an appropriate response to bloody dead things in their bedroom.
“One mangled raccoon was more than enough, thanks. I mean, the look on Isaac’s face for the next couple of weeks was pretty great, but—no, I don’t wanna see—!” Derek’s definitely laughing now as he steps back into the room, and Stiles lowers his arms, deflating with a mixture of relief and annoyance. “Oh my god, you are an asshole.”
“Hey, you don’t have to eat any if you don’t want to.” He sets the giant wicker basket on the dresser and pokes through the fruit until he finds a pear. Derek doesn’t even like pears.
“I hate you. Take your pants off and get back over here.”
Derek laughs again, moving over to sit on the edge of the bed. He doesn’t make a move to pull off the fleecey grey pajama bottoms he pulled on when he went to answer the door, but that’s okay; Stiles is sure he can talk him out of them in another minute or two. In the meantime he leans in to slide his hand over Derek’s bare shoulders, and when Derek holds the pear to his lips he doesn’t hesitate to take a bite. It’s ripe and sweet; juice spills over his lips and onto his chin, and personal preferences be damned, that’s apparently more than Derek can handle. He moves in to lick Stiles’s skin clean, and they both get distracted for several long minutes, trading sticky sweet kisses.
“You are so weird,” Stiles finally manages to murmur against his lips, kissing him one more time before he leans back again to suck at the juice that’s pooling in the crater his teeth have left in the pear’s soft white flesh.
“Says the guy performing oral sex on a piece of fruit.”
Stiles snorts out a laugh and takes another bite. “You say you don’t like these,” he says, waving the pear in Derek’s face, “but you didn’t have any problem with hoovering the juice off of my tongue just now. I think you’re full of shit and you like the taste just fine.”
“I like the way you taste,” Derek says lowly.
“Oh, really?” Stiles lets out a groaning laugh. “You did not just try to seriously use that line. You are so lucky I already want in your pants. And I notice you’re not exactly denying my hypothesis, either. C’mon, take a bite.” He shoves the fruit at him again, snickering when Derek jerks back. “It’s good for you! You wanna be a big strong alpha wolf, don’t you?” Stiles grabs Derek by the wrist and tugs, cackling and climbing on top when Derek lets himself be manhandled onto his back.
“Cut it out.” The growl is less than convincing considering the smile that Derek can’t quite hide.
“One bite,” Stiles coos. “You don’t eat enough fruit, you’re gonna get scurvy.”
“Citrus fights scurvy. Pears are pome fruit.”
“Look who’s suddenly a botanist. Fine, though, I’m pretty sure there are oranges in that basket, too, we’ll do one of those next. C’mon, eat! This is your freaky werewolf tribute, too, you know! I mean, it’s no deer carcass, but still.”
“It’s not, though.” Derek’s face has gone serious. He runs his hands over Stiles’s bare thighs, making him shiver. “Mine. This is about you. It’s the pack acknowledging you as . . .”
“As what?” Stiles grins. “C’mon, you can say it.”
“Oh come on! Say it, or take a bite of this delicious fruit, but one or the other, you’ve—” Stiles rolls his eyes as Derek leans up and takes a bite, chewing sullenly. “You know, you’re lucky I’m secure in myself and our relationship, or you’d be giving me serious issues here.”
“It sounds . . .” Derek swallows and sighs, rolling his eyes. Rolling his whole head, actually, in the way that Stiles probably shouldn’t find adorable, because it generally means that he’s either really exasperated or extremely embarrassed. Or both. “It sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud.”
“Okay, first of all, you’re talking to the reigning king of ridiculous. Really not something that should hold you back. Second, dude, we live together; we own a business together; you’ve plighted your werewolfy troth to me; we’re about as close to being married as you can get without the actual ceremony.” Stiles goes still for a moment before he reaches out to toss the rest of the pear into the trash can next to the bed. “Not that . . . I mean, I’m not trying to say that we should . . . okay, this is probably not a conversation to have when I’m, like, straddling you.”
Derek rolls his eyes again and pulls him down, one hand wrapped around the back of Stiles’s neck as he kisses him long and deep.
“It’s maybe something we could talk about,” he finally says, moving his mouth to Stiles’s jaw to nip at the delicate skin there.
“It—wait, really?” Stiles tries to lean up, but with Derek’s arms wrapped around him he doesn’t accomplish much more than a suggestive wiggle. Which, hey, that works too. “Are you serious? Derek. Derek, stop biting me and tell me if you’re bullshitting me right now.”
The sigh that Derek heaves out slides over Stiles’s damp skin and makes him shiver. “I’m serious. We can talk about it. Later.”
“Sure. Later.” Stiles hides his smile in the curve of Derek’s neck, and it only grows when Derek’s arms tighten around him. “We’ve got plenty of time.”
It’s a difficult thing, waking up again. He slides his hand beneath the pillow, reaching instinctively for . . . he doesn’t quite know what. It hardly seems important at first; he’s warm and comfortable where he is, wrapped in blankets and memories and unwilling to emerge. But the certainty that something’s missing nags at the back of his mind, pricking insistently at his thoughts. And still there’s nothing for his questing fingers to find, nothing—
Stiles jerks upright, flailing against covers that suddenly seem constricting. He can’t remember the last time he fell asleep without a weapon close at hand, ready in case of emergencies. His head gives a slow, dull throb as he tosses the pillow aside and finds nothing but bare sheets beneath it.
He jerks, twisting around and tangling his legs more firmly in the blankets as he searches for the source of the voice. There’s a soft creak from almost directly ahead; Stiles squints into the darkness, trying to force his eyes to adjust, and finally he manages to make out a vague shape, limned in light from the window.
Derek. Derek, sitting in the desk chair in Stiles’s old bedroom. Stiles can make out other familiar shapes now: the bookcase standing against one wall; his dresser, the top covered with a scattering of junk that his college-senior self had for some reason seen as indispensable; his baseball bat leaning against the nightstand.
“Seriously,” he groans, burying his face in his hands, “what is up with you carrying me up to bed? And not even putting out, which is just common courtesy at this point.”
There’s a soft snort from across the room, and the sound of his desk lamp clicking on. Stiles is glad he still has his eyes covered.
“Sorry,” Derek says dryly. “I’ve never really been into somnophilia.”
“Look at you, with your impressive vocabulary,” Stiles teases. “You did always like it better when I was awake enough to be loud about it, though.”
His breath catches, and he lifts his head slowly, still wary of the light. Derek is watching him through carefully guarded eyes, and for a moment Stiles’s vision seems to double, triple, images stacked one over the other until he loses count. Derek years younger, his face rounder and smoother and angrier all at once; letting out a laugh, deep and genuine, that surprises him as much as Stiles; panicked and desperate as he presses blood-drenched hands hard against Stiles’s side and shouts for help; staring up at him in frustration and apology, with all the words he’d never been able to say plastered clear as day across his face, waiting for Stiles to read them.
“We were going to talk,” Stiles says.
He can’t say for sure who he’s talking to: the Derek with the taste of Stiles and pears fresh on his lips, or the one sitting in his rickety roller chair with an expression he can’t read. Doesn’t matter, really, since the one that’s here and now is the one that answers; Stiles wonders if he’s the only one left.
“We were. We will.” Derek stands, eyes darting to the door. “When you’re feeling more . . . settled.”
“Wait.” Stiles tries to stand only to find himself caught in the web of blankets woven around his legs. He starts kicking at them, cursing under his breath. “You’re seriously just going to leave? After you stuck around for—” The clock by his bed has come unplugged, the display dark and unhelpful, but there’s nothing but the faint orange glow of a streetlight coming in from outside. “Hours, at least.”
“I didn’t want to leave you alone.” Derek grabs his jacket off of the back of the chair but doesn’t pull it on, gripping the leather indecisively. “I called Dr. Deaton after the first few hours, and he said you should be fine, but to keep an eye on your breathing and your heart rate until you woke up.” He studies Stiles’s face. “You’ll be all right. Come find me when you—if you want to talk.”
“Okay, no.” Stiles finally manages to free himself and clambers to his feet, darting between Derek and the door. “I want to talk now.”
Derek shakes his head, looking as if he’s fighting the urge to step back, to retreat. “We should wait,” he insists. “Until you’ve remembered everything.”
“Bullshit. I remember enough. I—” He crosses his arms over his chest, wishing for an absurd moment that he wasn’t barefoot. How is he supposed to take an authoritative stance if he isn’t even wearing shoes? “I don’t get you. You started a war for me, Derek—which, by the way: overkill, okay? I mean it, we’re gonna have a serious conversation about that. But then it’s over, I’m home, and you just—it’s not like I’ve been in hiding the past few days, but it seems like you have been. Like you’ve been avoiding me, or . . .” Stiles tightens his arms around himself. “I can’t undo the past two years,” he says quietly. “And I know I’m not the same as I was before, not completely—”
“No.” Derek’s voice is a ragged croak. “Damn it, no, it’s not—how could you even think—”
“You’re not giving me much other choice! What the hell am I supposed to think when the guy who was willing to tear apart the world for me suddenly can’t even be bothered to show his face?”
“How could I? I thought you’d realized—” Derek paces away with a short, bitter laugh. “God. I spent two years wishing for another chance to talk to you, and now you’re here and it turns out I’m every bit as fucked up as I ever was.”
“Just . . . I missed you.” Stiles swallows heavily as Derek turns to face him again. It takes everything he has to lower his arms, to drop his defensive stance as he edges forward. “It’s completely unfair that I missed you when I didn’t even remember you, but hey, unfair is pretty much the story of my life.”
Derek’s chest rises and falls in a deep, unsteady breath. He reaches out like he’s afraid that Stiles will pull away, slow and careful until his hand slides around the side of Stiles’s neck, thumb brushing the edge of his jaw.
“You made me better,” he manages after a moment, “in so many ways. And when you were gone, I just . . .” His jaw works as the words struggle to make their way out. “I was lost. I got so lost.”
“Found now.” Stiles reaches up to cover Derek’s hand with his, pressing into the touch. “Both of us. And don’t think that I don’t want to have the whole heartfelt reunion scene, but god, Derek,” he says, not even caring when his voice breaks. “I really need you to kiss me right now.”
Cheesy and cliche as it may be, Stiles thinks hazily, he hasn’t really felt as if he’s home until he has Derek’s mouth on his, until he feels the press of his lips and the warmth of his breath. The taste of him is a revelation, a drug; he hadn’t realized how deep his withdrawal ran until he has Derek’s lower lip between his teeth, tongue darting out to soothe the sting.
“I was afraid you didn’t know.” Derek has an arm around his waist, holding him close, as if he can’t shake the fear that someone will try to steal him away again. “When they said you died, I thought you might have been . . . doubting. Me. Us. I never told you . . .”
“God, you idiot. You idiot.” Stiles buries both hands in Derek’s hair, kissing him so deeply that for one dizzying moment he thinks that me might actually lose himself. “I always knew.”
He can’t stop touching Derek, can’t even bear the thought of it. Can’t bear to think at all. His hands slip under Derek’s shirt, caught between tight, soft cotton and hot skin. They follow ridges of muscle, trace over the bumps of his spine, relearning his body by touch. Derek’s hands are hardly idle, sliding over Stiles’s skin in turn, over new scars and old and reading his responses like a map of some half-remembered country. And all the time they’re kissing each other like they’re the last source of oxygen left in the world, as if they might truly die if Derek has to stop discovering the taste of Stiles’s lips, if Stiles has to stop dragging his tongue across the line of Derek’s teeth.
When Derek pushes him back onto the bed Stiles takes them both down together, unwilling to release the grip he has on Derek’s ass. He laughs, sinking his teeth into Derek’s throat as Derek groans, pushing and tugging at Stiles’s shirt with trembling hands until Stiles leans back enough to let him pull it off. Derek doesn’t waste any time getting his own shirt off after that, and the warmth of skin against skin hits Stiles like a hammer, knocking the breath out of him.
“God.” Derek buries his face in the crook of Stiles’s neck, stubble scraping against the tender skin of his throat, and Stiles is hard, so hard, shoving his hips against Derek’s in a desperate search for friction. “You smell . . .” He breaks off on a muffled growl, fixing his mouth over the pulse pounding beneath his lips and biting down, sucking until there’s no doubt of the mark he’ll be leaving behind. “Like you again. You have no idea what it does to me.”
“I can’t—fuck. Derek, it’s been two years of nothing but my own fucking hand, I can’t—please—”
The words have the desired effect, and he’s laughing, out of breath as he helps Derek get the rest of their clothes off as quickly as possible. He reaches for the drawer in the nightstand and the lube he hopes to god is still there; when he comes up victorious Derek snatches the bottle out of his hand, shoving him back down with one hand splayed out over the center of his chest. Seconds later his mouth is moving in a hot, wet trail down Stiles’s body.
“This really isn’t going to last very long.” Derek drops a quick, biting kiss to Stiles’s inner thigh. “I promise I’ll make it up to you later.”
Then his mouth is wrapped around Stiles’s cock, sucking hard and messy, groaning shamelessly as he starts to move his head. Stiles can hardly breathe, dropping his head back as pleasure overwhelms him and immediately leaning up again to watch, unable to keep his eyes away from the sight of Derek pulling him deeper with every bob of his head. The stubble on his chin scrapes lightly against Stiles’s balls, the delicate skin at the top of his thighs, burning in the most delicious way. Derek’s cheeks are hollowed out, his eyes closed in blissful concentration and god, Stiles had forgotten how much Derek loves this, loves the taste and scent of him there where it’s strongest.
When the first slick finger presses into his body, he knows Derek was right; this really isn’t going to last long at all. Stiles doesn’t bother trying to fight it, just gives himself over, lying back again to focus on the feeling of Derek surrounding him and filling him, thrusting inside and pulling him in. He draws his right leg towards his chest to give him better access, and Derek’s rumble of approval vibrates through him until he’s shuddering at the sensation. Derek’s arm draped over his hips is the only thing keeping him from thrusting up into that welcoming heat, down onto the fingers spreading him open, two or three now, Stiles doesn’t know and doesn’t care. He’s trembling on the edge, his hands carding through Derek’s hair, fingers digging into his shoulders. His mouth is hanging open, gone dry with his panting, gasping breaths, throat raw from the sounds he can’t begin to hold back.
It’s agony and relief together when he finally comes, emptying himself into Derek’s mouth with a burst of pleasure so deep it edges around to pain. It empties him out, leaves him wrecked and loose when Derek moves back up his body, kissing him deep and frantic as he settles between Stiles’s thighs. With the last of his strength Stiles drapes his leg around Derek’s waist; it’s all the encouragement he has the energy to give, and thankfully all Derek seems to need. He pushes inside, making a place for himself in Stiles’s body, slick and stretched and relaxed around him. He manages less than a dozen thrusts, spurred on by Stiles’s enthusiastic murmurs as he mouths at Derek’s neck, and when Derek comes Stiles feels it like an aftershock to his own system.
He’s missed the weight of Derek’s body over him, the heat of him that has sweat beading on Stiles’s skin as he lies there with Derek going slowly soft inside of him. It feels too soon when Derek rolls aside, but Stiles is still too exhausted to mount a proper protest. He reaches out instead, finding Derek’s hand on the mattress beside him and threading their fingers together; when Derek squeezes his hand it feels like gratitude. Like a promise.
“So.” Stiles’s voice sounds as wrecked as he feels, and it makes him smile. “Good talk.”
Derek sighs, unable to hide a smile of his own when he turns his head to find Stiles grinning back at him.
“You are completely impossible.”
“Eh. Improbable, maybe. Unlikely, sure, but here I am.” He swallows back a surge of emotion and heaves a windy sigh. “I sort of can’t believe this is the first time we’ve had sex in this bed. It’s not, right? I just haven’t remembered it yet?”
Derek snorts. “Believe it or not, fucking you thirty feet away from your father’s bedroom has never actually been a fantasy of mine.”
“Liar. Hideously terrible liar, oh my god,” Stiles laughs. “You totally thought about banging me here; there’s no way you didn’t, all the times you played creeperwolf in my bedroom.”
“I’d rather have you back in our bed. The sheets haven’t smelled like you since—” Derek falls silent, his mouth snapping closed.
“Our bed,” Stiles echoes, his breath catching in his throat. It’s exhilarating and terrifying all at once. “I guess . . . I hadn’t really . . .”
“It’s a lot.” Derek takes a deep breath, nodding. “We don’t have to—”
Stiles leans over, cutting him off with a kiss. Derek’s free arm wraps around him, pulling in close, and Stiles smiles against his lips.
“We can talk about it,” he murmurs, and Derek pulls back just enough to search his eyes.
“Yeah.” Stiles kisses him again, lingering a little longer this time. “Later.”
Derek’s laugh is sharp and surprised, and he pushes Stiles onto his back again, leaning over to kiss him breathless. “But not too much later,” he cautions.
“Of course not.” Stiles darts up, pressing a quick, teasing kiss to the underside of Derek’s jaw. “Wouldn’t want to tempt fate.”
They’ll put it off, he knows. Words have never been something that they’re good at together; not when they really matter. But words or no, this is Stiles’s now: this town, this life, this smile spreading over his lover’s face. He lost it once, reclaimed it through death and war and pain, and he has no intention of giving it up again without a brutal, bloody fight.
So let the worst come if it will.
Stiles isn’t going anywhere.
OH MY GOD IT'S DONE, IT'S POSTED, YOU HAVE NO IDEA. ;___; This story has been my baby for so many months, and it means so much to finally be able to share it. I hope you enjoyed reading it even half as much as I enjoyed writing it.
As always, please feel free to follow me on Tumblr, where you can find me at hungrylikethewolfie. Come and enjoy random fandom shenanigans! And THANK YOU ALL FOR READING!