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The Circus at the End of the World

Chapter Text

The Circus at the End of the World, art by andavs, fic by mikkimouse

His house was quiet.

Not the kind of quiet that came from his dad being away, patrolling the outpost, or the kind of quiet that meant his dad was sleeping.

This was the kind of quiet that had a cold coil of dread worming its way up Stiles's spine.

He pushed the front door open. Unlocked. Fuck.

"Dad?" Stiles stepped into the dim, cold front room. "Dad, you there?" He didn't know why he was asking. He could already tell his dad wasn't there, not only in the complete silence that greeted him, but in the way his gut tightened, the way his lungs suddenly didn't want to work, the way he couldn't get enough air.

He ran through the house anyway, checking every room, shouting for his dad with every step. The only response was the creaking of the house and his own pounding heart.

No, Stiles thought, no no no...

He stumbled back to their tiny kitchen, and that was when he saw the mark gouged on the table. A huge spiral made by four clawed fingers, scarring the shabby wooden surface.

Stiles froze. Hunters.

They'd found them.

No, they'd found him. And taken his father instead.

Stiles sank to the ground, the edges of his vision dimming, and he gasped for air. Their little house closed in on him, and he struggled to breathe through the vise around his chest. He was going to die like this. He was going to—

No.

No, he wasn't going to die like this, not when Dad was all he had left, not when Dad had been taken by the Hunters.

One two three four. Five six seven eight.

He inhaled and exhaled, counting in his head as he did. He focused on his breathing until his heart stopped pounding, until his body stopped shaking, until it felt like he could get air into his lungs again.

All right. Stiles was a planner. He could handle this. Those bastards had taken his dad.

Now all he had to do was get him back.

Chapter Text

Derek settled into the relative silence of his car on the circus train. After a performance like that, he should have been celebrating with everyone else, but he could do that later. Right now, he just wanted a few moments in the quiet to catch his breath.

He enjoyed performing, but keeping on top of everything and holding his ringmaster persona for that long was always exhausting.

He picked up the money box Danny had left him; might as well accomplish something with his time by counting up sales and receipts. They'd need fuel, repairs, and food for the coming month, at least enough to last them until their big performance in Santa Francesca near the end of the year. Undoubtedly it would help to have coin on hand to grease any palms as needed. Granted, they didn't usually run into any trouble—or at least they hadn't in the years since Derek and his sisters had taken over the circus—but if there was one thing he'd learned from his parents, it was to never underestimate the usefulness of a well-timed bribe.

Derek sat in his worn desk chair and opened the box, counting through the change and receipts. They'd had a good run at this outpost, well-attended, but times had been tough recently. He wasn't terribly surprised to find a few papers scrawled with bartering shorthand. More than a few people had bought their way in with eggs or an exchange of services.

Well, at least some of the train repairs had been taken care of.

Someone knocked on his door, and Derek scowled. He'd really hoped not to have to deal with anyone for at least another fifteen minutes. "What?"

The door slid open, and Scott poked his head through the door. "Hi, sir."

Goddammit. The only time Scott ever called him "sir" was when he wanted something. Derek fixed his scowl on Scott and hoped he'd recognize it. "What?" Derek repeated.

His obvious irritation was not enough to dissuade Scott. Instead, he slipped inside the room and closed the door partway. "You don't have to look like that, it's nothing bad."

Derek's eyebrows climbed to his hairline. He had very little faith in Scott's judgment of nothing bad. "I reiterate: what?"

"I found someone who wants to join the circus!"

Derek rolled his eyes and resisted the overwhelming urge to slam his head onto his desk.

Scott's bright grin didn't fade in the least. "Come on, you've been saying we need another hand."

"Another hand, Scott, not a performer," Derek said. "Nobody joins the circus to become help, not in the outposts. They all want their chance in the spotlight."

"But that's just it! He doesn't want to be a performer," Scott said. "I asked if he had any talents like that and he laughed for three minutes straight. He just wants to help out."

Derek didn't believe it for a minute. "He wants to help out," he echoed flatly. "He wants to voluntarily leave a life of manual labor for what will be more manual labor. Right."

"Look, just meet him. Please?"

Scott's puppy dog eyes were a thing of legend in the circus (Derek would swear he'd taught Allison and Isaac how to make the most of them). After three years of having him around, Derek was almost immune to them.

The key word there being "almost."

Derek growled and closed the money box. Scott smiled brighter and yanked the door all the way open, gesturing madly to whoever was standing on the other side.

A lanky boy stumbled into the car, all long gangly limbs that he didn't look like he quite had control of. When he straightened, he was a couple of inches taller than Scott, putting him roughly at Derek's height. He looked young, no more than sixteen, maybe seventeen, with a smooth face and pale skin and messy brown hair and full pink lips.

But what struck Derek most were his eyes. In the yellow light of the train car, they looked the color of whiskey, sharp and assessing and scanning over the room, like he'd already found four exits to the car and was searching for a few more. Then he turned them on Derek, and those sharp whiskey eyes narrowed just a fraction.

It felt a bit like someone had punched him in the gut, but Derek was a master of keeping his reactions close to his chest. Eyes like that, the kid was hiding something. Derek just knew it.

"This is Stiles," Scott said proudly. "He's from the Beacon Hills outpost two towns back."

Derek frowned. "Really. Then what are you doing here?"

"Came to see the circus," Stiles said, voice deeper and raspier than Derek was expecting. "Scott said you all could use another hand."

Scott talks too much, Derek thought. Stiles's heartbeat didn't waver, so at least he was telling some version of the truth. Either that, or he knew how to lie to werewolves. Derek sure as hell didn't trust him. "How old are you?"

"Eighteen."

Well, apparently he didn't know how to lie to werewolves. Derek snorted. "Bullshit. Try again."

The kid glared at him, and Derek was impressed at how much anger he managed to put into the look. "Seventeen. I'll be eighteen in two weeks."

Well, at least that wasn't a lie. Derek folded his hands and rested them on his desk. "Okay. You want to try telling me what you're doing here again?"

"I came to join the circus, I already told you." Stiles sounded irritated now.

Derek snorted. "Please. You think I don't have kids just like you coming here after every other show, begging to join up? And not a one of them think it's going to be as hard as it is. They just want something new. Something glamorous. Well, that's not what you get here. Sorry. The answer's no. Go back home to your mother."

Stiles's cheeks reddened. "Be kind of hard, seeing as that she's dead."

Scott's eyes widened in horror. "Derek!"

He refused to feel bad about it, refused. He'd heard every sob story under the sun; he wasn't going to give in because of that. Besides, it wasn't like he didn't know how it felt. "Sorry for your loss," he said gruffly. "But the answer's still no."

"But he doesn't have anywhere else to go!" Scott burst out.

Derek rubbed a hand over his face. "For God's sake, Scott, we can't go around taking in every stray in the country just because you take a shine to them."

"You did it for Allison," Scott snapped back. "And Isaac. And—"

Derek flashed his eyes red. "Scott, leave."

Scott's jaw dropped. "But Derek—"

Derek let his eyes burn brighter. "Leave."

Scott closed his mouth and sidled out the door with the most betrayed look Derek had ever seen in his life.

He waited until the door was firmly latched before turning back to Stiles. To his credit, Stiles didn't look or smell particularly nervous about being stuck in a small space with an Alpha werewolf. Derek couldn't tell if that made him brave or stupid or both.

Stiles shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "So is this the job interview?"

Derek glared at him before turning back to his money box and his books. "I already gave you my answer. If you need it, we might able to give you a little in the way of help, but I've got fourteen people and shifters on this train to take care of, and no matter how much I want to, we can't afford another hand right now."

"I don't want money," Stiles said quickly. "Just a place to sleep and three meals a day. That's it."

Derek looked up at that, because he couldn't have heard right. And yet it wasn't a lie. "You don't want to get paid."

"Well, I don't particularly need to." Stiles shrugged, as if he were suddenly uncomfortable. "Just need a place to sleep, that's all. And work to do."

Derek swept his eyes over Stiles's lanky body. "You don't look like you could lift half a tent, let alone haul it."

Those whiskey eyes snapped with anger. "Hey, I might not look like much, but there's more to this," he gestured to himself, "than meets the eye."

"I'm sure there is," Derek said.

He caught the flash of fear in Stiles's face before it settled back into an unreadable expression, and Stiles backed away from the desk. "That's not—I'm stronger than I look," he said with a scowl.

"I'm sure you are," Derek said, "but I don't know that we have a place for you." He gestured to the door. "I'll talk to Laura, see if we can get you some coin, but that's the best I can do. You can see yourself out."

He turned back to his books and did not look up at the frustrated noise that Stiles made. The kid would get the message, Derek was sure.

Instead, he heard a familiar clink and his heart nearly stopped.

Derek shot to his feet. "Don't touch him!"

Stiles gaped at him, slowly drawing his hand away from the mechanical dragon sleeping on top of Derek's bookshelf. "What? Why? Him? What is it?"

Derek snarled in annoyance and strode over to put himself between Stiles and his dragon. "That is Temeraire, and don't touch him. He's broken right now."

Stiles blinked, eyes darting between Derek and the shelf where Temeraire was curled up. "Temeraire? You named a mechanical dragon?"

"He's my pet, of course I named him," Derek said irritably. "Why are you still here?"

"Maybe I could help," Stiles said.

"What?"

"You said he was broken. Maybe I could help fix him."

Right. Derek wasn't letting someone he'd met five minutes ago lay a hand on his beloved dragon. "No. Danny'll get to him soon, and no offense, but I don't trust you with my dragon."

Stiles's mouth twisted. "I'm pretty good with mechanicals. My dad had an old truck I kept running for five years longer than it should have. Just let me have a look, okay? You can sit there and hover over my shoulder as long as you'd like."

Derek scowled. "Temeraire isn't a truck."

Stiles rolled his entire head. "Oh my God, dude, I'm well aware. I won't even touch him, okay?"

Derek raised his eyebrows. "You want to fix my dragon...without touching him?"

Stiles met his eyes, this time in challenge. "If I can, will you let me join the circus?"

Derek hesitated. It wasn't a bad idea. Besides, he doubted Stiles could do anything to Temeraire that Danny couldn't fix. And if he could fix him, that was talent Danny would practically kill to have for free. "On probation."

"Probation's good," Stiles said. "I can work with probation."

Derek carefully picked up Temeraire and put him on the desk, pushing aside the money box and the books to give him more space. Temeraire was about two feet long, half of it his body, the other half tail, and not counting the delicate metal wings currently folded over his back.

Derek straightened and crossed his arms, nodding at his dragon. "All right. Fix him."

Stiles stepped up to the desk and crouched in front of Temeraire, brow furrowed in concentration. "Would you mind lifting his wings a little?"

"So you're going to have me touch him?"

Stiles glared up at him. "Look, I can't see with the wings in the way, and I need to get a look."

Derek frowned, but he gently moved the wings out of the way so Stiles could get a better look at Temeraire.

"All right, move his wings about twenty degrees forward," Stiles said.

Derek stared at him. "Twenty degrees forward? How far is that?"

Stiles held up his fingers about an inch apart. "That far."

Derek scowled. "You know, our deal doesn't count if you just have me move him."

"Sure it does." Stiles grinned up at him. "I just said I wouldn't touch him. And move his wings forward and back three more times."

"Do I need to move them twenty degrees?" Derek asked sarcastically.

Stiles's grin went cheeky. "If you'd like."

Derek glared at him, but Stiles appeared unaffected.

He moved the wings as Stiles had instructed—though why he was listening to the kid about this, Derek had no idea—and then Temeraire belched a tiny puff of black smoke and raised his head, gears clinking and eyes burning yellow with the fire in his boiler.

Derek couldn't quite believe his eyes. "What the hell?"

Stiles straightened and dusted his hands on his patched pants. "Told you I could do it." He winked. "Boss."

Derek wanted to wipe the smarmy look off his face. He stabbed a finger at Stiles. "You're here on probation. Four weeks, just until our big show at Santa Francesca."

Stiles nodded quickly. "Okay. Four weeks. Got it."

He didn't miss the way Stiles's heartbeat picked up a bit at the mention of Santa Francesca. Interesting. "And then," Derek shrugged, "we'll reevaluate."

Stiles kept nodding. "Works for me. Reevaluate then. I'm totally on board with that."

Derek was going to regret this. He was sure of it. "Fine. Go out and see Scott. He'll get you set up with somewhere to sleep tonight. We'll break down tomorrow morning and be on the tracks by eight. You'll be working with Danny. Whatever he says goes, and I don't want to hear any arguments about it."

"No arguments here, sir. Promise."

Derek wondered how many times Stiles had made that promise before, and how many times he'd ended up arguing anyway. After an acquaintanceship of ten minutes, he was abundantly sure Stiles didn't take "no" for an answer. Even now, as he was acquiescing, there was a challenge in those whiskey-colored eyes, one that itched at the back of his neck and made Derek want to growl and fight and rise to it, push and prod at Stiles to see how far he could go before Stiles pushed back, and how hard.

He ruthlessly squelched the thoughts and waved his hand at the door. "Go on, go get Scott. He's probably right outside anyway."

This time, Stiles went back to the door and grabbed the latch. "Thank you, Derek."

Derek growled. "That's Mr. Hale to you."

Stiles's pale cheeks flushed. "Mr. Hale, then." He started to slide the door open, then paused again. "Hey, what kind of a name is Temeraire, anyway?"

He had no intention of answering, but for some reason, Derek's mouth opened on its own. "He was a dragon from stories I used to read when I was a kid."

"Huh." For the first time, Stiles's hard, calculating look dropped, and for a split second, Derek saw how soft and young he actually was. "Thanks again, Mr. Hale. You won't regret this, I promise."

With that, he finally left the car, leaving Derek alone with his thoughts once again, though considerably more troubled than he'd been earlier.

He sat back in his chair and rubbed his forehead. He didn't need Lydia's powers of prescience to tell him this was a bad idea. Stiles was hiding something, he knew it.

He just had to make sure nobody got hurt when that secret came out.

***

Derek stayed inside his car for a while longer after Scott and Stiles left, making a half-hearted attempt to finish counting the money. He needed to do it before they got back on the tracks, but his attention was scattered.

Because of Stiles, because of a boy who was too young and too attractive and too smart, with too many secrets.

Someone else knocked on his door, and Derek groaned. He might as well give up; God knew he wasn't going to get anything else done tonight.

The door slid open once more, but this time it was Boyd and Laura, Laura bearing a plate of food and Boyd juggling three mugs of Danny's old engine moonshine, from the smell of it.

Laura set the food down on his desk and flopped back into one of the tiny, rickety chairs Derek kept in the office. "So. Looks like Scott found himself a stray."

Derek grunted and dug into the food, fried ham and potatoes and a couple of anemic-looking carrots. He hadn't eaten since a few hours before the performance; no wonder he was hungry.

Boyd set down one mug in front of Derek, handed the other to Laura, and took a sip from his own. "I think Erica's adopted the new kid already."

"Great." Derek stopped eating just long enough to take a drink, wincing at the burn. "That's just what I need, Erica getting attached."

"Why'd you say yes?" Laura asked. "We need another hand, but we don't have the money to pay right now."

Derek shrugged. "Kid said he'd work for food and a place to sleep. And he's smart. Danny could use the help."

Laura snorted. "And the fact that he doesn't want to get paid doesn't bother you at all?"

"Actually, it bothers me a lot," Derek said, "but you have a point. We can't afford anyone else, not until after the show in Santa Francesca, and that's when his probationary period will be over. If he works out, great, if not, he's gone and we find someone else."

Laura twisted her mouth, a gesture Derek recognized as meaning I agree with you, but I'm not happy about it. "Kid feels like he's hiding something."

That time, Boyd snorted. "Of course he is. Think we all were, when we came on with you."

Derek sighed. It was true enough. "He doesn't have anywhere else to go. I'm not any happier about it than you, Laura, but—"

"But we just have to grin and bear it and hope he's not another Matt?" Laura finished for him.

Derek tilted his head in a half-nod. It was the best idea he had right now.

"We'll just see if Danny starts flirting with him," Boyd said. "Should give us a good heads-up if he's an asshole."

"Nah, we just have to see if Jackson tolerates Danny flirting with him," Laura said. "That's the real test."

Derek shoveled another forkful of food in his mouth. Matt had been another kid they'd brought on, though that time it had been at Jackson and Danny's request. Three weeks later, Matt was gone, along with half the cash from their previous five shows.

Neither Jackson nor Danny had taken it terribly well.

Derek shook his head and took another drink. "We'll just keep an eye on him. Besides, it looks like Scott's already attached as well."

Boyd crossed his arms over his chest, his frankly impressive biceps bulging. "Just four weeks before Santa Francesca. You sure about this, Derek?"

Hell, Derek wasn't sure about anything. He wasn't even sure he hadn't made this decision because of the challenge he'd seen in Stiles's whiskey-colored eyes, that subtle I dare you that had his hackles rising and the rest of him determined not to back down.

That was not how an Alpha made decisions.

"Sure enough," he finally said. "And if he steals from us, we chuck him off the train."

"We chuck him off over a ravine," Laura said darkly.

Chapter Text

Stiles didn't sleep well that night, curled up on the sofa in the main room of the car Scott shared with his mother, Melissa. Scott had said he was planning on moving into one of the other cars and Stiles could have his bed once he had, but for now, the only bed available was a narrow sofa that was more wood and lumps than actual cushions.

It was still more than Stiles had had in the past week.

The familiar ache lodged in his throat, and Stiles clamped his jaw against it. He couldn't afford to break down, not right now, especially not sleeping only a few feet from a werewolf. Scott had been genuinely kind, eager to help Stiles get settled, and he'd talked easily about his life in the circus. It was clear Scott loved it here.

Stiles flopped around on the sofa and buried his face in the thin spare pillow he'd been given. His home hadn't felt like home since his mother had died. The only place he felt it even remotely was around his dad, and his dad was gone.

No. He wasn't thinking about that now. The circus would get him into Santa Francesca, where the Hunters were headquartered. Where they were holding his dad. That was the important thing here.

Of course, it didn't seem like Mr. Hale—Derek—was that excited about Stiles being on board. Stiles had been completely unprepared for the difference between the ringmaster who held the crowd in the palm of his hand, and the irritated man with the angry eyebrows who was more attractive than he had any right to be.

And no, Stiles didn't need to think about that either. He didn't need to think about how clean Derek looked with all his face paint wiped off and the stubble darkening his cheeks, the way the purple vest had hugged his muscular frame, how big his arms looked without his black coat on. The ringmaster was an act, but Stiles had been terrifyingly attracted to the man himself. That was bad.

He couldn't afford any distractions right now. He just had to survive one month in the circus. One month, and he could get his father back. He could do that. He had to do that.

After what felt like hours of his mind stumbling in circles, Stiles finally closed his eyes and slipped into a semi-satisfying doze.

Of course, that was when he heard someone stumbling around the tiny sitting room.

He sat up and blinked blearily. Scott was heating up a pot of water on top of the small boiler that warmed the train car. He smiled crookedly, and his eyes flashed briefly yellow. "Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you up just yet, but I wanted to get the coffee on."

"Coffee?" Stiles echoed, unable to keep the anticipation out of his voice.

Scott's smile stretched further. "I take it it's been awhile?"

Stiles fell back against the sofa and threw a hand over his eyes. "I can't even remember the last time I had coffee. Three months? Maybe four?" Hell, at this point, he wasn't even sure he'd remember what it smelled like.

Scott chuckled. "Well, give it about ten minutes, and I'll have us a couple of cups and some bacon for breakfast. Then we need to start breaking down."

Stiles looked around for a clock or a window, but saw nothing that would give him an indication of how long he'd slept. "What time is it?"

"Five-thirty."

Stiles didn't bother to keep his groan quiet. "That's insane."

"That's circus hours." Scott pulled out a battered cast iron pan and scooted the water to one side of the boiler. "Well, at least on the days we're breaking down. Normally, once we're in a town, we have about four days where we don't have to be up before ten. But we need to get on the road. We need to reach Old King City before sundown, and it's a long trip."

Stiles yawned and dragged himself back up into a sitting position. He was in the circus now; he might as well act like it. And once he had some coffee and food, he'd feel much more awake. "Where's the bathroom?"

Scott pointed to a narrow door next to the boiler. "You can wash up in there."

The bathroom was barely large enough for Stiles to turn around in; there was a wood-covered hole for him to piss through and a stand with a basin and a couple of washcloths next to it, along with a small, clean mirror. Stiles washed his face and rubbed his hand over his cheeks, feeling for the stubble that was trying valiantly to grow. His dad had assured him he'd get facial hair soon, but right now, all Stiles had was a few scraggly patches.

Maybe Scott would let him borrow a razor.

He did his business and washed his hands. By now he could smell the bacon cooking, grease popping steadily in the next room, and his mouth watered. He shouldered his way back into the main sitting room, where Scott poured coffee out of a metal carafe into two slightly misshapen mugs.

Scott handed him one of the mugs. "Here you go! Cora made them."

Stiles frowned. "Who's that?"

"Oh!" Scott laughed. "I forget you haven't met everyone. Cora's Derek's little sister. Well, younger sister. She's nineteen. She's got a potting wheel in her and Lydia's car, makes a lot of the mugs and bowls and plates for us. Lydia's her girlfriend, the redhead. She's a banshee, and so she's the one who tells fortunes."

Stiles jumped, tried not to look like he was jumping, and ended up smacking the back of his hand into the sofa. "A banshee?" He swallowed nervously. "There's a banshee in the circus?"

"Yeah." Scott suddenly looked closed off. "Is that a problem?"

"No!" Stiles said quickly. "No problem at all. Sorry, I just assumed all of you were werewolves."

The closed look dropped, and Scott smiled amiably. "Most of us are, for sure, but we've got a few humans and other supernatural creatures. Mom and Deaton—he's the engineer—are both human, and so are Danny and Allison. Then Lydia's a banshee, like I said, and Kira's a kitsune, and Jackson's a kanima."

Stiles tensed at the information. He'd been expecting werewolves, knew a little about them, but wasn't entirely comfortable around so many different supernatural creatures. He really wasn't sure how to handle a banshee. He'd heard rumors about them, but had never personally encountered one. "Is it true she can see the future? The banshee," he asked.

Scott shrugged and pulled the bacon out of the skillet. "Bits and pieces. Lydia could explain it better. You'll meet everyone pretty soon." He split the bacon onto three plates and handed one to Stiles. "Here you go!"

Stiles took one bite of the bacon and moaned. It was perfectly crisp and tasty, and it had been longer since he'd had bacon than since he'd had coffee.

Scott grinned and joined him on the couch, balancing his plate of bacon on his knees. "Yeah, we may not have much, but the food's pretty good."

Stiles looked around the little room, with the pictures on the walls and the homemade patches on the sofa, the smell of coffee and bacon filling the room. "I don't know, I think it's pretty awesome. And you're a good cook."

Scott smiled around a mouthful of bacon.

***

They ate mostly in silence, and then Scott delivered the third plate of bacon and another cup of coffee into his mother's room before pulling Stiles out the door. "Come on, we need to start breaking down. I can already hear Danny and the mechanicals."

Stiles followed Scott into the chilly early morning air. It wasn't quite cold enough to frost yet, but the sky was clear and cold, stars still sparkling brightly above. Stiles shivered and wished he could be curled up in bed—well, on his sofa—but he'd been up before dawn almost every day since he'd come home and found his dad gone. He hunched his shoulders against the cold and trudged over the pockmarked ground toward the circus tent.

There were six smaller booths surrounding one giant tent, which Stiles only saw because he knew it was there. The big top was made of pitch black cloth, speckled with white so it blended with the night sky. When the torches and gas lanterns were lit for the night shows, it looked magical. Right now, it just looked damned hard to see.

Metallic grinding caught Stiles's attention. "What the hell?"

Scott jerked his head toward the big top. "That would be Danny."

They entered the tent, where the metallic grinding turned out to be a rickety generator powering two white lights. In front of the generator, a giant snake monster hauled the circus seats into stacked rows. A huge mechanical man was silhouetted against the harsh light, a stream of curses coming from its middle.

Stiles couldn't do anything but stare. "So... is Danny the mechanical or the snake?"

"Neither," Scott said. "And that's a kanima, not a snake."

"Looks like a snake to me," Stiles muttered.

Circus seats crashed to the ground, and that was all the warning Stiles had before the snake monster had its tail wrapped around his neck. It hoisted him into the air with a hiss, and Stiles barely had the presence of mind to grab the tail before it choked him.

"Jackson!" Scott shouted. "Put him down!"

"Please?" Stiles croaked.

The monster hissed at both of them again and raised its hand threateningly at Scott, who immediately backed away. Oh God. Stiles was going to be strangled to death by an over-sensitive snake monster. How the fuck was this his life?

"Jackson!" a new voice shouted.

The snake monster—kanima—Jackson, Stiles guessed—hesitated, and his scaled head swung back around toward the mechanical. Someone new strode toward them in an oversized, grease-smeared coat, with a pair of metal goggles shoved up on his head. Said new person didn't look happy. "Put the kid down."

Jackson hissed again, but this time it sounded plaintive and annoyed, rather than angry.

"I don't care. We do not strangle people. Unless they're stealing." The guy pointed on the ground. "Down. Now."

Thankfully, Stiles felt himself lowered. The tail let go of him when he was still a foot above the ground, though, and he landed hard on his ass. He glared at the snake. "Thanks for not killing me. Really appreciate that."

"He doesn't like it when people call him a snake." The guy crossed his arms and gave Stiles a once-over. "Who the hell are you?"

"This is Stiles," Scott said. "Derek hired him to help you out."

The guy's eyebrows shot up, and he looked Stiles over again. "Derek actually hired someone else? What did you do, blackmail him?"

Stiles dragged himself to his feet. "Fixed his dragon in exchange for being here on probation. Just until the Santa Francesca show."

The guy gaped at him. "You fixed Temeraire? Seriously? You?"

Stiles shrugged, the back of his neck itching under the scrutiny. "It wasn't that hard."

The guy frowned. He didn't look terribly convinced. "Uh-huh. So I'm guessing you're good with mechanicals?"

Stiles nodded. "Kept my dad's truck running pretty well. So you're...Danny?"

That got him a smile and an extended gloved hand. "Yeah, Danny Mahealani. I keep the circus running, with a little help from these guys."

Stiles looked at the glove, which looked thick enough to get stuck into lava and dripped with some shiny, unidentifiable liquid. "Uh..."

"Oh!" Danny tugged the glove off and stuck his hand out again. Stiles shook it, and Danny grinned wider. "Sorry about Jackson, by the way. Like I said, he's testy about being called a snake."

"Oh. Um, sorry," Stiles said, because it was probably a good idea to apologize to a giant scaly monster who could crush your windpipe with his tail. "You're a kanima, right?"

Jackson narrowed his yellow eyes, snorted at Stiles, and dropped to all fours to scuttle back over to the circus seats.

"Yeah, kanima," Danny said. "He's stronger when he's shifted, so he stays like that while we're packing up. You're going to help us with the tent?"

He directed the question to Scott, who nodded and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "I need to go meet up with Allison and Isaac to get started on the booths. Are you guys good here?"

"Yeah," Stiles said, even though he was pretty sure Jackson would rip him limb from limb the first chance he got. "Yeah, we're good. Right?"

Danny pulled the goggles back down over his eyes. "Good enough. Come help me with this mechanical."

***

Helping Danny and Jackson was, thankfully, not as dicey a proposition as it had first appeared. Jackson mostly kept to himself as he stacked chairs, and only sent a yellow-eyed glare at Stiles whenever Stiles committed the unforgivable sin of looking up.

Danny dove back into the belly of the mechanical, which was apparently acting up, and pointed Stiles toward two more mechanicals standing quietly at the edge of the light. "This is Harry, and those are Larry and Barry. Use them to start taking down that half of the tent. Don't touch the central pole until I've got this one up and running."

With that, Danny dove back into the mechanical with a wrench and a stream of curses.

Stiles warily made his way over to Larry and Barry. Both were nearly eight feet tall, like the mechanical Danny was working on, with square metal arms and blocky legs and huge barrel chests for their boilers. Older models, but they were still newer and less rusty than some of the mechanicals he'd seen back around Beacon Hills.

He checked to make sure they had water and coal before he fired the boilers to life, and the mechanicals both let out a grumbling belch of steam over his head. "Okay." Stiles wiped his hands on his pants. "Okay, come on, let's go get this tent down."

The mechanicals stared straight ahead, vacant eyes burning yellowy-orange with the boiler fire.

Ugh. He wasn't sure if they were programmed to just do something once their boiler hit a certain temperature, or if they were voice-activated, or if he needed some kind of key or something. Damn.

Stiles walked around the two mechanicals until he found a panel with a latch that desperately needed tightening. He reached to open it and burned his fingers. "Fuck!"

"Did you just touch a live mechanical with bare hands?" Danny yelled from across the tent, not even looking up from his work. "Get some gloves out of the workbox, you idiot."

Stiles made a face, but Danny didn't see it. Probably for the best. He did snag a pair of gloves, though. He wasn't that spiteful.

With his hands now duly protected, Stiles opened the panel on one of the mechanicals to examine its innards. It was rustier, and not as well-built or complicated as the dragon had been. He couldn't see any obvious way for him to make the mechanicals do what he needed them to do.

Well, he could fix that.

Stiles rubbed his hands together under the gloves and double-checked to make sure neither Danny nor Jackson was looking at him. Nope. He was good.

He ducked back to the panel and focused, letting out a long breath into the inside of the mechanical. The area his breath touched turned briefly blue, and then faded.

"Okay," he whispered. "Now, come help me take down the tent."

With a screech of joints that meant it desperately needed more oil, the mechanical stomped over to the left side of the tent. Stiles quickly got the second one working as well, and sent it over after its brother. One pulled down the poles, while the other untied the tent canvas and rolled it up.

Well, that hadn't been too difficult.

"You got Larry and Barry working pretty fast."

Stiles flailed at Danny's voice right over his shoulder, and for one heart-stopping second, he was positive Danny had seen how he'd really gotten the mechanicals working. It was difficult to tell, what with half of Danny's face obscured by his metal goggles.

He tried to play it cool. "Like I said, I'm good with mechanicals."

Danny crossed his arms and smirked. "Well, good. I'm getting sick of being the only one who can get them up and running when we set up and tear down." He clapped one dirty glove on Stiles's shoulder. "Come on, I'll get you a sledgehammer and we can get the stakes out of the ground. After that, the hard part's done. We'll have this place down in no time."

Stiles tensed at the unexpected contact. He edged to the side and tried to make it look like he wasn't shrugging away from the hand on his shoulder. "Sure, yeah. Just tell me what to do."

Danny jerked his chin at him, and Stiles followed, letting out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Danny hadn't seen the magic. His secret was safe.

Which was a good thing, because he'd be killed the second anyone found out.

His hands trembled uncontrollably, and Stiles shoved them in his pockets. Nobody knew he had that power now. All he had to do was make sure it stayed that way.

Chapter Text

Stiles wasn't sure how long he spent swinging a sledgehammer at the small white stakes in the ground and hauling them out, but the sun had finally broken over the eastern horizon when he paused for a rest. His arms and shoulders ached from the repetitive swinging, and his sweaty shirt was plastered to his back and chest. He swiped his arm across his forehead and wiped it off on his pants.

Now that he wasn't moving, it didn't take long for the cool north wind to leave him shivering. Winter wasn't far off, and he really didn't have the clothes for it.

He shook away the worry. As long as he was with the circus, he'd be fine. He could probably trade for a warmer coat at one of the outposts, since he'd sold everything that wasn't nailed down in an effort to earn enough money to catch the circus train. Not that the good people of Beacon Hills could use anything he'd sold, now.

Stiles swallowed the sudden lump in his throat and shoved everything ruthlessly to the back of his mind. He didn't need to think about the past. He needed to think about the future, and more specifically, how the hell he was going to get his dad out of Santa Francesca.

"Hey!" a deep voice yelled. "We aren't paying you to stand around."

Stiles damn near dropped the handle of the sledgehammer on his foot, and narrowly avoided kicking the solid metal head of it as he jumped in surprise. A huge, bald black man stood behind him, at least half a head taller than Stiles and with biceps that were quite possibly the size of his thigh. He was ninety percent sure this was the guy who'd been doing the strongman thing at the circus, lifting several hundred pounds with his pinky while a lithe blonde dancer sat perched on his other arm.

"Um." Stiles scanned the area, but he didn't see Danny or Scott anywhere. Hell, he'd have taken Jackson or Derek, even. "Well, you aren't paying me at all, see—"

The guy continued to look flatly unimpressed.

Stiles stuck out his hand. "I'm Stiles? I'm new, Mr...?"

No other hand was forthcoming. "Boyd."

"Mr. Boyd."

"Just Boyd."

Right. The strongman was going to rip his head off, Stiles was pretty sure. "Nice to meet you, Boyd. And I am going to get right back to working, I assure you. Just as soon as I can feel my arms again."

Boyd gave him a close-lipped smile that somehow managed to be more terrifying than his blank look. "How many more you got?"

Stiles looked around, counting the little white stakes sticking out of the ground. "I don't know. Like, ten, maybe?"

Boyd nodded, like that was something interesting, and then picked up the sledgehammer with one hand. He walked around the final few stakes, smacked them once with the hammer, and pulled them up. He was done in a third of the time it had taken Stiles do to five. Stiles was pretty sure he was gaping like a fish, but he didn't care.

Boyd walked back over and tossed the stakes in one pile and the sledgehammer at Stiles. He caught it, and immediately fell back to the ground with an oof. That had hurt more than he expected.

At that, Boyd cracked a genuine smile and offered a hand to help him up. Stiles scowled, but he took it. "You've got quite an arm on you. Not sure I'm up to catching sledgehammers just yet, but I'm sure if I work out for, you know, five or six years, I'll get there."

Boyd actually laughed and headed back toward the train. "You'll fit right in, kid. Now come on, it's time to get out of here."

***

Derek surveyed the empty land in the early morning light. No matter how many times they did this, he would never cease to be amazed at how they transformed the land into a circus in just a few hours, and then returned to its natural state in the same amount of time a few days later. The rest of the crew had already finished loading the booths and the tents onto the rear cars, and Danny had gotten Larry, Harry, and Barry stowed as well. Most of the pack was already in the dining car, where Kira was cooking breakfast, the spicy scent of sausage and bacon wafting through the morning air.

Derek loved this. It had its ups and downs, yes, but he loved his life in the circus, he loved his pack, and he couldn't imagine doing anything else with his life.

Laura hung off the dining car and whistled at him. "Yo, Derek, are we almost ready?"

He nodded and shaded his eyes against the bright sun. "Yeah. Boyd's doing one last walk of the train, making sure everything's up."

Of course, as soon as he said the words, he spotted Boyd climbing over one of the car couplings and sauntering toward them. And Stiles was right behind him.

In the daylight, Derek could see where Stiles's sweaty, threadbare shirt clung to his chest and shoulders, showing off lean muscles Derek hadn't noticed the night before. He could see how many times Stiles's pants had been patched and where the seams were starting to come apart again, could see that both of his boots were going to need to be resoled and soon.

Shit. Derek wanted to put him in a hot bath and give him a few thousand kinds of new clothes. They weren't wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but no member of his pack went hungry or cold. They always had a fire in their boiler and sturdy clothes and enough food for three meals a day. It was pretty clear Stiles hadn't had any of that for a while.

Fingernails dug into his shoulder, and Derek turned to see Laura gripping him. "Laura? What's wrong?"

"Is that the new kid?" Laura asked.

"Yes," Derek said slowly. "Do you know him?" That would have been a surprise.

Laura just glared at him. "Of course I don't know him. But now I see why you just up and let him join."

Derek scowled at the implication. "He's seventeen."

She snorted. "Like that means anything. He's not even a wolf, and look at that skinny-ass frame. We needed somebody who could haul shit, no matter how much you're looking to get your dick wet."

Derek snarled and yanked his arm away from her. "Danny said he did well this morning, got the mechanicals up and running quickly and got the tent down in record time. Didn't complain at all. But please, continue to imply I don't care about the safety of the circus and our pack. We haven't had a fight in about two months, I imagine we're due."

Laura exhaled sharply, but she stepped away and lowered her hackles. "I know you do, Derek. I know it. I just..." She sighed. "I'm wary after Matt."

Derek gave her a side hug. "I'm not saying I trust this kid, okay? I don't. But it's just for a month, and so far he does exactly what we need him to."

Laura nodded and elbowed him companionably in the side. "All right, baby brother. But I reserve the right to be unhappy about this for a while, okay?"

Derek gently punched her arm in retaliation. "You're ten minutes older than I am."

Laura grinned. "Still older than you."

Derek rolled his eyes. "Go on, tell Deaton we're ready to fire up the engine."

She gave him a quick smacking kiss on the cheek, and then swung herself up onto the train and let out a long, echoing howl.

"Whoa, what was that for?" Stiles asked.

Derek turned away from the train to see Stiles and Boyd jogging up to him. Stiles looked like he was boggling.

"Two-minute warning," Derek answered gruffly. "Usually everybody's on the train by then, but everyone in a mile radius can hear the howl."

Boyd grinned wide. "Means it's time for breakfast. Come on, kid."

Stiles's face twisted. "Why does everybody keep calling me kid? I'm almost eighteen, and it's not like you guys are that much older than me."

"Would you prefer newbie?" Derek asked, trying to keep his face straight. "Because I can have them use that instead."

Stiles looked like he'd sucked on a lemon. "Yeah, no, I think I'll take kid. I can live with that."

Boyd climbed onto the train and Stiles clambered up behind him. Derek took one last look around the clearing where they'd made their home for the past four days, and then climbed back onto the train as well. The train jerked, and they began to move, slowly picking up steam as Deaton, Danny, and Jackson fed the boilers and got the engine running.

Deaton blasted the train's piercing whistle, and Derek threw back his head to howl, felt the fierce pleasure and connection of pack as a chorus of howls went up with his. They were on their way once again.

***

By the time Derek got to the dining car, almost everybody else was already there, jockeying for seats around the long rectangular table in the center of the car. Danny and Jackson came in from the other side shortly after Derek entered, both of them with wet hair and wet faces from where they'd washed the coal off themselves before breakfast. They slid into their customary seats next to Lydia and Cora.

Kira sidled out of the kitchen with two massive bowls of scrambled eggs, and Derek immediately scooted around the table to help her.

She grinned and kissed his cheek when he took the eggs. "My hero."

Derek kissed her forehead. "Nah, just means I get eggs first."

"Like hell!" Scott shouted from halfway down the table, and knocked his chair over in his haste to get up and grab a bowl from Derek. Derek mock-scowled, but let Scott grab the bowls and start passing them around the table.

Kira came back out of the kitchen with another two bowls of sausages, which Derek took and set on the table beside Boyd and Laura, and then she emerged with a final two bowls, one with bacon and one with biscuits.

As usual, there was a lot of talking, fighting over food, and good-natured ribbing as the breakfast made its way around the table. It took a minute for Derek to realize something was strange.

He looked up from his plate of sausage and eggs and the biscuit he was about to drown in honey to see Stiles standing stiffly in the corner of the car, folded in on himself like he was trying to disappear. He was good at it, good at projecting like he didn't want anyone to notice him.

Derek frowned and snagged an extra stool from under the bar that ran the length of one wall and set it beside him. He elbowed Laura until she scowled at him and moved, elbowing Boyd to get him to move, and so on until their end of the table had shuffled enough to squeeze another person on there.

Derek looked up at Stiles and patted the stool. "Sit, kid."

Stiles's eyes widened at the invitation, and he edged his way around the table to the stool, staring at the food. Like he hadn't ever seen that much before. Considering where he'd lived, it was likely that he hadn't.

Derek didn't think about it; he just shoved his plate in front of Stiles and grabbed another one to load up.

Stiles's jaw dropped. "Holy shit."

"Put honey on the biscuit," Derek said. "It's the only way to eat it."

Across the table, Allison jabbed her knife in his direction. "You are a lying heathen. Grape jam is where it's at."

"Apple butter!" Scott crowed, and Isaac high-fived him.

"Oh, please." Melissa scoffed from where she sat on the other side of Scott, between him and Cora. "Sausage, biscuits, and gravy. It's the only way to live."

Half the table cheered while the other half made gagging noises. Derek grabbed another two biscuits and doused them in honey, just to prove his point.

Stiles's shoulders stayed stiff, and he hunched on his stool, like he was still trying to make himself smaller. Derek set the honey beside him. "Come on, eat. Food's not running away."

"How do you have this much?" Stiles asked, voice soft.

"We play a lot of outposts." Derek spooned the remains of one bowl of eggs onto his plate. "Sometimes people can pay. Other times, they give us what they can in trade. Eggs, bacon, sausage, flour, cloth. One time we got four live pigs."

"We lived on ham and bacon for a week," Boyd said, and shoved three pieces of bacon into his mouth at once.

Erica, who was on his other side, elbowed him. "Yeah, you know you loved it."

"I did." Boyd smiled around his mouthful of bacon. "Pigs are fantastic."

"Besides," Derek continued, looking at Stiles, "we have an entire pack of werewolves and other shifters. We eat a lot of food."

Stiles nodded, and finally picked up a piece of sausage and took a bite. His eyes went wide, and then fluttered shut and he moaned.

Derek immediately turned his attention back to his own plate and started shoveling eggs in his mouth, hoping no one would notice the heat on his cheeks.

Beside him, Laura pressed her lips together, and started stabbing her sausage with renewed vigor.

Boyd leaned behind Laura and poked Derek on the shoulder. "By the way, Deaton says we're going to have to take the long way around the old fort. Apparently the lines up there are down."

Derek washed his eggs down with a long swallow of coffee. "Already? They were fine six months ago." Maybe fine was a stretch, but Derek certainly hadn't expected the lines to be down by now.

Boyd shrugged. "Don't know what to tell you. He's been on the wire with the depots around there, and they say the lines have been down for two weeks at least. No trains have been able to get in or out."

Laura sighed and shoved her dark hair out of her eyes. "Seems like the tracks get worse every year."

"Hunters," Isaac grumbled from across the table, and he took a long drink of his coffee.

Erica muttered something that sounded like angry agreement.

"Hunters?" Stiles perked up. "What do they have to do with the tracks?"

Derek raised his eyebrows at the sudden interest. Nobody else seemed to notice it, though, except maybe Laura.

"Every outpost we've been through the past, what, two months?" Isaac said, and next to him, Allison and Scott nodded. "Apparently the Hunters in this area have taken to requesting payment for their services."

"Even though they get a salary from the Havens." Scott shook his head. "A bunch of outposts have been losing lots of money to them."

"Which means they can't afford upkeep on the tracks, which means more railways fall into disrepair, which means pretty soon we'll be dancing for the birds," Erica said.

Boyd draped his arm over the back of her chair. "Don't be so down about it. It's not that bad."

Erica made a face at him. "Yet."

Stiles ate a few more tiny bites of eggs, attention focused on his plate. "I knew they were doing that. With the outposts, I mean. But I didn't know it was so widespread."

Allison made a rude noise. "It's been like that ever since Deucalion took over the Santa Francesca Hunters."

Stiles's head snapped up at that, and Derek didn't miss the way his eyes narrowed at Allison. Derek tried not to laugh, because Stiles did look a little silly with a piece of bacon hanging out of his mouth.

Stiles pulled the bacon out and set it on his plate. "I thought the San Angeles Haven had this part of the territory, not Santa Francesca."

Allison snorted. "Deucalion's been expanding."

Melissa cursed under her breath. Derek knew the feeling. The Hunters were supposed to be peacekeepers, to ride the territory and keep the outposts safe from all manner of dangers: feral shifters, roving bandits, general outlaws, whatever. But from what they heard at the outposts, that protection was becoming costlier every year. Several families he'd known for years had even packed up and moved to one of the Havens.

Derek couldn't imagine doing that. Sure, it might have been safer behind the Havens' great walls, but he'd rather be out here where he could breathe easy, where they could travel the whole territory and see a thousand different sights beyond a city surrounded by grey concrete.

He took another bite of his biscuit, watching Stiles out of the corner of his eye. He was probably in some kind of trouble with Hunters, possibly even some kind of trouble with Deucalion himself. Derek wasn't entirely sure what kind of trouble that could be, but it would mean they'd have to step carefully. And it would make being inside the Santa Francesca Haven—the Hunters' major base in the Pacific Northwest—a particularly dicey proposition.

But next to him, Stiles was eating, relaxing in slow increments, letting himself be drawn into conversation with Scott and Allison. His eyes lost some of their sharpness, and for a moment, Derek thought he could see the boy Stiles had been before—well, before whatever had happened to him had happened.

He wasn't sure which should worry him more: the fact that Stiles staying would probably bring a world of trouble on their heads, or that he still wanted him to.

Chapter Text

They were only on the train for a little over a day. Even with having to find ways around a couple of sections of bad track, they made good time, and reached the Old King City outpost by the following morning.

Stiles spent most of his time on the train with Scott and Danny, getting officially introduced to everyone. Melissa he'd already met, a pretty woman with dark, curly hair who was the pack nurse, patching up the humans and even the shifters if they were injured beyond what their healing abilities could handle. Stiles had to ruthlessly ignore the memories of his own mother that came up every time he was around her.

He also met Jackson outside of his kanima form: an unfairly attractive guy with light brown hair and a haughty sneer permanently affixed to his face. Jackson was more personable as a giant snake monster, Stiles thought, but he didn't say that to Danny.

Then there were Allison and Isaac, both of whom were acrobats with Scott. Allison was also a sharpshooter with, well, anything she could get her hands on. She kept her dark hair bound up in a bun and had the most adorable dimples, and Isaac looked practically cherubic, with his blond curls and sharp cheekbones. (Which belied the fact that he was an asshole.)

Isaac wasn't the only curly blond werewolf; the other being Erica, a dancer and Boyd's girlfriend. She was the only girl in the circus Stiles had seen wearing lipstick and she smiled at Stiles in such a way that he felt compelled to say "My, what big teeth you have."

Kira was the cook, a kitsune, and one of the few people who could drive the train. She didn't perform, Scott said, but she worked the lights during performances.

Deaton was the main engineer and was frighteningly tight-lipped when Scott took Stiles to meet him. Stiles had been very eager to get out of the engine and back to the main part of the train.

Lydia, the banshee, was a terrifying redhead who looked Stiles up and down as though he might be a bug, and then sauntered back to the car she shared with Cora, Derek's youngest sister. Which brought him back around to the Hales: Laura, Derek, and Cora.

All three of them were stupidly attractive. Laura and Derek were actually twins, Stiles found out, though Laura was apparently all of ten minutes older than Derek was. Cora was four years younger than them, and had dark brown eyes as opposed to the pale multicolored ones Derek and Laura shared, but their attitudes marked them all as siblings.

It was overwhelming, meeting everyone, and Stiles was positive he wouldn't remember half their names. It was equally weird to see how well they all just... lived together, hanging out in common areas of the cars, or the way they all ate together, which was just this side of chaotic for damn near every meal.

For nearly eight years, it had been just Stiles and his dad, and it had been absolutely vital that Stiles not draw attention to himself. He'd spent half his life trying to be invisible, helping out just enough around the outpost so it wouldn't arouse suspicion but not so much that anyone made noises about him following in Dad's footsteps. "Sheriff" didn't mean much in these tiny outposts without any jails, but Dad took it seriously, keeping the peace when the Hunters couldn't or wouldn't.

Even with just the two of them, though, it had been enough. Stiles had made it be enough.

And now his dad was gone and he'd snuck onto this freaking circus with a pack that was as tight as any family he'd ever seen and it hurt. It hurt to be reminded how alone he was, that he didn't fit in, and it was harder than he'd expected.

And he kept thinking back to the way Derek had shoved a plate of food at him, scowled at him until he'd sat down and eaten, the way they'd just kind of absorbed him at the table. Into the pack, however briefly.

Stiles shook it off. He didn't need to think about this, because he couldn't have it. He was getting his father back in Santa Francesca and then they were gone. That was the way it had always been and that was the way it had to be.

He watched Boyd and Derek prowl the wide expanse of grass and dirt where their tents and booths would be set up. Finally, Boyd put down a stake in the center of the area, and the rest of the circus sprang into action, hauling out stakes and booths and tools. Stiles grabbed a sledgehammer and followed where Danny told him to, pounding the stakes in as the sun got higher and hotter. He was amazed at how quickly everyone else moved, how the other booths and tents got set up, followed by a low fence and lights and lanterns.

By the time lunch rolled around, the circus itself was ready to go. Scott, Allison, Isaac, and Kira took off to the outposts in the area to spread the word, with the promise to be back before sundown and the first night of the circus started.

Stiles had just sat down with two biscuits and an apple when a shadow cut in over him. He looked up, biscuit shoved in his mouth, to see Derek standing there, arms crossed.

"Are those the only clothes you have?"

Of all the things to come out of Derek's mouth, that was the last one Stiles had expected. "What?" he asked, his mouth still half-full of biscuit.

"Are. Those. The. Only. Clothes—"

This was ridiculous. Stiles would have jumped to his feet, but that would have meant upsetting his food and he wasn't about to do that. He swallowed his mouthful. "Dude, I heard you the first time. What the hell do you care if I have clothes or not?"

Derek rubbed his thumb along the bridge of his nose. "You are going to be taking tickets tonight. You are not taking tickets looking like that."

The words stung, and one biscuit crumbled in Stiles's fist. "I didn't realize I needed a fucking three-piece suit to take tickets at a circus."

"That's not—" Derek exhaled sharply and grabbed Stiles's arm, hauling him up. "Come on, kid."

Stiles tried to yank his arm away, but Derek wasn't letting him go for anything. "Dude!"

"My name is Mr. Hale, not dude."

"Yeah, and my name is Stiles, not kid."

Derek dragged him back to one of the other private cars and banged on the door. "Lydia!"

The door slammed open, and Lydia stood in front of them, her red hair bound up in huge curlers. She looked like she might skin Derek where he stood. "What?"

Derek didn't seem the least bit intimidated by her; he just pushed Stiles toward the car. "He needs clothes for tonight. And in general, but clothes for tonight."

Lydia's eyes narrowed. "Really? And you couldn't have brought this to my attention yesterday?"

"You hate sewing when the train's moving," Derek said. "And it wasn't brought to my attention until just now."

Lydia heaved a sigh and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Oh my God. I can't believe this. What does he need?"

Derek gave Stiles a perfunctory once-over. "Shirt, pants, vest. Bowtie and overcoat if you can swing it. It's going to get cold tonight. Oh, and probably underwear, too."

"Does anybody care what I think about this?" Stiles asked.

"No," Derek and Lydia snapped in unison.

Stiles glared, but neither of them gave him so much as a sideways glance.

Lydia tapped a fingernail against her chin. "I'm not a miracle worker, you know. But I think I have some of Matt's old clothes I can take in. And let out."

"Bless you," Derek said, with no small amount of gratitude. "And make sure he showers and shaves before tonight."

Stiles felt all the blood in his body rush up his neck. "Wait, what?"

Lydia just rolled her eyes and grabbed Stiles's arm. "Don't worry, I'll make sure he's presentable, Mr. Hale." She waved her hand as if to shoo Derek away. "Now go and let me work my magic."

Derek finally let go of him and stepped away. "You're a goddess."

"You owe me one," Lydia said in response, and then she yanked Stiles into her car and slid the door shut with considerably less force than she'd opened it.

For a moment, he was blinded, going from the bright outdoors to the dim train car, and he stopped in his tracks, because with his luck he was going to run right into something both breakable and irreplaceable.

"Oh my God," Lydia muttered, and then she dug her nails into his arm and led him into a room off to the side of the main room.

Stiles's eyes adjusted to the lantern light and the opened windows, and he gaped at the sheer number of clothes strewn throughout the room. It looked like every bolt of fabric he'd ever seen in the general store had exploded, along with some he hadn't: lace and sheer flimsy pieces and things that swirled and glittered, all of it a riot of color.

"Holy shit," he finally said.

Lydia pulled a small stool out from under the mess and stuck it by his feet. "Stand on this."

"Um..."

She held up a length of marked-up yellow tape. "I've got to measure you."

It was probably easier not to argue in this particular case. Stiles stepped up onto the stool. "Okay, okay. Just be gentle with me, all right?"

Lydia snorted and held the tape across his shoulders. "Stand up straighter."

Stiles did, pushing back his shoulders. Lydia measured his chest, shoulders, waist, arms, legs (inside and outside), pausing only to bark at him at how to move or to scribble a measurement onto a small notepad.

"How do you live like this?" Stiles finally asked. "How could you even find anything?"

"I don't live like this," Lydia said. "This is the costume car, and it only looks like this because we've got a show tonight and everybody's been in and out for two hours getting their clothes and finding things for me to mend. And of course Derek had to wait until the last second to tell me, oh, I don't just need something mended, oh no, I need you to make an entire wardrobe for the new kid. So be quiet so I can work my magic."

Stiles stiffened at the words.

Lydia scoffed. "For God's sake, it's a figure of speech. Magic hasn't been an actual danger in a couple hundred years."

"Tell that to the Hunters," Stiles muttered.

"Believe me, I have." Lydia narrowed her eyes at the notepad, then at Stiles, and made a couple of other marks on it. She tossed the pad and pencil on the desk and rooted through the clothes, finally digging out a pair of pants and a couple of shirts. She threw them all at him. "Here. Try those on."

He looked down at himself, felt the heat race up his face at the thought of changing right there in front of Lydia. "Um..."

"Oh my God, are you really that modest?" Lydia flapped her hand at a nearby screen draped with clothes. "Go change behind that."

Stiles stepped off the stool and picked his way across the room to the screen. Lydia was still muttering to herself, digging through the clothes piled everywhere, clearly not paying any attention to him.

He changed quickly, taking only a moment to appreciate the thickness of the fabric she'd thrown at him. The shirts and pants had all been mended, but Stiles saw no stains, no obvious patches. He looked down at his own clothes, worn and patched two dozen times over, the underwear he knew had holes in it, and winced. Even these cast-offs at the circus were better than what he owned.

Stiles folded his old clothes and set them aside. The new ones were surprisingly warm, but far too big for him.

He kept one hand at his waist to hold up the pants and stepped out. "Um, I don't think these fit."

Lydia looked up from the pile of clothes she'd collected on the desk, and her eyes widened. "Good Lord, you are skinny."

Stiles scowled. "I'm lanky."

"You're almost malnourished, you idiot." Lydia grabbed a pincushion and a piece of white chalk off the desk and started marking up the pants. "When was the last time you had a proper meal?"

"This morning," Stiles said.

"I meant before you joined the circus."

He tightened his grip on the side of the pants. "None of your business."

She shrugged. "Fine, but if you're going to be hauling and helping Danny, you'll need to put some weight on. I'll make sure Kira and Derek know you're to have seconds at meals."

Stiles shook his head. "I'm fine, seriously. There are other people who need it more."

Lydia finished marking up the pants and stood up to study the shirt Stiles wore. "Not in the circus. If there's one thing you'll learn here, it's that we take care of our own. That means decent meals and clothes and a warm place to sleep. Of course, the precise moment you fuck us over is the moment we pitch you out of the train over a long, dark river." She smiled sharply. "But you're not stupid enough to do that, are you?"

Stiles swallowed and shook his head. Not for the first time, he felt the weight of his secret pressing down on him. "I thought this was just probation."

Lydia shrugged. "So what if it is? That just means you get called 'kid' for the next few weeks and get the occasional shit jobs no one else wants. If you do well, then those jobs go back into the rotation and we put you to better use. 'Probation' doesn't mean we're going to leave you to sleep with the mechanicals."

Stiles barely had time to register the words before Lydia was waving at him. "Now change back and get out of my hair. And be back here at five-thirty sharp. And you had better be cleaned and shaved by then!"

***

As it usually did, the circus descended into madness about two hours before dusk, as dusk was opening time. Derek had checked in with just about everyone, which wasn't necessary after so many years of traveling together, but it was part of the well-oiled machine the circus had become. The only two people he hadn't seen were Scott and Stiles.

Derek was somewhat surprised and more than grateful to find them both in the bathing car. Scott was in one of the two shower stalls, and Stiles was...

Stiles was sitting in a tub with a look of bliss on his face that made Derek very thankful he hadn't come in here with the intention of taking a shower, as he normally did.

The running water in the shower shut off, and a hand snaked out from behind the oiled curtain to grab a towel. Scott emerged a second later, towel wrapped around his waist and shaking water from his curly black hair. He grinned lopsidedly. "Hey, Derek!"

Stiles let out a squawk and flailed in the tub, sloshing water all over the copper sides. "You! What—when—what are you doing here?"

Derek sighed and covered his eyes. "Scott, everything ready for the show?"

"Yup! Just need to finish getting dressed and go to makeup. Cora's helping Kira get the food set out in the booths, Allison and Isaac are finishing the setup on the wheel. I'm just showing Stiles where everything is so Lydia doesn't murder him for not being clean when she gets his new clothes ready."

"Good," Derek said, keeping his hand firmly over his eyes. He turned to where he knew Stiles was still in the bath. "Are you ready? Have you shaved?"

"Dude, have you seen my face? It doesn't need shaving."

Derek rolled his eyes even though he knew Stiles couldn't see him. He had the feeling the sentiment would come across. "Once again, my name is not 'dude.' And yes, it does. You can have a trimmed beard or you can have a clean-shaven face, but you don't get anything in between. So unless you can grow that scraggly patch on your chin into an actual beard in the next two hours, you're shaving it off."

"I don't have—hey, I do have some scruff! Awesome! Scott, check it out!"

Scott laughed. "Excellent! Maybe you can grow it out before the next show."

"Shave," Derek ordered.

"Aw, come on, man, you've got scruff," Stiles complained.

"Yeah, but his scruff looks good," Scott said. "Besides, it will be a beard in two hours."

"Also, I am going to shave it," Derek said through clenched teeth, and finally dropped his hand. "And Stiles, you will shave, or so help me I will do it for you."

Stiles wrapped his arms around his chest and glared. "Dude, a little privacy?"

Derek raised his eyes to the heavens and tried not to think about how thin Stiles's arms were. Muscled, yes, but Lydia was right. Stiles needed to eat more. "Hurry up and finish getting ready. Meet in the dining car at five. And shave," he barked one last time, before stalking back out of the car.

***

Stiles returned to Lydia's car at 5:30 on the dot, because he was pretty sure she would find a way to murder him with her sewing needles if he didn't.

She slid open the door and looked him over with a pleased, if somewhat terrifying, grin. "Good. You're punctual. That's an excellent trait."

Stiles hoped his return smile didn't look quite as unsettled as he felt.

Lydia led him into the costume room, which was slightly less of a mess than it had been earlier that afternoon, and shoved a stack of folded clothes into his hands. "There. Go change, and then I'll comb your hair."

"What's wrong with my hair?"

Lydia pushed him toward the screen. "Change first. I need to make sure everything fits."

Stiles made a face at her, but Lydia ignored him entirely.

He ducked behind the changing screen and examined the stack of clothes Lydia had given him. Pants, shirt, vest, underwear, socks, and—was that a bowtie? And suspenders?

"You have got to be kidding me," he muttered.

"I don't hear changing!" Lydia shouted. "And you should hurry, because I've got three other people coming to pick up their clothes."

Stiles cursed and stripped, changing as fast as he could. It took him a few minutes to get the suspenders working properly, and he flat-out gave up on the bowtie. He shrugged on the dark purple vest and stepped out from behind the changing screen, still buttoning it up. "So, yeah, I think the tie's going to have to go."

"Nope, tie stays," Lydia said, and before Stiles could say a word, she'd snatched it from him and flipped up his shirt collar. "I'll show you how to tie it yourself later, or one of the others will, but for now, this is faster."

"I—but—" Stiles swallowed and tried not to think about how easily she could strangle him like this. Well, damn, now that was all he was thinking about.

But Lydia smoothed the sides of the tie and stepped away, a small appraising smile on her face. "There you are. No, wait. Two more things."

She went back to the pile of clothes and returned with a sturdy pair of shiny black boots and a heavy black coat. "Here. Put these on."

"I have shoes—" Stiles cut himself off when Lydia glared. "Or I can put on these lovely boots you have found for me."

She nodded once, and then someone knocked on the door. "Hurry up," she said to Stiles, and then called, "Coming!"

Stiles pulled on the boots and shrugged on the coat, and stopped a moment to examine himself. It felt strange to be wearing clothes that weren't worn through, boots sturdy enough that his socks wouldn't get soaked and a coat that was heavier than any he'd ever owned. It reminded him of being a kid, when Dad would come home and take off his coat and put it around Stiles's shoulders, the way it weighed on his body, making him feel warm and safe and protected.

He sank on the bed, and his hands started to shake. If he lost his dad... if he didn't get to the Santa Francesca Haven in time, if the Hunters found out his dad had lied...

No. Stiles pushed the thoughts down and focused on his breathing, in and out, in and out. There wasn't anything he could do now but get into the Haven, and the only way to do that was to stay with the circus.

Heavy footsteps sounded in the train car, and Stiles looked up just in time to see Derek and Lydia step into the room, Lydia with a slightly haughty smirk on her face and Derek looking gobsmacked. Well, his eyes were slightly wider than Stiles had seen them, which probably meant gobsmacked. Or perhaps it was the dark lines of kohl rimming his eyes. He was dressed in a pair of black slacks and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and Stiles very deliberately did not look at his arms.

"Well?" Lydia gestured to him. "Stand up, kid."

Stiles glared, but he stood. "It's Stiles."

"Not until you survive your first show, it's not," she said. "Now turn around."

He held out his hands and turned, feeling stupid and awkward in these too-nice clothes that weren't his, that were still a little big in the waist and a little short in the length.

Lydia patted Derek's shoulder. "Told you he cleans up well."

Derek sent her a venomous look and cleared his throat. "Going to be cold tonight. Get him a hat and gloves." His gaze flicked back over Stiles. "But good job, Lydia. You're a genius."

Lydia tossed her head at the compliment, the curlers in her hair bouncing with the movement. "Wonderful. I'll get him fixed up, and then you both will get the hell out of here because I," she swept a hand over the silk robe she was wearing, "still need to get ready."

"Oh, no, you don't, babe," a new voice said from behind Derek. "You should tell fortunes like that. We'd be rich."

Lydia's glare sharpened, and she reached out one hand to drag a pretty girl with dark, braided hair—Cora, Stiles remembered—over for a peck on the cheek. "You're the only one who gets to see this, babe."

Cora's amused grin went feral. "Damn right."

Derek rolled his eyes and jerked his head at Stiles. "Forget the gloves and come on. And the circus opens in half an hour, you two. Don't be late!"

Stiles stumbled toward the door in boots that felt too big, and Derek grabbed his hand and practically dragged him out of the car. Stiles nearly tripped down the stairs and landed on the grass. "Hey, what was that for?"

Derek pulled him along the length of the train. "I don't particularly wish to be around when my sister and her girlfriend are having their private time."

"Okay?" Stiles looked back behind him, and futilely attempted to tug his hand out of Derek's grip. "So where are you dragging me?"

"My car," Derek said. "You need gloves and a hat before you stand outside to take tickets tonight."

"I'll be fine," Stiles protested.

Derek snorted in return and didn't let up on his grip.

They reached Derek's car, and for the second time in as many days, Stiles found himself inside it. It felt strangely homey and quaint, the way overstuffed bookshelves crowded the room, the mechanical dragon curled up on top of one of them, smoke drifting lazily from its nostrils.

Derek opened his desk and pulled out a pair of black gloves. "Here. Try these on."

Stiles took them, someway shaken at the idea of wearing something Derek had had on his hands. "What makes you think they'll fit?"

Derek gave him a look that said, plainly, he thought Stiles was a fool. "Your hands aren't much larger than mine. Try them on."

Stiles tugged them on without another argument. They weren't leather, but they were lined, surprisingly warm and well-made. They were only a fraction too small for him, which was saying something, given how large his hands were. He flexed his fingers.

"Will those do?" Derek asked.

Stiles nodded, suddenly feeling very out of place in his borrowed coat and borrowed shoes and borrowed gloves. He started to peel them off. "I can't accept these. I'll be fine." He would be fine; he hadn't had gloves in months and he still had all his fingers.

Derek growled. "For God's sake. They're just a loan, until Lydia finds you a pair. I'd rather you borrow my gloves than lose your fingers to frostbite."

"It's not going to get that cold," Stiles said, because of course that was the only thing his mind could come up with.

The argument apparently didn't work on Derek, who only gave him a flat and vaguely annoyed look. "Just take the damn gloves. If it makes you feel any better, I can't find a hat that will work with those clothes, so you'll probably have cold ears. Now go find Danny. I have to finish getting ready and we're on in less than an hour."

Stiles frowned. "I thought you said half an hour?"

"Because if I hadn't, then I guarantee Cora and Lydia will be late," Derek said.

Stiles couldn't help the snort he made, and he also noticed the way Derek's lips twitched briefly into a faint smile before twisting back into their usual scowl. "Get out of here before you're late."

Stiles touched his head and gave an ostentatious bow. "As you wish, o captain."

He scurried out of the car before Derek could get in the last word.

Chapter Text

Stiles hadn't had any illusions about working for the circus. Really, he hadn't. It was a means to an end, as far as he was concerned. He didn't need it to be flashy; he just needed it to get him into Santa Francesca.

That being said, taking tickets was just as boring as it sounded on the tin.

He stood outside the massive tent Danny and the mechanicals had put up earlier. Flickering torches and glowing electric lights surrounded it, and the material itself sparkled like someone had pulled down a piece of the night sky. Beautiful, yes, but Stiles couldn't bask in it; he had to pay attention to all the people handing him their grubby ticket stubs.

Even if he'd never been to this outpost, he recognized the people: farmers and traders and general store owners, a handful of shifters, people who had decided long ago to eke out their living in the wilds and frontiers as opposed to staying within the walled safety of the Havens. Some were better dressed than others, but all wore mended clothes and hand-me-downs. Kids scrambled between the booths, pointing to where Boyd was lifting a truly massive amount of weight, or to the creepy tent where Lydia was telling fortunes.

The smells of popcorn and cider and roasted nuts drifted from the booth where Kira and Cora provided refreshments. Stiles watched the crowd, feeling strangely separated from everyone. He was a part of the circus, so he couldn't explore, but he'd spent his entire life in an outpost, so he didn't move with the ease of understanding that the pack did.

Don't worry about it, he chided himself. It wasn't that important. He didn't belong here; he belonged with his dad.

The circus had been open for about an hour before people started filtering into the big tent. Stiles smiled at the kids who wandered in with huge eyes, taking in every aspect of the tent, each of them practically vibrating with excitement. Fortunately, nobody tried to get in without a ticket. Stiles wasn't entirely sure what he'd do if that were the case. He couldn't use magic to stop them, and God knew he didn't have the strength of any of the shifters.

He'd probably yell for one of the wolves. Or Jackson. Jackson could be scary.

Slowly, the other booths shut down, and the rest of the pack made their way to the smaller tent connected to the back of the big one. From what Scott had said, that was where they changed costumes for their different acts.

Danny had told him to go up to the nest, a raised platform behind all the seats, once he'd finished taking tickets. Apparently that was where Danny and Kira spent the duration of the performance.

Once most everyone was in the tent, Danny gave a signal from the nest, and Stiles untied the tent flaps so they swished shut.

He made his way through the crowd and climbed into the nest, and perched on a small, rickety stool between Danny and Kira. For once, Danny wasn't in his greased overalls or lab coat, but rather a vest and slacks, just like Stiles. He'd draped a dark coat over the edge of the nest, and grinned at Stiles as he took a seat. "So how was taking tickets?"

"Fascinating," Stiles deadpanned.

Both Danny and Kira laughed. "Oh, I like it," Kira said. "It's fun to meet all the new people, or see people we've seen come to previous performances."

"You remember people who've come to your show?" Stiles asked.

"Definitely! Maybe not names, but after you've played the same outposts a few years running, you get used to seeing the regulars." Kira gestured to the crowd. "Some of these kids we've seen grow up. It's a lot of fun. We're a small enough circus that we really get to interact with people."

Danny poked her in the side. "Quiet. There's Derek."

"Oh!" She sat up and immediately put her hands on the metal panel in front of her. The lights dimmed, and then one bright spotlight snapped to the middle ring.

Derek strode into the center of the ring, dressed immaculately in a black suit with a bright purple vest and yellow bowtie, a green feather sticking jauntily out of his top hat.

He swept the hat off his head with one white-gloved hand and bowed to the crowd. "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, humans and shifters, welcome to Hale's Circus of Monsters, Magic, and Mystical Wonders. Or as you might know it... the Circus at the End of the World!"

The crowd roared in approval, applause and whistles and shouts filling the air. Even from his distance, Stiles could see the smile that split Derek's face, the way he spun and bowed to each section of the audience, encouraging them to yell louder.

Then, he placed a finger to his lips, and then entire tent fell silent.

Derek the ringmaster, shushing the crowd

"Tonight, for your pleasure and entertainment, we will laugh, we will dance, we will sail through the air. You will see great feats of strength, illusions so seamless you won't believe your eyes. You will see our world-renowned acrobats defy death a hundred times over!"

Another roar of approval from the crowd, and Derek bowed once again.

"You will see mechanical marvels, the likes of which have never appeared outside the ring of this circus! What you see here tonight will shock you, amaze you, leave you speechless and spellbound!"

More cheers and whistles echoed through the air, and once again, Derek held one hand to his lips for silence. Stiles couldn't help but marvel at how he had the crowd practically eating out of the palm of his hand. Hell, Stiles couldn't look away, and he knew how grouchy Derek was ordinarily.

"First, let me direct your attention to our acrobats. Three werewolves and one human, and if you can pick out the human among the wolves," Derek held a finger up to his eye, "you've a sharper eye than I."

The crowd laughed.

"Across the breadth of the country we've traveled, seeking out those whose acrobatic abilities outstrip anything a mere mortal can conceive. They walk on air as if it were solid ground, leap from pole to pole as easily as if they were crossing rocks in a creek. And of course," Derek cupped a hand to one side of his mouth, as though he were about to share a secret, "they do all of this without a net."

Most of the crowd oohed, with a couple of horrified gasps sprinkled in.

"Without further ado," Derek swept one hand to the side, "I give you the fantastic four, Allison, Isaac, Scott, and Cora!"

Derek bowed once again and the spotlight diffused away from him, splitting into four parts to follow Isaac, Scott, Allison, and Cora up the poles to the trapeze. The crowd cheered and the show began.

Stiles watched Derek's silhouette until it disappeared into the smaller tent.

***

The circus was everything Stiles had expected and more. Derek was right; Allison was good enough that it was impossible to tell she was the sole human flying through the air, and the entire crowd gasped and cheered at the right moments.

Once they had all landed safely on the ground, Derek emerged to give Boyd an equally flowery introduction, and the crowd cheered him on as he lifted increasingly ridiculous amounts of weight, topping it all off by lifting a massive platform that had Erica and Cora balancing on either end.

It segued nicely into Cora and Erica's dance routine to a slow, dark waltz, both of them spinning slowly and beautifully on their tiptoes.

"Have you ever seen ballet?" Kira whispered to him.

Stiles shook his head. "What's that?"

"It's the kind of dance they're doing," she explained. "They have special shoes that make it possible for them to dance on their toes like that."

"How did they learn that?" he asked.

"From Talia, Derek's mother. The story goes that her great-great-great-grandmother was a professional ballerina in the time before, and she passed the art of the dance down to all of her children, who passed it on to their children."

Stiles blinked in surprise. He could see passing down useful stuff, like how to hunt or how to fish or how to shoot an arrow, but a dance? "Why?"

Kira smiled and tapped the panel in front of her, changing the lights to spin slowly around Cora and Erica. "She always said it was important that art wasn't lost."

For a single, heart-stopping moment, Stiles wasn't in the nest anymore. He was sitting at a piano bench, dutifully picking out the keys as his mother showed him how to play. "Why are we doing this?" he'd asked after what felt like the millionth time she'd made him play the same scales.

His mother had kissed his forehead and ruffled his hair. "Because it's important that art isn't lost."

Stiles cleared his throat and looked away from Kira, hoping she couldn't read anything from his face.

The next act was Allison, Scott, and Isaac again, but this time Scott and Isaac were strapped to two huge, spinning wheels while Allison shot arrows at them. Stiles found himself tensing each time she drew back the bow, but she hit her mark every time, never once so much as grazing Scott or Isaac.

"Holy shit," he said, when she finally put the bow away and curtsied to the crowd, to thunderous applause.

Danny leaned back and grinned. "You think that's good, you should see her with the ring daggers."

Before Stiles could ask what the hell he meant, Derek stepped back into the center of the stage, and Kira brought the lights back to him.

"For our next act, you'll have to watch closely, because you won't believe your eyes." Derek swept off his hat, and a small white dove flew out, to the surprise and delight of the crowd.

It took Stiles two heartbeats before he realized the dove was a mechanical.

On stage, Derek put his hat back on and continued his introduction. "Across the country we've traveled, to bring you this: just a few moments of magic."

Everyone gasped, and a few uneasy murmurs emanated from the crowd. Stiles stiffened, his legs ready to launch him out of the nest, hell, out of the entire fucking tent if necessary. Derek didn't know about him, couldn't know about him, so... did they have another mage in the pack? If so, who was it?

"I give you all... the lovely Lady Lydia!"

Kira did something with the lights, and it was as though Derek disappeared without a trace and Lydia appeared in his place, hands folded demurely at her waist and red hair gleaming under the low circus lights. In the dim light, Stiles couldn't tell if her dress was dark green or black, but it made her look mysterious.

He gripped the edge of the nest. Holy shit, was Lydia a mage?

She spread her hands, and her cape went with her—Stiles could see now where it was tied around her middle fingers—and two more mechanical doves burst out from behind her, fluttering their way up over the crowd and into the recesses of the tent.

Stiles felt his breath catch in his chest. That wasn't magic, it couldn't be magic, it couldn't be...

Below him, Lydia smiled to the polite applause, and then held her hands above her head and slowly spread them. Shimmering strands of fire and light connected her fingers, slowly stretching as she moved her arms. Then she clapped her hands and the strands exploded in a shower of sparks.

"You like it?" Danny whispered, jerking Stiles's attention away from the stage.

"Yeah, I... how?" he finally asked, because he had to know.

"Just something I rigged up for her," Danny said, his voice so low Stiles could barely hear it over the occasional applause from the crowd. "She's pretty good with sleight of hand, but I have a few tricks we switch out to keep it interesting."

His heart plummeted. "Oh."

Danny frowned. "You thought it was real magic?"

Stiles remembered the way his mother had maintained their little garden, the way she'd sent little petals and flowers floating in the air until they were surrounded by strands of them, all with her magic.

He shrugged and scoffed. "What? No."

Danny snorted in response. "Liar. It's okay, I fooled Scott and Isaac too, first time we showed them. We can't do real magic around this area, sadly. Bunch of the outposts are still really superstitious, and not to mention there are some Hunters who'd take any opportunity to shut us down. Having an actual mage perform?" He whistled low and shook his head. "Even Derek's not willing to take that risk."

Stiles nodded numbly and sat back. He wasn't surprised; why should he be surprised? Why should he be disappointed? Why had he even had a modicum of hope that Lydia was actually a mage, could be someone he could talk to? Why had he thought, for even a moment, that the circus would be different? They had to deal with the same rules and snap judgments that everybody else made, and life wasn't easy outside of the Havens. Stiles couldn't blame them for not wanting to add the issue of a mage to that.

This wasn't a secret he could share, he knew that. And if he wanted to stay alive to see his eighteenth birthday, he needed to keep it that way.

***

Derek was more than ready to call it a night after they gave their final bows. He loved performing, truly he did—loved the lights and the intensity and the way he could hold the crowd in the palm of his hand—but he was always ready to pack up and head back to the privacy of his room. Maybe curl up on the couch with a cup of tea and a book and Temeraire and put off going through the take until the morning. Or make Laura do it, since she'd spent most of the day in a terrible mood.

Of course, that didn't happen, because Derek heard the fight as soon as he stepped out of the tent.

It was just outside the circus, where people filtered toward horses or carriages or wandered back to their homes on foot. Raised, tense voices which probably weren't quite raised enough to get a human's attention, but even with all the murmurs from the crowd, Derek could tell something was wrong.

And because he clearly didn't know when to leave well enough alone, he rolled his sleeves back down, grabbed his coat, and followed the voices.

Cora poked her head out of her dressing room—"room" was too generous a word for it; it was a sheet hung up over the section of the tent to give some privacy while changing. "What's going on?"

Derek slipped his coat back on and buttoned it up. "Probably nothing."

She frowned. "Wonderful."

"Tell me about it."

Derek threw aside the tent flap and headed out to see what the hell was going on. Cora wouldn't stay in the tent, but he hoped she'd have the sense to get at least a couple more pack members before she followed him.

He found the source of the voices just outside the circus, away from the main traffic area where people were leaving. It looked like two people in dark dusters talking to Ian, one of the elders of the outpost. Probably the closest thing the outpost had to a mayor.

His heart sank when he got close enough to make out the red swirls on the back of the dusters. Hunters. Fantastic.

He couldn't hear what the Hunters were saying—they pitched their voices low enough that even his hearing couldn't pick it up—but Ian's voice, high and trembling, was clear as a bell. "I told you, we'd have it by the end of the month. End of the month! That's still another week away."

"That's what you said last month," one of the duster-clad figures said, ending on a snarl, and hell.

Derek recognized that voice.

He shoved his hands into his pockets and did his best to look loose and unintimidating. "Mr. Woon! Hope you enjoyed the show tonight."

Ian looked both relieved and slightly more terrified at the same time, and the two Hunters turned to glare at Derek.

He pasted on the widest, fakest smile he could manage. "Ennis. Kali. Long time no see."

Ennis growled and drew himself up to his full height, which even Derek had to admit was impressive. "Hale. Crawled out of your tent for a nightcap?"

"Something like that." Derek made a show of looking around them. "Don't you normally have a few more lackeys running around? Or did you feel brave enough to come out by yourself tonight?"

"Oh, don't you worry. They're around." Ennis's smile was a slash of white in the dark night. "Now why don't you go scuttle back to your train car? This is private business."

"If it's private business, maybe you shouldn't be taking care of it in public," Derek pointed out.

Kali bared her teeth, but Derek just raised his eyebrow. It wasn't that they weren't dangerous; they most definitely were. Ennis was half a head taller than Derek and had twice his bulk, all of it muscle. Kali was almost as tall as Ennis, and the way her eyes always glinted slightly red was unsettling, as if she only had the barest control over her more feral nature.

Derek wasn't leaving one of his customers—one who'd allowed them to play this outpost for several years—alone with them for even one more minute.

"When I say it's private business, Hale, I mean it's none of yours." Ennis uncurled one massive hand, his claws out and gleaming in the moonlight. "Now get out of here before I give you some interesting scars to add to that pretty face."

Derek sighed and smiled. "Oh, Ennis. You know you don't want to hurt me."

Ennis took a step forward. "Oh, no, I'm pretty sure I do."

"No," Cora's voice said from behind him. "You really don't."

Derek was beyond pleased to see Jackson's tail lash out and grab Ennis around the throat, hoisting him up three feet off the ground. Ennis grabbed onto the tail and clawed at it, as if trying to tear it away from his throat, but Jackson hissed and tightened his grip.

"Now, Jackson," Danny said lazily, "don't actually kill him. We don't want the Hunters that pissed."

Derek took a casual look behind him to see who all had come. Cora, Danny, and Jackson obviously, but Boyd, Erica, and Laura were there as well, eyes gleaming gold and red and fangs bared in unfriendly smiles.

God, he loved his pack.

"Jackson, I believe Ennis has gotten the hint," Derek said.

A beat later—probably after Jackson had looked to Danny for confirmation—the tail slowly lowered Ennis back to the ground. Ennis rubbed his throat and glared at all of them. "Couldn't take me yourself, so you called your pack in?"

Derek crossed his arms over his chest. "Do I look like an idiot to you? Why the hell would I cross two werewolf Hunters alone when I have an entire pack to back me up?"

Strength in pack, strength in numbers, strength in the bond they'd all forged together. There was pride and there was idiocy, and Derek's pride was in his pack and the family they'd built, not in his own abilities.

"Now that we've got that taken care of," he continued, "wouldn't this be a better discussion to have tomorrow morning? Some place light, probably with a lot more people around?"

Ennis looked back and forth, between Derek and his pack and then Ian, before snarling again and jerking his head at Kali. "Come on. Let's get back to the boys. We'll finish this later."

He strode away, ignoring the glares Cora, Laura, Erica, and Boyd sent his way. Kali followed him, but slower, and grabbed Derek's vest as she passed him.

"You should not have done that," she said softly, so low Derek was likely the only one to hear.

Before he could call her out on the threat—because that was what it was—she met his eyes. For the first time, hers weren't slightly red, and her face looked entirely human. And unless Derek was losing his mind, she looked... regretful?

But it was only for a split second, and then Kali shoved him away and stalked after Ennis.

Well. That was strange. He'd had run-ins with Kali and Ennis before, but she'd never said anything to him.

About forty yards away, Ennis stopped. "You're only in town for what, three days, Hale?"

The question was quiet enough humans couldn't catch it, but Derek tensed at the words.

"Bad thing about being on a train," Ennis continued. "You just roll on out of town. Never stick around a place for long. Gonna be a shame when you leave."

A sick feeling curled in Derek's stomach. Shit. Well, that didn't leave any question as to what Kali had meant.

Laura growled at the Hunters' retreating backs. "I'm going to kill them."

"I could make it look like an accident," Danny offered. "Or I can just have Jackson go after them. Quick, simple. Admittedly bloody, though."

Derek took a sidelong glance at Jackson. Even as a kanima, he looked inordinately happy about the idea of getting to rip apart Kali and Ennis.

"Yeah, because killing them will solve so many more problems than it causes," Cora said. "What with the whole bringing down the wrath of all the Santa Francesca Hunters on our heads."

"Might be worth it," Erica said.

Honestly, Derek was almost with Erica at this point. He sighed and turned back to Ian, who was still there and looking at all of them like they were insane. Derek wasn't sure if he should apologize. "Are you okay?" he asked instead.

Ian straightened his vest and gave an aborted shake of his head. "I'm not harmed, but I have a feeling that won't be the case much longer."

Derek sighed. "Ian—"

Ian shook his head. "They've been after us for months. Every month, they want more. More money, more resources, more of whatever we can give them."

Derek felt, rather than saw, Boyd step up to stand beside him. "Or what?" Boyd asked.

Ian's thin mouth went thinner. "Or they'll quit coming out this far. Leave us at the mercy of the wilderness, the bandits, the feral shifters. Let the whole outpost burn. Or worse, they'll do it themselves."

Derek closed his eyes. "They've been doing it to a lot of the outposts, haven't they?"

"A lot?" Ian snorted. "Mr. Hale, they've been doing it to all of them. Every outpost under jurisdiction of the Santa Francesca Hunters."

Derek rubbed a hand over his face. "Of course they have." Of course they had been, and he hadn't seen it. Hadn't really been able to see it, because it had all been just rumors, because the train kept moving, because it hadn't directly affected his pack. "What can we do to help?"

Ian shook his head. "You can't. While I do appreciate the offer, and I understand that you did what you did with the best of intentions, this is not something you can help with." He sighed and twisted his hat in his hands. "Much as it pains me to admit it, Mr. Ennis is right about one thing. You're only here for three days, and you can't stay. Not without destroying your livelihood. This is our problem, Mr. Hale, and that means we have to fix it. You can't help."

It rankled at Derek, that there was nothing they could do. Some of these people he'd known for years, some of them he'd watched grow up, others were old enough that they'd watched him grow up. They were a small circus, and played mostly small outposts. Even if they only stopped by once a year for a weekend, that was enough. "Danny, get the cash box."

Ian's head snapped up. "Mr. Hale—"

"You're right," Derek cut him off. "We can't stay, and there's not much we can do to help. But we can give—"

"No," Ian said with a swipe of his hand. "I won't take it. I can't. We asked you here for three days, and now I'm going to ask you to leave after one. Maybe I can talk some sense into the Hunters tomorrow."

Derek's heart sank at the thought of how that conversation would go. "I don't think Ennis is one who gets sense talked into him."

"Maybe not, but I can try." Ian shrugged. "Regardless, I won't take back the money you and your people earned." He finally pulled his hat back on his head. "We'll figure something out."

Derek recognized a dismissal when he heard one. "I'm sorry," he finally said, for lack of anything else.

Ian chuckled mirthlessly. "Aren't we all?"

Chapter Text

"Where'd everyone go?" Stiles asked.

Scott looked up from where he was helping Lydia and Allison clean up the changing tent. "Some commotion outside. Probably drunks fighting. Cora looked murderous when she grabbed Danny and Jackson."

Stiles decided to be happy he was missing the fight. He didn't particularly like dealing with drunks. "That happen often?"

Scott shrugged with his armful of corsets and costumes. "Not really. We don't serve alcohol here, so in order to get drunk, people have to bring in their own or already be on their way, you know?" He jerked his chin at an open box on the ground, overflowing with the weapons Allison had been using in her performances. "Hey, can you get that crate?"

Stiles hopped off the table where'd he'd been sitting and picked it up, letting out only the slightest oof. "This is heavier than it looks."

"Wimp," Scott said with a grin.

Stiles tried to elbow him, but it was difficult when he had to keep the weapons crate balanced. Scott just laughed and danced out of the way, the asshole.

Stiles followed him out of the changing tent and back to the train, where they'd store everything that wasn't nailed down for the night. It wasn't that they didn't trust people, Scott had said. It's just that it was easier to trust people when they'd removed all temptation.

"Not to mention, you never know when bandits will show up..." Scott trailed off and his eyes burned briefly yellow at something over Stiles's shoulder. For the first time since they'd met, Stiles saw the easy smile slip into a harder look. "Or Hunters, for that matter."

Hunters. Stiles whirled, only just managing to keep himself and the weapons upright. Sure enough, two Hunters in long dusters sauntered their way. They looked to be the same height and build, and when they got closer, Stiles could see they were actually twins.

And he recognized them. They were part of Deucalion's crew. Shit shit shit.

His heart galloped like a horse, and he made himself take deep breaths. He needed to calm down; even if the Hunters weren't werewolves, Scott was, and Stiles didn't want him wondering why he was suddenly so nervous.

Of course, the Hunters' eyes flashed blue as soon as they got closer.

Dammit. So much for that hope.

Stiles clung to the box of weapons, as if that would provide him some kind of protection from Twin One and Twin Two.

Next to him, Scott growled softly. "What are you two doing here?"

Twin One bowed, and Twin Two grinned, fangs gleaming in the lamplight. "Why, just making our rounds, of course," Twin One said.

"It's what we do," Twin Two said. "Protecting the populace from the dangers of the wilderness."

They both laughed then, like it was some kind of inside joke, and Stiles's stomach twisted. These assholes had been part of the group that had taken his dad, he was sure of it. Deucalion and his Hunters had been poking around Beacon Hills for weeks, asking questions, like they were looking for something. Or more specifically, someone.

Scott inclined his head toward the train. "Come on. Let's go. You don't need to put up with these jerks."

Stiles was more than happy to listen and follow Scott, but he hadn't made it two steps when one of the twins grabbed his arm. "Now now, why so hasty?" Twin One—or maybe Two—grinned. "If you're with the circus, you should get to know us. We'll be crossing paths again."

"Yeah, how about no?" Stiles tried to jerk away, but it wasn't really any use since the twin was a fucking werewolf. "Let go of me, asshole."

The other twin stepped forward, glaring at Stiles. No, not glaring. Staring. Scrutinizing.

Oh shit.

"You know... you look awfully familiar," the twin said. "Don't you think so, Ethan?"

The twin who had hold of his arm—Ethan, he guessed—cocked his head. "You know, now that you mention it, yeah. You look real familiar, kid. Where have we seen you before?"

Stiles really hoped his heart hadn't started beating faster. Then again, he didn't think it could be. "You haven't seen me before," Stiles snapped. "Now let me go, dude."

If anything, Ethan's fingers dug in harder, and Stiles swore he could feel claws pressing at the thick cloth of his coat. "I don't think so." Ethan's face had gone hard. "Why do you look so familiar?"

"I just have one of those faces, you know?" Stiles said, with the full knowledge that they could hear the way his heart was jumping in his chest. "Everybody says I remind them of someone."

"Hey, let go of him," Scott said with a snarl.

The other twin, Not-Ethan, shoved Scott aside, hard enough that he landed back-first against the train and dropped his armload of clothes. "Who's going to make us? You?"

Scott growled, and for one heart-stopping moment Stiles was convinced he was going to fling himself at both Hunters and get torn to shreds.

Instead, Scott straightened up and grinned recklessly.

A second later, a knife buried itself in the train right next to Not-Ethan's hand.

It made both of the twins jump, and Stiles let go of the heavy crate he held and dropped it right on Ethan's foot.

He shouted and let go of Stiles's arm.

Stiles stumbled back, putting as much distance between himself and the twins as he could. Scott scrambled over in front of him, claws out and fangs bared, and before Stiles could blink, Isaac was next to him, also shifted and snarling. Several yards away, Allison and Lydia stood, Allison lazily twirling a knife between her fingers.

For a human, she had an awfully sharp smile. "Gentlemen. I wish I could say it was a pleasure to see you again."

"Argent," the twins growled in unison.

"Wow, you're terrifying." Lydia crossed her arms, and didn't look remotely intimidated by the fact that they had only two werewolves, two humans, and a banshee against two werewolf Hunters. "Why don't you two crawl back to whatever rock you've been hiding under? You're stinking up our circus."

Stiles was suddenly very aware that of the three squishy humans, he was the one standing closest to the four angry werewolves with super-strength and pointy ends. He wondered how fast he could scoot away toward Allison and Lydia.

"Just walk away, guys," Scott said, somehow managing to project a calm, reasonable voice through his fangs.

"Not until you tell us where you picked him up." Not-Ethan jabbed a finger at Stiles. "Because he's new, isn't he? Can't have been on your crew that long, he doesn't smell like the rest of you."

Stiles stepped back, gauging if he was fast enough to outrun the twins. This was it. Scott would say that Stiles was from Beacon Hills, and they would know. They would know, and he would be dead, and there went any chance of him ever seeing his father alive again.

"Picked him up a couple of weeks back," Scott said easily.

What? Stiles froze.

"One of those small outposts way up north," Isaac added. "Or was it south? I'm terrible with directions."

"No, it was east," Allison said. "Definitely east. Unless it was west or southwest."

"We go so many places." Lydia sighed. "It's so hard to remember. But you know how Derek is about picking up strays."

They weren't telling. They were protecting him. Why were they protecting him?

The twins didn't look happy about it, but they also didn't call the others out on the lie. Did that mean they couldn't hear the heartbeats, or that they didn't know how to tell that it was a lie?

"Ethan, Aiden. You should probably step back."

Stiles spun at the new voice, Derek's voice, but it wasn't just Derek. The rest of the pack strode up behind him, looking... unusually murderous. Huh. They must really not like the Hunters.

That was good for Stiles, though.

"Actually," Laura said with a wide smile, "you should probably follow your boss and just get out of here entirely."

Ethan and Aiden still glowered, but they apparently recognized when they were outmatched. Really outmatched.

With more glares and a few muttered threats, the twins walked away.

Stiles waited until he'd completely lost sight of them before he let out a long breath and sank to the ground, because his legs were not going to hold him up anymore.

Scott was immediately beside him, one hand on his back. "Hey, you okay? Do you need to go see my mom?"

Stiles shook his head and sat on his hands so no one could see how they were quivering. "Nah. No, I'm fine. Just relieved that no one got their throat ripped out." He forced out a laughed, tried to make his voice light. "I saw my life flash before my eyes there for a minute."

Scott stood up and held out his hand. "Come on, let's get the rest of the stuff put away."

"We'll need to get everything put away," Derek said, voice hard. "We're breaking down the circus and heading out tonight."

Scott gaped. "What? Why?"

Allison strode across the grass and yanked her knife out of the train car. "Is this because of the Hunters? Because they can just—"

"It's because Ian asked us to," Derek said. "Now, you all know what to do. Break it down."

"But where are we going to go?" Isaac asked.

"We'll just stay a few extra days in the next town." Derek glared over the group again. "Now go. It's only going to get later."

Stiles looked around at everyone's faces, some angry, some resigned, some as confused as he felt. He wanted to ask what the hell was going on, but given the way everybody slowly started drifting toward the tent and the booths, it didn't look like this was time.

Danny touched his shoulder. "Let's go get the mechanicals and get the tent."

Stiles waited until they were well away from Derek before he finally gave in and asked. "What happened? Why are we leaving? I thought we were here for another two days, at least."

Danny shrugged and jumped up the steps to the car where the mechanicals were stashed. "We were. Looks like the Hunters and the town have their own problems, though, and it was suggested we make ourselves scarce."

"So we're just running off? Because of the Hunters?"

"No. We're leaving because the town asked us to, and we don't stay where we're not welcome." A flash of something skated across Danny's face, but Stiles didn't know him well enough to decipher the look. "Now come on. We've got a circus to break down."

***

Breaking down the circus in the dark was harder than it had been even in the early hours of dawn, when they'd at least had the sun rising. Now, it just was dark and cold and stayed that way.

By the time they got everything loaded and the train jerked into motion, Stiles wanted nothing more than to collapse onto his couch. No, drink some coffee and then collapse on the couch. He was frozen to the bone, and could just imagine how a nice hot mug would warm him. Hell, he wouldn't even have to drink it; he could just sit there and let it thaw his hands.

However, Scott grabbed him before they even got close to their car and steered him toward the engine.

"Where are we going?" Stiles asked.

Scott grinned. "You survived your first show. Time to celebrate."

"Celebrate?" Stiles repeated. "After all that?"

Scott shrugged. "I mean, yeah, it didn't end the way our shows normally do, but we'd have been celebrating tonight regardless. And you shouldn't just stop being happy about good things because something bad happens, right?"

Stiles wasn't really sure that was the case, but Scott looked so earnest. Besides, he liked the idea of being able to celebrate something. He couldn't remember the last time he had. "So... what kind of celebration did you have in mind?"

Scott's goofy grin didn't dissipate in the least. "Oh. You'll see."

***

They opened the door to the dining car and Stiles was immediately blasted by an ear-splitting chorus of howls, whoops, and shouts. The table had been shoved to one side, leaving the main part of the dining car free for the pack to cram into.

Erica lunged forward from the crowd, holding a brown bottle filled with liquid. Stiles didn't recognize it, but it smelled alcoholic. "New kid!" she shouted right in his ear.

Stiles winced. "Had a bit to drink there?"

She draped herself over his shoulders and held the bottle up to his face. Holy shit, that was definitely alcoholic. Stiles was getting drunk just off the fumes.

"A'right, a'right, everybody!" Erica yelled, and the rest of the group quieted. Well, mostly quieted. "Our very own Mr. McCall's going to give us a toast to the new kid. Mr. Scott McCall?"

Scott stepped forward and raised his own glass. "To Mr. Stiles." He paused and frowned. "Hey, man, what's your last name?"

"Stilinski," Stiles supplied.

Scott nodded firmly. "To Mr. Stiles Stilinski, for he has survived his first show, and not run screaming into the night!"

"To Stiles!" the rest of the pack echoed, and everybody took a drink from whatever they had in their hand.

Erica tipped the bottle up to Stiles's mouth, and he had no choice but to take a drink. It burned like someone had poured fire down his throat, and he coughed. "Holy shit, what the hell is that?"

She grinned wickedly and took her arm off his shoulder long enough to take a drink of her own. "Danny's special full moon whiskey." She winked. "With a little extra kick for the werewolves."

"I've got a toast! I've got—I have a toast!" Danny yelled from somewhere in the back of the room, and everybody got slightly quieter once again. "To Mr. Stiles Stilinski, who got Larry, Barry, and Harry working in less than fifteen minutes, without a single curse uttered!"

Erica shoved the bottle back at him in the cheer that followed, and Stiles took another drink, shivering at the way the liquor burned all the way down. "How much am I going to regret this tomorrow?"

Erica threw back her head and laughed, long and loud, and dropped her arm back around his shoulder. "You're not going to regret it yet, kid. Give it about another, oh, quarter of a bottle? Half?"

Stiles took another drink and made a face. "How long am I going to be 'kid'?"

Scott came up to his other side and threw another arm around him. "Until someone new joins the circus."

"I was 'kid' for six months!" Isaac yelled from the back of the room.

Scott thrust his glass into the air, sloshing alcohol over the side. "To Isaac!"

"To Isaac!" the pack yelled, and this time Stiles yelled with them before taking another drink.

His vision suddenly tilted sideways, and Stiles shook his head to clear it. It only sort of worked. "I, uh. I think this's hitting me."

"Excellent!" Erica linked her arm through his. "Let's go get you your own bottle."

***

"We need to get rid of him."

Derek looked up from Temeraire, who was curled up on his desk and happily munching on coal. Laura paced the room, her whole body taut, brow drawn into an angry furrow. Boyd lounged against one wall, sipping on a mug of coffee.

Laura stopped pacing long enough to turn her glare fully onto Derek. "I'm serious. That kid's in trouble with Hunters. We need to drop him off at the next outpost and not look back. It's not worth it. He's not worth it."

Derek let out a long sigh and rubbed his forehead. Werewolves didn't usually get headaches, but he felt a fantastic one building right about now. "Laura, don't you think you're overreacting a little? Ethan and Aiden just thought they recognized him."

"Oh, don't even pull that bullshit with me." Laura slapped her hand on his desk. "You saw him and you heard what Isaac said. That kid was scared of them, scared they were going to find him out."

"We can't know that for sure," Derek argued. "If you were human and had two werewolf Hunters sniffing around you, wouldn't you be scared?"

"Dammit, Derek, I am your co-Alpha, I'm your co-manager, and I say we get rid of him before we have all of Deucalion's fucking cronies breathing down our necks and making our lives a living hell. We don't have to take care of anyone, especially not someone who's got a history of trouble with the Hunters."

Boyd cleared his throat. "Though, to be fair, if we got rid of everyone who had a history with the Hunters, we wouldn't have a pack anymore."

Laura whirled on him and bared her fangs, but Boyd just took another measured sip of his coffee.

"Calm down," Derek ordered, but it was to the two people on the train who didn't have to listen to him. "Maybe he's in trouble with the Hunters, in which case, so what? Like Boyd said, we've all got a history with them, some more than others. Or do you want us to toss Allison off this train, too? Or Erica? Hell, Danny and Jackson?"

Laura crossed her arms and pressed her lips together until they were white, her gaze darting off to the corner of the room. "They've been around us for years," she finally said. "He's been around here three days. We can't trust him."

Derek let his head hit the desk. "We're not trusting him. We're using his help and he's working for free. Or did you forget that part?"

"Danny likes him," Body added.

Laura rolled her eyes. "Danny likes everybody. Danny liked Matt."

This was getting out of hand. "Laura. He's staying until Santa Francesca. Then we decide if we want to keep him around, okay? There's no reason not to stick with the plan."

Laura growled. "Where's Cora? She'd back me up on this."

"In the dining car," Boyd said. "With everyone else, celebrating the new kid's first successful show."

She growled again, this time lower. "I don't like it. I don't trust him as far as I can throw him, and whatever he's hiding is going to come back to bite us in the ass. I know it."

The last part of that, Derek really couldn't argue with. He felt it too, but... he couldn't do it. He couldn't just leave Stiles on his own right now, not without reason.

"At least now we know he's in trouble with the Hunters," Boyd said evenly. "And we can plan to deal with it, if necessary."

"Exactly," Derek said. "Just leave it, Laura."

Laura's lip curled. "So help me God, if you're putting this pack in danger because you want to fuck him—"

Derek was on his feet, fangs and claws bared, a snarl cutting her off. "Out."

She didn't even flinch, or apologize. "I hope you know what you're doing," she snapped, and stormed out of the car.

Derek sank back into his desk chair with a sigh. That could have gone so much better.

Boyd inclined his head toward the dining car. "You gonna join in?"

Derek shook his head. "I've got..." He trailed off and gestured at the cashbox and pile of papers on his desk. "You go ahead."

"Okay." Boyd grabbed his thick brown coat off one of the chairs and trailed his fingers along Temeraire's head. Temeraire raised his head and puffed happily. "For what it's worth, kid doesn't feel like trouble. Not like Matt did."

Derek sighed. "He doesn't have to feel like trouble to bring it."

Boyd just shrugged. "True. See you at breakfast?"

Derek nodded and waved him away. "Go on, go keep your girlfriend company. And tell her I'm docking her pay if she's too hungover to work."

Boyd chuckled and pulled his coat on. "Will do."

***

Derek counted up the cashbox and added Danny's list of trades—chickens, eggs, a few loaves of bread, bacon and sausage, spare parts from an old cycle—to the ledger, made another pot of coffee, and washed his face. Even though he'd done it hundreds of times by now—if not thousands—it was still a strange feeling, to look in the mirror and see his face go from Mr. Hale, the ringmaster of the Circus at the End of the World, back to Derek.

Just Derek.

He ran a hand over his cheeks, already stubbly despite the shave he'd had before the show. He debated shaving again, just to give himself something to do, but decided against it. He'd have to do it again in the morning, and really, it wasn't worth bothering with until they had another show anyway.

Derek glanced at the clock. It was well after two in the morning, which meant there was a good chance everyone had filtered out of the dining car and back to the privacy of their own bedrooms. And even if they hadn't, it would be much quieter now than it had been three hours ago. He could sneak down and grab an apple or two from the kitchen for a late-night snack.

Decision made, Derek bundled himself up against the late fall air and left the warmth of his car. They'd had long debates about completely enclosing the walkways that ran around the cars, but it really wasn't worth overhauling the entire train, which wasn't something they could afford anyway. Besides, even at her fastest, the train never got over about 40 miles per hour, and most of the pack could tolerate being outside in almost anything short of an actual blizzard.

Still, he'd look forward to getting back inside.

Derek made his way up the train, closer to the dining car at the front. He smiled as he passed the car Allison and Isaac shared, at the low lights in Boyd and Erica's. Even though he was out and about, it settled something in him to see his pack warm and cozy and where they should be.

He got to the door of the dining car, when it slid open and a tall form crashed fully into him. "Whoa!"

Derek grabbed the person with one arm and braced them against the railing with the other, keeping them both from pitching over. That was when the scent hit his nose, overpowered by alcohol, but still most definitely— "Stiles?"

The wobbly yellow lantern outside the dining car didn't give the best light, and Stiles looked blearily up at him. His whiskey-colored eyes were bloodshot, his hair mussed, and he smelled like Danny's distillery. It took a few minutes before those eyes widened in recognition. "Heeeeeeeeey, boss-man! Ringmaster! Deeeeeeerek."

Derek kept his hand firmly around Stiles's waist because he was reasonably sure Stiles would topple right off the train otherwise. "It's Mr. Hale," he said, but he couldn't really force any heat into it.

"Psh, I know." Stiles lurched to one side and latched on to the arm of Derek's coat to haul himself back up straight. "You're Mr. Hale. I'm the kid. The new kid. Always going to be the new kid until a new new kid shows up. 'Swhat Erica said. Did you know Isaac was the new kid for six months? What'm I saying, of course you did. You're the circus owner. You know everything."

Derek wasn't quite sure what to do with an armful of Stiles, drunk and rambling and swaying from side to side like he was going to lose control of his legs at any moment. "How much did you have to drink?"

Stiles screwed up his face like Derek had asked him to divine the meaning of life from a teacup. "I... do not know. Erica gave me a bottle. No, she shared me a bottle. Shared a bottle with me. And then she gave me another bottle all for myself. And it tasted awful but I had to keep drinking because I didn't believe how awful it tasted. Also I was cold and it was warm." He grinned brightly, stupidly, and completely unguarded for the first time since Derek had met him. "I've never been drunk before. It's awesome."

Derek cleared his throat to cover the sudden, inexplicable pounding in his heart. "You say that now, just wait till tomorrow morning."

"Mmm." Stiles nodded solemnly. "Hangover. I've been told about it. It's not a good thing. But I don't feel sick. I feel dizzy. And floaty. And everything's moving."

"That's the train," Derek said. "Is anyone else still in the dining car?"

"No?" Stiles cocked his head to one side. "I don't think so. Last thing I remember was sitting down and then I woke up and everything was black and quiet." The smile slipped off his face. "I forgot where I was. Thought I was back at home. But home's not there anymore."

Derek's heart twisted. "It's not?"

Stiles shook his head, big, slow shakes that moved his whole body from side to side. "Nope. Nooooooooope. Not there. Must be nice, having a home that comes with you."

"It has its perks," Derek said.

Stiles beamed, and then slumped forward, resting his forehead on Derek's shoulder. "There's... a lot of spinning."

Derek closed his eyes and looked to the sky, as if someone up there might be able to tell him what to do. Stiles had a death grip on his coat, and he felt all loose-limbed from the alcohol. Underneath the stench of Danny's whiskey, Stiles smelled content and sleepy and warm, open and vulnerable in a way he hadn't been since he'd set foot on this train. For the first time, he looked young, actually looked his age, didn't seem to be carrying the weight of secrets in his eyes or on his shoulders.

Derek felt his heart stutter unfamiliarly. Oh no. Oh, he couldn't do this. It was easy to keep his distance from sober Stiles, the one with the walls and the sharp eyes and the sharper mouth, even if Derek still felt the need to ensure he was taken care of.

But this Stiles, the one curling against him, pliant and soft, nuzzling against Derek's shoulder...

"Bed," Derek said. "I'm taking you to bed. Your bed," he added hurriedly.

"Don't have a bed," Stiles murmured, voice muffled by the cloth of Derek's coat. "Have a couch. 'S a nice couch, though. Lumpy. But nice."

Derek took a moment to thank God and his parents that Stiles was too drunk to pick up on that slip. "Well, let's get to your couch, then."

He tucked Stiles against his side and led him slowly back around the cars toward Scott and Melissa's, making sure Stiles stayed away from the railing. Still, Stiles leaned heavily against him, like Derek was the only thing keeping him upright, swaying unsteadily when he shuffled more than a few inches away.

Derek was just proud he got them both to the car without incident, though he was more concerned that incident would be both of them going over the side.

He knocked lightly and eased the door open. "Melissa? Scott?" he called quietly. "It's me."

Silence. Melissa was probably sound asleep, and Scott was either very sound asleep or not in the car. Probably had ended up with Isaac and Allison, then.

Derek pushed the door open a little farther, just enough to allow both him and Stiles inside, and then slid it shut. The noise of the wind and the wheels on the tracks was muffled somewhat, and the warmth of the car surrounded him like a hug.

He got Stiles over to the couch and helped him sit down. "There you go."

"Huh." Even sitting, Stiles swayed a little. "It got warmer."

Derek shuffled his way to the wall and turned the lantern on low. The soft yellow glow filled the small room, deepening the shadows and giving him a better look at Stiles.

Stiles, who was grinning wide. He flung an arm out at Derek. "You, Mr. Hale, are a gentleman."

Derek felt his eyebrows climb and heat creep up the back of his neck. He ducked his head, even though he was pretty sure Stiles was drunk enough he wouldn't see anything. "No, I'm not."

"Are so," Stiles said. "You walked me to my car. Couch. Made sure I didn't fall off the train."

Derek kept his gaze on the ground and knelt to pull off Stiles's boots. "It's bad if you fall off the train. Terrible clean-up."

Stiles scoffed, throwing his head back so hard he hit it on the back of the couch.

Derek was on his feet to check for an actual injury, but Stiles shook his head, laughing to himself. "Gentleman. Mr. Hale's a gen-tul-mun. If you weren't a gentleman, you'd be tryin' to take advantage of me."

The very idea of it had Derek recoiling, and he went back to tugging Stiles's boots off his feet. "I wouldn't...take advantage. That doesn't mean I'm a gentleman."

"Means you're nice," Stiles said. "That's good. Not a lot of nice people, you know."

Derek set Stiles's boots aside. "Yeah, I know." He stood and looked around for a blanket, found it folded on a nearby chair on top of a pillow. He grabbed both and set them on the couch. "Okay, stand up."

Stiles blinked owlishly at him. "Why?"

"Your coat."

"Oh." Stiles looked down and plucked at the buttons. "I forgot."

"Well, it'll be uncomfortable to sleep in, so," Derek grabbed his hands, "up."

Stiles glared, or rather, it looked like he was trying to glare. Really it just ended up looking like a stupidly adorable pout. "Fine," he muttered, but he did stand.

Derek helped him take off the coat, trying to keep it as professional as possible, but it was hard when the extent of Stiles's aid in the process was simply standing upright. He kept swaying toward Derek, leaning on him, and Derek had to bodily move his arms to get the coat sleeves off.

Torture, that's what it was. Torture, plain and simple.

"Vest," Stiles said.

Derek looked up from where he'd folded the coat over the back of a chair, and saw Stiles picking idly at the buttons on his vest.

"Vest should come off," Stiles said, frowning at the buttons like they were the most complicated math problem he'd ever seen. "Not used to so many clothes."

Derek sighed and stepped back over to unbutton the vest. "You should have more clothes. It's nearly winter."

Stiles made a face. "Never needed that many before."

Derek bit his lip to keep from making a comment he might regret, and finished unbuttoning the vest. This close, he could feel the warmth from Stiles's skin, emanating through his thin shirt, and wanted nothing more than to press his hands against it, to just lean in close and warm them both.

Instead, he pushed the vest off Stiles's shoulders and set it aside, and then made quick work of the bowtie, which he was frankly surprised to see had survived the dining car party. He put the tie and the vest on top of Stiles's coat, and then gestured to the couch. "There you go."

For a moment, it looked like Stiles might have forgotten how couches worked, and then he sank into it and slumped sideways, burying his face in the pillow. "Aw, lying down is awesome."

"Yes, it is." Derek unfolded the blanket and laid it over him. "Now get some sleep. You're going to feel it in the morning."

Stiles yawned hugely and turned into the pillow, his eyes slipping shut. "Thanks, Mr. Hale. For taking care of me."

Derek's heart twinged, and he almost replied, but Stiles's heartbeat was slowing and his breathing evening out with sleep.

Instead, he turned the lantern off and left the car, hunching his shoulders against the frigid wind as he made his way down the train.

This... could be a problem.

Chapter Text

The next two weeks passed without incident—or at least, without any incidents like they'd had with the Hunters. Stiles's birthday came and went on one of their performance days, and he drank a little more during the post-performance celebration, but he didn't tell anyone the significance of the day.

He did, however, sneak out of the dining car just long enough to raise his glass to the sky twice: once for his mom, and once for his dad.

"I'm coming for you," he promised fiercely, and then snuck back into the car before he was missed.

Life with the circus was basically nonstop controlled chaos. When they weren't working on circus things—practicing acts, setting up tents, tearing down the big top—there were still the basic necessities of daily living on the train. Kira and Laura handled most of the cooking, so the rest of the group alternated who cleaned up. The bathing car did double duty as the laundry car, and the laundry schedule was posted at the beginning of each week, lest fights break out. Stiles saw Boyd and Cora nearly claw each other's eyes out over washing bedsheets. It wasn't pretty.

Stiles also spent a lot of time in the laboratory with Danny. Most everyone else had a spot for their hobbies within their own cars, but Danny's laboratory took up an entire car on its own. Since Danny used it to build tricks for the circus and repair virtually everything that broke on the train, Stiles could see why.

If it wasn't mealtime or a performance, Danny was typically in the lab, hunched over a table with various tools. He encouraged Stiles to come in as much as he wanted, because "If you're going to be helping me with the mechanicals, you might as well learn how to fix all their random quirks."

Since he couldn't rely on always using magic if he was working in close proximity to shifters and a mad scientist, Stiles took him up on that. Of course, that meant he spent twice as much time in the bathing car, trying to scrub off all the grease and soot that coated his skin and clothes after a day in the lab.

He'd once run into Derek right after he'd left Danny's lab, and just barely managed to avoid getting grease all over Derek's pristine white shirt and purple vest.

Derek had stared at him in what Stiles assumed was veiled horror, his eyes fixed on the smears of grease running up Stiles's arms and over the sleeves of his rolled-up shirt.

"It's not one of your shirts," Stiles said hurriedly, by way of explanation.

"What?" Derek said, blinking like he hadn't understood a word Stiles had said.

"This." Stiles tugged at his shirt. "It's mine. You know, the one that Lydia deemed unfit to wear anywhere that wasn't setting up or tearing down the circus. I figured if I was going to destroy clothes it would be the ones you wouldn't want back."

"Ah," Derek said, but he still looked... well, Stiles wasn't sure how to decipher that look. "Okay, then. Um, you have a little—" He motioned to the side of his face.

Stiles snorted. "Just a little?" He grabbed the bottom of his shirt, which seemed to be the least dirty part of it, and wiped it over his face, hoping to get at least some of the soot off. "There, any better?"

Derek's face twisted in pain.

Stiles sighed. "I figured as much. Don't worry, I'm on my way to the bathing car right now to get all of this," he gestured down at himself, "sparkling clean once again. Although I've been informed my fingernails may be a lost cause."

Derek's gaze dropped briefly to Stiles's hands before he dragged it away and glared out over the landscape whizzing by. "You can ask Cora. She might have something to help you. Gets clay in her hands all the time."

With that, Derek shouldered past him and into the lab, sliding the door shut before Stiles could even say "thanks."

Stiles wished he could say it was the only strange interaction he'd had with Derek since joining the circus, but that would have been a lie. He had a hazy memory of Derek hauling him back to his couch after he woke up alone in the dining car after his first performance, but Derek didn't mention anything about it afterward and Stiles wasn't sure it hadn't been a dream.

The only thing he did remember from that night with any clarity—aside from how epically terrible an idea drinking had been—was the sheer terror of waking up alone in the dark dining car and not knowing where he was. He'd been so damn grateful to be on the couch the next time he'd opened his eyes, he didn't even question how he got there.

Besides, given that Derek seemed to want to spend as little time around him as possible, Stiles guessed it had been a dream.

Fortunately, the circus kept him busy enough that Stiles didn't have much time to worry about Derek. His status as the new kid meant everybody had seniority over him, which meant whenever someone needed an extra pair of hands for grunt work, they grabbed Stiles. If he wasn't helping Danny in the lab, he was helping Scott and Cora clean the mechanicals. If he wasn't doing that, he was helping Lydia hem and patch clothes and costumes. Or shoveling coal in the engine for Deaton. Or helping Kira chop vegetables for dinner. Or helping Scott move his stuff into Allison and Isaac's car. Or helping Boyd and Erica rearrange the furniture in their car, though why two werewolves—including one who was a strongman—needed his help for that was beyond Stiles.

With their extra days after leaving Old King City, they stopped at a smaller outpost and set up the circus for a full three days. There wasn't space for the big top, but they set up all the booths and everybody performed for the townspeople who came by. Stiles boggled at how many paid for their entry into the circus with bags of apples, flour, and carrots, among other things.

"They can't afford anything else," Scott told him while they packed up after the second night. "It's fine, since we need the food anyway."

"But..." Stiles still couldn't believe it. "Why stop, if they can't afford it? Why not just spend more time at one of the larger outposts?"

"This is about more than just money."

That was news to him. Stiles frowned. "The circus is about more than money?"

Scott chuckled and tucked away the weapon crates for the night. "Watch their faces tomorrow. You'll see."

Stiles did as Scott asked, and watched the faces of the crowd rather than the performers. Watched the way people who were tired and cold lit up when they saw Scott and Isaac spin on poles in the air or Cora and Erica dance in tandem, watched how they grinned over Kira's apple cider and popcorn.

And he saw how Derek's scowl softened into a genuine smile when people came up and thanked him and left bags of produce and the occasional basket of eggs at the ticket booth. Even Laura looked happy to see them.

It made Stiles's heart hurt. Even if the pack didn't live in the outposts, they became part of the community, however briefly. Stiles had spent his entire life in Beacon Hills, and aside from his parents, he couldn't point to a single person he'd felt close to. It was too important to keep himself separate, safe, or else risk someone finding out what he could do and turning him in.

He looked at the easy camaraderie in the pack, between the circus and their audience, the people in the outposts they passed through, and envy gnawed at his gut. He wanted it, wanted that easy connection so badly he could taste it, and at the same time, knew he couldn't have it. Not with what he was.

So he pushed away the part of him that wanted it to be permanent, that wanted to slip into this role in the pack and just stay here, even after he'd gotten his dad back.

He should really quit pining for things he couldn't have.

***

Derek shaded his eyes and looked out at the sky. It had been gray all day, the air smelling cold and sharp, like it was going to snow soon. He'd hoped it was too early in the season for that, but then again, they were going through the mountains now.

At least it didn't smell like a blizzard. It was nearly dusk, and he didn't want to ride out a blizzard in the dark.

He frowned at the eastern horizon and focused his gaze there. Sure enough, the clouds were tinged magenta, with flickers of bright blue lightning at the edges.

Boyd strolled up to stand beside him. "Magic storm?"

Derek nodded, and they watched the oddly colored clouds together.

"Doesn't look like it's heading this way," Boyd said after a moment.

"Hopefully it'll burn itself out before it goes too far," Derek said.

As if the storm heard him, the distant clouds flashed again with blue and green lightning.

Derek buttoned up the collar of his coat against the wind and shoved his hands in his pockets. Magic storms weren't exactly rare, but they usually sprung up in warmer months. He didn't much like seeing one when it was nearly winter.

A new scent filtered to Derek's nose, completely unrelated to the wind and cold, and his heart flipped in his chest.

Stiles leaned on the rail next to Derek. "Sniffing out the weather?"

Derek growled and fisted his hands in his pockets, so he wouldn't reach out and yank Stiles back from the railing. "Stand back from there."

"What, from here?" Stiles patted the railing. "You worried I'm going to fall over, big guy?"

Derek gritted his teeth. "It's Mr. Hale, kid."

Stiles rolled his eyes and leaned out farther. "And it's Stiles."

"You know, that railing probably needs a bit of repair," Boyd said conversationally. "And that is a sheer five-hundred-foot drop on the other side."

Stiles backed away from the railing like it had burned him and plastered himself to the train car. "Wow. Okay. That's fun. Don't think flying's something I want to try to do today."

Derek made a mental note to have Kira make chocolate pie as soon as she got a chance, as it was Boyd's favorite. "Good plan," he said gruffly.

Stiles beamed. "Aw, you were worried about me."

Derek debated the wisdom of pitching himself over the railing.

"Anyway, Cora wanted me to find you guys," Stiles said. "Well, Laura wanted her to find you guys, but Cora pawned it off on me because I'm still the new kid. So, message delivered, and I'm heading back to the lab, where my only danger is potentially being electrocuted."

Derek rolled his eyes. "Danny's the safest—"

The train slowed.

Derek shared a look with Boyd, and without a word, they both started toward the engine.

Stiles scrambled after them. "Whoa, what's going on?"

"Train's slowing down," Derek said.

"And it's not supposed to be," Boyd added.

"So that's... bad?" Stiles asked.

Derek ignored the question and barged into the engine. "What's happened?"

Deaton half-turned from the controls and continued pulling the brakes. "There appears to be a slight problem with the tracks."

"How slight?" Derek asked.

"There's a tree across them."

Derek's blood ran cold. There were only two reasons for a tree to be across the tracks. One, a storm had blown it over. Two, someone had put it there.

He had a feeling they were dealing with the latter, here.

Derek rubbed a hand over his face. "Fuck."

"Fuck?" Stiles repeated. "Why fuck? What's that mean? We just need to stop and move it, right?"

"Exactly," Deaton said dryly.

"That's what they're counting on." Derek cursed again under his breath. "Boyd, get Scott and Isaac. I want them with me to help move the branches. As for everybody else—"

"Every other car, weapons at the ready?" Boyd asked.

Derek nodded and clapped him on the shoulder. "And hurry."

Boyd hugged him briefly and left the train car, already howling the warning to the rest of the cars.

"What's going on?" Stiles asked. "Who left the tree across the tracks?"

Derek turned back to Deaton. "You've got the train?"

Deaton nodded. ""Don't worry, I've got her. Go."

Derek went back outside, Stiles right on his heels.

"Okay, what the fuck, man?" Stiles said. "Are you just not hearing anything I—"

Derek turned, and Stiles ran into his chest. "Go to the laboratory with Danny. He'll make sure you have plenty of weapons. Stay with him or Jackson."

Stiles grabbed his arm. "You're freaking me out, dude."

Derek started to snap that it was Mr. Hale, but Stiles's eyes were huge and even with the smell of ice and snow in the air, Derek could scent his fear. He pressed his lips together, swallowed, and waited another beat to speak. "Thieves will put branches or other things over tracks to either derail the trains or force them to stop. Then, they'll attack."

"But we've got a whole train full of shifters," Stiles said. "Surely they wouldn't be that stupid."

Derek raised his eyebrows and continued as though he hadn't been interrupted. "This is dangerous for the thieves, too, as you might imagine. Especially out here, where so many feral shifters roam. Sometimes, the thieves don't survive long enough to use their trap, but the trap is still there."

The light of horrified understanding dawned in Stiles's eyes. "Oh my God, are you telling me we're about to get ambushed by either thieves or a bunch of feral shifters?"

Derek nodded grimly. "There's a chance we'll be fine, and we'll be able to move the tree off the track before anything happens. But every moment we're stopped, we're vulnerable. So. Get back to Danny's laboratory, and stay with him or Jackson."

To his surprise, Stiles latched onto his sleeve and didn't let go. "But... you and Scott and Isaac. You're going to get off the train to move the tree."

"Someone has to."

"You're going to be in danger the entire time!" Stiles protested.

"We're all going to be in danger as long as the train is stopped." Even as he uttered the words, Derek could feel them slowing more, and the thought of his pack being so vulnerable scraped him raw. "Scott and Isaac are strong and fast. Between the three of us, we'll get it moved."

"But—"

"Stiles," Derek cut him off. "I need you to go to Danny's laboratory and get a weapon. Get the mechanicals working too, if you can. We're going to need all hands on deck for this."

Somewhere back down the train, Derek heard Scott and Isaac howl, letting him know they were on the way. The other wolves echoed it.

He pried Stiles's grip off of him. "Go. Now."

Stiles opened his mouth, like he was going to protest again, but instead he snapped it shut and saluted. "Aye aye, Mr. Hale," he said, and sprinted off toward the back of the train.

Derek took a deep breath and looked up at the sky, where the first few flakes of snow started to fall.

Because of course things weren't bad enough.

***

Stiles shaded his eyes against the falling snow, trying to see down the cliff. It hadn't reached blizzard conditions yet, but it was definitely impeding his vision.

The train had shuddered to a complete stop only a few minutes before, but it felt like an eternity had passed. Next to him, Danny crouched, a complicated set of goggles over his eyes and a gun nearly as tall as he was lying across the top of the train car. Two cars to their left, Jackson crouched in his kanima form, his tail twitching and swiping away snow with every movement. Two cars to the right, Cora and Lydia stood, Lydia with a crossbow and a massive quiver of arrows, and Cora with her claws out. Even from here, Stiles could see the occasional yellow glint of her eyes.

He could see the silhouettes of the others on down the train, watching grimly through the snow for any sign of movement. The only person who wasn't standing guard was Melissa; as their only medic, she was in the infirmary, preparing for any injuries that might happen.

Even though the sun hadn't yet set, the sky had darkened rapidly with the snowstorm, and the most light came from the lanterns hanging at odd intervals off the cars. It only added to the strangeness, the tension in the air, and though Stiles wasn't a shifter, he swore he could smell it.

He readjusted his grip on the bulky gun Danny had given him. "See anything?"

Danny tapped the side of his glasses. "Nothing. It's quiet so far."

"How long do you think it'll take them to move the tree?"

"Depends on the size of the tree," Danny said. "It's probably big, with a lot of branches. Takes longer to separate and move it, in that case."

Stiles shivered, but it had very little to do with the wind.

"On the plus side," Danny said, "it's been a good few minutes since we stopped. Bandits would've attacked by now."

Stiles swallowed, trying to wet his throat. "That's good. Maybe they saw we were armed and decided it wasn't worth it."

"Maybe."

Danny's response was too neutral for Stiles's liking.

A roar echoed through the air, followed by another one in quick succession.

"That's one of ours, right?" Stiles asked.

Danny picked up his gun and flicked a few switches on it. It powered on with a whine. "Nope."

Stiles's stomach dropped, and he hoisted his own gun. It had bullets, rather than the ray gun Danny had, but Stiles was reasonably sure he could reload fast enough to make it viable. "See anything now?" he asked again.

"N—oh, shit."

Before Stiles could ask what had given Danny that reaction, he peered over the edge of the train and saw three great black hulks climbing up the cliff face below at a rapid speed.

"Oh, shit," he echoed. "What the hell—"

"Bears," Danny said, and then yelled, "Three feral bears, car ten!"

A moment later, Stiles heard additional cries from the rest of the train—one here, two there, another three at the end—as others called out.

Stiles chambered a bullet. "Shit," he said again.

"Careful," Danny cautioned. "It'll take more than just one to put them down, even if it does have wolfsbane. The bears are sturdy."

Stiles raised the gun. It was heavier than he was used to, but he could make it work. "I'm a good shot."

He sighted down the gun, aiming at the closest bear. It crested the cliff and looked up at Stiles, red eyes glowing and foam dripping from its jaw.

Stiles exhaled and fired.

The kickback nearly knocked him on his ass, would have if Danny hadn't shot out a steadying arm. Stiles looked at the gun. "Holy shit."

Danny grinned. "You think that's good, wait till you see what this one does."

"Did I get him?" Stiles edged his way back toward the edge of the car. "Did you see—"

A huge black shadow sailed through the air. Stiles dove to one side, Danny to the other, and a massive, slavering werebear landed on the car between them, hard enough to crack the wood of the roof.

Stiles scrambled backward, dragging his gun with him. "Holy fuck!"

The bear swung its head between the two of them and dropped to all fours, mad red eyes fixed on Stiles. Blood dripped from its arm, dyeing the snow red, and it lumbered right toward him.

Something gave a high-pitched whine, and then a bolt of blue light blasted through the bear's shoulder. It roared and spun around, then slumped to the side and rolled off the car. The acrid scent of burned hair and flesh filled the air. Stiles coughed on it.

Danny flicked the switches on his gun again. It hummed and a blue light flickered between the metal.

Stiles gaped. "So how do I get one of those?"

"I build another one." The gun's humming stuttered, and Danny cursed and hit it. "Of course, it's still got some kinks."

Stiles heard another roar, and the whole train car shuddered. Shit. The bears were ramming them. "I really hope you get those kinks ironed out in the next twenty seconds."

The spotty humming from the gun didn't inspire confidence, nor did Danny's additional cursing.

Stiles heaved his own gun to his shoulder again and aimed at the furious werebear trying to knock the car off the tracks. His first shot scored its shoulder, angering it, but his second caught it in the eye. It stumbled backward and over the cliff.

He ejected the used shells and jammed in the other ones Danny had handed him. Roars echoed up and down the train, wolf and bear alike, though Stiles couldn't see much beyond the two cars closest to him.

The snow fell harder, swirling in the dark sky.

A piercing scream came from the car two down from them. Stiles whirled to see a feral bear with two arrows jutting out of its back standing over Lydia, who had thrown herself over Cora's prone body. He couldn't see her crossbow.

Stiles didn't think; he just aimed and fired.

The bullet thudded into the bear's torso, not even hard enough to make it twitch. Stiles fired again, and again, ejected the shells, reloaded, and fired a fourth time, all before the bear could drop to its feet and touch either of the girls.

The fourth bullet did it, and the bear fell to the side and off the train car.

He looked back to Danny, who waved him toward Lydia and Cora. "Go, go check on them," Danny said. "Make sure Cora's okay."

Stiles nodded and jumped the space between the cars. The added weight of his gun and the slick of the snow nearly sent him sliding off the edge. He righted himself and practically fell in a heap next to Lydia. "How is she?"

Lydia's lips pressed together in a thin line. "Not good. Bleeding. We need to get her to Melissa." She turned to him, wind whipping her red hair across her face. "Can you help me?"

Stiles set his gun aside. "Yeah. Okay."

He helped Lydia get Cora up, winced at the sight of blood on the snow. Cora stirred as soon as they had her somewhat upright.

"I'll be fine," she croaked. "Just give me a minute."

"You're going to Melissa," Lydia snapped. "Now."

Cora looked like she was going to protest again, but then Stiles accidentally bumped her side and she hissed.

He snorted. "Yeah, you're totally fine."

She glared, but it had more pain than heat in it.

It took some cautious maneuvering, but he and Lydia got Cora off the top of the car without hurting her further. Stiles checked the area; though he could still hear fighting, none of the bears looked to be coming after them. Lydia gestured toward the infirmary with her chin, and they slowly made their way through the snow.

The door slid open before they even reached it, and Melissa hopped out to help them. "Hurry, get her inside," she said.

Stiles passed Cora off to Melissa and Lydia, and reached back to slide the door shut. "How is she?" he asked for the second time. "Is she going to be okay?"

"I'm a wolf, of course I'm going to be okay." Cora sat on one of the rickety exam tables and grunted. She glared at Melissa. "That hurt."

"You may be a wolf, but you're not going to heal as quickly with these wounds." Melissa set a bowl and some bandages on a stool next to the table. "We'll clean them, and then you're going to need to rest."

Cora struggled to sit back up, even as Lydia forced her back down on the table. "I can't, not while the train's under attack."

"The rest of the pack can handle it," Melissa said firmly.

Cora didn't look convinced.

"They can," Lydia said. "You saw Stiles and Danny. They took out three bears between them, and they're not even shifters."

Stiles raised an eyebrow. "Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence."

Lydia smiled sweetly at him. "No problem."

Another roar echoed through the air, this one loud enough to rattle the car itself. Stiles slapped his hands over the bottles on the shelves to keep them from shattering on the floor. Something about the roar sent a chill up his spine.

Cora thrashed at Melissa and Lydia. "Let me go! That's Derek!"

He swore his heart stopped. "Derek?"

Cora's head whipped to him, her dark eyes wide with panic. "He's in trouble. They're in trouble."

"I'll go." The words were out of his mouth before he even had a chance to consider them, but Stiles wouldn't take them back. "I'll go," he said again, and yanked the door back open.

"Be careful!" Melissa yelled after him.

He nodded and pushed the door shut once more. He wasn't sure how much good it would do against feral shifters, especially bears, but it was better than nothing.

He grabbed onto the nearest ladder and hauled himself back up to the top of the train, and sprinted toward the engine. Stiles didn't have the faintest idea what he was going to do once he got there when he had no weapons, but that didn't matter. He'd figure it out.

He had to figure it out.

Chapter Text

Derek stiffened when he heard the cries go up from the rest of the train, counting off the feral shifters coming up to attack. Shit.

He'd really been hoping for bandits.

He turned to Scott and Isaac, who'd stopped in their work on the tree the moment the warnings had started. Derek growled and grabbed at the branch closest to him. "Quit gawking and come on!"

Isaac shook himself out of it first and ripped off an entire branch with his bare hands, tossing it to the side. Scott cast one last, worried look at the train and went back to the tree with a renewed vengeance.

Derek wrenched his own branch off and threw it over his shoulder. Whoever had put this tree here had done a thorough job. It was too large and unwieldly for them to lift, even working together with their enhanced strength, and it had what looked like a thousand branches, some of which had been jammed between the tracks and the ties.

Of course, that meant he, Scott, and Isaac were having a hell of a time getting the damn thing off the tracks without damaging them. Derek did not want to be stuck out here a moment longer than he had to be.

He kept his eyes on the tree, but his ears on the battle: the roars of the bears, the howls of his pack, the curses of the humans. He listened for sounds of pain, and prayed that if anyone was hurt, it wasn't beyond Melissa's abilities to heal.

Somewhere down the train, gunshots echoed. Danny, most likely. Or possibly Stiles.

The hair on the back of Derek's neck stood on end, responding to some close noise he hadn't even registered hearing.

He whirled on his feet, claws and fangs out, just in time to see four werebears lumber over the edge of the cliff and toward them.

Derek snarled, half a threat to the bears, half a warning to Scott and Isaac. The tree would have to wait.

And then he lunged at the nearest bear, burying his claws in its chest.

The bear roared in Derek's ear, spraying spittle and foam in his face. It swung to the side with enough force that Derek lost his grip and went rolling through the snow, stopping just by the train. It was more disorienting than anything, and he was back on his feet seconds before the bear charged. Derek jumped out of the way, and the bear's head crunched into the engine.

Derek snarled again, slashing at its eyes with his claws. The bear was huge and dense, and its thick fur would protect it from most of his attacks, but Derek was smaller, faster, and smarter. Of course, the bear was also enraged, and they didn't have much room for maneuvering this close to the cliff.

Don't overestimate yourself. Derek swore it was his father's voice he heard, drifting up from the back of his mind.

He crouched low and rolled under the bear, digging his claws into the back of its leg as he did, ripping outward. The bear roared and tried to change direction to come after Derek again, but the injured leg had it stumbling.

Derek grinned viciously. Good. The bear would heal, but right now he had the advantage.

The bear dropped to all fours again and charged once more, and Derek ran toward it. He jumped before the bear could close its massive jaws around him and landed on its back, shoving his claws into its neck.

The ensuing roar rattled his teeth, and the bear whipped its head from side to side, trying to shake Derek off. He growled and hung on, jamming his other hand into the side of the bear's neck, trying to rip out its throat. If nothing else would stop it, that would.

The bear slammed into the side of the train, knocking Derek's breath out of him. He cursed and shook his head, trying to clear his spinning vision, and then the bear did it again.

That time, he lost his grip, and when the bear bucked, Derek went flying.

He landed against the tree, crushing into the branches. Pain flared along his side, and Derek roared with it.

He glanced down at his side, where one of the branches had ripped a sizable gash. Derek swallowed hard. It hurt like hell, but it wasn't that bad. He was the Alpha. He'd live.

The bear staggered toward him, but blood dripped from its neck, staining the snow. And, Derek was pleased to note, its leg was still injured. Good. Wounds from an Alpha were slower to heal for the bear as well.

Derek pulled himself out of the tree, grunting as the branches tugged at his tender skin, and pressed one hand to the wound in his side. Hopefully it would start knitting together faster than it was right now.

The bear growled, like it was going to attack, but it moved much more slowly than it had been. It was easy to dodge, easy to get out of the way and let the bear plow into the tree, breaking off some of the dead branches and getting stabbed with others.

Derek wiped his sticky hands in the snow. His wounds were still healing, but they'd closed up a bit now.

The bear struggled, but thankfully it seemed stuck in the branches there. Derek didn't have to worry about it right now.

He turned his attention toward Isaac and Scott, prepared to lunge across the tracks and help them with the two bears they were fighting.

The tree exploded into a massive fireball.

Derek jumped back from the heat and threw a hand over his face. He swore at the flames, only just able to see Scott and Isaac on the other side of the tree.

Hell. If the wind moved the wrong way, they would be in even more danger from the fire than from the bears.

He looked around, trying to figure out just where the fire had come from. There, on top of the train, he saw Stiles standing, a bucket of coals from the engine sitting at his feet.

Derek growled. He was going to kill him for putting Scott and Isaac in danger, but that would have to wait.

He ran around the tree, hoping the whole time that the wind wouldn't shift in his direction, either. One of the other bears was running into the forest, its fur burning, roaring as it slammed into trees in an effort to put its fire out. Scott and Isaac still struggled with the other bear, its fur also on fire, although that only seemed to make it mad.

Derek took a deep breath and roared as loud as he could. He dove in next to Scott and Isaac, shoving his shoulder into the bear and pushing it into the burning tree. The bear roared, scrambling to get away from the fire, but it couldn't get away from the branches.

Derek scanned the area. No more bears, that he could see. Now they just had to get the burning tree off the damn tracks.

"Snow!" he ordered Scott and Isaac. "Put out the trunk. We have to move it before it burns through the ties."

Scott and Isaac didn't argue or protest, just started scooping up snow and mud to get parts of the tree cool enough to handle. The heat seared the side of Derek's face; he could feel the itch of it healing as they worked. Miraculously, the flames stayed away from them, although with every minute they worked, chances increased that their luck would change.

Finally, the trunk of the tree was cool enough for Derek to get a grip. Hopefully the fire had weakened the branches enough that they wouldn't stick to anything. "Ready?" he asked.

Scott and Isaac nodded, claws digging into the trunk.

"One, two, three!" Derek yelled.

Together, they heaved the burning tree up and off the tracks, and it rolled away, disappearing over the mountain along with the two bears trapped inside it.

Shit. Derek shook himself, didn't let himself feel relief just yet. They had to make sure the ties and tracks were okay.

"They're a little charred, but still solid," Scott called out from where he knelt in the snow.

"Good over here, too," Isaac said.

"Good." Derek rubbed a hand over his face and winced when it came away covered in soot. "Deaton! Get the engine ready!"

Scott and Isaac both threw back their heads and howled an all-clear for the front of the train. After a few minutes, the rest of the pack started echoing it back to them.

"Derek!"

He snapped his head up to Stiles, still on top of the engine, and had to bite back a growl.

"Cora's hurt!" Stiles yelled. "Infirmary!"

He felt like someone had poured ice water into his veins, and he turned back to Scott and Isaac. "Find Laura, make sure the train's ready. We leave in two minutes, do you hear me?"

They both nodded once and ran off down the train, howling the two-minute warning.

Derek ran after them, going to find his sister.

And once he'd ascertained Cora was okay, he was going to have a chat with Stiles Stilinski.

***

Stiles slowly lowered himself down from the engine, along with the bucket of still-smoldering coals. He couldn't believe that had worked. Fire had always been the hardest for him to control, but it was the only thing he'd been able to think of, and Deaton had been happy to give him the bucket without question.

He now handed the same bucket back. "Thank you."

Deaton took it and poured the coals back into the engine without ever taking his eyes off Stiles. It was unnerving. "I'm surprised the tree caught that fast," he said mildly.

Stiles laughed weakly. "Yeah. Guess I just have good luck, huh?"

"Indeed." Deaton set the bucket down beside the engine. "I imagine Mr. Hale will want to have a word or two with you."

Yeah, Stiles had a sinking feeling about that. He'd seen the way Derek had looked up at him, eyes snapping red. He'd expected gratitude, not anger. But then, he couldn't really do anything right, as far as Derek was concerned.

The train's whistle sounded, and a moment later, it lurched forward into a sluggish climb. Stiles grabbed the railing and waited until his legs felt steadier before he made his way to the infirmary.

Lydia waited outside, the snowflakes dancing around the strands of her red hair as she gripped the railing and stared out across the valley.

Stiles stepped up next to her. "How's Cora?"

"Better," Lydia said. "Derek and Laura are with her now, having family bonding time."

"Oh?"

"It's what they do if one of them is hurt," Lydia explained. "The other two fuss over them until the third gets irritated and snaps. It's kind of endearing and also ridiculous."

"That's..." Stiles didn't really have a word for it. "Nice, I guess?"

Lydia snorted. "That too. Though they do it with most of us, honestly."

"They do?" Stiles frowned. "But... you aren't family, not like Cora."

"Considering I've been dating Cora for almost two years, I might as well be family." Lydia tossed her hair over her shoulder. "As for the rest of us, we're pack. And that's just as important."

Stiles didn't know what to say. Not for the first time, he felt off-balance and left out at the reminder that the circus was so close-knit and he was just... tolerated.

Well, maybe not just tolerated.

He wrapped his fingers around the cold railing and stared out at the falling snow. He wondered what would happen if he told them the truth, if he snapped his fingers and showed them how he made the mechanicals come to life without using tools or made light dance over his hands. Would they cast him out and turn him over to the Hunters?

Everything he'd ever learned about other people told him yes. He didn't belong. He had himself and his dad and that was all he needed. He wasn't pack.

But what if you could be? a voice in the back of his head whispered.

Stiles ruthlessly shoved it down. He wasn't, and he wouldn't be, and he was fine with that. The circus was a means to an end. As long as they didn't know about his magic, they had no reason to think he was a threat.

The infirmary door slid open, and Derek walked out, rolling his shoulders like he was trying to get rid of the tension there.

"Am I allowed to see my girlfriend again?" Lydia asked.

Derek tilted his head toward the door, and Lydia swept inside, leaving Stiles alone on the walkway.

He forced himself to smile and gave a little wave. "Hey, Mr. Hale."

Derek's expression grew thunderous. "Just what the hell were you thinking?"

Stiles blinked at the sudden accusation. "What was I... what are you talking about?"

"That stunt you pulled with the coals and the tree," Derek snapped. "Do you have any idea how reckless that was?"

"Reckless?" Stiles repeated. "Hey, I saved your asses! You were five seconds away from being bear chow if I hadn't done something!"

"And your idea of 'something' was to set a fucking tree on fire? With us standing right there?" Derek snarled. "It's only sheer luck we weren't killed!"

"It wasn't—" Stiles argued, and only just stopped himself from admitting it wasn't luck. As far as Derek was concerned, it had been, and he didn't need to know Stiles had had the fire under control the entire time. "You're all fine," he grumbled, though it was much less heated than his previous statement.

"We almost weren't." Derek took a step forward, looming over Stiles even though they were the same height. "I'm only going to say this once. Pull a stunt like that again, and you're gone."

Stiles choked. "What?"

Derek brushed aside and started toward the engine. "You heard me."

"I'm gone?!" Stiles followed after him, because no. "Wait, you're going to kick me off the train? Because I tried to help?"

Derek whirled on him, and Stiles nearly ran into his chest. "One wrong gust of wind, and Scott could've been hurt. One wrong gust of wind, Isaac could've been killed. One wrong gust of wind, our fucking engine could have caught on fire, and we'd all be screwed." Derek's eyes bled red. "If you put this pack in danger like that again, you are gone. Have I made myself clear?"

An Alpha werewolf was threatening him. He should be worried, if he had any sense, but he wasn't. He was angry and a little turned on, but not worried. "You wouldn't."

Derek jerked back a fraction. "Excuse me?"

"You heard me," Stiles said, mimicking Derek's tone. "Come on, dude, admit it. You're a big softy on the inside, and you like me. You're not going to get rid of me."

Something in Derek's expression slammed shut, and for the first time, Stiles felt a frisson of doubt.

His eyes blazed red, and he snarled, showing fangs. "This is my pack, my family, and if you think you're getting out of nearly getting people killed with a pair of wide eyes and a pretty mouth, you've got another thing coming. Get your shit."

Stiles felt an overwhelming urge to step back. He held his ground. "Get my shit? What shit?"

"Whatever belongings you have that you want to take with you." Derek pulled back the fangs, but his eyes were still terrifyingly red. "We'll reach Modesto Peak in an hour. You'll be taking your leave there."

The doubt exploded into cold fear. "Wait, what? You're going to leave me out here?"

"No, we're going to leave you at an outpost."

"But—you can't just—"

"I can't?" Derek snarled again. "This is my circus. This is my pack. And right now, you are proving yourself to be a danger to both."

"I saved your lives!" Stiles shouted.

"And put us as much at risk as we were with the bears, not to mention increasing the chances of stranding us out in the middle of nowhere." Derek waved his arm to encompass the forest around them. "And you. Don't. Care."

Stiles gaped, trying to find the words to argue, but he couldn't.

Derek stepped back, the Alpha-red finally fading from his eyes. "I can't have someone in this circus who doesn't care about anyone else. It's happened before, and we nearly fell apart because of it. I won't see it happen again. You have one hour. Get your things."

With that, he strode away, snow swirling in his wake.

That time, Stiles didn't stop him.

Chapter Text

Derek had just settled behind his desk with Temeraire curled up beside him when Scott barged in, full of righteous anger. He could see where this conversation was going before Scott even opened his mouth.

"You're kicking Stiles off the train?"

Derek sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Yes."

"Why?" Scott gave him a look like a kicked puppy. "What did he do that was so bad?"

"He nearly killed you and Isaac and almost set the engine on fire," Derek pointed out. "I take that personally."

"But he didn't," Scott said.

Derek just gave him a flat look. He loved Scott like a brother, but his persuasive skills could really use some work at times. "He didn't. But he doesn't care that he could have."

"It was an accident!" Scott threw his arms out. "He was trying to help us!"

"And when I thought that was the case, I was willing to give him a warning," Derek said.

Scott opened his mouth to protest again, but the door slid open again and Laura and Boyd walked in.

"Is it true?" Laura asked. "Did you really tell Stiles to get off the train?"

Derek was getting a headache. Good God, the conversation had happened five minutes ago; how did everybody already know?

"Yes!" Scott shouted. "Laura, tell him—"

Laura cut a glare that had Scott stammering into silence. "I happen to agree with Derek's decision here."

Scott gaped. "You what? How?"

Laura threw her arm toward the front of the train. "He almost set the engine on fire. And if that had happened, our problems would be much worse than a tree on the fucking tracks!"

"It was an accident!" Scott argued.

Boyd slid his gaze toward Derek. "Could've given him a warning."

"I did," Derek said. "I gave him a warning not to put this pack in danger again or he was off the train. He thought I was bluffing."

Laura's eyebrows went up. "He tried to call a bluff? About the pack?"

"He wouldn't—" Scott started.

Derek glared at him. "He did. And when it comes to this pack, I don't bluff."

Boyd rubbed the back of his neck and raised his eyes toward the ceiling. "Scott, help the kid pack."

"But—"

Laura flashed her eyes red. "Do what he says."

Scott looked between the three of them, mouth flapping like he wanted to keep arguing but didn't have the words for it. Finally, he shot a venomous glare at Derek. "This is wrong."

Derek pointed to the door. "Out."

Scott left, slamming the door in his wake.

Temeraire raised his snout at the noise, and then poked at Derek's hand. Derek obliged him by rubbing his thumb over Temeraire's delicate metal head.

Laura and Boyd leaned on opposite walls, arms crossed. Laura glared at the door and Boyd looked up at the ceiling. The only sound was the clatter of the wheels on the track.

"Danny's going to be pissed," Boyd finally said.

"Danny will live," Derek said.

Laura shook her head. "Fucking asshole. I can't believe he'd think you'd bluff about the pack."

"I still think you could've stuck with the warning," Boyd said evenly.

You like me. You're not getting rid of me.

Derek pushed Stiles's words away. He couldn't keep someone on board who didn't care about the rest of the pack, who thought for one second Derek would put his own desires over their safety. He would never compromise his pack.

"No," Derek said. "I don't think I could've."

***

The hour passed faster than Stiles would have thought possible. Scott helped him pack what little he had, grumbling the entire time about the unfairness of it all. Kira gave him some food, and Danny gave him a small gun and a handful of bullets.

What surprised him the most was Cora showing up with a small bag of coins.

She shoved it into his hands. "Your wages for the past few shows."

Stiles blinked at the money. "I didn't—"

She shrugged. "Derek said to pay you for your work. I've paid you. Good luck. And thanks for taking care of that bear."

Stiles nodded and shook her hand. "Good luck to you, too."

Cora squeezed his hand and left the car without a backward glance.

Stiles shoved the money into his bag, though he felt distinctly weird about it. He wasn't supposed to be working for money. In fact, he was reasonably sure he and Derek had agreed it was just for room and board.

So why had Derek paid him? And more importantly, why did that make Stiles hurt?

He shoved the confusing feelings away. That didn't matter. What mattered was figuring out how to get into Santa Francesca without the cover of the circus to get him through the Haven's checkpoints. He wasn't sure how much longer his father had, but every day Stiles tarried was a day his dad might not live to see the end of.

The train slowed, and with a heavy heart, Stiles left the warm cabin to wait on the walkway until they pulled into the depot at Modesto Peak.

To his surprise, Scott, Melissa, Danny, and Lydia all showed up to wait with him.

Scott hugged him hard. "We're going to miss you, man."

Stiles hugged him back, choked on the sudden lump in his throat. "Nah, you're going to be fine."

Scott gave him a lopsided smile. "Doesn't matter. Still going to miss you."

Lydia sniffed and bundled her sparkling fur wrap tighter around her. "This is ridiculous. You saved my girlfriend. I'm certainly going to miss you."

"I'm going to miss having Harry, Barry, and Larry up and running in under half an hour," Danny muttered.

Stiles barked out a laugh. "Good to know where I fit in."

Danny shrugged unapologetically. "Hey, it was nice having someone else on board who could manage the mechanicals. Do you have any idea how much of a headache they are alone?"

"I can guess," Stiles said.

Melissa handed him a thick red scarf and wrapped it around his neck. "There. That ought to keep you warm for a while."

The lump in Stiles's throat grew even larger, and he let Melissa pull him into a hug, hugged her back a little harder than necessary. She wasn't like his mother, not in the least, but being around her had made him realize how much he still missed his mom. It pulled at the hole he thought had scabbed over and dug at it, making it hurt in a way that it hadn't in years.

"Thank you," he said roughly, and hoped the red on his cheeks and the tears in his eyes could be attributed to the cold and snow.

The train slowed further, and Stiles felt like his heart was going to pound out of his chest. At least he wasn't completely starting over. He had money and clothes this time. He would figure something out. That's what he'd been doing for his entire life: figuring things out. This was no different.

Next to him, Lydia cried out and staggered to one side. Stiles caught her before she could fall, and Danny grabbed her other arm.

"Lydia?" Stiles asked. "What's wrong?"

She blinked up at him, darkness seeping over her eyes. "Cover your ears."

"Oh shit," Danny said, and clapped his hands over his ears.

Stiles covered his own just before Lydia screamed.

It wasn't like the scream he'd heard when Cora had been hurt. This one was so loud he could feel it rattling his bones, freezing his blood, pounding inside his head and forcing out everything but the sound of the scream. It made him think of cold dark things and death, a glimpse into the chasm no human was supposed to see before their time.

When she stopped, the silence was louder than the scream had been.

"Holy shit," Stiles said, though he could hardly hear the words. "What the hell was that?"

Melissa ran to Lydia's side and helped her stand. "Someone died."

Lydia shook her head. "A...lot of someones. Recently."

"What?" Stiles looked around. There wasn't anybody else on the train. "Where?"

Scott caught his arm and nodded toward the front of the train. "I think I know."

The Modesto Peak depot loomed before them, a snow-covered shadow in the night. No lights shone, making it look creepy and abandoned in the gloom. A hint of dread crept up the back of Stiles's neck.

His eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, and he saw the lumps. A few snow-covered lumps, shaped like people, lying on the boards of the tiny depot.

The dread grew from a hint to a full-blown fist of fear. "What the fuck," he whispered.

Lydia clapped a hand over her mouth. "Oh God."

"Scott, get Derek and Laura," Melissa ordered.

"They're on their way," Cora said. "So is everyone else."

Stiles startled. He hadn't seen or heard her come up, but she ignored him and went straight to Lydia, who collapsed into her arms.

It wasn't long before the rest of the pack was standing along the walkway, staring at the silent outpost. The train stopped fully, but no one moved. Stiles wasn't sure if anyone else was even breathing.

"Spread out," Derek ordered, breaking the silence. "Search the town. Look for survivors. Don't go alone. Cora, you and Lydia wait in the infirmary." His gaze slid to Stiles. "You, go with Scott."

Stiles nodded and set his bag down back inside the car. He wasn't sure what the hell had happened in Modesto Peak, but right now, at least, he was a part of the circus for a little bit longer.

He, Allison, and Melissa collected lanterns from Danny, and then Stiles set off with Scott, trudging through the snow that was nearly ankle-high at this point and still falling.

They stopped next to the closest lump with Melissa, who crouched beside it and wiped the snow away. Sure enough, it was a person, ice-cold and so very, very dead, frozen scratches down one side of their face.

She pressed her lips together grimly and stood. "One dead."

Stiles swung the lantern around and his stomach twisted. He could see three more lumps on the platform from where he stood, and another two in the streets beyond.

He took a deep breath, his body suddenly choking on the air, and another town flashed in his mind: bodies and blood in the streets, children savaged in their beds.

Not again, he thought to himself. Not again, not again...

Scott grabbed his arm and pulled him gently, shaking Stiles out of his thoughts. "Come on. We have to keep looking."

Stiles laughed harshly. "We won't find anything."

"We won't know until we look," Scott countered. "Now come on."

He followed Scott away from the depot and into the silent streets. The only sign of life came from the other members of the pack, their lanterns cutting through the darkness. Other than that, the only sound was the soft patter of snowflakes as they fell.

Every lump they found was a body, or half of one. Stiles gritted his teeth against the shout he wanted to let out, ground them together so tight his jaw hurt, but he wouldn't make a sound. He held the lantern, and Scott knelt and checked each body they found. In the streets, in the handful of homes and shops scattered around the square, in the stables.

It was so much like Beacon Hills that it took everything in Stiles to keep from falling apart.

It was inside one of the houses that Scott knelt over a bloodied body and then sucked in a breath. "This one's alive! Barely, but she's alive."

"What?" Stiles scrambled from where he'd been waiting by the door. "Are you serious?"

"Yes." Scott stood and wiped his hands off. "Help me get her to the infirmary."

"Dude," Stiles said. The woman had lost a lot of blood, and he wasn't sure she'd survive the trip from the house to the train. "I don't think—"

Scott fixed him with a glare. "My mom will want to help."

Stiles swore and set aside the lantern, and helped Scott wrap a couple of the worst wounds. Scott gently picked the woman up, cradling her, and Stiles grabbed the lantern to light his way back to the train.

Melissa was already in the infirmary, hair tied back and blood streaked over her arms. She stood over a person on one bed and pointed to the empty one. "Set her down there. I've got Cora and Lydia coming back with more supplies. Did you find any others?"

Scott shook his head. "No, she's the only one."

Melissa's mouth pressed into a thin line, and she went back to stitching up the other person in her infirmary. "The others are in the square. Go."

Stiles couldn't get out of there fast enough. He dropped his hands to his knees and breathed in, letting the cold air burn the metallic stench of blood out of his nose.

Scott rubbed his back. "You okay?"

Stiles nodded and straightened. He still felt light-headed, but it was better now that he wasn't in the infirmary. "Yeah. Fine."

They walked wordlessly back to the square, where the rest of the pack had gathered in a loose circle, except for Lydia and Cora. Derek and Laura stood in front of them.

"How many survivors?" Derek asked.

Kira raised her hand. "Allison and I found one."

"We found one," Scott said.

Everybody else shook their heads.

Laura ran a hand over her face and cursed. "Okay. Everyone spread out again, find any supplies you can. We'll restock our own stuff and leave the rest at the next town."

"Wait," Derek said. "Jackson, Scott, and Boyd, help me gather the bodies. We'll cremate them before we leave."

Laura narrowed her eyes. "You think we have time for that?"

Derek met her glare with one of his own. "I think we always have time to pay our respects to the dead."

"And it will keep any animals from getting to them," Erica pointed out. "Shifted or otherwise."

Boyd took her arm. "Come on."

The pack dispersed back through the outpost. Stiles watched them go, debating whether he should follow or return to the train and get his things.

"What are you doing?"

He spun to see Derek still standing there, hands shoved in his coat.

"I, uh—" Stiles didn't know what to say, and he couldn't read Derek's expression in the shadows.

Derek gestured to the town. "Either go look for supplies, or go look for bodies. Whatever came through this outpost might be coming back. We shouldn't stay long."

"But... I thought... you wanted me to leave."

Derek raised his eyebrows. "Do you want to leave now?"

Stiles shook his head.

Derek jerked his chin at the town. "Then get to work."

***

When they'd finished everything, the pile of bodies made Derek sick to his stomach. The smell of blood and death still clung to the air, even though it had to have been almost a day since...whatever had attacked this place.

Boyd and Kira brought some coals from the engine, and Erica and Cora returned with wood. Even so, between the snow and the cold, it took a while for them to get the bodies to burn. Derek struggled to find words to say, felt like he should say something, but really there was nothing that could encompass the enormity of this.

The pack stood around the pyre, the heat of it melting the snow within a few feet of the fire. Derek breathed through his mouth and tried not to think of the last time he'd done this, standing alongside Laura and Cora as they buried their parents.

He said a quick prayer to whoever might have been listening, and then started back to the train, Laura and Boyd on either side of him.

"Pack meeting?" Boyd asked.

Derek nodded once. "Dining car."

***

It didn't take long to get everyone gathered in the dining car, uncharacteristically quiet. Derek counted all of them twice; the only two missing were Deaton and Melissa, Deaton because he was driving the train and Melissa because she was watching the two patients she had. Neither of them had woken up at her last report, and she'd done all she could for the time being. From the slope of her shoulders, Derek could tell it would be a miracle if either of them survived the night.

His pack ranged from angry to sad to exhausted. Laura stood next to him, arms crossed and expression thunderous. Lydia sat on Cora's lap, her face buried in Cora's neck, as Cora petted her hair. Boyd leaned against the wall of the car, Erica tugged up close under his arm. Kira, Danny, and Jackson sat on the table, feet dangling, Kira leaning on Danny and Jackson with his arm around both of them. Allison stood between Scott and Isaac, holding their hands so tight Derek swore he could hear bones creaking even from across the dining car.

And right behind Scott was Stiles, shoulders hunched like he was trying to disappear into the wall. Standing off by himself, not seeking comfort from any of the pack around him. There was a harshness to his eyes that went beyond his normal walls, and Derek found himself wanting to stride across the room and hug him.

It was a stupid impulse, and he held it in check. Stiles was still on probation, and even though Derek wasn't cruel enough to leave him in the middle of a dead town, he couldn't forget their fight. Stiles had put the pack in danger, and as both Alpha and ringmaster, that wasn't something Derek could ignore.

He pushed the thoughts of Stiles out of his head and turned to the more immediate issues: what to do about a town that had been demolished by feral shifters.

"We're heading to Angels Camp," he said, though he figured most of the pack knew that. "We'll leave the extra supplies there, tell them what happened to Modesto Peak."

"That's it?" Allison cut in, her voice trembling with rage. "The Hunters left them to die. They're supposed to protect the outposts, and they...they just left them out there, to fend for themselves, when they had to have known the feral shifters were out there!"

"Ain't right," Boyd said.

"It's not," Derek agreed. "But there isn't much else we can do right now."

"We have to do something." Allison stepped forward, shrugging off Scott and Isaac. "We can't just let this continue! These are our towns."

Laura sighed. "What do you think we can do? We're one circus. We can protect ourselves, but an entire outpost? An entire territory? We don't have the numbers."

Derek caught the anger flashing in Allison's eyes. She glared at Laura and set her jaw. "My parents. I can talk to my parents. They're still involved with the Hunters, maybe they can—"

"Wait, your parents?" Stiles jerked like someone had electrocuted him. "Your parents are Hunters?"

Allison whirled on Stiles. "Yes, they are. So was I. Do you have a problem with that?"

Oh hell. Derek barely kept from facepalming. "Cut it out," he said, before Stiles could respond. "She's been with us for years, now. She's part of the pack."

Stiles's face shuttered quickly, but not before Derek saw the briefest flare of hurt in his eyes. "Right. Well."

He ducked his head and shoved away from the wall, making a beeline for the door. Derek grabbed for his arm, but Stiles yanked away and left the dining car.

It surprised him how much it hurt.

Scott made a wounded noise and started to go after him, but Laura cleared her throat and shook her head. "He won't jump off the train right now, and we need to figure this out."

Scott's eyes flicked over to Derek, and Derek nodded. He wanted to go after Stiles as well, but Laura was right. This had to come first.

"There has to be something we can do," Kira said from where she perched on the table. "Allison's right, these are our towns. If we can help, we should."

"I'm open to suggestions," Derek said. "Anybody have any ideas?"

The pack shared a look between them, but no one immediately responded. Derek knew the feeling—wanting to do something, but realizing there were so many obstacles that "something" wouldn't be close to enough.

Danny raised his hand. "I can rig some stuff up. Help set up defenses in the outposts and towns, show them how to maintain it while we're gone."

"That's a bandage, at best," Laura said.

Danny shrugged. "It's better than nothing."

"And we'd be able to check up periodically and make sure everything was still working," Jackson pointed out.

Erica examined her claws, her eyes glowing violently yellow. "We can fight, you know. Rip the feral shifters apart, show the Hunters what happens when you mess with our towns."

Derek understood the impulse, felt it clawing in his own bones, but he shook his head. "We're too slow, and we're stuck to the tracks. We can fight if something happens while we're there, but—"

"There are nearly two dozen Hunter groups that patrol this region," Laura added. "There's no way we can handle the same amount of territory. Not without leaving too many people unprotected."

Erica looked like she was about to argue, but Boyd shushed her with a kiss to the side of her head. "Let's stick with the problems we can fix," he said. "We make the report at Angels Camp. Allison can send word to Chris and Victoria, or wait and talk to them when we reach Santa Francesca."

Derek nodded. "Danny, do you think you could have something ready that we could set up for defense at Angels Camp?"

Danny cracked his knuckles. "As long as no one disturbs me for the next twenty-four hours, I'll have something we can use."

"Good. Grab anyone you need to help you. We're not going to have another Modesto Peak." Derek took a deep breath and cast another look around the room at his pack, his family, and his heart seized with fear that a day would come soon when he couldn't protect them, whether from shifters or Hunters or steadily deteriorating rail lines.

He shoved the fear away and made sure not a note of it was in his voice. "Head out and get some rest," he said gruffly. "It's been a long day."

Derek turned to head out himself, but not before he heard Boyd's rough snort. "You can say that again."

He braced himself for the cold wind the moment he stepped out of the dining car, but it still cut right through his clothes and he shuddered. He was going to head straight back to his cabin and pour himself a hot, stiff drink and pretend that he hadn't just seen the aftermath of an entire town slaughtered.

Those images weren't going to be going away anytime soon.

Footsteps thudded on the walkway behind him, and Derek recognized Laura's gait. He raised his eyes to the sky—star-speckled between wisps of clouds now—and waited for her to catch up with him.

"I noticed Stiles is still on the train," she said when she got close enough.

Derek looked out over the dark mountains and said nothing.

"I thought you were kicking him off."

"You really wanted us to leave him back there?"

"No, but..." Laura sighed. "You said he doesn't have this pack's best interests at heart. You said he put us in danger. And I'm going to take a stab at this, but I'm guessing you aren't kicking him off at Angels Camp, either."

"I didn't intend to kick him off at all. Just give him a warning." Derek wrapped his hands around the rail and squeezed it. "He just... got under my skin, and I snapped."

"Do you still think he's a danger?" Laura asked.

He snorted. "You hate him. Do you care what I think?"

"I don't hate him," Laura said. "I just... feel like a bomb's about to be dropped on us, but I don't know from where. He's the only difference I can see."

"He doesn't have any control over the Hunters." Derek scanned the sky. "Or anything else out here."

"Just his own secrets," Laura muttered.

Derek elbowed her. "Which we all have."

"The last time we weren't careful, Matt happened."

"Matt went out of his way to ingratiate himself," Derek said. "Stiles is holding himself apart. Even with Scott and Danny, he's still... not part of us."

"And you want him to be?" Laura sounded skeptical. "After he nearly set the engine on fire?"

Derek rubbed his hand over his face. His nose was going to freeze off at this rate. "He shot the bear that nearly killed Cora."

Laura made a rude noise. "I still don't like it."

Derek pushed off the railing and started back toward his car. "Just think of all the 'I told you sos' you'll get to sing if you're right," he said over his shoulder.

"Because I'm going to feel so much like that if you get your heart broken over one of Scott's strays," Laura said.

His heart stuttered, but his steps didn't. "Not going to happen."

"Keep telling yourself that," she said after him, soft enough he almost lost it to the wind.

He was going to keep telling himself that. He'd let Stiles prod him during their argument, but he absolutely wasn't going to let him get under his skin. And he didn't need Laura to tell him what a terrible idea that would be.

Derek was nearly back to his car when he heard the music, soft and delicate on the wind. For a moment he thought someone was playing a radio, but no.

That was the piano.

He sagged against the car, knees suddenly weak, mind assaulted with memories of his mother practicing. No one on the train now played the piano, no one. He wasn't even sure which car it had been shut up in after his parents had died.

Derek shoved himself off the car and followed the music.

Chapter Text

Stiles walked as fast as he could along the train, just trying to get... away. Away from the stifling dining car, away from everyone here, away from the place he didn't belong. Would never belong. They were probably going to throw him off the train as soon as they reached Angels Camp or wherever. The next outpost that hadn't been utterly destroyed.

Memories of Beacon Hills flashed in his mind, and he shoved the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying to push the memories away. It didn't matter, it shouldn't matter, he hadn't been close to any of them and one of them had probably turned him or his father in, but he'd grown up in that town. Grown up with those people. And all of them were gone.

He shook his head, hard. He was going to have a panic attack if he didn't get himself under control.

A gust of wind cut right through his coat, and Stiles searched for somewhere to go where he could be alone. That meant his car was right out—even if Melissa would be in the infirmary all night, Scott would probably come looking for him. He could go to the laboratory, but that felt too much like Danny's domain.

He kept walking, past the private cars, past the bathing car, past the lab, past the cars where the mechanicals and tents were kept, until he found one car that he'd never seen open. Danny had said they stored old acts there, props they didn't use anymore, mechanical parts that they might be able to repurpose someday. A catch-all for everything that didn't fit anywhere else.

Sounded like the perfect place for Stiles to be.

The door screeched when Stiles shoved at it, like it hadn't been opened in ages. It took him a few tries, but he finally got it open far enough that he could squeeze through.

The car was pitch black and only marginally warmer than the outside air. Stiles blew on his frozen hands and rubbed them together, and then called up a small ball of light. Its warmth was negligible, but at least it would keep him from bashing his shin into something around here. And it wasn't like anyone was around to see him using magic.

He raised the light higher to get a better look at the car. It wasn't quite as full as he'd been led to believe. There were a few boxes shoved to one side, some mechanical parts Stiles couldn't identify piled in another corner, and a cloth-covered piano.

Stiles almost dropped his light entirely in shock. The circus had a piano, holy shit.

He grabbed the edge of the cloth and yanked it away, revealing a sleek black baby grand that made him want to weep. His mother had shown him pictures, but he'd never imagined one had actually survived this long.

Stiles brushed his fingers along the finish, unable to help himself. God, it was gorgeous. Utterly gorgeous.

"How long have they had you back here, baby?" he asked. "God, you're so pretty, why do they have you stuck under cloth like that? I bet you haven't been tuned in ages." He shivered. "And this place is drafty. You should be in a better car."

He gently lifted the lid and tried a few keys, then played his way up and down a scale. "Huh, not as out of tune as I thought."

He was talking to a piano. Really, Stiles had reached a new low with this.

His fingers itched to do more than just play a few scales, but he really shouldn't. If it were too loud, people would come, and he definitely wasn't supposed to be in here.

Then again, he was at the ass end of the train, and everybody else was in the dining car. Even with a bunch of werewolves, it was highly unlikely they'd be able to hear a little piano music over the noise of the engine.

Stiles rummaged through the other stuff in the car and found a few candles and holders. Good. He could play without having to maintain his magic.

He found an old table, set up the candles on it, and blew them to life. The flickering light made a little bubble in the darkness of the car, just him and the candles and the piano.

It was the safest he'd felt in a long time.

Stiles pulled out the bench and rested his fingers on the keys, tracing the ivory. Just like that, he was sitting beside his mother again, dutifully picking out scales and chords. He hadn't been able to play for months after she'd died, but neither had he and his dad been able to get rid of their old upright piano. It would have been too much like getting rid of her.

It was nearly a year before he was able to sit and play again, even longer before doing so didn't feel like ripping out his heart every time.

The piano had also been the first thing he'd sold to go find his dad.

He played a few scales, warming up his fingers, familiarizing himself with the keys again. The music warmed his heart even more than the candles. God, he'd missed this. He hadn't even realized how much.

 Stiles playing the piano

There were only a few songs he had memorized that he might still remember, but he started with "Für Elise." He couldn't play it as fast as his mother had been able to, but after a few missteps, the notes came easily. From there, it was easy to transition into "Moonlight Sonata," slow and sad but still so reminiscent of his mother. She never sang him lullabies, but she played them, and this song had always made him feel closest to her.

"What are you doing?"

Stiles jumped off the bench with a shout, slamming the keys in a cacophony. Derek was standing right there, barely inside the bubble of candlelight, his face in shadow.

It felt like his heart was going to beat straight out of his chest. Stiles leaned on the piano for support. "Oh my God, dude, warn a guy!"

Derek's expression didn't change. He didn't seem to care that he'd just damn near given Stiles a heart attack. "What are you doing?" he asked again.

Really? Really? "I'm practicing my acrobatics. What does it look like I'm doing?"

Derek scowled and walked around to the other side of the bench. "Scoot over."

Stiles clenched his fists and pushed away from the bench, hoping his face didn't betray how much it hurt to have to move. Of course Derek wouldn't want him touching the piano, of course—

Derek grabbed his sleeve. "I said 'scoot,' not 'leave.' Sit."

He plopped onto the bench, pulling Stiles down with him. It wasn't a particularly large bench, so they were pressed together from shoulder to knee, Derek's bulk a line of heat down his side. Stiles swallowed and kept his eyes on the keys in front of him.

Derek frowned at the piano, pushed a few keys like he was trying to call them up from memory, and then started playing an eight-note rhythm over and over. Stiles recognized the pattern, the harmony of a duet he used to play with his mother back when he was learning.

Derek played the rhythm a few more times, and then looked up at Stiles with one raised eyebrow, as if saying "Well?"

Stiles made a face and hopped in with the melody on the next round. He missed a couple of notes, felt his face heat when he did, but when Derek didn't say a word and just kept playing, Stiles relaxed and let himself sink into the piece. He added a few flourishes to the melody that he remembered his mom playing, thought a couple didn't work as well as he remembered.

When they ended the song, the last notes fading in the cool air of the car, Derek jerked his hands off the keyboard as though it had burned him. "I haven't played that since my mom—" He pressed his lips together and continued glaring at the keys.

Stiles had a feeling he knew where that sentence was going. "Yeah. Me neither. Since my mom, obviously. Not yours."

"You're good," Derek said.

Stiles snorted. "Gee, don't sound so excited about it."

"That's not..." Derek wiped his hand over his face and groaned. "You're such a little shit."

Stiles tried to scoot further from Derek, not that there was anywhere to scoot on the tiny piano bench. "Well, takes one to know one."

Derek growled. "Do you want to play in the show or not?"

Stiles shook his head, feeling like he'd just gotten whiplash. "Wait, what? You want me to play this in the show? In the circus? Are you serious?"

Derek didn't look up from the piano. "That's what I just said, isn't it?"

"Dude, the last time we talked, you kicked me out of the circus," Stiles reminded him. "Forgive me if I thought I still had to hop off the train in the next town."

Derek growled again, but this one sounded more pained and less angry. "I'm not going to make you leave after... that."

Stiles let out a mirthless laugh. "What, worried I'll end up dead and frozen in a backwoods outpost? Your concern is touching, but I've already survived two. You should worry more about everyone else."

Derek's head snapped around to him. "Two?"

Shit. Stiles clapped his mouth shut. Goddammit, he was usually so much better about this, talking without actually saying anything. Playing the piano must have made him talkative or something.

"Stiles," Derek said cautiously. Gently.

God, he hadn't known Derek could be gentle. He didn't need to know that. Stiles took a deep breath and cursed himself when it hitched. "It's nothing," he muttered. "Never mind."

He expected Derek to try to pry it out of him, maybe pull some other bullshit about it being for the good of the pack. Instead, Derek nodded and clapped him on the shoulder, his hand heavy and warm. "Okay. Give some thought to the piano, though. We could use something to break up a couple of the acts. I know Erica would love some more time to change between two of hers."

Then he slid out from the piano bench and started to walk away.

"That's it?" Stiles blurted out, because apparently he couldn't leave well enough alone. "You just say 'okay' and walk away?"

Derek stopped and looked back to him. "Do you want to talk about it?"

God no. Stiles poked idly at the keys, played a random scale. "Not really."

Derek shrugged. "Then I'm not going to make you."

"Why?" And why couldn't Stiles leave well enough alone?

"It's not going to do any good. Besides," Derek gestured to the rest of the train, "you think you're the only one here with secrets you don't want to share?"

Stiles opened his mouth to argue, but closed it again. No one else has a secret like mine. But then again, wasn't the point of secrets not to know how bad they were?

"I'd consider it a favor if you let us in on it before it gets anyone hurt," Derek said.

Stiles's throat tightened. He tried to laugh, but he couldn't even summon enough amusement at the irony to manage a half-hearted one. "Too late for that."

Way, way, way too late for that.

"I'm sorry," Derek said gruffly.

Stiles rubbed his hands over his face and hoped he wiped away any trace of his feelings. "Yeah, me too."

He wondered what would happen if he just spilled everything right now, if he told Derek about Beacon Hills and the Hunters taking his dad and the fact that he could use magic. What scared him most wasn't the idea of Derek's reaction.

It was how much he wanted to, and damn the consequences.

Stiles stood so fast the piano bench scratched loudly against the floor. He didn't know what he was going to say—"I'm a mage" or "the Hunters took my dad and destroyed my town" or something else—but the words were on the verge of tripping off his tongue, telling Derek everything—

A scream rent the air, and Stiles jumped out of his skin. Something about it sent a chill down his spine.

Derek whipped his head toward the front of the train, and his nostrils flared. "Lydia."

"Lydia?" Stiles repeated, scrambling out from behind the piano, only just remembering to shut the lid. "What happened? Is she okay?"

Derek was already moving toward the door. "She's a banshee."

"Yes?" Stiles said, following behind. "What does that have to do with..." He trailed off as it dawned on him. "Oh shit."

***

Stiles followed Derek back up the train as fast as he could. Ahead of them, he spotted lights turning on in other cars, doors sliding open as people stumbled out onto the walkways, wrapped in coats and blankets or just half-dressed.

They reached Danny and Jackson first, both of them looking bleary-eyed. "What the hell? Why'd she scream?" Danny asked when they were closer.

"Back in your car," Derek said firmly. "I'll howl if we need you."

Jackson snorted and pulled the door shut. "Yeah, right."

Derek didn't try to make them stay behind, and they trailed behind Stiles. By the time they reached the infirmary, the entire pack had collected behind them like ducklings. Under other circumstances, Stiles would have found it hilarious.

Derek dragged open the infirmary door and Stiles craned his neck to see around him. Lydia was inside, shaking like a leaf, with Cora behind her, carding hands through her hair, and Melissa in front of her, holding a cup of steaming liquid.

The two bodies on the beds had been covered by sheets.

Stiles pressed his fist into his mouth.

Melissa looked up and glared at all of them. "Get back, all of you, and give her some space."

An elbow dug into his side, and Stiles jerked away from it. Allison slid through the space he'd vacated and knelt on the floor beside Lydia. "Is she okay? Lydia, are you okay?"

Lydia smiled a little. It wobbled. "Not yet, but I will be."

Melissa rolled her eyes. "Do you actually understand the concept of 'space'?"

"This pack?" Cora snorted. "Not fucking likely."

"Is Lydia okay?" Scott called from somewhere at the back of the pack. Stiles heard the question or some variation echoed by the others.

Derek sighed and thudded his head against the door. "Everybody, dining car. Allison, that includes you. We'll come in three at a time."

Melissa cleared her throat. "Two."

"Two at a time," he corrected.

Cora snarled. "I'm not leaving."

"Oh, calm down, no one said you had to," Laura said from somewhere off to the left.

Stiles swallowed over the lump in his throat, and scooted away from the door. "I should, um..." Leave the space I don't belong.

Derek rested a hand on the back of his neck and steered him toward the dining car. "This way."

"But—" Stiles protested.

Derek's grip tightened, not painfully so, but enough that Stiles knew he wasn't getting away easily. "Dining car. Now."

"Dude, I don't know if you noticed," Stiles went where Derek pushed him, mostly because he didn't have much of a choice right now, "but this is kind of a pack thing, and I'm not exactly, you know..."

"For the millionth time, it's Mr. Hale, kid."

Stiles snapped his head around, because really. Really? He was worried about proper titles at a time like this? But Derek's lips twitched, just barely.

That should not have made Stiles's heart trip, shouldn't have made him feel lighter. But it did.

He made a face, hoping against hope Derek hadn't seen or smelled anything. "And it's Stiles, not kid."

Derek scoffed. "Not for another five months, at least."

And then he shoved Stiles into the dining car, right along with the rest of the pack.

***

Two by two, the pack filtered out of the dining car to visit Lydia. Derek watched them go, Allison and Kira first. He itched to go next, to hug Lydia and make sure she smelled all right, make sure she knew her Alphas were worried for her, but he sat on his hands to keep the impulse in check. The rest of his pack would do that job, he knew, and Cora was with her as well. Absolutely nothing would pry Cora away from Lydia's side for the next few hours, if not longer.

Kira and Allison came back, and Boyd and Erica were out the door like a shot, though not before Erica gave Allison a quick, hard hug. Derek smiled to himself. Allison and Erica hadn't gotten along well at all when Allison had first come to the circus, but they'd grown to become fast friends.

Stiles jumped up onto the table next to Derek and swung his legs, kicking at a nearby chair. "I'm still on probation," he said after a minute, keeping his voice low.

With so many other werewolves in the room, Derek was pretty sure it wouldn't be remotely effective, but he just kept his voice low as well. "Yes."

"But," Stiles waved his hand around the room, "this is pack stuff."

"Yes."

"I'm not..." He broke off and ducked his head, his pale cheeks turning pinker. "I'm not pack."

Derek let the statement hang for a moment. "Do you want to be?" he finally asked.

Stiles jolted like he'd been shocked, and his eyes widened imperceptibly, but he didn't turn to look at Derek. His knuckles were white where he gripped the edge of the table.

Derek had spent a lot of time avoiding smelling Stiles, but sitting right next to him in the warm dining car, he couldn't help it. He breathed in the same scent from that night after Stiles's first show, but the tang of alcohol was gone and replaced with something else, something he hadn't smelled on Stiles before. Derek wasn't sure what to make of it.

Boyd eased open the dining car door and jerked his head, and Scott and Isaac bounded out next.

"Are you worried about Lydia?" Derek asked once the door was shut again.

"Of course!" Stiles looked appalled that Derek had suggested otherwise. "I mean... I know we're not close, but... we're kind of friendly."

Derek resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Then go and see her. You don't have to say anything. Most of them probably aren't."

"Yeah, but..." Stiles trailed off and his eyes went back to a random corner of the car.

"You know, 'probation' doesn't mean we'll kick you out when it's over," Derek said. "It means we'll reevaluate. Who knows? You might get asked to stay."

Stiles didn't say anything, but the shaky breath he sucked in told Derek a lot about how he felt about that.

Scott and Isaac came back, and Laura met Derek's eyes from across the room and jerked her chin to the door.

He stood and rested his hand, briefly, on Stiles's back. "Think about it." He paused. "Think about the piano, too."

Derek followed Laura out of the dining car, but not before he got another whiff of Stiles's scent, tinged with something else.

That time, Derek recognized it.

Hope.

Chapter Text

They arrived at Angels Camp the next morning, and Derek had Erica, Cora, and Boyd deliver the supplies they'd picked up from Modesto Peak to the town mayor while he and Laura reported the massacre to the local sheriff. He hated doing it, hated the way the man's mouth twisted down at the news before he agreed to take the two bodies and give them both a proper burial.

"We can stay an extra day," Laura offered.

The sheriff nodded. "I think that would be much appreciated right now."

Derek made a mental note to tell Danny and Kira the second he got a chance. It would be a little tighter to get through the next two outposts and still hit Santa Francesca when they needed to, but they would make it work.

Boyd caught up with him on the way back to the train, breath steaming in the cold air. "They're grateful for supplies. They'll be bringing some stuff by the circus in trade."

Derek sighed. "That's not necessary."

"I told them that. They insisted." Boyd stared into the distance. "Apparently it's been a rough year, and these supplies might help them survive the winter."

Derek shoved his hands deeper in his pockets. He wasn't sure how to feel about that. "The only price was every person in Modesto Peak."

Boyd hummed and bumped Derek's shoulder companionably, a quiet affirmation that he understood Derek's complicated feelings on the subject.

"Tell Danny and Kira to come to the office," Derek said. "We've got to go over the show notes."

Boyd inclined his head once and jogged off toward the lab.

Derek went back to his car to outline them for a three-day show instead of a two-day one and put on some coffee for his impending meeting, when Temeraire flew over to his desk and dropped a note in the middle of it.

That was unusual. Derek couldn't think of the last time someone had left him a note. He flipped it open.

I'll play was all it said, in an unfamiliar handwriting.

The door slid open, and Danny poked his head inside. "You ready for us, boss?"

Derek folded the note back up and motioned for Danny and Kira to come inside. "We're doing three days instead of just two. And we need to add the piano back into the show."

Danny and Kira both froze, halfway seated in the chairs in front of Derek's desk, twin looks of surprise on their faces. "We're doing what now?" Danny asked.

"Three days, not two," Derek repeated.

"No, I got that. I meant the second part."

Kira pressed her hands together, her eyes wide. "You want to add the piano back in? Are you sure?"

He wasn't, but that didn't matter. The look on Stiles's face when he'd been playing, the way the music had made Derek ache with longing for his parents again, that had made the decision for him. "Sure enough."

Kira clapped, her eyes shining. "That's great! But, uh... who's playing?"

Derek put the note into the cash box. "Stiles is."

Danny covered his face with his hand and groaned. "Really? You're going to take the one other helper I have?"

"Yes, I am." Derek pulled the act sheets out of his desk drawers. "Let Lydia know Stiles is going to need performance clothes."

***

Stiles stared at himself in Lydia's mirror, his heart racing. He didn't even recognize the person staring back at him. Nearly a month with the circus, and he'd put on enough weight that his old pants were too tight. His hair had grown so much that Lydia had shoved him into a chair and trimmed it up into something she claimed was more "manageable," and now it was slicked back, shiny and smooth.

Lydia had also wrangled him into an actual suit this time, black and shiny, with tails on the coat that brushed the backs of his knees and gold piping along the seams. His vest was a brighter purple this time, closer to the color Derek wore, and his bowtie matched.

He tugged self-consciously at the lapels. "I look ridiculous."

Lydia made a disgruntled noise and brushed some nonexistent dust from his shoulders. "This is exactly what Mr. Hale wore when he played the piano with Mrs. Hale, and you look just as dashing as he did."

Stiles choked. In all the time he'd been with the circus, no one had mentioned Derek's parents. "They... played together?"

Lydia nodded, a small, sad smile on her face. "Every show. Mrs. Hale mostly played solo, but they had a few duets they'd do."

Okay. That was not even remotely helping Stiles's composure right now. He was wearing Derek's father's clothes, and he was going to be playing the piano Derek's mother had played, and it was just too much.

He tugged at the bowtie. "I changed my mind. I can't do this."

Lydia's eyebrows shot up. "Excuse me?"

Stiles's hands were shaking. He couldn't undo the bowtie; his fingers kept slipping off the fabric. "I can't. I'm sorry, I just—"

Lydia's eye twitched. "I spent the whole afternoon taking in this tuxedo for you, Danny and Kira reworked the entire show because you said you would do this, and now you're standing there and telling me you can't?"

Her tone was dangerous, but Stiles couldn't begin to care.

"What's going on?"

Stiles spun around from the mirror to see Derek standing in the doorway to the costume room, his purple vest undone and his white sleeves rolled up just past his elbows.

Lydia sashayed past him and slapped Derek on the chest. "He's getting stage fright. Talk some sense into him. I'm going to find my girlfriend."

With that, she left the car entirely.

Derek watched her go, and then turned his pale eyes on Stiles. "Stage fright?"

Stiles finally yanked off the bowtie and clenched it in one fist. "I can't... I can't do this. I'm sorry."

Derek frowned and leaned against the doorjamb, crossing his arms over his chest. "Why?"

"Why?" Stiles repeated. "Why? Because this... this... this was your dad's and... and your mom's and I can't... I'm not..." I'm not a part of this pack, no matter how much I want to be. I can't be, because I can't tell you my secret.

Derek pushed off the door and strode over to him. "Are you worried because you don't think you can play? Or are you worried because you know it's important?"

Stiles swallowed hard. He and Derek were only an inch or so apart in height, but it still felt like Derek loomed over him. "I, uh... both. Probably. Maybe a little more the latter."

Derek held out his hand and cleared his throat. Stiles looked down, and then back up at him, not sure what he meant.

Derek sighed. "Your tie."

"Oh." Stiles handed it over. His heart was still pounding, though he wasn't entirely sure it was only from nerves at this point. "Look, I'm sorry. I know that you guys put a lot of work into this so that I could play, but—"

"What would your mother say?" Derek asked.

The words hit him like a fist, and Stiles sucked in a breath. "Low blow, dude."

Derek gave him a flat look and flipped up Stiles's collar. "My dad was the ringmaster before me. He was training me, but I'd never done the show on my own."

He set the bowtie around Stiles's neck again, his hands close enough Stiles could feel the warmth from them on his cheeks.

"After they" —Derek cleared his throat— "I didn't want to take over. Hid in my car before my first show. I didn't think I could ever fill his shoes. But, at the same time, I knew he'd want me to. Because this is what he taught me to do. And no matter how scared I was, carrying on the circus was the best way to honor him."

The whole time he spoke, he was deftly tying the bowtie around Stiles's neck, his fingers strong and sure. Stiles's heart stuttered.

Derek straightened the bowtie and took a step back. "So. I'll ask you again. What would your mother say?"

There was only a foot or so of space between them, but Stiles felt like he could suddenly breathe again. His fingers itched to reach up and touch his tie, but he forced himself to keep them at his sides. "She'd want me to do it."

Derek nodded once. "Good. Then take a deep breath, grab a coat, and go get started taking tickets." He took two steps toward the door, then stopped and turned back. "My parents would be happy to see the piano in the show again," he said quietly, like he was sharing a secret.

Hell, he probably was.

Stiles opened his mouth to respond, but Derek was already out the door.

He sank onto the nearest available seating, which was a plush chair in front of the vanity. His hands were still shaking, but that had as much to do with Derek's proximity as it did with Stiles's nerves.

Shit. Shit.

This wasn't supposed to happen. He wasn't supposed to go and fall for the freaking ringmaster of the circus, not when the only reason Stiles needed to be here was to get into Santa Francesca. He was just supposed to stay behind the scenes, keep his head down like he had for the previous eighteen years of his life. Not tell Derek about his mom. Not agree to play the piano in the show. Not sit here and have Derek tell him about his parents, like Stiles could be someone he could confide in. Like he could be a part of this pack.

He couldn't. He couldn't, because even if, by some miracle, the pack was completely fine with the fact that he was a mage, they would still be in danger from the Hunters every minute Stiles stayed with them. No. This was supposed to be easy. He was not supposed to go and complicate it with feelings.

What would your mother say?

Derek's words echoed in his mind, and Stiles looked back in the mirror, at the fear he saw in his own face.

She wouldn't want him to be afraid; he knew that down to his bones. And he knew, he knew, she would want him to play.

Stiles sighed and grabbed his overcoat off the pile of costumes, shrugging it on as he stood. "Once," he told his reflection. "I'll play this one show."

Decision made, he walked out of the costume car to head to the big top.

Just one show.

***

The first performance didn't just go well. It went spectacularly.

Derek, Danny, and Kira had decided, since Stiles didn't have time to practice any of the familiar circus tunes, it would be best for him to stick with ones he knew. Derek announced, mid-show, that they would have a moment of silence for the victims of Modesto Peak, and that Stiles would play a song in memory of the town.

He watched from the edge of the ring, hidden in the shadows, while the people in the audience shuffled quietly, taking off their hats out of respect. Boyd and Isaac wheeled the piano on its bright dais into the center of the ring. It twisted his heart to see it again, but the pain melted into something bittersweet and warm.

Cora and Laura appeared on either side of him, and Derek put his arms around them both.

Kira shone a single spotlight on the piano, and Stiles slowly walked out to it. He was a little stiff, a little awkward, but that was all right. They could work on his presentation later. All that mattered right now was that he played well.

And play well he did.

It was the same somber tune Derek had heard him playing in the train car the night of Modesto Peak, sad and beautiful and peaceful all at once. It was at odds with the rest of the circus's performance, to be sure, but at the same time, it would allow them all an opportunity to remember and grieve.

Not to mention, watching Stiles play... Derek had been surprised before, too shocked to see someone on the piano to really see him. But now?

Now, he was captivated.

Stiles seemed to sink into the music. Instead of being stiff and awkward and gangly, he was graceful, the notes flowing from his fingers with nary a misstep. Derek had thought it would be like his mother, but it wasn't, no matter how much hearing the piano again reminded him of her. He couldn't pinpoint the differences, just knew that they were there. He wasn't sure if that made it better or worse.

Next to him, Cora covered her mouth and let out a little sob, and Derek hugged her closer. On his other side, Laura pressed her head into his shoulder. He rested his cheek on her head, grateful to have his sisters beside him right now. He wasn't sure he'd be able to stand up otherwise.

When the last notes of the song faded from the tent, nobody moved. Derek wasn't sure anybody breathed. The entire tent seemed utterly transfixed.

Then the audience exploded with thunderous applause.

At the piano, Stiles jerked like he'd been electrocuted and whirled around, nearly falling off the bench in the process. It looked like he'd completely forgotten an audience was there. Hell, it was entirely possible he had. Derek knew his mother and father sometimes had when they were practicing.

And... now he was staring at the audience like a baby deer caught in the spotlight.

"Take a bow, you idiot," Derek whispered, but Stiles wasn't a wolf. He couldn't hear it.

Derek squeezed his sisters one more time and kissed them both on the head. "Someone's got to go save him."

Cora laughed wetly and pulled his kerchief out of his suit pocket. "Better dab your eyes first, big brother."

Shit. Derek hadn't even noticed. He touched the kerchief to the corners of his eyes, getting most of the tears, and hoped it hadn't ruined his makeup.

Laura picked up his top hat and set it on his head with a gentle slap. "Kid can play," she said.

Derek smiled at the peace offering. "He can."

He adjusted his hat, tucked the kerchief back into his pocket, and strode out into the ring. "Thank you, thank you!" he called to the crowd, and jumped onto the piano's dais without missing a step. "Stand and bow," he hissed to Stiles.

Stiles scrambled to his feet, gawking at the audience, and bowed sharply. Derek rolled his eyes inwardly and grabbed Stiles's hand, leading him through a slower, more appropriate bow.

The audience ate it up.

Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Boyd and Isaac running out to wheel the dais out of the ring. Good, because it looked like Stiles needed to have somewhere private to freak out. Hopefully Scott was around.

Derek squeezed Stiles's hand and whispered, "Good job, kid."

Stiles whipped his head around to stare at him, pink mouth open and amber eyes wide, and that was not what Derek needed to see right now. Not when it made his heart do a somersault.

He yanked his gaze away and stepped off the platform, just as Boyd and Isaac started rolling it out of the ring. Derek spread his arms wide and faced the audience once more.

"Let's hear it again for the musical stylings of the spectacular Stiles Stilinski!"

Chapter Text

"Hey Stiles!"

Stiles looked up from where he was elbow-deep in Harry's innards to see Scott poking his head into the lab. "What?"

Scott grinned. "We're coming up on Santa Francesca. Want to see?"

Stiles fumbled his wrench and only just managed to keep it from falling into the chasm of Harry's guts. "Santa Francesca?" he repeated.

If Scott noticed the way his voice trembled, he didn't say anything. "Yeah. If you've never seen a Haven, it's pretty awesome. Come on!"

Stiles put away his tools and wiped his hands on a nearby towel, trying and failing to get all the grease off. He grabbed his coat and turned to Danny, who was working on Larry and Barry. "Are you coming?"

Danny grunted and waved his hand. "I've seen it. Besides, I need to get them ready for the setup. Have fun, and get back here as soon as you can."

Stiles followed Scott out onto the walkway, buttoning his coat as he did. Since they'd come closer to the coast two days before, it wasn't quite as cold as it had been, but the wind still cut right through him. Scott, like most of the werewolves, wore only a hat and a pair of gloves.

Stiles wrapped his red scarf tighter around his neck and shoved his hands in the overcoat's deep pockets. "I hate you."

Scott laughed. "Envy is the word you're looking for. Come on, we're going up."

"Up?"

Scott pointed to a ladder on the side of the lab car. "Up."

And then he clambered up the side and hauled himself onto the roof of the car. Stiles sighed and followed.

"This is probably a terrible idea," he said to the ladder.

"Come on, you're going to miss it!" Scott called from the top.

"That's the third time you've told me to 'come on' in the last five minutes," Stiles grumbled, pulling himself up the ladder. It wasn't as rickety as he'd feared. "I'm moving as fast as I safely can."

"Safely my ass," Scott said.

Stiles stuck out his tongue and concentrated on getting up the ladder. He'd only done this once before, and that was when the train had been stopped, not when it was hurtling along the tracks at 40 miles an hour.

Scott helped pull him onto the top of the train car and patted the roof beside him. "I'll keep you warm. And from falling off."

Stiles batted his eyelashes and sat down. "You're my hero."

Scott laughed and elbowed him. "I try."

So far, there was nothing in front of them but mountains to the left and an ocean to the right. Well, a bay or something, Stiles supposed, since the actual ocean was farther west.

They swung around a bend in the tracks, moving closer to the mountains, and Stiles grabbed onto the handholds on the roof to keep from sliding off. Scott laughed, and Stiles made a face at him.

It was easy, it was normal, and it went a long way to keeping him from thinking about the fact that they were almost to Santa Francesca. He'd been trying to get here for more than a month, and now? It was just at the other end of the tracks.

Stiles clenched the handholds tighter and hoped his shaking could be attributed to the wind and cold. Not to his nerves.

His stomach churned with every clatter of wheels on the tracks. Some part of his mind thought he was crazy, diving into the Hunters' den by himself, going exactly where he'd tried to avoid going for most of his life.

But his dad was inside. And to save him, Stiles would face anything, including the Hunters themselves.

They rounded another bend, and Scott slapped at his shoulder. "Look."

They hurtled past the mountains, and the grey walls of the Santa Francesca Haven rose before them, growing taller with every passing second. Beyond the walls, he could see bits of the city itself, buildings towering just high enough to poke over the edges of the walls, steam and smoke billowing into the air from forges and engines. The walls themselves stretched out so far Stiles almost couldn't see the end of them, with huge windmills posted at intervals, probably to supplement the steam power of the city.

God. He'd known it was going to be big—it had to be big, with the number of people living there—but he hadn't realized just how big it was. How in the hell was he going to find his father in there? And once he did, how was he going to get him out?

Scott bumped him with his shoulder. "Pretty impressive, huh?"

Stiles could only nod. "Impressive" was definitely one word for it. "Daunting" was another.

"I've been on the circus train for almost ten years," Scott said, "but I don't think I'll ever get tired of seeing the Haven like this."

"Even though the Hunters are there?" Stiles asked. He couldn't stop himself.

The light in Scott's eyes dimmed a little. "They aren't the only people living there. And just because a few Hunters are bad, doesn't mean all of them are."

Stiles scoffed.

Scott turned to him. "They're not. Allison's one of the good ones. So are her parents."

His naïveté was astounding. "Right. Tell me, Scott, who's in charge of the Santa Francesca Hunters, Allison's parents or Deucalion?"

Scott pressed his lips together and looked away.

Stiles sighed. "Yeah. That's what I thought."

Some tiny part of his brain told him he should apologize, because Scott was the closest thing he had to a friend on this train, but Stiles clamped his mouth shut. He wasn't going to apologize when he'd seen what the Hunters could do, when he'd spent so much of his life fearful of what they would do to him if they found out about his magic. What they had done to his mother, his father, and his entire town.

Besides, it would be better if Scott hated him. It would make it easier when Stiles left. Because he definitely had to leave after this. He wasn't going to put the circus in danger with his presence any longer than he had to.

"Why do you hate them all so much?" Scott asked, breaking the silence between them.

Stiles rubbed his hand over his face and bit back a hysterical laugh. "Seriously? You didn't see what they were doing to half the towns we passed through? Why do you not?"

Scott shook his head. "No, it's more than that. They did something to you, didn't they?"

Shit. Stiles felt cold, and it had nothing to do with the wind on the train. Scott was looking at him with dark eyes that were open, curious, and far too perceptive for Stiles's liking.

"Doesn't matter," he muttered, and scooted toward the ladder. "I should go help Danny finish getting the mechanicals ready."

"Hey," Scott said, and damn him, Stiles paused with one hand on the ladder and looked back.

Scott picked at a thread on his pants. "We've all had trouble in our pasts. Most of it with Hunters, some of it not. But I know there are people working to make it better. Even if assholes like Deucalion are in charge now, they won't be forever."

How Scott could maintain his optimism in the face of literally everything about the Hunters utterly boggled his mind. Stiles shook his head and started climbing down the ladder. "Never change, Scotty."

Scott grinned and went back to staring at the Haven.

Stiles headed back to the lab, shucking his coat the moment he was out of the wind. Sure, maybe things would change. Maybe someone would usurp Deucalion's position as the head of the Santa Francesca Hunters and change their policy on mages. Maybe Deucalion himself would have a change of heart and get rid of his corrupt Hunters and let the mages go.

But even if that happened, it was too late for Beacon Hills, Modesto Peak, and his mom.

And really, Stiles had stopped believing in miracles the day he woke up and realized he'd inherited his mother's magic, and every curse of the past few hundred years that went with it.

***

Derek knocked on the door to the engine and leaned in. "How long until we're at the gates?"

Deaton pulled the levers, slowing them down with an unsteady jerk. "Less than ten minutes. Is everybody ready?"

"Probably not."

"Well, they should be." Deaton looked over his shoulder. "The Hunters don't like to be kept waiting."

Derek snorted. "Yeah, remind me of that after it takes us two hours to get through the gates again."

He slid the door shut and headed back down the walkway. The surrounding area had grown steadily more populated the closer they'd gotten to the Haven, small farms and outposts clustered as close to the walls as they could. As if that would somehow protect them from the dangers of the world outside the Haven's walls.

Derek had never much liked playing the show in Santa Francesca, but it had only gotten worse over the past three years. Deucalion taking over as the head of the Hunters suddenly meant every train was searched top to bottom and that everyone on the train had to be accounted for with official "papers." He and Danny had found a way around that with forged documents, made even better once Allison had joined them and could spruce up the papers until they were indistinguishable from the real thing.

It was frustrating and infuriating to go through getting into and out of Santa Francesca every year, but it was as much a tradition as all the other shows they played. Besides, the Santa Francesca show paid for a good chunk of their year, and as much as Derek hated the politics of it, he wasn't going to turn down something that would provide for his pack for so long.

He knocked on Allison's door and slid it open a crack. "Everything ready for the gates?"

She looked up from where she was scribbling at papers on her desk, another pen in her mouth and her dark hair shoved up in a messy bun. "Almost. Trying to finish Stiles's now."

"I hate to tell you to hurry," Derek said, "but we'll be at the gates in ten minutes."

She glared and took the pen out of her mouth. "That kind of screams hurry."

"Well, I didn't say it," Derek pointed out.

Allison made a move like she was going to throw something at him, and Derek ducked away and left her alone. She'd get the papers finished. She always did, and it always got them through the gates with minimal fuss, no matter how much the Hunters checking the papers scowled at them.

He made his way on down the train, knocking on doors and reminding people to be dressed, cleaned up, and in the dining car within the next fifteen minutes.

He caught Scott climbing down from the top of the laboratory car, and cuffed him around the back of his head. Scott ducked away so the blow only glanced him.

Derek pressed back on a proud smile. "Get up to the dining car. Allison's going to have papers soon."

Scott gave him a two-fingered salute. "Got it. Danny and Stiles are still working on the mechanicals. Not sure if Jackson's in there."

Of course they were. Derek sighed. "Jackson's already at the dining car. Go on, I'll get them."

Scott scampered away, and Derek banged on the lab door a few times before sliding it open. "Gate check's coming up. Get the mechanicals stored and get to the dining car."

Danny cursed. "Can't you just tell them to shove it? I'm busy."

Derek sighed. He really didn't have time for this right now. "Danny."

Danny slammed the mechanical shut and shoved his goggles up onto his head. "Fine, fine. We'll be there in ten minutes."

"You're going to have to move a little faster than that," Derek said. "That goes for you too, kid."

Stiles's head popped up from behind Harry like he was a gopher. "Do we really have to?"

"Everybody on the train. That includes newbies we picked up barely a month ago."

Stiles made a face at him. "And we all have to be in the dining car?"

"Goes much faster when we're all in one space. Plus," Derek shrugged, "means the Hunters are questioning me about all of you when we're all in one spot. Makes it easier to keep our stories straight."

He caught the way Stiles stiffened, like he'd just realized how much of a problem getting through the gates could be. Good. If he was nervous, he'd probably stay quiet and be less likely to get any of them in trouble. He would bet every mechanical they owned that the Hunters were looking for Stiles, and Derek was only fifty percent certain he could keep them off the scent right now.

Derek jerked his head toward the dining car. "Make yourselves presentable and get your asses up there. You have five minutes."

"You can't even get to the dining car from here in five minutes!" Stiles yelled.

Derek smirked and shut the lab door behind him.

***

Precisely seven minutes and thirty-eight seconds after Derek had so rudely broken into the lab and barked at them to get down to the dining car, Stiles and Danny hurried in to find the rest of the pack already there.

Stiles rubbed his hands self-consciously. He'd tried to wash up, but there were still bits of grease and oil stuck to his nails, and his hair looked like he'd been running his hands through it. He'd had time to change his shirt but not his pants, and so he'd buttoned up his overcoat and hoped that it would cover the worst of the stains on his thighs.

Lydia, dressed in her fortune-teller costume, sailed over and clucked her tongue. "Honestly, you should at least keep a basin in that lab."

"Oh yes, because open water around electricity and mechanicals in a moving laboratory isn't a bad idea at all," Danny said. "Besides, I look fine."

"You look fine," Lydia agreed, and then turned her assessing eyes on Stiles. "You, however, look like you've been wearing goggles on your head. And I know that's impossible, because Danny would share those over his dead body."

"And I've already willed them to Jackson," Danny said, clapping Stiles on the shoulder and then leaving to go stand beside his friend.

Stiles scowled. "I'm sorry I don't meet with Your Majesty's approval."

Lydia smiled serenely and whipped out a comb. "Well, at least you've finally learned my proper title. It only took you four weeks. Now hold still."

Stiles did, if only because she had one perfectly manicured hand on his shoulder and he was pretty sure her fingernails were sharper than the werewolves' claws. Lydia ran the comb through his hair a few times, frowned, went to dip it in a basin, and then came back and brushed it again. Stiles made a face, but he knew better than to express any other disapproval.

She sighed and stepped back, tucking the comb back wherever it had come from. "Well, I've done what I can. At least you're presentable. We can just tell them you mostly haul stuff."

"I do mostly haul stuff," Stiles pointed out.

Allison came up and handed him a sheet of paper. "You do mostly haul stuff, but we need to list everyone who'll have an act, and you are going to be playing the piano during a few of the shows. So read this, memorize it, and then hand it back to Derek."

Stiles skimmed the paper she'd handed him. "I'm from where?"

"La Jolla," Allison said. "It's pronounced with an aitch sound. Don't say 'jolla,' they'll know you're a liar."

"Gee, thank you so much for giving me an unpronounceable cover story," Stiles muttered.

Allison patted his cheek. "You're welcome. Now memorize it."

He wanted to keep arguing with her, but considering the alternative was getting caught by the Hunters, Stiles shuffled back toward the rest of the pack and started reading his paper.

Most of it was the same—his name was Stiles Stilinski, he was eighteen years old, his birthday was a few months earlier than it actually was—but he was from the outpost at La Jolla, further south than Beacon Hills. His mother had been a pianist at the outpost's church, and after her sudden death from a vicious illness, Stiles had sold everything and joined the circus. He'd been with Hale's Circus of Monsters, Magic, and Mystical Wonders since a week after he'd turned eighteen.

There was no mention of a father in his papers.

Stiles's hands shook, and he folded up the paper and stalked over to Derek, thrusting it at him. "Here you go."

Derek took it and looked from the paper back to Stiles before tucking it in with the others he had. "You good?"

Stiles nodded. "Good. Great. Absolutely on top of everything and ready to go, dude."

Derek snorted. "It better be Mr. Hale in front of the Hunters, kid."

His initial reaction was to scoff, but at the same time, Stiles really didn't want to cause any trouble with the Hunters if he could avoid it. Trouble with the Hunters meant he wouldn't have a chance to find his dad, and he couldn't risk that for even a moment.

He nodded again. "Sure thing, Mr. Hale."

Derek's eyebrows twitched down into a frown, and then he waved Stiles back toward the rest of the pack. "Go mingle. Be part of the crowd. No sense in standing out."

Stiles couldn't agree more. He scrambled back between Scott and Isaac, ducked his head, and willed himself to blend into the wall as much as possible. He couldn't make himself invisible, but he'd been making himself unnoticeable for years.

The rest of the pack shuffled into a group behind Laura and Derek, who stood at the front of the dining car. The train shuddered to a stop.

Stiles's heart pounded, and he leaned back against the table, gripping it for support. The Hunters would probably be werewolves, and while he wasn't too worried about the shifters in the pack hearing his heart, he didn't want the Hunters to have any idea about how they affected him.

A hand rested over his and gave it a squeeze, and Stiles looked up to see Kira giving him an encouraging smile. She winked. "I know it's nerve-wracking, but don't worry. We've been doing this for three years," she said quietly. "It's annoying, but so far we haven't had any trouble. And we're fine once we're in the city."

Stiles tried to smile back, but he wasn't sure he succeeded. "We just have to get into the city first."

She patted his hand again. "It'll be fine."

It was stupid. She had no idea what was going through his mind. It shouldn't make him feel better.

It did, though.

Boots thudded on the metal walkway, followed by the scrape of the engine's door opening. Stiles could hear unfamiliar male voices and Deaton's calm responses, though he couldn't make out what they were saying.

Stiles took a deep breath to calm down, but his heartbeat was ratcheting up again. If he got caught here—

You won't, he scolded himself. You'll make it into the Haven, and then you can worry about finding Dad.

The voices in the engine room faded, and then boots thudded closer to the dining car. The small door at the rear slid open.

Ennis stepped through, a shit-eating grin on his face. "Well, well, Hale, what brings you to our lovely Haven?"

Isaac growled low, only silenced when Scott touched his shoulder. Stiles slid further behind them, trying to keep one eye on Ennis as he did. He didn't trust a single member of Deucalion's crew as far as he could throw them, and he was damn sure it wasn't coincidence that Ennis was the one here to check the train.

Derek handed over the sheaf of papers. "We're playing Santa Francesca this week," he said blandly. "Same as we do every December."

Stiles heard the you fucking idiot unsaid on the end of the sentence, but he was pretty sure Ennis missed that part.

Ennis took the papers and leafed through them. "Well, you know the drill, then. Aiden and Ethan are checking your train with some of our other boys, just to make sure you aren't bringing anything illegal into our fair Haven."

"Everything on this train is necessary for our performances," Laura said. "As it has been every previous year, and will continue to be for every year after this."

Ennis was flipping through the papers and didn't even glance at Laura. "Mmhmm. That's what they all say. Now, if I remember correctly from our encounter down at... where was it, Old King City?" He chuckled and shrugged. "You know, all those little bitty outposts start to run together after a while. Can't ever remember one from the other."

Stiles caught the way everybody in the dining car tensed, although none of them said a word. Clearly Ennis was trying to get a rise out of them, and the pack refused to take the bait.

Apparently Ennis realized this, because he went back to the papers. "Anyway. I seem to recall you having a new member on this train. Where is he?"

Stiles pressed his lips together to keep from sucking in a breath, and hunched his shoulders further. Isaac was taller than him; he could hide here easily.

In front of him, Scott shifted his weight, just enough that his shoulder was brushing Isaac's, blocking Stiles from view.

Stiles was going to kiss him later. Or maybe just hug him really hard, because Isaac and Allison seemed like jealous types.

Derek tapped the paper Ennis was holding. "Stiles. Our new pianist. All his information's right here."

Ennis smiled thinly. "Yes. I'm aware of that. I mean I'd like to see the boy himself."

Derek waved back to the group at large. "He's with the rest of the pack. Count the heads and count the papers. You'll see we're all here. Well, except Deaton. But you've already talked to him."

Ennis growled. "I'd like to question him specifically."

"Well, why didn't you say so?" Derek motioned behind him. "Stiles, come on up here and meet Ennis."

Shit. The word played on repeat in Stiles's head, and he forced himself to let go of the table and walk through the pack until he was standing beside Derek. Shit shit shit shit shit shit.

Derek smiled at him and rested his hand on Stiles's shoulder. "Stiles, Ennis. Ennis, this is Stiles. He helps Danny with the mechanicals and plays the piano in the show."

"You should've seen his performance at Angels Camp," Laura said. "Brought a tear to every eye in the house. It was beautiful."

Only absolute fear kept him from gaping openly at Laura, because what? Stiles had thought she'd hated him.

"Everyone wanted to know when he'd play next," Derek added smoothly.

"That so?" Ennis looked him up and down and snorted. "Didn't know they even had pianos in those outposts. How'd you learn to play, kid?"

Stiles started to answer, but Derek squeezed his shoulder hard, like a warning to be quiet. "Well, Ennis, it says in his papers that his mother was a church pianist in La Jolla. How do you think he learned to play?"

Ennis glowered. "I'd like to hear it from him, if you don't mind, Hale."

"My mom taught me," Stiles said, resisting his innate urge to embellish any answer he was giving.

"That's interesting." Ennis folded the paper up. "Aiden and Ethan told me you couldn't remember where you'd been picked up."

Derek's hand was like the only steady point on his entire body. Stiles swallowed and took a deep breath before answering. "Actually, it was Allison and Scott and Isaac, I think, who were having trouble remembering."

"My circus isn't any of your business until we come to the Haven," Derek said, voice hard. "My people don't have to answer your questions at the outposts."

Ennis handed the papers back over. "Well, the times, they are a-changing. I want to hear him play."

"Buy a ticket for one of our performances," Laura said.

"Better yet, I'll leave your name at the door," Derek said. "We'll make sure you get in for free."

"Maybe I wasn't clear. I want to hear him play now." Ennis crossed his arms over his chest, puffing it out a bit. "Scrawny kid like this, he's probably never seen a piano in his life."

"According to paragraph three, subsection B of the traveler's code for the Santa Francesca Haven, no person who is entering the city for professional reasons can be compelled to perform said profession for free in order to gain safe passage," Lydia said casually from the back of the room. "As the circus is a for-profit enterprise, it falls under the jurisdiction of that particular subsection."

Stiles gaped at her. Next to him, Derek just raised his eyebrows at Ennis, as if to say see?

Allison stepped forward with a disarming smile. "So, like Miss Hale said, come to one of our performances to hear Stiles play. We'll have five matinee performances and six evening ones. Surely at least one of those will sync up with your shifts."

Ennis snarled, but Allison didn't back down. Her smile became aggressively pleasant. "As Mr. Hale said, we're more than happy to leave tickets for you and your group."

With another growl, Ennis turned back to Stiles. "I can't help but notice there's no mention of your father on here," he said. "Care to explain that?"

Stiles's heart thumped hard, and he fought to keep from fisting his hands. "Not really."

"Let me rephrase." Ennis's eyes flashed red. "What happened to your dad, kid?"

Derek squeezed his shoulder again and answered, "Dead. Died when he was a baby."

"Did you really think he'd leave his own father all alone and run off to join the circus?" Laura added. "God, Ennis, I knew you were a monster, but even you aren't that heartless."

Ennis growled, and this time his fangs came out. "I told you, I want to hear it from him."

Heartbeat. It hit Stiles like a blow to the head. Ennis was listening to his heartbeat, trying to catch him in a lie. By answering for him when they didn't know the truth one way or the other, Derek and Laura were covering for him.

He nodded toward them, believed wholeheartedly that his dad was dead. Really, it wasn't hard. "It's true. He's dead."

The tremor of grief in his voice wasn't at all faked. The only thing that had kept him going this past month was the idea that his dad was alive, and if he wasn't... if he wasn't...

Stiles had no idea what he would do.

Ennis didn't look happy. "Fine," he said grudgingly. "Sorry for your loss."

Gee, thanks. Stiles kept his mouth shut and his gaze on the ground. He could be a sarcastic little shit, but right now was most definitely not the time.

"I was asking because your last name, Stilinski, is kind of familiar," Ennis said. "You see, we picked up a guy in Beacon Hills about a month ago. Local sheriff. Nice guy. Same last name as you."

Stiles's heart stopped. He shrugged, hoped he looked unaffected. "So?"

"Well, this guy, his wife was a mage. Died a few years back. Killed herself, actually. Damn shame, if you ask me."

His blood roared in his ears. Stiles didn't move, didn't give any indication that he'd heard or even understood. Derek's grip on his shoulder tightened, just barely.

"We got reports that someone in the household, either the dad or the kid—he has a son, apparently, close to your age—was a mage. Sheriff swore up and down it was him." Ennis picked at his claws. "Funny thing, though. He hasn't even tried to use magic once since we got him. Just wondered if maybe you two were related."

Stiles didn't think he'd ever been so angry in his life. It burned in his veins like a fire, and he wanted to rip out Ennis's still-beating heart and feed it to the nearest feral shifter.

He finally brought his eyes up from the corner of the room. "I don't know anyone from Beacon Hills," he said, his voice cold as ice. "Sounds like it sucks to be him."

All of it was true. After all, everyone in Beacon Hills was dead.

Ennis growled again, and finally, finally took a step back. "Well. Aiden and Ethan should be just about halfway finished with the train. We'll let you go once they're done. Hope you have a lovely stay in Santa Francesca."

"Don't worry." Derek smiled, showing all of his teeth. "We always do."

***

Ennis left shortly after that, but Derek kept his hand on Stiles's shoulder. He wasn't letting the kid out of his sight for a minute. Not after that bombshell.

This guy, his wife was a mage.

He has a son, close to your age.

It didn't matter that he'd seen Stiles look Ennis straight in the eye and deny knowing anyone from Beacon Hills without a single skip to his heartbeat. It didn't matter that Derek knew nothing about Stiles but the fact that his mother was dead.

The sheriff the Hunters had taken had to be Stiles's dad. And that meant...

Derek pushed the thoughts away for now. His first job was to make sure his pack made it through the gates without any other trouble.

Then, then, he could deal with Stiles.

It was another half-hour before the Hunters gave the all-clear and the train jerked forward, putting slowly through the Haven to the circus grounds. Stiles kept trying to pull away, but Derek only tightened his grip. He let Stiles sit down, but that was it.

He could smell the sick fear wafting off Stiles, but thankfully the kid didn't move or try to argue with him. Equally thankfully, no one else in the car argued with him about it either.

As soon as they started moving again, Derek motioned to Laura and Boyd. "Get the others and check the cars. Make sure those assholes didn't leave anything on our train. You," he turned his attention to Stiles, "my car. Now."

He practically shoved Stiles out the door and down the walkway toward his car. The whole time, his mind echoed with Ennis's words. Derek didn't want to believe them, but Stiles's scent, along with the secrets he'd been hiding since the beginning, just added up too much.

Derek pushed Stiles into his car and locked the door. "Sit."

Stiles flinched away from him. "I'd rather stand, thanks."

Derek growled and went to make some coffee. He might be angry, but he could still be civil. "So you're a mage."

Stiles flung his arms out. "Seriously? Seriously? You're going to believe a douchebag Hunter like Ennis?"

Derek did not slam down his coffee mug, but it was a near thing. "Are you a mage?"

Stiles scoffed and looked away from him. "I can't believe you're asking me something like that."

Derek looked right at Stiles and tapped his ear. "Yes. Or. No."

Stiles clenched and unclenched his fists, fury radiating off him in waves, the smell of it acrid as smoke. Gone were the careful walls Derek had seen from him before. This was as pure an emotion as he'd ever seen from Stiles.

"Do you know what happens when the Hunters find out someone's a mage?" Stiles asked, voice shaking.

Before Derek could respond, Stiles stepped forward. The papers on the desk fluttered in a nonexistent wind.

Shit. "Stiles—"

"They give them a choice," Stiles continued, as though he hadn't heard a word. "A choice between being separated from their magic or being taken to the nearest Haven to face trial for crimes they didn't commit. To face trial for having the shit fucking luck of being able to use magic."

The papers fluttered harder. From his perch on the bookshelf, Temeraire trilled and hid under his wings.

"Stiles," Derek repeated.

It wasn't any use. Stiles kept talking. "They're found guilty at the trials. They're always found guilty. And then they're executed. Cut off their heads, because we can't risk the apocalypse happening again. So we should just kill everyone who might possibly be a threat.

"And if you decide to be separated—decide you might want to keep living a while longer—they give you a drug. It dulls your magic to nothing, makes you safe. Makes you not a threat. The problem is it also dulls everything else. Everything that makes you you fades away." Tears brimmed at the corners of Stiles's eyes, making bright tracks on his flushed cheeks. "Every single person who's ever chosen separation has killed themselves within a year."

The car vibrated, hard enough that the shelves rattled, and Derek grabbed onto his desk to keep from falling.

"So tell me, Mr. Hale, when that's the fate that awaits you, who in their right fucking mind would ever tell you that they're a mage? Who would answer yes to that question?"

The car actually rocked that time. "Stiles!" Derek shouted. "Calm down before you derail the damn train!"

Stiles jerked back as though he'd been slapped, eyes widening, and the train car settled back on the tracks. Derek took a deep breath, listening and waiting to see if any of the other cars had been affected by the outburst, but everything sounded normal.

Relief made his knees weak, and Derek wiped his hand over his face and leaned against the desk for support. "You've got to be fucking kidding me."

Stiles barked a laugh and raked his hand through his hair. "I've got to be kidding you. That's just fucking rich."

"I'm sorry if I'm a little irritated I didn't know I had a mage on my train." Derek gestured at the train, at his pack. "I've got thirteen other people in this circus to worry about. A little heads-up would have been nice!"

"Well guess what, you don't have to worry about me anymore." Stiles backed toward the door. "All I needed was to get into the city, and now I'm here. So go back to keeping your precious pack safe, because I won't be around to put them in any more danger."

Derek's stomach dropped uneasily. Surely Stiles wouldn't do what Derek thought he was going to do. "Stiles—"

Stiles yanked open the door, ran to the walkway, and launched himself over the railing.

Fear froze the blood in his veins, and Derek hurdled over his desk and ran straight to the railing. "Stiles!"

But he didn't see him anywhere. Stiles had vanished into the buildings of Santa Francesca.

They weren't moving that fast, Derek told himself. They weren't that far off the ground. Stiles was fine, he was running...

Running where?

Derek knew the answer as soon as the question crossed his mind, and wanted to kick himself for not putting it together sooner. He'd been so overwhelmed by the news that Stiles was a mage that he'd completely neglected the first part of what Ennis had said.

The Hunters had Stiles's father.

Shit.

Derek ran toward the front of the train, yelling for Boyd and Allison.

Chapter Text

Stiles ran, weaving his way through the hilly streets, trying to get as far away from both the circus train and the gates as possible. He kept his head down, eyes trained in front of him, resisting the urge to look back. If he looked back, he'd run into something, and if he ran into something, people would remember him. He didn't want to be memorable right now.

He wanted to vanish, wanted to fade away, so that it wouldn't hurt quite so much.

Stupid. Stupid. How could he have expected Derek to react any differently? As far as everyone else was concerned, he was a danger to society. And Derek had already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he'd put every single person in his pack above Stiles.

And really, that was what hurt the most, wasn't it?

A stitch pulled in his side, shooting pain through his stomach and ribs, and Stiles stopped running long enough to catch his breath. He had no idea where he was within Santa Francesca, but that didn't matter. As long as he could orient himself long enough to find his dad, that was all he needed.

He didn't need a pack and he didn't need Derek fucking Hale.

Stiles rubbed at his eyes and wiped the moisture off on his coat. That's what he got for running so fast in the cold: watery eyes and a runny nose.

He tested his side; it didn't hurt quite as much anymore, but he should probably be careful with it.

Stiles glanced around the area, trying to get his bearings. They'd come into the Haven from the southeast, and they had probably only gotten a few miles into the city, if that, when he'd jumped off. He'd run roughly northeast from the train, so...

He shaded his eyes and looked up at the cloudy sky. No sun, dammit. He'd just have to walk and hope for the best.

A few unsavory types congregated on the corner opposite Stiles, big guys with scraggly beards and stained clothes and half-chewed cigarettes hanging out of the corners of their mouths. They were trying to look like they were casually standing around, but he could feel their eyes on him, caught the way they turned his direction just a little too often.

Well, clearly he'd overstayed his welcome here.

Stiles pushed off the wall and headed back toward the northwest. That would take him closer to the center of the city, and the centers of cities tended to be hubs. He needed to find out where the Hunters were holding his dad, and he might be able to find a map or something there.

His stomach growled, and Stiles winced. And someplace to eat, while he was at it.

The unsavory types quit following him after a tense fifteen minutes, and Stiles kept moving with single-minded purpose and hoped he looked like he knew where he was going. Now that he was here, he realized how utterly stupid it was of him to be alone and lost in an unfamiliar Haven.

No, he wasn't lost. He was just...taking the scenic route to the center of the city. Yes. That was it.

He most definitely wasn't lost.

He kept walking northwest, and gradually the industrial slums melted into more recognizable housing and small outdoor marketplaces. The smell of cooking food drifted through the air, spicy and sizzling and mouthwatering. His stomach growled again, and Stiles was painfully reminded he had no money to pay with. He highly doubted any of the restaurants here would be willing to barter.

Still, with more people around and most of them obviously going about their daily business, Stiles let himself relax. Here, it was easy to fade into the crowd, to slip between people without brushing against them or leaving any indication that he'd been there.

He headed toward the edge of the little market to survey the area and decide on his next move. Probably he should steal some food, but he shook the thought away. He'd had breakfast and lunch; he was fine. He'd gone longer with less before.

People in the market parted, moving in different patterns, and Stiles frowned. He had only a second to wonder why when he saw a Hunter's duster.

Shit.

He ducked closer to the open door of a shop, hiding behind a rack of colorful scarves and jewelry. Peering through it, Stiles watched the Hunters saunter through the market.

It was the twins, Ethan and Aiden.

Shit shit.

His first instinct was to run, to get away before they found him. His whole body tensed, his legs ready to spring away, when he remembered they were Hunters.

Which meant they would probably know where his dad was.

You're crazy, Stiles told himself. Absolutely crazy. You should not be thinking about following two werewolf Hunters through the Haven!

It was true. It was also true that this was a lead, and Stiles had precious few of those right now.

With so many people around and so many restaurants, as long as he stayed downwind, they shouldn't be able to pick out his scent. He could do this.

Oh God. He was actually going to do this.

Stiles watched Ethan and Aiden from his hiding spot until they'd moved far enough through the marketplace that there was a safe distance between them. He slid out from behind the scarves and into the throng of people, moving lazily even as his every muscle screamed to move faster, to get away or to find his dad or something. He could do this.

For the first several blocks, the back of his neck felt prickly, on alert, but neither Ethan nor Aiden appeared to realize they were being followed. They continued down the street and the market gave way to other tall buildings, some of which had men in uniform guarding the doors. There were still lots of people on the streets, but fewer than on the market blocks, and Stiles was aware he would stand out.

Thankfully, Ethan and Aiden stopped and got on a single train car, open all the way around, and it was easy for Stiles to swing himself up onto the back. The car itself was filled with people, most of whom looked like they were heading to or from work or shopping. It was mind-boggling, the bounty they had here in the Haven. Stiles hadn't ever seen this much food in his life, even on the circus train.

The car took them due west before jogging northward, speeding along tracks through the Haven's narrow streets. It stopped every few blocks to drop people off and let more on. Stiles tried not to gawk at the sky-scraping buildings all around them, but it was hard. He'd never seen anything like it: buildings with a dozen stories or more, squished right up next to each other like there wasn't enough room to breathe. And the number of people, holy shit.

Focus, Stiles!

He casually squeezed his way closer to the front of the car, keeping an eye on Ethan and Aiden, who shared a wooden bench near the driver. Aiden leaned over the back of the bench in front of them to talk to the two women sitting there. Well, trying to talk to them, anyway. The women looked like they'd rather he left them alone.

They were close enough now that he'd have to be very careful, and not for the first time, Stiles wished he knew how to mask his scent so that werewolves couldn't follow it.

At least the twins hadn't gotten off the car yet. That was good.

The car shuddered to a stop again, people shifting forward as it did, and Stiles backed away to let them move off. That was when he spotted the payment box next to the driver.

Shit.

He scooted toward the back of the car even faster, hoping it looked like he was moving to get off himself. So far he hadn't gotten caught, but he was pretty sure the Hunters wouldn't look kindly on him hitching a free ride.

That was okay. He would just have to... continue not to get caught. He could totally do that.

He bumped into another passenger right then and accidentally stepped on his foot.

The guy shoved him. "Hey, watch where you're going!"

Stiles murmured an apology and tried to get to the rear of the car, where he could melt into the background, but the guy wasn't having any of it. He grabbed Stiles's arm.

Stiles tried to jerk away, but he didn't have much space for movement. "I said I was sorry, man."

The guy glared and checked his hand. "You don't have a stamp."

"A stamp?" The hell did he need a stamp for? "Of course I have a stamp."

Stiles's philosophy: when in doubt, look like you're telling the truth and lie your ass off.

The guy scoffed and held up his fist, where a black symbol was stamped on the back. "No, you don't. You get it when you pay." He nodded at the front of the car, and then turned his attention back to Stiles. "Are you trolley-hopping, you little bastard?"

What even was that? Stiles shook his head and tried to back away, but people were turning to pay attention to the disturbance. Shit. That meant Ethan and Aiden wouldn't be far behind. "I'm not trolley-hopping!" He scoffed. "Why would I do something like that?"

"Oh please." The guy scowled. "I've seen your type before, thinking they can get away with riding for free. Well, not while I'm around, and not while there are good people walking because they can't afford a trolley stamp. Oi!" he called up toward the driver. "Don't start the car again. We've got a trolley-hopper back here."

Oh hell. Stiles scanned the crowd, seeking a way out. If Aiden and Ethan got hold of him—

A heavy hand fell on his shoulder. "There you are. We've been looking all over for you."

Stiles spun around to see Boyd standing behind him, a pleasant smile on his face. He hadn't been aware it was possible to feel both relief and more fear at the same time, but hey, he learned something new every day. His stomach flip-flopped.

The guy in front of him narrowed his eyes. "And who the hell are you?"

Boyd held out his free hand, the one that wasn't gripping Stiles's shoulder. "Mr. Vernon Boyd, assistant manager of Hale's Circus of Monsters, Magic, and Mystical Wonders."

The guy shook Boyd's hand and immediately paled.

"I'm also one of the performers," Boyd continued in his pleasant tone. "My apologies. Stiles must have gotten lost while he was out putting up posters."

From the way the guy yanked his hand away and rubbed it, Stiles guessed Boyd had been demonstrating why he performed as the "strong man."

"Bert, what in the hell is going on back there?" the driver yelled.

Boyd was still smiling pleasantly. "Just a misunderstanding, wasn't it, Bert?"

The guy—Bert, Stiles guessed—continued rubbing his hand, never taking his eyes off Boyd. "Um. Yeah. Sorry. Just a misunderstanding."

Boyd nodded. "Glad we agree. We'll be off now."

With that, Stiles found himself guided off the trolley, Boyd's hand gripping his shoulder hard enough Stiles couldn't get away if he wanted to. Not without losing his coat, the sleeve of his shirt, and possibly his arm as well.

He glanced back to see if Aiden and Ethan were watching.

Boyd growled. "Face forward."

Stiles whipped his head around. "What? Why?"

"Do you really want to give those two a reason to follow us?" Boyd asked under his breath.

Stiles swallowed and kept facing forward.

They were two blocks away when he felt comfortable talking again. "How did you find me?"

Boyd slid him a sidelong look.

Stiles waited, but any further response didn't seem to be forthcoming. He tried to tug away again, but Boyd's grip was like iron. "You don't have to hold onto me, you know."

Boyd snorted. "Apparently someone does."

He stopped at an outdoor restaurant and shoved Stiles into a chair, ordered food and drinks from the server, and then sat beside him. He still hadn't moved his hand.

Stiles squirmed. Although he was thrilled to be away from the trolley and the Hunters, it didn't change the fact that he and Derek hadn't parted on the best of terms. His secret was out now, and there was a good chance the only reason Boyd had found him was because they could collect a bounty for turning in a mage.

"Please let me go," he said, low enough that only Boyd could hear him.

Boyd's dark eyebrows shot up, but he said nothing.

Stiles took it and barreled on. "Look, I know you've got no reason to listen to me, but what the Hunters will do to me is worse than torture. Please, please just let me go so I can find my dad. And then we'll vanish. You'll never have to deal with us again. Nobody will know."

Boyd's eyebrows went up further. "What do you think I'm doing?"

"Taking me to the Hunters yourself? Collecting a reward for turning me in?"

Boyd blinked. "Kid, have you paid any attention to us over the past few weeks?"

"Yes? And?" Stiles shrugged his shoulder under the heavy weight of Boyd's hand. "You take care of pack. I'm not pack. Derek—Mr. Hale made that abundantly clear."

Boyd sighed and cast his eyes skyward. "He'll be here soon, so you can ask him yourself."

"He...what?" Stiles's heart pounded. "Here?"

The server set two glasses of water and two bowls of steaming hot noodles in front of them. The smell made Stiles's stomach growl.

"It's a rendezvous," Boyd said. "Now calm down and eat your damn soup."

Hungry as he was, anxiety twisted his stomach into knots and made it impossible to force down anything beyond a few sips of water. Boyd ate calmly with one hand while his other stayed steady on Stiles's shoulder.

Not five minutes after the server had delivered their food, Derek, Scott, and Allison ran up. Scott practically threw himself into the chair next to Stiles and hugged him. "What were you thinking, running off like that? You could've been hurt! You could've been robbed! You could've been captured by Hunters!"

Stiles had no idea how to react. "I, uh—" He looked over Scott's head at Derek. Had Derek not told them? Why was he keeping Stiles's secret?

Derek, however, wasn't looking at him. He was looking at Boyd. "Where did you find him?"

"One of the trolleys." Boyd finally took his hand off Stiles's shoulder, probably because he realized Stiles wasn't going anywhere with Scott plastered to him. "Following the twins."

"For God's sake." Derek rubbed the bridge of his nose and glared at Stiles. "You have absolutely no sense of self-preservation, do you?"

Stiles glared right back. "It was personal business."

"Right." Derek turned to Allison. "Can you and Scott find out where the Hunters are keeping a prisoner?"

She nodded once. "Name?"

He shot a look to Stiles. "What's your father's name?"

Stiles felt like someone had punched him in the chest. "What?"

"Your father," Derek repeated slowly. "Name."

"John Stilinski," Stiles said, though he couldn't have said how he made his mouth work.

"Got it." Allison grabbed Scott's arm. "Come on."

Scott stood up and gently punched Stiles in the shoulder. "Don't run off like that again, okay?"

Stiles could only gape in response, and then Scott and Allison were off and running.

Derek dropped into the seat Scott had vacated and pushed the noodles to Stiles. "Eat."

Stiles stared at him. "Did you tell them?" When Derek only responded with a raised eyebrow, Stiles clarified, "About me?"

"No, but you're going to. As soon as everyone's back at the circus." Derek pointed to the bowl. "Eat. You look like you're about to pass out."

"That has nothing to do with how much I've eaten," Stiles grumbled, but his stomach had finally untwisted enough that he could take a bite.

He ate slowly, but only managed a third of the bowl. Derek and Boyd sat on either side of him like bodyguards, stiff and serious and silent. It just made him remember there was another conversation they had to have, one where the entire pack would have to learn his secret.

Stiles pushed the bowl away and shook his head.

Derek frowned. "You didn't eat much."

"Yes, because you two glaring at me is so good for my appetite," Stiles snapped.

Derek sighed, but he paid the bill and collected a paper box for the unfinished food. He shoved it into Stiles's hands and jerked his chin at the road.

As soon as Stiles stood, Boyd clapped a hand on his shoulder. Stiles rolled his eyes. "Seriously?"

Boyd smiled and tightened his grip. "Seriously."

"Come on," Derek said. "The others should be back by now."

***

The trip back to the train took longer than Stiles expected, even though Derek hired a cart to take them part of the way. If Boyd didn't have a hand on his shoulder, Derek did; they clearly weren't going to let him get away again. He probably could get away, Stiles reasoned, but it would involve performing magic in public and he couldn't be sure no one would figure it out.

His stomach was in knots, and only the most intense focus on his breathing kept him from sliding into a panic attack. Derek hadn't told anyone about his secret, he reminded himself. Boyd had seemed genuinely baffled at the idea of turning Stiles over to the Hunters, and Scott had obviously been worried about him. There was no reason to panic.

But he couldn't really make himself believe that. If the past few months had taught him anything, it was that he couldn't trust anyone but himself and his dad. Even the pack, no matter how well-intentioned they might be now, wouldn't keep him around once they knew the whole truth. Maybe they wouldn't give him to the Hunters, maybe they'd give him some food and a bit of money before they sent him on his way, but the end result would be the same. He couldn't trust them.

He hated that he wanted to so much.

When they finally reached the train, Derek and Boyd ushered him out of the cart. "Tell everyone to meet in the dining car as soon as they get back," Derek said to Boyd. "And let them know he's safe."

Boyd nodded once, and then he was off, making his way down the length of the train.

Stiles figured Derek would take him straight to the dining car to confess the multitude of his sins and secrets, but instead, Derek steered them left, to his private car.

"What are you doing? I thought we were going to the dining car." Stiles swallowed; his throat felt tight. "Don't I have to spill everything?"

Derek hauled him up onto the train and into the car, sliding the door shut and sealing out the cold air. He pointed to the chairs in front of his desk. "Sit."

Stiles shifted his weight and clutched his box of noodles like a shield. "I think I'll stand, thanks."

Derek rolled his eyes and rummaged in the shelves, pulling out two small glasses and a decanter of brown liquid from the shelf under Temeraire. He filled both glasses and set them on the desk. "Sit," he said again. "Have a drink. I'll get you a fork if you want to finish your noodles."

Stiles shook his head. "What are you doing?" he asked again. "Why did you bring me back here? Why did you—" He cut himself off, unable to finish the question. Why did you come after me in the first place?

Derek sighed and sank into the chair behind the desk. "I brought you back here so we could talk, privately, and you can decide how you want to tell everyone. Now will you please sit down and have a damn drink?"

Stiles sat cautiously, but he didn't take the drink. His heart still pounded, some part of his mind screaming run run run. He felt cornered, and he didn't have the slightest idea where he stood with Derek and the rest of the pack.

The hard look on Derek's face softened somewhat. "Stiles," he said gently. "We're not going to turn you in."

Stiles jerked at the words. He couldn't feel relief, not just yet. "What are you talking about? A few days ago you were ready to kick me off the train. You can't tell me it's not a little tempting to throw me to the Hunters and kill two birds with one stone."

Derek's brow furrowed. "Two birds...what are you talking about?"

"You know." Stiles shrugged stiffly. "Get rid of me and get the Hunters off your back."

The confusion vanished, and Derek leaned across the desk. "Let's get one thing straight. I will not turn you over to the Hunters. Period. Doesn't matter what differences we have, doesn't matter if you leave the circus, doesn't matter what they'd give me in return. I will not turn you over to them."

A lump formed in Stiles's throat. "But I'm"—a mage—"dangerous."

"We're all dangerous." Derek sat back in his chair. "But that doesn't mean we're a danger to each other."

It all sounded sincere, but Stiles didn't have a fucking clue of what to do with it. Right now, nothing made sense.

Derek downed his glass in one gulp, and then refilled it. "I just meant to give you a warning, initially. I knew you were trying to help, but it also put us in danger, even more than with the bears." He narrowed his eyes at Stiles over the rim of his glass. "But...I'm guessing we weren't in nearly as much danger as I thought at the time."

Stiles dropped his gaze to the box of noodles, still clutched to his chest like a lifeline. "Maybe you were," he mumbled. "I'm not very good with fire."

"You were in control of it, though," Derek said. "I thought it was sheer luck the wind didn't shift against us, but it wasn't luck, was it?"

Even now, when he knew Derek knew, Stiles couldn't admit it. Eighteen years of keeping it secret—ten for his mother, eight for himself—was a hard habit to break. His jaw tightened against the words, but he managed to shake his head, just a little.

"So it was less reckless, and more of a calculated risk," Derek said.

Stiles nodded once, and raised his eyes again. "So if you didn't mean to kick me off, why did you?"

There. That was a question he could ask.

Derek sipped at his drink and glared at the wall off to the left. "You thought my warning was a bluff. It wasn't. I don't bluff, not about the pack. Saying I would keep someone around for personal reasons, even if they'd proven themselves harmful to my pack..." He shook his head. "I wouldn't. I can't."

"Wait." Stiles struggled to process this information. "You kicked me off the train to prove that you put the pack's safety over yourself? How does that even make sense?"

Derek sighed again. "It was probably a hasty reaction. It didn't help that Laura had been saying something similar ever since you arrived."

"What the hell?" Stiles jumped out of his seat and slammed his noodles on the desk; he needed both of his hands for this. "You were going to kick me off the train because you were pissed at your sister? Because I had the bad fortune of saying the same thing as her? And—" He cut himself off, pieces clicking into place. "Oh my God, are you trying to apologize right now? Is this you saying you're sorry?"

Derek gave him a flat look. "I'm trying to let you know you're safe here. We're not going to kick you off because you're a mage, and we're not going to contact the Hunters about it, either." He pressed his lips together and huffed, looking petulant. "If apologizing will help that, then yes. I am."

Normally Stiles would've crowed over an apology, but his mind latched onto the words you're safe here and wouldn't let go. He wasn't safe here. He wasn't safe anywhere, and if the pack helped him, they weren't safe either.

He couldn't breathe. His heart was racing and he couldn't breathe. He hadn't had a panic attack when the Hunters had taken his father, but now his vision tunneled and he couldn't catch his breath and—

"Stiles? Stiles!"

Derek's voice came from very far away. "Stiles, you need to breathe. Breathe with me, okay?" He took one of Stiles's hands and pressed it to his chest, covering it with his own. "Breathe in with me."

His chest rose, and Stiles tried to breathe with it.

"Good," Derek said. "Now out."

Stiles did, matching the movement of Derek's chest.

Derek's thumb rubbed a soothing pattern against Stiles's hand. "Good, good. That's good. Keep breathing with me."

Stiles focused on that warm point of contact between them and the steady rise and fall of Derek's chest, letting Derek's soft voice wash over him. It was more soothing than he would have thought, and soon he wasn't struggling for each breath.

"Better?" Derek asked.

Stiles nodded. "You're good with this."

"Melissa taught all of us how to handle a panic attack," Derek said. "Good thing, too, since most of the pack has had at least one."

Stiles nodded again, more in acknowledgement than anything else, and that was when he realized how close they were sitting. Derek knelt in front of him, still holding Stiles's hand flat against his chest, still rubbing his thumb in that small circle. His pale eyes practically glowed with concern. This close, Stiles could count the colors in them, green and brown and yellow, a kaleidoscope that seemed to change with the light.

His heart beat faster again, but this time it had nothing to do with an impending panic attack.

He pulled his hand away in some effort to put a wall back between them. He felt so fucking vulnerable right now and all he wanted to do was get back to some semblance of normalcy.

Derek must have recognized it, because he stood and went back behind his desk, adding another element between them. Stiles decided to be grateful for it, and told himself his hand did not feel cold.

Derek nudged the glass Stiles still hadn't touched closer to him. That time, Stiles grabbed it and drank the whole thing so fast he almost choked on it, the alcohol burning the whole way down. It was definitely not the horrible stuff he'd had the night after his first show, though, which had him wondering just where the hell Derek got this and how easy it would be to sneak into his stash.

Derek refilled the glass. "Would it be easier if I told them?"

It would, but it felt wrong. This was something Stiles needed to do. "No. I...I should."

"Okay." Derek sat back again, but he didn't take his eyes off Stiles. "You don't have to tell them any more than you're comfortable with."

Stiles snorted. "I'd be comfortable not talking about it at all, but I'm guessing that's not an option."

Derek's expression shifted into something Stiles couldn't quite read. "Not after that disappearing act you pulled, no."

Stiles settled back in his chair and took a sip of his drink. It still burned. "To be fair, I didn't think you'd actually care that I'd left."

"That's ridiculous," Derek said quietly.

Before Stiles could wrap his mind around that, someone rapped on Derek's door, and then Boyd slid it partly open and poked his head in. "Everyone's in the dining car except for Scott and Allison."

"Thanks, Boyd. We'll be there in a minute," Derek said.

Boyd gave him a thumbs-up and backed out of the car.

Stiles's heart thumped hard. "In a minute? What about Scott and Allison? Shouldn't we wait for them?"

"They might be awhile," Derek said, "and I'm pretty sure Allison, at least, has guessed. Wouldn't you rather get this over with?"

Damn his logic. Stiles sighed and set his glass back on Derek's desk. "Not everyone takes this kind of news as well as you do."

Derek stood and nodded toward the door. "Give them some credit."

Despite his shaky legs, Stiles stood as well. "Believe me, I am."

***

Standing in the dining car with the entire pack—including Melissa and Deaton, excluding Scott and Allison—staring at him was even more nerve-wracking than Stiles had thought it could be. The only thing keeping him upright was the knowledge that Derek was right behind him, and he, at least, didn't hate Stiles on sight.

"So, um." He raked his hand through his hair, trying to look at everyone and finally settling on looking down. "I haven't ever talked about this before. And I don't have a clue of where to start."

"That's a first," Jackson said.

Cora whapped him upside the back of the head, and Jackson jerked away from her with a curse. She nodded at Stiles, which he chose to assume meant he could continue.

He still couldn't find the words, though. He stared at his hands, clenching and unclenching them in a vain effort to keep them from shaking. "I guess the best thing to do would be to show you, then."

With that, Stiles concentrated and brought forth a ball of light in his palm.

Everybody gasped, and for the next five seconds, the dining car was so quiet Stiles swore he could hear heartbeats.

To his surprise, Deaton was the one to break the silence first. "You're a mage."

Stiles pressed his lips together. "I got it from my mom," he said. "She died when I was ten. I didn't present any signs until a year later."

He closed his eyes, remembering the stricken look on his father's face when Stiles had accidentally levitated the salt shaker, the unspoken fear of I'm going to lose you, too. Stiles had sworn up and down it wouldn't happen. He would keep quiet; he would keep safe. He wouldn't leave his dad.

Now look where that had gotten him.

He had to clear his throat a few times before he could speak again. "The Hunters came looking for me. I wasn't home. They took my dad instead. He's here somewhere in Santa Francesca, and I have to find him before..."

Stiles wiped a hand over his face and didn't finish. If he started thinking about what would happen if he didn't find his dad, he'd have another panic attack right here in front of everyone.

"That's why I joined the circus," he said, forcing the words out over the lump in his throat. "I had to get into Santa Francesca, and it was the only way to get through the gates without raising suspicion. And that's...that's really it."

Nobody spoke, the dining car quiet as a grave. Stiles couldn't bring himself to look up from the floor. He had no idea what he'd see on their faces, and he wasn't really sure he wanted to know.

Laura cursed. "You've got to be fucking kidding me."

Before anyone could say another word, she brushed past Melissa and Deaton and left.

Stiles felt sick to his stomach. He clenched his fists at his sides, telling himself it didn't matter, that he knew this was going to happen, that of course this was how people were going to react to him. Fear, disgust, and hatred. And who could blame them?

After another tense few moments, Erica asked, "So what are we going to do?"

Kick me off the train, Stiles thought.

"Scott and Allison are already looking for where the Hunters are keeping his dad," Derek said. "Hopefully they'll be back with something soon."

"If they don't find anything, I can talk to Satomi," Kira said.

"You know they're going to have him locked up somewhere impossible to get to," Isaac said.

Danny popped his knuckles. "I've always wanted to try breaking into the prison here."

What. Stiles jerked his head up, unable to believe his ears.

"We're only here for a week," Lydia said. "We need more time."

Cora draped her arm around her and leaned into her side. "What, are you saying we can't plan and pull off a jailbreak in under a week?"

Lydia sniffed. "I never said that."

Melissa shook her head. "It'll be nearly impossible to pull off right under Deucalion's nose, you know that, right?"

Boyd crossed his massive arms and smirked. "I think we can figure something out."

That time, Stiles said it aloud. "Wait, what?"

Derek nudged him. "Told you to give them a chance."

Stiles glanced back; Derek was smiling, small and secret, like he'd known this would be the outcome the whole time, but that was impossible.

"What about Laura?" he asked.

The smile on Derek's face fell. "We'll talk to her," he said. "It'll be okay."

Somehow he doubted that. But faced with the rest of the pack talking animatedly about how to stage a prison break in the middle of Santa Francesca, it was difficult for Stiles to stay too worried that the one person who hated him still...well, hated him.

"They...don't care," he said, trying the words out, making himself say it to make it real. "They really don't care. You really don't care."

That brought Derek's small smile back. "Like I said, you're safe here."

He wasn't. Not really. Logically, Stiles knew there wasn't any such thing as safety for someone like him. But with Derek smiling at him like that, for the first time in a long time, Stiles felt like it could be true.

Chapter Text

Derek was in the costume car, helping Lydia mend their clothes for the week's performances, when Scott and Allison returned later that evening. The pack had gone back to their respective duties, with the exception of Laura, whom Derek hadn't seen since she'd stormed out of the dining car.

He tried not to think about that too much. They'd work it out; they always did.

He was in the middle of sewing up the seat of a pair of pants when the door slid open and Allison poked her head inside.

Derek took one look at her and set down his sewing, giving Lydia an apologetic look. "I'll be back to finish."

Lydia waved him away without lifting her head from the tights she was mending. "If you can't, send Kira."

"Will do."

Allison waited outside for him, face grim. "Scott went to get Stiles. I assume you want him to hear this."

Derek nodded. "Let's meet in my office. Is it good news?"

Allison shrugged. "Depends on your definition of 'good.'"

He didn't like the sound of that. Then again, he was asking a lot of his pack. "Thanks for looking into it."

She smiled and patted his arm. "Of course."

They walked in silence back to his office, and Derek put on his coffee pot. If nothing else, it would be good to have something warm to offer to Allison and Scott after they'd run all over the city at his request.

Not five minutes after he and Allison had reached the car, Scott and Stiles arrived. Scott looked uncharacteristically grim and Stiles was tenser than Derek had ever seen him.

Stiles didn't even sit down, just stood there, gripping the back of one of the chairs. "So how bad is it?"

"Well, the good news is he's alive," Allison said.

Stiles let out a long breath and sagged like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Derek moved for him, but Scott was closer, and he grabbed Stiles before he could hit the floor and ushered him into the chair.

"He's alive," Stiles repeated, like he couldn't believe the words.

Derek poured Scott and Allison coffee and Stiles another small glass of rum, and slid the beverages across the desk. "So what's the bad news?"

Scott and Allison shared a look, and then Allison said, "He's being held in the mage confinement sector of the prison."

Stiles gripped the arm of the chair. "Is that as bad as it sounds?"

"Possibly worse," Allison said. "It's the most secure part of the prison and it's nearly impossible to get to. Most of the Hunters don't even have access to it."

"Your parents?" Derek asked.

She shook her head. "They're not high-ranking enough."

"Meaning they're not Deucalion's lapdogs," Scott said.

"Apparently he's been revoking Hunter access to the mage confinement sector over the past six months," Allison said. "It was never an area many people could access, but now it's down to a bare handful of the Hunters based in Santa Francesca."

"Here." Scott dug in his back pocket and pulled out a folded paper. "Chris did get us this, at least."

Derek took the paper and unfolded it. It was a map of the prison—blueprints, actually—with markings all over it and notes in the margins. He let out a low whistle. "He was able to get this to you awfully quick."

"He made it a while ago," Allison said. "Saving it for a rainy day, he said."

Derek's eyebrows climbed. Having a map this detailed implied Chris thought there would be a reason, at some point, to break into the prison...or out of it. He filed that thought away for later.

"It's got everything we'd need to get in," Scott said. "And most of it, we could do. It would be tough, but we could do it."

"The only problem is the mage confinement sector." Allison tapped the area on the map. "The only way to get in is if we have someone with access who lets us in. And I have no idea which of the Hunters even has access anymore."

Stiles snorted and picked up his glass. "As if any of them would even consider helping us."

Allison fixed him with a glare. "My parents would."

Derek held up his hand before the conversation could devolve any further. "So we have a map, we know he's alive, and we know where he's being held."

Scott grinned. "We have the beginnings of an extremely stupid plan?"

Derek folded the map back up. "Something like that." They had more than they'd had earlier, for certain, and definitely more than Stiles had had just yesterday.

Stiles drank the rum in one swallow and stood up, setting the empty glass on the desk. "Well, that's just peachy. He's being held the one place I can't get to him."

"We," Derek corrected.

Scott looked like Stiles had kicked a puppy. "You're not alone in this."

Stiles's expression flickered through a series of emotions Derek didn't recognize. "Thanks," he said, nodding at the map. "For getting this. You've done a lot. I need some air."

With that, he moved away from the desk and back toward the door. Scott made a noise and went after him, but Stiles shrugged away his hand and left.

Scott started to go after him again, but Allison held him back. "We should probably leave him alone," she said.

"What if he runs off again?" Scott asked.

Derek stood. "He won't."

Scott didn't look convinced. "How can you be so sure?"

"Because this," Derek gestured to the train, "is the safest place for him in the city, and this," he tapped on the map, "is the only thing that can help him find his dad."

Scott opened his mouth to argue again, but Derek held up a hand to silence him. "I'll go after him. You and Allison drink some coffee and go get dinner."

Scott wavered, like he was still debating the wisdom of running after Stiles himself, but Allison threaded her fingers through his and squeezed. "Derek's right. He's not going anywhere."

"Okay." Scott sounded skeptical, and he jabbed a finger at Derek. "Don't let him run off again."

Derek held up his hands in mock surrender and rolled his eyes. "I won't. Now finish your coffee."

He left them there, Scott muttering darkly behind him and Allison soothing him with words Derek deliberately didn't listen to. He half-hoped Stiles would decide to stay with them after all this just because he was pretty sure Scott would track him down and drag him back to the train if he decided to leave.

Derek headed toward the rear of the train. There weren't many places Stiles would go to be alone, but he had a feeling the piano car would be the first place to check.

He was halfway there when he heard the music, harsh and angry, more violent than what Stiles normally played. The notes crashed in the air, echoing over the cars, and Derek stopped where he was. The music made him feel like he was drowning, like he could see all of Stiles's fear and worries on the wind, like the music gave shape and form to his own fears as well.

"I'm sorry I walked away."

Derek whirled around. Laura was standing right behind him; he hadn't heard her approach at all. She gave him a half-smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.

"You don't need to apologize," he said. "I get it."

"Do you?" Laura dragged her fingers through her long hair and looked off at the lights of the Haven, sparkling in the darkening evening. "I'm terrified, Derek. I'm furious that he kept us in the dark this long, and I'm scared of what's going to happen to us because of it."

"We can't turn him in," he said quietly. "The Hunters won't care that we didn't know."

"I know that." Laura exhaled, her breath white in the chilly air. "Even if we turned him in, it wouldn’t change a thing."

Derek pressed his shoulder to hers, silent forgiveness for all the tension between them the past few weeks. Laura was only ten minutes older than he was, and they'd been chasing after each other their entire lives, sharing everything, even their mother's Alpha power. And even now, he shared her fear.

"I can't be sorry for helping him," he said. "But I'm sorry you're scared."

Laura sniffled and laughed mirthlessly. "I know. You try to act like Mom, but you're so much like Dad. You've got his heart. You couldn't turn away a stray like that anymore than you could turn away any of our others."

Derek looked away and cleared his throat, blinking through suddenly blurry vision.

"I know Mom would've wanted us to help him," Laura whispered. "Like she helped Marin."

Derek snapped his head up. This was the first time she'd said that name in years. "Laura—"

Laura gave him a watery smile. "I'm also scared it's going to turn out for you like it did for me. We can't keep him safe forever. Not with the Hunters getting worse every year."

He knew that, and the thought turned his stomach. "We can try. And we're here now. We can't...make decisions based on some nebulous future what if. All we can do is try to do the right thing now and trust that it'll work itself out."

Laura laughed again and slung her arm around his shoulder in a half-hug, wiping her eyes with her free hand. "God. You are exactly like Dad."

***

He left Laura after a few moments of companionable silence, broken only by the piano music fading in and out of the night air. As long as the music was playing, Derek was sure Stiles was in the piano car, so he didn't hurry. Besides, he wasn't sure how long Stiles would want to himself.

Derek slid the door to the piano car open as quietly as he could, but the metal protested, reminding him that they needed to oil the damn thing as soon as they got a chance. The piano silenced abruptly. So much for hoping he hadn't been heard.

He squeezed through the opening he'd made and shut the door again, giving them some measure of privacy. Sure enough, Stiles was sitting at the piano, two candles and a lantern lit near him. The wavering yellow-orange light couldn't be good for his eyes. Derek made a mental note to have Danny install some better lighting back here.

Stiles flicked his eyes up at Derek, and then back down to the piano. "Don't you have something better to do than stalk me around the train?"

"Scott was worried you'd take off again," Derek said.

Stiles pressed his lips together and glared at the piano. "Not much use of that, considering you'd all track me down and haul me back here."

"Probably," Derek agreed.

He walked around the car to the piano bench, and Stiles automatically scooted over to make room for him. Derek sat. "You know, if you really want to leave after we get your dad back, we won't make you stay."

Stiles scoffed, but didn't say anything else.

"Do you want to leave?" Derek asked.

Stiles kept his gaze on the piano, but Derek heard the way his heartbeat picked up. "I can't stay."

"That's not what I asked."

Stiles shook his head and wiped his eyes furiously. "You don't get it, do you? Do you know what happened to Beacon Hills?" He jerked his chin behind them. "The same thing that happened to Modesto Peak."

Derek's eyes widened, but he did his best not to show his shock.

"I'd gone to the next outpost over to sell some things," Stiles continued. "I ended up having to stay the night there. When I got back to Beacon Hills the next morning..." He closed his eyes and shook his head. "They'd burned the whole town to the ground. Because they hadn't found me."

God, no wonder he'd said he'd seen it twice. "You don't know that," Derek said.

"I do." Stiles wiped his eyes fiercely. "My house was one of the first ones they burned. Everything was gone. Everything I hadn't sold, the few things I'd planned on taking with me...everything I had left of my mom. I can't—"

The word choked off, and Stiles turned his head fully away. Derek stared at the piano and gave no indication he was listening to Stiles fight to compose himself.

"I can't see that happen here," Stiles finally said. He gave a laugh that sounded like a sob. "I wasn't supposed to get attached to you fuckers."

Derek wanted to hug him and tell him everything was going to be okay, but Stiles would know it for a lie, and he wasn't sure how Stiles would accept the hug regardless. He leaned against him instead, letting Stiles know with the press of their shoulders and arms that he wasn't alone. "We weren't supposed to get attached to you, either."

"Yeah, well, I'm like a fungus. I grow on you."

Derek fought a smile. Stiles had grown on him, and he wasn't really sure when it had happened.

Stiles elbowed him gently. "Thank you," he said seriously. "For trying to help. I mean, it's practically impossible, but I appreciate that you guys want to."

"We'll get him back," Derek said. "I promise."

Stiles snorted. "How? I mean seriously, how? You saw that map. There's no way we're going to be able to get in there and back out. Do you really think the Hunters are going to open the doors and let us waltz right in?"

Derek rolled his eyes. "We'll come up with a better plan than that," he said, but Stiles wasn't paying attention.

Stiles was staring at the piano, eyes wide and mouth agape.

He didn't move or speak for so long Derek would've worried that he'd died, except he could still hear Stiles's breathing and heartbeat.

"Stiles?" he said.

Stiles laughed. It sounded hysterical and possibly a little mad, and Derek wondered if the stress of the past months had finally caught up with him.

"Oh my God." Stiles wiped his eyes, tears streaming down his face. "Oh my God. I'm so stupid. We don't need to worry about getting in. We just need to worry about getting out."

Derek's heart did a somersault at the way Stiles said we, but that was not the important thing right now. "What are you talking about? Do you know a way in?"

That sent Stiles off on another peal of laughter, and it took him almost another minute to catch his breath. "They'll open the door and let me waltz right in!"

"What?"

Stiles grabbed his arms, amber eyes glimmering madly, and said, "It's the mage confinement sector."

"I know that, I—" Derek cut himself off, the pieces clicking into place. His heart jumped into his throat. "No."

"Yes."

"Are you out of your mind?"

"Probably." Stiles slid off the bench and jumped to his feet. "But do you have a better idea of how to get someone in?" He flung his arms wide. "They already want me in!"

It was a terrible idea. A horrible idea. Derek didn't want the Hunters getting their hands on Stiles—on any of his pack—for even a moment. But.

But.

There was a chance it could work.

"Scott's going to hate this idea," Derek said.

Stiles grinned recklessly. "Yeah, but Laura's going to love it."

"Well." Derek stood as well, wiping his hands on his pants. "We need to get the rest of the pack on board. We're only in Santa Francesca for six days. Planning a circus and a jailbreak in less than a week is going to be rough."

"Planning it will be easy," Stiles said with a scoff. "Pulling it off? That's another story."

Chapter Text

Stiles learned very quickly that he may, possibly, have misspoken. While the execution of the plan was still the most important part, the plan itself wasn't the cakewalk he'd thought it would be.

However, the pack jumped into planning it with a zeal that bordered on frightening. Allison, Lydia, and Kira spent every spare minute poring over the map and deciphering Chris's notes. The first night, Danny went with them, and then locked himself in the laboratory with a scribbled list. Stiles wasn't a hundred percent sure what he was doing with that, and both Lydia and Kira told him he was better off not asking.

"He'll let you know when he's ready," Lydia said after he'd brought it up the second time. "He thinks he can make something that the Hunters won't find when they search you. It'll make it easier for you to get out of the prison."

Clawed hands rested on his shoulders. "Or we can teach you something a little more practical," Erica said.

Stiles nearly jumped out of his skin. "Do you ever make any noise?"

"Not when I don't want to!" Erica said cheerfully. "Come with me."

He might have protested any other time, but a part of his mind still boggled that they not only treated him no differently, but they wanted to help him. He couldn't think of anyone else who had done that. It made him want to let them.

Erica steered him to her car and pulled out a box from her side table. "Derek is probably not going to be thrilled with me teaching you this, but you need all the help you can get. And Danny's the best at what he does, but you've seen some of his inventions." She set the box on the small table and opened it, pulling out a heavy padlock and a set of lock picks. "It always pays to have a backup plan."

Stiles blinked it. "You know how to pick locks?"

"Call it a holdover from my previous life." Erica twirled one of the picks between her fingers, and then set at the padlock. In seconds, it popped open. "And now, I shall pass the knowledge on to you."

Stiles hadn't spent much time alone with Erica before now, mostly because she'd always terrified him on some level. She was still terrifying, certainly, but she was also funny and actually shy when Stiles complimented her on her lock-picking skills.

"I haven't had to use it much since joining the circus," she said. "But I like to try and keep my skills up. You never know."

"How did you join the circus, anyway?" Stiles asked.

She shrugged. "My Alpha went rogue. We tried to take care of him ourselves, but we weren't a large pack. Just him and three of us betas. The Hunters had to be called in. Allison's group, actually. Back when she was still with them."

Stiles froze. Knowing Allison had been a Hunter and hearing that she'd gone after one of the pack were two entirely different things. "What?"

"Yeah." Erica turned her focus back to the lock. "They took care of him pretty quickly. The problem came when a couple of the Hunters wanted to cull our entire pack. Said without an Alpha, we'd be just as much of a threat as he'd been." She snorted. "Shows what they know."

"What did you do?" Stiles asked.

"Thankfully, the other Hunters—including Allison—didn't want to kill shifters who weren't a threat. I took advantage of the in-fighting to get the hell out of there." Her lips tweaked sideways in a sad smile. "I didn't stop running until I hit the tracks. I followed them for a while and ended up finding the circus in an outpost way down south. I hid out in one of the cars, Derek and Boyd found me after the show, and the rest," she gestured to the car, "is history."

"What about the rest of your pack?"

Erica's smile faded, and she tapped one of the picks on the table. "They ran off in a different direction. I thought we would meet back up when we could, but..." She trailed off and looked away. "I look for them at every outpost we play. I haven't seen either of them in the five years since. Allison said the Hunters didn't kill them, but..." She lifted one shoulder. "There's no telling what they did after she left."

Stiles thought about what would have happened if his dad had just vanished, if he had no idea where he'd gone and no way to track him down. He leaned against Erica in silent support. "I'm sorry."

She smiled and pushed back against his shoulder. "It's okay. I'm in a good place. And I hope they are, too. Maybe one day we'll run into each other again."

Stiles hesitated before he asked the next question. "What made you decide to stay with the circus?"

Erica pressed her lips together, like she was smothering a laugh. "A lot of things. Derek and Laura and Cora were like the siblings I never had, Talia was a wonderful Alpha, and I love Melissa and Scott. But...the biggest reason was Boyd."

Stiles blinked. "Really? You stayed for Boyd?"

"The circus was great, so it wasn't a hard choice. But Boyd..." She sighed happily. "He just makes everything brighter."

He thought suddenly, painfully, of his parents, the way they had looked at each other like there was no other person in the world. And the way his dad's whole world had shattered when his mother died.

Stiles hadn't been sure he ever wanted to care about another person that much. Then he'd found out he was a mage, and he realized he'd never get the chance to, anyway.

Unbidden, an image of Derek jumped to the forefront of his mind. Stiles shoved it away.

"Here." Erica pushed the picks and the lock into his hand, shaking him out of his thoughts. "It's your turn again. I'm not letting you leave until you can open that in under ten seconds."

Stiles scoffed, but he appreciated the distraction. "We'll be here awhile, then."

"Eh." Erica shrugged and leaned back on the couch. "I've got three hours before we have to get ready for the show."

***

The next day, he'd expected to be accosted by Erica again, but instead Stiles found himself grabbed by Boyd and Cora, who insisted on making sure he knew how to fight. Stiles protested that he did know how, but neither of them believed him until Stiles threw a punch that had Boyd staggering back. Cora laughed herself sick, and Boyd clapped him hard enough on the shoulder Stiles was pretty sure it would leave a bruise.

He was still walking that off when someone else grabbed him and pulled him into the dining car.

"Oh my God, what—"

Stiles snapped his mouth shut when he saw it was Laura.

She regarded him steadily, tapping a dark book on her thigh, and then she took a step closer to him.

Stiles scrambled backward. "I'm pretty sure someone will hear me if I scream."

Laura huffed and rolled her eyes. "I'm not going to hurt you."

Stiles felt his eyebrows shoot up his forehead. "Yeah, you'll forgive me if I don't believe that."

"Oh, for—" Laura shoved the book into his chest. "Here. You can probably use this."

He scrambled to grab the book. "What the hell is—"

His eyes fell on a spell on the first page, and he trailed off.

A spell.

Laura looked off to the wall of the dining car, hands in her pockets and shoulders so deliberately relaxed Stiles could practically see the tension wafting off of her. "Believe it or not, you're not the first of your kind to hide here." She nodded at the book. "That belonged to Marin. She gave it to me when she left."

Stiles's grip tightened on the book, and its fabric cover dug into his hands. "She...left?" He didn't want to think about the many implications of that word.

"Yes. Actually left, of her own volition. Said she didn't want to bring the Hunters down on our pack after Mom and Dad died. Gave me that and told me to burn it whenever I got a chance."

Her voice trembled. Stiles decided it would be best not to call her on it.

Laura cleared her throat. "Anyway. You're the only one here now who could make heads or tails of it. Who knows? Maybe something in there can help you on this suicidal quest to get into jail."

"I, uh...thanks?"

Laura shoved off the wall. "Don't mention it."

With that, she stalked out of the dining car, brushing past Kira on her way out.

Kira looked from Stiles to Laura's retreating back, her dark eyes wide. "What in the world was that?"

Stiles dropped his gaze back to the book, his mind wheeling. "I think that was Laura apologizing."

***

Each day passed slower than molasses, and at the same time, Stiles had no idea where the week went. When he wasn't helping with the mechanicals to get the circus ready, he was testing out some of the small gizmos Danny had made that would hopefully get him out of the jail (and listening to Danny curse when they didn't work as planned). He spent at least an hour every day reviewing the plan with Allison, Lydia, and Kira, and half an hour sparring with Cora and Boyd. Erica still wasn't pleased with his lock-picking skills, so she'd shoved everything in his hands and told him to practice on his own time.

And that wasn't counting the hours he spent in the piano car, practicing songs he hadn't played in ages, running through the notes over and over until he could do it without any mistakes. Just because they were plotting a jailbreak didn't mean the circus stopped performing, and Stiles needed to be better than good for his few moments on the stage. After all, he didn't share the spotlight with anyone else.

The crowds in Santa Francesca were huge, easily twice the size of the largest outpost they'd played. The first night, Stiles had boggled at them from behind the tent until Derek dragged him away and reminded him he had to get ready to play.

And yeah. There was Derek.

He and Laura had shared ringmaster duties during every performance, dressed identically right down to the thick white makeup and the spats on their shoes. They moved in sync in the ring, throwing introductions back and forth without missing a word, like they were one person in two bodies. The only way Stiles could tell the difference between them was the shape of their torsos—Laura's curves compared to Derek's V-shape—and the fact that Laura's dark hair hung in a braid down her back.

When Derek wasn't in the ring or handling other circus details, he was right there by Allison and Lydia, walking through the steps of the plan with Stiles. It wasn't a terribly complicated one—Laura was going to turn him in to the Hunters, and once he was inside the jail, he'd use Danny's gizmos to break out of his cell, get his dad, and get back out—but Derek insisted on reviewing it at least twice a day, poking at it from all sides like he was trying to figure out what could possibly go wrong. Stiles was pretty sure they'd planned for every contingency, but even so, something like this was bound to explode once it got going.

Which was why, the night before their final performance, Stiles found himself on top of the dining car with half a bottle of Danny's moonshine, wrapped in a blanket and staring up at the night sky above the Haven. The city lights cast a yellow-white haze, dimming the stars above, but Stiles could still pick out a few of the larger ones. Scott had been up with him for a while, but he'd left about ten minutes ago to drunkenly stumble his way to Allison and Isaac.

Stiles sighed and took another swig of the moonshine. He'd probably regret it in the morning, but he needed something to calm his nerves. It was tomorrow. Tomorrow, he'd be turned into the Hunters. Tomorrow, he'd be taken to the Santa Francesca jail.

Tomorrow, he'd get his dad free or die trying.

"Isn't it a little cold up here?"

Stiles jerked his gaze down from the sky to see Derek climbing onto the roof of the car. He wore gloves and a coat, but no hat, and his breath came out in white steam.

"How'd you know I was up here?" Stiles asked, and was quite proud of himself for enunciating each word.

Derek nodded down the train. "Ran into Scott."

"Oh."

Derek shoved his hands into his pockets. "Mind if I join you?"

Stiles shook his head and gestured to the expanse of the roof. "Be my guest. Well. Be your guest. Since it's your train. I'm just borrowing the roof for a bit."

Derek took the invitation and settled onto the roof, and it was like someone had taken a heater and plunked it down beside Stiles. It took everything in him not to burrow into Derek's side and suck up the warmth, but that would be weird.

Too weird.

Stiles handed over the bottle of moonshine instead.

Derek accepted it and took a long pull of the bottle, his throat working as he swallowed. Stiles's mouth went dry, and he had to tear his eyes away to look back at the stars.

Beside him, Derek coughed and handed the bottle back. "God, that's terrible."

Stiles rolled his eyes. "Why the hell did you drink it, then?"

"Because I don't want to walk all the way back to my car to get some rum."

"How do you even have rum, anyway?" Stiles asked. Decent alcohol was stupidly hard to come by.

Derek splayed his legs out and leaned back on his hands, tipping his head up to the stars. "One of our regulars pays with it. Has for as long as I can remember."

Stiles boggled. "And just how many tickets does that buy them?"

Derek grinned. "A lot."

Oh, God. Derek's grin made Stiles's heart and stomach do an entirely unhealthy somersault. He took another swig of the alcohol to dull the sensation. It worked, but it also sent Stiles into a coughing spasm. Fuck, that shit burned.

Derek frowned and patted Stiles on the back. "Are you okay? Do I need to get some water?"

"Fine," Stiles croaked out, and he set the bottle aside. "I'll just, um, maybe not finish that off just yet."

Derek snorted, but continued absently rubbing Stiles's back. "Sounds like a good idea. We all need to be sharp tomorrow."

Even with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, a coat, and a shirt on, Stiles felt the warmth of Derek's hand on his back like a brand. He shivered, only partly from the night's chill. "Yeah, I know. I haven't had that much."

Derek's black eyebrows rose in such a way that Stiles could feel the judgment.

"Hey." Stiles poked him in the shoulder. "Scott was up here with me. He's responsible for at least half of this."

The eyebrows twitched again, as did the sides of Derek's mouth.

Stiles burrowed into his blanket. "Shut up."

"I didn't say anything," Derek said mildly.

"Your eyebrows did," Stiles muttered. "They said a lot. They're very judgmental."

Derek pressed his lips together. "I think we should probably get you some water. Maybe some coffee."

"Nooooo," Stiles whined, slouching to the side in an effort to keep Derek from making him move.

The downside to this plan, which he realized once he was slouched, was that he was now practically lying on Derek, tucked up into his side. It was deliciously warm, even warmer than he'd imagined, and Stiles let out an involuntary moan. He could live here forever.

Some tiny part of him, made quieter because of the amount of alcohol he'd consumed, pointed out that this was a horrible fucking idea and he would regret it in the morning, but right now Stiles was far too comfortable to care.

Derek stiffened minutely, and then his hand moved from Stiles's back up to his shoulder and rested there. "We should really get you some water."

"But comfortable." Stiles tucked his blanket tighter around him. "Don't want to move. Don't want to sober up. Don't want to...think."

He didn't want to think about tomorrow, didn't want to think about what he'd have to do, didn't want to think about leaving the circus. No matter how much he wanted to stay, he couldn't put the pack in that kind of danger.

And wasn't that a new thought: not leaving because of a fear for his life, but a fear for theirs.

They're already going to be in trouble for helping you, a tiny, unnaturally sober voice reminded him. You might as well stay as long as you want.

Stiles turned away from the voice, burying his head in Derek's side. It smelled nice here, and it was really warm. Stiles was never moving.

"Okay." Derek's voice came from far, far above him. "You don't have to sober up. We'll just sit here for a while."

His hand moved from Stiles's shoulder to his head and scratched there, sending a tingle down Stiles's spine. He sank into the touch, pretending for just a bit longer that he didn't have to go back to his lumpy couch alone, pretending that he could stay up here and have the circus.

That he could have Derek.

He could pretend that, just a little longer...

Chapter Text

"You ready for this?" Scott asked brightly.

Stiles winced at the pitch of his voice. The thin winter sun, he could deal with. The dull noise of the streets of Santa Francesca, he could deal with. The biting chill in the air, he could deal with.

Scott's complete immunity to any sort of post-alcohol hangover?

That, Stiles couldn't deal with.

Scott slung an arm over his shoulder. "I wish you could see the show tonight," he said, voice low so no supernatural creatures could overhear, if any were around. "Really, our last show in Santa Francesca is always something to see." His face lit up. "Hey, maybe you'll be able to see it next year!"

Stiles laughed hollowly and elbowed Scott off him. "Never lose your optimism, Scotty."

Scott gave him a smacking kiss on the cheek and then skipped off. "Come on, we've got two more stops and then we can head back to the circus."

Stiles didn't skip, but he did follow Scott over to the next street corner. At the outposts, it usually fell to only a couple of the pack to drum up business for the circus, but here in Santa Francesca, every single one of them was out for at least an hour each day, scattering to as many neighborhoods as they could. Even Danny had been dragged away from his lab to hawk for the past two performances (although he was predictably unhappy about it).

There wasn't much Stiles could do out and about in the city, since his main job at the circus was to either schlep tents or play the piano. However, he had gotten pretty good at the ringmaster thing, so he could leave the astonishing displays of derring-do to Scott.

Besides, it gave him something to think about other than the plan they would put into play as soon as he, Scott, and the others returned to the circus.

For the fifth time that day, he reached for one of the hidden pockets Lydia had sewn into his shirt. All he had with him were Erica's lock picks; he'd thought about storing some of Danny's gizmos as well, but given that they were mostly miniature explosives, Stiles had decided to wait until he was actually heading for the jail. He really didn't want to accidentally explode while he and Scott were shilling for the circus.

They stopped at the corner, and Scott looked around at the light poles and shop signs, and then nodded to Stiles.

That was his cue. Stiles cupped his hands around his mouth. "Step right up, folks, and prepare to be amazed at the acrobatic antics of the stupendously spectacular Scott McCall!"

Scott sprang up onto the metal railing surrounding a small porch and bowed, balancing on one foot as he did. Then he back-flipped off of it and landed on the ground. A few people clapped, and Scott bowed again, smiling his sunny, crooked smile.

"Oh, but that's just the warm-up, folks!" Stiles said, getting into it now. "He can perform feats you never imagined possible, from either a human or werewolf!"

Scott grabbed a light pole and scrambled up to the top of it, then jumped over to the next one and scrambled back down. The gathering crowd clapped louder, and someone actually whistled appreciatively.

"If you think this is good, you should see him under the big top!" Stiles threw an arm out dramatically. "Hale's Circus of Monsters, Magic, and Mystical Wonders is giving our final performance in Santa Francesca tonight! Miss it now, and you won't see us for another year. And who would want to miss this?"

At the last word, Scott climbed the narrow alley between two buildings, bouncing from wall to wall until he reached the roof, three stories up. He bowed once more, and this time he jumped off, to the crowd's horrified gasp. Scott somersaulted three times, and then nailed the landing.

The crowd went wild.

"Seven o'clock tonight!" Stiles yelled over the cheers. "Hale's Circus of Monsters, Magic, and Mystical Wonders! You don't want to miss it!"

They both bowed, and then he and Scott headed off to the next corner, a few blocks away.

"You know, you're pretty good at that," Scott said. "Maybe you can talk Derek into letting you try it at the show?"

Stiles shook his head. "Nah. It's okay doing it out here, but I wouldn't want to do it for an entire performance. Just watching him and Laura makes me—"

"Well, well," a frighteningly familiar voice cut in. "What have we got here?"

Stiles spun around, almost smacking Scott as he did. Ennis and the twins stood behind them, identical smirks on their faces.

Stiles's heart sped up, ricocheting in his chest like a runaway train. He was suddenly very, very aware that he and Scott were in the middle of an unfamiliar city and outnumbered three to two by people who really hated them.

"Ennis." Scott's voice was cordial, but his face was hard. "Aiden. Ethan."

"McCall," Ennis said. "And...Stilinski, wasn't it?"

Stiles nodded abruptly. Every instinct in him screamed to get away, but he held his ground. "Gentlemen. Fancy meeting you here."

"Wish we could say the same." Ennis crossed his arms over his chest. "Mr. Stilinski, I have to ask you to come with us."

"What?" Shit, his heart was pounding so hard, there was no way they didn't hear it. "Why?"

Scott stepped forward, putting himself between Stiles and the Hunters. "You don't have any right to—"

"This is our Haven," Ennis cut him off. "We have every right."

Stiles had no idea what the laws of the Haven were. However, he was very good at bullshitting his way out of problems. "You can't just bring me in for questioning without a reason. We have a permit to promote our circus." Stiles waved in the general direction of the train. "You can go take it up with the Hales, if you really want to."

"This doesn't have anything to do with your ridiculous circus," Ennis said. "We want to bring you in for questioning on suspicion of practicing magic."

The bottom dropped out of Stiles's stomach.

"What?" Scott squawked. "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Stiles doesn't practice magic."

"Oh, but can he use it?" Ennis asked with an evil smile.

"Of course not," Scott said.

Aiden and Ethan both grinned wider. "That was a lie," Aiden said.

Shit.

Half of Stiles shouted to run, the other half was well aware there was no way he could outrun three werewolf Hunters. He did his best to pretend that his brain wasn't screaming in abject terror, and he swatted Scott on the shoulder. "Dude, I told you, that was the Danny's new gadget for Lydia's act."

"What?" Scott said, clearly confused.

Play along, Scott, Stiles tried to communicate with his eyebrows. "That thing you saw me do? It wasn't actually magic. Danny made a new thing for Lydia's act and I was helping him test it out."

It was bullshit, every word, but Stiles hoped it was enough to confuse the walking lie detectors.

"Oh." Scott's face cleared. "Oh, yeah, that thing! Yeah."

Stiles wouldn't have thought it was possible for a werewolf to be such a terrible liar, and yet, Scott managed it.

From the looks on the Hunters' faces, not a one of them believed it either. "It appears we have enough suspicion to take you in," Ennis said. "Mages are dangerous, you know. It's for the public good that we exterminate every...single...one."

Scott growled, eyes flashing yellow and his claws extending. "You want him, you'll have to get through me."

Aiden snarled and threw Scott into the building next to them. The bricks crumbled under his impact, and Scott crumpled to the ground.

Stiles darted to him. They had to get the hell out of here, and he sure as shit wasn't leaving Scott behind to face three Hunters on his own.

He'd taken all of three steps when one of the Hunters cuffed the back of his head. Pain lanced through his head, and Stiles went down, his vision sparkling white. He tried to fight back, to get away from them, to something, but with their superior strength and as dazed as he was, it was laughable how easily they restrained him.

"Get him up," Ennis ordered. "Take him to Deucalion."

No. No no no. Stiles aimed a kick at Ethan, but missed wildly. They both laughed, and the next thing Stiles knew, they'd clapped a pair of metal manacles on him.

Shit. He was running out of options.

It probably wasn't a smart idea to use magic to get away right before he was supposed to be delivered to the Hunters, but he needed to get back to the circus at least long enough to get Danny's explosives. Otherwise, he'd have no way of getting out of the prison.

"Don't even try to use any magic," Ennis said, as if reading Stiles's thoughts. "Well, not that you could. Those manacles will neutralize anything you try."

What? "I can't use magic, you asshole," Stiles said, even as he surreptitiously tried to get out of the cuffs.

Well shit, it looked like Ennis was right. Apparently he knew it, too, because he laughed and whistled for a private cart.

Stiles looked back for Scott, trying to see him and make sure he was okay, trying to think of something, but without magic and without anything else up his sleeve, he had no way of getting out of this on his own.

He was so fucked.

***

"You know, this is really one of the worst ideas you've ever had," Laura said conversationally. "And there's a pretty wide scale of bad ideas there."

Derek rolled his eyes, but he couldn't argue with her. Even with all the planning they'd done over the past week, there were still a thousand ways this plan could go wrong. "You don't have to help, you know."

Laura punched him lightly in the shoulder. "Did I say that? It may be a terrible idea, but we're all in. Every single one of us." She raised her voice. "Need any help, Danny?"

From across the big top, where Danny, Jackson, and the mechanicals were rearranging the bleachers, Danny shouted, "Fuck you! Go help Lydia and Kira or some shit."

"We're supervising," Laura called back.

"Supervise this!"

Laura cocked her head to one side. "Is he flipping us off? I can't tell with the gloves."

Derek grabbed her by the elbow and dragged her out of the tent. To be fair, they had offered to help out, but they spent more time getting Danny to fix their screw-ups with the mechanicals than they did getting any actual work done, and he'd forbidden them from helping further. Leaving Danny and Jackson alone was the best option by now.

They passed Boyd on the way back to the train, and Derek caught him by the arm. "Is everyone back?"

Boyd shook his head. "Just about, but Scott and Stiles haven't checked in yet. I'm giving them another five minutes before I send Cora after them."

"Ugh." Laura fished a watch out of her pocket and glared at it. "I'm supposed to be dragging him off to the Hunters in half an hour. Don't you think he'd at least be punctual when he's getting arrested?"

Derek snorted a laugh and stuck his hands in his pockets in a vain effort to hide their trembling. He'd been antsy all day, but now that they were about to put their plan into action, it was getting worse. Part of him wanted to grab Stiles and run, as far and fast as he could, but he knew that wasn't possible. Not for Stiles, not for his pack.

As he'd told Laura before, the only way out now was through.

"They'll be back soon," he said, mostly to reassure himself. "Probably just making a few additional stops."

A howl rent the air, anguished and panicked, and Derek froze.

Laura sucked in a breath. "That's Scott."

Derek bolted in the direction of the howl, Boyd right on his heels. They met Scott just outside the boundaries of the circus, running as fast as he could.

"Stiles," Scott gasped out before Derek could ask. "Ennis arrested him. They were taking him to Deucalion."

The words turned Derek's blood to ice. He had to go now, had to get him back, had to—

Boyd grabbed his arm. "That's okay," he said evenly. "We planned this, right? We planned for him to get taken."

Derek nodded, pushing down the instinct that told him one of his pack was in danger and he needed to protect them. They had planned this. Boyd was right. So it had happened a little earlier than they'd intended, and in a different way. That wasn't so bad. Stiles would be fine.

"It's okay," he said aloud, only in part for Boyd and Scott. "He'll be fine. We'll proceed according to plan."

"Uh, guys?" Laura called out behind them. "We have a problem."

Something in her tone told Derek it wasn't a circus problem, and dread coiled at the base of his spine. "What kind of problem?"

Laura jogged up to them, Danny in tow. He wordlessly held up a box.

The box filled with the miniature explosives he'd given Stiles earlier that week.

Fuck.

"But...but that's what Stiles is supposed to use to get out of the prison," Scott said.

Boyd folded his arms and glowered. "Yeah."

Derek looked to Laura, who gnawed on her bottom lip and looked more concerned than Derek had ever seen her. The part of him that wanted to run after Stiles was even stronger now, but he held it in check. Panicking and running off half-cocked would cause far more problems than it would solve.

He took a deep breath. "Okay. Here's what we're going to do. We've got"—he checked Laura's watch—"four hours before the show. We're going to get with Allison and Lydia, and we are going to plan a jailbreak in two and a half."

"I can handle the show myself," Laura said.

Derek raised his eyebrows in shock. Laura could do the ringmaster job, and did in Santa Francesca because of how large and long the performance was, but she didn't much like it. "Are you sure?"

She nodded once, firmly. "I can tell you right now you're going to need more time to pull this shit off, and if that's the case, you can't leave halfway through the show."

"People will notice one ringmaster when we've had two all week," Boyd said.

"I'll get Melissa to help," Laura said. "With the makeup and the costume on, she'll look enough like me. And Derek and I are similar enough no one will be able to tell the difference from a distance."

"Voices?" Derek pointed out dryly.

Laura put her hands on her hips. "Do you really think they're paying close attention to our voices? Besides, I hate to break it to you, little brother, but you don't exactly have the deepest of masculine voices." Her face softened, just a little. "I know you want to go after him."

Derek opened his mouth to argue, but closed it again. She was right. "Let's get with Allison and Lydia and see what they say."

Laura checked her watch. "Good, because we're down to two hours and twenty-five minutes to turn our originally terrible plan into an even worse one."

Boyd snorted. "Isn't that our specialty?"

***

Stiles woke up in a cell.

He didn't think he'd been out very long. He couldn't have been; he remembered his bone-deep terror on seeing the prison looming over him, the panic attack he'd almost had being dragged through the front doors. But then Ennis had cuffed him again once they were inside, and now he was in a cell. Alone.

Fuck. Fuck. Fucking shit fuck.

He pushed off the dirty stone floor and half-heartedly attempted to light a flame. Unsurprisingly, nothing happened. If they allowed mages to use magic in the prison built especially for them, it would massively defeat the purpose.

Stiles forced himself to take deep breaths, to look around, to catalog his surroundings. He had to do something, or else he was going to panic. And right now he could not afford to panic.

The cell was small, three big steps long and two big steps wide, with a chamber pot in one corner and a flat, moth-eaten cot lining the opposite wall. Three of the four walls were solid stone, and the fourth was a door with iron bars as thick around as Stiles's wrist. A barred window was just above his head on the outer wall, allowing some of the late afternoon sun through. By the look of it, though, either he was on the east side of the prison or the sun wasn't going to be up much longer. Possibly both.

Okay. This wasn't ideal. This was the very opposite of ideal, actually. Yes, he was supposed to be in here, but he was also supposed to have Danny's tiny array of gadgets with him, and those gadgets were supposed to help him get out.

As it was, he had nothing. Nothing but the clothes on his back and his wits and...

Stiles froze and checked his pockets, both the regular ones and the hidden ones Lydia had sewn into his shirt. They had to have searched him. Surely they had searched him.

And yet, in one of his hidden pockets, his fingers closed around skin-warmed metal.

Erica's lock picks.

Holy shit, he still had her picks.

Stiles pulled them out, trembling, unable to believe his eyes. There was no way the Hunters would have left these on him. Had they missed them when they searched him? Or had they searched him at all? Maybe they had just thrown him in here, assuming that he would be no trouble if he couldn't use magic.

Whatever. It didn't matter. The important point was he had fucking lock picks, and absolutely nothing but time. He could still make this work.

He hoped.

Chapter Text

Derek paced outside his car, watching the lights of the circus and the shadows in the changing tent. He was nervous about the new plan. He was nervous about leaving his pack alone. He was nervous about the biggest performance of the year happening without him there.

And yet, when he thought about leaving Stiles alone, or letting others go in his stead...

His entire body rebelled against the thought.

He would examine why later. Right now, he would just focus on their current plan.

Someone jumped off the train, landing softly on the ground beside him. "I just spoke to Danny," Allison said. "Deucalion's here. Along with the rest of his crew."

Derek swallowed hard and nodded. "Good. Did you get everything you needed?"

Allison hefted her bow and a dark bag. "Ready as I'm ever going to be."

"Okay. Have you seen Kira?"

"Right here!" Kira piped up from behind them.

Derek turned to see her running down the walkway, almost silently. Like Allison and him, she wore all black; unlike Allison, she carried no weapon.

Well, no obvious weapon.

Kira joined them with a nervous smile and a breathless laugh. "I've gone through the lighting with Danny and Jackson at least five times. I think they can handle it. Although I'm pretty sure Jackson was going to strangle me if I did it anymore."

Derek smiled and snorted a shaky laugh. "If anyone can handle it, they can."

He watched the circus, waiting until the lights faded and the thin openings of the canvas went dark. A moment later, he heard Laura's voice ringing through the air, and the performance was starting.

"Let's go," he said, and Allison and Kira followed him out of the circus and into the city.

Their clock was ticking.

***

After three hours of trying to pick a lock from the opposite side, Stiles was ready to scream in frustration and break something. Too bad there was nothing at hand he could break. Except for the lock picks, but that would come back to bite him in the ass very quickly.

Twice he'd had to stop and fake sleeping so none of the patrolling Hunters would see what he was doing, but he hadn't actually made any progress. He could barely reach the lock itself, and he had to contort his hands and arms so much to even get to it that it felt like his wrists had been welded on backwards.

The slowly dimming light from the setting sun sure as hell didn't help. While there were a few flickering electric lanterns along the corridor, none of them were close enough to give Stiles any real light.

He leaned up against the bars and wiggled his arms through, feeling around until he found the keyhole again. He slid the picks in one at a time and felt for the tumblers. Moving the picks at all was awkward at this angle, but he closed his eyes and breathed out, making himself focus.

He could do this. He could do this.

His fingers cramped and the picks slipped out of his grip, clattering to the floor.

Stiles cursed under his breath and grabbed them, looking to make sure no one had heard. No Hunters came running, so he figured he was in the clear.

He rested his head on the bars and sighed. This was ridiculous. He was never going to get the damn door open like this. Even if the plan was a bit off-schedule, if he could get out of the cell and get his dad, he could still meet the pack at the rendezvous point.

If they're even there, a small, mean voice in the back of his mind said.

They will be, Stiles told himself firmly. Maybe other people hadn't been, but the pack...

The pack would be there.

Derek would be there.

All he had to do was get out of this stupid fucking cell.

Stiles tucked the picks back into their hidden pocket and rubbed his wrists. He could take a break for a little bit, walk around his microscopic room and clear his head. Maybe he'd think of something he hadn't already, or maybe he'd spontaneously develop more patience than usual. One could hope, right?

He walked three circuits of the room, and then went to the window. It was about a foot over his head, just high enough that he couldn't see anything out of it.

Stiles spat on his hands, got a running start, and jumped up to grab the bars and mash his face against them.

His arms trembled with the effort of holding himself up, but he could finally see the Haven spread out beneath the prison, electric lights sparkling under the haze of the smoke from the steamstacks.

The circus was out there somewhere, giving their final performance. If they pulled this off, they'd probably never be allowed back.

Stiles mentally kicked himself. Right now, it was a pretty big if.

He sighed again, about to let himself drop back to the floor, when he spotted something silver out of the corner of his eye. Stiles pressed his face against the bars to look. It was probably just a trick of his imagination, or—

Or it was a rune.

He was so startled he lost his grip, landing on his ass on the cold stone. A rune? What was a rune doing outside the prison?

The answer was so obvious, Stiles smacked his forehead. They'd have to have some way of neutralizing magic. And while mechanicals had gotten good, Stiles wasn't sure the tech had been invented that could actually disrupt a mage.

He hauled himself back up to the window and looked again. The rune was almost too far for him to see with his vision limited by the bars and the stone, but the silver glow was as bright as if it had been carved on the prison yesterday. Stiles seriously doubted that it had, but still. Did the Hunters have a mage working for them? Or was the rune as old as the prison itself?

He braced himself with one arm against the window and bars and wiggled his other arm through, trying to reach the rune. If this was what was keeping him from using magic, maybe he could—

His fingers barely brushed the edge of it. The rune glowed brighter, but otherwise did nothing.

Crap. Stiles dropped to the floor again, rubbing his arm where it had been supporting his weight. He was so freaking close. He just needed his fingers to be a little bit longer...

The lock picks.

He pulled one out and stared at it. Well, this was far from the worst idea he'd had tonight, so might as well give it a try.

Stiles rolled his shoulders, and then hauled himself back up onto the window. He contorted his arm, holding out the pick, and stretched out toward the rune.

He had no idea what it would do to him—if it would explode or if it would prevent him from even touching it or what—but really, Stiles was running low on options at this point. He just hoped he didn't drop the pick or die in the process.

The pick edged closer and the rune glowed brighter, but otherwise it didn't react to him. And when he touched it with the pick, absolutely nothing happened.

Stiles let out a relieved breath and started scratching at it.

It was an awkward angle and he couldn't get much traction, but he didn't let that stop him. He had to drop down from the window three times to let his aching arm rest. It was exhausting, holding himself up like that, but he had to get out of this cell. He wasn't going to miss their rendezvous and he sure as hell wasn't going to let his dad stay here one minute longer.

He's alive, Stiles told himself, his face pressed to the cold iron bars, the pick moving jerkily over the lines of the rune. He's alive, and I'm going to get us out of here.

He pushed the pick down as hard as he could and dragged it over the rune.

The air snapped, like a localized thunderclap, throwing Stiles away from the window. He landed hard against the cot and cursed, but fortunately he hadn't hit it hard enough to break anything. He checked himself again, but he seemed to be in one piece, and he still had the pick.

Had he done it? Had he gotten rid of the rune?

Stiles rubbed his shoulder and walked cautiously back toward the window. He couldn't see anything properly from this angle, but it seemed like something just off to the side of the window was smoking. He wrinkled his nose at the sharp stench.

He shoved the pick back in his pocket and looked at his hands. There was only one way to see if breaking the rune had done anything.

Stiles took a deep breath and summoned a ball of light.

For one moment, nothing happened, and then a flickering white ball sprang into existence and winked out almost immediately.

"Yes," he whispered. It wasn't his full strength by any means, but it was something.

He turned his attention to the door. Time to get the hell out of here.

***

Derek crouched on the roof. "Time?"

Allison and Kira landed next to him with barely a huff of exertion. "Ninety minutes until the show is over," Allison reported. "Ten minutes until we reach the sewer entrance. Fifteen minutes after that until we reach the prison."

Derek nodded. "Right on time."

Kira pulled a pair of goggles out of Allison's bag and slid them on, scanning the streets below. She tapped her finger against the goggle rim a few times. "Hunter patrols two blocks east, two blocks west, one block south. South is heading our way."

"Human or shifter?" Derek asked.

A beat, and then Kira answered, "Human."

Derek jerked his chin at the next roof, and Kira stowed the goggles. He led the way to the narrow gap between the buildings, and they continued northeast.

Allison had assured them that staying off the streets was their best bet at staying out of Deucalion's notice. The Hunters had undoubtedly passed around pictures of the pack to every one of their members, and the local people were more likely to notice someone skulking through the alleys as opposed to leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Not to mention, it gave them a nice view of the city and made it much easier to gauge where they were in relation to the circus and the prison.

Plus, it did not smell like shit.

Derek really wasn't looking forward to the sewers. But, as Allison had pointed out several times, it was the least-watched area in the prison and the easiest way to get in and out. The only downside was that it entered the prison on the opposite side of the mage confinement sector, so they'd still have to work their way through at least part of the prison itself.

Thankfully, they had distractions for that.

He paused at the next rooftop and waited for Kira to determine where the Hunters were patrolling again before they moved on. With every step, the prison loomed higher before them, and Derek could no longer spot just where the circus was from their vantage point.

Somewhere in the very back corner of his mind, he heard a little voice screaming at him, demanding he go back to where Deucalion and his crew were watching the pack perform. Another little voice urged him forward, faster, to find Stiles and rip the throat out of anyone who had dared to harm him.

Derek ignored both. His pack was strong, and Laura was with them. And Stiles was nothing if not resourceful. Everyone would be fine.

"Two minutes to the sewer entrance," Allison said.

Derek ran faster.

***

Despite the initial success of the ball of light, it still took Stiles nearly half an hour to build up enough energy to unlock his cell. It left him winded and a little dizzy, but he moved anyway, as fast as he could, not wanting to be discovered by the Hunters patrolling here. He had about fifteen minutes to get his dad and hide before they came back, and then he needed to get out of here entirely.

So far, the Argents' map had proven accurate, and Stiles mentally counted off the doors, heading toward the cell Allison had marked as the one his father was being held in. So far, most of the cells he'd passed had been empty, though he wasn't sure if that was because they'd killed all the mages in them or because there were fewer mages left in the world to capture.

Neither thought was very appealing.

He found other runes on the walls and floor as he walked, same as the one on the stone outside his cell. He debated breaking each one, breaking down the defenses the Hunters had built against the mages, but he stopped himself. The runes didn't exactly go quietly into the night, and he wanted as much time as possible to get his dad out of here before the Hunters were alerted to their presence.

If the runes were at regular intervals, though, it probably meant they had a fairly short range. Which meant he wouldn't be able to use magic to get his dad's cell open.

Stiles made another right turn, his heart beating faster. This was the corridor, sixth cell on the left.

He broke into a dead run, his feet thudding against the stone. He had to make himself slow down, despite every instinct urging him faster. It would do neither of them any good if he found Dad only to get them both captured again because someone heard Stiles running.

He reached the door and peered inside, his heart pounding. It was dark in this hallway, the only light coming from the window in the cell, and he strained to see inside. Right now, the only thing he could make out was a dark figure lying on the cot.

Good enough for him.

Stiles stepped back and tried to blast the door open. As he'd suspected, it didn't work. Looked like the runes were only effective for short distances.

He pulled out Erica's lock picks and crouched at the door. It wasn't easy with the way his hands were shaking, but having the proper angle was tremendously helpful. In just a few minutes, the tumblers clicked.

Stiles threw the door open and ran inside, crouching over the figure on the cot. "Dad? Dad?"

The figure shifted, and then, "Stiles?"

It had been six weeks since he'd last heard his father's voice, but he'd recognize it anywhere. A lump constricted his throat, and Stiles flung himself into his father's arms.

His dad raised one arm and rubbed his back. "Stiles, what are you doing here? You're supposed to be at home!"

"No, I'm supposed to be here!" Stiles sat back on his heels and clenched his fists, trying to keep his voice down. "You're the one who's supposed to be at home. God, Dad, what did they do to you?"

His dad coughed. "It's okay, Stiles. I'm okay."

No, you aren't. Stiles could hear it in his voice, the roughness, feel how thing he was after just a few weeks. Fuck, what had they done to him?

He swallowed over the lump in his throat and stood up. "Come on. We're getting out of here."

"Stiles, you can't. You have to get out of here. If they catch you, they'll—" Dad's voice choked out.

Stiles wiped his eyes. "I know, okay? I know. I know exactly what they'll do to me. But I can't leave you here. I'm not. I lost Mom, and I'm not losing you too."

He wiggled an arm around his dad and pulled him up. It shouldn't be this easy to pull his dad up. It shouldn't be this easy to overpower his dad's protests. It shouldn't—

Stiles shoved the thoughts away into the corner of his mind to worry about later. Once they were back on the train, Melissa would know what to do.

He walked them out of the cell, and his dad hissed. Stiles froze immediately. "What? What is it?"

"Nothing," Dad said through gritted teeth. "I'm fine."

"Dad—"

"If you stop every time I make a noise, we'll never get out of here." His dad let out a harsh breath. "Just go."

Stiles moved as fast as he dared, one arm around his dad and his free hand clutching Erica's pick like a weapon. He closed his eyes at the next corridor, bringing up Allison's map in his head. The only way out of the prison at this point was through. He'd planned to have several gadgets of Danny's to cause distractions and help him get out, but now he was having to make it up as he went along.

The first rune he came to, Stiles jabbed the pick in the center and dragged it to the edge, turning his body to shield his dad from any blast.

The rune broke with a crack and left a small crater in the wall.

"Holy shit, son," Dad said. "Someone will have heard that!"

Stiles shuffled them further down the corridor to the next rune. "That's the plan."

"That's a terrible plan."

"Only one I've got right now, so we're going with it," Stiles said, and broke the second rune.

His dad cursed again, and Stiles listened with bated breath for the Hunters. When he heard nothing, he kept moving and broke the next rune.

"Is that even safe?" Dad asked.

"No idea," Stiles said. "But those keep me from using magic, and so the more I get rid of, the more I'll be able to use it to get us out of here."

"Stiles—"

He recognized that warning tone. "I know, okay? But Dad. They already know what I am. Hiding it now isn't going to help us that much."

For a moment, the only answer was his dad's harsh breathing, and then, "I can't lose you either, kid."

Stiles cleared his throat and wiped his eyes. He couldn't get distracted, not now. "You won't," he declared. "Now let's get out of here."

After the fourth rune, Stiles heard voices and footsteps echoing down the corridor. He blasted open the door of the first cell he came to and closed it again, hiding himself and his dad in the shadows.

Then he held his breath and prayed the Hunters were only humans.

Footsteps thudded against the stone, and in the dim light, Stiles could barely make out the shape of their coats as they ran past. They didn't stop at their cell, but they'd sure as hell notice the exploded runes soon.

Once the footsteps had faded, Stiles double-checked the corridor and then helped his dad off the wall. "Come on. We've got a little time."

He eased the door open and slipped them out of the cell, and turned to run.

Someone stood in his path.

Stiles brought up his hand to blast them with something when he realized the person—the woman—wasn't wearing a Hunters' duster, and she looked like she'd been in the cells for weeks.

"Are you a mage?" he asked.

She raised one dark eyebrow. "Are you?"

Okay, good point, they really didn't have time for this conversation. Stiles nodded toward the exit. "I'm Stiles. Want to get out of here?"

As far as he could tell, the woman's expression didn't change. "Morrell," she said. "And yes, I very much do."

Stiles readjusted his grip on his dad, and started back down the corridor as quickly as he could, Morrell walking with them. Without a word, she slipped his dad's other arm over her shoulders, taking some of the weight.

Stiles breathed a little easier. Even with the weight he'd lost, his dad wasn't a small man, and the additional help was definitely appreciated.

They reached the main door, a heavy iron one with dozens of faintly glowing runes all over it. Stiles cursed under his breath; there was no way they'd be able to use magic on it.

"Can you get it open?" Morrell asked.

"I can try." Stiles dug out the other pick and pushed his dad's weight further onto her. "Can you take him?"

Morrell nodded, leaning them both against the wall beside the door, and Stiles crouched by the keyhole to pick it. "Tell me if you hear them," he said, and put all his focus into getting this door open.

He pretended he wasn't in the prison, with his dad and another mage waiting for him to get the door open. He pretended there weren't at least two Hunters in this area of the prison, probably making their way back here right now. He just pretended that he was in Erica's car, practicing on the locks she'd given him.

Click.

Stiles let out a long breath and held down the latch. "Okay, there's a long hallway on the other side of this door," he said. "There's a boarded-up door about halfway between here and the main prison. That's an old stairway, should get us down to the lower levels."

"And then where? Into the actual prison?" Morrell asked dryly.

"A little optimism here?" Stiles whispered. "I swear there's a plan."

"Oh good," she said. "For a moment I was afraid you were making it up as you went along."

"I don't like you," Stiles muttered, and opened the door.

The hallway was empty, the lanterns much brighter than the ones in the mage confinement sector. For a moment, Stiles hesitated at running into an area with no place to hide. But there were Hunters behind them, and right now, the hallway ahead was clear. He ushered his dad and Morrell through the door, and then shut and locked it again.

They moved down the hallway at approximately the speed of mud. Stiles knew logically they were moving fast, but being vulnerable made every second seem like an eternity. It was another chance for Hunters to catch them, another chance for an alarm to sound. And Stiles had to get them out of here.

The old door was right where Allison had said it would be, halfway between the mage confinement sector and the more recent sections of the prison. It was huge and weathered, so gray it almost melded into the stone. Planks a foot wide crisscrossed the door, barring it shut, and heavy padlocks and chains looped through the latch.

Stiles's heart sank. There was no way he'd be able to pick this lock. Not before someone caught them out here.

The only way out of here was magic. He just had to hope that they had enough time.

He got Morrell and his dad sitting down on the opposite side of the hall. It was light enough now to see how thin they both were, tired, the dried blood on his dad's face—

No. Not now. Later.

"Stay right here," he said. "I'll try not to explode it too much."

"Too much?" Dad repeated incredulously.

Stiles ignored it and went back to the door. He could only pray that the runes' power didn't extend quite this far.

He put his hand on the locks, took a deep breath, and drew on the power inside him, pushing it into the locks.

A second later, they all clicked open, tumbling to the ground along with the chain.

Stiles allowed himself the briefest sigh of relief. Now he just had to get the boards off, and they could get out of here.

He touched the lowest board and focused on just snapping the wood around the nails, making the holes bigger. He didn't want to send shards of wood flying across the hall if he could help it.

Then he heard voices on the other side.

Shit. Stiles opened his eyes and leaned in closer. He couldn't quite make out what they were saying, but those were definitely voices. Shit shit shit. The Hunters weren't supposed to use this entrance anymore. Who the hell was out there?

He backed away quickly and ran to his dad and Morrell.

"What's going on?" Morrell asked.

"Change of plans." Stiles crouched beside them to lift his dad up again. "We're finding another way out."

"There is no other way out!" Morrell argued.

"Okay, one, you don't know that," Stiles said. "And two, there are people on the other side of that door, so unless we want to get caught in the next thirty seconds, we need to move, now."

The door exploded.

Stiles cursed and threw himself over Morrell and his dad, shielding them from the debris. His heart thudded wildly. He wasn't going back into that cell.

He wasn't letting them take his father again.

He stood and spun, ready to hit whoever had come through the door with everything he had.

Allison stood there, crossbow leveled at his face.

Stiles dropped his hands immediately. "Holy shit!"

Allison lowered the crossbow. "Stiles?"

He dragged a shaking hand through his hair. "Oh my God, what are you even doing here?"

Allison motioned to him. "We're getting you and your dad out. Now come on."

Stiles gaped at her, and sure enough, there was a "we." Kira stepped through the ruins of the door next, followed by Derek.

They'd come. They'd actually come for him.

Never in his life had he expected anyone else to ever come for him.

Derek crossed the hallway in two steps, red Alpha eyes intent on Stiles. Stiles winced; he was going to get reamed a new one for screwing up the plan, for putting the pack in danger—

Derek hugged him.

Derek swept him up against his broad chest and hugged him.

For a moment, Stiles was too shocked to do anything, and then his arms lifted of their own accord and he was hugging Derek back as hard as he could.

For the first time since Ennis had clapped the cuffs around his hands, Stiles had the feeling that everything would be okay.

He opened his mouth to say something—probably "thanks for coming" or "holy shit I missed you"—when Morrell said, "Derek?"

Derek pulled away just long enough to gape over Stiles's shoulder, confusion and disbelief warring on his face. "Marin?"

"Wait." Stiles looked back and forth between them. "Marin? You said your name was Morrell."

She arched an eyebrow at him. "You said your name was Stiles."

"My name is Stiles!"

"Marin?" Kira repeated, her eyes huge. "I thought...Laura said you were—"

Someone banged on the rune-carved door, and Stiles nearly jumped out of his skin.

"Run now, explain later," Allison said, grabbing Morrell's arm and pulling her to her feet. "I assume you're coming with us?"

"Of course she is," Derek said.

Stiles knelt to pick up his dad, and Derek swung around to his other side, hefting Dad with ease.

"Dad, this is Derek," Stiles said. "Derek, my dad, John."

"Nice to meet you, sir," Derek said very seriously, like they all weren't scrambling through a hole in the wall and trying to get away from the Hunters.

"Oh for God's sake," Dad said.

"Hurry!" Allison called back at them.

"Wait, wait," Morrell said, tugging at Allison's shoulder. "Stiles, help me."

"What?" Stiles passed his dad fully off to Derek, who took the weight without even a grunt. "Are we running? Waiting? What?"

Morrell gestured to the rubble. "Slowing them down. Help me."

She closed her eyes, and the debris piled back into the doorway, blocking it.

Stiles grabbed her hand and focused on helping her. With both of them, the debris flew back into the door, forming a mostly solid wall once more. The Hunters couldn't follow them this way.

As soon as they'd finished, Morrell swayed and slumped to the side. Stiles caught her before she hit the ground.

"A bit more...strenuous than I expected," she murmured.

"That's okay." Stiles adjusted his grip and pulled her up. "I've got you. Let's go."

***

He lost track of how many flights of stairs they ran down, how many dark corridors they fled through. Allison led the way, crossbow in hand, Derek right behind her with Stiles's dad, and then Stiles and Morrell, with Kira bringing up the rear. There were no sounds of pursuit, so Stiles decided to believe that their makeshift wall had blocked off that particular path.

He still couldn't believe they'd come for him. Yes, he'd worked with the assumption that they would, but on some level, he'd believed that he'd be on his own getting out of the prison. It wasn't until he'd seen Allison that he'd realized that.

They came for me, his brain repeated like a mantra. They hadn't left him alone.

At the bottom of the last flight of stairs, Allison opened a door, peeked out, and then held a finger to her lips and motioned them through it.

Stiles followed her into a choking hot, cavernous room. Four gigantic boilers dominated it, their grates glowing orange-red with the fire inside. Massive pipes crossed over the ceiling, running along the walls and then disappearing into the stone. Mechanicals three times as tall as Harry, Barry, and Larry stomped back and forth, shoveling coal and maintaining the fires.

Steam filled the air, and within ten seconds, Stiles felt like all his clothes were soaked. "This can't possibly be safe."

"It's fine," Allison said. "Hot, but fine. We just need to get to the other side, and we can follow the pipes down into the sewers and get out that way."

"Watch out for the mechanicals," Kira cautioned. "They aren't looking for us, but they are wired to send off an alarm if they see anyone who isn't supposed to be down here."

Stiles readjusted his grip on Morrell. "Wonderful."

She laughed weakly. "This is some rescue."

"Better than none," Derek shot back.

Allison led the way across the boiler room, moving cautiously. She paused near each boiler, watching the mechanicals with sharp eyes, and then motioned them to hurry past. They stopped to rest behind one of the huge coal bins, just out of sight of the mechanicals.

Stiles let out a long breath. They'd only come halfway across the room, and from the way Allison had been talking, they weren't even close to getting out. He felt strung so tight he was going to snap before they even got out of the prison, let alone made it back to the circus.

"Hey." Derek took his hand and squeezed it. "We'll make it, okay?"

Stiles looked down at their linked hands, and had to restrain himself from just flinging himself at Derek and hugging him again. "Thank you," he said. "For coming after me."

Derek squeezed his hand again. "We don't leave our pack behind."

Stiles's heart did something that couldn't possibly be healthy, and he could only hope Derek hadn't heard anything over the noise of the mechanicals and the clanking of the boilers.

"Everybody ready?" Allison whispered.

Stiles nodded, and he stood up and helped Morrell stand. "Are you okay to run, or do you still need help?"

She leaned against the cart. "I...think I still need a moment."

He held out his hand. "Help it is. Come on."

Derek was lifting Dad as though he weighed almost nothing, and Stiles was even more grateful for that. He had no idea how he'd have gotten out of here alone with two people who couldn't walk.

Allison crept out of the safety of the cart's shadow first, making her way back toward the wall and edging along until Stiles could barely see her. A second later, she motioned, and Stiles followed her path, keeping one eye on the mechanicals trundling around the room.

How many other places here had mechanicals to manage their boilers? Did this room just serve the prison, or did it actually provide power and water to other places in the Haven? It seemed huge for just the prison.

"Stiles, move!" Derek hissed.

He moved. Now was not a good time to get distracted.

"We're almost there." Allison pointed at the far wall, which was not so far now, and Stiles could just make out an iron door embedded in the stone. "Through there, and then we'll take a right to follow the pipes. The sewers are down another two levels."

"Awesome. I've always wanted to see a sewer," Stiles said, shuddering at the thought.

"After this, you'll be set for life," Derek said dryly.

"I think I'm good with boiler rooms for a while, too," Dad said.

It was a weak joke, but Stiles found himself smiling anyway.

They crowded around the iron door, and Stiles let himself have a split second to breathe easier. The mechanicals hadn't noticed them, and they were far enough away from the boilers that it shouldn't be a problem now. And once they were into the sewers, the chances of someone seeing them dropped dramatically. They still had to get there, but they were getting close.

Kira and Allison knelt in front of the door, Allison rummaging in a black bag. "I don't think we can use one of the explosives, but maybe I have something..."

Stiles dug into his pocket and pulled out Erica's. "Will these do?"

Allison snagged them and immediately set at the lock. "Perfect. Where did you get these?"

"Erica. I forgot I had them. It's how I got out," Stiles said.

"They threw you into a cell with lock picks?" his dad said incredulously.

Stiles shrugged. "I was unconscious. They must not have searched me."

"They always search," Morrell said.

"Then they must have searched badly." Stiles gestured at Allison. "Is now really the time to be worrying about it? We have lock picks!"

Morrell didn't look reassured by Stiles pointing out their good fortune.

"Got it," Allison said, and handed the picks back to Stiles. "Everybody ready?"

"Let's hurry," Derek growled. "We're running out of time. The performance will be over soon, if it isn't already."

Allison nodded once and pulled the door open. The metal slid open soundlessly, revealing a dark hallway.

A dark hallway with glowing red eyes in it.

Shit. Stiles stumbled back, wondered briefly if someone else from the circus had come. But no, the only other Alpha was Laura, and she wouldn't be here.

Ennis stepped out of the shadows and into the boiler room, a grin on his face that made Stiles's skin crawl. "Leaving us so soon?"

Allison whipped out her crossbow and backed away, keeping the bolt trained on Ennis. Next to her, Kira's hand hovered at her belt, but Stiles couldn't see a weapon there.

The twins came next, flanking Ennis, and Stiles's stomach dropped. They couldn't handle three werewolf Hunters, not with his dad and Morrell as weak as they were.

Stiles glanced around, trying to find another exit, another way out, but there wasn't one. Unless they went back to the other door and up to the prison, this was the only way.

After the twins, Kali stepped out from the darkness. And then...

A werewolf Stiles had never seen before followed last, wearing dark glasses and carrying a cane. His duster was the same as the others, but the spiral on it was red and silver, instead of just red.

Holy shit.

This was Deucalion.

They were so fucking screwed.

Chapter Text

Derek growled and threw himself in front of Marin, John, and Stiles, though it was difficult when he had to hold John upright. Allison and Kira stood on either side of him, Allison with her crossbow at the ready and Kira with her hand at her belt, ready to pull out her sword at a moment's notice.

Deucalion tapped his cane on the stone floor, a rhythm Derek was pretty sure had nothing to do with helping him see. "I wondered why I didn't hear your voice from the ring, Mr. Hale. What in the world could be so important it would keep you from your final performance in Santa Francesca?"

Derek straightened, standing as tall as he could. Deucalion might not be able to see it, but the others would. "Your people took my pack."

"My Hunters took mages," Deucalion responded smoothly, lips twisting slightly as he spoke. "Mages are dangerous. They need to be contained. You know the laws, at least as well as your mother did."

"The laws?" Stiles repeated, venom in his voice. "Since when have you cared about the laws? Or did you forget about the ones requiring you to protect the outposts, not extort them?"

Ennis crossed his massive arms over his chest. "There are hundreds of outposts in our territory. Some of them are just going to...fall through the cracks."

"Yeah, the ones that can't afford to pay," Stiles snapped back.

Ennis's eyes flashed red, and he stepped forward.

"Your job is to protect the people of the outposts just as much as it is to protect the people of the Havens," Derek said, trying to get Ennis's attention off Stiles. "And they're falling to feral shifters or being burned to the ground because you won't protect them."

Deucalion's face twisted into a snarl, and for the briefest moment, Derek wondered if he were actually unhinged. "You would lecture me on my job? My job is to protect." His blind gaze seemed to look directly over Derek's shoulder, at Stiles and Marin. "And the greatest threat to this world is the people who broke it in the first place."

Ennis cracked his knuckles. "Hand the mages over to face justice, and we'll consider letting this little incident pass. We'll even let you take the old man with you."

John's fingers dug into Derek's shoulder. "Don't even think about leaving my son."

I wasn't, Derek thought. He'd come all the way here for Stiles, he wasn't walking away without him.

He glared at Ennis. "They're part of my pack."

"Then I regret to inform you that you're all under arrest," Deucalion said smoothly. He flicked his cane. "Take them into custody."

Ennis took another step forward, and Allison fired her crossbow, burying a bolt in his shoulder.

Ennis howled, Aiden and Ethan leapt toward Allison, and Derek ducked out of the way. Allison and Kira could handle themselves, but he needed to get John and Marin somewhere safe before the Hunters could get to them.

He ran straight for the coal carts near the boilers, setting John behind it. "Don't move."

John shook his head. "Wasn't planning on it."

Derek spun around in a defensive position, wishing he had a weapon of some sort to give, but right now he wasn't sure John would be able to hold anything well enough to defend himself.

It would be all right. The Hunters didn't have any distance weapons. As long as he, Allison, and Kira kept them engaged, they wouldn't be able to get close enough to do any damage to the others.

He surveyed the room quickly. Ennis had pulled the crossbow bolt out of his shoulder and was engaged with Allison, who had slung the crossbow back in favor of her ring daggers. Aiden lunged at Kira, who yanked off her belt and flicked it, snapping it into a sword. Aiden managed to stop just before he'd have impaled himself on it.

Pity.

Deucalion and Kali were standing back, not engaging anyone, which left just one Hunter unaccounted for.

Derek spun to his left just in time to catch Ethan and throw him into the side of a boiler. He landed with a clang loud enough to reverberate through the room, but neither the other Hunters nor the mechanicals gave him any notice.

Ethan landed on the floor and didn't get up immediately, so Derek took the time to look for Stiles.

There. With Marin, against another coal cart.

Derek grabbed John and picked him up again. "Sorry, we've got another move."

John laughed weakly. "Anywhere I'm not getting impaled or burned up is fantastic."

Yeah, he was definitely Stiles's father.

Derek hauled him over to the coal cart, next to Stiles and Marin. "Here. Watch them and stay hidden."

Stiles stood. "Like hell I'm leaving you all to fight them alone."

Derek pushed him back down. "They can't protect themselves right now. Please."

Please help me take care of my pack. Please don't leave them vulnerable.

He wasn't sure if Stiles heard what he didn't say, but maybe he did, because he ground his teeth and crouched back on the ground. "Don't get yourself killed," Stiles grumbled.

"Not the plan," Derek said, and ran back to join the fray.

***

It chafed at Stiles, being on guard duty while Derek, Kira, and Allison went up against three Hunters. Three werewolf Hunters, while two others stood by and watched. They were holding their own now, but if Kali and Deucalion decided to join the fight, the tides would turn pretty fucking quickly.

Stiles clenched his fist. He didn't want to leave his dad and Morrell unprotected—he couldn't—but he also couldn't just leave the rest of them out there alone.

Your people took my pack.

Derek counted them—him and his father—as pack. That was more than anyone else had done, and Stiles wasn't going to let him fight alone.

The twin Derek had thrown into the boiler was back on his feet, and Allison had taken over fighting him while Derek took over Ennis. Kira was still engaged with the other twin—who was doing a shockingly good job of avoiding being stabbed—while Deucalion was—

Shit. Deucalion had apparently decided he'd had enough of the whole "letting other people do his dirty work" thing, because he was heading straight for Derek.

Who was too busy with Ennis to notice that he was about to get stabbed in the back.

Stiles looked down at his dad and Morrell, both mostly hidden by the coal cart. It wouldn't cover their scent or their heartbeats, but hopefully by making himself very annoying, he could keep the Hunters from coming at them.

He was very good at being annoying.

"Dad," Stiles said, and stopped, because he wasn't sure how to explain.

Dad waved him away. "Go, help them. Be careful."

Stiles darted out from behind the coal cart, pulling a piece of coal with him and flinging it straight at Deucalion. With just a little push from his magic, the coal ignited mid-air.

It grazed Deucalion's cheek, leaving a harsh red mark that faded almost as soon as it blistered, and he snapped around to look at Stiles.

Logically, he knew Deucalion couldn't see him, but it made it no less unnerving. Stiles juggled two more pieces of coal and hoped from this distance, and over the roar of the boilers and the mechanicals, Deucalion couldn't hear the rapid beating of his heart.

"Yeah, come get me," Stiles muttered, readying another piece of coal to throw.

Deucalion changed between one blink and the next, so fast Stiles thought it was a trick of the low light in the boiler room. But no, his skin was definitely darker now, harder, his face twisted into some weird approximation of one that was half-human and half-wolf. His hands curled into jagged claws that looked larger than any of those Stiles had seen in the pack.

Oh, yeah. It was time to run.

Stiles threw his second piece of coal, which Deucalion batted away with his cane. Shit. Clearly he could see better than the whole "black glasses and cane" thing let on.

Stiles wished that he knew how to shield himself, but that was one thing he'd never been able to practice. Well, no time like the present, right?

He took a deep breath and gathered his magic.

Before he could do anything, Derek came out of nowhere and slammed into Deucalion's side, taking them both across the floor until they crashed into the wall.

"Holy shit!" Stiles exclaimed, and then remembered Derek had been fighting Ennis.

Who was now coming straight for him.

Stiles flung his final piece of coal and ran for the boilers, Ennis hot on his heels.

***

Derek grunted with the impact of landing side-first against a stone wall with the weight of another Alpha werewolf on top of him. He scrambled to his feet as fast as he could and sprang back into a crouch. Sweat poured down his face and neck; Derek shook his head to keep it out of his eyes. The heat and humidity in the boiler room was making it hard to breathe.

Deucalion stood as well, shedding his coat as he did. He wasn't much larger than Derek, but he hadn't gotten to be the head of the Hunters by being a fool or a poor fighter. Underestimating him would be the biggest mistake Derek could make.

Sure enough, Deucalion darted in toward him, moving faster than Derek had expected. Only sheer luck and speed kept him from taking a claw to the ribs; as it was, three bloody marks now scored his side.

He didn't even have time to register the pain before Deucalion was swinging at his head. Derek blocked, ducked, and tried to use the momentum to flip him, but Deucalion only staggered with the movement. He regained his footing startlingly fast, and jammed his knee right into Derek's injured side.

Derek snarled at the explosion of pain and lashed out, a poorly thrown punch that Deucalion easily blocked. He flipped Derek backward into the wall, hard enough that something broke and sharp pain lanced through his back.

Breathing was suddenly very difficult, and it didn't have anything to do with the heat.

Shit.

Derek rolled back onto his feet just before Deucalion kicked out hard enough to crack the stone right where Derek's head had been. He dropped low and sprang forward, hitting Deucalion's side shoulder-first. It was a terrible move, but it had the bonus of knocking Deucalion off his feet again, and at this point Derek was just trying to buy time. He could keep himself alive long enough for Kira and Allison to dispatch the twins and help him with Ennis and Deucalion.

And Ennis was...

Fuck.

Derek snapped his head up to see Ennis going after Stiles.

Save him! Every instinct screamed, and then Deucalion slammed him into the wall, hand wrapped around Derek's throat.

"Worry about the fight you're in, whelp," Deucalion snarled.

Derek dug his thumb claw into Deucalion's wrist. Deucalion roared and flung him away.

Derek landed with a grunt, pulling himself back up and ignoring the new aches in his body that weren't going away. As much as he hated to admit it, Deucalion was right. This was Derek's fight.

He'd have to trust Stiles to take care of himself.

***

I'm gonna die I'm gonna die I'm gonna die...

The words beat an unending rhythm in Stiles's head, as much as he tried to push them away. Ennis was huge, easily a head taller than Deucalion, and Stiles was well aware he was just a squishy human. Ennis was stronger, faster, and a better fighter than he was.

So he went for what he did best: avoidance.

He ran into the center of the room, where the mechanicals stomped between the boilers and refilled them from the coal carts, where water tanks forced steam into the pipes crisscrossing above their heads. Stiles ran as close to the mechanicals as he could, darting close and weaving under their feet, using them as a barrier to keep Ennis away.

The mechanicals either didn't notice him, or didn't raise an alarm because there were already Hunters down there to take care of them. Either way, Stiles took it as a small blessing.

Ennis roared, and Stiles grabbed onto the nearest mechanical and started climbing. He pulled his feet to safety just as Ennis took a swipe at him.

It wasn't easy to climb a moving mechanical, what with handholds and footholds disappearing as soon as the gears and joints moved, but Stiles kept going. The metal was hot under his fingers, but not quite enough to burn. He still didn't keep his hands on it any longer than he had to.

He reached the mechanical's shoulder, where he could sit, and looked back down, searching the floor for Ennis.

He caught a glimpse of a Hunter's duster stalking toward the coal cart with his dad.

Stiles's heart stopped, and for one brief moment he was paralyzed with the single thought of No.

He slapped his hand on the mechanical and pushed his magic into it, just like he had done so many times with Harry, Barry, and Larry. He had no idea if it would work, no idea if he could overwrite what was already there, but—

The mechanical shuddered to a stop in its route between the boilers and the coal, frozen.

As if waiting for direction.

Stiles pointed at Ennis. "Stop him!"

On the ground, Ennis flung the coal cart aside, taking away what little protection his dad and Morrell had.

Stiles was going to throw up.

The mechanical crossed the ground in a few great strides, and kicked Ennis with its giant metal foot. He went flying, crashing into the wall so hard the rock crumbled around him, and then dropped to the ground.

He didn't get back up.

The mechanical kept moving, stomping toward Ennis like he was going to crush him.

"Wait!" Stiles yelled.

To his surprise, the mechanical stopped again and waited.

Okay. Stiles would freak out about all of this later. Right now he was going to make sure the others were okay.

His dad and Morrell looked up at him from where they were huddled on the ground. Stiles couldn't read their expressions from this distance, but he didn't think they were hurt. Derek and Deucalion were still fighting, neither of them gaining the upper hand, but Stiles wasn't sure how long that would last.

He quickly searched for Kira and Allison, whose fights had taken them toward the right side of the room, further from the door where the others were. Kira was tying up the twins while Allison held her crossbow at both of them.

Good. For the first time since the Hunters had come through the door, Stiles allowed himself to feel a little bit of hope.

Then he saw Deucalion jab his claws right into Derek's stomach.

"No!"

***

Derek was flagging. He could feel it in his movements, the way each breath felt like trying to pull mud into his lungs, the way his eyes seemed to take just a split second longer to focus than they should. This fight had gone on longer than it should have, and while endurance was his gift, holding out against another Alpha was forcing him into reserves he didn't know he possessed.

The only thing that kept him going was that he could see Deucalion flagging as well, could see he had his own injuries that were pulling him down. Granted, there weren't as many as what Derek had, but he'd take what he could get right now.

He should have seen the strike coming.

He blocked, punched, and the next thing he knew, Deucalion had claws buried in his gut.

Fucking hell.

Derek thought he heard someone scream, but it was impossible to tell over the roar of his own blood in his ears.

Deucalion threw him like a doll, and Derek landed hard on the ground, skidding across the stone. He coughed, blood metallic in his mouth, and spat it out.

Get up, he ordered himself, but his legs didn't want to move. Each breath sent a new wave of agony through his entire body. He was trying to heal, he could feel it, but this was a wound inflicted by a fellow Alpha. He wouldn't be healing any time soon.

Deucalion strode toward him, a snarl on his face. "You fool. You're a traitor to your own kind. A traitor to every person who's ever been born in this world, if you're defending those who broke it in the first place!"

Derek shook his head and forced himself to his knees, despite the way his body screamed in protest. "They didn't break it." He spat out another mouthful of blood. "It broke three hundred years ago. You can't blame them for the way they were born."

Deucalion raised his claws. "I will not stop until every one of them is wiped from the face of this world. It's the only way."

Derek closed his eyes. This was going to hurt.

And then he heard something slam into a wall.

He opened his eyes. Deucalion was no longer in front of him. Instead, he was pinned to the wall by a giant metal arm. Attached to a mechanical.

No, attached to a mechanical that Stiles was riding. He knelt on its shoulder, gripping the side of its head, and it was apparently doing whatever he wanted it to.

Derek wiped a hand over his eyes. Either the heat or the blood loss was making him hallucinate, surely.

Stiles bared his teeth, looking so much like a wolf it made Derek proud. "Don't you fucking touch him."

"Let him go," someone said from behind him.

Kali stepped into his field of vision, and Derek blinked. He'd been so focused on Deucalion, he'd completely forgotten she was there.

"I said, let him go," she said again, never taking her eyes off Stiles.

"Oh, hell no. I'm not letting him go until you can promise me that you'll allow us to leave safely." He gestured over to John and Marin, then over where Kira and Allison were running back toward them, and then finally at Derek. "I mean all of us. And you'll never come after us again. Or else I'm going to have my new friend here squeeze your boss until he pops like a grape."

"Listen, you—" Deucalion started.

The mechanical creaked, its massive arm pressing forward, and the words choked off. Stiles glared. "Did I say you could talk, asshole?"

Kali's expression didn't change. "While I am certain you mean what you say, is that really something you want on your conscience? It changes you, killing someone."

"You're one to talk," Stiles shot back. "How much blood do you have on your hands? How many outposts have you murdered either directly or through your own inaction?"

She took a step closer to Deucalion. "Exactly. I know of what I speak." She still hadn't taken her eyes off Stiles. "Don't do this, mageling. Give yourself a few more years before you pull this stain onto your heart."

This was the strangest conversation he'd ever heard. Derek had to be hallucinating.

He smelled pack and felt warmth on either side of him, and looked to his left to see Kira crouching there. Allison was on his other side, both supporting him, but neither of them looking away from the standoff between Stiles and Kali.

"We can take her," Allison whispered.

Derek shook his head. They could, but he wanted to see what Kali was playing at.

Stiles, for his own part, didn't seem to think it that strange. Or at least, he was following whatever Kali was saying. "I won't kill him," he finally said. "But I'm not letting him go until we're safely out of here. And why the hell did you call me mageling?"

"You can't let them go," Deucalion rasped out. How he even had the breath for it, Derek had no idea. "They're dangerous!"

Kali turned to him. "They are. As are we."

"We must maintain order," he said. "We are the world's only defense against the likes of them!"

She took another step toward Deucalion. "Then perhaps it is time for a new world order."

And with that, she ripped out his throat.

Chapter Text

"Holy shit!"

Of all the things Stiles had been expecting, none of them had been for Kali to just rip Deucalion's fucking throat out.

He lost control of the mechanical's arm, and Deucalion's body dropped to the ground in a heap. That was... a lot of blood.

Okay, he really needed to get off this mechanical before he fucking fainted.

He scrambled down, limbs shaking and vision blurring, until his feet hit solid ground once again. His knees buckled immediately.

"Stiles!"

He looked back to see his dad and Morrell staggering over to him. He should stand up, help them, but Stiles wasn't entirely sure he could move. Hell, he wasn't entirely sure he was breathing right now.

He turned back to Kali, who stood over Deucalion, just a few feet away from Derek. Kira and Allison were crouched on either side of him, tensed like they would spring at a moment's notice, but Kali didn't look like she was about to attack. She didn't look like she was about to do anything, really.

"What the fucking hell was that?" Stiles burst out.

Kali finally looked back to him. "I killed him."

"I can fucking see that!" Stiles pushed himself to his feet. Standing was a dicey proposition, but he made it. "What the...why the...what the fuck?"

"Because it needed to be done," she said. "And now you all need to get out of here."

"Yeah, I'm still not exactly on the 'trusting you' bandwagon," Stiles said. "Especially since you just ripped out your boss's throat. Not that he didn't deserve it! But—"

Kali growled, and it made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. Stiles snapped his mouth shut.

"Now." She tipped her head toward the door. "You need to get out of here. I'll explain on the way. Will that be acceptable?"

A hand fell on Stiles's shoulder, and he turned to see his dad and Morrell right behind him, leaning on each other. Stiles held out a hand so they could lean on him instead, though he wasn't sure how much help he'd be right now.

"You could still turn on us," Derek said, and wow he sounded terrible. At least he was standing now, Kira and Allison supporting him, though there was still a hole in his stomach.

"You have two mages, a former Hunter, and a kitsune on your side," Kali said. "I'm good, but I don't think I'm that good." She gestured toward the door. "Shall we?"

"Do we really have much of a choice?" Dad asked under his breath.

They didn't, unfortunately. As far as Stiles knew, that door was the only way out, and Kali seemed determined to go with them no matter what.

With a grunt, Derek stepped forward. "Hurt my pack, and you won't live to see dawn."

Kali inclined her head.

Apparently, that was enough. Derek nodded at the door. "Lead the way."

***

It wasn't exactly fast, navigating the dark, rank tunnels under the prison with one severely injured person and two more who'd been imprisoned for at least a month, but they made better time than Stiles would have thought. And the farther they went, the less likely it seemed that Kali was going to betray them.

Stiles was proud of himself for making it five minutes before he asked, "Seriously, why the hell did you just rip out Deucalion's throat? I thought you were his second!"

"Did you notice the runes in the prison?" Kali said.

It was such a non sequitur that Stiles wanted to throttle her. "Yes, and? What the hell does that have to do with my question?"

"A mage had to have put them there," Morrell said. "And recently."

"Precisely." Kali waited as they all descended an old metal ladder. As soon as they were all down, she continued. "Years ago, I was badly injured in a fight with feral shifters outside of one of the outposts. A woman—a mage—saved my life. We grew...close."

Stiles gaped. "You're fucking a mage?"

His dad slapped him upside the back of the head. "Stiles."

Kali turned, her eyes glowing eerily red. "Her name is Julia, and she is my mate. Deucalion has been forcing her to use her magic against mages and other prisoners, with the threat of death if she doesn't comply."

"So she's the one who put the runes on the prison?" Stiles asked.

Kali nodded. "She is. And the one who spelled the cuffs we have used on mages."

Stiles bit his lip. He wanted to yell at her for her hypocrisy, but what good would it do? If it meant keeping himself and his family safe, wouldn't he have done the same thing?

"He's been getting worse over the past several years," Kali continued quietly. "Not just about the mages, but about the outposts, as you all have seen. At first I thought he was just getting stricter, but..." She shook her head. "It was more than that. I've been looking for a way to stop him for years without inciting civil war amongst the Hunters."

"And ripping his throat out in the boiler room of the prison is how you decided to do that?" Derek asked.

"Ripping his throat out in the boiler room of the prison when you can blame it on a group of escaping prisoners," Dad said, voice rough.

Kali half-smiled. "Exactly."

Stiles froze. "Wait, so you're helping us escape just so you can let us take the blame? Are we even going to get out of the city before you sic the Hunters on us?"

"Yes, escaping prisoners are going to take the blame," Kali said. "It's a pity our records were destroyed so we have no confirmation of who those prisoners were."

"Your records were destroyed?" Allison sounded skeptical.

"They will be." Kali paused at a fork in the tunnel, and then nodded right. "Regardless, I am the one in charge of the Hunters now, and I know many others weren't happy about how Deucalion was running things. This should allow us to stop the corruption and return to our duties, protecting the Havens and the outposts." She looked Allison up and down. "I imagine we'd be looking for more honorable people to fill our ranks."

"Thanks, but I'm not leaving my pack," Allison said.

Kali shrugged. "Understandable. A pity, but understandable."

They reached another ladder leading up, and Kali stopped. "This should take you up into the city. Go south from here to get back to your circus."

Stiles still couldn't believe it. "Why are you doing this? I mean...why help us?"

Kali leveled her Alpha-red gaze at him. "We've been living in fear for three hundred years. Don't you think it's time for a change?"

With that, she strode back down the tunnels and vanished into the darkness.

***

Derek wasn't sure how he made it up the ladder to the grate, but he did. His whole body ached from the fight and his wounds burned as they healed, but at least his stomach wasn't bleeding anymore. Getting Marin and John up the ladder was harder, given how weak they both were, but with Allison and Kira helping behind them and Derek at the top to pull them the rest of the way, they got everyone out of the sewer tunnels and into the clean air.

Stiles came last, and Derek hauled him onto the street, despite his initial squawk of protest.

"I can do it myself," Stiles muttered, cheeks pink.

I don't care. "I know," Derek said gruffly.

More than anything, he wanted to grab Stiles and hug him, rub away the awful stench of the prison and the sewer, reassure himself that Stiles was alive and whole and unhurt. But they were in the middle of the city and nowhere near safety just yet.

Derek reeled back, stepping away from Stiles. "Allison, fastest way back to the circus?"

"A train, cab, or horse," she quipped. "But we're a little underdressed."

He looked down at his torn, bloody shirt and the still-healing skin beneath it, and laughed hollowly. "How much do you think we'd have to pay a driver not to notice us?"

"More than we have," Allison said. "But you're right, we need a fast way there. We can't walk the whole way back, not with three injured people."

Derek wiped a hand over his face and tried to think. Even as far as they'd gone in the tunnels, they were still too close to the prison, and every minute they were out in the open they had a chance of getting caught again. "We might not have a choice."

"Wait!" Kira grabbed his arm. "Yes, we do. I recognize this neighborhood. Satomi lives nearby."

Derek blinked. He hadn't known that, but then again, Kira knew Satomi better than he did. "She does?"

"She'll help us," Kira said. "I'll be ten minutes, I promise."

Derek weighed the options. Ten minutes was a long time when they were being hunted, but with two people who couldn't make the long walk back to the circus... "Do it. We'll hide here."

Kira nodded. "I'll be back soon."

With that, she scaled the building next to them and disappeared.

Derek ushered the rest of them into the shadows of the nearest alley. It wasn't the best hiding spot, but it would do for now. Allison positioned herself closest to the mouth of the alley, crossbow out and bag at her feet.

Marin sank to the ground with a sigh, and Stiles helped John sit down beside her. John grunted and then sighed as well. "I've got to say, I am glad to be off my feet."

"Just because you've been stuck in a cell for a month," Stiles muttered, hands fluttering around his dad like he wanted to fix something, but didn't know what or how. "Probably feeding you horrible food. When was the last time you had a vegetable?"

John laughed weakly. "I missed you too, kid."

Derek moved away to give them some privacy, for whatever value of privacy there was. He settled across the alley from Allison and listened, stretching out his senses to smell or hear anyone approaching.

"How long do we have before they come looking for us?" he asked quietly.

Allison flicked her eyes down to him before going back to scanning the streets. "Less than ten minutes."

He sighed and rested his head against the wall. "Fantastic."

It wasn't surprising. Other Hunters had to have heard the explosions. He wasn't sure how much time Kali could buy them, but leading them out of the tunnels was likely the extent of it.

Stiles dropped to the ground next to him, legs splayed across the alley. "So who's Satomi?"

"An old friend of my mother's. They were both Alphas at the same time. She came with the circus on a few trips, but stopped when she became a Hunter." He looked to Stiles. "She brought Kira to us before she left."

Stiles frowned, like he had a thousand questions on the tip of his tongue, but he pressed his lips together and didn't say anything.

They sat in silence for another moment before he finally spoke. "You came for me."

Derek nodded. "That was the plan."

Stiles shook his head. "No, it wasn't. The plan was for me to get out with my dad and rendezvous with you guys." He stared straight at Derek, his whiskey-brown eyes sharp. "You came into the prison to get me."

The intensity in his gaze usually had Derek rising to the challenge. Now, it rendered him speechless, as though speaking would give away something he hadn't yet admitted to himself. "You're pack," he said, for lack of anything else. "We wouldn't leave you behind."

Stiles dropped his gaze to the ground and tapped his fingers against his thigh. "No one's ever come back for me before," he said. "I wasn't...I didn't expect it."

Derek tried to imagine growing up as Stiles had, solitary and closed off from everyone but for a select few. He couldn't do it.

He elbowed Stiles gently. "Well, get used to it."

As long as Stiles would let him, Derek would come back for him.

And he was very nervous about what that meant.

***

Seven minutes and thirty seconds later, a mechanical horse trotted up to the mouth of the alley, pulling a private coach behind it. The door swung open and Kira's head popped out. "All aboard!"

Derek, Stiles, and Allison helped John and Marin into the cab, and then crammed in themselves. Derek paused long enough to kiss Kira on the side of the head. "You're the best."

She blushed and pulled the door shut. "It's not my cab."

"But I will gladly accept your gratitude," a new voice said.

Satomi sat in the opposite corner, with Marin and Allison squished against her, holding a small porcelain cup of tea. Derek wrinkled his nose at the bitter smell.

He squeezed in next to Stiles, Kira shut the door tight, and the cab jerked forward into movement.

Stiles sat up in alarm. "Wait, who's driving this thing?"

Satomi waved the concern away. "Ichigo knows where to go."

That didn't appear to alleviate Stiles's concern. "Who's Ichigo?"

Kira smiled. "The horse."

They rode in silence except for the clacking of the wheels over the cobblestones. Satomi made no secret that she was looking each of them over, but all she did was raise an eyebrow at Derek over her cup of tea.

"Thank you for helping us," he finally said. "I know it's a risk."

Satomi smiled. "It's not entirely unheard of for me to take Ichigo on a nightly drive. No one else need know I'm not alone in the cab. Besides," she took a sip of tea, "it seems that bastard's finally been deposed, and I feel like celebrating."

"Do you feel like coming out of retirement?" Allison asked.

Satomi chuckled. "Dear, I'm not that happy."

"Kali will probably ask," Derek warned her.

Satomi's dark eyes sparkled with mirth. "I look forward to it."

They rode the rest of the way in silence, Stiles practically vibrating next to him, so tense Derek could smell it pouring off him. Derek rested a hand on his knee and squeezed, partly to calm him down and partly to keep him still. He half-expected Stiles to shake him off, but it didn't happen. Instead, Stiles calmed, the edge bleeding out of his scent, and he left Derek's hand right where it was.

Across the cab, Satomi smirked from behind her porcelain cup. Derek studiously pretended he didn't notice.

The cab slowed, and Allison leaned over Kira to peer out the window. "We're close enough," she said. "You probably shouldn't take us straight to the circus."

Satomi scoffed. "As if they'd be bold enough to come after me."

Kira leaned across both Allison and Marin to kiss Satomi on the cheek. "Thank you for taking us this far. We'll be fine."

The cab finally halted, and Derek pushed open the door. "Allison, run ahead and tell Melissa we've got two injured we're bringing straight to the infirmary. Kira, help Marin. Satomi," he looked over at her and smiled, "thank you again."

She raised her cup to him. "Your mother would be proud of you, Derek Hale."

He flushed at the praise and busied himself getting Stiles and John out of the cab. Stiles was in pretty good shape, although he was streaked with coal dust and engine grease, but the same couldn't be said for his father. John was putting on a good face, but Derek could see how pale he was, the old bruises on his face and the dried blood that was more recent. He had been pulling away John's pain during their escape. There had been...a lot.

Derek positioned himself as a crutch once again, grabbing John's hand once his arm was over his shoulder to draw more pain away. He didn't miss the soft sigh of relief, or the sharp look John shot his way.

"Werewolf," Derek said by way of explanation.

John raised his eyebrows, but didn't say a word.

Derek moved them as quickly as he could, but neither Marin nor John were up for particularly strenuous movement. Walking the last two blocks to the circus felt even longer than their trip through the sewer tunnels, made even worse by how exposed they were. Every step they took was a step closer to safety, but it was also another chance to get caught.

They crossed into the circus yard and the lights of the train came into view, and Derek went weak with relief. Home. Home, with his pack safe. Now all they had to do was get out of the city.

"Never thought I'd be so happy to see a train in my life," John murmured, and then he collapsed, his full weight pulling Derek to the side.

"Dad?" Stiles's voice went sharp with panic. "Dad?"

Derek lowered him to the ground, checked his breathing and heartbeat. Both were still there, but John's heartbeat sounded a little too fast for comfort.

Stiles crouched next to him and grabbed his father. "Dad, wake up! We're almost there!"

Derek knelt and picked John up, winced at the way his healing stomach pulled with the weight. A distinct tearing sensation told him he was probably bleeding again. "We need to get him to Melissa."

Stiles scrambled back to his feet. "Holy shit, you're bleeding."

Derek gritted his teeth. "I'm fine. Help me move him."

The metal scrape of the train doors echoed through the air, and within seconds Melissa and Allison were there, followed by Scott, Isaac, Laura, and Boyd.

Scott launched himself at Stiles and threw his arms around his neck. "Dude, we were so worried about you!"

Stiles made a small urp sound, but he hugged Scott back.

"Holy shit, what happened to you guys?" Isaac asked.

"Oh my God, Derek, what are you—" Laura cut herself off and her eyes doubled in size at something over his shoulder, like she'd seen a ghost.

Derek looked back to see Kira and Marin a few feet behind him, Marin looking almost as shocked as Laura. He could hear Allison explaining what had happened to Isaac and Boyd, as Scott continued to tell Stiles how worried they'd all been.

He turned his focus to Melissa, who was trying her best to examine John where he was. "He's been held by the Hunters for over a month," he said. "He just collapsed."

"Get him to the infirmary." Melissa looked down. "Actually, give him to Boyd and Isaac, and then get yourself to the infirmary."

Derek shook his head. "I'll be fine."

Melissa's eyebrows went up in a way that told him she didn't buy it for a minute. "Infirmary. Now."

Beside him, Laura let out a piercing whistle, and everyone quieted. "Okay!" she shouted, her voice surprisingly steady. "Isaac, Boyd, get this guy out of my brother's arms and into the infirmary. Kira, take Marin there. Scott, take care of Stiles. Derek, you have a fucking hole in your stomach. Do what Melissa says. Allison, go tell the rest of the pack this train needs to be ready to leave in ten minutes."

Allison sprinted off toward the train, Kira and Marin following her at a much slower pace. Scott pulled Stiles toward the dining car (to copious protests), promising they'd go straight to the infirmary once his dad was settled. Derek handed John off to Boyd and Isaac, who headed back to the train much quicker than he'd been moving, Melissa running along beside them.

He stared after them all, and whatever had been keeping his body going for the past several hours just drained out of him.

Before he could sag to the ground, Laura caught him. "Easy there, baby brother."

"By ten minutes," Derek muttered, but he leaned more heavily on her.

Laura gave him a smacking kiss on his temple. "Thanks for bringing them all back."

"Even Stiles?"

"Yeah, even Stiles."

Chapter Text

"Drink it," Scott ordered.

Stiles made a face and tried to stand. "I'm not—"

Scott pushed him onto the bench and slid the glass of water in front of him. "Stiles. Drink the water. Your dad's fine. We'll see him as soon as my mom's got him settled."

Stiles's stomach churned at the thought of drinking or eating anything, but he hadn't actually had food or water since before he'd been thrown in the prison hours ago. He made himself take a sip.

Scott smiled broadly and sat down next to him, scooting close enough to throw his arm around Stiles's shoulders. "You want anything to eat?"

Stiles took another sip of water and shook his head. "No. I'm not...I can't..."

He couldn't think of eating anything right now, not when his dad was just one car away, unconscious.

Scott nodded and didn't ask him again.

They sat in silence, Stiles slowly sipping his water, Scott loosely hugging him. Any other time, Stiles would have been trying to fill the silence, but right now he was grateful for it, grateful for Scott's support.

He couldn't have come this far to find his dad and free him, only to lose him again.

The dining car door slid open, and Kira stepped inside. "Oh! I didn't realize anyone was in here."

"That's okay." Stiles stood and pushed away his half-empty glass. "We can leave."

"No, that's not—" Kira shook her head. "Melissa sent me in here to make some food. Both Marin and your dad have lost a lot of weight."

Stiles clenched his fists. "They were starved, you mean."

"Hey." Scott stood and squeezed his shoulder. "They're safe now. We're going to make sure they're taken care of."

Kira gestured to the small kitchen. "You want to help? It's just going to be warming some broth with vegetables, but..."

But Stiles would take it. It would give him something to do, and from the small smile on Kira's face, she knew it. "Yeah. I'll help."

Scott handed him the glass he'd left on the table. "Finish your water. I'll go see if Mom needs anything."

Kira snorted. "She might need your help keeping Derek still until she sews up his stomach."

"Oh shit," Scott said, and with that he was out the door.

Viscerally, Stiles remembered Deucalion's claws plunging into Derek's stomach. "Is...is he going to be okay?"

Kira touched his arm. "He'll be fine. I promise. The stitches are just a precaution, since the wound isn't healing as fast as it normally would."

"Why not?" Stiles's heart froze at the ideas of why. "Is it poisoned?"

Kira snorted. "No, nothing like that. It's an Alpha thing." She handed him a knife and pushed him toward the counter, and then she dug out a few carrots and a slightly wilted stalk of celery from the pantry box. "Just rinse these off in the basin and then chop them small. I'll get the broth going."

Stiles rinsed the vegetables and cut off a few soft-looking parts, and then started chopping. The cuts were rough and completely different sizes, but he figured they all counted as "small."

Kira started the tiny stove next to him, then poured some broth into a small pot and set it on top of the stove.

"Is that enough?" Stiles asked.

"Should be," Kira said. "Melissa doesn't want them eating much. Right now we're just going to make enough soup to feed them some smaller meals every few hours until they're up to eating more safely."

"Is..." Stiles took a deep breath and forced out the question. "Is my dad awake?"

Kira shook her head. "Not yet. But Melissa wants some on hand for when he wakes up. Which he probably will soon. He just needs rest, you know? It was a long day."

Stiles laughed harshly. Yes, that was definitely one way to describe it.

She scooped up the vegetables Stiles had already chopped and dropped them into the pot, and he turned back to finishing the celery. His hands shook a little, and he had to focus to keep from cutting himself with the knife.

"Thank you," he said, once he'd finished. "For coming to get me."

Kira swept the rest of the celery into her hand and added it to the pot. "Of course we'd come after you." She flashed him a quick, small smile. "You aren't alone anymore, you know."

Stiles set the knife aside and wiped off the counter. He didn't trust himself to speak.

They stood in the kitchen while the broth simmered, Kira poking at the vegetables and adding seasoning every few minutes.

Stiles drummed his fingers on the edge of the counter, unable to stay still, unable to think about anything but his dad now that his part in making the soup was finished.

"Is it done yet?" he asked.

"No, it needs a little longer for the vegetables to soften," Kira said. "Do you want anything to eat? I've got some biscuits and apples, and there's extra cheese in the cooler."

His throat closed at the idea of food, and Stiles shook his head. "No, I...I'm going to go check on my dad. I can't—"

I can't stay away anymore, knowing that he could be—

"Hey." Kira squeezed his arm, her dark eyes kind and earnest. "He's going to be fine. He's sick, but Melissa will take good care of him. She always does."

"It wasn't enough for the people we found in Modesto Peak," Stiles said bitterly.

Kira whipped her spoon out of the soup and jabbed it in Stiles's face. "Listen. I have been on this train for thirty years, Melissa has been here for ten of those, and I have seen her bring back people who should have died. If they did, it's because there was literally no way to save them. Your dad is not at that point. He may need a long time to recover, but Melissa will make sure he does."

She spun around back to the pot and stirred it aggressively. Stiles blinked at her diatribe, but his mind latched onto: "Wait, you've been here for thirty years?"

Kira laughed brightly. "Of course I have! What, did you think Deaton was the oldest one on this train?"

Stiles flailed. "I...but...well, yes!"

Kira laughed again, but this time it was with a kind smile. "Kitsunes are immortal. I'm a hundred and fifty years old."

Stiles's brain crashed to a halt, and he gaped at her. He kept gaping at her until the train jerked forward, throwing him off-balance and into the counter. "Holy...holy shit, you're seriously immortal?"

"Mm-hmm." Kira tasted the soup and threw in a bit more seasoning. "I mean, kitsunes can be killed, but it takes a lot. We heal faster than most other shifters, and things that stop werewolves, like wolfsbane, don't have as much effect on us. My mother is nine hundred years old."

"Holy shit," Stiles said again, because really, what else was there to say? He'd been operating under the assumption that Kira was his age, maybe Derek's at the outside. "What about your dad?"

The smile faded from her face. "He was human."

And foot right into his mouth. "Shit, Kira, I'm sorry."

She shook her head. "It's okay. Or well, it's not really, but I live with it. My mother didn't...take it well. She sent me to live with Satomi a few years later."

Stiles's eyes bugged out. "Geez, how old is Satomi?"

Kira frowned. "I'm not sure. She wasn't an Alpha yet when I went to stay with her, and I was there for...forty years? Fifty? Somewhere in there. She became one of the Hunters in order to protect the outposts, and she asked if I wanted to as well. I said I'd prefer to travel with the circus, if I was going to be leaving the Haven." Kira smiled again. "We'd spent two seasons with the pack before that. I loved it, so Satomi asked Talia if she could use me on a regular basis. I've been here ever since."

He remembered Derek saying that Satomi had been a friend of his mother's, but Stiles hadn't really twigged to what that meant. "Dude, I have, like, a million questions."

"And I'll be happy to answer them. Some of them. Eventually." Kira tasted the soup again. "Well, this is as good as it's going to get for now, I think. Grab a couple of bowls, will you?"

Stiles found them stuck up in one of the cabinets, and then followed Kira out the door to the infirmary. The train chugged along slowly, the lights and buildings of the Haven passing them by, and Stiles's stomach twisted again. What if they couldn't get out tonight? What if the Hunters came for them again? What if Kali had been lying, or was killed by Hunters who liked Deucalion, or—

"Stiles!" Kira barked, and he snapped to attention. "Get the door, please?"

"Sorry, sorry." He scrambled to get the bowls in one hand so he could slide the door open with the other. "Here you go."

"Thank you," Kira said, and scooted inside.

The infirmary was more crowded than Stiles had ever seen it. Morrell sat on one of the beds, leaning against the wall listlessly, like she couldn't hold her head up without the support. Laura stood next to her, arms crossed and glaring at the opposite wall. Derek sat on the bed at Morrell's feet, shirtless and looking as murderous as his sister. Stitches crisscrossed the gap in his stomach and the scratches on his side. Scott and Boyd were on either side of him, each with a hand on his shoulder, although whether they were keeping Derek from moving or doing something else, Stiles couldn't tell.

Stiles's dad lay on the other bed, shirt cut open, and Melissa crouched at his side, dabbing a wet cloth on his skin. He was so much thinner than Stiles had ever seen him, enough that his ribs stuck out a bit with each breath. Bruises mottled his skin, yellow and green and blue and purple, multicolored and ugly. And that was just what Stiles could see.

He dropped the bowls on the nearest flat surface and darted over to his dad, grabbing his hand. Stiles had known, logically, that his dad wasn't in good shape after being in prison for so long, that the Hunters had treated him poorly, but seeing him like this was just another punch to the gut. He looked so...frail under the yellow light of the infirmary.

"Dad," Stiles whispered. He had no other words.

"Okay, there are officially too many people in here," Melissa said. "Everybody who can stand under their own power, out."

Stiles gripped his dad's hand harder. "I'm not leaving."

Laura growled. "Neither am I."

Morrell sipped from a bowl of soup. "It is a little claustrophobic."

Laura whirled on her, but Morrell just arched an eyebrow and gave her a small smile. They seemed to have a silent conversation for a few seconds before Laura huffed and stalked out of the infirmary, clapping Scott on the shoulder to drag him with her.

Derek patted Morrell on the leg and, with a wince, got to his feet.

Melissa eyed him dubiously. "I'm not entirely sure you qualify as standing under your own power."

He shrugged and leaned on Boyd. "Is there anything else you can do for me?"

Melissa didn't look happy about it, but she said, "No."

Derek nodded. "Thanks for the stitches."

"You'd better go straight to your own car and rest," she ordered.

"Yes, ma'am," Derek said, and looked straight at Stiles. "Come on."

Stiles shook his head. "No. I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying with my dad."

"Stiles," Melissa said, gently but firmly. "I know you want to stay, but there's very little you can do right now. And unless you know how to help, you'll only be in my way. Stay with Derek or Scott until I've got him stable, and then you can come back in."

He didn't want to leave. He didn't want to let his dad out of his sight, not when he'd been looking for him for weeks. "Melissa, I can't, I can't..."

A warm hand rested on his shoulder, and Derek spoke up. "Can we bring in a pallet? So he can sleep here tonight?"

Melissa nodded. "Just give me another hour to make sure he and Marin are stable, and we can set one up." She looked back to Stiles. "I know you don't believe me, but I understand. Trust me to take care of him for just a little longer, okay? You'll be back in here by the time we're out of the city."

"Might be after," Boyd said. "We're moving pretty fast."

Melissa heaved a sigh. "That's good news. Let's hope they don't stop us too long at the gates."

Stiles looked down at his dad, lying so still on the bed. He didn't want to leave. He couldn't make himself turn away, couldn't make himself let go, not when some part of his mind was shouting But what if this is the last time?

Derek touched his hand and gently pried his fingers up from his dad's. "Come with us," he said. "You'll be back in here in no time."

Stiles clenched his teeth against the sob that threatened to escape, but he let Derek and Boyd lead him out of the infirmary and onto the walkway.

"Bathing car," Boyd said. "Both of you. I'll get Cora to bring you something to eat and some clothes. She's chomping at the bit to make sure you're okay."

"I'm not hungry," Stiles said for what felt like the twelfth time.

"Don't care," Boyd said. "It's been close to seven hours since you were taken. You should eat."

"We're going." Derek grunted and put his free hand over his stomach. "A bath sounds pretty fantastic about now."

Stiles looked down at himself, at the sweat and oil and grime still coating his clothes from their escape. Okay, Derek and Boyd had a point with the bath.

Shockingly, no one was in the bathing car. However, two of the tubs were already filled with water, small tendrils of steam rising from them.

"Uh, are we sure these haven't been used?" Stiles asked.

Derek leaned over one copper tub and sniffed, then the other. "They're clean. Allison and Kira must have come through here already." He walked to a cabinet, grabbed a couple of towels, and set one near each filled tub. "Pick one."

And then he unbuttoned his pants and dropped them right there.

Stiles spun around, his cheeks heating furiously. "Dude! What the hell?"

"What?" Derek sounded remarkably unconcerned.

How could he be comfortable enough to just drop his pants in front of Stiles? How? "I just...wasn't expecting immediate nudity."

"We're both bathing at the same time," Derek said dryly. "It's bound to happen. Besides, with so many people and one bathing car, privacy isn't always a given."

Stiles swallowed hard. So far, he'd only shared the bathing car with Scott and Danny, and they were safe. Or at least, he didn't have stupid feelings for them the way he did for Derek.

"I'll keep my back turned," Derek said. "So as not to offend your delicate sensibilities."

Stiles swore that was amusement in his voice. He grumbled under his breath and yanked his shirt over his head. Ugh, he wasn't sure laundry would be able to save that. Or his pants, for that matter. "My sensibilities aren't delicate, you asshole. I'm just not used to parading around naked in front of people like you apparently are."

"I grew up in a wolf pack," Derek pointed out, as if that explained everything.

Who knew, maybe it did.

It took Stiles another beat before he worked up the courage to pull off his underwear, and then he jumped into the tub as quickly as he could without slipping and braining himself on the edge. The water was warm, but not unbearably so, and Stiles sank into it with a moan of appreciation.

Derek made an awful lot of sloshing as he got into his tub.

Stiles looked up at the ceiling and focused on a dark knot in the wood. "Need help there?"

Derek snorted. "Would you actually give it to me?"

"Nah, but I could yell real loud for Boyd."

Derek let out a soft huff that could have been a laugh. Maybe.

Stiles rested his head on the lip of the tub and closed his eyes. The water swayed softly with the movement of the train, rocking him gently. It was soothing, and it felt good to see the water lift away the coal grime and the oil he'd gained in the boiler room. Stiles scrubbed his hands over his skin and ducked his head under the water, scratching furiously at his scalp, getting rid of every last remnant of the prison. He popped back out of the tub and shook his head, slinging water everywhere.

In the other tub, Derek's lips twisted slightly in amusement. "Feel better?"

Stiles wiped his hair back. "Yeah. A little. I'll feel even better once we're out of Santa Francesca and on our way to the next outpost."

"Paradiso," Derek said. "It's about a day's ride north of here, maybe a little further. We'll stay there for the winter."

Stiles spun to him, scarcely paying attention to the water he sloshed over the edge of the tub. "Wait, what? Staying? We're going up there and staying?"

Derek raised an eyebrow. "For about two months. Just until the worst of the winter passes. It's too dangerous to travel during that time, anyway." He leveled his pale green gaze right at Stiles. "It'll be fine. I promise. We stay there every year. We'll attract more attention if we don't."

Stiles clutched the edge of the tub. "Or we'll be sitting ducks for the Hunters."

"If Kali wanted us dead, she could have done it any time as we were escaping," Derek said. "And she wasn't lying about anything she said."

"She's a werewolf," Stiles pointed out. "She probably knows how to lie without it showing in her heartbeat."

"Possible." Derek lay back against the rim of the tub and closed his eyes. "But from what she and the Argents said, Deucalion and Ennis were the real driving forces behind a lot of the corruption. With them out of the way, it will free up the others to do what they're actually supposed to do."

"Like come looking for the escaped prisoners and killers?"

"They don't know who you are and they don't know you had outside help. And with the confusion from the escape and the destruction of the records, it'll take them awhile to realize who's escaped."

None of that did anything to reassure the twinge of anxiety in his chest. "How in the hell can you be so calm about this?"

Derek opened one eye. "I'll be calmer once we're out of the city. But there's very little we can do now aside from continuing as we always do. We'll take extra precautions, but the Hunters will be in disarray, and our pack is strong. And two members larger than it was yesterday."

Stiles wiped his shaking hands over his face. Everything Derek said made sense. He made it sound so fucking easy, but the paranoia he'd lived with his entire life wasn't so easily assuaged. And why would it be, when it had kept him alive this long?

"Stiles."

He looked over to see Derek sitting up straight again, eyes open and clear and utterly serious. Stiles's breath caught in his throat at the beauty of him.

"It's all going to be okay," Derek said evenly. "I promise."

And then he settled back into the water and leaned his head against the tub again.

It still wasn't enough. The worry still buzzed in his veins, making him tremble. But the honesty in Derek's voice, the way he'd looked at him...

It made Stiles want to believe him.

He rested his head back against the tub and went back to looking at the ceiling. "It's all going to be okay," he repeated, mouthing the words like a mantra.

Maybe if he said it enough, he would feel it as fully as Derek did.

***

Cora brought them food, Erica brought clothes and the news that the train was out of Santa Francesca with nary a hiccup, and when Stiles left the bathing car, Boyd was the one who ushered him back to the infirmary, where two pallets had been made on the floor.

"One for me, and one for you," Melissa said.

"I don't have to stay here, you know," Morrell said. "I can stay with Alan."

That was a new name. "Alan?" Stiles asked.

"Deaton," Melissa said.

"My brother," Morrell said.

Stiles gaped. "Whoa, wait, what? You're Deaton's sister?"

Morrell nodded, a small smile on her face. "Marin Morrell. Sorry I didn't give you my full name when we met. I didn't know who you were. And I had no idea you were with the circus."

Stiles sank onto the nearest pallet. Today was a day for learning a lot of new things, it seemed. "Wait. Marin. That's...I think Laura gave me a book that belonged to you."

Morrell dropped her gaze to her hands, but Stiles caught the curve of her smile. "Did she, now?"

"Yeah." He gestured back toward his car. "I can go get it for you, if you want."

She shook her head. "No. Not right now. But perhaps when we get to Paradiso, you and I could look at it together. I'm guessing you haven't had much training."

"No." Stiles leaned against the wall beside his dad's bed and thought about his mom, with a pang in his chest. "I haven't."

"Regardless," Melissa said, "Marin, I'd like you to stay in the infirmary at least tonight so I can keep an eye on you. If you're feeling better tomorrow, you can stay wherever you'd like. With Alan or Laura," she added, with a wicked smile Stiles had never seen on her face before.

Morrell coughed and looked away. "We'll see."

Okay. Now he had a ton of questions.

Melissa swatted him gently on the side of the head. "Quit plotting and get some sleep. It's been a long day."

Stiles rubbed his head. "I wasn't plotting."

Melissa scoffed and turned down the lantern, then settled onto her own pallet. "Sleep, Stiles."

He didn't think he would, but being right next to his dad, being able to hear his steady breathing along with the clack clack clack of the train's wheels, went a lot further to calming him than anything else that day.

They were out of Santa Francesca. He had his dad back. Deucalion was dead.

It was all going to be okay.

Chapter Text

They arrived in Paradiso by midafternoon the next day and pulled into the yard where they always stayed. As soon as the train shuddered to a stop, Derek stepped off and took a deep breath of the crisp air, surveying the valley around them. In a few weeks, he'd be chomping at the bit to get back on the tracks, but right now, he was more than happy to be in one place and standing on solid ground.

They'd had no trouble getting out of Santa Francesca, and although he'd told everyone to be on the lookout for Hunters, their trip north had been quiet.

And now...

Derek exhaled, watching his breath steam as he did. Now they would put up the tent and perform twice a week for Paradiso and the surrounding outposts until winter was over and they started traveling again. Just as they had for every year before this, as long as he could remember.

Whatever Kali had said about a new world order wouldn't trickle down to them just yet. He could only hope that it meant the Hunters would quit hunting mages and spend more time protecting the outposts.

Until then, they would just do what they did best.

Perform.

***

The circus fell into its routine in Paradiso, as it always did. The only difference, Derek noticed, was that Stiles wasn't as much a part of it. He'd parked himself by his father's side as soon as he'd been able and hadn't moved. He took his meals in the infirmary and missed the first two performances because he didn't want to be away from his dad for longer than it took to use the bathroom.

Derek understood the impulse. Truly, he did. John had woken up the day after they'd arrived in Paradiso, but he still slept more than anything else and hadn't quite worked up the strength to do more than walk around the infirmary once. Even so, Melissa said John was getting stronger every day, eating every meal she fed him. It would take a while, she'd said, but he would recover physically.

Stiles, on the other hand, looked like he hadn't slept in a week. Hell, he probably hadn't.

Enough was enough, Derek decided, after the second missed performance. He stomped into the infirmary, where John was sitting up in bed and Stiles was next to him, holding a bowl of soup and trying to feed him.

John scowled. "Stiles, give me the damn bowl. I can do it myself."

"You almost fell trying to go to the bathroom." Stiles held up the spoon. "Just eat the soup."

"Give him the damn bowl," Derek said.

Both Stilinskis startled, though John's was more of a raised eyebrow and Stiles nearly poured half the soup down his shirt.

Derek rolled his eyes, took the bowl, and handed it to John. Stiles squawked angrily. "Hey, give me that back!"

John simply raised the bowl to his lips and sipped at it. "Now, Stiles, you wouldn't steal soup from an invalid old man, would you?"

"You aren't old," Stiles grumbled.

"And you won't be invalid for much longer, from what Melissa tells me," Derek said. He grabbed Stiles's arm and hauled him off the bed. "You're coming with me."

"What?!" Stiles jerked his arm away. "No, I'm not."

"You've barely left this room since we left Santa Francesca," Derek said. "You've missed two performances. You haven't touched the piano in over a week. You haven't been sleeping well."

Stiles spluttered. "I've been sleeping fine, thank you."

"No, he hasn't," John said.

Stiles gave him a betrayed glare, but John just went back to his soup as though he hadn't said anything.

"You're going to go practice for at least an hour," Derek said. "And then you're going back to your car and sleep. And tomorrow night, you're going to play at least one song in the performance."

"You're playing the piano in the circus?" John asked.

Stiles shuffled his feet and scratched the back of his neck. "Um. Yeah, a little."

"It's been one of our most popular acts," Derek said. "He's fantastic."

John set the bowl on his lap, staring at Stiles with a mixture of hope and sadness. "I'd like to hear you play, son."

Stiles swung around to gape at his dad. His mouth moved, but no sound came out.

"I'll ask Melissa," Derek said. "It shouldn't be a problem. We can get you a chair in the changing tent, if you don't want to stay through the whole performance."

"I...but..." Stiles flailed. "You can't even walk!"

John gave Stiles a flat look, and then turned to Derek. Admittedly, Derek hadn't known the man very long, but he was pretty sure that get him out of here before I drown myself in this soup look was universally understood.

Derek looped his arm around Stiles's neck and steered him out of the car, just as Melissa was on her way in. Derek didn't miss the grateful look she shot his way. Whether it was because she was tired of Stiles being underfoot or because she could see how exhausted he was, Derek couldn't say.

He gently prodded Stiles toward the end of the train. "Go, get some practice in. I want to hear that piano."

Stiles made a face, but he trotted on down the train and didn't try to head back into the infirmary. Derek figured that counted as progress.

He followed, not because he wanted to make sure Stiles went to the piano car, but because he was heading toward his own car to catch up on some paperwork he'd been putting off. And maybe he paused outside his own door to watch Stiles continue down the train. He was just ensuring Stiles didn't try to head back to the infirmary, that was all.

Derek pulled out the cash box and the show's schedule, adding Stiles back in for just one performance in the first act, and set it aside to take to Danny and Kira. The cash box was blessedly full after their shows in Santa Francesca, and they'd replenished a lot of their stores while they were in the Haven. It took a tremendous amount of stress off Derek's shoulders for the next few months.

After about fifteen minutes, he lifted his head and frowned. He should've heard the piano by now, or, failing that, he should've heard Stiles walking back toward the infirmary.

He shoved away from his desk and out of the car. He was going to make sure Stiles was practicing, damn it, or at least spending time somewhere that wasn't the infirmary. Maybe he was helping Danny in the lab with the mechanicals. Or he'd gone to see Marin about magic.

Derek didn't think either of those were actually true, but he could hope.

He slid open the door to the piano car, started to call Stiles's name, and stopped.

Stiles was asleep.

Sound asleep, passed out on the lid of the piano like he'd sat down with the intention to practice and just didn't make it there.

Derek sighed. Well, sleeping was something else he was okay with Stiles doing. God knew he needed it.

Of course, he probably didn't need to be in that uncomfortable position.

Derek walked around the piano and lifted Stiles off the bench as carefully as he could, so as not to wake him. Stiles made a complaining noise and shifted his weight, snuffling into Derek's shoulder and then breathing deep again.

Thankfully Stiles couldn't hear the way Derek's heart pounded harder.

He started to take Stiles back to Melissa's car, but decided halfway there to take him to his own car instead. Stiles only had that lumpy couch to sleep on. He'd be much more comfortable in Derek's bed, and it would be quieter, with less of a chance of people wandering in and out.

Temeraire lifted his head when Derek walked into the room and gave him a judgmental look, like he'd heard Derek's thoughts and found them dubious at best. Derek ignored it. He wasn't going to be judged for his decisions by a mechanical dragon.

He headed into his bedroom and laid Stiles on the bed, then pulled off his shoes and set them on the floor. The room wasn't too cold; Derek had had a fire going for a while, but he pulled the blanket over Stiles anyway.

It was the second time he'd put Stiles to sleep, and it was somehow worse than the first time. Now, Derek knew Stiles was a little shit, but he was also fiercely protective and loyal and brave. He also knew Stiles hadn't given him an answer about whether he wanted to stay with the circus. And now, that hurt more than it had just a few weeks ago.

Before he could second-guess himself, Derek leaned down and kissed Stiles's forehead.

Stiles's eyelashes fluttered. "Derek?" he mumbled sleepily.

Derek pulled back to an appropriate distance. Hopefully Stiles wasn't awake enough to see how red his cheeks were. "Yeah. You passed out on the piano. Get some sleep."

"Mm." Stiles flopped his hand around until he grabbed Derek's. "Stay."

His heart turned upside down at the words, and he rubbed his thumb along Stiles's fingers. "You sure?" he asked, though he wasn't sure Stiles was fully awake.

"Mm-hmm." Stiles burrowed his face in the pillow. "Stay."

He'd planned to work, but with Stiles asking him to stay, he couldn't bring himself to refuse.

Derek sat on the edge of the bed and picked his book up off the nightstand. He heard the steady click click click of metal toes on the floor, and Temeraire trotted into the room and hopped onto the bed, curling up on Stiles's other side.

"Get tired of the bookshelf?" Derek asked.

Temeraire snorted a delicate plume of smoke and rested his gold head on his front paws.

Derek flipped open his book to read, listening to Stiles's deep, even breathing and the quiet clicking of Temeraire's gears.

He didn't let go of Stiles's hand.

Stiles sleeping and Derek reading

***

As Derek had expected, Melissa had no problem with John attending the circus, although she thought sitting in the crowd would be a little much.

So that was how John ended up on Lydia's makeup stool, sitting just behind the off-stage curtain with most of the pack crowded around him, while Stiles played on the dais in the center of the ring. He was more confident now than he'd been in his first performance, but just as captivating. Even so, Derek found himself looking at John almost as much as he was looking at Stiles. He couldn't begin to describe the look on his face, except that it made his heart ache in sympathy. Derek had to turn away, rubbing his chest like that would somehow make it hurt less.

As soon as Stiles finished playing, to rousing applause, John whispered something to Melissa, and she nodded and helped him stand. They headed out the back of the tent, though Melissa threw an apologetic look back at them before she did.

After the performance, Derek went to the infirmary to check on him. John sat in his bed, fingers linked loosely in his lap, staring at the opposite wall. Melissa bustled around the counter at the back of the room, cleaning things up.

"How did you like the performance?" Derek asked.

John finally looked up at him, a sad smile on his face. "It was great," he said, with no small amount of feeling. "Just amazing. His mother would've been proud."

Melissa touched his shoulder. "I'm going to go get some things from the kitchen. I'll be right back."

John nodded, and Derek slid out of the way to let Melissa pass.

Derek stood in silence a moment, with the thought that he should say something but not entirely sure what he could say. He finally settled on asking "How are you feeling?"

John snorted. "As well as can be expected after a month in prison."

Of course. In retrospect, it sounded like a stupid question. Derek nodded, once again with the sensation that words were failing him. "I just wanted to make sure. You left early."

"Wasn't feeling much like a circus."

Something in John's demeanor—maybe the set of his shoulders, maybe the tone of his voice—told Derek he wasn't quite finished yet. So he waited.

Finally, John said, "He's good. Pretty popular with your crowds, right? They enjoy the music?"

"Very much." Derek sat on the edge of the other bed. "I told you he was one of the most popular acts."

"Good." John cleared his throat. "That's good to hear. And he told me he helps with the mechanicals?"

Derek wasn't entirely sure where this was going. "Yes, he helps Danny in the lab and keeps the mechanicals running."

"So you'd be willing to keep him on?"

Derek frowned. "Of course. I've told him so."

"Good," John said again, and leaned his head back against the wall. His blue eyes were sharp. "I'd appreciate it if you would."

"It's really not up to me at this point," Derek admitted. "It's his choice."

"Look, you all have a good setup here. Close, tight-knit family, with steady meals and someone who can teach him magic," John said. "I appreciate everything you've done for me. The care and the food, getting me out of there, keeping my son safe. But I'm...I can't pay you back."

This conversation still wasn't making a whole lot of sense. Derek frowned more. "You don't need to," he said. "My parents would rise up and strangle me for even considering it."

John scoffed. "Listen, son. I know how things are out here. You can't afford to keep us both, and I know I'm a liability. I'm just asking that you keep him."

Now everything clicked into place, and Derek wiped his hand over his face. "Sir—"

"For God's sake, call me John."

"John," Derek corrected, "you know the only reason Stiles joined up with us in the first place was to get to Santa Francesca to find you?"

John rolled his eyes, but his smile was fond. "Of course he did."

"The invitation to stay extends to you as well," Derek said.

"There's nothing—"

"There is always something you can do," Derek cut in. "Trust me. Just take a few shifts of cleaning the bathing car and you will more than earn your keep."

John snorted a laugh and looked off to the side. "I think it'll be a while before I'm up for something like that."

Derek shrugged. "That's fine. But don't...worry about paying us back. Just get better. And if you two decide you want to stay, you're welcome to. You've still got a few weeks to decide."

No matter what John said, Derek absolutely wasn't letting either of them leave in the middle of the winter while John was still recovering from his ordeal in the prison.

"So it's both or neither?" John said lightly, like he was trying to make a joke.

Derek stood. "I'm not an idiot. Stiles will go wherever you go."

John gave him a shrewd look. "You sure about that?"

He wasn't sure of much when it came to Stiles, but on this point, Derek felt rock-solid in his certainty. "Absolutely. I mean it, though. You're both welcome here."

Stiles already felt like pack, and John was getting there. It wasn't something Derek could explain, but it was happening, like a thrumming in his bones.

"Well, thank you," John said finally. "I'll keep that in mind."

Derek nodded. "You do that. Have a good night, sir."

"It's John."

***

It was both the best and the tensest winter they'd ever spent at Paradiso. Derek supposed part of that might have been the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia—he was fairly sure if there had been tension when he was young, his parents would have shielded him and his sisters from it—but he couldn't remember sitting on pins and needles like they did now. Every courier or traveler who came through Paradiso might have brought news of Santa Francesca, and every new day might have brought the Hunters down on their heads.

Even so, despite the low-level current of anxiety that ran through the pack—the way they all froze up and listened when someone new approached the area, the way no one really went out alone—it was a good winter. Great, even. Their performances in Santa Francesca had been even more well-attended than usual, and had given them a nice cushion of both money and supplies. Derek was enough of a businessman to admit that was a load off his mind.

Five days after John attended the circus performance, he joined them for pack dinner for the first time. The whole pack gave him a round of applause, and Stiles's jaw dropped in shock and he almost upended the table trying to make a place for his dad to sit. Melissa sat next to John to help him fill his plate, and smiled more than Derek had ever seen.

Two weeks after they reached Paradiso, Marin moved from Deaton's car into Laura's once again. Derek, Cora, and Boyd snuck out to have a private toast at the fact.

Three and a half weeks after their arrival, they got news from Santa Francesca that Satomi Ito had been elected mayor and Kali was officially the head of the Hunters. Apparently Deucalion and Ennis had been killed trying to stop escaping prisoners, who had left the city and headed south. That was a relief to hear, although none of the pack lifted the self-imposed cautious steps they'd been taking to keep the circus safe.

After forcing Stiles out of the infirmary, he went back to socializing with the pack like he had been before Santa Francesca, sleeping on the couch in Melissa's car and spending a good chunk of his days either with the piano or helping Danny in the lab. He even started meeting with Marin regularly to practice magic, the two of them trading stories of what they'd learned and honing their skills.

Derek was pleased to see the dark circles under his eyes fade, and even more pleased to see the walls he'd had since he'd joined the circus dropping away. Like he no longer had anything left to hide.

Maybe he didn't.

And that was both very good and very bad.

Good, because it meant he was more open with the pack. Laughing more, throwing his head back and letting it loose like he'd never heard anything so funny. Eating lunch with Scott and Allison, making up stupid songs with Erica and Boyd, helping Kira in the kitchen and Lydia in the costume car. It was like an additional piece of the pack puzzle Derek hadn't realized they'd needed until Stiles slid right in and made himself at home.

And that's why it was bad.

Because before, Derek had been able to keep his distance. It hadn't been hard to remember that Stiles had secrets, that Stiles was trouble. But now...

Now that wasn't the case.

Now he knew Stiles, not just the sarcastic asshole who sauntered his way onto Derek's train and practically demanded a job. He knew how intelligent and loyal and fiercely protective he was, how far he would go for the people he cared about. Derek had seen him vulnerable and open, had seen the way he poured himself into music.

All of that made the feelings he'd been fighting for weeks even stronger, and the worst part of it all was that he had no idea if Stiles would even want to stay. And Derek couldn't make himself bring it up again. He'd told Stiles, he'd told John; now it was up to them to decide what they wanted to do.

Until then, he would content himself with the bit of time they spent together, when Stiles would drag him back to the piano car to listen to a new piece or badger him into playing a duet for practice. It was the highlight of Derek's day, sitting next to him on the piano bench, pressed together from shoulder to knee, watching Stiles's fingers dance across the keys.

They'd walk back to their cars together when they stayed in the piano car too late, hopping off the walkways to stroll along the ground by the train, Stiles with his head tipped up toward the star-speckled sky. It was peaceful, and Derek treasured every one of those moments.

And as the weeks slipped closer to spring, Derek did his best not to think that Stiles might be slipping away, too.

Chapter Text

"Got any fives?" Stiles asked.

"Go fish," Dad said. "Sevens?"

Stiles grumbled under his breath and turned over both of his sevens. "How do you always do that?"

Dad grinned, blue eyes crinkling at the corners. "A magician never reveals his secrets."

Stiles made a face and pulled his cards as close to his chest as he could. It had been raining for two days, which meant they were stuck on the train, and it hadn't been long before Stiles had "liberated" Scott's playing cards to go kill some time with his dad. They were on their third round of Go Fish for the day.

Stiles skimmed his cards. "Uh, got any jacks?"

"Go fish."

"Son of a bitch," Stiles muttered, and drew from the pile on the table.

His dad smirked. "Aces?"

Stiles glared and turned over his one ace. Dad grinned wider and set the four cards down on his side of the table, forming his third book to Stiles's one. His dad was a beast at Go Fish.

They finished that game, Dad beating him soundly for the third time in a row, and Stiles gathered the cards to shuffle and deal them again. His dad had been cleared to leave the infirmary a week ago, but as there weren't a lot of spare bedrooms on the train and the infirmary was fairly private, Dad had just stayed there. Melissa had put away the second bed and got a small table and two chairs for the space, which made it a little homier. It wasn't large by any means, but Dad had said several times it was plenty big enough for him.

Privately, Stiles thought his dad was more interested in Melissa than in the size of the infirmary, but he wasn't going to say a word.

"So," Dad said as Stiles was dealing the cards, "Melissa says the circus is getting ready to pack up and head back out on the tracks."

Stiles knew that. Stiles had been steadfastly ignoring that. Now that he had his dad back, and Dad was well enough to travel...there wasn't really a reason for them to stay.

Aside from the fact that he really, really wanted to.

He cleared his throat and picked up his cards. "Yeah, Derek's mentioned it. The last performance is coming up pretty fast and he wants to do something special."

"Hm." Dad frowned at his own cards. "Have you given any thought to his invitation?"

"What invitation?" Stiles asked. "And do you have any twos?"

Dad pulled a card out of his hand and passed it over. "His invitation to stay with the circus. Got any fives?"

"I, uh..." Stiles bounced his leg nervously. "Not really. Go fish."

Dad drew from the pile between them and regarded his cards. "Why not?"

Stiles picked at the edges of his cards. "Because...I mean, it's not like we can. It's not like I can," he clarified. "They...the Hunters destroyed Beacon Hills because they were looking for me." His throat tightened, and Stiles had to clear it a few times to speak. "And I can't see them do that to the circus, Dad. I can't."

Dad folded his cards on the table. "Stiles, that wasn't your fault. You know that."

"I know," he said quickly. "I know that, but it doesn't change that me being around here will probably get them into trouble. And I know Kali is heading up the Hunters now, but...I mean, you really think she's going to wave her hand and three hundred years of bullshit is just going to go away? Like, everything's totally fine now, mages welcome everywhere?" Hot tears prickled at the back of his eyes, and Stiles stared at the table. He would not cry over this. He wouldn't. "This isn't something that's fixed overnight."

"You're right," Dad said quietly. "It's not something that's fixed overnight. There are still lots of people who will be just as vehement about finding mages, maybe some even more so now that the Hunters are turning their focus elsewhere."

Stiles nodded miserably.

"But that doesn't mean you have to spend your life running from them," Dad said. "If they're going to come after you either way, and they're going to come after the circus for helping you regardless, why not stay?"

Stiles looked up, unable to believe his ears.

Dad shrugged. "Everyone here knows what you are and not a one of them cares. Hell, you aren't even the only mage. And I don't think Marin has plans to leave."

"She did once before," Stiles pointed out.

Dad snorted. "Yeah, and look how that turned out."

Stiles crossed his arms over his chest and sat back in the chair. He just...he'd never let himself think of actually saying yes, of truly being able to stay.

"Your mother," Dad cleared his throat, "you know, she didn't want to tell me what she was. I guessed. And she looked so horrified when I asked her, like she thought I was going to turn her in. Her parents had thrown her out when her powers manifested."

Stiles gaped at him. "I didn't know that."

"We didn't want to tell you," Dad said. "On the off chance you were like her, you mother swore she didn't want you to think for even a minute that we would cast you out."

"I wouldn't," Stiles shook his head. "I would never have thought that. You and Mom...I know you were always trying to protect me."

Dad rubbed his hand over the back of his neck and sighed. "We were, but I still think we made you too damn paranoid for your own good."

Stiles raised his eyebrows. "Seriously, Dad? Seriously? It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you."

"I know, but—" His dad cut off with a huff. "But it doesn't mean you should live cut off from everyone else. And after your mom...well, I was so scared of losing you I probably didn't help matters."

Stiles swallowed hard. "It wasn't just you. I saw the way people treated Mom after they found out about her. They avoided her on the street, like it was something they could catch. They talked about her like she couldn't hear them. It was..."

Awful. It had been awful, and even if his dad hadn't been worried about losing him, no amount of money in the world would have induced Stiles to tell anyone that he could use magic.

His dad shook his head. "No. Listen to me. Forget everything about that, forget what you can or can't do, what you should or shouldn't. What do you want? Do you want to stay here?"

Stiles bit his lip and looked down at the table, its scarred wooden surface blurring. He slowly nodded.

"Okay then," Dad said. "We'll stay."

Stiles snapped his head up. "But—"

"But nothing," Dad said sharply. "I know what your mother told you about keeping to yourself. But she didn't know there would be a place like this," he gestured to the train, "where you wouldn't have to hide, where you have people who care about you...she wouldn't want you to be alone."

"What about you?" Stiles asked. "Do you want to stay?"

Dad got a look in his eyes Stiles hadn't seen before, something a little sad and a little hopeful at the same time. "Yeah. Yeah, I think I do."

Stiles put on his best innocent face. "That doesn't have anything to do with Melissa, does it?"

Dad narrowed his eyes, but he was blushing. That was definitely a blush. "She's a good woman."

"Yeah, she is. If we're going to stay," and wasn't that a strange sentence to say, "you should totally go for it."

Dad rolled his eyes. "I'm glad I have your permission. So what about you?"

Stiles frowned. "What about me what?"

Dad gave him a don't even pretend you don't know what I'm talking about look. "What about you and Derek?"

Stiles choked on nothing. "What? We don't—I'm not—there isn't—"

"Uh-huh." Dad sounded spectacularly skeptical.

"There's not," Stiles insisted. "You are reading way, way too much into things, okay? Like, so much more into things than what's there. We're not—Derek's not—there isn't anything to read."

Dad rubbed his temple. "Right. Well, we'll cross that bridge later, then. So." He clapped his hands. "We're staying?"

Staying. They were talking about staying. The thought was exhilarating and terrifying all at once. "I...yeah. Yeah, we're staying."

Dad grinned. "We're staying."

Stiles wiped his hands over his face and laughed. "We're staying," he said again, just to hear the words aloud. They were going to stay.

"Well," Dad stood, "we should probably let them know to expect two extra places at meals from now on. And you should probably tell Derek he's not losing his piano act."

Stiles laughed again. He felt lighter than he had in years, and he was shaking with it, like his body was so used to the weight it had forgotten how to live without it.

"Staying," he whispered.

He'd never heard a word so beautiful.

***

Rain pounded steadily on the roof of the car, and Derek flipped through his book while Temeraire flopped across his desk like a cat, gears humming contentedly. Derek lifted his coffee mug out of the way of one lazily flapping wing.

Day two of the same soaking rain made it difficult to want to leave the dry warmth of the train cars for anything other than a required performance. The rain had melted what snow and ice had been left, which meant the ground around the tent and train was covered with mud and puddles half a foot deep. Erica had suggested adding mud wrestling as an act for their last few performances. Laura and Derek had nominated Boyd to talk her out of it.

Less than two weeks remained before they'd pack up and head south. Derek had been focusing on getting letters out to the outposts they'd be visiting first and reviewing some changes to the performances with Danny, Kira, Laura, and Boyd. Most of it would be the same, but they liked to try changing up the acts to keep things fresh.

He avoided looking at the question mark next to Stiles's piano performances. He still had no idea if Stiles was going to stay, and he very much did not want to think about it right now.

Someone knocked on his door, and before Derek could tell them to go away, it slid open and Stiles poked his head in. "Heya, boss."

His heart jumped painfully, and Derek scowled at himself. "Are you actually out in this weather?"

Stiles drummed his fingers on the side of the door. "Eh, the walkways are covered. I'm heading to the piano car. Want to come?"

Derek made a show of sighing heavily, but he put his book away and grabbed his coat. From the grin on Stiles's face, he knew damn well Derek was just being dramatic.

They ambled down the walkways, Derek on the outside so that he could keep what little rain blew onto the walkway from hitting Stiles. Stiles practically bounced beside him, like he'd tied springs to his shoes and couldn't quite keep himself tethered to the ground.

Derek shoved his hands in his pockets. "You in a good mood?"

"Yeah. Had a good talk with my dad."

Derek raised his eyebrows, but Stiles, in a shockingly uncharacteristic display, didn't elaborate.

They reached the piano car, and Derek yanked the door open. It slid smoothly, Danny having oiled it once they'd started using it more often, and Derek felt a pang at the thought of the piano once again going into storage, never being pulled out for another performance.

Stiles tossed his jacket haphazardly over the nearest box. Derek rolled his eyes and picked it up to hang both their jackets on a hook on the wall.

Stiles lit the lanterns in the car with a haphazard flick of his wrist and settled on the piano bench, and patted the seat next to him. "Come on, play with me. I found another duet I want to try."

Derek sat, watching like a moon-eyed cow as Stiles pulled out the sheet music and arranged it, his tongue poking out from between his lips in his concentration.

He was going to miss this.

A part of his mind poked at him incessantly, reminding him that he should just ask if Stiles was staying, but he didn't want to push. Stiles would tell him, one way or the other, when he was ready. And if the answer was "no," well...Derek honestly didn't want to know any sooner than he had to.

He pushed the thoughts away and squinted at the music Stiles had put in front of him. "Where did you find this?"

"Rummaging through some old stuff with Danny and Jackson earlier this week," Stiles said. "Danny said I should find some new songs for the last couple of performances, so I grabbed a bunch of the sheet music we found." He shrugged. "Let's give it a try."

Derek leaned closer to the music and picked out the first few measures until he was fairly sure he could play them well, and Stiles did the same. And when Stiles nodded, they played through it together.

Shit. He remembered this song. An image of his parents sitting together on the piano bench flashed in his mind, as they played together in front of the crowds.

As soon as they finished, Derek yanked his hands off the keyboard, overwhelmed by just missing them.

"Sorry," Stiles said softly. "Was it too much?"

Derek shook his head. "No, it's just...haven't heard it since they played it, you know? I didn't realize it was theirs at first."

Stiles nodded and twisted his fingers in his lap. "Would you...would you want to hear it more?"

Derek frowned, trying to figure out exactly what Stiles was asking. "You want to play it at the final performance in Paradiso? I'm not sure I have time to learn the part well enough."

"Maybe not then." Stiles shrugged. "We could wait until you knew it better. Made sure we got plenty of practice in. Maybe we could include it at, like, the first show back on the road. Or the one after that? If you wanted?"

Derek stared at him, unable to believe his ears, because the only way they'd be able to play this song on the road was if... "Are you staying?"

Stiles scratched a hand through his hair and shrugged again, like it wasn't a big deal. Like he wasn't answering all of Derek's hopes with this single conversation. "Um, well, if the invitation still stands for me and my dad, then, uh...we talked about it. And yeah. We'd like to stay. If you'll still have us."

"You want to stay," Derek repeated. "With...with us." With me.

"Yeah." Stiles finally met his eyes with an unusually shy smile. "It's been impressed upon me that I'm pack. And I'd kind of like to stay that way."

So would I, Derek thought. I'd kind of like you to stay forever.

He was, though. He wasn't leaving. Derek wasn't going to watch him take off, wondering when or if they'd ever see each other again. Stiles was going to stay.

"We'd like that, too." Derek pressed his lips together, trying to control his stupidly happy grin. "We should go tell the rest of the pack."

"You think they'll be happy?" Stiles asked, eyes bright with hope.

"I think they'll be thrilled."

Chapter Text

It was a testament to the ingenuity of his pack, Derek decided, that they could throw together a party in less than three hours. As soon as Kira and Lydia found out Stiles and John were staying, Kira had shrieked and Lydia had gotten a gleam in her eye that Derek had long ago learned meant to stay the hell out of her way.

Now the table in the dining car was piled high with food and all the benches and chairs had been moved out into other cars, which left them with just enough room for everyone to fit in the car and still have enough space to dance. The rain had slowed to a trickle, so they'd thrown open the windows to let some fresh air in, since seventeen people in a confined space (most of them shifters who ran hot) would get overly warm quickly.

Erica had pointed out that they could still do it outside. Lydia flatly vetoed the idea, and Boyd had facepalmed.

"Why is she so obsessed with the idea of doing stuff in the mud?" Stiles had whispered to Derek when Erica flounced off, pouting.

"No idea," Derek had whispered back.

Now, he stood near one of the windows, relishing the cool breeze and watching his pack. Kira played the guitar and sang, while Isaac accompanied her on pipes and Deaton on a fiddle Derek had completely forgotten he had. Cora and Lydia were first on the dance floor, but he wasn't surprised to see Laura and Marin join them shortly thereafter. He was surprised to see John bashfully hold out his hand to Melissa, who actually giggled and let him pull her into a dance. On the other side of the room, Scott and Stiles high-fived each other.

Over the past hour, Derek had seen most of the pack make their way around to Stiles, John, and Marin, welcoming them to the pack in the first case and back in the second. Stiles had a look of wonder on his face every time someone hugged him, like he hadn't been expecting this level of welcome. Like he hadn't been expecting any of it.

Derek was going to make sure he started expecting it, though.

After about an hour, Danny and Jackson disappeared out the door, which Derek didn't worry about until he heard something thudding around on the roof of the car.

He did a quick check—everyone else was still in the dining car, either dancing or talking—so he slipped outside and climbed halfway up the ladder.

Sure enough, Danny and Jackson were crouched on the roof, doing something Derek couldn't quite make out in the dark of the night.

He hooked one arm around the top rung of the ladder. "The hell are you two up to?"

"None of your business," Jackson said.

Danny swatted him. "A surprise. Give us, oh, three minutes? Then bring everyone out here."

"I'm afraid to ask," Derek said.

"Then don't," Jackson said. "We aren't going to burn down the dining car."

"Probably," Danny said.

Derek pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. "For God's sake."

He climbed back down to see Allison poking her head out of the dining car. "What are they up to?" she asked.

"No idea, but we're going to find out in three minutes."

Someone hissed above them, and Derek looked up to see Jackson peering over the edge of the roof. "Okay, we're ready. Get everybody onto the walkway."

Derek looked back to Allison, who shrugged and went back into the dining car, calling out that Danny and Jackson had a surprise. Slowly, the pack filed out, cramming themselves onto the walkway, elbowing to get a spot at the railing.

Stiles sidled down the side of the car and over to Derek, an incandescent smile on his face. "Hey, dude, great party."

Derek scowled at him. "My name is Mr. Hale, not dude."

Stiles leaned in so close that their noses almost brushed. "You aren't going to call me 'kid'?"

Derek's heart pounded harder, and he made himself face forward, staring out across the muddy ground to the forest beyond the circus clearing. "Technically, you're not the newest member of the circus anymore." He nodded over at John. "Your dad is."

Stiles threw back his head and laughed. "Oh my God. Oh my God, I will pay you whatever you want if I can just see Boyd call my dad 'kid.' Please. I'm begging."

Derek grinned. "I'll see what I can do."

Just then, something crackled and whooshed above them, a stream of fire shooting off from the top of the dining car toward the trees. For one heart-stopping second, Derek thought something had happened, until the fire faded and exploded in a rainbow of colors against the night sky.

"Fireworks!" Allison and Scott yelled in unison.

The rest of the pack whooped and cheered.

They watched the fireworks shoot out into the dark, exploding in patterns and sparkles and dozens of colors. It was beautiful, but it wasn't quite as beautiful as Stiles's face, awed and open, reflecting the lights of the fireworks.

Derek wanted to reach out and take Stiles's hand, wanted to lean over and kiss his cheek, but he clenched his fist and held back. Stiles had only just agreed to stay. There would be plenty of time to find out how he felt, to see if there could be anything more than friendship between them.

And if not, well, Derek had dealt with worse. He would survive.

After about five minutes, one final firework exploded in a shower of golden sparkles, and then Danny and Jackson clambered down the ladder, covered in soot and grinning widely. The entire pack clapped and cheered.

"Welcome, new pack members, to Hale's Circus of Monsters, Magic, and Mystical Wonders!" Danny yelled.

"Or as you may know it..." Jackson continued.

"The Circus at the End of the World!" the entire pack yelled together, before dissolving into whoops and cheers once again.

Danny and Jackson clapped each other on the back and headed into the dining car, the rest of the pack trailing in after them, chattering about the fireworks. Derek hung back and watched them all go.

Stiles stopped at the door. "Aren't you coming back in?"

Derek shook his head. "Someone's got to make sure you all are ready for the performance tomorrow." He stepped forward, close enough that he could smell Stiles, his scent mixed with the smell of the pack. "Good night, Stiles."

Stiles bounced on the balls of his feet, gnawing on his lip like he was thinking about something, and then he lunged forward and threw his arms around Derek in a hug.

Derek hugged him back, probably a little too eagerly, and half-closed his eyes. Three months ago, he'd never have believed how right it would feel to have Stiles here with them. Now he couldn't imagine anything else.

"Thank you," Stiles whispered. "For helping me get my dad back. For letting us stay."

Derek nodded into his shoulder. Everything he might say sounded trite, so he settled for the truth. "I'm glad you're staying."

The hug lingered a beat longer before Stiles pulled back. "Good night, Derek."

This was it. This was when he could lean in and kiss him.

Instead, Derek just returned the smile. "Good night," he said again, and headed back to his car, leaving the party behind.

***

This was the stupidest idea Stiles had ever had.

Okay, no, breaking his dad out of the Santa Francesca prison was the stupidest idea he'd ever had, but this was definitely a close second.

But dammit, watching his dad and Melissa dance together had made him want that for himself. And he was sick and tired of holding back out of fear.

He raised his hand, and for the second time that day, knocked on Derek's door.

This time, he waited for Derek to open the door, rather than barging on in.

It took a couple of minutes, but soon he heard footsteps, and then the door slid open. Derek had rolled his sleeves up and unbuttoned his shirt, making him look slightly less put together than he had been earlier. Stiles had to drag his eyes away from Derek's forearms.

Derek frowned. "Stiles? Is everything okay?"

"It's fine," Stiles said quickly. "Like, nobody's hurt or anything. I mean, well, Erica and Cora got drunk and are sparring in the mud outside the dining car, but I'm pretty sure they'll both be okay."

Derek dragged his hand over his face. "For God's sake. Do I need to drag them to the bathing car?"

"Nah, I think Boyd was going to handle it." Why did he always get so off-topic when he tried to talk? "But that's not why I came here."

"Why, then?" Derek asked.

He didn't have a reason, beyond the most obvious one. He couldn't even come up with anything that would give him the flimsiest of excuses. Stiles took a deep breath and said, "I wanted to see you."

Derek's eyebrows ticked upward, and he said nothing for the longest moment. Just when Stiles was convinced he was going to be shut out, Derek stepped aside and pushed the door open further.

Stiles took the invitation, and practically jumped across the threshold before Derek could change his mind.

Derek walked back to his desk and pulled out the decanter of rum Stiles was very familiar with at this point. He'd gotten a refill at Santa Francesca, and even after two months, the decanter was still more than half full.

"You really don't drink much, do you," Stiles commented.

Derek pulled down two glasses and poured a bit into each one. "Not really. This doesn't do much for me, but I like the taste." He picked up one glass and nodded to the other. "So why did you want to see me?"

The question hung in the air, and there really wasn't anything Stiles could say aside from the truth. "I just...wanted to see you," he repeated.

Derek stopped mid-drink and set his glass back down on the desk, staring at Stiles like he'd suddenly realized there was something behind the words he was saying.

No turning back now. Stiles took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "Right now, my dad is with Melissa, Erica's with Boyd, Scott's with Allison and Isaac, and I'm just watching all of them and I...I wanted to see you. I wanted..."

I wanted to be with you, he thought, but he couldn't actually make himself say the words. He already felt too open, like he'd jumped off a cliff and he was falling, the ground rushing toward him.

Derek strode around the desk and stood in front of him, close enough that Stiles could feel the heat from his body but just far enough that they weren't touching. The look on his face was disconcerting and unreadable, and made Stiles's heart beat faster. It definitely didn't help the swooping sensation in his stomach.

He didn't say anything, just stood there, his multi-hued eyes searching Stiles's like they were looking for the secret of the universe.

"Oh my God, will you do something?" Stiles burst out. "Say something? I don't—"

Derek kissed him.

Well, that qualified as doing something.

It wasn't a soft, gentle press of the lips. It was insistent, demanding, and Stiles's brain short-circuited at the prickle of stubble against his skin, at the scrape of teeth along his lower lip. He wrapped his arms around Derek's neck and held on for dear life.

Derek pulled back and rested his forehead against Stiles's, breathing as hard as though he'd run the full length of the train. "Okay?"

Stiles nodded, breathless, and tangled his fingers in Derek's soft hair. "So okay."

Derek smiled—a real, full, heart-stopping smile—and kissed him again.

Stiles thought he was going to levitate right out of the train car. He'd been falling, but now he was flying, soaring, and Derek was right there with him.

Big hands dropped to his ass, and then the backs of his thighs, and the next thing Stiles knew, he was being lifted and carried. Derek swiped something off the desk that landed on the floor with a clatter, but Stiles only distantly heard it because Derek was supporting his weight with one arm and still kissing him.

That was extremely arousing.

Derek set him on the desk, and Stiles huffed and spread his legs. Derek stepped between them, pressing against him from groin to chest, a line of heat that sent the most delicious shivers up Stiles's spine. His dick throbbed at the contact, and Stiles let out a little bitten-off whine.

Derek stopped kissing him and pulled away again, gasping for air. He didn't go far, thankfully, so Stiles could keep his hands buried in his hair. His eyes were dazed and his lips were red and all Stiles could think was how much he wanted to pull Derek back in and ruin him. And be ruined in return. There would be so much ruining.

"We don't have to do anything," Derek said, eyes skipping from Stiles's gaze to his mouth, like he couldn't decide where to look. "We can wait."

Stiles locked his legs around Derek's waist, yanking him back in with a movement that made Derek's eyes flash red. "Waiting's overrated."

Derek bared his fangs, and it probably said something was terribly wrong with Stiles that it made his hips jerk forward, grinding his dick into Derek's.

Derek dropped his head to his shoulder, breath hot against Stiles's neck. "You're going to be the death of me."

"Hopefully not before we fuck," Stiles said. "I'd like to come at least once before you—"

Derek growled, and slipped one hand between them to undo the buttons on Stiles's pants and shove his hand inside.

Stiles made a noise he was pretty sure he'd never made before in his life, not even when he'd been experimenting with fingering himself while jerking off. Derek's hand was broader than his own, dragging over Stiles's dick in slow, steady strokes that should have burned more than they did. He licked at Stiles's neck, sucking lazily at his jaw, and Stiles was still racing toward orgasm faster than he ever had in his life.

"Derek," he panted, his voice breathy. "I'm close, I'm—"

Derek stroked him faster and bit his neck.

It pulled him over the edge, like someone had set off a firework inside him, and Stiles came with a shout. His bones turned to water, and he slumped forward onto Derek, shaking too hard to continue holding himself up. Thank God Derek had put him on the desk.

Derek kissed his neck, then his cheek, and then lifted his hand to his mouth and licked it clean.

Stiles whined, and his dick made a weak attempt at stiffening once again. He'd need at least a few more minutes, though. "I should not find that as attractive as I do."

Derek's smirk was positively wolfish. "So what would you like to do now?"

His brain screeched to a halt, trying to come up with all the answers he had for that question. "I would really like to see you naked," Stiles blurted out. "And maybe get my hands on your dick. Or other body parts."

Derek laughed and leaned in to kiss him again. "That can be arranged."

He hefted Stiles up and carried him into the bedroom, dropping them both onto the bed. Behind him, Stiles heard a mechanical screech, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw Temeraire scramble off the bed, still clicking angrily.

He wiped his hands over his face. "Oh my God, I can't believe we almost did that on top of your dragon."

Derek buried his face in Stiles's neck, laughing helplessly.

Derek's laugh did something to Stiles's stomach, something warm and prickling at the same time, like his smile had earlier. God, he was gone, he was so far gone it wasn't even funny. Stiles thought he should be worried about it, but then Derek kissed him again, slow and deep, pressing him into the mattress, and. Well.

He had more important things to think about.

When Derek broke away for air this time, he unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged out of it, tossing it to the floor. For the first time, Stiles saw the unbroken expanse of his chest and the dark whorls of hair, narrowing into a line where it dove down toward his navel and pants. He'd known Derek would be beautiful, but having all this on display... "God, you're gorgeous," Stiles breathed out.

Derek ducked his head, like he was shy at hearing the praise. "You know, I'd like to see you, too."

Stiles almost wrenched his arms out of their sockets trying to get out of his shirt, and he flung it off in the same direction Derek's had gone. Thankfully, his pants were already unbuttoned, so it was easy to slide them the rest of the way down, although they got tangled up at his shoes.

Derek laughed again, but quieter this time, and he knelt and helped Stiles untangle himself. Stiles's whole body burned with embarrassment. "Sorry. I realize that's probably the unsexiest thing in the entire world."

Derek shook his head and set Stiles's pants and boots aside. "No. Not at all." He rested one hand on Stiles's knee, idly tracing a circle there with his thumb. "You're sexy, Stiles."

Stiles squirmed at the words and had to look away from Derek's earnest gaze. "I'm sure you guessed, but I haven't really done," he waved his hand between them, "this before. So I'm a little nervous."

Derek frowned and squeezed his knee. "We don't have to do anything else. If you'd rather just—"

He looked so concerned it made Stiles's heart ache. He leaned forward and kissed Derek on the forehead, right where his brow furrowed. "I want to. I'm just nervous, that's all."

Derek stared at him, eyes searching Stiles's face once more, but whatever he was looking for, he must have found. He took Stiles's hand and kissed the knuckles. "We'll take it slow, then."

"Not too slow," Stiles joked, but it didn't lighten the mood.

If anything, the air between them thickened with something Stiles couldn't quite describe. Derek's gaze heated, and he straightened. "Slow," he said again, and kissed him.

The kiss was deeper than the others, achingly slow, the way Derek explored his mouth like they had nothing but time. It was less urgent, less harsh, and Stiles found himself sinking into the sensation. He ran his hands up Derek's arms, shivering at the feeling of his skin, and Derek pushed him, gently, until he was lying on the bed and Derek was on top of him.

Stiles was revising his opinion on slow. Slow was very, very good. Slow was a delicious torture, the lazy drag of Derek's stubble against his cheek, the barest hint of teeth in the kiss. Slow was the simmer of desire under his skin, the heady buzz everywhere he and Derek touched. Slow was getting him hard again.

"You still have your pants on," Stiles murmured between kisses.

"Mm." Derek kissed over his cheek. "We'll have to fix that."

With one last, languid kiss, Derek stood and undid his pants, sliding them down and off without even a hint of shyness. His cock jutted out from a dark thatch of hair, thick and uncut, and Stiles's mouth watered a little.

He sat up again and reached out hesitatingly. "Can I?"

Derek nodded, eyes glowing faintly red.

Stiles wrapped his hand around it, experimentally stroked a few times. Derek made a noise halfway between a hiss and a whine. Stiles grimaced. "Is that okay?"

Derek nodded again. "Yes. Very."

Stiles took the opportunity to explore further. Derek's cock was thicker than his own, but shorter and more veiny. Stiles traced the veins first with his fingers, and then, emboldened by the noises Derek made, with his tongue.

Derek cursed and his eyes flashed brilliantly red. "You're going to kill me."

Stiles snorted. "Yeah, right."

He slipped his lips over the head of Derek's cock, taking him as deep as he could. That wasn't nearly as deep as Stiles would have wanted, but oh well. It was his first time.

By the way Derek's hand tightened in his hair, Stiles guessed he didn't care.

He lapped at Derek's slit, where pre-come leaked, and gently worked his way around the foreskin, moving his hand up and down near the base of Derek's cock as he did. Derek made the most beautiful noises, soft moans and softer curses, twisting his fingers in Stiles's hair.

Derek groaned. "Fuck, Stiles, you need to stop."

Stiles took that as encouragement to suck harder once more before he pulled away. "Why?"

Derek rubbed his thumb over Stiles's lips. "Because I'm getting close, and I'd really like to fuck you tonight. Or for you to fuck me. Either one, really."

Stiles gaped. "Holy—yes. I want both of those things as well."

"Have a preference for tonight?" Derek asked.

Just the thought of either rendered Stiles speechless. He moved his mouth, but no sound came out. He wanted both, he wanted everything.

"Why don't I fuck you, and then next time, we can switch it up?"

Stiles nodded so hard he thought he might break something. "That works. That's perfect. That's—yeah."

Derek leaned over and kissed him gently. "Do you want to open yourself up, or should I?"

Stiles's eyes widened even more. "Um, maybe you should, I haven't done this a lot—or at all, really—well, the opening thing a little bit, but not so much the rest, and—"

Derek kissed him again. "Then lie down on your stomach."

Stiles did, wiggling up the mattress until he was comfortable, his stomach churning in anticipation. He turned his head to look behind him and see what Derek was doing, because the idea of not seeing just made his stomach churn more.

Derek opened a drawer and pulled out a glass jar of something—oil, presumably—and dipped one of his fingers in it. Then he set it back down on the table next to the bed and settled himself next to Stiles's legs. "You'll need to spread them for me."

Stiles buried his face in the pillow and did, face burning with embarrassment and excitement. What if he wasn't good at this? What if Derek didn't like it? What if—

A warm, slick finger rubbed right down the crack of his ass and over his hole, and Stiles nearly jumped out of his skin. "Holy shit!"

"Is this okay?" Derek asked.

His skin tingled all over. "That is, um, definitely okay," Stiles said. "I just wasn't expecting it. It's different than when I do it."

"Usually is," Derek said, and Stiles swore he could hear the smirk in his voice.

One broad hand rested on his cheek, pulling him open, and that time Stiles was expecting the finger. It still made him flinch, but then Derek kissed his other cheek. Stiles would never have said he was sensitive there, but from the shudder running up his spine at the prickle of Derek's stubble, clearly he was.

Derek's finger slipped inside him, and Stiles tensed involuntarily.

"Relax," Derek murmured, pressing kisses along his lower back. "I've got you."

Stiles pressed his face into the pillow and focused on the kisses, the way they made him squirm, and slowly relaxed. Derek's finger slipped farther in, and it felt weird, but also good, and the good-weird made it very difficult for Stiles to make up his mind how he felt about it.

Then Derek's finger twisted and found a spot that made it go from "weird and good" to one hundred percent fantastic.

"Oh my God," Stiles groaned into the pillow.

"Good?" Derek asked.

"Yes."

Derek rumbled and nipped at his ass. "Let me know when you're ready for a second."

Stiles wasn't sure he would be ready for a second, but Derek fucked him steadily with the one finger, murmuring soothing nonsense into his skin, until Stiles found himself panting, hips moving of their own accord.

"More," he said.

When Derek pressed into him again, it was with two fingers, not just the one. It burned, and Stiles winced, but then the burning disappeared almost immediately after.

He lifted his head and looked back. "What are you doing?"

Derek kneaded his ass with the hand that wasn't currently two fingers deep in him. "Taking your pain. I don't want you to hurt."

Stiles let his head flop back onto the pillow. "It's okay. I want to feel it. I want to feel you, I want to know when it's—"

Derek growled, and the burning returned, though not quite as intense as it had been. It was just on the edge of pain/pleasure, and Stiles squirmed with it. His cock leaked onto the sheets underneath him with each of Derek's thrusts. He was so hard now it was aching, and previously Stiles wouldn't have thought he could get it up again so quickly, but Derek was proving him wrong about a lot of things.

Stiles had never been so happy to be proven wrong in his entire life.

But right now, he was starting to get a little tired of being fingered.

"Can you fuck me yet?" he gasped out.

Derek laughed. At least, he thought it was a laugh. He sounded breathless. "Not yet. After three. Think you're ready?"

"Oh my God, please, yes." Stiles wiggled his ass and pushed back, as if that would somehow get the third finger in him right then. "Much longer and I'm going to come before you can ever get inside me."

Derek nipped his ass, and Stiles yelped, more out of surprise than any actual pain.

"You're such a little shit," Derek said, but it sounded fond.

"You sure you want to say that when—homygod."

Three fingers stretched him into incoherency, and all Stiles could do was cling to the pillow and shove his ass back, seeking more.

Derek gave it to him, pumping three fingers in and out of his ass, lighting him up from the inside. God, he really was going to come just from this, just from Derek's fingers, and—

The fingers vanished, leaving Stiles unbearably empty, and he whimpered out a curse. "Fuck, why are you stopping?"

"Because," Derek said, his voice low and right in Stiles's ear, "I thought you wanted me to fuck you."

The blunt head of Derek's cock pressed against his hole, and Stiles bit down on the pillow and whimpered again. Slowly, torturously, Derek slid into him. Stiles arched back, tried to get him to move faster, but Derek just put a hand on his hip and held him there.

After an eternity, Derek settled flush against his ass, filling him completely. He lay over Stiles, legs pressed against his, chest against his back, forehead resting on the back of Stiles's head. It felt like being covered entirely, a safe blanket wrapping him both inside and out.

He couldn't catalog the feeling swelling in his chest, choking him, so Stiles rolled his hips, trying to get Derek to move.

Derek cursed softly in his ear, and then started thrusting, still slowly but at least he was moving, his dick doing things to Stiles with each slow drag.

Stiles whined. "Faster."

Derek kissed the sweaty back of his neck. "I promised you slow."

"Yes, you did, and believe me, you've converted me, but I'm going to go out of my damn mind if you don't fuck me."

Another sweet drag in and out, scrambling his brain. "I am fucking you," Derek said.

"Harder," Stiles burst out. "Please, just—"

Derek cursed softly and steadily increased his pace. Not much, and it didn't reach hard, but it was enough to have Stiles sobbing into the pillow, unable to do anything but feel.

And God, it felt so good. So good to have the heat of Derek's body over him, inside him, their sweat-slick skin sliding over each other. Each thrust hit him in the spot that took Stiles closer to the edge, making him clutch the pillow harder and curse each time Derek drove into him.

He wasn't sure what he had expected from sex, but it hadn't been this. It hadn't been heat and sweat and this sensation of being so utterly filled. It hadn't been Derek panting into his neck, pressing small kisses there, nipping at his skin just enough to make Stiles moan. It hadn't been the feeling of being vulnerable and completely, totally safe at the same time.

His hips met Derek's thrust for thrust, pressing his own dick into the bed with each movement, friction that was just on the edge of not enough. It was maddening and wonderful and a thousand other things Stiles didn't have words for.

Derek's hips moved faster, snapping now, his dick hitting Stiles perfectly each time. It was too much, taking him closer to the edge, and the next thing Stiles knew, he was tumbling over it.

He came so hard his vision sparkled at the edges, his whole body shuddering with the intensity of it. Seconds later, Derek thrust fully into him and choked out his name like a prayer, and then collapsed in a trembling heap.

Some tiny part of Stiles thought he should be concerned that Derek's full weight was on him, but really it just made him feel even safer.

He fumbled out with one hand and grabbed Derek's, bringing it in to kiss his knuckles.

Derek stirred on top of him. "Wow."

"I think we're somewhere past wow, big guy," Stiles said, and when had his voice gotten so shaky?

Derek's weight shifted off him and he pulled out, and for one heart-stopping moment Stiles thought he was leaving. His afterglow dissipated, and he struggled to sit up. "Hey, what are you—"

Derek held up a cloth. "Cleaning us up. And we should probably change the sheets before we fall asleep."

"Oh." Stiles looked down at the covers and the wet spot he'd left behind. "You, uh. You want me to stay?"

Derek stilled and cautiously looked over to him. "If you want. I would. Yes."

Stiles reached over and threaded their fingers together. "Yeah, I want."

***

They stripped their sweaty sex sheets and remade the bed. Stiles felt slightly awkward at climbing back into bed with Derek when he knew they weren't going to do anything but sleep.

As soon as he was within arm's reach, Derek grabbed him and pulled him close, manhandling him until Stiles was tucked up under his side.

But apparently Stiles's brain couldn't leave well enough alone. "So...what happens now? We sleep together, and tomorrow...?"

"Tomorrow, we have sex again, if you'd like, and then we go get breakfast with the rest of the pack," Derek said. "Unless...did you want this to just be a one-time thing?"

Stiles shook his head vehemently. "No! I mean, I don't want it to just be a one-time thing. I want all the sex with you. And, you know...maybe more things. I still can't believe you're into me."

Derek huffed and tightened his arm around Stiles. "Believe it."

"I'm trying."

There was silence for a moment, and then Derek said, "I've wanted you for a while now. I just didn't want to say anything until I knew you were staying. And then...I didn't want you to feel pressured."

Stiles rolled over until he could look Derek in the eye. "Pressured?"

Derek pointed to himself. "Ringmaster. Alpha. I didn't want you to think your position in the circus depended on you saying yes. Regardless of what happens between us, this is your home now, as long as you want it to be."

The overwhelming feeling in his chest was back, and Stiles buried his face in Derek's chest, trying to breathe through it. Derek stroked his back, a soothing rhythm.

When his chest and throat were no longer tight, Stiles spoke. "It's been easier for me not to want anything deep. Not when I can't tell anyone my secret without worrying that they'd have me arrested and killed. But...you...you made me want something deeper. And I couldn't have it. You know?"

Derek hummed something that sounded encouraging.

Stiles traced his fingers through the hair on Derek's chest and took a deep breath. "Like, I couldn't have anything deep without telling you my secret. Without telling everyone here my secret. But...you made it so hard. You take care of this pack and the circus and you even took care of me when you didn't even like me. And it made me want more with you. And then you found out what I was, and...you aren't scared of me. You know what I am and you're not afraid."

Words couldn't even begin to describe what that meant to him. Hot tears pressed at the back of his eyes, and he had to hide his face in Derek's chest again.

"Stiles," Derek said, "look at me."

He didn't want to move, but slowly, he made himself look up from Derek's chest to his eyes, kind and vulnerable and glowing faintly red in the darkness of the car.

Derek cupped his cheek and kissed him, soft and sweet, like he knew how little gentleness Stiles had had in his life and wanted to give him more. It made his throat tighten painfully, and Stiles was going to cry all over him at this rate.

"I was so scared of losing you," Stiles whispered. "In the prison. I didn't even realize how scared until Deucalion..." He couldn't make himself say the words, not when he still saw Derek getting stabbed every time he closed his eyes.

Derek swiped his thumb under Stiles's eyes and kissed his cheek. "When Scott told us Ennis had taken you, I almost charged into the prison alone right then and there. Boyd had to remind me that we'd had a plan and I should try to stick to it."

A bubble of hope rose in Stiles's chest, and he laughed wetly. "So this...with us, it's not just a one-time thing. Or a sex thing."

"Not for me," Derek whispered into the space between them.

"Good," Stiles said, and kissed him. "Me neither."

They stayed there, kissing, until Derek fell asleep and Stiles burrowed into his side where it was warm and safe.

His last thought before he fell asleep was how he finally, finally felt like he fit. Like he belonged.

Like he'd found his way home.

Chapter Text

Six months later

Derek jogged down the length of the train, fastening the buttons on his vest. It was their last performance in Santa Francesca, they had only fifteen minutes before it started, and he couldn't find Stiles.

He barged into their car. "Stiles, we've got—"

Stiles was sitting in one of the chairs in front of his desk. A dark-haired woman Derek had never seen sat in the other, and Kali stood between them, arms crossed over her chest.

Derek halted just over the threshold. "Kali," he said evenly.

She nodded at him. "Hale."

"Derek!" Stiles jumped to his feet. He was only in his slacks, suspenders, and undershirt, not nearly ready for the show they were starting in fifteen minutes. "Sorry. Julia—this is Julia, by the way"—he gestured to the woman in the chair—"had something she wanted to ask me. We're just finishing up."

Julia stood and smiled. "Sure I can't get you to change your mind, Stiles?"

He shook his head. "No, thanks. I'm not your guy. Enjoy the performance."

"Which starts in fifteen minutes," Derek said pointedly.

Kali shook Stiles's hand. "Thank you for hearing us out, mageling." She walked to Derek and extended her hand. "And thank you for accepting Mayor Ito's invitation to perform in Santa Francesca, Mr. Hale."

Derek shook her hand cautiously. "It's our pleasure. Please, enjoy the performance."

Kali nodded at both him and Stiles, and then held out her arm to Julia and led her out of the train car.

Derek turned back to Stiles and raised his eyebrows.

Stiles jabbed a finger at him. "Don't look at me like that." He disappeared into their bedroom. "I know I'm not dressed."

Derek followed him to the bedroom door and leaned against the jamb. "I was more concerned with why you were voluntarily speaking to a Hunter. Alone."

Stiles had been the most vocally opposed to returning to Santa Francesca, and had remained extremely paranoid for the five days they'd been here. Derek didn't blame him; despite all the evidence of changes to the Haven, he was still pretty paranoid himself.

"They talked to Marin first." Stiles threw his shirt on and buttoned it up. "I figured if she survived their little chat, I would, too. Do we seriously only have fifteen minutes until the show?"

Derek picked up Stiles's vest from where it hung by the door and tossed it to him. "Closer to ten, now."

Stiles slid his suspenders over his shirt and shrugged on the vest. "Son of a bitch, I knew I should've told them to wait until after the show."

"What did they want?" Derek asked.

Stiles buttoned up the vest. "Oh, nothing big. Julia's setting up a mage training school here in the Haven. She wanted to know if Marin and I would come teach."

Derek's stomach dropped, and he breathed carefully, doing his best not to show it. "It sounds like a great opportunity for you."

"Yeah." Stiles snorted. "I can't believe it. They went from trying to kill us to wanting to teach us. It's ridiculous. I'm still not convinced it's not some sort of front to get us to come to jail willingly."

Derek picked up Stiles's bowtie and went back over the end of the conversation he'd overheard. "Did you...turn them down?"

Stiles came to stand in front of him, flipped up his collar, and looked at Derek expectantly. "Oh, hell yeah. I couldn't say 'no' fast enough."

Derek sighed and set about tying Stiles's bowtie for him. "Why?"

"That would mean leaving the circus. Leaving you." Stiles shrugged. "And I don't want to do that."

Derek fumbled the tie's fabric and had to start over. He didn't want Stiles to leave, but neither did he want to be the one holding Stiles back if he wanted something else. "It's...if you really wanted to teach, if it's something—"

"No," Stiles said again, more forcefully. "It's a cool idea and I'm glad they're doing it, but I'm not leaving everyone and everything I love to help them out." He winked. "Besides, who would tie my bowties for me?"

Derek rolled his eyes. "Maybe you'd finally learn to tie your own."

"Aw, but I like it when you tie them for me." Stiles wiggled his eyebrows. "Feels...intimate."

"You're going to be the death of me," Derek muttered, and placed a quick, careful kiss on Stiles's lips. "We have a show in five minutes."

Stiles groaned and ran a hand up Derek's lapel. "It only takes three to walk to the tent, we could—"

Derek grabbed his top hat off the hook, threaded his fingers through Stiles's, and dragged him out of the train car.

The twilit sky cast long shadows over the circus grounds, the clouds overhead shades of pink and purple, and the tent itself shimmered and sparkled in the fading daylight. The air was sweltering; Danny had had to set up several large fans in the tent to keep the air moving so that it didn't become oppressively hot inside. They hadn't ever played Santa Francesca in the summer before, so that had been a new experience.

Well, it had been a new experience all around, Derek admitted to himself. He hadn't expected much of a change in the Haven, though he'd seen evidence as they traveled that Kali had keep her word. Many of the outposts were no longer struggling as badly as they had been, and several people had told them that the number of bandits and feral shifters had gone down as the year wore on. Deucalion's damage hadn't been entirely undone, and many people remained supremely mistrustful of the Hunters, but in general it seemed things were changing for the better.

But it had been a true surprise to see the changes to the Haven itself.

Every gate had been wide open when they'd arrived, people streaming in and out without more than a cursory glance from the few Hunters standing guard. No more two-hour waits while their entire train was searched. No more papers for every person on the train. The Hunter at the gate had glanced at Deaton's paperwork and bid them a good day, saying he couldn't wait to see the circus.

The next six days had been smooth sailing. No harassment, no arrests, no veiled threats whatsoever. Kali was the first Hunter Derek had seen at the circus all week.

He still wouldn't breathe easy until they were outside the gates once again, but...it really felt like things had changed.

Derek allowed himself to hope.

He opened the flap of the small changing tent and ushered Stiles inside. The place was controlled chaos, with everyone scrambling back and forth with last-minute things.

"Fucking finally!" Laura darted over and dabbed some more white makeup on Derek's face. "We're on in two minutes. You assholes are cutting it close."

Derek resisted the urge to stick his tongue out at his sister while she was fixing his makeup. "We've got plenty of time."

"Hmph." She turned to Stiles. "We don't have time to do your makeup."

"Good, because I don't want makeup," Stiles muttered.

Laura opened her mouth to say something—God knew what—when Lydia stuck her head out from behind the changing curtain and hissed, "Laura! Bring that over here!"

Laura rolled her eyes and pushed Derek and Stiles toward the main tent. "A minute-thirty. Get ready."

Derek set his top hat on his head and smoothed his jacket. "How's my tie?" he asked Stiles.

Stiles nodded. "Good. Great. You look...you look perfect. Like always."

Derek took Stiles's hands in his. "You're going to be great. You've done well in rehearsals. Just remember to smile."

Stiles nodded again and squeezed Derek's hands. "Remember to smile. Got it. I can do that."

"And I talk first, then you, then us together."

"Yeah, I got it."

Derek could practically hear a clock tick down in the back of his mind, but he pulled Stiles close to kiss him gently. "I'm glad you're staying," he whispered.

Stiles's grin was radiant. "It took me eighteen years to find a home. Do you really think I'm going to walk away from it?"

His heart soared, and Derek kissed him again. "It's showtime."

Stiles tugged on his jacket. "Let's do this, then."

Derek took a deep breath and pushed aside the tent flap, stepping into the ring as the ringmaster, with Stiles by his side. He spread his arms and bowed. "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, humans and shifters—"

"—welcome to Hale's Circus of Monsters, Magic, and Mystical Wonders!" Stiles picked up. "Or as you might know it..."

"The Circus at the End of the World!"