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Penny and Dime

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The bodies are already gone by the time Stiles is standing in the kitchen, but the stark outlines on the linoleum where they used to be tell a pretty gruesome story about how bad it had been. The stains where blood pooled, ran and spattered tell the rest of the story – and it’s not a good one.

Six bodies – or that was what the police were estimating. None of them had actually been in one piece.

The air still smells of blood, fear, and wolfsbane. There is one bullet hole in the wall, and only one. Somehow, despite the six hunters here, only one of them had managed to fire a shot before all of them had been torn apart.

Stiles stands in the middle of the room, eyes wide, because he’d known it was bad, but hearing about the carnage hadn’t really prepared him for this.

“This is an Argent stronghold,” he says. “Reinforced with Mountain Ash. How could wolves have gotten inside?”

Erica winces. “There was a guard outside,” she said. “Sworn to the Argents. He died first, and his, uh, body – pieces of his body – were thrown through the ash line, breaking it.”

“And they only fired once,” Stiles says quietly, taking pictures of the whole scene with his phone.

Erica clears her throat. “I’m off shift in five minutes,” she says. “You’ve got to be gone by then. Your dad said I wasn’t supposed to let you in at all.”

Stiles hums in acknowledgement. He can see why his dad wanted him off this case – something like this, six hunters, brutally murdered, by a gang of feral wolves. It’s different than Stiles’ usual investigations.

As a private investigator, business is usually decent, especially for a PI who’s sympathetic to the werewolves, with connections to the police force, even if those connections are reluctant. But the sheriff is willing to turn a blind eye to Stiles sneaking access to crime scenes (though Erica’s the only cop on the force willing to give him a few minutes when he needs them, and that’s because they grew up together and she knows that sometimes, the law can’t quite manage the justice that a private firm can. Especially for werewolves).

But no one has actually hired Stiles to look into this particular case. It’s pure professional curiosity on his part. Rogue armies of wolves taking out one of the strongest hunter factions – it made him itch with the need to know more, to help.

“Try to stay out of this one,” Erica says, as she locks the door behind them. “It’s too dangerous. Your dad would kill me if anything happened to you.”

Stiles grins. “Nothing’s gonna happen to me, not with you watching my back.”

He can see Boyd waiting in the patrol car, face carefully angled away, so he can pretend he doesn’t see Erica technically breaking the law. Stiles isn’t too worried about Boyd turning them in – Boyd would do just about anything for Erica, though she doesn’t know it.

She’ll figure it out one day. Until that day, Boyd was willing to wait patiently, and so was Stiles, because he was totally going to be Best Man at that wedding.

“Stay safe,” she says, and there’s tension around her eyes and her mouth that he doesn’t usually see. “There’s something off about this one.”

She looks frightened.

Stiles pats her arm. “I’ll be careful,” he says. “Promise.”

She sighs like she doesn’t believe him.

*

Mrs. Cook downstairs isn’t actually a werewolf the way most of Stiles’ clients are, but she’s willing to pay him in pumpkin pie, and Stiles doesn’t actually have that much in the way of paid work right now, so he’d taken the case.

It’s a missing dog case, which should hurt his pride a little, but dogs are awesome, so he’s willing to lower his standards and spend a few days printing up missing posters and hanging them in the neighbourhood, as well as calling in a few favours with the bylaw officers working the area.

Besides, if Stiles hadn’t taken the case, Scott probably would have killed him. He takes the health and welfare of animals in Beacon Hills pretty seriously, seeing as he’s the best vet in town. He also happens to be a werewolf, among other things, which is why Stiles calls him after three days of fruitless searching for Samson.

“I can’t find Mrs. Cook’s dog,” he says.

Scott snorts. “You hate Mrs. Cook’s dog. That’s the terrier, right? The one that barks its head off all night?”

“Well, yeah, Samson drives me nuts, but no one deserves to lose their dog, Scott. He’s all she has in the world, Scott. You of all people –”

He’s laughing now. “What’s that supposed to mean? Me of all people. Because I’m a vet, or a werewolf, or—”

“Or a masked vigilante prowling the rooftops at night risking life and limb to protect the good citizens of Beacon Hills from criminal activity, poverty and loneliness.”

There’s a beat of silence. The fact that Stiles knows about Scott’s side job as the True Alpha, the shadowy, mysterious superhero using his werewolf powers to fight the good fight, is still a bit of a bone of contention between them. Scott had tried to keep it a secret, but he ought to have learned long ago that he couldn’t keep secrets from Stiles. Even before Stiles had learned how to be a super sleuth, he’d been Scott’s best friend. Scott couldn’t lie to him, no matter how many super powers he developed.

Scott sighs. “I fight crime,” he says finally. “I don’t find missing dogs. I mean, I feel for her, really, I do, but I’m really caught up right now, with that attack the other night. I’ve never seen anything like it, Stiles – those Hunters were slaughtered. The police are freaking out, the Hunters are furious, and you know what happens when they get scared and angry. They get trigger happy. If we don’t find out who did that and take care of them quickly, we could have a civil war on our hands. No wolves would be safe.”

“Judging by the carnage, I’d say it’s the hunters who have more to worry about,” Stiles says, without thinking.

Scott growls. “You didn’t go to the crime scene,” he says. “Tell me you didn’t.”

“Well. I might have? A little?”

“Stiles! You can’t get involved in this! It’s too dangerous! It’s one thing, letting you investigate break and enters, or assaults, or stalking, or things like that. This is an army of feral werewolves attacking humans. In case you forgot, you’re human!”

Let me?” Stiles asks, stung. He knows that technically, as a private investigator, he’s not law enforcement, and he’s definitely not a super hero, but he’s helping in his own way. He’d wanted to become a police officer, but he’d grown frustrated with how the law they served actually tied their hands in so many ways, particularly when it came to protecting the werewolf population.

Legally, yeah, wolves and humans were meant to be equal. But if that was true, why were there separate enforcers – hunters – for wolves? Why were there separate laws for wolves? Why were executions still allowed for wolves, when they’d been abolished for humans?

So Stiles had gone a different route, one which left him freer to search for justice for wolves the law didn’t deem worthy to defend.

And he didn’t need anyone’s damned permission to do it.

“That’s not what I meant,” Scott says. “I know you’re trying to help. But it’s best if you leave this one to us, Stiles. To me, and the hunters, and your father.”

“To the professionals,” Stiles says sharply.

“To those capable of defending ourselves. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I can take care of myself,” Stiles snaps. “I have to go.”

Scott is still talking, still trying to convince him that he’s got Stiles’ best interests at heart, when Stiles hangs up.

Three hours later, he finds Samson carefully leashed to the railing of his balcony, cleaned up and healthy with a bowl of water and a dish of food. There’s a note there too, in Scott’s handwriting, which says, Found him terrified and hiding in a gutter just off 97th Ave. Sorry. –TA.

True Alpha.

It’s a stupid name for a super hero.

*

Stiles is at the police station, waiting for his dad with a bag of veggie burgers for a late dinner, when the girl comes in.

She’s bloody, her clothes are torn, but her eyes are bright and blazing with fury. She’s pale, but judging by the way she’s pacing the bullpen like a caged tiger, Stiles is willing to bet most (if not all) of the blood isn’t hers.

“The sheriff will be in to talk to you in a few minutes, Miss Argent,” one of the deputies says politely. He’s edging closer to her, looking wary. “If you’ll just have a seat, we’ll get you some coffee, or some water, or – is there someone we should call?”

She turns on him like a cornered animal. “Someone you should call?” she hisses. “My grandfather was just murdered in front of me – torn in half. My mother’s dead. Who else is there to call?”

“Your father?” the deputy asks carefully.

The girl goes really still, her eyes shining now, with tears instead of anger. She blinks them away quickly and turns her head. “No,” she says. “He’s not here. Thankfully. Or he’d probably be gone too.”

She slumps into a chair along the wall, and after a moment, the deputy backs off. Everyone else is whispering, avoiding looking at her, and from his position in his dad’s office, Stiles can only see her legs, knees bent, jeans torn up, fingers picking restlessly at the threads where the fabric’s torn.

He does hesitate, but only for a moment. And then he’s filling up a Styrofoam cup with shitty coffee and ducking around the vending machine where she’s sitting, holding it out to her.

She stares up at him blankly, as if she doesn’t see him at all. She’s young, he realizes suddenly. Her face is all sharp angles and points, but under the blood splattered on her jawline and her cheek, he recognizes her.

“You’re Allison,” he says. “Allison Argent.”

She blinks and doesn’t say anything, reaching for the coffee with a bloodied hand.

“Uh, there’s a bathroom, through there, if you want to wash the blood off,” he says. She takes the coffee without comment, leaving bloody fingerprints on the white Styrofoam.

He sits beside her after a moment, and says, “We went to school together.”

She sips the coffee and stares at him, and after a long moment, says, “Stiles. The sheriff’s son.”

He nods, rubbing at the back of his head. “Yeah. Are you hurt?”

Her eyes go hard again. “None of the blood’s mine. A lot of it is his, actually. But most of it’s my grandfather’s.”

Stiles looks around, but no one’s really close enough to hear. They’re all keeping a wary distance from Allison, and his dad hasn’t shown up yet.

“His?” he echoes.

“The alpha werewolf who just slaughtered eight of our hunters to get to my grandfather and then tore him in half,” she says, cold.

Stiles shakes his head. “You mean the army of wolves. The pack.”

She looks at him, grim, furious. “No,” she says, voice measured and even. “There’s just one.”

Stiles’ eyes are wide. He doesn’t know what that means, if that’s even possible, for one wolf to take down that many hunters, but if it is… It’s a terrifying prospect. “Why is he after your family?” he asks, leaning closer. “How did you escape?”

She swallows, looking a little shaken, though her hands clench into fists. “I was afraid,” she admits, matter-of-fact, like the idea of an Argent hunter being afraid isn’t as earth-shattering as the idea of a lone wolf taking out two sects of Argent hunters alone. “It was chaos. There was so much blood, and he was focussed on getting to my grandfather. He had…” she swallows. “Questions. About my aunt. But it doesn’t matter. I won’t be frightened next time.”

“He spoke? What did he say? Who was it? What did he want?” he asks, urgent, but the sheriff is back and he’s barking Stiles’ name and Stiles is out of time.

“Dad, wait,” he says, as his dad asks a deputy to show Allison to his office. “I just need—”

When she’s gone and the deputies are back to pretending not to pay attention, John says quietly, “You need to back off. Leave this one to us. It’s too dangerous.”

“I was just –”

“I know what you were doing.” The sheriff sighs, closing his eyes. “I know you’re trying to help. But you can’t help this time, Stiles. Go home.”

Frustrated, Stiles says, “At least let me wait til you’re done. We can have dinner. I brought veggie burgers, they’re nearly as good as—”

“I don’t have time, Stiles.”

The sheriff walks away and Erica’s there suddenly, smiling and sympathetic. “Hey,” she says. “I could use a veggie burger right now.”

Boyd’s hovering over her shoulder and he rolls his eyes. “You’ve never eaten a veggie burger in your life,” he says, but it’s affectionate. “Get your stuff, Stilinski. I’ll take you both out for a real burger.”

Stiles has to sit in the back of the squad car, but it’s not the first time.

*

It’s front page news the next day. Now that it’s been revealed that the pack of feral wolves is really just one alpha, the front page is splashed with theories about who the serial killing wolf is, why the True Alpha hasn’t intervened, and what’s going to happen next. According to the Beacon, law enforcement doesn’t really have jurisdiction over feral wolves, but with so many hunters being taken out in their own safe houses, are any of us really safe?

They’ve named him The Punisher.

Stiles snorts, because they don’t even know who the wolf is. How do they know this campaign is about punishment at all?

There’s a picture of Allison on the front cover, bloodied and grim, though apparently she had no comment on the situation besides saying she doesn’t need police protection.

“I can do this,” she’s quoted as saying. “Killing werewolves is what I do.”

There’s another story on the second page, underneath a grainy picture pulled from security footage at the safe house that was raided. There aren’t any bodies visible, but it’s a colour image, which means the lurid splashes of blood stand out starkly against the shadows. The wolf they’re calling The Punisher isn’t even in beta shift. He looks practically human, except for the claws and the eyes glowing red. His hair is matted with blood, his face, chest, arms and hands painted with it.

The story underneath is filled with theories on who he could possibly be, but Stiles doesn’t need to read it. He already knows. He’d know that face, those shoulders, those arms, anywhere.

“It’s Derek Hale,” he breathes. “Fuck.”

He calls Scott.

“I know who it is!”

Scott’s distracted. “I’ve got an appointment in a minute, a dog that may have rabies, I don’t really –”

“When do you sleep?” Stiles asks. He has no doubt that Scott was up all night, searching Beacon Hills for the feral wolf, and now he’s at work, checking dogs for rabies and ear mites.

“After work,” Scott says. “In the evenings. And sometimes at lunch. And if I get home before four, I can nap, most nights.”

“Listen. I know who The Punisher is.”

“That’s a ridiculous name for this guy, that doesn’t even make sense – and how do you know who he is when nobody else knows?”
“Because it’s Derek Hale.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do! You need to trust me!”

Because of course Stiles would recognize Derek Hale. Derek Hale’s face – angry, shell-shocked, streaked with ash and tears – has been branded inside Stiles’ memory for 15 years, since the accidental fire that killed most of his family.

“I’ll be over after work,” Scott says sternly. “We’ll figure this out. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Stiles is a firm believer that most of his ideas are incredibly smart, thank you.

*

He goes to the old Hale house. It’s been 15 years, and the burned out shell is still standing, tucked away in a small glade in the Preserve, where the Hales had once lived, until the fire that had claimed the lives of their alpha, Talia, her husband, her brother and his wife, and six children. Derek and his older sister Laura had been the only survivors.

Cora Hale had been in Stiles’ class, and he remembered how strange it was to go to school the next day and see her desk standing so empty.

He’d been at the police station the night of the fire, 10 years old and unable to sit still, bouncing in his seat in the bullpen while trying to work his way through some math questions. The call had come in and most of the deputies, and his father, had raced out, and hadn’t come back for hours.

His dad had come back with Derek and Laura. Stiles still remembers the smell – smoke and soot. He still remembers their faces, pale and blank, eyes wide and shining with shock and tears. He remembers his dad’s voice, low and gentle, his arms wrapping around Laura’s fragile shoulders when she’d started to cry. He remembers when the sobs turned to screaming. And through all that, he remembers Derek’s face, waxy and cold, his eyes burning with beta blue and staring at nothing.

Nature has begun reclaiming the house. Grass, clover and dandelions have begun pushing their way up through burned, cracked floor boards, and moss is growing over shingles and exposed wooden beams.

Any glass that remained has been broken, either in fruitless rescue attempts the night of the fire, or by whichever wandering group of youths passed through. Someone has spray painted, “Die, wolves!” and “Kill or be killed” along one side of the house, but the paint is faded and dull.

Stiles drops his bike in the overrun grass and studies the house for a moment, listening for movement. There’s nothing but the sound of wind in the trees and birds singing softly.

“Hello?” he calls, because if there are any feral wolves here, the more notice he gets that they’re around, the higher his chance of survival.

There’s no answer, so Stiles creeps closer.

The front steps crack under his feet but hold his weight, and he skirts where they’ve already rotted and fallen through, stepping gingerly into what used to be the foyer.

There’s broken glass on the floor, the tattered remains of curtains, a picture frame, cracked and singed, lays facedown and forgotten in a pile of burned out wood in the corner. It’s strange because for fifteen years, the rain and wind have washed this place clean of the scent of smoke, have gentled the harsh shadows of soot, but evidence of the fire is still everywhere.

The house probably should have been demolished ages ago.

Stiles searches for any clue about what Derek could want, why he’d be back, but all he finds on the first floor is moss, a few birds’ nests, and forgotten, half destroyed furniture.

He’s standing at the base of the stairs that would have led up to the second floor, wondering if it’s worth the effort, when there’s a sudden, sharp crack.

He spins around, heart in his throat, but sees that it’s just a door, hanging on one hinge, that had swung loose in the wind and smashed against the frame. It leads to the basement.

Stiles remembers the police report – remembers that most of the children died down there, unable to escape, screaming and reaching through the barred windows. He shudders.

The door swings open with a shriek of metal on metal, and the stairs going down seem much more intact than the ones going up, so Stiles turns on his phone’s flashlight and makes his way carefully into the basement.

It’s dark down here, enough floorboards above to block out the sun, and Stiles swings his beam of light around, his hands shaking just a little. He’s got an overactive imagination, but the wind whistling through the ruined house kind of sounds like children crying out and it’s getting to him. He can’t hear the birds singing down here.

There are piles of debris – old boxes that had probably once been stacked in neat rows of storage, tipped over in a labyrinth of burned out rags and half-melted trophies for baseball participation. There are old dishes, broken and filthy, and books, singed beyond recognition.

Nothing relevant to his investigation, and it feels like disturbing a grave, so Stiles turns to go, which is when his flashlight reflects off something in the darkest corner.

He hesitates and then steps forward, inching his way through the mess, and then his eyes go wide.

It’s the zipper of a sleeping bag, piled in the corner with other blankets, a little den, and none of it has been touched by fire. It’s like someone has made a nest here recently, a safe place, and filled it with clean, soft bedding, pillows, a change of clothes, and a small duffle bag.

Stiles crouches down and opens the bag.

There’s a picture in it, bent and worn, faded, but he can clearly see the Hale family standing together, on the porch of this house before it was destroyed. They’re clustered together, grinning, arms around each other, all with dark hair and bright eyes. He recognizes Cora, and then Derek, and Talia, in the middle.

He sets the picture aside carefully.

The only other thing in the bag is a book, leather-bound and well-worn, and Stiles opens it carefully. It’s a list of names and dates, and at first, he doesn’t understand. The pages are faded, writing formal and intricate, but faded, and the years beside the names start way back in 1267.

He flips to the last page with writing on it and runs his finger down the list of names, pausing at Talia Hale, 1981-2001. Below that, Laura Hale, 2001. There was no ending date for her, but there’s a small, bloody smudge by her name.

Stiles frowns. It wasn’t birth or death records, and it takes a moment for him to realize what it is. Alpha records. Laura became the alpha after the death of her mother in 2001.

But Derek is the alpha now.

Stiles shoves the book back into the bag and then slips the picture back in it as well, grabbing his phone and hurrying back up the stairs.

Because if Derek is the alpha now… he needs to find out what happened to Laura. And when.

*

Erica and Boyd are just getting back from patrol when Stiles comes into the station, and Erica looks grim when she see him.

“Can’t be seen with you today,” she says. “Strict orders from the sheriff.”

“Aw, c’mon, Erica,” Stiles says, offering his most charming smile. “Don’t be like that.”

“Like what?” she asks dryly. “Like police policy and procedure actually matter? Your dad says no. Not with this case.”

“I know, I know. It’s too dangerous. Is he in?” He’s already heading towards his dad’s office, and Erica just rolls her eyes at him, waving him on.

“If he asks, tell him I refused to make eye contact and tried to send you home,” she says.

Stiles gives her a lazy salute and closes the door to his dad’s office behind him.

“Dad,” he says. “How’s it going? How’s the case going? Any updates on The Punisher, because—”

“I told you to leave it alone.” John looks tired, strained, the way he does when things aren’t going his way. “Please.”

“Because I’ve got some info for you.”

“The only way you could have anything for me is if you’ve been sleuthing around.”

Stiles does his best to look innocent. “So,” he says. “I hear there’s surveillance footage of the last attack.”

“Stiles.”

Stiles sighs, smile slipping from his face. “I just want to show you something, okay? Do you know who it is yet, Dad? Because I have a theory, and I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

He’s rubbing his temples like he’s fighting off a migraine, but still, the sheriff turns his laptop around, video file pulled up. “It’s graphic,” he warns, before pushing play.

It’s brutal. The killing is quick and Stiles isn’t sure why the media seems to think Derek is feral. He’s not growling, not wolfing out. He’s still, human, and deadly. There is no sound on the video, but there is barely any expression on his face. He tears through the hunters who come at him with a ruthless efficiency, and when they’re all still, he stalks through the hall, into the next room. His eyes flash red as he passes by the camera.

“The rest is more of the same,” the sheriff says, pausing it, turning the laptop around again.

“Dad,” Stiles says quietly. Watching the video proved it, though he hadn’t had much doubt before. “It’s Derek Hale.”

“It can’t—” John says, automatic, and then his eyes widen, just a bit. Stiles wonders if he’s remembering Derek’s face, streaked in black and gray, his eyes glowing blue, his blank, shocked face, as Laura screamed at the new alpha power tearing through her body.

“It can’t be,” he says again, but now his voice cracks and he turns to the video, watching it. “Shit,” he says quietly. And then, looking up at Stiles, he says, “But Derek’s not the alpha. He wasn’t the alpha. It was Laura… What happened to Laura?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it? I thought maybe you could do a search… Look for her. See if there’s a death certificate, or a report, or anything to explain what happened. Unless it just happened. And the Argents were involved, which would mean—”

John looks grim. “You know they’re not looking for motive, Stiles. The hunters, the media, the public. They want him stopped. They don’t care who he is or why he’s doing what he’s doing.”

“But if it something happened to Laura, recently, and it was the Argents, and they hurt her without cause… then they broke their own damned code and deserve what’s coming to them.”

“Legally,” John says, distracted. He’s already running a search for Laura’s name in the federal database. “But ethically – morally – no one’s going to give him a trial, Stiles. And if he goes to trial, execution is the only possible outcome.”

“Which is bullshit,” he says. “Humans don’t have capital punishment anymore, why do wolves? It’s not fair – they’re just as human as we are.”

“You know I believe that,” John tells him, sighing and closing his eyes. “You also know that justice isn’t as black and white as it should be. There’s nothing here, Stiles. As far as the records are concerned, Laura Hale should still be alive.”

“But if she was, she’d be the alpha.”

“Yes. But don’t jump to conclusions. Anything could have happened. It’s been fifteen years. Derek could have killed her.”

“Yeah,” Stiles says, sarcastic. “That’s just what a beta werewolf would do to his last remaining family member.”

“Judging by the way he’s tearing his way through the Argent ranks, I don’t think we can really guess what Derek Hale would or wouldn’t do.”

Stiles sighs, but it’s a fair point. “I better go,” he says. “Erica wants you to know that she’s refusing to talk to me.”

“Good,” John nods. “Go home. Stay out of this. Please.”

Stiles waves but doesn’t make a promise he can’t keep.

*

“Hey.” Stiles grins, waves the latte he just happened to pick up made just the way Erica likes it.

“No,” she says, but her eyes are narrowed, focussed on the cup. “Stiles. I can’t.”

“Can’t what? Can’t enjoy a cup of coffee from a good friend while on break during a routine patrol that you do every shift, conveniently near your favourite coffee shop?”

Boyd rolls his eyes but he grins. “What do you want, Stilinski?”

He hands the cup to Erica, who makes a show of resisting, but then takes it with a huff. “Nothing. Nothing at all.”

“You’re a liar. You’re a liar and a terrible friend, and you’re going to get me fired.”

“Nah, you know that’ll never happen.”

It can’t actually happen, is the thing. Erica fills two quotas on the police force that are generally pretty difficult to fill. She’s a woman and she’s a werewolf, and female werewolves don’t exactly feel the urge to go into law enforcement that often, probably because of the way the law kind of treats them like second class – third class, even – citizens.

Her eyes narrow dangerously and she bares her teeth, but Stiles made the mistake of mentioning the shit storm that HR would rain down upon his father if he ever fired Erica one time. He had been lucky enough to escape with his life at the time, and it wasn’t an experience he wanted to repeat.

“You know Boyd wouldn’t turn you in. My dad’ll never know.”

Erica relaxes, just a little, and shoots a quick glare at Boyd, who nods, serious, and says, “I got your back, Reyes. No matter what.”

Because he’s in love with her. Stiles snorts into his hot chocolate and hands Boyd his tea, sweetened with honey and milk.

“So,” he says, and Erica growls into her latte. Stiles ignores that and says, “I’m assuming, the reason you’re five minutes late for your break is because you detoured a bit on the usual patrol to drive passed Allison Argent’s house.”

Because there’s no way his dad would leave her without some sort of police protection, no matter what she had to say on the matter.

“Stiles,” Erica says, rolling her eyes. “I can’t. You know I can’t.”

“She’s an old school friend!” he says, which is sort of the truth. They hadn’t actually been friends, exactly, but they’d known each other. Sort of. “I just want to check in, see how she’s doing, make sure she hasn’t been executed by any crazy alphas lately.”

Erica is silent, sipping her latte and glaring at nothing, and finally, Boyd shrugs a shoulder and says, “Could be true, E.”

Stiles always liked Boyd best. “It is true,” he lies, with a charming smile.

She growls but says, “Fine. Get in the back. I’ll give you a ride, which your dad’s never going to hear about, and that’s it. Last favour. If you get killed because of me—”

Boyd’s already unlocking the back door for him, and Stiles hops in, closing the door behind himself and cutting her off.

*

Boyd and Erica drive away before Stiles gets to Allison’s front door, which is probably because they value plausible deniability.

He knocks four times before she answers, looking much younger than she did before, when she’d been furious and covered in blood.

Now, she’s still pale, face drawn and stark, hair pulled back. She’s wearing a hoodie that’s two sizes too big, the sleeves falling over her hands.

“Stiles?” She opens the door wider. “I told your dad I didn’t want police protection.”

“I’m not police,” he says. “I just had a question.”

She looks wary, but she still asks, “What?”

“What happened to Laura Hale?”

Allison goes to slam the door in his face, but Stiles shoves his foot in the way, blocking it. He winces when it smashes into his foot, but it doesn’t seem broken, and he says quickly, “I know you know who it is – who The Punisher is. What happened to Laura?”

“Laura Hale got what she deserved,” Allison says, cold. She kicks him, a swift jab in his ankle, and he yanks his foot back with a yelp. She slams the door shut before he recovers.

*

Stiles’ phone rings as it starts to get dark and he answers when he sees it’s Scott.

“You’re not at home,” Scott says. He sounds strained. “Where are you?”

“Working,” Stiles says, adjusting the newspaper he’s pretending to read, peering around it at Allison’s house. A light comes on, but other than that, everything is quiet and still.

“Oh, yeah?” Scott asks, and Sties can hear him rolling his eyes. “Which case? I thought Samson was the only one you had right now.”

Stiles hums. “A new one came up,” he says.

“Let me guess. A case involving lots of murders and a crazy werewolf.”

“You can’t prove that,” Stiles says.

“Where are you? Please tell me you’re not doing anything stupid.”

“I am literally sitting on a park bench reading a two day-old-newspaper and thinking about the weather,” Stiles says, which is all true.

“A stakeout? Where? Tell me, and I’ll bring pizza. And donuts. And keep you company.”

Stiles laughs. “I’m not that easy,” he says.

“Are you at the Hale house?”

“Nope.”

A beat of silence, and then, “Shit. Allison, you’re at Allison’s, aren’t you? Your dad has extra patrols in the area looking out for her –” Stiles snorts, “—and they’re probably going to notice you lurking in the area.”

That was entirely possible, but not really his problem right now.

“You don’t even know if Derek – if it really is Derek – is coming after her,” Scott says.

“I’m pretty sure,” Stiles tells him. “She knows what happened to his sister.”

“His sister? Listen, Stiles. Just – wait for me there, I’ll be right there, and you can tell me everything, okay?”

For a minute, the figure walking down the street is so innocuous that Stiles doesn’t even realize what’s happening. Why would Derek Hale just walk up to Allison’s door like it isn’t a big deal at all?

But Stiles knows his face, even now, 15 years older, so much harder and colder than it used to be.

“Shit,” Stiles hisses. “Shit. Scott, I gotta go.”

“Stiles! What’s happening? I need—”

Stiles hangs up and Derek walks right by him, slow and steady, without even glancing over. He pauses every few steps, cocking his head and breathing deeply, and Stiles realizes Derek is following her scent.

Stiles’ heart picks up speed, and he wonders if he should text his dad, but one thing he knows is that the sheriff’s guns don’t stand a chance against Derek, not even with wolfsbane bullets.

Derek’s almost passed him when he suddenly pauses, tipping his head the other way and then slowly turning, as if he can hear Stiles’ rabbiting heartbeat, to stare at Stiles.

His eyes are a kaleidoscope of green, blue and brown, not shining alpha red or beta blue, and then he blinks and turns away, stepping into the street towards Allison’s house.

He doesn’t look like the alpha on the surveillance tape who’d torn those hunters apart. He looks practically human.

And he still had the same eyes that had haunted Stiles since that night at the police station, when Derek and Laura had been brought in covered in ash.

That’s what gives him the courage to stand up, step off the sidewalk into the street, and say, “Derek, wait.”

Derek goes still and then he turns his head, looking over his shoulder. Stiles sees his mouth curl, a cold, small smile, and then he keeps walking. “Go home,” he says, but it doesn’t sound like he cares one way or the other if Stiles gets caught in the crossfire here.

“People keep telling me to do that,” Stiles says. He swallows nervously. Derek has reached the other side of the road, steps up on the curb. Desperate, Stiles calls, “Laura wouldn’t want this.”

Derek freezes, muscles in his shoulders knotting up, and he slowly turns around. His eyes are glowing, alpha red. “You don’t know what Laura would want,” he says, voice sinking low.

It’s true. Stiles inhales shakily. He takes a few steps closer, one hand out, like that’s going to convince Derek not to eat him. “Maybe I don’t,” he says. “But I doubt she’d want this for you. And – and neither would your mother.”

“You didn’t know either of them,” he spits. “So shut your fucking mouth.”

“I knew Cora,” he says. Sort of.

“Go. Home.”

Derek’s turning away again, and Stiles panics. He’s across the street with one hand on Derek’s arm before he has time to think about it, and then Stiles freezes.

For a moment, Derek doesn’t react – it’s like he’s holding his breath, same as Stiles – and then he’s snarling, shoving Stiles away. It’s Stiles’ own fault that he panics and stumbles back, tripping over the curb and falling. He hits the ground hard, skinning his elbows.

“You’re not a monster,” Stiles says, but it doesn’t come out sounding as certain as he meant it to. Probably because Derek is shifting, claws and fangs emerging as the bones in his face and shoulders rearrange.

“You don’t know what I am,” Derek says.

“The Punisher,” Stiles says quietly, still sprawled on the ground, Derek’s shadow looming over him. “But there are better ways to get justice.”

“They don’t deserve better.”

Then Derek is gone, and Stiles closes his eyes, sucks in a breath, and swears a little, before he hears glass breaking and Derek roaring – in pain? And then the sound of a struggle.

He gets up, staggering a little, but doesn’t hesitate, charging into Allison’s house.

It’s only been a few seconds but it’s already a disaster, broken glass and blood in the foyer, the sting of wolfsbane in the air, and he can hear Derek snarling upstairs. He follows the sound, sees the remains of wolfsbane traps that Allison must have set, but whatever amount of wolfsbane he’s been hit with, it doesn’t sound like Derek is slowing at all.

When Stiles finds them, they’re in the master bedroom, and Allison is bloodied but still breathing, for now. Derek’s got three arrows in his back, blood running down his body, and his claws piercing through her shoulders, pinning her to the wall. She’s not screaming, even though she’s gray and pale with blood loss, and it has to hurt. Her arm is hanging crookedly.

Stiles would so, so be screaming.

“Where is she,” Derek snarls, and Allison spits in his face.

“Go to hell, dog,” she says.

“You’ll die one way or the other,” he says. “Tell me where Kate is and it’ll be quick.”

She presses her lips shut and Stiles panics, because he doesn’t want to see someone tortured to death. So he throws a lamp and it bounces harmlessly off Derek’s shoulder.

Derek snaps his teeth but doesn’t let her go, and Allison’s eyes fly to Stiles and widen. He’s looking for another weapon when she says, “Stilinski. Get out of here.”

Stiles would ignore it the way he’s ignored every other person telling him to go home because this is too dangerous, except Derek’s suddenly letting go of Allison, and she slides to the ground with a muffled scream and a slippery sound of skin sliding through blood.

“Stilinski,” Derek growls, eyes narrowing, flashing red, as he turns towards Stiles. As if the name means something to him.

It’s much different, being face to face with Derek when he’s bloody, feral and wolfed out, rather than how he’d been on the street. It’s much more terrifying, and Stiles drops the shoe he was preparing to throw and stumbles back, into the hall.

“Were you in on it?” Derek snarls, stalking forward, eyes locked on Stiles’ face.

He should run. Maybe he can find a place to hide, or – or maybe he should have listened and stayed home. “In on what?” he pants, and then he takes off down the hall, but his shoes slide in the blood.

Derek is on him in a second, knocking him to the ground and pinning him there, on his stomach, and Stiles is so filled with the instinct to run – because he never really had a problem choosing between fight or flight, it was always, always flight when death seemed like the most likely outcome of fighting – that he’s still struggling to get away.

His fingers are sliding in blood, and it takes him a moment to realize that none of it is his. Because even though Derek is on him, had probably bruised his knees and had caused him to skin his elbows, Derek isn’t actually hurting him now. He hadn’t impaled Stiles with his claws, or held him still with his teeth.

So Stiles breathes, closes his eyes, and forces himself to roll over and then blink up at Derek, who is still all glowing eyes and fangs.

“Laura,” Derek hisses, when he sees he has Stiles’ attention again. “Where is she? Where did you leave her?”

He hiccups a little and says, “I didn’t – I never saw her.” And it’s the truth. “Why would you think… why…” he gives up, trailing off helplessly. He’s blinking back tears, and he whispers, “I haven’t seen her since I last saw you, at the police station.”

Derek stares at him, his eyes narrow, but they’re not red anymore. He hesitates for a moment, and just for those few seconds, he doesn’t look like The Punisher at all – he’s not feral, even if he is shifted into his beta form. He’s not angry. He’s confused, for a few seconds, and then he says roughly, “You were hiding in the sheriff’s office.”

Stiles hadn’t thought Derek had seen him, but he nods, blinking back tears. “Yeah,” he says. “My dad—”

And then Allison shoots Derek in the back, four times, and the instant scent of wolfsbane in the bullets stings Stiles’ nose. He feels Derek’s body jerk with each shot, and the red comes bleeding back into his eyes.

Derek’s gone a heartbeat later, roaring as he charges at Allison. Stiles sits up, shouts, “Derek, no, please, you don’t have to—”

But Allison is about to die. Derek is going to tear her apart. Stiles can see it, in the way Derek’s moving, in the momentum he’s already gained as he rushes towards her. He’s not going to pin her this time, he’s going to destroy her.

The window shatters a moment later, and Scott’s there, in his True Alpha form, and he tackles Derek mid-leap, dragging him to the floor.

“Stiles!” he shouts. “Get her out of here!”

And then he and Derek are fighting, a brutal clash of fangs and claws, and Stiles, for once in his life, obeys, ducking around the edge of the room and helping Allison to her feet.

“I need—I need to help,” she gasps, her face bone white. She’s bleeding too much. “He needs to die.”

“He’s got this,” Stiles says grimly. “And you’re probably not going to last much longer. C’mon.”

He drags her out of the room, but glances back once from the hallway. “Don’t – don’t kill him,” he says, voice breaking.

Scott looks up, eyes still human though he’s fully wolfed out, and he says, appalled, “I’m not him, Stiles. I don’t kill.”

That moment costs him though, because Derek drags him to the ground with his teeth. But Stiles isn’t too worried about Scott.

Derek’s got enough wolfsbane in his system to take down a dozen alphas. He can’t last much longer.

Out on the street, Stiles helps Allison to the bench and then finally calls his dad.

“Bring an ambulance,” he says, just as Allison collapses beside him.

*

Scott’s pretty angry, which Stiles is okay with. The fact that he basically got torn to shreds by Derek has to add to his general dissatisfaction with how the whole thing went down, but he’ll heal. Slowly.

Allison’s the same as well – her dislocated shoulder is back in its socket, her contusions, puncture wounds and abrasions have been stitched up. She’s pissed that Derek’s alive, but other than that, she’ll be fine in a few weeks.

And other than skinned elbows and a few bruises, Stiles came off remarkably well for an idiot human who threw a lamp at a feral werewolf whose murder spree had led to the death of sixteen Argent hunters before True Alpha had finally taken him down.

That doesn’t stop Stiles’ dad from absolutely losing his temper over the whole thing, though.

He even tries grounding Stiles, like that’ll work. Stiles is 25 years old. He’s got his own place and his own business. His dad can’t actually enforce it.

Except he kind of can. Certain aspects, anyway.

The ones that include anything and everything to do with police activity.

“Sorry, kid,” Erica says, and for the first time, it sounds like she means it. “Sheriff says it’s six months of night shifts as a security guard for anyone who lets you anywhere near Derek Hale.”

They’re in the specially-enforced wing of the hospital, the one with doors made of mountain ash designed for holding and treating werewolf prisoners in need of medical attention. This wing doesn’t get much use, mainly because most wolves accused of criminal activity are put down before receiving medical care or access to a fair trial, despite what the law says they deserve. Hunters follow their own laws – their Code.

Most wolves who run up against the Code don’t survive long enough to call for a lawyer.

Derek, though, is an exception. With the media interest in the case, and the fact that it wasn’t a hunter, in the end, who took him down, the legal system has to at least make a show of following proper legal procedure before handing him over to the Hunters.

“I just want to talk to him,” Stiles says. “I’m not going to help him escape or anything.”

“Why do you want to talk to him?” Erica asks.

“To complete my investigation into the case,” he says.

She rolls her eyes. “It’s pretty open and shut, Stiles. He’s The Punisher. His picture is all over the news, all over the surveillance footage, and he was caught trying to commit another murder. Allison Argent has already identified him as the one who took out her grandfather. There’s nothing more to investigate.”

“What about motive?” he asks.

“Feral wolves don’t have motives.”

“What if he’s not feral?”

Erica raises an eyebrow. “How would that be better for him? Either he’s crazy or he’s not, and it was premeditated and still brutal, which means he’s a pretty sloppy serial killer. Either way, he’s going to be executed, Stiles. You can’t help this one.”

Stiles growls, frustrated, and then a tall, weedy looking man with glasses and a thin file folder steps out of the elevator. Erica and Boyd let him pass without a word.

“Why does he get to go in?” Stiles asks, scowling.

“That’s his lawyer,” Boyd says, nodding. “Matt Daehler, appointed by the district attorney’s office. Public defender.”

“Listen, Stiles. There’s nothing we can do for you,” Erica says, squeezing his hand. “You need to let this one go. Just be glad you weren’t killed and move on.”

“Maybe,” Stiles says, but he’s barely listening.

*

The press is gathered outside the hospital, waiting to ambush anybody who might have intel on The Punisher case, so Stiles waits in the lobby. It doesn’t take long for the lawyer to finish up whatever he’d gone to see Derek about, and he steps out of the elevator looking a little pale.

“Hey,” Stiles says, hopping to his feet. “You’re Derek Hale’s lawyer, right?”

Matt looks a little startled and then glances around nervously. “You’re not press, are you?” he says. “I have no comment.”

“No,” Stiles says. “Stiles Stilinski. I’m investigating Derek’s case.” He conveniently neglects to mention that it’s not exactly with the police department’s blessing.

Matt relaxes. “Oh,” he says. “It should be wrapped up pretty quick. We’re drafting up the agreed-upon series of events, then Mr. Hale just has to sign it and submit it with his guilty plea. Easy peasy.”

Stiles frowns. “Whose drafting it up?” he asks. “Shouldn’t the detective investigating the case be involved?” He glances around pointedly, but there are no detectives nearby.

Growing flustered, Matt says, “Oh, we didn’t want to involve the sheriff in what basically amounts to paperwork. Getting this cleared up as soon as possible is the best case scenario.”

“So…” Stiles lifts an eyebrow and Matt just looks blank. “So who’s interviewing Derek, making sure we know what happened, trying to figure out motive? What exactly is going into the ‘series of events’ if Derek’s not writing it, and the police department’s not writing it, and even if they were, they don’t know jack shit about what happened and no one’s asking Derek?”

There’s a flush on his cheeks now, but Matt says stiffly, “I’m sure it’s nothing to concern yourself about. The details aren’t important in a case like this. It was serial murder, Mr. Stilinski. All that matters is that justice is served.”

“Is it justice, though, if it’s rushed through? If no one even finds out why? If Derek doesn’t have a chance to plead his case?”

“He is pleading. He’s pleading guilty,” Matt says.

*

While Stiles was making a name for himself as a detective with ties to the police force who was particularly inclined to help werewolves in need of assistance, Lydia Martin was doing the exact opposite.

She’d graduated law school and passed the bar at an accelerated schedule, aided by her genius IQ, and quickly gained a reputation as a sharp, terrifying attorney who only represented the most elite of clients, the ones with the biggest bank accounts. They were generally corporate clients, though she had taken on a few high-profile criminal cases as well, arguing for the defended in a vicious way that had gained the respect and fear of many in the legal system. Most werewolves couldn’t afford her, even if they wanted to.

And she definitely does not work for free.

“I don’t do pro bono cases,” she says coldly, snapping her laptop shut, shoving her cat eye glasses on top of her head, and staring at him, frowning. “Obviously.”

Stiles shifts awkwardly on his feet, stairs around her frankly immaculate, high-rise office, with its wood panelling and plush carpets, its marble detailing and gorgeous views of the city. He feels remarkably under dressed in jeans, scuffed up Sketchers, and a hoodie.

“I know,” he says, fidgeting with the hem of his sweater. “But I thought maybe, this once—”

She arches an eyebrow. “What exactly do you think is different about this specific case that would inspire me to take it without hope of compensation?” she asks.

“Well, because it isn’t fair. He’s got a public defender who barely passed law school and just wants to get the case off his desk as soon as possible.”

“Which makes sense,” she said. “Seeing as it’s pretty much impossible to win.”

“You’ve won impossible cases before.”

“For a lot of money.”

He grimaces. “There’s more to the story and no one cares,” he says. “The police department is under pressure to let it go, the public defender’s office just wants him dealt with. The prosecutors are out for blood, and so are the Hunters.”

“He brutally dismembered over a dozen people,” she says. “Isn’t that what he deserves?”

“He brutally dismembered over a dozen hunters,” Stiles corrects. “It wasn’t random. He was after information, he was asking questions. And I’m pretty sure it was right after the death of his sister, Laura, who was his alpha and only surviving family member. And no one will look into her death, and no one will tell me what happened to her or when. She was all he had, Lydia. You don’t think there’s anything worth defending in that?”

Her gaze is sharpened now, but she’s still hesitating, so he says, “Don’t you remember Cora?”

She shudders, just once, and squeezes her eyes shut. Of course she remembers Cora – Stiles hadn’t known Cora well, but she’d been in their class, every year since Kindergarten, and Lydia had been her best friend.

“Get out of my office,” she spits, glaring at him.

“But Lydia—”

“I’ve got work to do.”

His shoulders slump and he turns towards the door. He’s just about to leave when she says, “And send me everything you have, everything you know, on Derek Hale. I’ll expect you at the hospital tomorrow morning, 9 am sharp.”

He turns back and stares at her blankly, but she doesn’t look up from the notebook she’s writing in, glasses back on the bridge of her nose. “I need the rest of the day to deal with the public defender’s office and the prosecution, before I can take over the case,” she says impatiently. “And I’m naming you special advisor. Did you need something else?”

“No,” he says, but he’s beaming at her. “Thank you.”

“Get out, Stiles.” But she’s smiling a little, he can see it.

*

Stiles nearly trips over himself when the cops on duty finally let him inside Derek’s hospital room. Luckily, it hadn’t been Erica and Boyd. Unluckily, the deputies on duty hadn’t exactly bought his entirely truthful explanation that he was Lydia Martin’s special advisor and he’d finally had to call his dad and explain.

And the sheriff definitely had some harsh words to share on that development. But Lydia had sent all the required documentation indicating she intended to petition to take on Derek’s case to the sheriff’s office as well as the prosecutors and the public defenders, so he couldn’t exactly deny it was true.

When Stiles manages to catch his balance, he says, “So, so sorry I’m late, they wouldn’t let me in, and –”

He abruptly becomes aware that Derek and Lydia are both staring at him, there’s enough tension in the room that he’s already getting a stomach ache from it, and Derek looks awful.

He’s beaten up and bruised, wounds caused by Scott’s claws healing sluggishly. There’s a massive bandage on his forehead, lopsided and already bleeding right through, and a jagged line of stitching is visible at the neckline of his hospital gown. It’s holding together ragged edges of torn skin, running down and disappearing under the gown, where lumps in the fabric and the blanket indicate there are probably more bandages that Stiles can’t see. His lip is twisted up and swollen on one side, bruising a purple and black mottled mess, yellow at the edges, and mountain ash-enforced manacles pin his wrists and ankles to the bed.

“Hi,” he says, swallowing hard.

“Stiles.” Lydia nods in greeting, getting to her feet and snapping a file closed. “Mr. Hale just finished informing me that he would rather not retain my services.” She smiles, a sharp, angry twist to her mouth.

“Wait,” Stiles says. “Derek, you can’t. You need—”

“That’s not what I said,” Derek drawls, voice rough, like his throat is damaged. Judging by the bruising, it probably is. “I said you could take your paperwork and your insanity plea and shove it up your ass.”

Stiles blinks. Lydia hisses softly, and then Derek smiles, almost like it doesn’t hurt, even as his lip cracks open and starts bleeding again, the blood running into his mouth. “But I changed my mind.”

Lydia’s eyes narrow. “I’m not sure I’m interested,” she starts, but Stiles cuts her off. “Done,” he says, grinning apologetically at Lydia, who hardly looks mollified. “Agreed. We’ll make it work. You’ll see. All we need to do is—”

“I want to talk to you,” Derek says, jerking his chin at Stiles. “Alone.”

Stiles stammers and then gives up on his sentence entirely, and Lydia says, “Not happening. Ever. We have some paperwork to go over, and then I need to enter a plea, so if you don’t mind –”

“Okay,” Stiles says.

Lydia just stares at him.

“I’ll do it. I’ll talk to him. I’ll be fine. Just for a few minutes. I have some questions, and—”

“Stiles,” she snaps. “Your father said under no uncertain terms—”

“My father isn’t here.”

“I still need to enter a plea before noon! I need—”

“Guilty,” Derek says. “Or not. Whatever you prefer.”

“Not guilty, then,” she says. Her voice is growing shrill, and Stiles tries to look apologetic as he drags a chair over to Derek’s bedside – but not too close. He’s not suicidal, even if the cuffs do keep him from shifting.

He sits down and Derek stares at him and he stares at Lydia and she actually snarls before storming from the room.

It’s silent for a long time after she slams the door, but Stiles finally gathers up the tattered remains of his courage and turns his head, just enough, to look at Derek.

He’s still staring, eyes still that bright mixture of too many colours, but that dead, cold, furious look is gone, replaced by something sharper. Derek takes a deep breath – scenting him, Stiles realizes, frantically trying to remember how well he washed himself in the shower this morning, he’d been in such a rush.

“So, my questions,” he says, because babbling nervously is what he does. “For the investigation, and to help Lydia make a case in your defense, we need to know what—”

“You didn’t see Laura,” Derek says, slow and careful. His voice is still rough, like worn velvet. Like he needs some water. Stiles frowns and wonders if anyone bothered to give him any water.

Stiles gets up and goes to a water cooler in the corner, grabs a paper cup and, as he’s filling it, says over his shoulder, “Should I have seen her?”

As he sits down, Derek says, “She came back to Beacon Hills to see you.”

Surprised, he nearly spills the water, but manages to hold on to it. Derek’s eyes widen with shock when Stiles holds the paper cup to his lips, and Stiles abruptly realizes that Derek isn’t really all that helpless, even tied down the way he is – He can’t shift entirely, but he’s still got fangs if he wants them, and Stiles is close enough to bite.

But Derek drinks the water, every drop, like he hadn’t even known he was thirsty until someone had been kind enough to offer it to him. Afterwards, he licks his lips and a drop runs down from the corner of his mouth, but Stiles doesn’t really have the guts to wipe it away.

“Why would she want to see me?” he asks.

“You’re the detective,” Derek says, voice going a little softer. “The one who helps werewolves.”

He frowns. “What did she need help with? I never saw her, and I’m easy to find.”

Derek nods slowly, looking distant. “They must have found her first.”

“The… the Argents?”

Derek doesn’t answer, but he’s looking at Stiles again, intent, like he’s memorizing his face. Stiles does his best to look helpful and trustworthy.

“You were never in danger,” Derek tells him.

“You were out of control.”

Derek snorts, smiling a little, but it’s not a pleasant smile. “Never out of control,” he says, and Stiles can sense him drifting away again, losing interest.

“Did the Argents kill Laura?” he asks, and Derek’s eyes focus back on his face.

Derek nods once, slowly.

“We never found a body,” Stiles says.

“Neither did I.” His voice is getting harsh again, his breathing picking up and chest heaving with agitation. His eyes flash red, and Derek squeezes them shut.

“When did she die?”

“What day is today?”

“Thursday.”

Derek’s eyes widen a little. “Already a week,” he says faintly, and Stiles flinches. A week? Derek’s been alpha all of a week?

Seven days. That’s just about when the first attack happened.

“What did she need help with?” he asks.

Derek closes his eyes, and Stiles thinks he’s not going to answer. Finally, he murmurs, “Justice. But she wasn’t going to find it.”

“Justice for what?”

Derek opens his eyes, and he’s silent for another long moment, before he shrugs, rattling the manacles. “For everyone else.”

It takes a moment, but maybe it shouldn’t. “The fire?” Stiles finally gasps. “That was an accident. It was faulty wiring. The fire inspector –”

“Was an Argent,” Derek says, unconcerned. “Dead now.”

Recently, Stiles assumes. He shakes his head, horrified. “It was an accident,” he says again, and Derek smirks. “Even – even if it wasn’t, you can’t just kill for justice, that’s not justice, that’s – that’s revenge.”

“The only difference between justice and revenge is that justice doesn’t work. It doesn’t last. They don’t get to hurt anybody else if you go after revenge, if you do it right. The Argents say they fight for Justice.” He snorts. “Laura wanted justice. Look where that got her.”

“If it really wasn’t an accident, I’ll help you,” Stiles says, desperate. “I’ll get justice for your family.”

But Derek isn’t listening anymore.

*

Allison was discharged after a day of observation and is resting and recuperating at home, allegedly, except she’s not there when Stiles comes looking for her.

He doesn’t wait on the bench this time, but he sets on her front step. It takes hours before she pulls up in a black SUV, and she scowls when she sees him. Her face is black and blue.

“You’re an idiot,” she says, storming towards him, which isn’t exactly what he expected considering he’d kind of saved her life.

He stands up. “I am?”

“You attacked a crazy alpha werewolf with a table lamp,” she says. “You should be dead right now.”

“You would be dead if I hadn’t thrown that lamp,” he says, and she glares for a moment before rolling her eyes.

“Maybe,” she allows. “What do you want?”

“I want to know what happened to Laura Hale.”

She laughs coldly. “Why? What does it matter?”

“It matters because we’re trying to figure out what happened.”

“What happened was that wolf went crazy and killed sixteen hunters, including my grandfather,” she says. “That’s all that matters.”

“Is it?” he asks, mild. “How many hunters did Laura kill?”

Allison holds his gaze for a moment and then she breaks it, stepping around him to unlock her front door. “None,” she says finally. “Though not for lack of trying.”

Trying?” he echoes. “Were you there? Did you see what happened? Are you sure—”

“I was there.” She gives up on trying to fumble with the lock with only one good hand and turns back to face him. “She came out of nowhere. We were on patrol, in the Preserve, because there had been reports of an alpha out there, and strange wolves aren’t allowed in our territory without permission.”

“Beacon Hills was Hale territory first,” he points out. She ignores him.

“She charged us, fully shifted – not beta shift, full alpha shift. Only strong alphas can do that.”

“Strong or very angry,” he says. She nods once.

“Gerard, my grandfather, took her down with a wolfsbane bullet.” She presses a fingertip to Stiles’ forehead, right between his eyes. “There.”

“And you left her to die?”

She hesitates, just for a fraction of a second, but Stiles sees it. And then she says, “And then he strung her up and cut her in half.”

“Oh my god. What about – she didn’t even hurt anybody. You can’t just –”

“She was feral,” Allison says, but she’s not snapping any more, she sounds a little shaky. “She was trying to kill—”

“But she hadn’t killed. She just charged. You can’t possibly know—”

“She’s a werewolf!” she cries. “The only good werewolf is a dead one.”

“You can’t really believe that,” he says. Their fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Anderson, had been a werewolf. The church choir leader was a werewolf. The best mechanic in town was a werewolf. The woman who ran the hipster tea shop on mainstreet that gave free ice cream to children in summer was a werewolf.

“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” she says, quieter now. “It matters what she did.”

“Which was charge out of the woods, at an army of hunters, on Hale land,” he says, skeptical, and a little sick to his stomach. “What about the law?”

“Her execution didn’t break our law, not the hunters’ law.” She shakes her head, looking disgusted – at the law or the execution or Stiles, he can’t tell. “She didn’t even have the right to be there.”

“It was her family’s land.”

Allison shrugs helplessly. “It used to be.”

“Derek says the fire that killed the Hales wasn’t an accident.”

Blinking, Allison says blankly, “Of course it was. What was it, if not an accident?”

He sighs. “I don’t know. But I need to find her. I need to find Laura.”

Allison looks alarmed for a moment, and then she says, “Okay. Okay, but if anybody asks, I didn’t show you.”

Maybe it had been bugging her all week, that they’d left Laura strung up in the Preserve somewhere, after committing murder.

*

Allison drives him out to a narrow dirt road before parking the car, leading him into the woods. They walk for quite a while before coming to a small clearing. A flock of birds take off when they step out of the trees, birds that had settled on what was left of Laura’s body. Half of it is still hanging from the tree.

“It was justice,” Allison says quietly, like she’s trying to convince herself. “I need to go.”

He gives her time to get back to her car, collapsing on a stone across the clearing from what’s left of Laura and holding his stomach. He closes his eyes, focusing on not puking, not crying.

He doesn’t understand how anybody could have a definition of justice that lines up with this.

When it’s been long enough, he pulls out his phone, relieved to see he has service – at least a little.

“Dad?” he croaks into the phone, and he can’t help crying a little. “I need you.”

*

Derek’s face looks better already, but he’s even less interested in what’s happening around him now than he was when Stiles saw him yesterday. He’s staring listlessly at nothing and Lydia has grimly decided she’ll come up with his defense without his input.

Stiles thinks the challenge appeals to her. Or maybe she and Cora were closer than he knew.

“We found Laura,” Stiles says, sitting in his chair at Derek’s bed side. He’d tried other subjects, tried to soften this one with small talk first, but Derek hadn’t even bothered to look at him.

His eyes focus on Stiles with sudden fierce interest. “Where.”

Stiles swallows hard. “In the Preserve,” he says quietly. “They left her there after they executed her. Allison helped me.”

“Executed her for what?”

“They say she attacked a patrol of Argent hunters in full alpha shift.”

“They say,” Derek echoes. “You don’t believe them?”

“I believe that the Argents have the equipment and manpower to bring down a charging werewolf in alpha shift and then bring her in to be judged by a court of law, but they chose to execute her instead. She hadn’t hurt anybody.”

Derek smiles, a tiny, grim smile, and says, “That surprises you?”

“No,” he says honestly.

There’s a beat of silence.

“I brought this for you,” he says, and Derek glances over to see the Hale family photo Stiles had found at the old Hale house.

“You were in my house?”

“I’ve got the book as well, the alpha book, I’ll keep it safe,” Stiles tells him. “We’re going to bury Laura in the family plot, next to – there’s a spot next to your mother. My dad’s arranging the details. Is that okay?”

Derek doesn’t say anything; he’s staring at the picture, his eyes faraway again.

Stiles sighs but slips the photo into Derek’s hand, and then gets up to go.

He’s about to step out of the room when Derek says softly, “Thank you.”

*

Now that the threat of sustaining mortal wounds has somewhat eased, the sheriff only arches an incredibly skeptical brow when Stiles appears in his office holding a bag of real, true cheeseburgers, and asking to see all the files on the Hale fire.

“You’re grounded,” John says. “That means you can’t see anything.”

But he’s tempted by the burgers, Stiles can tell, so he waves the bag enticingly and says, “They’ve got real cheese, Dad. And bacon.”

He sighs. “Why do you want those files?”

“Derek says the fire wasn’t an accident. Laura apparently came here to get justice for her family. She was looking for me, for help, but she was killed before she found me.” Stiles shrugs and drops the bag of burgers on his desk.

“That isn’t your fault,” John says, but Stiles shrugs again.

“I know. But maybe they’re right. Maybe there was something that got overlooked.”

The sheriff scowls a little, with a weary sigh. “Of course there was something. It was a family of werewolves killed by a random fire and the case was closed the next day. You know as well as I do that cases like that, with werewolf victims, are closed as quickly as possible. Wouldn’t want to make anybody uncomfortable.”

Stiles nods. “But do you remember the investigation at the time?”

“I remember the Hales were dead, and Laura and Derek survived, mercifully unharmed but covered in ash. They weren’t home when the fire started, but they discovered it, and they’d tried to break in to rescue their family while waiting for the fire department and deputies to get out there.” His eyes look haunted. “When I got there, Laura was screaming and tearing at the siding with her claws, her fingers burning, desperate to get inside, but it was too hot. The house collapsed shortly after, but…” He shakes his head. “The only thing Derek said that night was that he could hear them. Screaming. As the house came down.

“After that, well. I had a house full of dead Hales, but two who were barely more than children, 17 and 18 years old, one a new alpha. I left the investigation to the deputies and focused instead on keeping child protective services from taking Derek from his sister, which was the last thing either of them needed, after losing their Pack. I found them a foster family upstate, which I thought would be better. Laura agreed, and…” He winced a little. “I nearly lost my badge for arranging that, and sending them off, before CPS had a chance to intervene. By the time I’d made sure Derek and Laura were safe, the case was closed.”

“Did you feel like it was closed properly?”

The sheriff shakes his head. “No. Of course I didn’t. But it was ruled an accident, and there wasn’t much I could do.”

He throws Stiles the key to the storage closet out back, the one that’s basically a warehouse of old case files. “You know the way,” he says. “If there’s any possibility of justice for the Hales, I won’t stand in the way.”

*

“You can’t honestly be planning to argue that Derek Hale’s actions were justified,” Scott says, looking horrified.

Stiles shrugs. “I don’t know. It’s an option. I mean, you have a new alpha, reeling from the death of his sister, from inheriting the alpha power when he was never meant to, suddenly without a pack or without any family at all, and the very same people responsible for her death are the ones who worked so hard to cover up what actually happened to kill the rest of your family 15 years ago. What would you do?”

“I wouldn’t go on a murderous rampage!” Scott says. “I’d call the police! The detectives! I’d go after justice, not revenge—”

“The same justice that failed the Hales in the first place?” he asks quietly. “You know as well as I do that there are flaws in our legal system, cracks that werewolves fall through. Why would he trust a system that had already failed him? And failed Laura?”

“You can’t honestly think that excuses murder.”

“Of course I don’t! But at this point, our options are execution or a life time in prison, and the only chance of sparing his life is by arguing that maybe, maybe it was a crime of passion, not a pre-meditated attempt to destroy the Argents. To make the jury doubt his responsibility, we have to make them think that maybe, just a little – maybe Derek was a tiny bit justified.”

“Killing is never justified,” Scott says.

“And yet killing Laura was fair?”

“I didn’t say the law was perfect, but it’s still the law.”

“And it’s fundamentally flawed and the Hales didn’t deserve to die the way they did.”

*

“It sounds like bullshit to me,” Derek says, after Lydia outlines their plan for his defense.

“Excuse me?”

“I knew what I was doing. I knew the consequences. The alpha powers made me angrier, made me stronger, but they didn’t make me stupid.” He rolls his eyes. “I don’t regret a second of it. I wasn’t crazy when I tore Gerard Argent’s throat out, or any of his hunters.”

Lydia huffs, frustrated. “That’s not exactly the kind of defense that will win us this case, Mr. Hale.”

“Is there any defense that will, really?” He shrugs.

Stiles leans forward, hand on Derek’s wrist, which is still strapped to the bed. Lydia’s eyes narrow, but she doesn’t snap at him to move away, so that’s an improvement.

“Sending you to the hunters to be executed isn’t justice,” Stiles says, thumb running along the fragile bone he can feel beneath Derek’s skin. “Sending the last surviving Hale to be slaughtered isn’t the justice your family deserves.”

Derek stares at him for a moment, confused, like he doesn’t quite know what to do with Stiles, and then he asks, “Why do you even care?”

“Because it’s bullshit,” Stiles says. “Hunters are not above the law. They had no right to execute Laura, and – and I don’t know what they’re hiding about the fire, but it’s got cover up written all over it.”

Derek nods carefully, slowly, and then says to Lydia, without looking away from Stiles, “Argue whatever you want. I won’t stop you. You can go now.”

She hisses but gathers her things. Stiles thinks Derek sort of freaks her out a bit; she retreats far too easily.

After she’s gone, Stiles realizes he’s still stroking Derek’s wrist, and he snaps his hand away. “I guess I should be going too,” he says, awkward. He starts gathering his things.

“Stay,” Derek says, and Stiles bites his lip, hesitating. He looks at Derek, and Derek’s staring right at him, gaze sharp and intense, and then he looks away. “I know what they’re covering up,” he says. “Laura didn’t know, not all of it. But I do.”

Stiles drops back into his chair, eyes wide.

“I was in love with her,” Derek says, voice soft. “I thought I was. With Kate Argent.”

Stiles frowns. He knows of Kate, vaguely – Allison’s aunt. In her early forties now, but still gorgeous, if slightly terrifying.

“But you were only 17. And she’s a…”

“A hunter,” Derek says. “She’s very good at her job. She was 27, I was 17, she pretended she wanted me, and I was stupid and thought I was in love.” He laughs, a bitter sound. “She had me so twisted up, I told her everything – about my mother, my father, my siblings and cousins, when they were home, when they weren’t, how to sneak inside without triggering any of the security systems my mother had installed, any of the wards…” He trails off, looking far away again, and then says, “The night of the fire, she stood me up. I waited for hours, she never came. When Laura finally came to drag me home – when we got there – it was too late. But I could smell her, all over, under all the smoke.”

“She started the fire,” Stiles echoed, horrified. Derek stares at the ceiling, face blank, cold. “But why?”

“The only good werewolf is a dead one,” he whispers, and Stiles can’t help it; he takes Derek’s hand, squeezing it hard, and Derek looks so startled, so wonderstruck by that one slight, comforting touch, that Stiles wants to cry.

*

Derek looks different, with most of his injuries healed up, with his beard shaved off, his hair trimmed and smoothed back, a suit expertly tailored so that he’d look at home in a board room somewhere. Lydia’s done an amazing job making it hard to remember he’s supposedly a monster.

The trial’s been fast tracked because of the public interest, the political pressure, the fact that everyone’s pretty sure it’ll be an open and close case. After all, he was caught trying to commit murder, after being identified in surveillance footage from another murder scene.

Stiles isn’t sure how Lydia manages to look so sharp and put together herself, considering they had three days to come up with Derek’s defense, but she does. Stiles had nearly walked into the court room with her with half his buttons done up wrong, and only her irritated intervention had saved him from that.

The court room is packed – family members of the deceased, other Argent hunters, grim-eyed and after vengeance. Allison is there, and so is Scott, the sheriff, and Melissa McCall, who offers him an encouraging, if somewhat weary, smile when Stiles meets her eyes.

The charges are read; it’s brutal, and takes far too long. Stiles doesn’t know what to do with his hands, his shoulders, his face. He’s sitting between Lydia and Derek, his job is to “take notes and keep Derek from blowing the case,” but he feels sick to his stomach.

Beside him, Derek is deliberately still, both hands cuffed with mountain ash to keep him mostly human. Stiles doesn’t know what they intend to do if he decides to use his teeth, but he’s pretty sure the tripled security presence, all armed with wolfsbane bullets, is there to convince him not to.

“Derek Hale is a monster,” Marin Morrell, crown prosecutor, begins in her opening statement. “That can’t be denied. His hands are stained with the blood of sixteen men and women who had dedicated their lives to protecting us from the werewolf threat—or maybe I should say his claws. His fangs. His twisted face, capable of shifting into an animal form. Don’t be fooled by his appearance here today. Derek Hale is not human. He is an animal. There is more than enough evidence, which we will present during this trial, to prove that he is a ruthless, feral animal, guilty of willfully and knowingly tearing sixteen good men and women apart. And, like all rabid animals, he needs to be put down.”

Stiles clenches his hands into fists, still fidgeting, furious now, because his entire life is about fighting against those sorts of ignorant stereotypes. Before he can do anything, however, Derek wraps his hand around Stiles’ wrist, holding him still.

“Well,” Lydia hisses, as Marin takes her seat. “That lacked any imagination at all.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she says to the jury, smiling tightly. “The physical evidence against my client is damning. You’ve no doubt seen the video footage and the media coverage, and it would be beyond even my considerable skill to argue against what we all know to be true: Derek Hale did kill sixteen men and women.”

There are whispers in the court, but Lydia ignores them.

“But the question remains, was he responsible for those actions? Or were there other factors at play, factors which may have hindered Mr. Hale’s ability to judge the consequences and morality of his actions. Because at the end of the day, Derek Hale did not kill sixteen innocent men and women; he killed 16 hunters. Sixteen hunters who he had recently found out were responsible for the execution of his alpha and sister.

“Derek Hale was never meant to be an alpha. But because of the hasty, ill-advised, and frankly borderline illegal actions of those hunters, he not only found himself dealing with suddenly inheriting alpha powers he was never meant to have, he also found himself without a family. Without a Pack. With nothing left in him except fury, confusion, and power.

“I’m not asking you to decide whether those hunters deserved it, because no one deserves to die the way they did.”

Derek growls, soft, and now it’s Stiles with his fingers wrapped around his wrist, just above the manacle.

“But you’ll see that the only thing my client is guilty of is being treated like a monster – and then punished for becoming one.”

She sits down, letting out a tense breath, and Stiles offers her a small smile.

Derek just stares straight ahead, breathing even and measured, like he’s barely there at all.

*

The prosecution has dozens of witnesses – blood spatter experts, crime lab technicians with DNA reports, fingerprints, video and photographic evidence, and witness testimony, and each time they share their proof that Derek committed the crimes he’s been accused of, Lydia shakes her head and says, “No questions, your honour.”

*

Lydia calls Deaton to the stand, an expert on werewolf psychology.

“Do you know Mr. Hale?” she asks him.

“No.” Deaton looks at Derek. “But I knew his mother. We were close.”

She nods. “To your knowledge, did Talia Hale ever intend for Derek to become alpha in the event of her death?”

Deaton smiles a little. “No,” he says. His voice is soothing and gentle. “It takes a certain… presence of character, to be an alpha. An A-type personality, almost. Children who are typically in line to inherit the alpha power are strong-willed, direct, natural-born leaders, and that was always Laura. That isn’t to say that Talia didn’t value Derek’s contribution to the Pack. Betas bring a balance, a strength, a foundation of calm support, a thoughtfulness to even out an alpha child’s brash impulsiveness. – an alpha without a beta might just as well be powerless.”

“And what of an alpha without a Pack at all? Without that bond to steady him?” she asks.

Deaton looks away from Derek and says, “Without any sort of foundation to help temper the fire of an alpha’s power, reason would be eroded. There would be no room for anything except… an animalistic sort of reaction to pain.”

“And the pain of, say, losing the last surviving member of his Pack – his family?”

“I don’t see how any werewolf, under such conditions, could be capable of reacting in a rational way. Especially one who was never meant to be an alpha at all.”

Derek’s getting restless now, but Lydia ends the line of questioning, taking her seat, and by the time the prosecution is done poking holes in Deaton’s credibility, Derek’s breathing is calm and measured again.

*

Allison is, of course, the prosecution’s star witness. She takes the stand, and Marin walks her through recounting the attack that left Gerard dead, and then the one at her house. Allison sticks to the facts, reciting them coolly, without emotion or exaggeration, which Stiles appreciate. She doesn’t make eye contact – not with Marin, or Derek, or Stiles, or anybody at all.

And then Lydia gets up for cross examination and purrs, “Ms. Argent. You are, of course, a hunter, like your grandfather.”

“I am,” she says. “Like everyone else is, in my family.”

“And you follow the code.”

Allison nods. “We all do. The code is what separates us from them.”

“Them?”

Her voice goes colder. “The monsters. The wolves.”

“So you know the code, then,” Lydia asks, casual.

“Of course.”

“Could you explain it for the court, please?”

Allison says without hesitation, “We hunt those who hunt us. It means hunters protect humankind – innocent men, women and children – from werewolves who would seek to do them harm.”

“And do all werewolves seek to do innocent human beings harm?”

There’s a slight hesitation, and then Allison says, “No. I suppose they don’t.”

“Did Laura Hale mean to do anybody harm?”

Marin rises in objection and is overruled, and Allison looks a little shaken when she says, “Laura Hale charged a patrol of hunters. She was clearly being aggressive.”

“An Argent patrol on Hale land,” Lydia says. “So the patrol of hunters shot her.” She draws a line with one blood red fingernail, right between her eyes. “Here. With wolfsbane. Is that correct?”

Allison agrees that it was, and then agrees that the wound was enough to keep Laura down for a significant amount of time – long enough to call the sheriff’s office, but they didn’t.

“Instead,” Lydia says. “She was executed and her body left hanging from the trees. Tell me, Miss Argent, what do you know about the fire that claimed the lives of nine members of the Hale family 15 years ago, many of them children?”

Marin objects again, and Lydia withdraws the question with a smile. “Would you do me a favour, Ms. Argent,” she says instead. She drops a book – old and bound in leather – on the desk in front of Allison. “You recognize this book, of course?”

“Yes,” Allison says. “It’s the Hunter’s Code.”

“Would you read the subsection I’ve marked, please.”

Allison looks hesitant, but she turns to the marked page and reads carefully, “Section 37, subsection e: rights and protections of werewolves.” She frowns, glancing up quickly, and Stiles follows her gaze. Her dad’s there in the audience, back from wherever he’d been before, and she looks back down. “I – I don’t know this part,” she says. “I’ve never seen it. Our copy doesn’t have this – why doesn’t our copy have this?”

“Read, please.”

“A hunter’s duty to justice does not solely extend to innocent human men, women and children, but to innocent werewolves as well. Unless infallible evidence to the contrary can be found, a werewolf must be presumed innocent and protected as such, and the burden of proof rests upon the hunter and her brethren. Unless such proof can be presented, a werewolf’s life must be held in equal value to that of a man or woman’s. No hunter is to take him or herself as being above the judicial process of the law.”

She closes the book, looking pale, staring at her father. “Why haven’t I seen this?”

“Ms. Argent, in your opinion, did Gerard Argent possess a suitable amount of presentable evidence of Laura Hale’s guilt before ordering her execution?”

“No,” she says, after a long, long pause. Her voice cracks. “But that doesn’t mean he deserved what that monster did to him!”

“No,” Lydia says politely. “I don’t suppose it does. But then, the Hale children who died in that fire, they didn’t deserve it either, did they?”

Marin objects again, more violently than before, but Lydia smiles sweetly and says, “The defense rests, your honour,” and takes her seat.

*

The trial only lasts three days. Derek is not asked to testify, which is probably for the best, and Marin reviews the damning evidence in her closing statements.

When it’s her turn, Lydia simply says to the jury, “These days, we hear a lot about what it means to be a werewolf – we hear that they are monsters, second-class citizens with barely any control over their instinctual reactions. We hear that they’re barely human – that the only good werewolf is a dead one. That they’re feral, beastly, animalistic. Now picture a werewolf, wholly alone, without a Pack or a family for the first time in his life, with power he was never meant to hold coursing through his veins, whose entire world has been destroyed, who only knows one thing – that according to the people who took his family from him, he is a monster. And ask yourselves, is it not true that first we convince them that they are monsters, and then punish them for believing us?”

*

They deliberate for an entire day. Derek’s in lock up, and barely talking. Lydia is stressed and nervous and has no patience for his need to fidget and pace, so Stiles finds himself with Scott, barely able to sit still, at a bar a few blocks from the courthouse.

Scott says there’s no way Derek gets anything less than an execution, but at least he sounds a little sorrowful when he says it. He asks, “Why do you care so much?”

“Because it isn’t fair? Because he isn’t a monster. Because I think the Argents had something to do with the Hale fire, but I can’t prove it. Because the Argents think they’re above the law. Because I’m so fucking sick of the law treating anyone who’s different as being worth less than everybody else.”

He’s got a glass of whiskey on the table in front of him, but Stiles doesn’t have much appetite for it.

Scott shoots back his own before saying, “I know that in general, that’s true – that werewolves are treated like shit. But don’t you think Derek’s part of the problem? I mean, talk about reinforcing stereotypes. How can you not just write him off as a monster?”

Stiles slumps in his chair, spinning his glass, and shrugs. “Because I was with you, Scott, when you first turned. You were so wild, nearly feral, and tried to kill me, but you were still just Scott – my best friend. I never once thought you were a monster. And I wouldn’t have, even if you’d have hurt me. And I remember how it felt when I lost my mother. What if she had been all I had? What if I’d lost everyone else too? Sometimes good people do terrible things, and it doesn’t mean that those terrible things are okay. It just means that maybe… maybe we shouldn’t give up on them. Because no one gave up on me and no one gave up on you and I’m just… not ready to give up on Derek.”

“He doesn’t deserve that from you, though.”

“He doesn’t deserve any of what’s happened.”

Scott sighs and doesn’t argue that point, at least.

*

“Thank you,” Derek says, quiet. Stiles shoots him a startled look.

“For what?”

“Caring.” Derek shrugs. His eyes are unfocussed, like he’s barely present at all – not at all like the intense look he’d had the first time Stiles had seen him, at Allison’s. “About Laura, and the others. And me.”

“Don’t give up,” Stiles says suddenly. “There’s still a chance, you could just get prison, not execution.”

And Derek smiles, faintly. “I’m not going to prison, Stiles.”

“You could.”

Finally, Derek turns his head, his eyes focussing on Stiles’ face. “I won’t be put in a cage,” he says calmly. “I won’t spend the rest of my life an animal. The hunters won’t allow it. Neither will I.”

Stiles’ heart hiccups a little bit, speeding up. “What are you going to do?” he whispers. Derek just turns to stare straight ahead again. “Derek, please.”

And then the judge is entering the chambers again and they rise to their feet. There’s no time to talk as the verdict is read.

Derek is found guilty, of course. There was never any doubt of that. But when it comes time for the jury to recommend sentencing, the head juror – who looks pale and exhausted, eyes wide and unwilling to settle anywhere, as if worried she’ll see judgement on Derek’s face, or the victims’ families’, says, “Based on the circumstances surrounding the crimes, and the stresses Mr. Hale faced at the time, we cannot say, with certainty, that he is beyond redemption, and therefore cannot reach a unanimous decision for execution. Because of this, we are recommending life in prison, with the possibility of parole in 30 years.” Her voice trembles and the judge thanks her. She collapses in her seat.

It should be a victory. It was basically the best they were going to get. Lydia is grinning, sharp and pleased.

But Stiles just stares at Derek and wants to cry.

The judge accepts the jury’s recommendation and says, “I now transfer Mr. Hale into the custody of the hunters, who will deliver him to Forest Heights Maximum Security Lycanthropic Penitentiary.”

He pounds his gavel and the case is over, but Stiles just turns to Derek and says, “Please. It’s going to be okay.”

Derek doesn’t even seem to notice Stiles at all anymore. His eyes are narrowed and focused on the door where four hunters have entered, all of them armed to the teeth and stinking of wolfsbane. Alpha red bleeds into Derek’s eyes and he starts to growl, low, so it just feels like a vibration in Stiles’ chest.

“Derek,” he whispers, reaching out and touching his wrist.

Derek jerks away with a snarl and then one of the hunters says, “C’mon , Derek, you have to be at least a little glad to see me.”

It’s Kate Argent; of course it is. Why wouldn’t they have sent anyone else?

“Are you going to fight?” she asks, with a sharp grin. “I hope so.”

And then Derek is lunging at her, his human hands reaching out like he’s forgotten the cuffs around his wrists keep him from shifting.

Kate takes him down with a quick punch in the throat and a taser slammed against his chest, and she’s still laughing when he falls to the ground, twitching.

*

“We have to help him,” Stiles says, pacing the sheriff’s office.

“You’ve helped him all you can. This was a victory. You need to accept that. Derek is alive because of you. And you’ve got to remember, he killed a lot of people.” The sheriff sighs. “He was never going to be found not guilty.”

“Bad people,” Stiles says. “He killed bad people, who killed his sister, and had something to do with the death of the rest of his family. But all the evidence is suspiciously missing, so I can’t prove it, all I know is that the Argents were involved.”

“We can keep looking,” the sheriff says. “But even if we can prove it, it won’t help Derek now.”

Stiles frowns, picking nervously at a threat on his hoodie. “I think it would,” he says. “I think it’s pretty much the only thing he’s got right now.”

“Stiles,” John says. “Why do you—”

Boyd appears in the doorway, and he winces when he sees Stiles. “Sheriff,” he says formally. “Dispatch just received an urgent call for backup. All available officers are on their way to the scene.” He hesitates, shooting Stiles a quick look, and then adds, “It’s from the hunters, sir. The ones transporting Hale. There was an incident at--”

Stiles is already scrambling out of his chair when his father slams him back into it with one hand on his shoulder. “Stay,” he snaps, grabbing his gun and his hat. “Or better yet, go home. Boyd, if you, Reyes, or any employee of this office tells my son where this incident occurred, I’ll fire you. Come on.”

He walks out of the room grimly and Boyd follows, grimacing apologetically at Stiles.

“I wasn’t going to come anyway,” he shouts after them, which is, of course, a lie.

*

Stiles goes home. The sheriff’s office is pretty much empty, no one will tell him anything or give him access to a police radio, and he’s hungry. Plus, he’s got a scanner at home, so it’s possible he can figure out what’s going on.

But the radio is oddly quiet, save for a few terse calls for a domestic dispute, a teenager who missed curfew, and a loud party. Other than that, and the odd unit reporting “nothing suspicious”, it’s quiet.

Which is, all in all, very suspicious.

Stiles makes himself some scrambled eggs and a piece of toast and sits at his dining room table, frowning.

He texts his dad. “Pretty quiet out there.”

“Turn off the scanner. Lock your door.”

Stiles’ eyebrows go up, because that’s interesting. Lock his doors. As if there were criminals or unsavory sorts running amuck, who might pay him a visit.

Like maybe… maybe Derek escaped.

“Did he kill them?” he asks.

“Wounded. None fatal. LOCK YOUR DOOR.”

Stiles’ door is locked. He’s not an idiot – it’s always locked. But he gets up to double check it anyway, just as there’s a flurry of chatter over the police scanner.

“Suspect sighted heading west on 49th, in pursuit.”

Do not engage Wait for backup.”

“Acknowledged. Heading north on Carrington.”

There’s more – directions and updates, acknowledgements, but Stiles doesn’t even hear it anymore, because there are footsteps in the hallway, he can hear them through the door, getting closer, closer – Derek wouldn’t come here, why would he – he doesn’t even know where Stiles lives.

A cool draft brushes against the back of Stiles’ neck and he goes very still, eyes wide, because the footsteps in the hall have stopped at the neighbour’s door and there’s a knock and a greeting and now they’re talking like old friends and it isn’t Derek – of course it’s not Derek.

Because Derek is standing behind him.

He spins, stumbling back against the door, and says, “You can’t be here.”

Derek’s watching him carefully, both hands raised – still cuffed to keep from shifting. “You should lock your windows,” he says.

“I live on the seventh floor!”

Derek shrugs, taking a small step closer, and Stiles shrinks against the door. “I need to call my dad,” he says, glancing wildly at his phone. It’s on the table, halfway between him and Derek, and there’s no way he can get there before Derek can.

“Stiles,” Derek says, quiet. “I need your help.”

“You need my – what help can I possibly be?” His voice is going high and a little hysterical.

Derek takes another step closer and Stiles panics, ducking into the kitchen, yanking open his junk drawer. He pulls out the gun he keeps there, tucked in between some cloth napkins Melissa had given him as a housewarming gift that he never used because he didn’t know what to do with a napkin that wasn’t disposable. It just didn’t make sense.

Derek follows him into the kitchen, walking slow and steady, hands still raised, and Stiles points the gun at him. “Don’t come any closer,” he says, because it’s one thing to sit next to Derek at court, when there are hunters with wolfsbane all around them, or when he was in the hospital, barely able to move, and bound to the bed.

Stiles isn’t suicidal; wolves are dangerous and this one has proven more dangerous than most. He’d also escaped a patrol of hunters and somehow hunted Stiles down. Probably the same way he hunted Allison down, and he was trying to kill her.

“Put the gun down, Stiles,” Derek says, voice oddly gentle.

Stiles laughs and it sounds like a hyena. “I’m not crazy,” he says. “What are you doing here? You can’t be here. Whatever this is – I can’t help you now. I’m not a lawyer, I haven’t got client privilege – and even if I did, I don’t know if it applies to escaped convicted murderers!”

“You’re not going to shoot me,” Derek tells him.

“I know how to shoot!”

“The gun’s not loaded.”

Stiles grimaces. “Of course it’s not,” he says. “You think the son of a sheriff would be stupid enough to keep a loaded gun in a drawer in the kitchen? I’m not—”

“And I know what you are.”

Stiles goes very still, though his heart hiccups and starts pounding even faster. His vision blurs a little, throat closing up – now is not the time for a panic attack, but his body doesn’t seem to agree.

He glances away from Derek, just once, darting a quick, desperate look at the jar on the highest shelf, above the cupboard, filled with Mountain Ash.

Stiles doesn’t know how Derek knows what he is, when Stiles barely knows himself. Just that sometimes, things happened – magic things – that he didn’t understand and couldn’t control. That the Adderall keeps it quiet, which was a bonus, because it keeps Stiles from shaking apart at the seams too. Win-win.

But the ash… he hadn’t quite managed to part with that.

He wishes now he’d gone for that instead of the gun.

“What do you want?” he asks. “Why’d you escape?”

“I didn’t escape; they let me go. You really think a bunch of hunters were going to lock me up, feed me, house me, supervise me for the rest of my life? I was never going to escape this alive.”

“The court said – it was life in prison,” he says.

Derek shrugs. “Kate decided staging a breakout and letting me go so she could hunt me down and execute me with the full authority of the law would be more exciting. Besides. You know if it was me, they’d be dead, not wounded.”

Stiles hesitates again, but fuck, the gun is empty. He sets it on the bookshelf and when Derek tries coming closer, he scrambles back, closer to his phone, which is still on the table by the window. So close now.

“Then why did you come here?” he asks, to distract him.

“Critical part of her plan is leaving me defenseless; I need these cuffs off.”

Stiles stares at the cuffs on Derek’s wrists and says, “I can’t help you. I don’t have a key.”

“No,” Derek says, patient. He steps closer, just a little, and Stiles scrambles back, hip hitting the table. “But you’re the only one who doesn’t need a key. Because of what you are. But Stiles –”

He reaches for his phone, but it’s just out of reach, and he’s about to slide around the table, in front of the window, when Derek’s voice goes from soothing to sharp, abruptly. “Don’t,” he says, and it’s instinct – Stiles freezes. “Listen to me, you need to trust me, because they know what you are too. There are four hunters on the rooftops around your apartment.”

Stiles swallows hard, not quite willing to believe him. “Looking for you,” he says.

“They were here before I got here.”

It could be a lie. Or, “Maybe they knew you’d come here, if I’m the only one who can open those, like you said.”

Derek growls softly, growing frustrated. “Maybe,” he allows. “You wanna risk it?”

Stiles weighs the odds – he’s never been good at math. So he chooses to go for his phone, scrambling the last few steps forward, and he’s in front of the window, curtains still billowing where Derek came through, but his fingers are closing around his phone and he thinks, for a minute, that he was right. Of course they won’t hurt him – he’s human.

And then the window shatters with gunshots, glass spraying, and Stiles has a quicksilver flash of pain and terror before Derek’s slamming into his back and taking him down.

He’s face down on the floor, his face is burning, there’s blood – he can taste his own blood – but Derek has him covered from the bullets and the falling glass, carefully tucking Stiles underneath him, swearing quietly.

It seems to last forever, but probably not, before Derek rises up into a crouch, turns Stiles over, and snaps, “Are you hurt?”

“My face,” Stiles says, still stunned.

The lights were all shot out and it’s so dark, but Derek’s eyes flash red briefly as he growls. “Cuts,” he says. “No gunshots. I told you.”

“They were shooting at you,” Stiles says shakily.

“You smell wolfsbane? I don’t.”

All Stiles smells is his own blood, the acrid scent of gunpowder, and Derek. “Oh god,” he breathes.

“C’mon.”

Derek drags him to his feet. “The door,” he says grimly. “They’ll come to make sure they finished the job. You don’t want to be here when they do.”

Stiles’ legs feel like Jello, he’s going to throw up, he wants his dad. But he lets Derek tug him by the wrist, out the door and towards the roof of the building. Stiles’ phone is still clutched in his hand.

*

“I need to call my dad,” Stiles says.

They’re in Derek’s car, which had apparently been tucked safely away in an old building the Hale family owned. It’s Laura’s, Derek says tersely, when Stiles asks. She’d left her gorgeous black Camaro in storage when she and Derek had been sent to New York after the fire.

It’s pretty much the sexiest car Stiles has ever seen, and he sinks low into the leather upholstery as they head out of town.

“It isn’t safe,” Derek says. “These hunters don’t follow the code. You should know that by now.”

“People heard the gunfire. He’s probably already there, at my apartment, which is riddled with bullet holes, and I’m not there. You know, it’s the first time I actually listened to him when he told me to go home and stay out of it, and look where that got me. But he’s going to be scared. And he has a bad heart. And he’s called seventeen times and I haven’t answered. He’s probably tracking my phone right now.”

“Turn it off. Or I’ll throw it out the window.”

“I just need to let him know that I’m alive,” Stiles asks. “Please.”

Derek huffs a little but he says, “Fine. Call. Tell him you’re safe but not to come after you or he’ll be in danger.”

“From you?”

“From the hunters who tried to kill you.”

“But am I safe from you?”

Derek looks wounded, but just for a second. “I would never let anybody hurt you.”

He sighs but dials his dad, quickly, before Derek changes his mind.

“Stiles,” the sheriff answers. “Jesus, Stiles, where are you? Are you okay? What happened?” The words trip over themselves and break.

“Dad, hey,” Stiles says, turning to stare blindly out the window and blinking back tears. “Hey. I’m okay. I just – it got kinda scary there, but I’m okay. I promise.”

“Where are you.”

He hesitates. “I’m not sure. But I’m safe. I can’t – it’s not safe for you to come after me, but I’m going to be okay.”

“Fuck, Stiles.”

“Language, Dad.”

“Is Hale with you?”

“It wasn’t him, he wasn’t the one who attacked. He got me out.”

“So you are with him. Stiles. Tell me where you’re going, or—”

“Dad,” Stiles says softly. “I’ll be okay. I promise.” And then, laughing a little tearfully, he says, “Go home. Stay safe.”

He hangs up while his dad’s still talking, and it takes a moment for his eyes to stop stinging, his hands to stop trembling. He turns the phone off.

Derek is quiet, turning onto a dark dirt road leading into the Preserve. After a moment, he says, “Take the battery out.”

Stiles does, fingers fumbling with it.

They drive farther, road twisting into the trees, and finally, Derek pulls to the side, turning off the car. Aside from the dashboard, there are no artificial lights here, and the darkness swallows them up.

Stiles wonders, now that he’s had a few moments of silence and darkness to calm his threatening panic, if maybe Derek took him out here to kill him after all.

“What are we doing out here?” he asks, when Derek doesn’t offer any answers.

“We need to wait for the drugs you take to leave your system, so you can access your Spark and get these cuffs off me.”

“Half-life of Adderall is 10 hours,” Stiles says, because useless information and babbling is how he deals with stress.

Derek reaches over and starts rummaging in the glove box. “You should be clean in about four.”

“So we’re just going to… sit here? For four hours?”

“Safest place to be,” Derek says, sitting back and turning on the overhead light. It’s sudden and blinding and Stiles flinches. “You’re bleeding,” he explains, holding up the tiny first aid kit. “Let me clean it.”

“Why do werewolves stock up on first aid kids?” Stiles asks. “And what do you know about cleaning wounds?”

“My youngest cousin was human,” Derek says, unwrapping an alcohol swab. “And accident-prone.”

“Human,” he echoes. “There were humans in your house, when—”

“Yes.”

The alcohol burns like a bitch.

He closes his eyes and holds his breath and tries not to cry as Derek carefully cleans at the cuts flying glass left on his face and neck.

When all the cuts and scrapes are clean, Derek clears his throat and sits back. “I don’t think you’ll need stitches,” he says. He turns off the overhead light and Stiles is glad for the darkness. Maybe shock is setting in, or panic, because he can’t stop shaking, his throat is tight with tears or nausea, he isn’t sure, and he’s cold all over.

He pulls his knees up, hugging the, trying to get comfortable, and says, “Scott’s probably going to find us here. Just so you know.”

“That’s the alpha whose smell was all over you?” Derek asks, and Stiles can practically hear his eyes roll.

Stiles surreptitiously sniffs at his shoulder but doesn’t smell anything suspicious, not that he’d be able to pick up whatever smell can. “I guess.”

“The True Alpha,” Derek sneers.

“N-no, he’s not – how did you – Scott’s a vet.”

“Whose smell, which is all over you, matches exactly with the werewolf superhero who showed up at Allison Argent’s.”

Stiles is silent. He can’t really argue that. But the quiet grows deeper, and his thoughts start running away with him again, so he has to break it. “Does it both you? Another alpha’s scent?”

He can see a flash of Derek’s teeth in the darkness, a smug grin. “You don’t smell like him now,” he says. “Not after I was all over you.”

Stiles has a quick flashback to his apartment, the gunfire, the glass, Derek’s weight pinning him to the floor. He shudders and turns away.

The silence gets overwhelming again, and he starts twitching. Maybe Derek knows, because he reaches over and turns on the radio, classic rock playing soft and low. It helps, and Stiles is so exhausted. He makes himself as comfortable as he can, though he’s still shivering, and after a few moments of that, Derek tosses him his jacket.

He curls up underneath the jacket and maybe he’s naïve or in shock or this is some sort of Stockholm syndrome, but he does feel safe, right now, here, in this car with Derek. He probably shouldn’t.

But he falls asleep, which is helpful.

*

Stiles has a nightmare – bullets are flying and glass is shattering and he’s screaming and screaming and his dad is calling his name but no one can get to him before the glass starts tearing into his body.

He wakes up mid-panic attack to Derek’s hands on his shoulders, thumbs stroking the sides of his neck in a misguided attempt to be soothing that, in Stiles’ panicked mind, feels more like being strangled.

“Stiles, hey, it’s okay,” Derek’s saying when Stiles jerks awake, inhaling to scream. The panic grows worse when he doesn’t recognize where he is or why, just that it’s dark and someone is looming over him, holding him down, making it impossible to breathe.

So he tears himself away and starts scrambling for the door, and Derek grabs both his hands. “Stiles,” he snaps, and the sharp tone does more to orient him than the attempts at comfort had.

The car, Derek, the Preserve, the hunters, oh fuck, Stiles thinks, and then he’s hunching over, breathing raggedly, arms wrapped around his stomach, heart going wild.

His legs are asleep, he realizes, and he tries to laugh, but he’s wheezing too hard. That would explain why the glass in his dream had seemed to tear them off.

“Breathe,” Derek says, calmer now, palm running up and down Stiles’ back. “Follow my rhythm.”

It becomes easier and easier to inhale as his hand slides up, and exhale as it goes down again, and it doesn’t take as long as it usually does for Stiles’ heart to calm and his breathing to slow enough for him to gasp, “Know a lot about panic attacks?”

Derek’s hand slows for a moment and then picks up the same rhythm. “Yeah,” he says. “Laura used to get them, after.”

Stiles closes his eyes and nods and keeps trying to breathe.

“What are you going to do?” he asks, and Derek stops stroking his back, but leaves his hand there, between Stiles’ shoulders. “When I take the cuffs off?”

“Kill them,” he says simply.

Stiles laughs shakily. “That’s your plan? Continue your quest for vengeance?”

“All I need is Kate,” Derek says quietly. “She’s the last one.”

“Or we could find evidence, prove she did it, drag her before the courts, get justice.”

“That’s not the kind of justice my family deserves.”

Stiles sits up, knocking Derek’s hand away, and says, “They don’t deserve the world to know what the Argents did? They don’t deserve everyone knowing, finally, that the hunters are not above the law – that they’re killers, that they wiped out nearly an entire family against their sacred code? They don’t deserve to have you somehow survive this?”

Derek touches Stiles’ face, thumb gently brushing the worst of the cuts there. “You heal so slowly,” he says, like he hadn’t heard anything Stiles said.

His face is stinging, his entire body is aching, and his head is pounding, but Stiles is more concerned with the fact that Derek expects him to take those cuffs off so he can shift again, so he can kill more hunters.

Stiles can’t be responsible for that, he can’t. He’s not crazy… he can’t prove Derek’s not a monster if the first thing he does upon getting free is shift back into a monster and continue his blood quest.

“How much longer?” he whispers, as Derek starts pulling away his pain. It’s a dizzying, sweet rush, like cotton candy melting on his tongue, and he can’t help moaning softly, leaning closer.

“An hour,” Derek says. “Nearly time.”

*

“Stiles,” Derek says, soft. He’s shaking Stiles’ shoulder gently, and unlike before, Stiles wakes slowly, awareness coming back softly, like the rising sun.

The sky is lightening, a hint of pink between the trees to the east, and Stiles realizes with a start that he’d fallen asleep on Derek’s shoulder somehow.

He sits up, rubbing at his eyes. “Morning?” he asks, voice slurred.

“Yeah,” Derek says, soft. “You ready to take the cuffs off?”

And Stiles can feel it, now, buzzing in his veins, a magnetic vibration that seems to be echoed in Derek’s cuffs, the same way it echoes in mountain ash.

“Derek,” he says, stalling for time. He’d really hoped Scott would have found him by now. “You can’t just keep killing – you can’t. You’re not a monster.”

Any softness in Derek’s face is gone suddenly, and he says, “You know what I am. Take these off.” He holds both wrists out.

Stiles grimaces, looking around wildly, like he expects to see Scott conveniently rushing to the rescue. The sun is rising higher, and all he sees are trees, a narrow dirt road, and Derek’s car. “I can’t,” he says.

Derek growls low. “Don’t try my patience.”

“We can come up with another way!”

“Stiles! Take them off!”

Stiles looks at him desperately. “Just – just listen. We can find evidence, we can build a case, we can prove—”

Stiles.” Derek grabs his hands, fingers rough around Stiles’ wrists, and Stiles wonders if he’ll have bruises.

“You said you’d never hurt me,” he says shakily, and Derek’s eyes hold his for a long moment, and then he lets Stiles’ hands go. He slams a fist against the steering wheel and curses instead.

“Listen,” Stiles says, reaching desperately for Derek’s hand, before he hurts himself. “I’ll help you, I swear I will. But you aren’t a monster. There are other options. We can—”

Derek reaches over and opens the door. “Get out,” he says.

“What?” Stiles blinks. “Derek, wait. I want to help you.”

“You won’t take off the cuffs, you can’t help me.”

Stiles opens his mouth to argue, to say something, but Derek snarls, “Get. Out.”

So Stiles does, scrambling out of the car, still clutching Derek’s leather jacket. “You can’t just leave—”

The door slams, the engine roars to life, and Derek takes off, leaving Stiles in a cloud of dust from the road, still staring in shock.

When he can’t hear the Camaro’s engine anymore and the birds start singing again, dust settling around Stiles’ shoes, he finally accepts the fact that Derek’s not coming back.

He’s reaching for his phone when there’s a snapping of branches and crunching of dried leaves behind him, and he spins on his heel to see Kate Argent, holding a semi-automatic and smirking.

“Well,” she says coyly, looking him up and down. “This is awkward.”

Stiles sucks in a startled breath and tries to scream (like maybe Derek would hear it somehow and come back for him), but she moves too fast for him to see, the base of her gun slamming against his temple with a wet, sharp crack, and there’s a white hot flash of pain, and then nothing.

*

He wakes up to throbbing pain in his head, the all-too-familiar feeling of blood drying on his face, and a sickening feeling, like the world is tipping sideways.

He’s going to throw up, and that’s going to hurt so bad, considering his arms are tied tightly behind him, twisting his shoulders, and even breathing is making stars sparkling in his vision from the pain in his head. He’s pretty sure the physical process of puking would be all it takes to push him over the edge.

He swallows back the urge and bites back a moan, forcing his head back against the stone wall behind him, and trying to see where he is. It’s dark and his eyes are swollen and stinging, and all he can tell is that it’s a big, open space that smells dusty, unused. The only light is filtering through a greasy window high above.

“Abandoned warehouse?” he croaks. “Typical.”

No one answers.

So Stiles focusses on the only things he can control right now – his breathing, his lack of vomiting, and his staying awake.

Someone will come for him.

Someone has to come for him.

He loses time to the faltering, thick darkness that keeps sucking him in and out of consciousness, and he’s startled when Kate says suddenly, “You were out for a long time. I was worried.”

He forces his eyes open and she’s right there in front of him, a concerned frown on her face that he doesn’t trust for a moment.

“Don’t believe you,” Stiles says, words slurring together. He’s probably got a concussion.

She laughs and the sound sends pain stabbing through him. “Clever,” she says. “I can see why Derek likes you.”

“Derek,” Stiles echoes, closing his eyes and resting his head against the wall. “Derek does not like me.”

“Aww,” she says. “Did you two have a fight? Why else would he just leave you there, all alone, in the middle of the woods? He’s always had a hot temper.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

She laughs again, and then he hears her cock a gun, and feels the cold pressure of it against his forehead. It still hurts too much to open his eyes. “Now, I do have one question, Stiles,” she says. “Did you take the cuffs off?”

Things are getting hazy again, consciousness slipping in and out, and he’s grateful for the darkness that’s coming. “Go… fuck yourself,” he says again, fainter now.

He hears her curse and then feels her fist slam against his face – something in his nose cracks or shifts and there’s more blood, in his mouth and his throat and he can’t breathe.

Unconsciousness is a relief.

*

He’s dreaming of strange things – packs of wolves, howling in the Preserve, running on silent paws, and he recognizes Scott, and another wolf he instinctively knows as Derek, and Laura, all three with alpha eyes and wagging tails, howling together. The stars above are swirling, shooting across the sky in waves, and the trees are just shadows that fade away when the wolves get too close. And then Stiles realizes that he’s there too, running with them, but his feet are human and he can’t howl. His head is thrown back though, and he’s trying, his voice a trembling, cracking cry, breaking because he keeps laughing. There’s starlight in his veins, sparking in his fingertips…

And then he realizes, as the dream slips away, that he can still hear a wolf howling, and the shooting stars are just the throbbing in his head.

“Wake him up,” Kate snaps, and he sees there are other hunters there now, a patrol of them, all thickly muscled, dressed in black, holding guns that stink of wolfsbane. He doesn’t recognize any of them, and the one who comes over to him doesn’t even check to see if he’s awake before slamming his combat boot into Stiles’ ribs, hard.

He chokes on a whimper and the hunter says, “Get up.”

Stiles isn’t bound anymore, but he can’t really see himself standing up right now. His ribs are aching, his face is burning, and there are sirens coming closer, the sharp sound cutting through him.

He barely manages to roll over before he’s gagging, and each heave makes his ribs twist, his vision streak in and out.

He’s crying and choking and he’s such a mess.

“Get up,” Kate snarls, grabbing him by the arm and yanking him up. He screams a little, can’t help it, and the howling is getting closer, and it grows more frantic, more violent.

“Go fuck yourself,” Stiles says, staggering. Everything is spinning.

“Keep him close,” she snaps at the hunter. “Derek won’t hurt him. He’s right where we need him.”

“He brought the cops,” one hunter says.

“You’re all fucked,” Stiles says, smirking. His lip cracks open and starts to bleed.

“Keep quiet.” Kate backhands him and Stiles laughs, though it sounds a bit like he’s crying too. Hell, he probably is.

Scott’s coming, and his dad is coming. All he’s gotta do is stay alive and he’ll get to go home. Or to a hospital. Whatever.

It’s hard to follow what’s happening. The floor’s still lurching under his feet, and Stiles staggers when they haul him back into a dark corner, away from the windows, where they plan to make their stand.

They fall into formation, holding Stiles up, a gun pressed to his temple, and it’s all Stiles can do to keep his feet on the ground and his lungs breathing in and out.

“You look scared,” he says to Kate, when his balance evens out a little. The silence in the warehouse is getting to him, broken only by distant howls and sirens.

She isn’t the one holding the gun to his head, and she shoots him a look over her shoulder. “You’re braver than I thought,” she says. “No wonder he’s coming for you. Shut your mouth or we’ll shut it for you.”

“It’s not me he’s after,” Stiles says, rolling his eyes. It makes him stagger and flinch. “You arranged to let him go; you had to know he’d hunt you down. He’s been hunting for you the whole time.”

“Never hurts to have insurance,” she says. “Besides, now not even the cops can fault us when we shoot him dead.”

“Maybe,” Stiles agrees. “Until you went and beat the shit out of the sheriff’s son.”

She shoots him another look, frowning, and Stiles wonders if it’s possible that she didn’t know. But that’s ridiculous – everyone knows. Don’t they?

“Besides,” he adds, as the wolf’s howls fade away. There’s a sound like shattering glass somewhere across the warehouse. “That’s not Derek.”

Stiles would know Scott’s howl anywhere.

Scott’s in full alpha shift when he barrels around the corner, his red eyes crazed, his fangs flashing, claws tearing into the floorboards. He doesn’t even pause, he just launches himself directly at Kate, and the hunters all open fire.

It’s all gun shots and noise and wolfsbane and Stiles moans in pain when he’s jerked backwards, shoved to his knees out of the line of fire. He catches himself on his hands and knees and spits, “Great idea. Kill the hero of Beacon Hills. That’ll help your case.”

“Shut your mouth,” a hunter snarls, and then he’s getting a boot to the face. It catches him on his jaw, snapping his head back, and it feels like his skull cracks open, he’s bleeding pain, his face is broken – everything is ripped away except the pain. Time means nothing anymore, so he doesn’t know how long he’s lost there, but when the world starts dripping back into focus, he’s still screaming, still crying, and Derek is there, holding Stiles against his chest, wiping at his tears with shaky, human hands, and leeching his pain.

Stiles closes his mouth with a snap, sucking in a ragged breath. He tries to get his eyes to focus, but his head rolls bonelessly on his neck, sagging sideways, and he sees Scott’s still there, wolfed out, bleeding from bullet wounds.

Kate’s hiding behind her last three men, trying to get another shot in, but Scott’s still moving too fast. Three hunters lay motionless, but even Stiles can tell Scott’s running out of energy.

“Stiles,” Derek says, and Stiles turns back to look up at him. He doesn’t look like a monster now; he’s pale, his eyes wide, his hands shaking. “Shit, Stiles, I’m sorry, I—”

Like Derek could possibly have realized that if he abandoned Stiles in the woods, a group of rogue hunters would kidnap him for bait. You can’t predict crazy.

“M’okay,” he says, licking at the blood on his lips. It’s getting harder to focus.

“Get him out of here,” Scott shouts, and Derek slides his hands under Stiles’ knees, like he’s going to lift him, and there is no way Stiles is letting that happen. He’s not going to move – moving hurts too much.

No. He’s good right here, thank you.

“Derek,” he says, and Derek ignores him, still trying to lift him as gently as he can. Stiles moans faintly when Derek shifts, because it makes it feel like his skull cracks open even more. Derek freezes, looking even younger, and more lost, and not at all like the wolf that had ruthlessly killed all those hunters before.

Stiles wraps both hands around Derek’s wrists, holding as tightly as he can, and he says, “Help him. You’ve got to help Scott.”

“I need to get you out of here. Your dad’s almost here, there’ll be an ambulance, we can—”

Stiles closes his eyes and listens for the vibration of the cuffs, calling up his Spark so easily. It’s simple, really, like exhaling. The itch under his skin bleeds out into the cuffs and they unlock, falling to the ground with a hollow sound.

“Please,” Stiles breathes. “Help Scott.”

“Shit,” Derek says. “Stay with me, okay?”

And then he carefully lays Stiles back down.

He’s fully shifted by the time Stiles blinks away the disorientation that came with being moved, throwing himself into the fight with a single-minded purpose.

The three hunters don’t last long, because Derek doesn’t give a fuck whether they’re knocked unconscious like the other three or dead.

And Stiles is just going to close his eyes, just rest a little, just—

But there’s another gunshot and Scott makes a strange, muffled sound when it hits him, and then he’s falling, and not getting up again.

Stiles is still staring in shock when Kate scrambles over Scott’s body and falls to her knees beside Stiles, a pressing a gun to his jaw.

“Don’t move,” she snaps, when Derek’s about to charge her. “I swear to god, I’ll put a bullet in his brain.”

Derek goes very still, growling softly, and Scott’s still just lying there. He’s breathing, but it’s laboured, the wolfsbane too much. He’s going to die if they don’t get him help fast.

“Get up,” Kate says, and when Stiles doesn’t move, she shoves the gun harder against his jaw, which twinges where he’d been kicked. He moans and tries his best, but his head is pounding so badly, it makes it hard to coax his hands and legs to co-operate.

He finally lurches to his feet, heaving a little with the urge to vomit, and everything is spinning, filled with shooting stars that he’s sure only he can see. “Derek,” he says, plaintive, reaching for him. Derek can fix the pain. Derek promised he wouldn’t let Stiles get hurt.

Kate laughs. “Aww,” she coos. “He likes you. But I swear, Derek, I’ll kill him.”

“Don’t,” Derek says, and he’s shifting back, his fangs disappearing, the red leaving his eyes. “Just let him go. Do whatever you want to me, but don’t hurt him.”

“But I already hurt him,” Kate says, apologetic. “But just a little.”

“He’s human.”

It takes a long moment for Stiles to realize that it wasn’t Derek who spoke. He blinks into the darkness and sees Allison standing there, paler even than usual, her eyes fixed on Stiles’ face, a bow with an arrow strung in it in her hand. She looks horrified, shaken.

“Aunt Kate,” she says. “He’s human.

Kate huffs a little. “You shouldn’t be here,” she said. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Understand what? It isn’t in the code. We don’t hurt humans. Ever.”

“A little collateral damage is expected,” Kate says coolly. “You aren’t ready to handle the truth. Your father kept you sheltered from this, from the hunter’s reality. Sometimes the ends justify the means.”

“No,” Allison whispers. “Not when that means torturing an innocent man. Or – or executing an innocent wolf.” Her voice drops lower. “Or murdering an entire family.”

“A family of wolves,” Kate snaps. “They deserved what they got. We can’t have mercy on their kind. It only causes trouble, like with this one.” She jerks her chin at Derek. “I showed him mercy when I made sure he was out of the house that night, and look how he repays me. Hunting our hunters down, murdering my father – there can be no mercy for their kind.”

“You call that mercy?” Stiles says, voice cracking. He hasn’t taken his eyes off Derek, and Derek is just staring back, looking terrified – looking more like the lost kid from the sheriff’s office 15 years ago than The Punisher. Like he’s about to lose the last thing he’s got, all over again.

“It doesn’t matter,” Kate says. “I’ll even the score tonight. Kneel, Derek. Unless you want his death to be the one meant for you. On your knees.”

Derek drops to his knees – and for a moment, as Kate finally moves the gun from Stiles to Derek, pressing it against his forehead, Derek looks almost relieved.

Like it’s finally over. Like he’ll finally be with the rest of his family, his pack.

“No,” Stiles says. “No, no, no.”

But her finger’s on the trigger and there isn’t any time.

So Stiles throws himself forward, breaking free of her grip and slamming as hard as he can into Derek. It’s enough to throw Derek off balance, to startle Kate and she swears, and the gun goes off, and it all happens so quickly that it takes two heartbeats before Stiles feels it – the bullet that’s torn through him lodged somewhere in his back.

He doesn’t scream because it knocks the breath right out of him. Instead, he falls against Derek, body jerking, eyes going wide. He’s trying to suck in a breath but his lungs aren’t obeying, his entire body stuttering, trying to assess the damage.

And Kate’s screaming, a wet, panicked, desperate sound.

Stiles starts to fall and he sees Kate as he does – Allison’s arrow is lodged in her throat.

“Stiles,” Derek says. That’s all he seems capable of saying – just repeating Stiles’ name, over and over, like that’ll keep him here.

But all Stiles can do is stare at Kate, struggling to breathe with that arrow in her throat. And then Allison is standing over her and saying coldly, “No hunter is above the law. There were children in that house.”

And then she shoots another arrow and Kate’s desperate gasps are silenced.

And Derek is still calling his name.

“Told you,” Stiles breathes, turning to look back up at him. “Not a monster.”

He smiles; it’s probably a gruesome effort, with blood in his teeth and running down his chin.

“Stay with me, stay,” Derek says. “Stiles, please.”

But breathing is hard and staying awake is harder, and even with Derek leeching away his pain, it’s still too much. He can feel his heart struggling, his lungs failing.

Derek’s hands are cupping his face, and it’s gentler than anything Stiles has seen from him so far. He’s crouched over Stiles, like he’s shielding him again, like he thinks the danger is more flying glass and gunfire and all he has to do is stay between it and Stiles and Stiles will be safe. But there’s no more danger now, just Stiles and his failing heart and the Beacon Hills Sheriff’s Department breaking down the door across the warehouse.

“Please,” Derek says. “Please don’t leave me too.”

And he’s crying a little and his forehead is pressed to Stiles’ forehead and Stiles thinks he can taste Derek’s tears falling onto his mouth and then maybe, maybe, a kiss, but Stiles isn’t sure, and he’s fading away before he can save enough breath to ask.

*

It’s dark for a long time.

*

Stiles has a prescription for some pretty sweet pain killers and no lasting brain damage, so that’s good. The bullet had been pulled out of him, he’d been stitched up, his arm put in a sling to give the muscles in his shoulder and back time to knit back together, he’s still got night terrors, but. He’ll heal.

It’s been a three weeks, he’s been discharged from the hospital and is recovering at his dad’s place, which mostly consists of Netflix and napping and peanut butter and jam sandwiches. But his doctor has finally been convinced that Stiles won’t be in danger of further damage if he leaves the house and gets some fresh air. In fact, it might even help him. Unfortunately, the sheriff is still intending to enforce a lifetime grounding.

His face is still pretty unrecognizable, but most of the swelling is down and the bruising looks a little more mottled and sick, and a little less vivid. He’s still got the sling, just to keep his arm immobile to help his shoulder heal.

So he convinces Scott to pick him up on his day off and he buys two dozen cheeseburgers, and Scott drops him off at the sheriff’s office.

He’s totally hoping the cheeseburgers work as a decent bribe to keep his dad from totally freaking out that Stiles has left the sanctuary of his home.

Plus, Stiles feels like he owes the entire department at least a cheeseburger for all the work they’d put in rescuing him and ensuring that his apartment was cleaned up for whenever his dad lets him go home.

Cheeseburgers are the best form of currency, and pretty much all he can afford. The Hale case had been pro bono and that missing dog case from before had paid in pumpkin pie, so. Stiles is a little low on funds.

He’d already pressed one cheeseburger into Scott’s hands in the car and solemnly thanked him for the rescue, even if, instead of immediately tracking him down, Scott had gone after Allison instead. For some reason. Probably sexual reasons. Yeah, they’re dating now.

He places the first of his cheeseburgers on Martha’s desk at the front with a flourish and a charming grin, hoping to stop her fussing before it can start. Yeah, okay, maybe he should be at home, but he literally can’t stay cooped up any longer.

“Stiles,” she says, disapproving. “You can’t—”

“I’m fine! I brought cheeseburgers, enough for everyone! I needed to thank you all for saving my life!”

He backs into the bullpen while speaking over her, and then huffs a relieved sigh.

It’s short-lived.

“Stiles Stilinski, what the fuck are you doing here?” Erica says, pouncing on him, her eyes blazing with fury. “You are injured, you were shot, your face is broken, your brain was swollen! You need to be resting! Your dad will totally flip out if he sees you here!”

“I have been resting for three weeks!” he cries. And then he sets the cheeseburgers aside, carefully, and throws himself at her, hugging her as tightly as he can with one arm. “I missed you too,” he says, lips mashed against her shoulder. “But I’m okay. I swear.”

She hugs him back, gently, and then pulls away. She’s scowling. “I barely missed you,” she lies. “If your dad hadn’t threatened my life, I’d have been over there every day, shouting at you for being such an idiot.”

Stiles grins. “I’m sure,” he says, and then he sees Boyd over her shoulder. He tosses him a burger, waits for Boyd’s appreciative salute, and then watches as he takes a massive bite.

Then, before Boyd can manage to swallow, Stiles says really quickly, “So, I’ve had two weeks to like, think about priorities and stuff, and I thought you should know, Erica, that Boyd is totally in love with you.”

There’s literal murder written all over Boyd’s face. It’s kind of terrifying and Stiles snatches up his bag of burgers, ready to flee.

“What?” Erica asks, stunned. She frowns. “That’s not funny. That’s—”

She looks over her shoulder at Boyd, who is advancing pretty quickly, swigging a bottle of water as he tries to down his burger, probably so he can shout all sorts of death threats.

“—Not true,” she finishes, but she sounds unsure. And then her eyes narrow and she points a finger at Boyd. “Because you’d have totally said something, if it was. Wouldn’t you?”

Boyd freezes, his glare turning to panic, and he’s forgotten all about Stiles now, which is for the best. Stiles slips out of sight, ducking around the corner, just as Body quietly admits that yeah, maybe he’s got a little crush.

Erica growls. Stiles doesn’t see it, but it sounds like she attacks, too.

They’re totally going to end up fucking in an empty holding cell, he just knows it.

He carries on, leaving thank you burgers on all the desks, and he’s just turning the corner to head to his dad’s office when he smacks right into Derek Hale.

Startled, Stiles reels backwards, and Derek reaches out instinctively, catching his wrist to help him regain his balance.

“Oh,” Stiles says, staring. Derek lets his hand drop. “Uh, hi.”

Derek looks different. Younger, unsure – he’s got a haircut, and he’s dressed in a soft, long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans, scuffed up sneakers. He’s not The Punisher or the formal, stiff, and scary werewolf from the trial.

And Stiles realizes that this hallway, here, is where he first saw Derek, fifteen years ago, young and dirty and deeply in shock.

“Stiles,” Derek says, shoving his hands awkwardly in his pockets. He’s tracing every bruise, his gaze snagging on the sling for a minute, and then he looks away. “Should you be up?”

“You care?” Stiles says, which comes out sounding more like he’s trying to be a dick than he means it to. Derek flinches and Stiles adds quickly, “I just mean, when I woke up in the hospital, you weren’t there – and I know, you were busy, you were—”

“Incarcerated,” Derek offers.

“Yeah. That. But. You didn’t… call. I told my dad, to tell you that I was okay, that I was going to get better, and you didn’t call, or – or write. Or anything.”

“I let you get hurt,” Derek says, glancing back at him quickly and then down at the floor, rubbing the back of his neck. “I didn’t think you’d want me to –”

“I did,” Stiles says quickly. “I did want that. And – and I’m okay now. And it wasn’t your fault.”

Derek looks awkward and uncertain. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he says softly.

Stiles fumbles for something to say. “My dad told me what Allison did.”

Derek nods slowly. “It was…unexpected.”

With Kate dead, Allison had become the head of the Argent clan, whose numbers had significantly decreased. The first thing she’d done is take Derek into custody under the Hunter’s Code, which is what Kate had wanted to do when she’d arranged his escape. Except Allison’s version of justice was to declare Derek not guilty under the hunter law because he’d been avenging his family – because it had been the hunters he had killed who had been the ones who’d been the danger. Not Derek. Of course, that meant the legal system could still press for retribution…

But apparently the Sheriff of Beacon Hills thought Derek Hale had been punished enough. So aside from a mandated therapy and anger management program, Derek was free.

“I brought cheeseburgers,” Stiles says, because he’d been stressing out over what to say to Derek when he spoke to him next, and none of the conversations he’d imagined had gone quite this awkwardly.

“I just ate,” Derek says. He smiles a little, politely, and says, “Thank you. For helping with my family. I asked your dad about how much you usually charge, and he said it was a sliding scale, so I transferred some money into your account. I – I do wish Laura had found you, before they’d found her. She would have liked you.”

And he turns to go.

And Stiles realizes that Derek had just said goodbye. “You’re leaving?”

Derek stills, and then, his back to Stiles, says, “There’s not really anything to stay in Beacon Hills for.”

“But…” Stiles pulls out a sad, paper wrapped cheeseburger and holds it out. “I brought cheeseburgers. You can have one – you can have them all. They’re the best cheeseburgers on the eastern seaboard.”

Derek turns back to look at him, incredulous. An actual, authentic smile is lurking around the corners of his mouth, none of that distant, polite crap from a minute ago. “I should stay for the cheeseburgers?” he says.

“I also know a woman who owes me a life-time supply of pumpkin pie. It’s not the best, but it’s decent, and I’d be willing to, you know. Share.”

Derek finally gives in, smiling. “I do like pie,” he says.

“And Scott says that almost everyone around here thinks you’re a hero for getting rid of those corrupt hunters! I mean, not ‘True Alpha’ levels of hero, but it’s something.”

“It is,” Derek says indulgently. He steps a little closer, like he’s considering it, and takes the cheeseburger from Stiles’ hand. “I could… stay for a little while,” he says.

Stiles grins, slow and happy. His bruises ache because of it but he barely feels it. “Yeah? Okay, one more thing, though, I was a little out of it at the time, but when I was, you know, bleeding out in that warehouse and you were losing your shit about it—”

Derek rolls his eyes, but his cheeks are a little pink.

“—I’m pretty sure you kissed me. But like, not actually sure. I was sort of dying at the time, so I wasn’t really able to properly pay attention, so it’s kind of like you had our first kiss without me, is what I’m saying, and that’s a really dick move, so I was thinking –”

Derek kisses him, which is what Stiles had been going for, and it’s a much better kiss than before. So good, in fact, that the bag of appreciation cheeseburgers falls forgotten to the floor – and that’s even before Derek starts leeching away the pain at the same time his teeth are dragging along Stiles’ bottom lip.

Stiles has gotten so used to being in pain that the throbbing in his shoulder and aching in his bones hadn’t even registered until it was gone, and he falls against Derek’s chest with a dizzy moan, sliding his good arm up around Derek’s shoulders and twisting his fingers in the back of his shirt.

Stiles forgets about everything, including his hazy plan to ask Derek out to dinner and a movie, because he’d really like to actually get to know him outside of life-threatening situations, thank you. He even forgets about where they are and why he should care a little more about where his hand is wandering.

Until the sheriff suddenly bellows, “Stiles Stilinski, what part of grounded don’t you understand?”

Apparently he’s not quite done with the life-threatening situations after all.

-The End-