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Bittersweet Creek

Chapter Text

Stiles ends up burying his father and last remaining pack member somewhere in the middle of the Cascades. Even with werewolf strength, it’s hard to dig a hole deep enough: the soil goes only a few inches deep before turning into a nail-breaking slurry of pebbles and rock fragments, mixed in with the odd boulder. He spends a whole day on it, and when night falls, he still is only knee-deep, bones aching, fingertips so clotted with blood that he’s not sure if his healing is failing or not.

He sits on the edge of the hole and stares into it as the dark draws around him, his father’s body, and the handcart holding all their possessions. He’s not even grieving anymore, he’s just…he’s tired.

He sits there till instinct sends him leaping over his father, crouching across the legs and snarling at the—the coyote turns tail and flees immediately, but the sight of it brings Stiles back to himself. There’ll be more coming after that one, and eventually they’ll get at the body, if Stiles doesn’t take care of it. And Stiles isn’t going to let that happen.

So he gives up on the grave. He stops digging and levers his father into the hole as it is, and then collects brush and sticks from the surrounding area to heap in after him. The cover is scanty here and twice he comes back with an armful, only to have to drop it and chase off more scavengers.

By the time he has enough, the moon’s cleared the mountain-tops. It gives him plenty of light—air’s so thin this high, nothing to get in the way—and he doesn’t even have to use his werewolf sight to find the flint. Just pulls it out of the cart and strikes it against the barrel of their hunting rifle till enough sparks gather on the top of the brush mound. They glow red, then yellow. Melt together and turn into ribbons that lace through the twigs and turn it, for just the smallest moment, to cloth of gold.

Then they burn. Stiles circles the fire all night and well into the next day, and doesn’t stop till the flames have died of their own accord. He throws dirt onto the few smoldering remains, and when they’ve gone out, he climbs back into the hole.

Nothing is left of his father except a few blackened, misshapen metal buttons, a small penknife that Stiles missed when he was checking over the body, and a handful of claws. Stiles scoops them all up together and then idly jiggles his hands, watching the dirt that’d come up with them sift away. The gritty, steel-grey specks seem to run together, so smooth they ripple like water, and then Stiles blinks hard. Gives his handful a last shake and then turns away. He puts them in the cart, rubbing first one eye, then the other against his shoulder.

When he looks up, he finds himself facing the California side of the mountains. It’s a clear view all the way down into the valleys, great thick untouched woods like he’s only heard about in stories from his mother and grandfather. Back when they’d been alive, when they’d all crowded into the house and the older pack members, the ones who could remember Poland, would talk about forests so old that the ancient, pre-Christ gods still roamed in them. Green-skinned men with leaves growing out of their hair, elk so huge that a swing of their antlers could knock down a full-grown oak tree, and the first werewolves, ageless and immortal and forever on the hunt.

Stiles takes a deep breath, and then he wraps his hands around the cart’s handles. California. He’s made it, out of all his pack, and now that he has, he doesn’t want to look at it. What he wants, he thinks, is to get off this mountain as quickly as he can, and get so deep in there that he can’t see it for all the trees.

He starts down the mountain.

Chapter Text

A handcart isn’t the first choice for carrying everything you own across the country, but it takes time to train a horse or an ox to not shy away from a werewolf. Time or magic, and after Stiles’ mother died, they didn’t have the first and they couldn’t afford the second between paying for her funeral and settling the mortgage on the old farm. Handcarts aren’t the best but they’ll get the job done, and if regular humans can manage them, a werewolf shouldn’t have any trouble.

That’s actually the problem. Stiles looks too young and too slight to handle the cart on his own, and as soon as he starts hitting civilization, people start to notice.

Civilization is mostly hit or miss in this part of California: logging camps, Army outposts, the odd tiny trading post-slash-tavern-slash-anything-you-can-pay-for, haphazardly sprinkled along the trails and rivers. If Stiles wanted to, he could easily avoid other people completely, and honestly, a part of him does want to.

The rest of him, the part that reminded him to strip his father’s body of anything useful before he burned it, that told him he damn well wasn’t going to let his pack down by dying in the mountains—that part tells him to scrub up his face in a stream and open his eyes wide, make himself look even younger and more fresh-faced than he actually is, and get an invitation to join a passing wagon train. From there he lands in an Army fort for a couple weeks, waiting out a series of rainstorms that leave the ground too muddy to travel over. He earns a little money catching game for the garrison kitchens, that and helpful information about the surrounding countryside.

Most tell him at his age, he’ll never be able to stake and hold a claim himself. Better that he stay close to other people, where it’s safe. Maybe find a clerking job with one of the trading companies—they’re still doing decent business with the local tribes, though that’s gotten considerably more violent since the start of the gold rush. Or join up with the loggers, who are always looking for men who know their arithmetic and who’ll be happy to toughen him up.

Ranching, on the other hand—it’s starting to spill over from the other side of the mountains, and several of the people in the wagon train aim to get into that business rather than farming. But the soldiers, the ones who’ve been around a while, none of them seem too keen on it. Eventually a bored sergeant tells Stiles that if he has any brains, he’ll keep clear of both settlers and ranchers till one of them wins out. Turns out there’s been a feud going on for the better part of a year, and being handled as much under hanging trees and through rifle sights as in courthouses and recorders’ offices.

“Worst of it’s up near this town they’re trying to get going,” the soldier says. “Called Bacon or Beacon Hills, something like that. People gone crazy there, talking nonsense about ghosts and demons and doing things to each other that’ll make your blood run cold if you saw. Even the tribes don’t go there anymore.”

“Is there anybody even left?” Stiles asks.

The soldier shrugs. “Well, must be somebody left, because the mail was still being picked up as of a month ago—mail doesn’t run that far, but there’s a post office twelve miles east in Shasta Springs. But I don’t know as anybody wants to go and see for themselves, and as for who’s getting the mail, that’s the postmaster’s problem.”

Sounds good enough for Stiles. When the weather clears up, he sells the handcart and rents some space in a supply train going to Shasta Springs. Once he’s there, he does a little more inquiring and determines that the Beacon Hills population is down to only a couple families, if that, and the soldier’s right in saying nobody else will be going that way any time soon.

He also hears a few things that make him take a midnight run up a hill outside of town where his howling will carry for miles around. He calls and calls for a good hour, by the moonrise, but the only answers he gets are a few distant, distinctly nervous howls from wolves. No werewolves.

Of course, there are other things around, and a lone alpha is not the best position to be in. Though the last thing Stiles wants to think about right now is building up a pack.

He needs to, he knows that, but he just—has a hard time remembering to talk about the weather when people mention it to him. To smile when a girl looks his way, and to look embarrassed when older men flick their eyes over his slight shoulders. To be human, and not make them think just that little bit too long.

Stiles doesn’t think about biting them. Instead, he thinks about sifting through his belongings and figuring out which things won’t be useful after all and should be sold off, and what he should buy to replace them. He thinks about picking up a little more money with a part-time clerking job at the general store, that and a discount on a used wagon and a scrubby, knock-kneed pack-horse so dull-witted with age that it only takes him a week to get it used to him. He thinks about dropping enough hints that people will take him for a trapper and won’t be surprised when he disappears into the woods, and he thinks about buying enough drinks to learn every story the town has about Beacon Hills.

It’s a lot of thinking, and it keeps him busy right up till he drives his wagon out of Shasta Springs one sunny day, heading on the road that will eventually take him into Beacon Hills.

He doesn’t actually go into town. He drives far enough so that he passes a few outlying, abandoned homesteads, and then he turns off the road and unhitches the horse. Gives it a clap on the rump to get it wandering off, and then gets behind the wagon and pushes it through the woods.

The area certainly has a strange feel to it. Hard to pin down, like an undernote to a scent that just dissolves too quickly to be identified, but persistent. A little…unnerving, Stiles thinks after a while. When he thinks about it, he feels an odd tug in his stomach, pulling at him forward while also reminding him of the first lurch of nausea, when you still aren’t sure what’s wrong with you but you’ve gone on alert that something is.

His plan had been to follow a stream that the Shasta Springs people said curved to the south of the town till he found a good spot, but after a couple seconds, he throws that idea over and instead follows the tug. He soon hits a different stream, one that swings in the opposite direction. That almost deters him since he’s afraid it might take him too close to town, but in the end he trudges on and finds that the stream doesn’t curve that far.

Actually, it soon straightens out and he thinks that he passes south and slightly west of the town. The ground gets a little rougher, mossy boulders and rock outcrops starting to push out of the dirt. At first the rocks are on the small side, easy to maneuver around, but they soon grow till Stiles finds himself threading the wagon through ravines so narrow that their edges scratch into the wagon’s sides. The outcrops grow big enough to have overhangs, and then full caves, big enough to live in.

The stream is still near enough, and Stiles is just thinking he may stop in one cave and set up when the ravine’s walls suddenly drop away and he emerges into a flat patch and there it is.

It’s a Nemeton. He knows it is, even though he’s only heard stories of them from his Polish grandparents. But it’s an oak, tremendous with more than age, with leaves as red as blood even in high summer. And more than that, it feels like blood. There’s a pulse coming from it, a slow, even throb that he can almost press his hands against when he holds them in front of him.

Stiles leaves the wagon and comes quietly and warily up to the tree. He’s alone—he can’t even hear a songbird’s heartbeat—but he still looks and listens and sniffs for anybody. Nemetons don’t come alone, his grandma always said. Little pup, if you come upon one by itself, you know that things have gone very, very wrong.

He circles the tree three times for good measure before he finally comes up to the trunk, and in those three times the only trace he finds of another person is a dried splash of tobacco juice, so old that the flakes no longer have any scent and he has to identify it by touching a flake to his tongue. Stiles looks at the tree, frowning, and then takes a deep breath. Then he strides up to it without hesitating and puts his palm against its trunk.

It doesn’t strike him down with visions or call the earth from under his feet. It doesn’t even rustle its leaves. Incredulous, he runs his hands all over the trunk and the lower branches but he can’t find any claiming symbols.

“Somebody went through the trouble to call you up and then didn’t stick around?” Stiles mutters. He steps back and looks up at the branches, and it’s then that they ripple in a breeze he doesn’t feel.

A little rustle, not threatening. Sad, he almost thinks, and then he shakes his head and goes back to his wagon and starts to unload it. He’s gone far enough.

* * *

Stiles sets up in the nearest cave to the Nemeton. He scrapes out the dirt to smooth the floor and uncover the walls so he can see where they might need to be braced later with wood. Then he piles that dirt up around the entrance to make a little entryway that blends into the surrounding ravine. That gives him two rooms, and from the way some of the walls look, he might be able to dig out a third at some point, but for now he just settles for bashing a natural hole wide enough to serve as a back entrance. It’s only him anyway.

He goes hunting—without the rifle, the old werewolf way—and finds it so easy to bring back elk and deer that he can feed himself and spill blood for the Nemeton, and still have so much leftover meat that he begins to think about storing it for the winter. But he doesn’t have enough salt to salt it, and smoking might draw attention to him.

It’s been…a few weeks, he realizes. He’s ranged out pretty far from his den, getting less wary as time went on and he still didn’t run into people, but he hasn’t gone so far as the town. He hasn’t gone into any of the abandoned homesteads either, though he’s sat and watched foxes and coyotes slink through broken windows and past rusting doors.

Stiles thinks about it, and he’s still not sure he wants to chance an encounter with other people, so he heads for one of the homesteads.

Long abandoned, leaves and twigs tracked in by animals. Hard to get any scent of the people left—not much personal remaining in the place. Couple pieces of crude furniture, all shoved up against one side. No clothes left, but Stiles finds a beautiful quilt carefully packed away in a box under the bed-frame. He folds it back into the box, since the cave’s still shedding dirt from the ceiling—he wants to plaster that over, if he can find or buy the materials—and then keeps on looking.

No guns or knives—no tools at all, not even a hammer, even though the furniture has nails in it. One rusting lantern, with a hole in the oil well so Stiles doesn’t take that. There is salt, and a barrel of moldy stuff that Stiles thinks might have started out as cornmeal, but no other grain, despite the empty chicken house in the back, and no meat. And tucked up in the rafters, Stiles finds a strange little doll on top of a book.

The doll is so delicate it falls apart on Stiles as he tries to lift it from the book, so he only gets a glimpse, but he thinks it was supposed to be a woman. Head and body are made out of sticks tied together with braided grass, while a kind of dress was made out of some leaves. There’s also a long, thin pin, a little like a hatpin, shoved straight through the doll’s middle.

As for the book, Stiles flips through enough pages to figure out that it’s written in Latin and is not a Bible, and then decides that he’ll parse it out back at his den. He can’t read Latin that quickly, and to be honest, the doll makes him not want to linger.

Still, he takes the salt and the quilt with him. He does leave them up against the Nemeton’s trunk for a few hours while he pages through the book, which turns out to be a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum. Well, most of one—several pages in the section on how to interrogate witches have been torn out.

Stiles puts the book aside and stares at it for a few minutes, and then he gets up and digs into the few things of his family that he hadn’t sold off as useless. He pulls out his grandma’s grimoire and goes over to the Nemeton and recites a couple spells; the Nemeton doesn’t rustle. So he takes the copy of the Malleus Maleficarum and puts it away with the grimoire, and stalks the quilt box on top. Then he goes about his usual routine for the rest of the day.

A few days later, he runs short of salt again, and visits another homestead. It’s much the same, stripped of most of its occupants’ belongings, although it doesn’t have a doll or any books. But Stiles smells dried human blood staining the wall in one section, and when he prowls behind the house, he stumbles across a small graveyard. The boards serving as headstones have faded and warped, but with his fingertips he can just make out some names and dates: a woman and two children, all dead in the same year. The names sound English to him.

At a third homestead, he finds an ornate silver cross set with jet, a little too big to be worn as jewelry but a little too small to be mounted on its own. When he turns it over, he sees that the back has been engraved with a name and a short phrase in a language he doesn’t know, but the last name is d’Apcher and he thinks that that’s French. Wedged into the wall near the floor, he also finds part of a broken knife, and when he pulls it out, he sees that somebody scratched a cross into the knife blade.

Stiles checks the tree again, but it isn’t disturbed so if anyone had been using magic, it must have been a good while ago. He’s still a little wary, since somebody knowing magic makes it more likely that somebody knows about werewolves, but he isn’t finding any recent human activity.

Then again, he thinks, he’s well south of the town and the road comes into there from the north. Which is something he did on purpose, and so far it seems to be working, and the sensible thing would be to just leave it at that. Work on his home, make it livable, build up winter stocks and maybe, in the spring, he can think about—about—about not being alone.

Two straight days and nights, Stiles wrestles with it, and on the third night, just shy of the full moon, he gives up and strips off his clothes and shifts. And then he points his nose towards the town.

It takes him two hours to get there—he makes himself go slow enough to keep an eye out—and only ten minutes to determine that there’s nobody left. The town proper only has a handful of buildings: a general store with a saloon area in an adjoining shack, a small building that looks like it was both church and what passed for a town hall, and a third building used for storing livestock. And they’ve all been emptied of people for weeks, if not months.

The general store does look like it still has things on its shelves and for a moment Stiles sits on its front porch and debates whether to just stop here and canvass the supplies. He’s made enough progress with his den that he’s starting to want comfort and not just shelter; admittedly, he’s also been roaming around because he just doesn’t have enough to occupy his time and keep his nose on his own things.

It’s a nice, bright night, he thinks absently, looking at the treeline just outside of town, and the moon has already gone down behind the mountains—

Stiles looks again, and then stands up, squinting to see that strange glow coming up from the trees, not down onto them. And then the wind shifts and he smells fire.

* * *

If it’s a forest fire, Stiles needs to run home and get the couple family heirlooms he cannot leave behind, and then get as far as he can. And, he thinks, it can’t be anything else. A fire big enough to throw up that kind of glow.

Instead Stiles paws at the wood under his paws, growling to himself and staring at that yellow stripe across the tree-tops. He breathes in deep as the wind strengthens, filling his lungs with the scorched scent, and then leaps down into the middle of the road. Trots down main street in wolf form till he gets to the end of it, and then smells again.

The fire is hot but not moving, far as he can tell. He dithers a little longer, then jerks his head to the side. Then back, and then he swings himself into a lope down the road.

He’s loping for hours. The fire is a lot farther away than it looks, and by the time Stiles crests the last hill and gets a faceful of cinder-strewn air, it’s nearly dawn and the fire is smoldering out.

It was a house. A good-size one, though he can’t tell from the house itself because it’s burned down to the ground, just a smear of charcoal across the ground. He can tell from the deep ditch someone has dug all around it, keeping the flames from jumping over. And…and maybe keeping people in. When Stiles gets closer, he notices a misshapen lump sticking out of the side of the ditch, and then realizes that it’s a half-burnt body. An adult, but he can’t tell whether it was a man or a woman.

That’s when the smell really hits him, and he has to stop for a few seconds and brace himself. Burnt flesh, so strong that he opens his mouth and his tongue lolls out and he paws at it, as if he could scrape the smell off. There must have been a whole family in that house.

They’re all dead. They have to be—nothing within that ditch circle is higher than Stiles’ knee, and Stiles doesn’t need to go see whether those things are charred timbers or charred corpses.

After a moment, once he’s gotten hold of himself again, he does start to pad around the edge of the ditch. He wouldn’t even have gotten this close if he’d still thought anyone living was nearby, but there could always be traps left behind. Or clues. Like a wide, trampled path made by several horses, with cigarillo butts stuck into the mud. A scrap of a bandanna, heavy with a scent that Stiles automatically memorizes. A crumpled, muddy piece of paper holding more scent, and, once Stiles has shifted human and smoothed it out, stating that the owner, something H-e, has filed a claim on such and such land.

The wind shifts again, just as Stiles is folding up the paper, and the sting of fresh blood makes him snort. He jerks his head up, listening hard, and…he takes a step forward. Then back, so that he can stick the paper in the crook of a tree branch where it won’t flutter away, and then he shifts to wolf again and slips around to the other side of the burnt house.

There, hanging by the wrists from a tree, he finds a living man.

Stiles thinks he’s still alive, anyway. He has the barest flicker of a heartbeat, and his blood is still running wet enough. But when Stiles touches him, he doesn’t so much as twitch.

The man is on his knees, face against the tree, with his arms stretched up and tied to a branch. He’s been stripped from the waist up and his back is an almost skinless mess from whipping, with a hint of rib bone showing through at one spot. He has trousers on—slashed in a few places from the whip—but he’s barefoot, and the bottoms of his feet look like they’ve been beaten too.

After a few sniffs, Stiles steps forward again. He takes hold of one of the man’s forearms and uses it to keep the man upright as he cuts through the rope. Then he lowers the man to the ground, struggling a little not from the weight, but from trying to not touch the man’s back. The man still doesn’t make a sound, not even when he’s lying fully on the ground.

His face and belly are swollen and bruised with a savage beating, and his nose looks broken. The hang of his jaw is wrong, too. Stiles tries to be careful but when he pulls the man’s head into his lap, he moves the jaw and from deep in the man, so deep that Stiles almost doesn’t believe it’s coming from him and not the ground, issues a groan.

But that’s all. No movement. Stiles is hissing under his breath and drawing out the man’s pain, but the man still lies against him as slack as before. When Stiles pulls up one eyelid, the pale blue eye underneath is motionless, pupil not even shrinking.

The man’s dying. Stiles already knew that—knew that when he smelled the blood, to be honest. People can’t lose that much and live. Any second now, he’ll breathe his last.

Stiles sits there, crosslegged with the man’s head on his lap, and listens to the shallow, shaking wheeze of the man’s breathing. One breath. Two. Three. When Stiles’ father died, he suddenly remembers, it was on four.

Before Stiles can think, his hand is twisted in the man’s hair. He’s got his other hand on the back of the man’s neck, ready to push as the first hand pulls and make it a quick end, and he…doesn’t. Instead the man breathes again. Four. Five.

Six. Stiles feels his lips twist back and his jawbone lengthen, his muscles bulge and stretch. He snaps his fangs together, snarls at himself, and then just bends over and sinks his teeth into the man’s shoulder.

Chapter Text

Sometimes it can take all night for a bite to take, and sometimes it only takes a couple minutes. If it takes, and all the elders in the pack were forever drumming into Stiles that that was a possibility, that that was why he should always come back to the pack and let them meet the person he wanted to bite first. That he’d better be prepared to dig a grave.

Stiles knows the man will survive when he starts to hear a faint, wet creak, the man’s face trying to knit itself together. He reaches down and does what he can to guide the bones, and when the creaking dies down, he picks up the man and throws him over one shoulder, and starts home.

The sun breaks above the trees, lofts up into the sky, and just crosses the midpoint of its arc by the time Stiles reaches the den. He’d stopped a couple times to put the man down and check that he was healing all right, and again in town, leaving the man on the porch as he broke into the general store and raided it for anything that could pass for medical supplies. The bite is going to keep the man alive, but as badly injured as he is, it won’t heal everything right away.

Twice Stiles detours to water, and tries to get a little down the man’s throat. He holds the man’s jaw open and uses his free hand to funnel in the water, but the man is so slack and unresisting—barely even gagging—that Stiles is afraid to pour in more than a handful, in case it ends up drowning the man.

The last time, the man’s eyelids spasm and then lift enough for Stiles to see wandering, unfocused eyes beneath them. Stiles stops and waits, but the eyes keep shifting around, not focusing on him, so he just picks the man back up.

When he gets to the den, he doesn’t bring the man inside right away. Instead Stiles lays him under the Nemeton, mutters a protective charm over him, and then leaves him to quickly rearrange the inside of the den. Moving breakable things, making the bed bigger. For a mattress, Stiles has been making do with a thin wool blanket he got from the garrison, laid over a bunch of burlap sacks stitched together and stuffed with a mix of dried grasses and feathers from his kills. He feels it and it feels thin to him, his fingers sinking too quickly to the hard-packed dirt beneath; he’s used to it but the man’s back still looks horrible, like a bunch of ground meat.

Stiles searches around and finds a couple more sacks that he slits open and spreads out on top of the mattress, and then he remembers the quilt he’d found. He opens up the box, then closes that and sets it aside for the time being.

He goes back out and the man’s moved from his side onto his belly. And when Stiles walks towards him, the man’s fingers curl slightly against the ground.

“Stop moving,” Stiles says, watching patches of clots crack open and fall off the man’s back.

At least, he tries to say that. He hasn’t—he hasn’t talked to anyone since he left Shasta Springs. Nobody human, anyway. His voice comes out very low and rough, all gravel and tatters. He doesn’t think he sounds very friendly and he grimaces and works up some spit in his mouth, and then swallows it down in hopes that it’ll help soften his voice.

“You’re healing,” he tries. He takes a slow step towards the man, then bends his knees till he’s crouching at the man’s side. “You’re not going to die but you have to wait. You lost a lot of blood and even I can’t—and you probably are…are feeling a lot of new—new senses, and…”

Stiles pauses, then cranes his head down to peer into the man’s face. The man’s unconscious again.

Just as well, Stiles thinks as he carries the man over to the stream. He’s got to clean off that back and the other wounds, and even a werewolf wouldn’t be able to take that in silence.

Still, he works as gently as he can. He has to go slow anyway, sometimes stopping completely to slice out a piece of cloth or a fragment of bullhide that’d gotten embedded into the torn flesh. There’s a lot of blood matted over the man, and while Stiles is relieved to see that the skin is growing back, it’s tissue-thin and wrinkly, as delicate as a newborn’s. Just picking too hard at a clinging scab can make it split.

He checks as best he can for anything internal, though he isn’t really trained as a healer—he did hang around his pack’s healer, pestering her with questions like he did with anyone who seemed to be doing something interesting, but she’d died when he was still too young to really know what was important to know. As far as he can tell, he doesn’t think there’s anything worse than the whip-marks. The bones in the man’s face seem to have knitted properly, and the bruising there and around his midsection has nearly disappeared.

The man’s younger than Stiles had assumed at first. Older than him, but nowhere nearly as old as his father had been. Maybe the husband of the family, Stiles thinks, working bits of bark out of the man’s hair. That’s naturally dark, not just soot-ridden, and when clean it twists back into curls that snarl around Stiles’ fingers. Handsome face, one that people would remember—not always a good thing for werewolves.

Stiles sits back on his heels, wiping his hands on a bandanna, and for a wild, wild second, he thinks about taking the man back to the town and dropping a bag of supplies next to him and then just walking away. Because…because Stiles barely can stand to see his reflection when he goes to get water, let alone have company.

But, his father’s voice says, you have to take care of pack. You’re an alpha, Stiles, that’s your duty.

So Stiles sighs, and sets his jaw, and then he picks the man up and carries him into the den. He brushes off some of the twigs and dirt that got on the man in between the stream and Stiles rolling him onto the bed, then takes out the quilt. Gives it a good shake—it doesn’t really smell of people, just the wood of the box—and then drapes it over the man’s legs for now. The whip-marks there have healed enough that he doesn’t think they’ll bleed anymore.

He’s rummaging around for the bandages he took from the general store when the man makes a noise. Not a groan, more of a heaved breath, and when Stiles looks over, the man’s eyes are still closed. But his heartbeat is up, and it spikes faster as Stiles twists around and crawls up to the man’s head.

“You should go back to sleep,” Stiles says. “I still need to cover your back, and I’ll do something about the pain after that, but first I need to do a couple things. But you’re going to live. You’ll live, so don’t worry about that.”

A sliver of eye appears under one eyelid. The man slides his hand a couple inches across the mattress towards Stiles, a dragging, hurting motion, and then tries to move his head. Not to raise it, to rock it to the side to get his mouth out of the mattress. He can barely do it and for a second his breathing twists viciously. Then he goes slack, his lips falling open in a harsh panting.

“Whatever it is, you should just take a nap and ask me after I fix your back,” Stiles says, thinking he hears a pattern to the panting.

He moves back, but the man raises his fingers again. The panting rises in volume till it’s a hard gasp, and then the man chokes roughly and seizes the mattress in a white-knuckled grip. Stiles reaches out, then catches himself just short of grabbing the man’s still-raw shoulder. He can see the man’s eye spasm in a kind of panicked wink, trying to focus on him.

And then he suddenly knows what the man wants to know. “No,” Stiles says. He grimaces and looks away, then makes himself turn back. “No, you’re all…I only found you. It’s all burned up.”

Stiles keeps his hand out and hovering over the back of the man’s head, and when the man jerks he nearly slaps it down to still him. But there’s just the jerk, just the one violent ripple, and then the man goes limp. One rough breath, looking down, before the man curls his fingers into the mattress again. He starts moving his head in short seesawing motions and Stiles lowers his hand, not sure what the man is doing.

Then lifts it, and watches as the man slowly, painfully tucks his head down so that his face is buried deeply in the mattress. He’s going to suffocate like that, Stiles almost says, and then thinks better of it. After all, he’s not the one to lecture another about losing their dear ones.

Instead Stiles gets up. He finds the cloth he took from the general store and slits it into bandages with his claws, and then he roots around till he finds his mother’s herbal. Most of the recipes aren’t any good, since they rely on plants and animals from Poland, but the last couple years she’d been alive, she’d been trying to work to figure out substitutes they could find in America.

She hadn’t gotten to the really powerful spells, but Stiles finds a recipe for soothing minor burns and scrapes that…well, he figures it won’t hurt, at least. It doesn’t rely on wolfsbane; he only has seeds that he hasn’t gotten around to planting, and he and his father had nearly run out of the powder before they even hit the eastern side of the mountains. So he’s got most of what he needs, between his raids on the homesteads and his latest trip through the general store, but he has to step out to get some willow bark.

He looks at the man, who’s still lying face-down on the mattress. Thinks about it, and then, before he goes, he puts the herbal to the side, but picks up the box with his other heirlooms and moves that into the backroom. One of the walls has a small natural niche in it and he shoves the box there, then surrounds it with other boxes. Finally he tosses a few half-cured hides on top.

It takes about a half-hour to throw the poultice together. Near the end, Stiles’ stomach starts to growl, and since he already has one of the two pots he owns out, he gets out the other one and puts together a stew.

Both pots go on a cooking fire just outside the den. Then he thinks maybe the man won’t be able to take the stew, and he goes back inside, thinking he’ll get some cornmeal and fat and fry it up, and finds the man looking at him.

“Don’t move,” Stiles says.

The man isn’t anyway, but he tenses up till Stiles can see it tugging at the new skin on his back. Stiles bites back an annoyed sound and rubs at the side of his face, and suddenly he’s tired, his shoulders dragging like lead weights are attached to them, his feet aching like they haven’t since he and his father started west. He stifles a yawn into the heel of his hand, and beyond that, sees his bare legs and suddenly remembers he’s not dressed.

“It’s just your back,” Stiles mutters, looking around. He’s even forgotten where he left his clothes when he shifted—last night. It was last night, and that seems both too long and too short a time ago. “I know it hurts, but…well, you know what, I can smell the pots from here. I guess I can sit with you a while.”

He finds his pants and throws them on, and then sits down on the edge of the mattress. Stiles holds his hand over the man’s arm, watching the man who watches back, eyes still confused with pain. The man’s gaze eventually strays from him down to the arm under his hand, and then go back up to him as Stiles finally lowers his fingers. When Stiles’ hand first touches down, the man’s heartbeat jumps and drums like the hooves of a running deer, but Stiles doesn’t move after that and the heartbeat gradually slows.

It spikes once more, at the same time that the man’s brows twitch towards each other in surprise, and then slows again. That’s when the man looks at Stiles’ hand again, and then stares at the thick, dark veining that covers its back.

“I’m taking your pain,” Stiles explains. “Just temporarily. It doesn’t work that long, sorry, and I think you lost so much blood, I probably can’t take all of it. But it should help.”

The man inhales a little deeper and quicker than before, then lets it out as if his lungs are made of glass and can shatter at any moment. He’s still staring at the black veins on Stiles’ hand.

“I bit you,” Stiles says.

He immediately wishes he’d said something else. It just—sounds so stark, the way it hangs in the air. His lips twitch back from his teeth in disgust and then he realizes the man’s gaze has moved up to his face. It’s…it’s glazed with pain, straining to focus, but there’s enough intelligence in it that Stiles thinks the man understands what he’s saying. Understands and remembers.

“I’m a werewolf,” Stiles eventually adds, because you can’t start that kind of conversation and then leave it. His father taught him that too, and he’s—he’s the only one who can remember those lessons anyway, so he’d better remember it. “I change into a wolf. And when I bit you, I made you one, too. You were going to die if I didn’t and…and I bit you.”

After that, Stiles waits and waits, but the man doesn’t try to speak. His eyes do flick up and down Stiles, but then they do it again and at the same time a spasm seizes up the man’s left shoulder before running out along his back, and Stiles isn’t sure that the first look hadn’t been a product of pain too.

What the man doesn’t do, is try to move away. He just lies there, while Stiles skims off some of his pain, till Stiles smells the poultice ripen and goes back out to take it off the fire.

The stew can go a little longer, so Stiles leaves that be. He swirls the bottom of the pot around in his water barrel to cool the poultice down, and when it’s lukewarm to the touch, he takes it into the den and spreads it over the man’s back.

Stiles is as careful as he can, but the poultice is thick and clumpy; he doesn’t have a proper mortar and pestle so he had had to grind the willow bark between two river rocks and it’s still full of chips, not the ‘fine powder’ his mother’s herbal had specified. It sticks to the man’s skin, but Stiles doesn’t have much and making up another batch will take too long, so he tries to spread it as thinly as he can. And so he ends up tearing some of that terribly thin new-growth skin.

Blood wells up out of the splits and the man stiffens, gripping at the mattress. Then he sucks in his breath and his muscles shiver all over, and Stiles looks down to find him staring at his hands, where the claws have come out on a few of the fingers.

“That’s supposed to happen,” Stiles says, as the man’s scent grows overwhelmingly sour with fear. “You’re—you have claws now, they’ll go away if you just relax, just—just don’t move. Don’t move.

He’s afraid that the man will start clawing himself in panic, that’s why he says that. They’d had a couple bittens in his pack—his father had been one—but all had turned long before Stiles’ time. When he’s seen people bitten and turned, it hadn’t been for pack members, and so all he knows firsthand about turning is the cases where it wasn’t supposed to go well. The good stories, the welcomed ones, those are all—stories, at least for him.

Stiles is crouched there for a good ten seconds, holding his breath and waiting on the man, before he realizes what he’s really done. He sucks in his own breath, nearly spits it out in a curse, and then catches himself and makes it come out in a slow exhale instead. Makes his heartbeat slow, his throat loosen where it’s still pulled taut around a snarl, so when he speaks again, he’s not doing it as the man’s alpha.

“You can move, just lie down and don’t make me hurt you,” Stiles says.

That’s not much better, he thinks, but the man takes in a deep, raspy breath and slowly, one knot of muscle at a time, uncurls to flatten himself against the mattress. Stiles rocks on his heels twice, fighting the urge to run back outside and scream, and then forces his hand to go back to spreading the paste.

“Don’t tear up the bed either, it’s the only one I have,” Stiles mutters. He concentrates on the poultice, on the way it clots up at his fingertips and then curls over them. “You can’t shift with your skin splitting like this, you’ll just shed your hide, literally shed it, and they made that all up, you know. It’s not like the wolf is a coat you pull on. If you try and pull that off, you’re just going to flay yourself.”

The man cocks his head like he’s listening, but he keeps staring at his hands, flexing his fingers as his nails lengthen, shorten, grow curled and sharp and then flash blunt again. He can’t be understanding much of it even if he is listening, he has so much pain and grief in his scent, but Stiles finds that the rambling helps him focus on what he’s doing, anyway.

When Stiles has swiped the very last film of paste down to the man’s waist—he doesn’t even have to wipe off his fingers, that’s how much he had to stretch out the poultice—he leans back to snag the bandages and the man looks over at him and says something. It’s thick, slurred, and halfway through the man’s face twists up with pain so bad that he has to drop his head back against the mattress. His shoulders shake and his throat convulses, and then he jerks sideways towards an alarmed Stiles, coughing out a tarry gobbet just as Stiles seizes his upper arm.

A thready, nervous noise makes its way through the man’s coughing, calling up a rumble from Stiles’ chest, and then the man relaxes enough to lean into Stiles’ grip. He makes a last wet hacking noise before spitting out a second gobbet. This one’s bigger and has brownish streaks woven amid the tar, and smells of soot and scorched flesh.

Stiles rumbles again, only half-aware that he’s doing that and not thinking at all about why. He shifts down onto one knee to take the man’s weight and the man’s head slides along his arm, then bumps into his chest. That makes it easier to get the bandages under, he thinks, and he’s hurrying to sling them around the man’s torso when the man wedges his head in the crook made by Stiles’ elbow and ribcage, wheezing in exhaustion.

“Give me another minute, then you can sleep as much as you want,” Stiles mutters. As he gets towards the midpoint of the man’s chest, he has to sit up again to stretch and that tucks the man’s head more firmly against him. He can feel the flutter of the man’s breath falling down his belly.

“Wh—” the man says, or Stiles thinks he says. His mouth is moving but the noises are still too garbled for Stiles to understand.

French names and English, Stiles suddenly remembers. “English?” he says, tugging at the bandage. “Uh, anglicus?”

The man stills again and Stiles curses and tries to recall how to say ‘French’ in Latin. He’s lost all his languages—and then he wonders why he’d try Latin anyway. He’s in the wilds of California, not back—and even back home, Latin hadn’t been something to play with. Latin made the neighbors think they were Catholics, not good Methodists or what have you like the rest of them, made them stick out as bad foreigners when just being foreign was already suspicious.

“Eng-English,” the man grunts. His head shifts, then falls nearly to Stiles’ knee as Stiles, stretching to knot off the bandage, twists the other way and leaves the man without any support.

Stiles jerks his hand back and scoops it under the man’s chin just in time, then hastily grabs the man’s arm with his other hand to keep from accidentally breaking the man’s neck. He maneuvers the man back onto the mattress and then pulls his hands free. Then rubs them absently against his legs, letting out a relieved sigh that somehow, he’s managed to not completely botch it.

The man’s looking at Stiles. Propping himself up on one arm that’s shaking from the effort, eyes bright with pain and an even brighter, almost feverish curiosity. “You—Arg—are—”

“I’m a werewolf,” Stiles says again. He hesitates, then holds up one hand and shifts out his claws, and also lets his eyes bleed red. As soon as the man’s eyes widen, he shifts all of that away. “Get some rest. I’ll explain it all later, and anyway, you need to get rest, it’s hard enough for people to learn this when they’re healthy. I’m going to—just rest. Lie down.”

Fear’s still liberally mixed into the man’s scent, but it’s tempered compared to before, and the way he’s looking at Stiles—he doesn’t even have enough strength to hold himself up on his arms, let alone hold up his head. The muscles in his neck are spasming and Stiles can see the shake spread down his shoulders and into his chest and arms; his lips are peeling back from half-lengthened fangs as he stubbornly fights to stay up.

Stiles presses his lips together, then spreads his shoulders and humps his back, making himself bigger and taller as he growls at the man. He…doesn’t feel quite right doing it, even if he has the right as alpha, but he’s losing patience and he needs the man to lie down.

The man freezes, then drops flat on the mattress with a hard, jerky motion, his toes jittering off the edge. He whines in supplication, then blinks hard, shocked at himself.

“Stay there,” Stiles mutters, turning away.

He goes to the entrance, pauses—the man is still hooking up his chin to stare, but isn’t moving otherwise—and then goes back outside to check on the stew. It’s done enough—the meat chunks are a little raw in the center but he doesn’t mind that and just bolts a bowlful before he knows what he’s doing. Then he wipes his mind off and ladles out another bowl, and goes back into the den.

The man’s passed out. Stiles crouches by him for a few minutes, debating whether he should wake the man anyway. That sourness in the man’s scent, like concentrated acid, it’s not all fear and anger: werewolf healing will knit up flesh and bone quickly but it takes longer to work on other problems. And Stiles doesn’t know what they did to the man…he glances down and sees the tarry clumps the man spit up, then grimaces.

After another moment, Stiles just leaves the bowl where the man can get to it without too much crawling. He cleans up the tarry clumps and takes them out to dump, and then gets a pot of water and leaves that by the man, too.

Then he goes out for a couple hours. He’s exhausted but his grandfather and father taught him too well to be that careless. He needs to go back over the wide-open trail he left, hauling the man back to his den, and obscure that. Stiles doesn’t think he needs to go all the way up to the burnt house again—not today, anyway. The man, when he’s better, he might want to sift through the ashes, but that’s a different day. For now, Stiles needs to backtrack at least to the abandoned town.

Thankfully, Stiles doesn’t catch the slightest whiff of anybody on the way, but it takes much longer than he was hoping. He’d bashed up a few more buildings in town to make it look like more of an unfocused raid, and since he’d been there, gotten some more supplies out of the general store. And then he’d run into a herd of deer on the way back to the den, and cached the extra supplies in favor of catching a doe. That had been harder than usual, since he’d taken care to not sink his claws into it and to just run it down till he could catch its head and cleanly break its neck.

So when he does get back to the den, it’s nearing sunset. Stiles stops by the Nemeton and makes a small slash in the deer’s neck, giving the tree its usual dribble, and then he drags the deer inside.

The man’s up again. He’s drunk the water, but hasn’t touched the stew as far as Stiles can tell. He heaves himself up on his elbows, twisting his legs around so that they’re pressed into the wall as he faces Stiles, and a little blood-scent leaks through his bandages. Besides that, he smells nauseated and excited and nervous.

He keeps looking from Stiles to the place where Stiles has his hand clamped over the deer’s neck. When Stiles lets down the rest of the deer from his shoulder, the impact jars his grip and a little deer blood squeezes out from between his fingers, instantly putting an amber glow in the man’s eyes. The man inches back, his mouth twisting, but his nostrils are flaring out.

“You lost blood, you’re going to need some,” Stiles says, pulling the deer neck around towards the man. “You might not think you’ll like it, but if you want to get up and walking any time soon, you’ll need it.”

Stiles gets down on one knee and slides that under the deer, levering up the main part of the body to help with the blood flow. Then he stretches over it. He’s trying to get at the empty pot for something to put it all in, but the pot’s a little too far. He curses under his breath and starts shuffling towards the pot, only to stop as the man lurches forward.

He stops, but the man keeps on going in a wild jumbling rush that almost has Stiles grabbing at him, thinking the man will crack his head into Stiles’ knee. At the last moment, the man manages to jam out his forearm and stop himself from that—the front part of him, anyway. Momentum keeps his legs going till they slew sideways, coming off the mattress. The man jerks his head up just clear of the deer and Stiles hears a hiss of pain, sees the glow of his eyes, before his head goes right back down and he’s sucking at the blood on Stiles’ fingers.

The man’s feverish about it, soon grabbing the deer head behind the jaw and kneading it till the hinge pops out. Stiles works his fingers out to give the man direct access to the slash and the man’s tongue worms wetly past his forefinger to stick right into the flapping flesh. Thickened blood is running down the man’s chin, and then he opens his mouth and forces it around the curve of the deer throat, and the crunch of his teeth sends a wet spray up over his nose and cheeks.

Grimacing, the man makes a muffled but clearly disgusted noise, but he can’t seem to rein himself in. Even as he tries to wipe off his face with his hand, he’s twisting his head around to follow the deer up as Stiles lifts it. Stiles is just getting the hindquarters over one shoulder, so the blood will drain faster, but the man whines greedily as if he thinks Stiles is taking it away.

“Slow down, it’s no good if it comes right back up again,” Stiles mutters without thinking. Then he snarls to himself.

It’s just that’s something his father used to say. He doesn’t mean anything to the man by it, but he’s just—he hasn’t been with pack for a while, he’s forgotten how to modulate.

He looks down at the cringing man, biting his lip and frantically searching for what to say, what to do, and then he notices how the man still has his teeth stubbornly sunk into the deer. For some reason it strikes Stiles as funny and he lets out a short laugh. The man’s shoulders tense up, then twist back and forth before dropping.

Stiles slowly gets back down so he can kneel again, absently massaging one hand along the deer’s side to break up any blood clots. “I can catch more,” he tells the man. “Just need a nap first, and anyway, I’m almost sure you won’t die now, so just slow down. I’ll get you another one.”

The man looks at him and it might be the blood smeared over his face, but the look is a little bit puzzled. But the man nods, and with an effort, moderates his guzzling.

It looks like the deer might be too long dead, anyway. Stiles gives it a couple shakes, then tugs it loose of the man’s mouth. He takes it outside and strings it up from a tree branch, setting the empty water pot under it to catch any remaining drip, and then goes back inside to see how bad the mess is.

Not that bad. Just a couple spots on the mattress, which Stiles sucks at with his mouth and then scrubs with the heel of his hand. The floor’s dirt, so he just scrapes up the blood-soaked part and dumps the chunks outside. When he goes back in, the man’s bloody face looks up at him and, already thinking about how good a nap will be, Stiles absentmindedly takes it between his hands and gives it a good, thorough licking.

The man doesn’t move away from it, from what he remembers. Just goes still and lets him do it, and when Stiles finishes up and kicks off his pants and drops with a tired grunt to the mattress, the man stays up on his elbows for a couple more seconds. Stiles whuffs irritably, already mostly asleep, and the man jerks backwards into the wall, hisses a little, and then slowly eases down there. Last Stiles recalls, the man’s watching him over one bent forearm.

Chapter Text

Stiles wakes up in wolf form. He’s been doing that more often since his father died. Part of it’s probably instinct, seeing as he’s on his own in a strange, clearly dangerous area, but part of it, he thinks—when he thinks about it—is because of his dreams.

He gives his head and shoulders a shake to work off the grogginess, then arches back into human shape. Something moves next to him and he twists around, snarling, one hand coming up with claws out.

“Wait—wait,” says a man, sorry-sorry whine threading into the words.

Man. Man, right. Stiles bites down on a curse and puts his hand down, then shuffles his legs under him as he looks at the crouching, wide-eyed man he’d rescued. He sniffs and the man cocks his head. Then, still looking warily at Stiles, he slowly uncurls himself from the wall.

“You bled again,” Stiles mutters. He pulls himself off the bed and goes towards the entrance enough to listen to the animal noises—grey pre-dawn hours, he’s guessing from the mix of tentative birdsong and flapping batwings—and then goes to the water barrel.

“Not so bad now,” the man says. He pauses because Stiles is splashing his face, then clears his throat. “It’s…it itches. I…am I…imagining it, when I…I think I feel my skin crawling?”

He sounds better. His voice is very weak and scratchy, but it doesn’t seem like speaking causes him any extra pain. “Well, your skin is growing back,” Stiles says, turning to him.

The man cocks his head again. It’s dark in the den but he shouldn’t have to, not with werewolf sight. Still, he’s squinting, and now that Stiles is looking for it, he flinches every now and then when there’s a particularly loud noise outside. Not at the inside noises, just at the outside ones; new werewolves sometimes go insane before they get used to hearing much farther than they can see.

“I was told they’d whipped the hide right off of me,” the man finally says, very dry with just a hint of bitterness coiling at the end.

His voice changes too, and it takes a moment for Stiles to realize that the accent had shifted, going from very Eastern to something more in line with long-time Westerners. Stiles shakes the water off his hands, then shakes his head. He stoops and rummages around till he finds his lantern and the ladle. Once the lantern’s lighted, he scoops out water with the ladle and carries it over to the man.

“It’s growing back,” Stiles says. “I need to eat something, check if there’s any more deer blood for you, and then I want to check how that’s doing. If it’s going all right, you might be—”

“Werewolves?” the man says.

Stiles pauses. The man looks up at him, shoulders hunched expectantly. His eyes flick over Stiles, then again, and then fix on Stiles’ eyes as he slowly lifts a trembling hand to the ladle.

He’s not strong enough to take the ladle, so Stiles holds it while the man tips it and slurps down the water. When he’s done, he drops heavily back onto the mattress, wiping a limp hand across his mouth.

“Yeah,” Stiles eventually says. “Werewolves. I’m one, and I bit you so you’re one now, too. That’s why you didn’t die, and why your skin is coming back.”

“Ah,” the man says. He shifts back and then hisses sharply, jerking forward as his back touches the wall. Other than that, he looks fairly calm. “You changed, all the way from wolf to human. When you woke just now. I thought—I heard—werewolves are wolves on two legs?”

“You can do that too. I mean, I can do that, and you can,” Stiles says. He twists the ladle around and knocks out the last few drops against his knee. “You might not get the hang of shifting all the way to wolf right away, but that’s normal. Anyway, you shouldn’t shift at all till your back is all healed, or you’ll rip it open again.”

The man nods. His eyes drift down from Stiles’ face, then snap back up. “Did you—when you found me, did you—”

“Everyone else was dead,” Stiles says, stepping sharply back. He fiddles with the ladle, then puts it away and grabs his trousers and pulls those on.

“Not my family,” the man says. His voice is rising and getting rougher, and his scent is filling with anger. “I meant the people who did this to—”

“Nobody was there. When I got there, I didn’t smell anyone—I barely smelled you,” Stiles says.

He checks around the den and notices the uneaten stew he’d set aside for the man. A sniff says it’s all right, so he picks it up and starts eating it as he walks out of the den.

“Peter,” the man says.

Stiles glances over his shoulder. “What?”

“My name,” the man says. “I’m Peter.”

“Oh,” Stiles says.

They look at each other, but the man doesn’t say anything else. He’s staring at Stiles like he expects Stiles to say something, but Stiles doesn’t know what that’s supposed to be—he’s gone over all the important things, he thinks, everything the man apparently had been too ill to remember. And he doesn’t want to talk about the burned house, or what might have caused that, not this soon. He’s barely rested, can still feel exhaustion tugging at his edges, and he just…wasn’t even planning to talk to anybody.

So he just goes on out. He eats the stew and then does some tidying up around the place, getting more water from the stream, sweeping up and burying all the bloodied clods so the flies will go away. The deer’s finished draining out, so he goes back into the den to drop off the pot for Peter and then goes right back out again.

Dressing the deer takes an hour and a half, and then Stiles decides he’ll just make a lot of stew all at once to use up the meat. He still doesn’t have enough salt to think about salting it, and even if he wasn’t still keeping an eye out, he just feels like it’s not a good idea to make a smoking fire near the den. So stew it is. He did get a huge pot from one of the homesteads.

Stiles fusses with the cooking fire till the stew’s simmering, and then shifts wolf again. He curls up on his discarded trousers by the fire and takes another nap.

* * *

“I need—” Peter’s face contorts with pain and humiliation as he leans against the outside of the den entrance, his knees locked against his shivering “—need to relieve myself—”

“Stream’s twenty yards, can you make it that far?” Stiles says, getting up onto his feet. He takes a step forward, remembers his clothes, and then scrambles back into his pants as he crosses the rest of the way to Peter.

Peter lets out a grateful groan as Stiles ducks under one of his arms, taking his weight. For a few seconds he just pants, but eventually he levers up his head, catches Stiles’ eye, and then nods.

Stiles is…dubious, but he walks the man over to the stream and then leans him against a stump he can hold onto. He starts to go as Peter begins to piss, but then thinks the better of it and comes back to pick at the bandages strained over Peter’s back.

Here and there Peter’s bled enough for it to show through, but the stains are rust-colored, and Peter doesn’t wince that much when Stiles tugs at the bandages. Stiles flicks out a claw and carefully slides it under one bandage.

He’s halfway through slitting it when he realizes that Peter’s gone silent and still; Stiles glances over the man’s shoulder and sees both of Peter’s hands gripping the stump. Then he thinks about what he’s doing and—he’s biting his lip so much, it’s a good thing it heals, he thinks irritably. “Just checking on it,” he mutters.

“All right,” Peter says, slow, careful.

Stiles hesitates another second, then takes a deep breath and opens up a spot about a hand’s breadth wide. The skin underneath is almost violently pink, it’s so fresh-grown, and still thin enough that Stiles can see the shadows of muscle fibers beneath. But the poultice mostly absorbed, he’s interested to see—just a few dusty streaks of it left here and there, and it tends to cling to the bandage rather than to the skin.

He takes the cut strips and rewinds them around Peter so he can tie off the ends, then steps back. The man glances back at him as Stiles goes down to the stream. Watches Stiles swish his fingers in the water, then eases down to do the same.

“Looks…it’s healing, anyway,” Stiles says. “But definitely a couple more days, at the very least.”

“Is there anything werewolves don’t heal from?” Peter asks.

“Yeah,” Stiles says, jerking his hands out of the stream. He starts to get up, then makes himself turn instead, holding his hand out towards Peter. “Yeah, a lot. I’ll tell you about all of it, you’ll have to learn.”

Peter nods again, then tries to get to his feet with just a grip on Stiles’ hand. It doesn’t work out too well and he sways alarmingly, then lets out a pained whine as Stiles ends up catching him by the waist. One of his hands swipes at his legs, where the whip-marks have closed up but are still visible as angry red ridges.

“Here, just—go limp for a second,” Stiles says, heaving Peter over one shoulder, since he doesn’t want to mess up the man’s back.

He carries Peter back to the den and lets him down onto the mattress, then ducks out to douse the cooking fire and bring in the stew. The pot with the deer blood is licked clean, but Peter sniffs hungrily and then claps a hand to his growling stomach as the smell of the stew fills the front room.

“Werewolves are extraordinarily strong, it seems,” Peter says. He’s looking at the cast-iron pot, big enough to bathe a baby in.

“Yeah, and we have better senses—you don’t seem too bothered about those,” Stiles says, looking up at him. “A lot of bittens are at first.”

“Well, I did notice that, but it still is a vast improvement on dying,” Peter says after a strained pause. While he is calm, Stiles suddenly realizes, it’s not without effort. “My sight does keep…changing on me. It is a little disorienting. I can smell and hear more, too, but…but I keep smelling the fire.”

Stiles frowns, then starts to say that he put that out, but then he sees Peter’s eyes. They’ve gone a little glassy and are fixed at a point somewhere behind Stiles. He deliberately knocks the pot lid against the pot, and when Peter doesn’t react to that, he spits out a short, gravelly snarl.

Peter jumps, then catches himself against the wall. He sucks in a deep breath, looking at Stiles—at Stiles, even if it’s a little wild-eyed. His eyes flick from amber to pale blue, and then he slowly pulls his hand back off the wall.

“The sounds are very loud, even in here,” Peter says, speaking as if he has to pick out each word and set them like a printer setting type. “But they quiet around you.”

“Because I bit you, I’m your alpha,” Stiles says. He puts the lid down and then goes around the den getting bowls and spoons. “If it gets really bad, concentrate on one heartbeat. That doesn’t have to be mine, but you’ll probably have the easiest time picking mine out.”

“What does alpha mean?” Peter says, leaning forward.

Stiles accidentally knocks the spoon against the rim of the pot, almost losing it in the stew. He grabs it back just in time, scowling at himself, and just concentrates on portioning out their meal.

“I’ll tell you later,” he mutters as he hands Peter one bowl. “I just—sorry, I need to eat and then go out. I didn’t get the—need to get the tree something.”

“Tree?” Peter says, his gaze suddenly sharpening. He looks from Stiles to the den entrance, and then straightens up sharply. “I thought I recog—that oak tree, the Nemeton—”

“How do you know what that is?” Stiles snaps.

Peter flinches back and his hand slides up the wall again. His head drops a little, enough to placate Stiles’ instincts, but his gaze doesn’t drop, Stiles notes. “I—my family.”

“Are you druids?” Stiles says after a second.

“Druids?” Peter says blankly, smelling surprised enough that Stiles thinks he’s being truthful. “Like Celtic priests?”

“Well, what were you thinking?” Stiles says. He hears creaking and realizes he’s bending his bowl, and starts to smooth out the metal with his fingers. “How did your family learn about Nemetons?”

“We’re from Yorkshire, originally,” Peter says. He takes his hand off the wall but keeps it in front of him, where Stiles can see. He’s picking at a welt on his thigh with his other hand. “It was a Celtic kingdom back in Roman times…had to have been druids there, but I was always told we were descended from war chiefs. We…we kept a few things back, when the area converted to Christianity. Mostly superstition and folk tales now, but…now and then, some of it still works.”

Stiles recalls that strange doll from the one homestead. “Did you settle here for the Nemeton?”

“I don’t know what that means,” Peter says with a hint of exasperation. “I just know what it is, if I see one, and…we took it as a sign to stop walking, that’s all. You seek strong lands to build your home, and a Nemeton means that the land will last. That’s all I know.”

“So you don’t know about werewolves,” Stiles says after a second.

“Only what you’ve told me, and what I’ve seen so far.” Peter suddenly grimaces and he and Stiles both look down to see blood briefly bead out of the half-ripped scab on his thigh. He pokes at the bead and smears it out of the way, and then looks on in patent fascination as the skin closes back up.

Still a lot slower than it should. “Yeah, I know, I need to get on teaching you this, but you need to heal up first,” Stiles says. “I’m going to hunt so you’ll have more blood. If you need something, you can call out. I’ll hear you. But stay inside and save me some trouble, please.”

“All right, but—but wait. Wait a moment,” Peter says, his head snapping back up. “Wait—what’s your name?”

“What?” Stiles says, though he heard the man just fine. “Oh. Oh, uh, Stiles. You can call me Stiles.”

“Stiles,” Peter repeats. He’s a little curious, but not mocking about it. “So werewolves do have names.”

“Well, you’ve just learned another thing, haven’t you,” Stiles mutters as he stalks out.

* * *

Peter’s not telling the whole truth about what he knows about Nemetons. Stiles isn’t sure that the man is out-and-out lying, but the tree definitely means something more to him than just a convenient excuse to stake a claim. Unfortunately, Stiles doesn’t know much about English magic, aside from druids, and Stiles does think Peter genuinely doesn’t know what those are.

Stiles misses his grandmother. She’d been the most well-traveled of the pack; even before she’d emigrated to America with them, she’d had a merchant for her first husband and had traveled all over Europe when she was young. Even when she didn’t know something, she at least knew where to look or who to ask to find out about it.

Except his grandmother’s gone. All of his pack are gone—just this new beta he’s made and not even gotten around to explaining what that is. He’s being a wonderful alpha.

“I know, Dad,” Stiles mumbles before he can catch himself.

He aimlessly mauls a tree, and then makes himself go hunting. Deer are too far away today, so Stiles sniffs out a rabbit warren and snags a brace. One he bleeds out over the Nemeton’s roots, while the other he saves till he gets inside the den.

Peter’s been moving around. He’s back on the mattress as Stiles walks in, but Stiles can smell his scent on other parts of the room, and some water is splashed around the bottom of the water barrel. Stiles knows he didn’t do that.

“I wanted to—to wash a little,” Peter explains, seeing where Stiles is looking. He moves his hand and Stiles follows the gesture to the bowl and spoon set up against the far wall, cleaned and dry. “You’ve saved my life, and I’ve done nothing so far in return.”

“Well, I didn’t exactly ask before I bit you,” Stiles says. He picks up the bowl and puts it down on the floor, and then hangs the rabbit over it as he twists a claw in its throat.

“Are you supposed to?” Peter asks.

Stiles doesn’t glance up. He’s not concentrating on the rabbit either; he’s busy trying to sniff without being too obvious about it and figure out whether Peter got into the backroom too. “Yeah. I mean, it helps make sure that people aren’t going to try and kill you after they’ve been turned.”

“Why would they want to do that?” Peter says.

“I don’t think you’re that stupid,” Stiles says, finally looking over. He’s decided that Peter didn’t go out of the front room, and also probably didn’t do more than crawl back and forth between the bed and the water barrel. It’s just Peter staggered around some while doing that, and that’s not unexpected.

Peter and he stare at each other for a few seconds, and then Peter ducks his head in a sheepish motion. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m not—I’m trying to understand this. This is so far outside of my—”

“You talk like you’ve been to school a bit,” Stiles says abruptly.

“I have,” Peter says. He pauses, his eyes flicking down as Stiles gives the rabbit a little shake. He smells hungry, and when he licks his lips, his fangs peek from them for a second. “I even went to college for a year, before we moved west. My family’s always put a high value on education.”

So did Stiles’ family, though they only sent children to school as much as they had to in order to avoid attracting attention. The things they thought were important to learn, they handed down themselves. Which Stiles should be doing too, he thinks with a grimace. “Where were you before here? And after England, I mean.”

“You know your geography,” Peter says with a faint hint of approval. When Stiles straightens up, that dies off and the man shifts back into a braced position, still nervous even as his nostrils greedily suck up the smell of the rabbit blood. “My family left England several generations ago, to be honest. We’ve been around a few states, but in my time, we were in New York, a little while in Missouri, and then out there.”

Stiles comes to the edge of the bed with the bowl. Peter’s strong enough to push himself up to it, but his arms are still shaking enough that Stiles keeps one hand on the bottom of the bowl to steady it. “Why’d you move? Farming? Ranching?”

“Ranching was something we were considering.” Peter leans down and almost touches the rim of the bowl. Then he lifts his head. He’s trying to keep his face calm, but his heartbeat’s fluttering, and he’s breathing a little deeper and slower than before. “Really, we were just trying to find somewhere where people wouldn’t attack us.”

He pauses, looking closely at Stiles, and then dips his head again. His eyes flick up just as his mouth reaches the rim and he has another look, and then he takes a sip.

He’d like more, a lot more, says the sudden grumble of his stomach, but Peter pulls back and puts a reproving hand over his belly. “Excuse me,” he says, and then he cocks his head. “Is this—is this something I’ll need now?”

“Blood? No, we’re not vampires,” Stiles says absently, only to see the interest sharpen in Peter’s eyes. “If you don’t know what that it, it’s…it’s not a werewolf, and you don’t even really know what you are now, first. You just need blood right now because you lost so much before I turned you, but the craving will go down as you heal.”

Peter considers this. “Will I want it, even if I don’t need it?”

“You don’t have to be a werewolf to want blood,” Stiles says after a moment, keeping an ear on Peter’s heartbeat. “The way I found you…I think you’ve seen that.”

“You haven’t asked about that at all,” Peter says almost snappishly. Then his eyes widen as Stiles instinctively curls his lips back from his teeth. He sucks in his breath before dropping his head. “I’m sorry. I’ve just—all my family was there, all of them, and we’d been traveling for so long…we thought we’d done with all of that, coming out here. And—and—”

The more he talks, the more upset he gets. His shoulders start jerking back and forth and down on the mattress, his hand fists against his knee, the thumb showing and showing a claw instead of a nail. His heartbeat goes up and his voice goes down, verging into a snarl.

Stiles makes a rumbling noise, not wanting to escalate, just trying to interrupt, and Peter’s eyes suddenly flash amber. Peter actually snaps teeth at him—not intentionally, Peter’s still talking and the snap makes him go all mush-mouthed, but Stiles still darts forward and grabs Peter under the jaw.

He keeps himself just to that, doesn’t slam Peter back into the wall, but that much makes Peter go from angry to fearful, silent and staring up from Stiles’ grip. Stiles only holds on for a second—he’s making a point, not trying to be vicious—but even after he lets go, Peter barely breathes.

“Well, if you don’t want to talk about it, fine,” Stiles mutters, pulling back. He rubs the hand he’d used to grab Peter against his leg, telling himself to stop feeling so uncomfortable. He’s an alpha, he’s supposed to…he’s supposed to manage the pack.

He’s alone and his father is dead and all he knows to do is keep walking.

“Just I’d like to know,” Stiles makes himself say, dragging back his head to the man before him. “If somebody’s likely to come back and check—”

“I don’t know,” Peter says. He exhales roughly, then hiccups a little, he breathes in so quick and deep after that. He starts to grimace in embarrassment and then darts an alarmed look at Stiles and shoves his hand up over his mouth, talking from behind that. “I should tell you. You saved my life, you should—you seem like you might be less judgmental than some of the others my family’s had run-ins with, anyway.”

“What, because I’m a werewolf?” Stiles says. “What are you people, then?”

“Well, depending on who you ask—” Peter breathes in heavily again, still from behind his hand “—worshippers of Satan, devils, or sideshow exhibits.”

He thinks that the teeth are a bad thing to show, Stiles figures out. “You can take your hand down,” he tells Peter. “Just don’t try and bite me again. My fangs are longer.”

Peter’s eyes narrow, confused and a little nettled, and then he slowly lowers his hand. “I tried to bite you?”

“Just now,” Stiles says irritably, and then he makes himself breathe, and remember the man’s only a couple days turned. “You…you have different reflexes, instincts now. You need to pay attention, learn to do that, or else if you can’t get hold of them, you’re never going to be able to control shifting. And if you can’t do that, you’re going to get yourself killed the first time we run into other people.”

“I’m sorry, I’ll try,” Peter says after a second. He hesitates again, then pushes forward and glances at…right, Stiles still has the bowl.

Amazingly, none of the blood slopped out with all that fuss. Stiles holds it out again and Peter just drinks till it’s gone. Then he sits back and wipes his mouth, licks his fingers, as Stiles takes the bowl to rinse out.

“When I said I didn’t know about Nemetons…I know you don’t believe me, but I’m not trying to lie. It’s just…I don’t know what’s the best way to explain this,” Peter says quietly. “I never have had to explain it before. We kept it all within the family.”

“Well, what are you, first of all? Before I bit you?” Stiles asks.

“Nothing that remarkable. Certainly not what they accused us of—if we were that powerful, we wouldn’t have let ourselves be penned in like animals,” Peter says, his voice dripping with a hatred so visceral that Stiles looks up. But Peter’s so caught up in himself that he doesn’t even notice. “Like I said, we had a few more pagan traditions than most—that’s not so strange, really. Half of what you think is proper Christianity is really just the old gods dressed up with crucifixes.”

Stiles’ stomach grumbles a little, startling him. He puts the bowl away and then opens up the stewpot for a look: the stew’s gone cold, chunks of fat congealed on top, but Stiles doesn’t want to interrupt by taking it outside and building up a cooking fire. So he just eats in between the fat chunks and it’s not bad that way. He’s had worse on the trail out.

“A little second sight every other generation, a proper understanding of herbal medicine, and at least you know what you ate with that, when you have no idea what the pharmacist is doing behind his counter,” Peter shrugs. “A bit of a knack for telling other people’s misfortunes, which they like to call cursing. It’s not even as showy as what they were hanging people for, two centuries ago in Salem.”

Stiles lowers his spoon. “You’re a witch.”

“Ah, no, that’s my—” Peter fights back a grimace; it almost slips by Stiles but for the sudden rough thump of the man’s heart “—was my sister. I just read unchristian books, apparently.”

“Books?” Stiles can’t help saying. He has his family grimoire and herbal, a farmer’s almanac he’s read so much he can quote whole pages, in order, and one tattered copy of Polish fairytales that is so fragile he keeps it wrapped up in oilskin and never reads. And that Malleus Maleficarum he took from the one house, but he’s already read that twice over.

Peter looks a little bemused, and then he turns bitter again. “That’s nothing but ashes now. I had the finest collection of Classical literature in the state. Probably the only collection, actually.”

“Well, they weren’t just going for the books,” Stiles says, regretting his lapse.

“No,” Peter says flatly. He struggles for a second, his eyes flickering amber, and then exhales like a steam kettle hissing. “No, they weren’t. They—the Argents, that was their name. Self-righteous Catholics who set up their own Inquisition to run us out, along with the rest of the town. Closer to real witches than we ever were, in my opinion—the things I saw them do. The ways they’d kill people—it wasn’t natural.”

Argent isn’t a name Stiles knows. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a known name, but it at least isn’t a well-known family. At least, he hopes so—the hunter lines are never written down, just passed by word of mouth, and he thinks his mother and grandmother taught him all the major families before they died. But there are lots of new hunters in America, only one or two generations in the business, and he knows the adults didn’t always tell him what really happened when they’d come home bloody, or not come home at all. He should’ve asked his father—but his father never wanted to talk about the past, not after they’d buried his mother. Stiles is kicking himself for not pushing anyway. They’d had the time on the trail. Before his father had died too.

Peter’s speaking. Stiles shakes his head and looks up and catches Peter mid-hesitation. Then the other man raises his hand. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m weighing you down with problems that aren’t even yours, and you look exhausted. You’ve been doing so much, I know that.”

“Well, I need to know if somebody’s going to miss your body,” Stiles mutters. He pokes at the stew, then decides he’s had enough and puts the lid back on. “It was just the two families, you and them?”

“The dispute, more or less, that was only between us, but we both had…we had supporters,” Peter says, with an odd reluctance. “Talia—my sister, she was very…she had a very compelling personality. And if left to her own choice, she preferred to use her talents to help others, not to hunt them down. When we packed up and left Missouri, a few families came with us. The Argents brought twice as many, and most of them not families, just hired guns.”

Stiles nods and then surprises himself with a yawn. He rubs at his eyes, then rolls his shoulders, feeling the muscles pinch as he does. “So what did they come for, do you know? Did they follow you all the way from Missouri?”

“No, they weren’t in Missouri. I have no idea where they came from,” Peter says. He shuffles forward. Stops when Stiles gets up and goes to get a drink from the water barrel, but then slides a few more inches, till he’s sitting on the edge of the bed. “Canada, maybe. They had quite a few Frenchmen. To hear them talk, they have some sort of holy duty to scour the earth of evil, but I think they just want the land.”

That title deed Stiles had found near the burned house. He’d left it there in the crook of the tree, he suddenly remembers. He—he still doesn’t want to go back there.

“I’m not sure why, exactly. They’re not interested in ranching or farming—honestly, I’m not sure they like anything but killing people,” Peter goes on. “But they’re dead-set on clearing everyone out from this area. How long have you been here? How haven’t you run into them?”

“Well, I’ve been trying really hard not to meet anybody,” Stiles says, rubbing the water from his mouth. “Also, I’m taking care of the Nemeton, so it keeps an eye out for me.”

Peter frowns. “You talk as if it’s got a mind of its own.”

“Because it does,” Stiles mutters. He glances around the den, then quickly runs down what he’s done outside. Everything’s in order, so he takes a step towards the bed.

He’s tired, but not quite as tired as he was yesterday, and so he notices when Peter jerks away from him. Stiles stops and Peter grimaces, then drops his eyes, picking at the edges of the bandages near his waist.

“It’s your bed,” Peter says. He moves his legs out of the way, a little more slowly, but he’s still holding himself closely. “I should be grateful to even be breathing.”

Something about Peter and the way he talks rings strangely, Stiles thinks to himself. It’s not lying, but it…feels a little like that, that feeling that Stiles just missed something, or should be paying closer attention.

Stiles hesitates another second, then decides that one, he’s not going to figure that out right now, and two, Peter isn’t about to kill him in his sleep. So he lies down on one corner of the bed. He reaches down and gives his feet a good dusting to get off the dirt—he should go back to wearing shoes—and then starts tucking his limbs in.

“You were sleeping like a wolf before,” Peter says.

“Yeah, sometimes. It’s warmer that way,” Stiles mumbles. “But keep my clothes on, you can relax. We’re still people.”

“I see,” Peter says, just before Stiles drifts off.

Chapter Text

Away from other people, Stiles has fallen into the habit of just sleeping when the mood takes him, rather than trying to follow the usual day-night cycle. Werewolves are comfortable at night in ways that humans aren’t, but they don’t have to be nocturnal except on full moon nights.

Speaking of, when Stiles crawls out of the den and looks up at the sky, he realizes he’s actually missed the full moon. He’s been working so hard he doesn’t think he felt it at all, except maybe for being easily irritated—but who knows if that’s the moon or him trying to pretend like he actually knows how to be an alpha to somebody.

“Stiles?” Peter’s followed him out. Limping heavily, quilt clutched around his waist, and when he drops his shoulder against the side of the den entrance, he groans in relief. But he’s getting stronger. The cuts on his legs have faded and shrunk to white scars.

“You need to go piss again?” Stiles asks.

Peter nods, but then abruptly yanks his head down towards his chest, one arm coming up over it. He’s hissing through his teeth, his heartbeat climbing rapidly, and Stiles smells his panic even before getting over and touching Peter, and feeling the cold sweat slicking the man’s skin.

“It—so much,” Peter gasps, swaying off the wall.

Stiles already had an arm half-under him, and when Peter says that he guesses what’s wrong and swings the man so that Peter’s ear is pressed against his chest, right over the heart. That also helps hold Peter in place so that Stiles can shift his arms to touch as little of Peter’s back as possible.

Peter gasps a few more times, more and more shallowly, and then goes silent for a little bit. He shifts his head against Stiles, his breath warming Stiles’ bellybutton, and then shifts it again, more forcefully. Stiles lets him up and he blinks dazed eyes.

“Keep focusing on one thing at a time,” Stiles says. “When you have a fix on it, you can focus on something else. When you get used to it, you can hear everything but only listen to the things you care about, but you have to work up to it.”

“I don’t even know what I’m hearing,” Peter says, still a little wheezy. “How do you—how long—how long does this take?”

“I…it depends, but you should pick it up faster than you think,” Stiles says. He hesitates, then shrugs awkwardly. “I was born like this, but I’ve watched when my—when people were bitten.”

Peter blinks again, and the daze goes down by a good half. Getting him curious seems like the best way to make him focus. “You can pass this on to your children? If I—”

“If you had one with another werewolf, then yeah. If they’re not a werewolf, it doesn’t always happen,” Stiles says. He gives Peter a nudge and then moves back. Keeps an arm under Peter’s elbow, but Peter manages to stand on his own.

They start moving towards the stream. Some of the bandages around Peter have slipped and are showing skin between the gaps. The loose ends flutter in the night breeze and Peter bats at one that’s dusting his hip. “If I bit someone, they’d…turn, you call it?”

“No, they wouldn’t. They might die, depending on where you bit them, but they wouldn’t turn,” Stiles says. “Only alphas can bite and turn somebody. You’re a beta.”

Peter stumbles a little over an uneven patch and Stiles pulls him back up. “Alphas and betas,” he murmurs. “Werewolves have different classes? And a Greek system, to boot…”

“You shouldn’t look at it like that.” They get to the stream and Stiles leads Peter to the same stump as last time. “I think your bandages can come off.”

“Well, by all means,” Peter grunts. He’s a little breathless, clearly still working on his stamina, but he hooks his chin over his shoulder. Then he drops his head forward and leans on his elbows against the stump.

Stiles waits a second, but when Peter doesn’t start pissing, he shrugs and reaches out, and starts to cut away the bandages with his claws. “We—we usually live in packs. In groups. It’s—it’s safer, and it—it helps to do some things we have to do together. Alphas can do things betas can’t, and they’re usually stronger and faster, too, but without betas you can’t have a pack. And an alpha by itself is an omega, same as a lone beta.”

“Omega?” Peter mutters.

As Stiles gets halfway down his back, Peter shifts to brace his hip against the stump, and then his knee. He reaches back and tugs some of the dangling bandages out of the way, and then relieves himself with a long sigh.

“That’s what we call werewolves without a pack. It’s also an insult,” Stiles says. The skin under the bandages is much better, thicker and closer to the color of the skin on Peter’s arms. The best sign is how easily the bandages come off, except for a couple spots where blood dried under them. “Because omegas…if they’re alone too long, they usually go mad. They forget they have human in them, are just the wolf, and they’ll go after anybody, kill anything.”

Peter’s listening, he’s nodding along, but he doesn’t say anything. He must be wondering—Stiles has talked to him enough to think he’d be curious about that—but he doesn’t even move like he’s going to ask something. When he finishes pissing, he rubs his hand against the trunk and then leans his weight on it so that Stiles can scrape a bandage off his mid-left lower back.

“The alpha is the leader, but if they aren’t any good, the betas don’t always put up with it. If there are enough of them and they’re strong enough, they can go without an alpha longer than an alpha can go without any betas,” Stiles finds himself saying.

“How many alphas per pack?” Peter says.

It’s such a relief to finally have a question out that Stiles doesn’t realize till after he’s answered it that it’s not the one he was expecting. “Usually one. I’ve heard you can get away with two if they’re mated, but that’s very rare.”

“Why?” Peter asks.

“Because sooner or later unmated alphas would challenge each other and one of them would die,” Stiles says after a second.

He gives the last bandage a tug, winding up around his hand, and steps back. Peter twists around and looks at him and then unsteadily straightens up. Gives Stiles another look before gingerly making his way down to the stream to wash his hands.

“Werewolves kill each other,” he says when Stiles joins him.

“So do people,” Stiles points out.

Peter pauses, his hands half-in the water, and then he smiles suddenly. He’s very likable-looking when he does that; he shouldn’t have any problem learning to persuade people what they didn’t see, Stiles thinks.

“So they do,” he says, scooping his hands through the water. He presses his face into his palms, then slicks water back over his forehead and into his hair. “What do werewolves fight over?”

“Mostly territory,” Stiles says. “Why?”

“Well, because of my family,” Peter says. He looks very intent, as if trying to impress something on Stiles, and then abruptly looks away. “We fought for our land, and you’ve seen what it got us.”

Stiles grimaces and looks away himself. He almost gets up and walks away, but his father—he doesn’t want to remember, it hurts so much, but he does and he thinks it’d hurt more if he didn’t live up to what his parents taught him.

“If there was a fight, the alphas lead that too,” he finally says. “That’s part of being pack, you fight for each other. So if they come back, I’ll kill them before they ever find you.”

When he looks back, Peter’s staring at him in surprise. “You barely know me.”

“I bit you,” Stiles points out.

Peter raises one hand towards his shoulder, then lowers it. “Is that really all it takes?” he says, almost wonderingly.

“I’m the alpha. It’s my responsibility,” Stiles mutters.

He’s bouncing on his heels as he says it, and the moment he’s done, he just can’t stay any longer. He gets up and goes up the bank a few steps. Shakes his head at himself—and at his father’s voice, chiding him for not being more patient—and then turns around.

“If you need to do something, I was going to try and wash up,” Peter says, giving the quilt around his waist a nudge. His nose wrinkles briefly. “I’m not so sure that being able to better smell myself is such a gain, and you must not enjoy it either.”

“I’ve been out here for a while,” Stiles shrugs, but he can’t help glancing back towards the den.

“I promise I won’t fall in and drown,” Peter says, drawing Stiles’ glance back to him. He waves his hand at the stream, wheedling and oddly anxious. “I think I’m strong enough for that.”

“Yeah, I guess, but…just call me when you’re done, all right?” Stiles says, taking a half-step towards the den. “I’ll come get you.”

Peter nods. Then he inhales, just stopping Stiles’ turn. “Thank you, Stiles.”

Stiles nods back, then flaps his hand in Peter’s direction. Then he goes back to the den.

* * *

While Peter’s at the stream, Stiles drags the mattress out of the den and changes out the grass stuffing. After he’s put it back, he goes over the den floor and walls, raking out any soiled dirt and thinking again that he’d like to at least plaster over it. Every time he goes in and out, he’s scraping dust out of his hair and he figures he probably looks a bit like a miner, no matter how often he dips into the stream.

They have more than enough meat, so Stiles canvasses his other supplies. He’s running low on flour and cornmeal—the homesteads haven’t had any, but he saw some in the general store.

Peter calls him back while he’s debating whether or not to make a run for it. He helps Peter back into the den and mentions it, and after a little thought, Peter volunteers that there may be another homestead closer to them.

“Did you know them?” Stiles has to ask.

“I ended up knowing everyone, whether it was because my sister was sheltering them or because they helped shut her up in her own house,” Peter says, his voice twisting savagely.

Then he fights down his anger, apologizing for the overreaction. He offers to go and show Stiles the way, but Stiles shoots down that idea, pointing out how Peter’s knees almost buckled coming back from the stream. Peter is unhappy, but he mostly keeps it out of his voice and just asks how long Stiles will be gone.

Stiles isn’t sure what to say at first. He could talk about everything that that depends on—if he has to hide his trail, if he runs into something he’d rather detour around like a bear—but as he’s weighing that up, he notices how tense Peter’s gotten. “If you start hearing or smelling too much,” Stiles starts.

“My heartbeat, right,” Peter says curtly. Then he dips his head in apology. “I’m keeping you. You don’t have to account—”

“Well, I do, that’s being an alpha,” Stiles mutters, now getting what’s bothering Peter.

He goes and gets his rifle. Checks that it’s not jammed and then loads it and lays it down on the floor by Peter. And then, after a second, he digs out that copy of the Malleus Maleficarum he found.

Peter stiffens when he sees the book. Then he takes a long breath and deliberately works his shoulders loose, looking up at Stiles. “That’s one of theirs. The Argents. That’s their crest on the binding.”

“Sorry,” Stiles says, because he doesn’t know what else to say except that he hadn’t noticed the crest, and he feels stupid for not noticing. “I just found it in one of the homesteads. But it’s…well, if you want something to do. You said you liked to read.”

“It’ll be interesting to see what nonsense they read, I suppose,” Peter says after a second. He reaches for the book and picks it up, and then looks up at Stiles. “The gun?”

“I’m the only other werewolf around. Bullets don’t stop us, not plain ones. You have to do special things to them and I don’t have any of that kind,” Stiles explains. “But so far I haven’t run into anything else around here that these bullets won’t stop.”

Peter looks interested and uncertain in turns, but in the end, he puts out his arm and tugs the rifle onto the mattress next to him. “So you may be gone for a while?”

“I’ll try not to,” Stiles says. “Anyway, if I’m in trouble, I’ll howl. You’ll hear me, anyway. This valley carries sound a long way.”

“Well, I’ll practice fixing on one thing at a time, so I don’t miss it,” Peter says. He smiles and it’s brittle and a little shaky, and falls off before Stiles gets halfway across the den. “Stiles? Please…do try.”

Stiles bites his lip and just goes out without answering the man.

* * *

The homestead’s where Peter says it should be, and it has cornmeal in a jar sealed tightly enough that the damp hasn’t gotten in and molded it.

It also has a lot more than any of the other homesteads Stiles visited, but the condition of it makes him balk at first: bullet-holes peppering the walls, and inside, divots in the timbers that look like knife- and ax-marks. Dried blood is splattered around, but the worst of it is a trail that leads out the back door and into the woods.

Stiles follows it to a skeleton of a man who’s been chopped in half. The bones have been picked at by scavengers, but the tendons and cartilage are still holding them together, so Stiles figures it can’t have been lying out a whole season. The soldier had said the feuding had started—or at least, people had started noticing it—back in early spring, and it’s the end of summer now.

When Stiles heads back to the house, it’s not that he wants to. But he makes himself go through the place, every inch of it. He does end up taking things from it, but that’s not why he looks anymore: he’s looking for clues about these Argents.

It’s been too long and he doesn’t find much—he thinks that the house must have belonged to a supporter of Peter’s family, since the Bible he finds is in English. He does dig out a couple bullets from the wall, and when he sniffs at the fragments, he’s so relieved he sits down on the floor, not finding a trace of wolfsbane in them.

But that might not mean anything, he reminds himself. That skeleton hadn’t been of a werewolf. On the other hand, cutting people in half—hunters do that for some kinds of vampires, and sometimes for necromancers, although that’s not that effective on them. It’s not just for werewolves.

Stiles doesn’t know enough, is what he concludes, and he just takes up his bundle of thing and then works on making a confusing trail back to his den.

“Oh,” Peter says, jolting up off the bed as Stiles walks in. It’s very late and he looks a little wan, even once Stiles lights a lantern, but he pushes forward to look at what Stiles has brought back. “Oh. They didn’t take the silver.”

“Why would they?” Stiles says, holding onto the candlestick. It’s much too fancy, but he took it because it was long and made a good handle to tie his bundle to.

“I don’t know,” Peter says. He purses his lips a few times, then rakes at his hair with one hand. “They would ransack for anything silver, sometimes. The first few attacks, we thought they might just be a band of robbers because of that.”

He’s not telling the whole truth again, but he looks genuinely rattled so Stiles lets it lie for the moment. Puts the candlestick and cornmeal with the rest of the food, sets the potatoes—all sprouted—to the side to plant in the morning, and then unwraps the bundle of clothing. As he’s doing that, Peter sniffs twice and then gets a very odd, uncomfortable look on his face.

“That cabin belonged to a cousin of mine, her and her husband,” Peter says, seeing Stiles’ look at him. He gestures aimlessly with one hand. “It’s—strange. She liked lavender oil, would put it in her washwater, and I can smell it. You’d think it would have faded by now—but my nose is better, too.”

“I can take them out,” Stiles says. “I just brought them because nothing I have will fit you.”

He’d sold anything of his father’s that he couldn’t cut down to fit him. Stiles looks down at the boots in his hands and remembers how that had felt, watching the man walk off with his father’s shoes, ones that his father had saved up for two months to get, and then he has to swallow hard against the nausea.

“Stiles, you don’t—” Peter stops as the boots clatter out of Stiles’ hands. He draws back, stops, and then leans forward again. “It’s…all right. Don’t throw them away, I appreciate the thought. It was very—thank you, I appreciate it.”

“You don’t have to take them,” Stiles mutters again. Then he looks up. “Do you want them?”

Peter is going to say yes, Stiles thinks. He even thinks the man might try and smile, with how the corners of Peter’s mouth are flexing, but then Peter breathes in and it’s a little shaky.

“I’d like to think about it, if I can,” Peter finally says.

Stiles nods jerkily, then gets up. Then gets back down and puts the bundle back together. He carries it into the other room and puts it on top of a box, and then comes back to find Peter paging through one of the two books Stiles had found in the house. The Bible’s been pulled next to Peter’s hip and it’s flipped open to the inside cover, showing where somebody’s inscribed half a family tree.

Sizable family for this generation, Stiles thinks, absently counting the number of names on the lowest tier. Then his eye catches on ‘Talia’ and he crooks his head.

The book turns. He looks up and Peter shrugs at him, then pushes the book over. “My sister,” Peter says, tapping the name. “Her three children, her husband…me.”

Peter doesn’t have a wife or any children listed, Stiles notes. He did have a second sister, one who died five years ago.

“Teresa ran into some ignorant fools in Missouri who’d heard of ducking a witch,” Peter says, his lips twisting. “They didn’t know you’re supposed to tie the woman up first and she wasn’t drowned, but the chill she caught killed her all the same. That’s partly why we moved here.”

“Did all of these people come with you?” Stiles says. He’s still flushed from being caught out, and now he feels guilty for reminding Peter of his other sister.

Peter glances at the Bible. “Four families, twenty-three people, and then a few non-relations. We didn’t lose a single one crossing the plains, going through the mountains. Then we come here, and rabid Frenchmen kill fifteen over four months, and the rest in a single night. I’d like the Argents to come back, to be honest.”

“And find out you’re a werewolf now?” Stiles says sharply.

“Well, if bullets can’t stop me, that’s a damn sight more favorable than being a witch,” Peter says angrily. His eyes have gone amber and his words are dragging because his fangs have dropped. “If they came back, we could—”

“If they come back, we’ll deal with them, but you’d be better off hoping they don’t,” Stiles snaps. “Do you think I’d be out here if werewolves could do whatever they wanted? We’re not gods. If you want to live, you keep your head down, understand?”

Peter’s eyes flare even brighter. His breathing roughens almost to the point of growling and Stiles rises up onto his toes and the tips of one hand, balancing for a lunge.

The movement catches Peter’s attention. His pupils dilate and then he presses his lips together into a bloodless white line. His breathing stutters once before smoothing out, and then he suddenly winces and turns his head aside. His hand comes up and he rubs at his temple, then pulls up one knee so he can rest his chin on it.

“I was almost thinking I’d worked out the trick of it,” he mumbles, right as Stiles reaches for him. “It’s about keeping your temper, isn’t it? Controlling it?”

“Some of it,” Stiles says. He touches the side of Peter’s cheek, drawing a little on the pain—there is pain, he can feel it tug back on him—and then moves his hand to the back of Peter’s neck. “Is it smell or hearing?”

“A little of both. And I’m upset, and I still—I may be hallucinating a little,” Peter says. “Sometimes I think I still smell them burning.”

Stiles leaves his hand on Peter’s neck till he feels the man relax, then sits back. Peter looks up at the same time, a flicker of disappointed curiosity going across his face, before rubbing at his temple again.

“I’m not trying to be cruel,” Stiles says. He pauses, then summons up what’s left of his willpower. “I know about losing loved ones, and being mad about it. But you do have to be careful. They might not know anything about witches, but if they learn about werewolves, about what really hurts us, and they’re as bad as you say…packs already get killed off all the time by people like that.”

“I understand,” Peter says. For a moment he looks as if he’ll ask something, but then he shakes his head and uncurls himself to show Stiles the book in his lap. “Nicola liked looking at the stars. She couldn’t follow half the words in here, but she was happy just with the illustrations.”

He tilts an engraving of a constellation towards Stiles and Stiles shifts over to see better. Stiles’ hand runs into something and he picks it up—the Malleus Maleficarum—and puts it aside. Something snags his finger and he glances down, then tucks the loose page back into the book.

The book’s about astrology, and not too far off the mark for some of the chapters. Peter’s interested to hear about that, and, glad to have a less painful subject, Stiles is happy to discuss how. It’s probably the most pleasant couple hours they’ve had so far.

Chapter Text

In a way, Stiles almost believes Peter about the luck his family has, because the full moon is just over. If you put aside all the other things, it’s about the perfect situation for a bitten to adapt to their new life.

So they could take their time about it, but now that he’s mobile and talking, Peter starts peppering Stiles with questions about what they are and how being a werewolf works. Most of all, he wants to know how to control the shift.

Stiles points out that the skin on his back is still fragile and Peter subsides, but that only lasts till he has a nightmare and ends up shoving his claws into Stiles’ legs and arm before Stiles snarls him into shifting human. “I want to know,” Peter demands, wild-eyed, his words slurring as his jaw lengthens towards a muzzle, then snaps back. “And stop telling me you healed, I can see that and—and it just makes it worse. It’s like I’m some infant and you’re letting me maul you—”

“Well, you are one, a little bit, and anyway it’s not like I can just claw you back, I’m an alpha. If I hurt you, your healing doesn’t deal with it as fast,” Stiles says.

He’s starting to snarl again; he’s grumpy from being woken with claws in him, and under that, feeling guilty about forcing Peter to shift so suddenly in the first place. That’s an intimidation tactic, not a teaching tool.

Stiles presses his lips together and tries to get hold of himself, while Peter hunches down against the wall, his chin nearly scraping the floor. When Stiles reaches out, Peter flinches away. Then suddenly twists up and slides entirely off the bed, scooting nearly to the water barrel as he rubs one hand over and over his face.

“Do you—here, listen,” Stiles says, smelling a little nausea on the man. He lowers his outstretched hand and taps the floor in time with his heartbeat, since it’s far slower than Peter’s rabbiting one. “Just—”

“I have to stop—I can’t be getting so upset if I’m to master this,” Peter mumbles, as if he’s talking to himself. But then he looks up at Stiles.

“Well, it helps,” Stiles says. He makes a face at himself and tries to shake the muzziness out of his head. Peter likes details, he reminds himself. “There are werewolves who do it by holding onto anger, vendettas, that sort of thing—usually not that stable, but I know they don’t die right away.”

“Hold…hold onto?” Peter says. His heartbeat’s starting to slow. He’s still breathing hard, but the wildness is seeping out of his eyes.

“It’s like…you’re not a wolf, or a man. You’re both, and if you forget that, if you go too far one way or the other—you can’t get back to the other one,” Stiles says. “A lot of people have a harder time holding onto the human part, because being a wolf seems a lot eas—simpler, in a lot of ways. So when you shift, you need to have something fixed in your head that will keep you from forgetting about it. And that’s easier when you’re relaxed.”

Peter frowns, his breathing slowing even more. Now he looks confused, but at least it’s not the way he had when he’d first snapped his eyes open, as if he had no idea where he even was. “And that something is an emotion?”

“Or a memory, or…sorry, I’m trying to…this is just hard to explain. I don’t think when I do it, I just do—I’ve done this all my life,” Stiles mutters. “Just…come back over here. I don’t think being tired helps either.”

“You can’t be that calm about somebody tearing into you while you’re asleep,” Peter says after a moment. “Even if you heal…is that just so mundane to you?”

“You make it sound like we’re animals and I’m just—I know you were just dreaming,” Stiles says, annoyed. “Look, I’m just—”

“What if I do it again?” Peter snaps.

Stiles inhales and he can feel it turning into a snarl. He catches himself, but it must still show in his face—maybe his eyes are glowing—because Peter winces. He suppresses a sigh and makes his shoulders relax, trying to not look so threatening. “Well…what makes you think you will? What were you dreaming about?”

Peter goes very quiet and tense, except for his eyes, which unfocus as he stares slightly past Stiles. His hands flex and then curl up into fists, and then, just as Stiles is about to go over and shake him, they snap open. He flattens his palms against the ground, his eyes dropping to them as he rocks his weight forward onto his hands.

“Dinner. We were eating when they showed up,” Peter says. He curls his fingers, then straightens them out again. Does it twice more, and then lifts his fingertips on the third time. “I was dreaming that instead of them pulling us from the table, we pulled them onto it. And—and the fire, it didn’t happen.”

His nails lengthen into full claws. He keeps staring at them, then sucks in his breath a little bit and his claws shift away, just as he lifts his hands. By the time his fingers get to knee-level, his nails are blunt again.

“Something to remind you that you’re still human,” Peter says, looking up at Stiles.

“To remind you you’ve got something to come back to,” Stiles says after a second. It’s something his grandmother would say, just her. Everybody else, his parents and the rest of the pack, they’d go with the man-wolf story. He usually goes with that one, just because it makes more sense to him. “Just…come get back in bed. We can work on it more in the morning.”

Peter looks silently at him for a little longer, then slowly crawls back to the mattress. Stiles doesn’t like that look but he can’t quite figure out why: Peter’s not resentful about it, and while he is frustrated, that wouldn’t hit Stiles the same way. Frustration, Stiles can understand.

“I’m sorry,” Peter says. He pauses in swinging his legs onto the bed to glance at where he’d gotten Stiles’ thigh.

“It’s not something we do to each other a lot, but we—I—it wasn’t exactly a safe trip out west,” Stiles mutters. “I’ve had worse. And it’d be more of a problem if I slashed you. Not that I’m going to—I shouldn’t.”

“You don’t have nightmares?” Peter says, looking up from where he’s settled on his belly.

Stiles does, but no born wolf his age would ever betray that by lashing out and making a noisy racket about it that could attract hunters. He’ll shift to wolf and twist up into a ball, or if it’s so bad he wakes up, he’ll just slip out and run till he’s too tired to dream.

He doesn’t want to say any of that, but he looks at Peter and it occurs to him how defensive the man sounds, as if he thinks Stiles might scorn him for a bad dream. “Being an alpha doesn’t mean nothing can take me down.”

“Just not a beta,” Peter says.

“No, they can,” Stiles says, swinging himself down next to the other man. “My grandmother, two alphas before me, she started out a beta. Her first husband was alpha, but he turned cruel and the pack threw him over. She led them, killed him, and then she was alpha.”

Peter makes a slight noise and Stiles looks up, just catching that fascinated expression on Peter’s face. Then Peter grimaces and ducks his head and moves his shoulders uneasily.

“I’m sorry, that must be unusual,” Peter says. “Anyway, it’s your family, and I’m hardly in a position to judge.”

He smells nervous all of a sudden. Stiles frowns, then sighs at himself. “I know I’m making it sound like we’re all killing each other, but it’s not like that all the time.”

Homo homini lupus, besides, so I’ll try not to be a hypocrite,” Peter says, his scent lightening a little. He smiles hesitantly at Stiles. “I wasn’t dreaming that, was I?”

“What?” Stiles says, confused, and then he remembers. “Oh. Oh…no, I—tried to speak Latin to you. I just—I’d looked in some of the homesteads and when I found writing, it was in English and French, and I wasn’t sure—though I don’t speak French.”

Peter looks interested again, even as he tightens a bit at the mention of French. “Where did you learn Latin?”

“My mother and my grandfather,” Stiles says. He puts his head down on his arm, then shivers to loosen up his muscles.

“So you can read that book,” Peter exclaims suddenly. “The Malleus. You took it to read. I just thought you wanted to look at the engravings.”

“They’re a really bad printing, half of them are smeared,” Stiles mumbles. Then he cracks open an eye. “You should go to sleep.”

He’s dozing off, though he rouses a little when Peter lets out a sharp, frustrated sigh. But then Peter puts his head down, too.

“You aren’t making me,” Peter mutters.

“I don’t want to, just don’t make me,” Stiles mutters back.

Peter twitches and Stiles nearly opens his eyes again, because it feels a little tense. But right after that Peter yawns and stretches out, and his heartbeat starts to slow. So it’s fine, Stiles thinks, drifting off.

* * *

“If you want to test shifting, we shouldn’t do it near the Nemeton,” Stiles tells Peter, leading him through the woods. “And if we have to walk, we might as well work on your strength.”

“If this is an attempt to wear me out,” Peter grunts, catching at every handy tree and bush and rocky outcrop he can. “All the more reason for me to pass out and then try it when we’re back in the cave.”

Stiles turns around. Peter’s struggling up the slope but he still manages to show Stiles an unrepentant face. He pauses as Stiles laughs, then smiles back.

“I’m not trying to torture you, actually,” Stiles says, backing up to perch atop a fallen trunk. Then he stretches his arm out and grabs Peter’s hand, and helps the other man up to the trunk. “This should be far enough.”

“Why would the Nemeton matter?” Peter asks.

“It just creates a…an…a mood. A feeling,” Stiles says, motioning haphazardly with his hands. “You can feel it—well, even regular people can sense the Nemeton, but werewolves and others like us, we feel it even more. And when you’re first learning how to shift, it’s better to have as few distractions as you can.”

Peter looks attentive. He hitches up against the trunk, absently wiping the sweat off his face, and then muffles a question, his hand going halfway to his face and then dropping back to his side.

“Your clothes aren’t going to change with you,” Stiles says, dropping the second boot next to the first. He slithers out of his shirt and pants next, draping them over the upturned, mostly dirt-free roots of the trunk, and then hops to the ground. “And we only have the one set so far that fits you.”

“I had noticed that. Both of those things,” Peter mutters. His voice is a little strained, but when Stiles looks back, he’s already pulling off his trousers; he’s still going shirtless since his back is sensitive.

In a few seconds he’s naked and coming over to crouch down next to Stiles. “You can already shift partway, even if you don’t have control over it,” Stiles says. He holds both hands out and shifts them and his feet and his head, then shifts human. “That’s as far as you might be able to go at first. That’s when you first start feeling more wolf than human, and when they’re just starting out, bittens can have a hard time letting go of the human.”

“So there are stages to this,” Peter says.

“It’s…I guess you can say that, to learn it, but it tends to depend on the person. You go to where you feel like it balances out and you can hold the shift, and that’s different for everybody,” Stiles replies after a second’s thought. “Anyway, once you get that far, you get comfortable with…with not just going back and forth between wolf and human, but having them mix. Because they’re not…it’s not like oil and water, they bleed into each other. And then you can do this.”

He shifts his whole body, but keeps a two-legged form. Peter hadn’t looked too shocked at the first shift—Stiles thinks he might be playing with unsheathing his claws when Stiles has to go out hunting—but at this one, Peter jerks backward and has to catch himself on his hands, his eyes widening, his scent a little tinged with fear.

Stiles holds very still and lets Peter get a good look, and gradually Peter tips himself back up. He’s still staring but it’s closer to…to looking impressed.

“You’re not going to look exactly like that, when you get there,” Stiles says, once he’s human again. “I’m an alpha so I get a lot bigger, when I’m like that.”

Peter nods absently. “Then there’s your…your full shift?”

“Wolf,” Stiles agrees. He backs up to get room, then shakes himself into that form.

This time, after the initial start, Peter smiles. It’s a boyish smile, full of delight, and when he lifts his hands in a cupped-together pose, Stiles noses forward without thinking about it. Peter laughs, watching Stiles sniff at his fingers. “Amazing,” he says. “It’s like watching water roll downhill.”

Stiles lifts his head and shifts out of wolf form, and then shrugs awkwardly. “Well, I was born doing this,” he feels he has to say. “It might take you a while. And—”

“I should hold off on attempting a full shift till my back toughens up,” Peter half-sighs, half-grumbles. He rocks back and absently dusts at one knee, looking down at himself. “All right, then. No way around practice, I suppose.”

Then he tries to shift. His claws come out easily enough, but as the muscles about his shoulders and head contort, there’s a loud, painful popping sound. Then Peter jerks his head down and grabs at the back of his jaw—Stile grabs at his wrist, catching it just before Peter would’ve stabbed a claw into one ear, and then pushes his fingers past Peter’s hand to press against Peter’s face, drawing down the pain enough for Peter to shift fully human and let his jaw slide back into place.

“The timing of what part to shift when can be tricky,” Stiles says, after several minutes go by and Peter doesn’t say anything. “Even I had some problems.”

“How old were you?” Peter says, looking up at him.

Stiles makes a face, but Peter doesn’t stop with the expectant stare. “Well…four or five. And I had an embarrassing incident when I was eight. But you’ve been like this less than a month, you know.”

Peter presses his lips together, unamused. Then takes a deep breath and politely but firmly pushes away Stiles’ hand, and tries again.

They’re at it for almost two hours before Peter finally admits to being too tired to go on. He drags on his clothes and then flops against the fallen trunk, watching as Stiles dresses. Stiles pauses from tugging down his shirt to lay his hand against Peter’s cheek, concerned about how pale the man looks, and as he skims off the pain, Peter makes a soft, pleased noise and leans into Stiles’ fingers.

“You got pretty far, considering how long you’ve been a werewolf,” Stiles tells him. “It looked like you figured out where’s the first shift for you, even if you can’t hold it.”

A couple furrows appear in Peter’s brow, and then he pulls off Stiles’ hand with a disgruntled expression. “That may be so, but I still feel about as useful as a can of oil when your house is on f—damn it.”

Peter suddenly snaps his teeth together and then sits in silence, stiffly staring down into the ravine where the Nemeton is. He’s kneading at the ground and tearing up clods of dirt.

Stiles tries to find something to say. “I think you should go rest up. I was going to go…damn. Uh.”

“It happened, it was a fact,” Peter says, still sounding like his teeth are clenched. He takes a deep breath, then lets it out as if it was made from glass. Then he looks at Stiles. “You were going to…you weren’t going back up to my—my sister’s house, were you?”

“I—no. No, but…um, that homestead you told me about, where I got you your clothes. Your cousin’s place,” Stiles says, wishing he’d just made up something about feeding the tree instead. “When I went—I found a—”

“You found her husband,” Peter says flatly. He digs all his fingers into the ground and bows his head, and then spits out a breath. Then shakes himself and turns roughly to Stiles, as if he’s clinging to the conversation to keep away from something else. “We heard they’d killed him, but we never got a chance to go out there.”

Stiles nods, then ducks his head to scrub at his hair. “Yeah, I found what’s left. I…I just took the things and came back, I just was…I didn’t like it. But nobody’s come anywhere near us since then, and I was just—I thought I’d…go bury them. Him. Since we took his things.”

“They’re mine by inheritance,” Peter says, but he doesn’t sound like he’s really paying attention to what he’s saying. He still looks upset; his heartbeat is slowing from its initial angry jolt, but Stiles thinks that might be sheer willpower. “Yes, that’s probably a good idea.”

Peter starts to get to his feet. Stiles just watches for a second, and then he gets hold of himself and leaps up to take Peter by the elbow. “Hey, wait, you’re—”

“Well, if I get tired, I’ll sit and rest, but I’m coming with you,” Peter snaps, his eyes bright blazing amber. Then he hisses and drops his head before Stiles, still realizing what the man’s trying to do, can even get his hackles up. “Stiles, please. He was one of us—he was family, and…anyway, if I go, I might be able to turn up a few more things for you.”

It’s a bad idea, Stiles knows that, but he looks at the slump of Peter’s shoulders and he just…knows much too well what Peter means. And anyway, that’s a werewolf tradition too—if you can, whenever you can, you don’t let them have the body. Keep that with the ones who will honor it.

“All right,” Stiles says reluctantly. “But the moment you pass out, I’ll just carry you straight back and dump you in the den.”

Peter looks up and he’s smiling. His eyes are blue now, but they’re still too bright. “Thank you,” he says.

* * *

Burying Peter’s cousin’s husband doesn’t take that long, even with tracking down the bones that had broken off and been scattered by scavengers. Stiles does all of that, leaving Peter sitting in the house, and when he returns, Peter’s pried open a small hidden niche in one of the walls.

“Not much, but it’d buy you a stagecoach ticket to Sacramento, at least,” Peter says, showing Stiles the couple gold coins in the niche. He scoops them out and gives them to Stiles and then reaches in and pulls out something wrapped in leather. Then he looks up at Stiles. “Do we ever go into the towns?”

“I didn’t learn English in a hole in the ground,” Stiles says. He thinks maybe he was a little sharp with that, but then Peter smiles. “Yeah, we do, just…those aren’t really where werewolves tend to feel comfortable. What’s that?”

Peter glances at the packet in his hand, then unknots the string around it to reveal the leather’s a kind of large wallet. Inside are papers. “Mix of things,” Peter says, shuffling through them. “Mostly letters, I think—they still had family in Missouri who didn’t come with us.”

“Oh,” Stiles says, grimacing and turning away. He takes a couple steps towards the door, then glances back at Peter. “Sorry.”

The other man’s folded up the wallet again and is holding it in one hand, looking back at Stiles. He smells a little nervous and he fidgets with the wallet, then sticks it under one arm. He makes an obvious effort to try and look reassuring. “You asked a question, I answered.”

“Yeah, well, it’s your family’s things,” Stiles mutters.

“Aren’t we family now, of a kind?” Peter asks.

“We’re pack,” Stiles says without thinking. Then he draws in half a breath, starts to go on, and stops before he can say something stupid.

Peter cocks his head curiously. He inhales like he might say something too, then takes a step instead. Then takes another one, crossing over to stand with Stiles in the doorway. “Pack? You’ve said that several times, but what does that mean, exactly?”

“It’s…it’s…it’s more than family,” Stiles says after a moment. “I mean…I had family in my pack, my parents and grandparents, but they’re not just…saying one isn’t just saying the other.”

That’s a terrible explanation, but Stiles struggles on for a few more seconds and then gives up with a frustrated sigh. He half-turns and ends up stepping over the threshold because he’s not looking. Stumbles, as if he’s not a werewolf with superhuman reflexes, and then sighs again, rubbing at the side of his face.

When Peter moves Stiles starts and then jerks back around. Peter freezes, his chin dropping. Then he does a little side-step out the door, keeping himself clear of Stiles. “We can talk about something else,” he says, and then he gives the woods a glance. His jaw tightens a little. “Are you…”

“Yeah. I, um, I forgot to ask you what his name was,” Stiles says. “I just put a stone over the spot, but we can go back later and put up a better headstone, if you want.”

“No,” Peter says sharply. Then he grimaces. He sucks his breath a little bit, and when he speaks again, it’s softer, but it still sounds strained. “No, that’s all right.”

His scent’s thickening with anger, and it looks like his eyes are getting that glassiness again. Stiles rumbles in the back of his throat and Peter blinks hard, then rolls his shoulders and turns an apologetic look on Stiles.

“I’m sorry, I just…I think I’ve pushed myself harder than I should,” Peter says.

“Well, I’m done if you are,” Stiles says. He takes a step away from the house, then turns again. “Did you…if you want to go have a moment…”

“Oh. No.” Peter’s voice flattens, and then he looks angry, but oddly, it seems to be at himself. Then he shakes himself again. “No, I don’t think that that would be a good idea. I’m—I’m sorry. I’m behaving very badly.”

“It’s your family,” Stiles says. “I know—”

He stops himself. Peter looks curiously at him and it’s a fair curiosity, Stiles would do the same. It’s not something to get upset over. But it’s still a second before Stiles can turn around and be sure he won’t bolt, and even then, he doesn’t risk speaking.

Stiles just starts walking back towards their den. He’s behaving badly himself, and he can tell from the way Peter scrambles to catch up—even before checking scent or heartbeat—that Peter’s worried he’s the cause of Stiles’ mood. But he can’t explain that either; he can barely slow himself to Peter’s speed.

When they’re about a hundred yards from the house, Stiles coughs into his hand, then takes a deep breath and purrs. He can’t quite look Peter in the eye yet, but he turns his head enough to catch Peter relaxing. He purrs again and Peter purrs back, then looks startled and confused.

The tension’s a little bit better after that, even if they don’t speak. Peter does make some odd guttural noises, wandering a few paces away as he does; Stiles thinks he might be trying to figure out which part of his throat makes a purr. And then, thankfully, Stiles remembers he needs to hunt for the Nemeton, and he can explain that.

“Less messy than a bullet, actually,” Peter says once they’ve returned to the den. He’s been winded for the past half-mile, and doesn’t object when Stiles hands him one of the birds and tells him to sit down and have a drink. “And you never have to worry about breaking your teeth on a bit of metal afterward.”

“If that happens, you just pull out the tooth and a new one will grow in,” Stiles says, sitting down beside him.

Peter blinks, then lets out a pleased laugh. “No more dentists? I do think I like this life better.”

“Yeah, it’s…it’s not bad.” Stiles fiddles with his grouse, aimlessly picking at where he’d drained out the Nemeton’s share. Then he flips it over, tail-end up, and starts plucking the feathers; a lot of werewolves think he’s a bit precious for that, but he hates having to winkle those out from between his teeth afterward. “But you should know we still have people after us. Hunters. Professionals. Some of them are born into this like I was born a werewolf. They’ve been trying to wipe us out for centuries.”

“Why?” Peter asks. He’s immediately interested, but he doesn’t seem too alarmed. If anything, he looks…relaxed, almost as if he’s been waiting for something like that. There’s a bitter glint in his eye, and a whiff of anger in his scent. “Then again, maybe I shouldn’t assume there’s a reason. God knows my family’s seen that you don’t need one to hate your neighbor.”

Stiles snorts, and then looks over, but Peter doesn’t seem to be offended. Actually, the corner of his mouth twists up, acknowledging and showing he’s feeling the same kind of black humor.

“Well, honestly…we do kill people. Sometimes,” Stiles says. “Most werewolves, they understand that if you do that a lot, you’re just going to attract the wrong kind of attention, but we have our bad apples.”

“Everyone does,” Peter suggests.

“Yeah, but one of ours can slaughter a whole town between sunset and sunrise,” Stiles says. He flicks off a handful of feathers. “I’m not saying I like the idea of hunters, but I can see why people might do it.”

Peter makes a kind of scoffing noise, but he doesn’t seem inclined to argue. Instead he starts dressing his bird, too. He already seems to know how to do that, and when he disjoints the wings, he does that with a smooth, practiced motion—he didn’t say how long he and his family were in Missouri, but it looks like they did learn a thing or two about pioneering before they set out.

Then he stops and frowns. “But isn’t that a little self-defeating? If everyone you kill comes back as a were—”

“They don’t,” Stiles says, frowning back. “We’re not vampires. If—oh. Oh, no, when I bit you, it’s just—you don’t have to wait for somebody to be dying to turn them. And it’s the bite that does it, so if I slashed somebody’s throat with my claws, they’d just die. It has to be an alpha’s bite, too. If you bit somebody, it wouldn’t do anything except hurt them.”

“Except I can’t hurt another werewolf,” Peter says. He stops, then shakes his head. “No, that’s not right. You said betas have taken down alphas, and then turned into alphas?”

“Yeah, alpha power, you can be born with it or you can kill for it,” Stiles says. “And betas can tear each other up, of course. Though usually it doesn’t get that far without an alpha getting involved.”

Peter nods, but he seems uncomfortable, his heartbeat speeding up and then slowing down. “These hunters,” he says. “They’re human, aren’t they? But bullets don’t work on us. So how—”

Stiles slices too deep into his grouse, and punctures the guts when he just meant to cut open the belly and pull those out whole. And the bird’s guts are full of shit, and he just growls at himself and gets up to go rinse the body out at the stream.

When he gets back, Peter’s finished with his bird, and also moved to just inside the entrance of the den. “If I hit on a sore spot,” Peter says, a little uncertainly. “I—”

“You’re a werewolf, it’s going to be your sore spot too,” Stiles mutters. Then he makes a face at himself. He doesn’t want to have to clean out the den so he stands outside the entrance to eat. “I’ll try and take care of it when I can. I’m the alpha, I should, but…well, you already knew magic was real. They use that.”

“To kill us?” Peter says, tilting his head.

“It can happen, but usually that takes too much work. And they have to get you somewhere and keep you there for a long time,” Stiles says around the grouse. Eating also keeps him distracted enough that he doesn’t think so much about how he knows the things he’s explaining to Peter. “Hunters don’t like that—they get caught for murder sometimes, so they have to stay on the move. Usually they’ll just try to shoot you. Regular bullets don’t work, but if they’re…there’s this plant, wolfsbane. It’s poison to us. So is mountain ash.”

“Mountain ash, I’ve heard of,” Peter says. “I don’t think I’ve heard of wolfsbane.”

“It’s from Europe, though you can grow it here.” Stiles pauses to swallow, and while he’s at it, to toss a few bones away. “And look, we heal really fast, but if you hurt one of us badly enough, it can’t fix everything. You drop a boulder on me, I’m not going to survive that.”

“I take it drowning and suffocation would still be a problem, too,” Peter says, a little dryly. “So hanging?”

Stiles chokes on a bit from the breast. He backs up, dropping what’s left of the grouse, and spits the gobbet out into his hand and then throws that down too. Wipes at his mouth, then turns away as Peter tries to say something.

“I’m—I’ll be back in a little bit. I just—I’ll be back,” Stiles says.

“Wait, Stiles,” Peter says. He even takes a step out of the den. “Stiles. Stiles, I’m—we can talk about—”

Stiles yanks his shirt over his head, then shimmies out of his pants mid-step. By the next step, he’s shifted to wolf, and with that he bounds up to the top of the ravine. He pauses, listening, but Peter stays near the den—muttering to himself about stupidity—so he trots off.

* * *

When Stiles returns to the den, Peter’s inside and lying on the bed, though the man isn’t sleeping. He does act as if he is, not lifting his head or moving his arms and legs as Stiles gets in.

He’d taken in Stiles’ clothes and folded them up in the corner, Stiles notices. Stiles pads over to them, stops, and then goes to the water barrel instead. He stands up on his hindlegs to lap up some water, then drops down and gets his shirt on. Then he goes over to the bed.

“I was out longer than I...” Stiles starts.

Peter twists over onto his arm, pushing himself up on it. “I’m sorry I asked,” he says quietly. He pauses, then shifts his limbs ever so slightly in towards himself. “They…they hung a few, in the beginning. When they dragged me out, I thought they’d do that, and then I saw what they really meant to do and—and Stiles, if I could go back and tear them limb from limb, it wouldn’t be enough.”

His voice cycles through horror and grief and rage—the rage is so palpable that Stiles spreads his shoulders against a challenge that doesn’t come—but his eyes stay cool. Cold, even, with how they stare unflinchingly at the mattress. They don’t even flicker with glow.

“They didn’t even have the kindness to knock anyone out,” Peter adds, going quieter as the anger in his voice intensifies. “Everyone was awake for it. You could—I could hear them. They weren’t just screaming at first—my sister, she was trying to get out, trying to get the ropes off, up to the end. I almost—I did wish. That I was in there with them, so I wouldn’t have to hear them. God. I wish I could kill them all.”

“It doesn’t help,” Stiles says without thinking. He stills, wants to run back out, wants to turn his back on Peter and just curl up and pretend he hadn’t said that…he’s still fighting with himself when Peter looks up at him, and then—Peter will need to know at some point. He needs to be the man’s damn alpha. “We’ve had hunters come after us a couple times, just in my life, and my parents and grandparents told me about other times. We—the last time, my father, he was wounded and the wound never healed. We did kill them all, every single one of them, but we couldn’t figure out what they’d done to his wound and he just…ended up dying from it, a month later.”

Peter sucks in his breath. He rises a few inches, as if he’s going to speak, and the he looks down again. His right hand comes off the mattress and a little towards Stiles, then drops back.

“Still want to be a werewolf?” Stiles says, with a short laugh.

He’s trying to make a joke, but it comes out too brittle. He grimaces, then stops and looks sharply up as Peter’s hand touches his wrist.

Peter pauses, then slowly closes his fingers around Stiles’ arm. “Yes,” he says, with an intensity that makes Stiles go still. He holds Stiles for another moment, then draws his arm quickly back, as if afraid he’s gone too far. “Yes, and I…I wish I could say something better than I’m sorry.”

“You weren’t even there,” Stiles sighs. He shifts back on his heels, then shakes himself and starts to crawl onto the mattress. “Anyway, you need to finish healing up, so it’s not like we’ll be looking to run into anybody else any time soon.”

The other man moves over to make room for Stiles, then pulls up the quilt so they’re both under it. Dirt’s getting ground into the brighter squares, Stiles notes with dismay; maybe they should get some soap, since the general store had that.

“If we’re going that way,” Peter says, letting Stiles know he’d spoken his thoughts aloud. “Then the house…”

“I don’t think we should go up there,” Stiles says. “I mean—just talking, you’re—”

“Because my family has been reduced to charcoal,” Peter hisses, his eyes going bright amber.

He’s so suddenly angry that Stiles nearly jerks himself up. A growl does start in Stiles’ throat, but Peter is already wincing and pushing himself down.

“I know—” Stiles starts, trying to apologize.

“I’m sorry, I just—” Peter says, over him. Then Peter stops, but Stiles feels too guilty to go on. Peter takes a deep breath, his eyes closing. “Whatever’s left. I want to bury them. Unless you—”

“No,” Stiles says. “No, I didn’t…I was, um, I thought you might still…”

Peter opens his eyes, and then even gives Stiles a smile. “Oh, Stiles, I’m not going to throw a fit that you saved me instead. But it just…they don’t even have the decency of a grave. That’s how miserably callous the Argents were.”

Stiles still doesn’t want to go back there, but as he lies on the bed, he has to admit that that’s mostly his selfish desire to avoid even the remotest reminders of what’s happened to his pack. And that’s not fair to Peter, and Stiles does very much understand what Peter means about deserving at least a burial.

“All right,” Stiles finally says. “But you need to rest up for that, if we’re going that far. And…I know how this sounds, but—but just try—try to calm down. It can’t help them now, and it doesn’t help you.”

Peter doesn’t say anything, though he moves around some. When Stiles looks over, he finds that the other man’s turned on his side and put his head down, and his eyes are closed again. They slit open as Stiles lies down, but Peter doesn’t seem inclined to start up the conversation again.

“I’ll be in control of myself,” Peter says, right when Stiles thinks he’s fallen asleep. He pauses, then tips a little towards Stiles, his knuckles bumping briefly into Stiles’ arm. “I know just being upset won’t do anything.”

Stiles is sleepy himself, but he moves his head and nudges at Peter’s hand with his nose to acknowledge the other man. He purrs too, and after another second, Peter lets out a long, tired sigh. Then he’s quiet.

Chapter Text

They have a slow couple of days, waiting for Peter to regain enough strength for the walk. Thankfully, the weather is sunny and they don’t have to spend them cooped up inside with each other’s temper, so Stiles experiments with drying strips of meat outside—it does work, but generally takes too long compared to a smoking fire—and Peter alternates between quizzing Stiles about werewolves and working on his shifting. He pushes himself a little too hard, making part of his back split open again, but he’s recovered enough that the skin immediately seals up, and eventually Stiles can’t find any reason to delay their trip any longer. So they go.

“I still can’t figure out the last part,” Peter grumbles, following Stiles through the woods. “Something about the spine, I just can’t get the hang of how to realign it for four feet.”

“You’ve worked out two shifts before your first full moon,” Stiles says a little incredulously. “That puts you ahead of nearly every other bitten I’ve ever met, or heard of.”

Which makes Peter look a little more pleased with himself, but just for a second. Then the wind shifts and they smell the ashes again, and he goes quiet.

Stiles had been hoping maybe the elements would’ve reduced the damage, but since it hasn’t been raining, the stench of the fire still lingers in this part of the woods. It’s heavy enough that even he has to keep blowing his nose out to smell anything else—which has made him approach the site more slowly and cautiously than he normally would. He doesn’t range this far out when he’s hunting, and he hasn’t been tending the Nemeton long enough to figure out its reach, but this spot is all the way on the other side of the town. Being scent-blind makes him more paranoid than if he were literally blind, he thinks.

Peter hasn’t objected to the pace. Part of that’s because he’s still lacking in stamina, but the closer they’ve gotten, the less he’s talked and the more grim-looking he’s gotten. His comment about his shifting had been the first thing he’d said in several minutes. Still, every time they take a break, he starts impatiently glancing around, so Stiles hasn’t tried to ask whether he still wants to do this.

They come up to the last hill before the site and Peter goes so tense that Stiles wants to reach over and—pull the man over, purr and rub his neck, try and alpha some of it out of him. But that’d be…well, might be considered a little rude even by werewolf standards, and Peter’s still adjusting. And Stiles hasn’t been so far out of civilization that he doesn’t know how a normal person would look at that.

He should probably say something, come up with words of comfort, but he can’t think of anything, and so they crest the hill in silence.

Peter jerks a little bit, looking down at the great scarred mark, still so freshly black that in some places it seems to glisten like jewelry. His heartbeat’s been gradually increasing the whole way uphill, but now it takes a leap forward and then goes off like a racing antelope. He curls his hands into fists by his sides and Stiles smells a little blood where he’s stabbed his palms with his own claws.

“I want to go around that way,” Stiles says, pointing at the treeline around the house. “Give us cover as long as we can.”

It’s not quiet around them—the woods are full of the usual sounds, chirping insects and birdsong and rustling small rodents—but his words clunk between them like he’d dropped a hammer in an empty room. Stiles winces, but Peter just gives him a stiff nod.

They start down, Stiles in front. About halfway across Stiles stops and holds his hand up, trying to pick out an odd noise amidst the forest chatter. It’s an animal, large, probably just a moose but the breathing sounds off to him.

Peter inhales to ask something and the wind shifts again. They both smell it and Stiles jerks around, but Peter’s already lunged—and the man drops behind Stiles to pass on the other side. Simple trick, but Stiles is slow to catch on and spins to follow, rather than turning the other way.

So he doesn’t catch Peter. He runs after the man right away, but the horse is less than two hundred yards away and that’s nothing to a werewolf.

The horse sees Peter, then Stiles, and throws its head up in panic, but it’s tethered to a tree. Its reins snap so loudly that even if the horse didn’t scream, that sound would be enough to wake anybody in the area.

Stiles grabs a tree and slings himself around it to pick up momentum, then throws himself at Peter’s back. There’s a bush in the way and he crashes through it—he barely hears it over the horse’s whinnying, doesn’t even feel it—to just scrape at Peter. But the moment his claws start to sink in, he flinches, remembering burned skin, and that faltering second is enough for Peter to twist out of the way.

That’s when Stiles sees the man.

He’d been behind the horse, and with the burnt-out house Stiles hadn’t picked up his smell. His heartbeat—Stiles doesn’t have time to figure that out because he’s got a gun up and is wheeling around to level it at a frozen, shifted Peter.

Stiles slews himself and leaps. He shifts in the air. His clothes go to ribbons around him and some of the strips flap up into his eyes, so he doesn’t see when he comes down on the man. He just feels it, the wet grip of flesh around his claws, the sudden hot slick of blood against his palms and soles.

He knocks the man over and down, and then rolls off. Twists around, sees that the gun lying several yards away in a clump of leaves, and he’s just gasping in relief when the man’s heartbeat pops wetly, then vanishes.

When he turns around, it’s to see Peter kneeling on top of the man, who’s on his back but is facing Stiles. Because his head has been wrenched almost completely off his neck—the blood is spilling out from the stump, fanning out into the dirt, and as Stiles gets to his feet, Peter yanks a red hand out of the man’s chest.

Peter hasn’t made a sound so far, Stiles suddenly realizes, and that’s when Peter takes a sharp, whistling kind of breath. He stares down at the dead man, his eyes glowing an icy blue, and then, so slowly Stiles almost listens for the creak of his neck, turns his head to look at the dead man under him. His lips curl back from extended fangs and his hands—both of them are dipped in blood up to the wrist—close and then open as if he’s mashing something in his palms.

Stiles lets out a low snarl, but it’s more shock than anything. That and he’s warning Peter that he isn’t sure what’s going and he doesn’t like it.

Peter jerks his head up and stares back at Stiles. His shoulders spread and he broadens his posture, defending a kill, not—his lips twitch a fraction deeper into his silent growl, then suddenly relax. Not that that looks painless, the way they drop back down over his elongated teeth. He twists in place and it’s more of a wince than an aggressive gesture, and then he looks up again, with a human face.

“He was there,” Peter says. Voice burred with anger, closer to a snarl than to speech, and his eyes are still glowing. “I remember him. He was there, I knew it, I knew they wouldn’t be able to stay away. I knew they’d come back—”

A wildness comes into his tone and gaze, dragging the timbre of his voice from low to high and cracking. He suddenly yanks his head down, cutting himself off, but he’s still not submitting—he’s gotten distracted, started burrowing at the corpse with such violence that his claws rip through clothes and flesh alike, sending pieces flying out to either side of him.

“Peter,” Stiles says. He takes a step forward, then another one. He’s trying to tamp down on his voice, sound human instead of alpha. As agitated as Peter is, Stiles doesn’t want to make that worse. “Peter. Peter.”

I knew it,” Peter hisses, pulling out something from the man’s shirt. It flaps in the air, and then he slaps it down on the bloody ground and starts to smooth it out with shivering fingers. The edges catch on his wet fingertips and tear. “Knew it, knew it, those greedy—”

It’s the deed Stiles found and stuck in a tree for safekeeping before stumbling over Peter. Somehow it’s survived the intervening time intact, though Peter’s smearing blood over it now. “Peter. Peter, we need to go, if they came back—there might be more and I can’t smell things around here. Peter. Peter!”

The man’s ignoring him, going back to the body. In a second he pulls out another piece of paper. This one’s of thinner stock and a different color and an odd, oblong shape, and then Stiles realizes it’s a telegram. Peter pores over it, his breathing feverish, gripping the paper so tightly that it nearly folds around his fingers.

“Peter, come on,” Stiles hisses, losing his patience. He goes over and shakes the man, and when that doesn’t work, hauls him up by one arm. “Peter—”

“That damned lying son of a bitch,” Peter says. He looks up then, but it’s not to respond to Stiles, the glassiness of his eyes makes that clear. “The water. It’s the water, not the…of course.”

“Peter, we need to go,” Stiles snaps.

He pulls on the man’s arm and…Peter stumbles, but then pulls himself up. Then resists, turning those glassy eyes onto Stiles. Except the glassiness is thinning out, melting before a rage so intense that Stiles instinctively shifts and bares his fangs.

Peter hesitates. There’s a second where his eyes start to clear and his hand moves a little towards Stiles and Stiles thinks he’s gotten through. But then Peter snarls—really snarls, a full-throated, from the gut snarl that cuts through bone with its anger. His eyes glow and his arm rips out of Stiles’ hand, and then he spins himself so that even though his head is lower, he’s undeniably confrontational.

“They killed my entire family,” he spits at Stiles, the words mangled by his gnashing fangs. “All of them, burned alive, and now—” the hand holding the telegram flings itself outward as if it’s gutting something “—just let them reap the fruits of that? No. No. No, I’ll kill them first. I’ll find and kill every single one of them—”

“Where are they?” Stiles says. “Are they here?”

“Sacramento,” Peter gasps, looking a little thrown by the interruption. “Sacramento, it’s—a week’s ride, but we’re not human, we’re better, we can do better than that—”

“What?” Stiles says. He stares at Peter, who likewise stops and looks just as incredulous as Stiles feels. “What, wait, what are you—”

The rage leaps back into Peter’s eyes as his weight shifts to balance on the balls of his feet, pitching him into the start of a lunge. “Find them, kill them. I have to, I have to, I can’t stand this otherwise, I smell my family—”

“You—you can’t, Peter, you’re not even all the way healed—”

“Well, then do it for me!” Peter half-yells, half-snarls. “You’re my alpha, aren’t you? You said you’d kill for me.”

“I said I’d—I didn’t mean that!” Stiles snarls back. “Goddamn it, Peter, I’m—I’ll defend you, but this is—we don’t—”

“I don’t care if they see what I am!” Peter tells him. “I want them dead.”

Stiles starts to answer the man, then draws back, shaking his head. He just—he can’t get hold of this. He feels like he’s gotten trapped in an avalanche and the snow’s dragging him down the mountain and he can feel the ground racing away beneath his feet but he can’t get his claws into it. “No. No, I’m not—I’m not doing that—and you can’t go, Peter, you’re—”

Peter makes a noise, a screaming kind of howl, anger wrapped thickly with frustration, and when Stiles looks up, the air whisks over his chest.

The next thing Stiles knows, he’s leaped backward and landed on a half-buried rock, four stinging stripes fading on his chest, and Peter’s fallen to his hands and knees before him. Head up, shifted even more, almost as far as the man can go and still stay on two legs, and that’s blood on Stiles’ chest and that’s more of it on Peter’s claws.

“If alphas can’t help their betas,” Peter says, his voice so distorted by outrage it’s nearly unrecognizable. “You said. You said the betas kill—”

Stiles doesn’t really process the words. Peter says them, Stiles hears them, but what Stiles reacts to, what his instincts catch first, is that sudden thump of Peter’s heart.

He doesn’t stop to reply to Peter, just launches himself forward. He’s bigger when he’s shifted, and the rock gives him even more height, letting him come right down on top of Peter. But the man’s quick on his feet, twisting around so that he meets Stiles with one knee up; Stiles’ claws rip into his arms but the knee keeps Stiles from getting close enough to really grapple with him.

Peter rolls with Stiles’ weight and goes far enough over that Stiles releases him and scrambles free, not wanting to be pinned. Then Stiles whips around and comes back at Peter. The other man kicks out, then throws himself onto his hip and lashes out with the claws of one hand, but Stiles is quicker, he ducks that. Drives himself forward under the arm, barreling Peter over and onto his back, and then he has Peter’s arms against the ground. His foot’s jammed against Peter’s stomach and he flexes his toes and buries their claws as far as they’ll go into the soft belly flesh. He jams his other leg against Peter’s shoulder.

“Kill me?” Stiles screams into Peter’s face. “Kill me, you—I bit you! I bit you! I didn’t want you to die and you—go? Go? You’ll die, you’ll just die and I should’ve just—I shouldn’t even have—”

Peter’s staring up at him. Openmouthed, bloody froth spilling out over his lips, with pupils like rifle barrels, they’re so stark and black and wide. His mouth moves like he’s starting to say something and Stiles works his toes and Peter twists in agony instead, his head snapping back. Then, with an effort that has sweat runneling through the blood splashed over his face, Peter wrenches himself to look at Stiles again.

“I’ll kill—kill them,” he grinds out. “With—without you, I’ll—kill me if you—all you care about, just—hidingtelling me it won’t help, you haven’t even tried, you—you coward—”

Stiles roars. This close, he can see the force of it rippling back the skin of Peter’s face.

Then it’s silent, just their harsh panting. Peter keeps looking up at him, Stiles keeps staring down, and Stiles…just. He just.

He bit him. He bit him. Alphas must be swift, and just, but above all, my son, they must act. Act when no one else can, when no one else wishes to, act to do not what’s nice or popular but what will save the pack, his mother told him. And you must remember. Remember that the alpha is the only one who can build one.

Peter challenged him and lost. The pink froth on Peter’s lips just gets thicker and thicker, and if Stiles just kicked his foot up into Peter’s gut, or bent down and bit Peter again…he should kill the man.

Instead Stiles pushes himself up till his arms are straight. He snarls again, then throws himself off Peter. Twists when he does it, so that his foot kicks Peter away from him as he moves. “Get out,” Stiles grunts.

No reply. Peter lands against a sapling that snaps under the force of it, then rolls into a half-curled position, clutching at his belly. Blood’s running over his hand but Stiles’ claws went across, not in, and he won’t die from that.

“Get out.” Stiles makes himself turn around and look at the man.

“Stiles,” Peter says. He’s blinking rapidly, as if he can’t stop himself. For some reason—for some reason, he’s surprised. His scent’s still acid with anger and this fresh shock of his clashes nauseatingly with it, turning his smell into something like a pit of tar. He raises his hand and his eyes flick to the blood on his fingers and he suddenly sucks in his breath. Surprised. Of all things for him to be.

Get out!” Stiles screams. He mock-rushes Peter—pulls up after just a foot but Peter falls over onto his other side, jerking away from it. “Get out, get out, get out, goddamn you, I didn’t even—wasn’t even looking, I just bit you because nobody’d died on me since my father and you—you—get out!”

Peter flinches again and somehow ends up on his feet. He staggers backward, staring at Stiles, his mouth working soundlessly. His foot catches on a root and then he knocks against a bush. Then he steps in the—the horse is gone, broke its reins and fled at some point, trampling deep gouges into the earth and Peter trips over one, and barely keeps from falling on his face.

When Peter rights himself this time, he’s shifted himself. He runs sideways from Stiles, constantly glancing back, till he finally disappears from sight. His smell mixes into the smell of the burned house, and then, aching minutes later, his heartbeat finally fades.

Stiles stays where he is, and when he’s sure he’s safe, he sits down. Flat on his butt, but then he pulls his knees up and presses his face into them. Peter didn’t claw his face, he doesn’t think, but his cheeks are wet.

* * *

The man Peter killed—Stiles eventually gets up and strips the body and buries it. And then, since he’s there, he picks through the ashes and sifts out anything that looked like it might have once been part of a person, and buries that, too.

There are a couple other things he finds: misshapen buttons, something that might’ve been a ring, a brooch, a couple knives. The blade of a shovel. He takes off what’s left of his shirt and ties them up in the scraps, and walks back through the abandoned town, back till he gets to the den.

Stiles stands outside the den for a half-hour, and in the end, he doesn’t go inside. He nudges the bundle into the entrance and then he digs up dirt and moves stones, blocking off the entrance. Then he goes around and does the same thing to the back entrance. His scent will scare off the wildlife for a while, but…

He goes to the tree, just…he’s not really sure why. His feet hurt and he wants to sit down for a second and he sees a root that’s breached the earth. Anyway, he sits on it and puts one hand against the trunk for balance and over his head there’s a rustle and then in his head he sees a horse. Still saddled, its flanks flecked with white foam, limping along a river.

Stiles takes his hand off the tree. He looks at it, then scrapes off some of the dried blood and cinders clinging under his nails. And then he gets up and he tracks down that horse.

It takes him a day and a half, even though he doesn’t stop to sleep and barely stops for food and water. When he finally catches up, the horse is in such pitiful shape—snapped ankle, broken wind—that it just stands there, head hanging, as Stiles walks up and grips its mane and breaks its neck.

He takes the bridle and saddle off the body and rummages through the saddlebags. Then he sits back and wonders why he’s doing this, since he just…why. He doesn’t even have anybody, after all. It’s just him.

It’s just him.

After a couple hours, when he can’t figure it out, he just strips off his clothes—his rags, really—and kicks them away, and curls up and goes to sleep just far enough away that he can’t smell the dead horse anymore. He’s so tired, he doesn’t even realize how fast he goes out.

Chapter Text

Stiles wakes up to his nose filling with water.

He snorts and it goes down into his lungs, searing like a burn in how freezing it is, and then the surge of the water throws up his head. More water runs into his eyes and nose and mouth, and for a dizzying, terrible second, he thinks maybe he has up and down mixed up, and is diving deeper.

No. It’s raining, a torrential storm, trees cracking like thunder all around and the ground under him is rapidly sluicing away as the river breaches its banks in a flash flood. It slides Stiles’ legs out from under him as he tries to get to his feet, and he’s forced to flop like a fish to higher ground, spitting and coughing out water all the way. He flails for a handhold, bashing his shins into half-submerged rocks and tree branches when the weight of the water itself isn’t sucking at them, and then he suddenly feels the earth disappear entirely as the river surges.

Stiles’ head goes under. His arms are still mostly free of the water and he throws them up and out and brings them down as if he’s swinging axes, and that barely gets his head back up again. But the river’s already swept him back towards its roiling center, and he’s losing the fight—

Lone alphas aren’t any good, son, his father says. You have to have a pack with you, else it’s not worth living.

There’s a werewolf’s snarl, and then fingers gripping his wrist, and suddenly Stiles is hauled through the river and out of it, right onto a little rise. It’s already crumbling as his waterlogged legs stagger to get clear of it, but the other werewolf still has his wrist and is dragging him even when he can’t walk.

They get off the rise and into the woods, and then up a hill. A second form crashes through the trees to the left and Stiles growls, but it’s an absent, groggy warning. The other werewolf doesn’t even appear to hear it, just swinging themselves from branch to branch till they meet up with Stiles and his rescuer atop the hill.

“Cough harder,” says a female voice, the one holding him.

Stiles turns towards her and the other one reaches out and slaps his back so hard that even being an alpha, he’s surprised his teeth aren’t knocked loose.

The remaining water in his stomach and lungs certainly is, and he ends up dropping to one knee to bend over and throw it up. The one werewolf lets go of his hand and both of them move back a little bit; they’re muttering to each other, talking about how terrible the weather is. Bickering about whether it was that last oxbend or not and that’s when Stiles realizes he’s been saved by a pair of lost betas.

“Oh, good, you’re laughing, you can move your leadweight ass, alpha,” the woman says. “Come on, Boyd’s got your things, let’s get out of the rain already.”

* * *

Boyd’s a hulking black man whose size makes him look deceptively older, at least till he gets the fire started and its yellow light flings over him and the back wall of the cave, and reveals he’s little older than Stiles, if at all. Erica’s small and blonde, and moves with a showy sauciness that downplays the iron wire in her muscles.

“Way, way south of here, so even if our alpha wasn’t off courting, she wouldn’t be coming up to fight it out with you,” Erica says, giving her draggling curls a last shake. She leans over and pokes at the coffeepot Boyd’s just set over the fire, then wrinkles her nose. “This isn’t neutral ground, it’s a goddamn wasteland. Beans are going off again, Boyd.”

“Well, we’re boiling them anyway,” Boyd says. “Not like they can poison us.”

Erica rolls her eyes and gives him a playful slap as he moves past her, towards the cave entrance, and then turns an aggrieved smile on Stiles. “Excuse him, he doesn’t know any better. His mother’s plantation sold him to some cheap Texas homesteader when he was still closer to a baby, and he’s never had coffee coffee, just that disgusting sawdust cowboys carry around with them.”

Stiles nods because she and Boyd did save him, and they’ve been nothing but friendly after that—well, Boyd’s eyeing him a bit, and they’re both positioning themselves to be closer to the entrance than he is, but still, they’re going above and beyond for protocol for werewolves from different packs meeting up.

Packs. Before he can help himself, Stiles snarls at the ground.

Boyd jerks around, glances at Stiles and then at Erica. He pauses, then sinks back to where he was piling up some loose rocks as a makeshift windbreak. Erica, for her part, goes stiff and still and watchful, but as time goes on and Stiles doesn’t do anything, she unbends and jiggles the coffeepot again. Then she gets up and she actually moves around the fire to sit on the same side as Stiles.

That’s strange—unless their alpha is crazy and hasn’t taught them right, and Stiles actually has no standing to speak about that and also he doesn’t want to think about it. So he looks at her and then he smells something. He hesitates, then sniffs harder, and it’s there in her scent. Still thinned out by the soaking they all got, but it’s there, just the faint hint of heat.

“We were just going to stay on the other side of the river, where the ground’s firmer, but you looked pretty handsome to let end up all drowned and bloated,” Erica says.

Stiles blinks, then lets out a short, startled laugh. “I guess that’s nice of you.”

“Nice?” Erica says, half-challenge, half-purr. She cranes her head towards him, flashing her throat, her brows arched.

Before he can help it, he moves back. Then he catches himself and forces out a breath, and tries to smile politely at her. “I mean, thank you.”

“You sure?” she prods. She’s still posed for flirting, but her eyes are cooler than that, watching him. “Because it looked for a second like you didn’t mind the water.”

Stiles works his mouth soundlessly, then half-stifles an angry growl. The only reason he’s still sitting there, he thinks, is that he’s just so tired. “Well, so what? I’m not your alpha. And even for the season, you’re being pretty damn worried about me. Your alpha that rough?”

Over by the entrance, Boyd slows his wall-building. He and Erica both smell—not as offended as they should be, but they’re irked. Then Erica snorts and gets to her feet, giving Stiles’ shoulder a hard push as she does.

“Alpha’s all right, most of the time, and anyway, she’s not here,” Erica says. She walks around to where there’s a pile of horse-blankets and starts rolling them out.

“She’s really all right, then why are you ranging this far up?” Stiles mutters.

He should shut up. It’s none of his business, and on top of that, he doesn’t care. He’s just—he’s just—he’s spared from figuring that up when Erica turns and curls her mouth into a sneer. “Because I’m in heat, and I don’t want to fuck the people where we live,” she says. “Bunch of them still remember when I was the whore who fell down and had fits. And Boyd, well, he’s a good friend and he’s keeping me company.”

“Your alpha goes for the different ones, does she,” Stiles says. Then he grimaces. “Goddamn—sorry. I’m sorry. I…”

“Well, it’s true,” Erica says, suddenly calm again. She’s still a little wary, but it’s tinged with thoughtfulness, not anger. “Former slaves and whores and now she’s courting somebody who’s wanted for murder in three states. That’s not the usual—”

Boyd makes an irritable noise, but he’s not looking at Stiles when he does. “Three states and one territory.”

“As I was saying,” Erica goes on, rolling her eyes at Boyd. “That’s not the usual cream of the crop for pack-building.”

“Yeah. Well, maybe she’s told you different, but alphas aren’t always thinking about that when they’re sinking their teeth into somebody,” Stiles mumbles.

Erica makes a noncommittal noise and then doesn’t pick up the conversation. Neither does Boyd, and Stiles doesn’t want to, so they end sitting around in silence. Boyd eventually comes back to the fire and portions out the coffee, and they slowly dry, sipping at it.

“I’m actually…I’m a lot farther north than this,” Stiles finally says. “Way north. There’s a…town called Beacon Hills, you heard of it?”

“A little,” Erica says, her brows rising high. “Though you don’t hear so much about it lately.”

“It’s quiet,” Stiles says. He pauses, then laughs sharply, looking down into his coffee. “Quiet, nobody around. Nice and quiet.”

She and Boyd don’t say anything to that. When Boyd finishes his coffee, he goes and holds his cup out in the rain to rinse it, and then comes back and strips and shifts to wolf. Then he curls up in one corner of the blanket pile; he’s a little smaller as a wolf than Stiles was expecting.

Erica gets herself another cup of coffee, and then checks where their clothes are draped over rocks to dry. Hers and Boyd’s anyway—Stiles’ clothes didn’t survive the river. Boyd lent Stiles a shirt and from the looks of it, Erica’s borrowing a pair of Boyd’s trousers. But she’s got her own pair, Stiles sees as she twitches it to lie smooth over the rock, tailored to her size.

“I think the rain’s stopping,” Stiles says as she comes back over.

She glances towards the entrance, then sits by him. She’s dry enough now for him to tell that she’s well into heat—maybe not even coupled with anybody yet—but she doesn’t act like it bothers her too much. When she sits, she sits exactly where she comes down, and doesn’t tilt towards Stiles till she looks at him and decides to smile.

“Well, water will still be running high for a while,” she says with a shrug. “You know. If you’re planning to go for another swim.”

Stiles looks at her for a couple seconds. Drums his fingers against his cup to keep from squeezing the tin into a crumple, and then exhales roughly.

“Look, it’s nothing Boyd and I haven’t seen before, with where we both came from,” Erica goes on, with no tease in her voice. “I’ll say I never have met an alpha who got that far, but I don’t know you, so who knows?”

“I thought you thought it was a waste of my pretty face,” Stiles mutters.

She doesn’t look like the barb’s stuck at all. Doesn’t look pitying either. If anything, Stiles would call her expression philosophical. “It would be, but that’s just my opinion, and turning into a werewolf hasn’t made me think the world’s going to listen to that any more than it did before.”

Erica sloshes her cup, then drains what’s left of her coffee. Then she starts to get up, and looks surprised when Stiles puts his hand on her arm.

“Well, why are you a werewolf, then?” Stiles asks her. “And not why you took the bite, just—why now. Why are you now.”

“Because I like myself like this,” Erica says after a moment. She’s not really hesitating, just collecting her thoughts. “Like you said, forget the bite. My alpha gave me a chance, but I still had to make something of it, and I did. The bite didn’t give me that—maybe it gave me more time to figure that out, but it’s me. Not my alpha’s teeth. I think you alphas take too much credit over that sometimes, you know. You all, you’re not God. You’re werewolves like we are.”

She looks down at him for a little longer, then pulls her arm away. Erica washes out her cup just like Boyd did and sets it down, and then stands in the entrance and looks out. The rain is still pretty heavy, but the wind’s almost gone. Without that, it’s actually not that cold, even with the wet.

In fact, the dampness seems to make the warmth of the fire stick to the skin. Stiles is almost all the way to Erica’s side before he starts feeling any chill.

“Nice,” Erica says, breathing in deeply. She holds it, her eyes closing, and then exhales. Her body angles forward, especially at the hips, and another draft of her heat-scent hits Stiles, rich and welcoming, like a wash of honey over the tongue. “It’s bone-dry heat where we are. Just makes this time of year even more annoying.”

“Plenty to keep you wet here,” Stiles says, and when Erica shoots him a look, he shrugs.

He still—he still feels like he’s in the water. In that avalanche, the one that started when he went down a hill past a burned house and found a man tied to a tree, and he’s rolling so hard that he can’t even think about how it feels, because every time he tries, he’s past that point and feeling something else. But…but he breathes, and he thinks, he’s so tired. He’s so tired of feeling like that.

Maybe, even if it’s not the truth, if he just felt something else for a second. Maybe that’d change.

“Baby?” Stiles has to ask.

Erica makes a face at him. “I wasn’t that lousy at being a whore. No, hell, I’ll even start brewing the tea now if it’ll make you feel—”

Stiles steps towards her. She sucks her breath through her teeth, then grins, wide and fanged, and as he takes his second step, she lifts her hands and puts them on his shoulders.

* * *

The mud gets all over Stiles and Erica. They fuck outside the cave, taking turns to pin each other against the rock. She likes to wrap her legs around his waist and tip him backwards into something, and when his knot finally fixes in her, she keeps their mouths so busy that he barely notices.

Boyd’s not too pleased when they come back in and give him back his loaner clothes, but the rain’s still going, and it washed out all of the scent and most of the stains. “Would’ve packed the rest of my wardrobe if I’d known,” he grumbles, getting up to tend the fire.

“Oh, when we get back to town, I’ll buy you new ones,” Erica says, laughing.

She gives Boyd a rub on the head and then drops to shift. Then she pads over and balls up beside Stiles, her tail fluffing out over his muzzle.

In the morning, when the storm is finally over, Stiles asks about the nearest town. “I could use some supplies, since I’m out this far,” he says.

They’re going to stay out a little longer, Erica tells him; her heat’s over now, the sweetness already dying out of her scent, but she wants to explore. So they dig through the saddlebags Stiles salvaged and find a bit of paper, and Boyd draws Stiles a map to the nearest town; he went out while Stiles and Erica were sleeping and tracked down the river till he figured out that wrong turn. Then he steps back and Erica kisses Stiles’ cheek, promising that she’s not even going to bother her alpha about somebody this far north, and she’ll cover Stiles for the set of clothes he owes Boyd. And they let Stiles go.

Five hours later, Stiles walks into the town. It’s a good-sized one, with a post office, a regular stagecoach stop and an assayer’s office, and after some prowling about its borders, he finds some men at a nearby corral to trade the saddle and bridle for money. The saddlebags had a few coins too, and all told, it’s enough to get him a room at the second-best hotel in town, along with a warm bath, a haircut—he buys soap and uses his claws to shave himself—and some new clothes. Nothing fancy, just enough so when he walks into the saloon on the hotel’s first floor, the bartender doesn’t act like he might steal something.

The saloon’s nearly empty, just the bartender, a couple barflies with prostitutes dancing attendance on them, and a card game running in the corner. Stiles does look a second time at the game, realizing that the redheaded woman is actually playing, and then he goes up to the bar.

He orders the cheapest drink they have, and then shakes his head as one of the prostitutes eyes him. Tries to look more interested in something else and spots a discarded newspaper on the bar, and pulls it over.

It’s three days old, but he flips through it anyway. He’s paying more attention to the conversation in the assayer’s office next door, listening as men talk up various rumored strikes in the area: it isn’t a hot spot for gold but miners have had luck with gemstones and minerals. They talk the local politics, too, and he’s trying to follow one complaint about how they deal with the bigwigs in Sacramento when a laugh makes him start.

Stiles turns around and the redheaded woman is picking her way across the room, one hand holding her skirts clear of the occasional sticky tobacco-chew spot while the other clutches a heavy-looking purse. She has her head half-turned to tell another player—the game’s broken up, it looks like—that no, unfortunately, she can’t afford to go out tonight, she’s got to be a good girl and rest up.

“After all, luck’s a fickle thing,” she says with a warm smile, holding up one kid-gloved hand. She looks at her fingers, then casts a demure glance over their tips. “I’ve been so fortunate today, I just don’t think it’s wise to push my luck.”

The man jousts back about making sure she’s got a lucky night, but the woman already has her back to him. She comes up to the bar, while he looks miffed but then subsides as one of the prostitutes approaches him, telling him to try a real hot lady. Those two go off, while the other players wander out the door with the second barfly.

“Usual, Miss Martin?” the bartender says.

“Double it,” the woman says with a disgusted sneer. She drops onto the stool next to Stiles with a heavy sigh. “My God. As if anyone with teeth that rotten would consider themselves lucky.”

Stiles moves the newspaper aside to make room for her elbow, and then just slips it completely off the counter as the bartender plucks a glass and a whole bottle of whiskey down in front of her. She sighs as she pours out a shot, then glances over at Stiles.

“You’re new,” she says.

“Sorry?” Stiles says, lifting his head and blinking like he didn’t hear her.

She looks at him levelly enough that he nearly lets his nose twitch in a sniff; she doesn’t seem to believe his inattention at all, and it’s not the disbelief of a vain woman either. It’s more detached than that, and that’s why he wonders at first if she’s…but he’d smell if she was another werewolf, especially now that it’s heat season.

“Entrepreneur?” the woman asks. Then she nods at the ad Stiles had been looking at. “Not the man for it, unless you’re the kind who makes a business out of murder. In that case, he may be the lawyer for you.”

Stiles closes the paper a little sharply and the woman laughs at him. “I’m not in business,” Stiles says.

He checks his glass and it’s half-full, so he picks it up and tosses it all back. Then he puts the newspaper back on the bar and gets off the stool and starts back towards the stairs to his room. But the woman swings around too and puts her hand on his arm, and she’s fine-boned but her grip feels like iron.

“Well, would you care to hear a business proposition?” the woman says.

Stiles stares at her. Then he tries to work up a sheepish smile, while at the same time twisting his arm away from her. “Ma’am, listen, I don’t think—I—”

Her brows lower, and then she shoots him the same kind of disgusted look she’d worn right after the other man had left. “Oh, for God’s sake, I’m not in that line of work,” she hisses at him, yanking on his arm so hard that he ends up stumbling closer. “Listen. Five dollars if you walk with me out the back door and over to my boardinghouse.”

“You’re not pleading your case too well,” Stiles says. “Also, before you get all that upset, why do you—”

She sighs. “Fine. Seven.”

Stiles has enough money for another night, but unless he picks up some work, he’ll have to leave after that. Still, he’s not stupid, and her perfume isn’t strong enough to hide her rising anxiety. “Ma’am, no offense, but I just might not want to take a walk at this hour. It’s not you, it’s—”

“You are a stubborn bastard,” the woman says, oddly respectful. She draws back a little and regards him. And then, just as the bartender ducks behind the bar with glasses in either hand, she leans forward and puts her mouth right up to her ear. “You should remember there’s a mirror behind the bar. I saw your eyes go red when he lit his cigar.”

Stiles freezes, his mind flicking back to the—the barfly nearest to him, the match flaring up just on the edge of his peripheral vision and startling him for a second, and the bartender had been at the other end, and everyone else hadn’t been facing his way. Except the woman, with where she’d been sitting at the table.

“Just walk me over,” she says, pulling away. She doesn’t look or sound frightened or gloating; if anything, she’s tired. “It’s ten minutes of your time, at most.”

She doesn’t look away from him either, even as he looks hard at her. He’s not trying to pull on his quiet-boy act either, but she doesn’t flinch. So he presses his lips together and nods, and offers her his arm.

They go through the back and come out onto a porch. One of the hands from the hotel stable is passing by, and says hello to the woman—he calls her Lydia, she calls him George—and then she leads Stiles around a pile of crates and into an alleyway between the backs of the buildings. It’s a little crooked, because the buildings on one side tend to jut out more than the other, which make the sightlines bad, and it’s noisy from all the racket spilling out of the saloons and dancehalls on either side.

Still, Stiles has no problem picking out the man lurking for them, what with the idiot’s shadow spilling onto the wall behind him. When they go around that corner, he ducks under the man’s gun and then rams his shoulder up, diverting the aim over their heads.

Then he turns around. Lydia has a pistol out—not a derringer, Stiles notes, but a full-sized revolver—and pointed right at the man’s head. Then she lowers it, her eyes widening as Stiles lets the dead man drop.

“So how do you know about red eyes?” Stiles says.

Lydia stares at the great, bloody hole in the man’s chest. She swallows hard, then steps back, twitching her skirts with her. Takes a deep breath, sets her shoulders, and then turns an expression on Stiles that is so contemptuous he takes his own step back.

“We are in the middle of town,” she hisses. “You couldn’t have broken his neck? He’s such a drunk it’s amazing he can even hold onto his cards, we could’ve said—no, if you’re so careless about your eyes, of course you—all right. All right. Fine. Fine. Tear him up some more.”

Stiles stares at her.

“No, no, don’t do that.” She presses her hand to her mouth for a second, then jerks it off and snaps her fingers. “Right. Take your coat off and give it to me, then rip him up. Make it look like a cougar, go over the roof and I’ll meet you back at your place for dinner with a new shirt.”

For some reason—for some reason Stiles just does what she says. Maybe it’s just how annoyed she looks about it all, as if she even knows him, let alone has any right to expect better of him. Maybe it’s because she’s right and he’s being criminally slipshod.

Maybe he still hasn’t shaken off that second when his head was underwater and he thought about opening his mouth.

Anyway, Stiles hands her his coat and then gets to work on the body. Lydia steps off a little bit and then comes back to hand him a handkerchief, telling him to wipe his face and hands. He does that and she tells him to give him his shirt, which she balls up around the handkerchief so neither shows any bloodstains, then secretes somewhere under her skirts. Then she gives him back his coat and tells him he has five seconds to get out of the way.

He’s slinking across a roof three buildings down when she starts screaming murder and wild animals and just—well, screaming. She has a good strong pair of lungs, all right. That and…and there’s a note in her screaming, something that makes Stiles pause and cock his head for a second. Something not quite human about it, even if she’s not a werewolf.

Stiles gets back to moving, and with the rush of people running towards Lydia, he has an easy time sneaking back into his hotel. He’s halfway to his room when he happens to stick his hand into one of his coat pockets, trying to find the key, and instead pulls out seven dollars.

After a second’s thought, he goes downstairs to have a talk with the bartender, who tells him very blandly that Miss Martin generally doesn’t prefer gentlemanly company after a game, including just now. Stiles fiddles with the money, then shrugs and passes over half of it, asking for the bartender to just order him dinner and have it sent up.

When it shows up, so does Lydia. “Lydia Martin. I’m a widow, actually, but I prefer my maiden name over my late husband’s,” she says, handing him a paper-wrapped package.

It’s the new shirt she promised him. Stiles puts it aside and then takes the tray of food from Lydia. He takes the bed, while she takes the room’s one chair, and Stiles uses the upturned, empty washbasin for a table between them. “What’d he do?” Stiles says.

Lydia gives him a look so cool he knows he’s tripped into something sensitive, even without the brief skip of her heartbeat. “Died.”

Stiles thinks about it, and then just leans over to break the cornbread into equal pieces. He dips it into the stew and starts eating.

“He was a werewolf,” Lydia says after a long few seconds. She’s making an effort to stay calm, but her fingers are trembling as she picks up the spoon the hotel sent up. “Not a very good one, and he only told me when his pack banished him.”

“For what?” Stiles says, lowering the bread. “And who was the alpha—”

“Harding. In Ohio.” Then her eyes flick up at him.

Stiles racks his brain, but can’t say he’s heard of that one, so he doubts they’re related to any of the old families who came over from Europe. Anyway, if they’re in Ohio, he’s not likely to run into them any time soon. “What did he—”

“Does it really matter?” Lydia says, with a heavy, dismissive sigh. “He’s dead anyway, so he’s paid for it. And as for that, it wasn’t his pack, he just was a fool. I told him and three Army scouts told him that there’d been rockslides up ahead, but he insisted on rushing to town anyway, and all because his pride woke up a little bent that morning.”

They study each other, and then both return to eating. The cornbread came with a little jam and Stiles dips a finger into it and tastes it, then smears it across his piece. A movement catches his eye and he glances up to see Lydia looking distastefully at…he has his claw out. Grimacing, Stiles pulls that back in.

“My business proposition.” Lydia abandons the stew, dabs her mouth clean on a handkerchief, and then leans back. “I have money, but nowhere to stay.”

“You can’t buy land?” Stiles says.

“I could, but I can’t manage it on my own,” Lydia says. “Even if I deal with the regular men, there are the werewolves, and more of them are coming west all the time. And when they learn I was married to a werewolf once, they get ridiculous ideas about my bank account.”

Stiles can’t help a snort, and this time when he cuts another piece of bread for himself, he deliberately flicks out his claw. “Well, maybe you shouldn’t act so calm around us. That’s as big a tell as my slip-ups.”

“Maybe, if I wasn’t constantly fending off idiots who just happen to be murderously inclined, I would have the energy to take that advice,” Lydia says with a smile that could etch steel. Then she leans forward over the food, deadly serious again. “I’m fighting a losing war, and I don’t fight fights I can’t win. My money, your bite.”

“That’s better than the others?” Stiles says, raising his brows.

She laughs and it’s bitter, and for a second she’s drawn with exhaustion, her shoulders stiff not with pride, but with the effort of staying upright. “They don’t want a beta. They just want the money. I’m too practical to think I can buy freedom, real freedom, but I want a seat at the table, and I want to know it won’t just be dragged out from under me.”

Stiles purses his lips a few times, then looks down. He picks up the spoon she abandoned and uses it to stir up the stew—it’s sat long enough to develop a thin skin—and then has a few mouthfuls. The beef in it comes in good-sized chunks, tender enough that he thinks it might be fresh and not reconstituted jerky. It’s good, and what she’s saying…he jerks his hand down and just stops himself from driving the spoon through the bottom of the bowl and into the tray.

He needs to stop, he tells himself. Stop and think, and then get up on his feet. He didn’t drown in the damn river, and before that he didn’t stay on the damn mountain where his father died, and—anyway. He’s had enough time to just feel. Now’s when he has to start doing something about it.

“I could use pack,” Stiles says slowly. “But not for money. There are a couple other things I’d find handier right now.”

“Like a lawyer?” Lydia says. She sounds faintly puzzled, but not confused so much as intrigued. “What have you been doing?”

Stiles snorts again. “Shouldn’t you ask that sort of thing before you ask an alpha to bite you?”

“You act like you haven’t been around people in years, I can see that,” Lydia says after a second. She leans back in her chair, propping up one arm as she flicks her fingers at Stiles, counting off. “When no one’s looking, you don’t move like one of them, you move like something that hunts them. You cock your head at sounds we can’t hear. And then your eyes in the mirror. But—” all her fingers go up, forestalling Stiles’ comment “—but you still don’t act like any other alpha I’ve seen. You don’t make people back off, you let them ignore you.”

“That tells you something?” Stiles says.

Lydia tilts her head. “Well, from the way you say that, it tells you too many things you don’t like. I can direct you to a lawyer, and then I can keep an eye out for those things while you’re doing business.”

“You do seem like you have a sharp pair of those,” Stiles says slowly. Then he lets a thin smile go over his face, nodding at her sleeve. “Good hands, too.”

She stiffens, but it’s so quick only a werewolf could spot it. Then she sighs and slides the cards from her sleeve, flipping one towards him. “I don’t have so much money laid away that I can afford to sit idle. And embroidery and advanced mathematics only take you so far.”

Stiles traps the card between two of his fingers, then lowers it. Then he looks back up at her. “All right,” he says. “Let’s see your lawyer. After that…I don’t live around here. My territory’s up off Shasta Springs and I need to get back to it. But if you want to come along, see the lay of things and whether it suits you…well, I’ll be driving up some supplies too.”

Lydia smiles. “I’ll take a seat on that wagon, then.”

Chapter Text

Right that second, Stiles doesn’t need a lawyer, but he does need some legal information, and he needs somebody ready to represent him when he’s figured out what the hell was going on in Beacon Hills before he got there. He doesn’t tell Lydia that right away, but she sits in on his discussion with the lawyer and listens to all his questions. Then she buttonholes him afterward, telling him she has a few contacts in Sacramento she could reach out to. Reporters who’d traveled through, played at her table and not been too handsy or sore a loser.

“But I need a name,” she tells him.

Stiles doesn’t give her that. Instead he tells her what Beacon Hills is like right now, with the abandoned town and homesteads and the proof of massacres all over the place. She shrugs and tells him she spent three days picking through the rubble for enough of her husband to bury. So he tells her about the Nemeton, and once she learns what that is—she’s taught herself much more about the supernatural than her husband ever even knew, is Stiles’ impression—she decides they’d be better off buying a wagon for their supplies, rather than hiring space on a stagecoach or an existing wagon train. When he describes the den to her, when she’s in her fine silk dress and kidskin gloves, she wrinkles her nose and adds things like plaster and soap and metal piping to their shopping list.

“I suppose I can put up somewhere in Beacon Hills proper to start with, but you can’t just go on living in a root cellar,” Lydia says, brows arched high. “If nothing else, I don’t see how you can trust the roof to stay up. The rock around here is brittle, and you hear about a mine collapsing every other day.”

“I’m not a mole,” Stiles mutters. “It’s just a couple rooms, and not that deep.”

Lydia looks long and hard at him, and then presses her lips together. She turns away and walks out ahead of him, picking up her skirts with one hand as they return from the corral holding their newly-purchased oxen. They don’t have time to train the beasts to tolerate Stiles, but Lydia has located enough of the right herbs that Stiles thinks he might be able to magick the oxen into not noticing he’s a werewolf. And if nothing else fails, he supposes he could just let her drive and follow her. He hasn’t asked whether she can, but he’d be surprised if the answer was no; she seems to know her way around every other type of whipping.

“I could go on about how that’d likely be even less structurally sound, and we could continue to dance around the subject, but let’s not be so foolish,” she finally says, as they reach the back steps of Stiles’ hotel and she has to let him catch up. “You don’t have anyone else, do you?”

Stiles puts one foot on the first step, then stops. He looks down, then up at her, and then he looks straight ahead, slipping his hands into his trouser-pockets to hide how the claws are coming out.

“No—I don’t know—well. No. No, I don’t,” he says.

They go inside. The hotel manager comes to greet them, very pleased to see that he’s managed to take Miss Martin away from a competitor, and announces that Lydia’s neighboring room has been prepared. He also passes over a few messages for Lydia, which she goes through rapidly and then shreds into tiny scraps as she and Stiles go upstairs.

Stiles lets her into his room, and she burns up the scraps in the broad base of a candlestick. “Why are you letting me follow you around?” Lydia suddenly asks. “Do you think I’ll save you the trouble and back out?”

“Well, at this point, I guess not,” Stiles sighs. He walks aimlessly about the room, then drops to sit on the edge of his bed. “Look, my grandmother was alpha till last year. Then hunters tracked us down—the town we were in, back in the Midwest, it was getting too full anyway. Too hard to get out of sight. She had us stick it out anyway, fight till she was killed, and then what was left of us ran.”

Lydia leans against the chest of drawers, listening. When the scraps finish burning up, she doesn’t look over at them as she waves the sparks out with one hand.

“My mother took over. It was her and me and my father, and one other beta,” Stiles goes on. “We moved to another state, but the hunters caught up. Got my mother and W—the other beta, so it was down to my father and me. We thought we’d gotten all the hunters, too, but one followed us all the way to the east side of the Cascades. I killed him, but he’d shot my father and we didn’t—we tried everything we could, but we couldn’t cure whatever was in that bullet. So then my father died.”

It’s the first time Stiles thinks he’s told the whole story to somebody. He pauses and goes back through his memory, and yes, that’s right. Lydia is the first. He didn’t tell Peter.

Telling her is easier than Stiles thought it would be; every time he’d started to even think about it around Peter, his throat had just closed up so tight, as if someone was winding a noose around it. Maybe it’s because with Lydia, Stiles isn’t trying to teach her anything. He’s just telling her.

“I don’t see that as a disadvantage,” Lydia says.

Stiles jerks his head up, then stills himself. “From the sound of it, you never really met your husband’s old pack.”

“No. No, but I saw him with it and without it, and I’ve seen packs since.” Lydia glances down at the candlestick, then extends one finger and brushes it away from her. She turns the finger over and frowns at the slight residue on her glove, then abruptly pushes off the dresser and comes to stand near the end of the bed. “I’m not trying to be your friend. We’re in business together, and from my perspective, it’s—”

“Easier to work the less people you have to work around?” Stiles says.

She inclines her head, without looking ashamed or furtive or arrogant about it. “Also, Stiles, some businesses work better as a closed shop. I happen to think that a werewolf pack, especially if it comes with pre-existing conditions, is one of them.”

“Pre-existing conditions,” Stiles repeats.

Lydia raises her brows. Then she shakes her head, letting out a little exhale as she does. It’s not quite exasperated, and there’s a bitterness leaking into her scent that Stiles associates more with sadness.

And then she looks up, and whatever she smells like, the look in her eyes is diamond-hard determination. “I’m going to make it in this godforsaken country,” she tells him. “I married the wrong man, and followed him on the wrong trail, but now that I’m here, I will make it. And if you just tell me what’s going on, or at least give me the pieces so I can figure it out myself, you don’t have to do a damn thing. I’ll do it.”

“You know, whatever you say, you seem to like dragging around dead weight,” Stiles says. Something about her, tone or look or how she holds herself, it just irks him. He can’t pin down why; he admires what she’s saying. Wishes he felt the same.

She huffs a breath that is pure irritation. “I do what I have to do.”

“Well, maybe I don’t run the pack that way,” Stiles says without thinking.

Then he does, and…well, he still doesn’t think much of his record as alpha so far. But he’s starting to not care that much. He’s here, and he has what he has, and he just…doesn’t want to stop. Not yet. And he can’t do this alone, he knows that much, so he’ll just have to figure out how to deal with people. How to keep them around.

Son, even God makes mistakes, or why else do you think we fall in love? his father used to grumble, looking fondly at his mother.

He didn’t do it right, Stiles thinks to himself, taking a deep breath. Well, then, as alpha, he needs to clean it up. “Had you heard of Beacon Hills before me? At all?” Stiles asks Lydia.

* * *

Stiles did not bring the papers with him, either the title deed to Peter’s family home or the telegram Peter found on the man who’d come back to look at the burned ruins. Both of those are still buried in his den. But he’s got a list of names in his head, and he’s been doing some thinking about the things that Peter had said. He feeds Lydia that and she in turn feeds her contacts in Sacramento.

What he doesn’t do is tell her he’d bitten Peter. He can tell she knows he’s holding back, but she doesn’t push too much. “So they’d all be in Sacramento now, what’s left of them?” is all she asks.

“Well, they weren’t in Beacon Hills when I left, and I checked,” Stiles says. And then he tells her a little more about the Nemeton.

From the questions she asks about that, Stiles thinks her husband’s pack must have operated under traditions from England or thereabouts. She confirms that when they’re on the road to Shasta Springs, magicked oxen placidly ignoring Stiles’ presence on the driver’s seat, by asking whether he plans to find himself a druid.

“No, I can do anything I need for those kinds of things,” Stiles mutters. “And that’s not up for negotiation. I don’t care what you think of me, but—”

“I actually am happy to hear that,” she says, giving him a wary look. For the drive, she’s changed into a simpler dress of sturdier cotton, though it’s still so elegant that it makes the wagon look like a child’s crude toy in comparison. She’s taken off her gloves, too, and as she idly picks at her skirts, he notes the faint but defined calluses on some of her fingertips. “I have a bent for magic, as it turns out, and I think between the two of us, there’s no need to invite a third with an agenda of their own.”

Stiles can’t help but look incredulous. “And you don’t have one of those?”

“I have personal motivations,” Lydia says. “What I do not have is any actual or perceived duty to manipulate people according to some greater master plan.”

“Is that what you think a druid’s about?” Stiles says.

The way she smiles, it’s like the glint off a rifle barrel being leveled at you. “Then what is a druid about? Please, do explain that to me.”

Stiles knows better than to take that challenge, and turns his head to the road again. The oxen have slowed again and then he feels the wagon frame warp under him. One of the wheels has caught in a rut and is grinding itself along the rut’s side, never quite surmounting it.

He hands the whip and reins to Lydia, then hops down. After a quick glance and listen to confirm they’re alone on the road, he drops back and slips his hands under the wagon. Jerks it up just enough to get it out of the rut, then shakes his arms out, hissing as the muscles burn for a few seconds. Their wagon’s loaded to test even his strength, and they still have more supplies shipping up to Shasta Springs ahead of them.

“My husband’s pack had a druid. Their Emissary, they called the man,” Lydia says when Stiles walks back up. She doesn’t look over at him, even when he doesn’t immediately pull himself onto the seat next to her. Her tone is level enough, but the tilt of her chin is defensive and her scent is bitter with old frustration. “He’s the one who came to our house to tell us we’d been exiled.”

“Bad associations?” Stiles says.

Lydia snorts, then sweeps a lock of hair back from her face. “Oh, not for that. Jackson brought that down on his own head. But what I didn’t like was how the man tried to convince me to keep an eye on Jackson for him, as if I’d really believe that would get us back into the pack’s good graces. Anyway, either I’m banished or not. If I am, then I have no relationship with you, and certainly no duty to seek you out.”

“Is that how he put it?” Stiles says. “Duties?”

“Yes, and I’ve spoken to a few since, and they all seem to see the world that way. If we don’t all give each other everything we have, we’ll fall apart,” Lydia says, her nose wrinkling. “I’m not entirely selfish, but I don’t blindly follow either. When I put in my own resources, I want to know what the return will be, that’s all.”

Stiles laughs right as one of the oxen kicks through a clod of dirt, sending up a dusty cloud. Some of it gets into his nose and mouth and he huffs his breath, jerking his head down. Then pinches his nose and blows it out into his hand.

“You?” Lydia says, and when he looks up, she presses her lips together and doesn’t quite mask her irritation. “Being a pack member requires a modicum of trust, I understand. And perhaps it’s my lack of experience showing, but I’d think it takes more trust to believe that I’ll keep secret what you are compared to just discussing what should be common knowledge.”

“You’re making a lot of assumptions there,” Stiles says after a second. Then he sighs and holds up his hand, forestalling her next round of complaints. “Look, packs have different…different styles. Traditions. The ones with druids tend to be more open about things, actually.”

Lydia’s expression is a mixture of exasperation and curiosity. “Surprising, considering how often a druid insists on swearing you to secrecy.”

Stiles shrugs. “Well, I’ve never had one as a pack member, so I don’t…anyway. I’m…I’m still working on how to tell new people these sorts of things. We didn’t bring in a single new member since I was too young to remember.”

For a second he thinks she might chew him out anyway. She does start to lean forward, but then she catches herself. Chews her bottom lip a little before looking back at the reins in her hands.

She twitches when Stiles hauls himself back up next to her, but it’s an odd twitch, pulling her back up and straight rather than down. Stiles nearly jumps back down, but in the end, he just picks up the whip from the footboard and starts fiddling with it. “We don’t have druids, or anyone like that in the pack. Maybe the closest is—was the healer, but sometimes that’s a werewolf, sometimes not. What I’m used to, most of us do some magic. Alpha does the biggest spells, because they’re the most powerful, but everybody studies it a little.”

“Interesting,” Lydia says. Her back bends a bit. “Is that a precaution? So if one of you is killed…”

“Maybe. I don’t know, it’s just always been like that.” Stiles flips the whip handle around in his hand. “My grandmother used to say that packs in our part of Europe, we’ve kept back older magics than the ones in England or France. Our forests are older. Maybe the western areas, they ally with druids to get back the magic they lost.”

Lydia makes a thoughtful noise, then looks over at him. “So you’ll support my teaching myself more magic.”

“As long as you do it right, and you don’t get us killed,” Stiles says. Catches himself mid-wince and sees her watching, and then…lets himself slowly breathe. “Something my father used to say, to me.”

“Something Jackson used to tell me—Jackson’s my late husband,” Lydia says after a moment. She pauses, looking as if she regrets speaking up, and then visibly steels herself. “I’ve never been in a position before to ask whether it’s true or not, but—but werewolves. They choose for life, he’d say. No matter what you do to each other.”

Stiles gives her a closer look at that, and a sniff as well, even though the sniff makes Lydia’s mouth quirk. She doesn’t smell a bit like she’s remembering something frightening. She’s just…sad. “I think he meant mates, and yeah. We do. But that doesn’t mean—choose for life doesn’t mean you won’t end it. I’ve heard of one mate killing the other.”

“So they’re free after that?” Lydia asks, and even with his nose and ears, Stiles can’t read her. The woman’s scent and heartbeat are just too muddled, and her face isn’t giving anything away.

“Usually they don’t take another mate,” Stiles says after a while. “Usually they just…live alone after. However long that is. It might not be that long.”

A minute passes, and then another, and then, just as Stiles thinks Lydia may have dropped the conversation, she heaves in a deep breath. “Jackson was a fool, but he chose me,” she says, almost under her breath. “I don’t know that I chose him, so much as didn’t think to not choose him, but…I’ll give him that.”

“You said you stayed to bury him, didn’t you?” Stiles says, and she nods. “Well, to a werewolf, that says the same thing.”

Lydia frowns a little and he can tell she doesn’t quite follow him. Which is why he’s so blindsided by what she says next. “Clearing title to Beacon Hills, are you just concerned about defending yourself, or are you clearing up something else?”

Stiles flinches and her eyes widen. Her hand even comes up off her lap towards him, though she almost immediately draws it back, pulling her expression back to smooth and practiced calm. The rustle of her skirt tells him she’s reached for the knife she keeps strapped to her thigh with her other hand, but she doesn’t make any move to draw it.

“Look, I trust you, at least about keeping up your end of the deal,” Stiles says, suddenly irritated. She keeps pushing and she has reasons, reasons he understands, but she’s pushing and—and she has no idea. That’s the point of him not telling her, and then he’s mad at himself, and then he’s just tired again. He just…he has to stop. He decided he was getting up after he buried his father, and he has to live with that so he can’t just keep stopping like this. “I do, I just…I wasn’t supposed to be the alpha yet. I wasn’t ready, I hadn’t learned everything, and I just…you should know that first, before I bite you. I don’t know everything I should.”

Lydia’s brows rise, but not with surprise. She’s amused. Amused and strangely, she seems to be relaxing. “Stiles, I don’t know everything about werewolves but I could see that when you walked in. And before you jump on me, I’m not trying to play you for a greenhorn either. I’m not that stupid. But I want a say, and I expected that I’d have to take some risks to get it. I did gamble for a living.”

“And you’ve stopped since?” Stiles says.

She tilts her head, smelling a little irked, and then she suddenly smiles at him. She’s a beautiful woman, but her contempt tends to make all but the thickest or most egotistical shy away from seeing that, in case they get sliced up in the process. But when she smiles, Stiles thinks, she’s not just beautiful. She’s someone who he could get to know—who he’d like to get to know.

“When we get to town,” Stiles says. Regrets it a little, when her smile promptly dies, but he makes himself go on. Maybes are the future and the present for them, right now, is business. “I told you what the den is like, and it’s a day’s drive, even if I get down and start shoving the wagon along. So figuring out when to bite you—”

“I’d like to have a comfortable bed,” Lydia says. She hesitates, watching him carefully, and then straightens. “If it goes wrong, I want a decent pillow. I’ll help you set it up so you won’t be charged with my murder, but—if that’s possible.”

It’s not the best idea, but Stiles has had worse. And he isn’t even pretending that he’s doing as well as he should, anyway. “Sure,” he tells her. “We can do that.”

* * *

When they get to Shasta Springs, they stir up a little flurry of gossip, seeing as Stiles is the first person the town’s seen walk back out of Beacon Hills in a while. So Peter hadn’t headed through, or at least let himself be seen—Stiles shakes himself out of those thoughts and then goes about introducing Lydia as his cousin, who’s come West to cure her consumption, and spreading a few rumors about how maybe disease was what scoured out Beacon Hills.

That has the double effect of keeping people from talking too much to them, afraid Stiles might still carry the mystery sickness, and giving them a good reason to rent a whole house rather than just a room. They install themselves in a half-built place near the outskirts of town: the house was started by a miner who’d struck it rich and then had his strike peter out faster than expected. The upper floor consists of no more than the jutting, weathered timber frame, but the lower floor is proofed enough against the autumn chill to satisfy Lydia. As for furnishings, Lydia sits down to the faro tables in the nicest hotel in town, and when she gets up, she walks out with a full set from their best room.

They wait a few days before Stiles bites her. Lydia’s expecting the first of the replies to her inquiries, and wants to make sure they start coming in, while Stiles wants to make sure that the full moon is over. And since they have the time, he also wants to check the best he can whether she’ll survive.

“So if it clots black, the bite won’t take?” Lydia says, watching Stiles mix a few drops of blood from both of them in a tea-cup.

“Yeah, that’s what they say,” Stiles mutters. He steps back from the table, then puts his hands against the edge and leans on them, staring at the little puddle of red. He doesn’t remember how long they’re supposed to wait on it, but he thinks it shouldn’t be too long. “It’s not a hundred percent accurate—my mother and grandmother told me that pregnant women, at least, sometimes their blood won’t go black, but when you bite them, they still die. I mean, you’d bite after the baby’s out, since you usually don’t want a miscarriage.”

Lydia blinks hard and Stiles belatedly remembers that he isn’t supposed to talk like that around women—around ones who aren’t werewolves. It isn’t polite, it’s vulgar language, and not everybody is as calm about discussions like that as werewolves, who talk in much more detail about bodies because they have to, to learn how to shift.

But Lydia doesn’t seem to take offense. If anything, her next glance at Stiles is a little friendlier. “Well, I assure you, that isn’t an issue we’ll need to account for,” she says.

She looks into the cup with him for a while, but as the minutes drag on, a whiff of nervousness comes into her scent. Her heartbeat rises a little, and then she abruptly turns on her heel and goes into the next room. She comes back just a few minutes later, too quick for Stiles to call out and ask whether she’s upset, and she’s carrying some telegrams.

“Well, we’re still waiting to hear about what’s going on right now, but I think we have enough to sketch in the historical record,” she says. Her tone is dry, and on purpose, judging from the close way she’s watching Stiles. “The Argents are French-Canadians. They seem to have emigrated under something of a cloud and had a mixed record up north. Skilled hunters and trappers, but bad enough dealing with the natives that even the fur companies objected. Gerard Argent’s the name of the man who led the wagon train to Beacon Hills, and he’s wanted for murdering people he accused of witchcraft in Canada. But the priest at the church in the last place he lived up there has asked him to be excommunicated.”

“Do they want him bad enough that they’d send anybody over the border?” Stiles says.

Lydia shrugs. “Still waiting to hear on that. As for the Hales, a Talia Hale was apparently prosecuted for immoral behavior in New York and Missouri—preaching and promoting ‘improper’ ideas, and of course she was a woman doing that. And there’s a Peter Hale, her brother, who was accused of blackmailing a few prominent local leaders. Also theft, burglary, embezzling, and unlicensed practice of medicine.”

Stiles can’t help a snort. He thinks it comes out a little odd, and from the look on Lydia’s face, she agrees, even if she doesn’t ask about it. “Unlicensed practice of medicine.”

“He’s described as a very intelligent, unscrupulous man who at the very least was a skilled confidence man,” Lydia says. She pauses and shuffles the telegrams as if she’s consulting them, though her eyes never fully drop from Stiles’ face. “On at least one occasion, he managed to avoid being arrested by posing as a warrant officer. Specifically, one in charge of arresting him. And he talked them into releasing his sister into his custody. Talia doesn’t seem too much of a slouch either—she once convinced an angry man not to shoot Peter because if he did, she’d curse him so his luck would be terrible.”

“Sound like survivors, don’t they,” Stiles says after a long moment.

He presses his lips together, then looks back down into the cup. He…still doesn’t want to talk to Lydia about Peter, not the details, but he’s starting to at least think over what had happened. Not just shying from the memories like a beaten animal at the sight of a whip. And Peter had been unusually strong-willed, right from the start, and teaching himself about as much control as Stiles had managed to teach him. Stiles had even noticed, he just hadn’t put enough weight on it. Or maybe it’s that he hadn’t put the right weight on it.

“The other thing—Gerard Argent talked a lot about religion, but his crimes all seem to have to do with money,” Lydia says. She lays down the telegrams, then nudges them across the table till they’re next to the tea-cup. “Beacon Hills is the watershed for several timber mills, plus the planned junction for a new railroad line.”

And Peter had said it was the water, not the land, Stiles remembers. “So whoever controls the town controls the water driving all of that. Who is in charge right now, anyway?”

“It’s up in the air,” Lydia says. “The Hales had circulated a proposed town charter—which doesn’t speak to water rights—but hadn’t gotten around to actually putting it up to the state legislature. Rumor is that a new charter will be submitted soon, but my contacts are still working out who’s behind it.”

“Can they block it? We don’t need to know who’s pushing it for that, do we?” Stiles says.

“I’ve already asked for that. And—” she pauses, her heartbeat skipping even as her expression stays perfectly calm “—I’ve asked them to get a new charter in on our behalf. They’re drawing it up but they need a few details. Like what name to put it under, and—”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll let them know all of that.” Stiles picks up the telegrams, then puts them down. He takes a deep breath as he looks at her. “Pack property, so it won’t be just my name. I think we’ll incorporate, like your lawyer talked about.”

“Our lawyer,” Lydia says, with just a little emphasis on the first word. “So…”

“No, I’m not upset you went ahead and did that,” Stiles says on a guess, and he’s proven right when her heartbeat stops jumping. “But I think you should talk to me about that kind of thing first. I’m—I know I’m distracted, all right? I should be catching that sort of thing. But just—just talk to me about it.”

“Agreed,” Lydia says. She hesitates, then goes on in a softer tone. “I appreciate that you aren’t ravaging me for my foresight.”

Stiles snorts, and then he laughs. It’s a long, bitter laugh, and when he’s done it feels like he’s been holding in the weight of it for years and he can’t quite get used to the…the lightness of its absence.

“Look,” he says. He stops and drums his fingers against the table, and then takes another deep breath. “Look. I…there’s another beta, I have—I had a beta before you. They won’t be around, but they’re…I still take responsibility. I want to incorporate so I can set up a share they can have, without ever coming up here. And I know you have a lot of questions and I’ll answer them, just—maybe not all at once, or right now.”

“Well, you will have to,” Lydia says, but she’s fairly neutral about it. Stating a fact, not pressing him. She shifts back to regard him, and then she looks towards the tea-cup. “Is that done yet?”

It’s been closer to a half-hour, Stiles thinks. He glances at the cup and the puddle has clotted up and darkened, but it’s reddish-brown, not black. “I think—I think it’s clear,” he says. “But like I said, it’s not one hundred percent.”

Lydia shrugs. Her heartbeat is a little faster, but then it smooths out. “Gamble. Well, let’s get this over with, and then we can talk about this trust you want to set up, if I understand you correctly.”

Stiles opens his mouth to ask if she’s sure, and then he thinks about it. Looks at her. And in the end, he shuts his mouth, and just steps back from the table.

He gives her time. Her heartbeat skips again, and then a third time as she deliberately smooths down her skirts. It’s still a minute after that before she moves towards the bedroom, and several more before she tells him to come in.

She’s gotten ready, putting a bucket on the floor to catch the blood and unbuttoning the top half of her dress. Still, when he takes her by the elbow, her hand goes to the bedframe and grips it so tightly that he can hear the wood groaning. Her other hand’s holding onto a small, tattered book that she twitches into the folds of her skirt when she realizes he’s looking at it.

So he stops doing that and bends down. They agreed on the left upper arm, since he knows where to bite that so she won’t bleed out, and till they know for sure, she’ll still be able to get up and walk—and defend herself, if she has to.

Stiles inhales and hears Lydia echoing him. He opens his mouth and she makes a low, taut hissing noise. Then sucks it back in, distinctly annoyed. “Just do—” she starts.

He bites down.

Chapter Text

After Stiles bandaged Lydia’s arm, he’d offered her some laudanum for the pain, but she’d refused. White-faced, a clammy sweat slicking into her hair and sticking strips of it to her face and throat, and the blaze of her eyes had owed more to feverishness than anger. Still, he hadn’t insisted, and had just left the bottle where she could reach it without getting off the bed.

She’d also told him not to hang around her, and to start drafting those instructions for their lawyer, so he’d gone into the other room. But he hadn’t been able to concentrate enough for writing, and after a couple hours staring at the blank sheet of paper, he’d just pushed back from the table and gone outside.

He doesn’t go far, just a few steps from the back door. From there he can still see their closest neighbor’s house, but the brush hasn’t been cleared out between them and it’s just the roof peeking over. Still, it’s probably not the best idea to shift, but he just—he’s antsy, his skin feels too tight. But after he strips off and shifts all the way to wolf, it isn’t any better. He’s more nervous than when he bit Peter, he thinks, and then he’s suddenly human, naked on his hands and knees in the dirt.

Stiles hasn’t lost control of his shift like that in years. He panics and shifts wolf again, then human, and then he finally gets hold of himself. Breathes in, stands up. Dusts himself off and puts his clothes back in, and goes inside.

Dawn comes and he’s sitting at the table, rereading his drafted letter, when he hears the bed creak. He gets up and goes into the bedroom just in time to find a weak, miserable-looking Lydia slumping back onto the bed.

“Healing,” she mumbles, her mouth hidden by the pillow, bleary eyes looking at Stiles’ knees instead of his face. She grunts, braces herself, and then, with obvious strain, manages to drag her hand a few inches across her chest, towards the bandaged arm. “Think it’s healing.”

Stiles leans over her and gingerly loosens the bandage to see. He gets a deep draft of her scent and it’s still rank with pain, and…it’s odd. He can’t put his finger on it, but it’s not—it’s not werewolf, he thinks, and his fingers slip a little on the bandage.

But when he finally pulls away the cloth, the flesh under it is knitting. He can still see deep, angry-red punctures, but the skin is healed and even as he watches, the holes seem to get a little shallower. He runs his eyes over and over them, absently sniffing, and then slowly binds Lydia’s arm back up.

“Something’s wrong,” Lydia says, looking at him.

“I don’t know,” Stiles says. He shakes his head, then stops himself. Takes in as much of her scent as his lungs can hold, holds it till his chest is burning, and then lets it out. “I…you’re not dying. You’re going to live.”

“Well, I’d say that that’s wonderful, but my honest opinion is that death would be a more comfortable state,” Lydia mutters.

Stiles looks at her, and even if she’s not a werewolf, he thinks…fine, that’s the word that comes to mind, and then he laughs under his breath at himself. “So rest up some more. I’ll get you some water, and then I’m going to town to post a couple letters.”

Lydia makes a feeble noise of acknowledgement. She’s already closed her eyes, and when he comes back with the water, he has to hold her head for her.

He almost rethinks going out, but then she turns her mouth away from the glass. “Check the telegraph while you’re there,” she mumbles. “’n stop at the gen’l store. Talk to them.”

“I will,” Stiles says. He sets the glass down, draws the blanket back over her, and then goes out.

The Shasta Springs people still don’t seem to know whether to consider him a marvel or a horror, but for the most part, they’re pragmatic in the face of money and Lydia drew out enough from her accounts to take care of that for a few days. Stiles helps that along by, as Lydia had suggested, buying a few fripperies neither he nor Lydia need at the store and then lingering to exchange small talk about the weather, the price of cattle.

After that he goes to the post office. The telegraph is just next door, and he’s stepping out, tucking a new telegram into his pocket, when two men detach themselves from the side of a nearby building and catch his eye.

He’d heard them talking from inside and pegged them for bounty hunters or lawmen, so he’s not completely unprepared for the swagger of the first man. He is a little surprised to see that the man’s black, and seems completely unconcerned by the gaggle of men across the street, muttering hostilely and eyeing the well-kept guns strapped to his belt.

“Sam Chisholm,” the man says, introducing himself as a warrant officer and a laundry list of other law-enforcement appointments. “Now, I’d like to start off by saying I’m not looking for you. I just want to talk to you about a mutual acquaintance. I’m hoping it won’t be a hostile discussion, as I’m not looking for one.”

“Just you?” Stiles says, looking at the other man. He’s white, blond-haired and grey-eyed, and smells distinctly more anxious than Chisholm, though he’s got just as stern of a poker face.

“Me and my fellow warrant officer,” Chisholm amends. “This is—”

“Chris Argent,” the man says, as his scent spikes with a dizzying mix of anger and grief and fear. He looks like he’s made of steel, he’s so tense, and when he speaks again, Stiles half-expects to hear the creak of a hinge needing oil. “My father, Gerard Argent, he led some settlers to a town called Beacon Hills, and we heard you’re living there now, Mr. Stilinski.”

Stiles had that pause between getting the man’s name and then the rest of it, and he uses it to decide he will grimace, and let them see it. “Yeah, I am. And I’ve heard of your father, but never met him. I’ve never met anybody who was living in Beacon Hills—when I got there, it was a ghost town.”

Chisholm doesn’t smell surprised, but the way he’s angling himself and looking at Stiles, he’s still expecting more. As for Argent, his scent veers sharply into anger, but his expression says it isn’t directed at Stiles.

“Well, then how’d you hear of Gerard Argent?” Chisholm asks.

“Because I poked around in some of the houses out there, and they don’t have people but they still have things,” Stiles says. He’s trying to pitch his voice to be a little cocky, a little wary, like there’s a big pot on the card table and he thinks his hand’s the hand to take it. Putting a little Lydia into it, to be honest. “And then when I decided to settle, I sent to see about title. I’m just trying to get a proper claim filed, sir.”

“Yeah, we know,” Argent says, a little abruptly. He draws back as Chisholm flicks an annoyed look at him—which he ignores. The two of them haven’t been partnered up long, going by the way they move around each other. “That’s how we found you. Look, I’m trying to track down my father because he’s a murderer and needs to be stopped.”

Stiles hesitates, then allows a little disgust into his voice. “I honestly wish I could help you,” he says. “I really do. I’d like to know where he is too. What I—well, if you want to see what I’ve seen, I can show you, but I don’t think it’ll help find him. And if you are his son, I don’t think you need to know what he can do, do you?”

He lets out too much, and lets it turn into real, hard anger. Whatever kind of people the Hales really were, they hadn’t deserved what they got, and Peter—Stiles looks away, grimacing again. Peter had been building up to an explosion, and even if it came out…even if he showed it in a way Stiles can’t support, Stiles understands it. And wonders if maybe he’d said something, been an actual alpha to the man. He thinks his grandmother, his mother, they would’ve done better.

Somebody clears their throat and Stiles pulls his attention back to the two men. Fortunately, Chisholm looks sympathetic, while Argent looks like Stiles punched him in the gut. And maybe like he’d let Stiles do that for real, and say thank-you for it.

“No clue where he might be headed?” Chisholm finally says. He glances towards Argent. “Thing is, Mr. Stilinski, he’s got company, and not the friendly type.”

“Nothing but where he’s been, though again, you’re welcome to see for yourself,” Stiles says.

“And if you’d like to advise us as to what to look out for and leave us a forwarding address, we’ll of course be happy to keep an eye out,” says—Lydia. Lydia, dressed and looking as healthy as can be, coming down the boardwalk towards them.

Her hair’s in a simple braid rather than one of her more elaborate buns, and she’s not wearing any of her usual jewelry, but other than that she looks so lovely that the men across the street stop their muttering to gawk. Chisholm casts a glance over her—he’s not quite so bold as to be outwardly appreciative, though it’s obvious in his scent—while Argent blinks hard, looking like he doesn’t know where she could have possibly come from.

“My cousin,” Stiles says as she steps up next to him and curls her hand around his arm. “Lydia, this is Mr. Chisholm and Mr. Argent.”

“So I hear from the stablehands,” Lydia says, smiling at mostly at Argent. It’s not her friendliest smile, though if you’re not paying attention, you might miss the dagger. “And if you’re after your father, Mr. Argent, may I ask what you plan to do once he’s caught?”

“Hang him,” Argent says.

Lydia nods, still looking him straight in the eye. “And after that? What about his claims up here?”

“Criminals forfeit their property, if that’s what you’re after. Ma’am.” Chisholm touches his hat brim, clearly amused.

“He and I share a name only because I don’t want to hide my responsibility to bring him in,” Argent says tightly. “We have nothing to do with each other besides that, and I don’t want anything he’s touched. So if you don’t get the land, it won’t be because I’m standing in your way.”

“I appreciate that,” Stiles says. On his arm, Lydia’s hand tenses and her heartbeat speeds up slightly, though she keeps her eyes—and her smile—on Argent. “And if I see…who should we be looking out for again?”

Chisholm draws a breath to answer, pauses, and then goes on when Argent appears to not want to break in. “Well, our opinion is that Gerard’s gone to ground somewhere near Sacramento, and he’s not likely to break out till he swings some legal protection. He was getting a few legislators on his side, but then word started to leak out about what he’d been doing up here.”

“Somebody made it out of town?” Stiles says sharply, a second before Lydia sinks her nails into him. He covers by shaking his head. “It’s just, the way things looked…”

“Couple of his men had a change of heart. Deathbed conversion,” Chisholm says. He pauses for Argent again, then looks vaguely amused as Argent continues to be silent. “Run-in with a bear, something like that, and died in front of a bar with some hungry reporters in it. Anyway—”

“I wouldn’t expect any more of his followers to be like that,” Argent finally says. “Or his allies. He’s got a long reach, no matter where he’s hiding. There’s one man, a Deucalion Blackwood, we think he’s tried to get involved. Be careful of him.”

“Blackwood,” Stiles repeats slowly, doing his damnedest to school his face. “What’s he look like?”

Chisholm reaches into his coat and pulls out a sheaf of papers. He shuffles through it and then hands Stiles several Wanted posters. “There’s him, and I gave you Gerard too. Now, Gerard’s poster talks about this seal his family uses—”

“It’s a crest,” Argent grunts. “His men all wear it. Watch-charm, carved onto a knife hilt. Look out for it.”

“Well, I’ll do that,” Stiles mutters, studying the posters. He senses Lydia moving and angles them so she can see the descriptions at the bottom, and then hands them completely to her as he looks up again. “We see anything—or find anything, you’ll be the first to hear.”

“Send word to Antoine Reeves in Sacramento,” Chisholm says, with a quick nod. He’s already turning on one heel.

Argent lingers, glancing between Stiles and Lydia. “You should send for us,” he says. “My father’s not a man to underestimate. What you’ve seen, that’s just the tip of the arrow.”

“Then we’ll be sure to make sure that arrow goes your way,” Lydia says.

Argent’s eyes go to her, then stay there. He moves his lips a little, maybe going to say something, but then Chisholm mutters that they’re going to miss out on somebody named Hobson if they don’t get moving. So Argent takes a step back, still eyeing Lydia, and then he spins on his heel and marches off after Chisholm.

Stiles stays just long enough for everyone to see he and Lydia aren’t that shaken, and then he walks her back to their rented house. The moment they get inside, she yanks off her gloves and then collapses onto the nearest option, a crate of building supplies. She’s out of breath, and a little pale around the lips. “I’m fine,” she says.

“I can see that,” Stiles says.

Lydia looks at him and a flare of irritation comes into her eyes—it’s about as wild as he’s ever seen her. She jerks her hand up and makes half of an angry gesture, then lets her arm flop into her lap. “I don’t know what happened, all right? One second I feel like death, and I’m holding onto my grandmother’s breviary and just trying to—to breathe, and then I—it was the damnedest thing. I breathed in as deep as I could, and suddenly everything had cleared up. And I knew you were speaking to somebody having to do with the deaths up here.”

“Argent?” Stiles says. “Or Chisholm?”

“Argent,” Lydia says, though she’s a little hesitant. “Though…Chisholm, something about him, I feel…it’s cold behind him. Like how a dead body is cold when you touch it.”

She’s silent for a moment, looking at the floor in front of her, and Stiles notices that her eyes have unfocused a little. “You’re trancing,” Stiles says.

Lydia doesn’t react. Then she snaps her head up, her eyes clearing. “What did you say?”

“Trance,” Stiles repeats. It’s his turn to abort his gesturing. “You tranced. People do that with…with magic, with scrying. Our healer would do that for healing. You’re not—I don’t think you’re a werewolf. You’re something else. Bites can trigger other things in people.”

“Like what?” Lydia snaps. “A failure?”

“Well, I don’t know yet, I don’t know enough about you,” Stiles snaps back. “Goddamn it, I told you I didn’t know everything. You think I was looking for this either? I’m an alpha and I can’t even make a beta that—”

He breaks off and makes himself turn away, walk away a few paces. His claws and fangs are coming out and he can’t fight it so he lets himself shift, staring at the wall. Lets himself stand like that and think about what he’s done.

“Stiles,” Lydia sighs. She breathes in, out, and then she gets up. Takes careful, slow steps over to him, making sure each one creaks the planked floor, till she’s right behind him. “Stiles. I…just tell me I’m not going to…to shift into a mangy dog instead, or anything like that.”

“Well, do you feel mangy?” Stiles mutters. He lifts his hands and curls them as he turns them, watching his claws recede. When they’re gone, he turns around. “You walked over and talked to them and didn’t shift at all. I don’t think you’re any kind of shifter. Look—you survived the bite, I don’t think it’s anything bad. Anything we can’t work around, anyway.”

Lydia smiles at him. It’s amused, but shaky, and for the first time he thinks they’re actually quite close in age. Usually she seems to just…be like a statue, where you can’t tell whether they’re twenty or twenty hundred years old.

“I can figure it out—my grandmother’s grimoire could say something,” Stiles goes on, absently rubbing at the side of his head. “I think she said once—sometimes children of…what was it…children of…of…what’s the word, we say Wiła…uh, fairy? They can look and act and seem completely human, but if they suffer, sometimes their fairy blood will come out. So that’s a reason werewolves shouldn’t bite people without talking to their pack first.”

“Fairy,” Lydia repeats skeptically. Then she goes still. “I’m Irish on my mother’s side. I…don’t remember her very well, because she died when I was very young, but my grandmother would tell me stories about Irish fairies.”

“How did they go?” Stiles says.

Lydia looks frustrated again. “I can’t remember. I told you, she died when I was a child. Oh, but she left the breviary…but the book’s written in her language, in Irish. I don’t know that one, and it’s not remotely like any of the languages I do know.”

“I don’t know that either, and I don’t know much about the Irish except for druids,” Stiles says. “Well, can we buy a—”

“Dictionary,” Lydia finishes. “Right. Of course. I’ll put the order in. Now, who’s Deucalion Blackwood?”

Stiles stares at her.

“Stop being so surprised,” Lydia says tartly. “No, I don’t think they noticed, but they were looking for you to be worried. I’m the only one who’d look to see that you’re confused instead. So how do you know him?”

“I don’t, really. But he’s a werewolf,” Stiles says. He runs his hand over his head, trying to dredge his memory. “I’ve never met him, just heard of him. He’s an alpha who went rogue years and years ago, had a bloody war with his own pack and then disappeared. He’s more like a scary story you tell your children than a person.”

Lydia folds one arm across her belly while she presses a finger from her other hand against her lip. She starts to pace back and forth. “And I thought Gerard Argent’s talk of witchcraft was just sensationalism, playing on people’s fears…could he really know something about things like that? Magic and werewolves?”

“If he does, he’s no hunter,” Stiles says slowly. “Hunters wouldn’t ever try and work with werewolves. And his son…he has no idea, I’d lay money on it.”

“Why do you say that?” Lydia says.

“Because if he did, he’d insist on going to see Beacon Hills,” Stiles tells her. “He’d know the best way to track somebody down is to have a little piece of them, and the second-best is to have a piece of their victims.”

She doesn’t understand that intellectually, and she’ll be asking questions about it later, but he can see it hits her in a gut-level kind of way. Her head tilts and then she straightens up, nodding. “All right, well, should we do anything about that? Gerard potentially knowing real magic, and having werewolf allies?”

“If he comes back here, we’ll have protections laid on and the Nemeton,” Stiles says after a long silence.

He’s not answering her and they both know it. Lydia looks at him long and hard, both arms folded across her chest, and then sighs. “I suppose we should figure out what I am first, and take care of business here before looking elsewhere.”

“It’s just—it’s not that I don’t—he did horrific things, even by werewolf—” Stiles starts. He puts his hand up to his temple and rubs at it, pressing down a…he doesn’t actually think he’s getting a headache, but he feels this pressure in his head. It’s the threat of one, and he thinks wearily that he’s always under some threat, it’s just how werewolves live. He should be used to it. “I need to think about how to do it. We can’t go down there ourselves, and we just…we need to do it right, if we’re going to do it at all. This is risky and even if you’re not a werewolf, we can’t just show the world what we are.”

“Then sit down,” Lydia says. She gestures towards the nearest crate. “Sit down. I’m past my bite, so let’s start planning our move.”

* * *

They don’t actually move for a while. In order to keep in touch with their contacts and their lawyer, at least one of them needs to stay near the telegraph and the post office, and post-bite Lydia still refuses to live in an ‘underground hovel,’ as she puts it. How it works out is she stays in Shasta Springs, handling the letters and telegrams—she’s supposed to be recovering from illness anyway—and Stiles makes trips back and forth with the supplies they’ve bought.

It’s a relatively mild autumn, which helps, and after seeing him successfully return a few times, the Shasta Springs people start to lose their fear of Beacon Hills. Which is a mixed blessing, but after some discussion, Stiles and Lydia do hire the occasional hand-picked workman to go with Stiles. They help him fix up Beacon Hill’s telegraph office and repair the cut wires, and work up the general store so that its backroom is livable.

But Stiles doesn’t let them go beyond the town. He drops hints that he’s afraid to go out into the woods, with the strange things he’s glimpsed, and Shasta Springs isn’t that brave. So he ends up returning to his den alone.

The Nemeton’s looking a little rough, its leaves a dull rust color, but he starts off by tracking down a bull moose and letting it bleed out over the roots, and soon it’s right back to where it was. He doesn’t think it resents him for his absence—at least, it doesn’t do anything to show it—and after that he makes sure to bring a big kill out at least once a week.

He brings it three kills, including the first, before he can bring himself to dig out the den entrances, and then he sits there for a good hour before finally going inside. And even then, he finds it hard to see, and has to go back out and wipe out his eyes.

It’s just that he liked Peter, he realizes while he’s moving out his belongings. He’d liked the man, much more than he’d been expecting. Not that he’d expected much when he’d bit Peter—he’d been honest, with what he’d yelled at the man, just doing it because his father died and after that he wasn’t thinking—but Peter had been friendly. Interested in learning. Had been good company, for a little while. Long enough that Stiles had started to think pack again.

Skilled confidence man, Stiles thinks with a bitter twist to his mouth. Well, with as many stumbles as he’d made, maybe Peter hadn’t really meant that friendliness. Though…thinking that doesn’t make Stiles feel any better.

So Stiles makes himself not think about it, and just finish what he’s doing. He moves his things to the general store in town—except for the family heirlooms, which he boxes up more carefully and then secretes up in the branches of the Nemeton. And from the store, he takes everything he’s gathered from the Hale and Argent homesteads, and he brings them to Lydia for them to both puzzle over.

“That competing charter’s been dropped,” Lydia tells him. “Mystery backer ran out of cash, rumor says. Also, there’s been a rash of wild-animal attacks in the area around Sacramento. They’re saying it might be a rabid bear, the bodies are so mutilated.”

Stiles nods and continues flipping through the book of Irish fairytales Lydia had ordered. The Irish-English dictionary has been held up—they need to bribe some Eastern librarians, apparently—so for now they’re reading anything about Ireland that their buyer can find in San Francisco. “Can we get our charter through?”

“Everything’s in place. Trust is set up, draft has been informally approved, and our man is saying it’s just a matter of finding the right moment to get the legislature to approve it, since we want this quiet,” Lydia says. “There are a couple bills up within the month that look like good bets to tack onto, and see that they get all the news.”

“Great,” Stiles mutters, looking at an engraving of a beautiful woman washing clothes in a river, piles of weapons on either side of her.

“No reports that Gerard Argent’s been caught yet, though his son’s made headlines riding a horse onto a train to catch a fugitive,” Lydia adds.

Stiles looks up. “Think it’s true?”

“The fugitive is dead, that’s true.” Lydia shrugs, watching Stiles over a half-written letter. “That’s starting to make the news, too. All those mauled men, they had connections to the Argents. They’re saying it’s some kind of blood feud.”

“Between them and the wild animals?” Stiles says.

Lydia presses her lips together, then abruptly puts down her pen. “Stiles.”

“If you think you can, I want you to come over to see the Nemeton,” Stiles says. He put down his book and sits up. Then slouches back. Then pulls himself up for good, resting his hands on the table. “I’ve been rereading my grandmother’s grimoire about them. I think…I think I’ve fed it enough, I can claim it now. And if I can, then there’s a spell we can do.”

“Does it kill Gerard Argent?” Lydia says, her irritation fading into sharp interest.

“No. But it’ll take off any protections he might be using,” Stiles says. He pauses. “He was…when he was up here, he and his men, they were taking people’s silver. I didn’t think anything of it when I first heard, just thought it was robbery, because you don’t really use silver in magic.”

“Because you use it to block, not to initiate,” Lydia says, immediately understanding.

Stiles nods. “If he really knew about magic, he’d know about Nemetons. And if somebody like him knew about Nemetons, I don’t think he would’ve just left it unclaimed. I don’t think he was the one who woke it either.”

“Well, then that means the Hales did that,” Lydia says. “Which means they know magic.”

“They know a little,” Stiles says. He presses his lips together, gathering his thoughts. “Not much. They called up the Nemeton but didn’t really know what to do with it, otherwise there’s no way the Argents could’ve gotten to them. But they know enough to curse somebody, a real curse, and I think all Gerard knows is how to defend himself against magic. I’d bet that’s why he was talking to somebody like Blackwood. He’s just trying to hire another protector.”

“So if we keep him from doing that, then any curse the Hales put on him will take effect. That’s clean and keeps us out of the actual death,” Lydia says. She nods in approval.

They’re both quiet for a few seconds. Then Lydia stirs slightly. It’s just a shift in how she’s holding her head and shoulders, but that minute a movement is all it takes to change her from satisfied to wary.

“That beta of mine I mentioned,” Stiles says abruptly. “It’s Peter Hale. He survived—he’s the only one that I know of. And he…left, to get revenge on the Argents. I don’t think he’s coming back.”

He expects Lydia to ask why they’re helping him, or how he and Stiles met, or anything along those lines. So he starts when Lydia instead asks: “Would you ever want him back?”

Stiles looks up at her and he isn’t sure what his face looks like, but she’s not…condescending, or frustrated, or even nervous. She’s curious, of course, but she’s mostly concerned. For him, and it smells real.

“He left,” Stiles finally says. “That’s what he wanted. I’m not going to change his mind. I just…want to tie up a few loose ends. Make it clean.”

She nods and twists as if to leave the table. Then she stops, half-turned, one arm on the table and the other on the back of her chair. “My parents died just after Jackson proposed to me, in an accident with their carriage,” she says, looking at the far wall. “His parents are still alive. They’d never liked me, but I sent them a telegram after he died as a courtesy. A month later my banker told me that they’d deposited a couple hundred dollars to my account. No note, and I’ve never heard from them. I’ve thought of a thousand things to do with that money, but I keep thinking I wish they hadn’t even sent it.”

“I guess you could always withdraw it and burn the bills,” Stiles says.

Lydia glances at him, then smiles. Then shakes her head, but she’s laughing under her breath. “I’ll wait to see what kind of fairy I am now, and then make up my mind how to use it,” she says. “I haven’t just sent it back to them because…because damn it, even if I hate it, I don’t even want them to know that much about how I feel about it. That’s what they paid for, after all—the right to keep me out.”

He doesn’t know what he should say to that, so he doesn’t say anything. She seems a little bit expectant anyway but then she rises to her feet. For a second, her face is turned from him, and when she straightened up and he can see it again, Lydia simply looks meditative.

“Well, I’m expecting something tomorrow morning, but nothing the day after that,” she says. “Now’s as good a time as any.”

“All right,” Stiles says. Then he sucks in his breath. When she looks back at him, he almost changes his head, and then he shakes himself. “You know, the bite didn’t take. It’s not like you got what you paid for with that, either.”

“Stiles,” Lydia starts, her brows pinching together. She moves her hand towards him, then pulls it back. Then she snorts and it sounds amused, but she smells closer to angry. “Well, if you thought you’d get rid of me over that, think again. And to be clear, you’re the alpha and I will respect your decision over Peter Hale.”

Then she walks into the bedroom, muttering that personally, she would at least like to have a ‘conversation’ with that man. Stiles almost calls after her, saying it’s all right. Then he stops himself—that’s a lie for sure, but then, saying that he minds her feeling that way would…he’s not ready to talk that much about it.

Anyway, Peter’s not coming back, he reminds himself, and then he gets up and starts to tidy the table.

* * *

There’s a moment, right after Stiles has cut open his palm and used his own blood to draw his family’s sigil on the trunk of the Nemeton, when he has no idea what will happen. He doesn’t know if the tree will accept it or throw him aside; he’d done everything possible to make certain it’s the first one, but when you come down to it, you can never be sure. Nemetons are old things, wild things, wilder even than werewolves, never fully knowable because the world in which they first came to be no longer exists, hasn’t left more than fragments of dreams in the world that Stiles now inhabits.

And then…a wind goes through the leaves, so they rustle with humanlike satisfaction. A slight glow surrounds the tree, limning it with moonlight though it’s midday. Beside Stiles, Lydia makes a soft, awed noise.

Then both of them hiss, throwing up their arms over their eyes as the blood sigil suddenly goes blindingly white. Even with their arms as shields, the light pierces through; Stiles’ eyes burn and then the burn stabs into his head, and he’s just about to throw himself down on the ground when it’s suddenly dark.

Stiles counts to five before he lowers his arm. He still can’t quite see, blinking furiously as fading stars flicker across the trees, but he thinks—he steps forward, groping outward till he touches rough bark, and then feels it out before he can finally see it: the sigil’s been molded into the ridges of the trunk, as if it’s always been there, grown that way.

“Good,” Lydia says, just firmly enough that Stiles can tell she’s as much reassuring herself as him. She’s still rubbing her eyes, but she stoops to pick at the basket at her feet. “Now for the Argents.”

They do the spell and nothing special happens, which Stiles explains to a slightly disgruntled Lydia means it worked. “Well, in the sense that nothing on this end is interfering. We’re not going to know for sure till we hear he’s dead.”

Lydia makes a distracted noise, looking off to the side, and Stiles realizes she’s looking over the den. He goes still and a moment later she notices, glancing back at him. Her brows lift slightly, then drop, and then she looks at the den again.

“It’s not a bad plot of land,” she says. “You can’t just throw up the usual rectangular cabin, of course, not without leveling the end of the ravine, and then you’ll lose all the camouflage…”

“You’re thinking of building a house on top of that?” Stiles says.

“Well, I’m not going to live in the basement,” Lydia says sharply, though her eyes aren’t so irritated. “Unless you were planning to shift lodgings for good?”

Stiles looks at the spot. He still…he feels too many things when he looks at it. When he’s inside the den, wondering if that tension in his shoulders is from some trace of Peter he and time haven’t managed to scratch out. But—but no, he thinks. No. This is his. He didn’t decide to leave it, and now that he’s claimed the Nemeton, he’s made sure he’ll be staying.

“So how are we going to learn to build a house that’ll wedge up against those outcrops?” he finally says.

Lydia tilts her head, considering the den. “Oh, the same way we’re going to figure out what kind of fairy I am. Try till it sticks.”

Chapter Text

Fall goes into winter, and they move permanently to Beacon Hills, though at least every other week, one of them makes the trip back to Shasta Springs. They can send telegrams out from their office, but usually can’t receive since they don’t have someone to man the telegraph, so they have to go over to the other town for that and for any mail. One day the post office there hands them a thick packet stamped with an official wax seal: their town charter went through. And interest starts to rise in Beacon Hills again, although people are still a little leery actually living in it.

“When spring comes around, we will have to think about screening a few of them and letting them in,” Lydia points out. “Ghost stories won’t keep them out forever, and besides, we could use tradesmen living in town. Sooner or later we’re going to run out of homesteads to dismantle, and ordering it all takes too long.”

They’re taking apart the houses scattered around the town for materials to build the new house near the Nemeton. It’s just a skeleton frame right now, barely sheltering the dug-out den he’s widening and shoring up into a proper foundation; Stiles insists on not using anything that has even the smallest trace of violence on it, so each house doesn’t actually yield much. And the ground’s getting harder as it gets colder, so even with werewolf strength, it’s slow going. But at least they’ve figured out how to put up a frame that won’t fall. It took five tries, but it’s up and solid as the Nemeton.

Stiles wants to at least get the refurbished den done before the snow really starts, so he occasionally sleeps out there. Lydia always rides back to the general store to spend the night, no matter how late it gets; it made Stiles nervous at first, since the Nemeton will watch out for them, but not for things like cougars and bears, but Lydia backed him up one day and demonstrated what she can do with a rifle. After that he stopped objecting, but he still feels a little restless when they’re apart.

That’s pack, he thinks, curled up in the den one night, and for a moment his doze sweeps away. Then he takes a deep breath, and realizes too that he hasn’t thought of his dead family all day.

He’s not sure how he feels about that, and it keeps him from falling fully asleep for a while. Stiles isn’t sure how long, but when he suddenly bolts up, wide awake and falling from wolf to human form, it’s still night.

Something he heard. He heard something. He strains his ears, but there’s nothing in the woods now, nothing he shouldn’t be hearing. More than that, the night sounds of the animals are just at the level they should be. If something had happened nearby, they’d be lower, quieter, wary, and they’re not.

In town, Stiles thinks, already out of the den. He shivers as the cold wind hits him, but his mind’s not with that. Fur creeps over him and then he falls to four feet, stretching out into a long, miles-eating lope.

The first thing he sees when he breaks the treeline is a red glint—Lydia’s sitting out on the back porch of the store. Wrapped up in a quilt, a long-cold cup of coffee next to her, and she doesn’t get up as Stiles trots up to her, pauses, and then ducks inside. He comes out a few minutes later, dressed, and she finally turns her head to face him.

“Somebody’s dead,” she says. The words work strangely in her mouth, almost as if it’s a new language to her. “I…woke up screaming.”

“Nightmare?” Stiles says.

A flicker of irritation goes across her face and Stiles lets out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. She softens, looking at him, and then he sees how nervous she is. “No. No. I…it didn’t happen to me. It’s Gerard Argent, I think.”

“I’ll go into Shasta Springs and check the—”

“It’s far from here, I don’t think the news will have gotten out yet,” Lydia mutters, stirring in the quilt. She tugs it up higher under her chin, her breath steaming in the chilly air, and then grimaces and pushes herself to her feet. “I think I’m a banshee.”

“All right,” Stiles says. He thinks he remembers that one from the books—a fortuneteller kind of fairy.

Lydia shoots him another look, distinctly irritable, and then stalks into the store. “All right? All right…banshees are one-trick ponies, completely useless…”

“I don’t think it’s useless to know when you’re about to die,” Stiles says, walking after her. “Anyway, that’s just fairytales people wrote down. If you believed everything about werewolves from what you read in fairytales, you’d think we have nothing to do but hang around waiting for little girls to eat. Look, at least now we know, we can check into that specifically.”

Her back’s still stiff, but she’s loosened her grip on the quilt and it droops down under her shoulders as she starts building up the nearly-ashed cooking fire. Then a whole corner drops and she has to kick it away from the hearth. She stays that way, half-bent, one hand clutching the remaining corner against her breast, and then she shakes her head. “It’s not place-specific, I’ll give you that,” she mutters, grudgingly acceding to dry humor. “Water horse would have been inconvenient.”

Stiles laughs. He watches her mouth start to curl towards a smile, then goes to get water so she can brew fresh coffee.

“It was just Gerard Argent I was screaming for,” Lydia says when he comes back. “Probably because we both did the spell to take off his protections. But…I couldn’t tell anything else about what was going on. So I don’t know who else lived or died.”

Not Peter, Stiles thinks without thinking. He pauses, then rolls his shoulders, trying to push that out. He doesn’t want to know whether that’s gut or just wishing or—anything, really. He set up Peter for a share of the trust, if the man survives whatever he’s been doing, but he’s told their lawyer not to advertise that. If Peter looks into the title records, he’ll find out, but Stiles doesn’t want to know when that happens.

But they should find out whether the Argents will ever be back, and if Stiles finds himself cringing about whether they’ll also end up hearing about Peter…well, he’ll deal with that if it comes up. Deal with it then. “I’ll go ask them to look into it, anyway,” Stiles says.

It takes a week and a half, but eventually they learn what happened: Gerard Argent was found fleeing from a burning ranch house, which turned out to hold the bodies of five brutally slaughtered men. Argent himself had managed to make it to the next house over, and he’d attempted to take the family living in it hostage, but one of the children hadn’t been inside and had run for town. A couple of lawmen—no details yet on whether they’d been warrant officers, or their names—had been there, already on Argent’s trail, and they had ridden out and in the ensuing firefight, one of them had shot Argent through the head.

Not all of Argent’s men have been accounted for, and Stiles doesn’t get any response to his inquiry about Blackwood, so while Stiles feels a little better, he still asks the Nemeton to keep a lookout. So he’s not surprised when one night, it rouses him and Lydia and sends them into the woods to meet intruding werewolves.

He is surprised when they turn out to be Erica and Boyd, haggard and starved-looking, and speaking in whispers even when Stiles assures them that there isn’t a werewolf within howling distance. Boyd’s favoring his left leg, which is swollen around the knee, and Erica has claw slashes disfiguring one side of her face, barely missing eye and nose.

“Our alpha’s gone rogue,” is all Erica will say, once she’s washed up and eaten. “Sorry to drag it to your door, but we couldn’t go any way but north, they had everything else blocked off.”

“Who?” Lydia says. She’s been very quiet, though it’s certainly not because she’s let down her guard. Even as she refills Boyd’s water glass, she’s keeping one eye on his hands.

Erica’s face twists and it’s furious. She has to grip the table and breathe to fight down the glow in her eyes. “Alpha’s name is Kali,” she finally says. “Boyd can draw you a picture, he’s better at that than I am. I don’t think they’ll come up this far, they want big packs and those are all closer to the coast, but so you can watch out after we’re gone.”

“You’re moving on?” Stiles says. “You look like hell.”

Then he winces. Erica doesn’t; she smiles and it’s more than a little ghastly, with how the healing slashes distort her lips and tug down at her eye. “Yeah, I know, but I like you, Stiles. And it’s pretty up here, what we’ve had time to see. I don’t want to get that dirty for you.”

She gets up and pushes back from the table without another word, going into the storeroom they’ve cleaned out for extra beds. Boyd glances after her, his hands trembling a little. He notices and flattens them against the table, hunching defensively as Stiles and Lydia warily clear the dishes. Erica flops down in the other room, her foot kicking at a barrel, and Boyd starts so viciously that his claw tips dig into the table.

“I want—” Lydia finally starts, glancing at Stiles.

“She’s mad because when Kali bit Erica, she promised Erica’d never have to say yes to any man she didn’t want to again, and then that bitch went at us for her mate’s sake,” Boyd suddenly says. He’s speaking in a low mutter, his eyes fixed to the table. “Courted another alpha called Ennis, and then he went and listened to this one called Blackwood, got his head filled with nonsense about how alphas don’t need betas. So Ennis kills his pack, and then tells Kali if they’ll be together, she’s got to do it too. And she just does.”

Lydia draws in a slow, sharp breath, looking at Stiles again. “Blackwood.”

“Yeah, we’ve heard of him,” Stiles says to the question in Boyd’s eyes. “What’s he after?”

“I don’t know, just death and pain. He’s crazy. He even has a couple hunters—we’ve seen him, he pays them to get into a pack, snatch one of them for him,” Boyd says. He curls his fingers against the table, and then a violent shiver goes through him. Then he looks up and he’s terrified, flat-out terrified. He smells like a deer just before the teeth close in its throat. But at the same time—there’s this firmness to the fear. It’s not like it’s going to break, the way he’s afraid. “We ran for now, couldn’t do anything else. But Erica wants to go back.”

“Not right away,” Stiles says, startled.

Boyd shakes his head, then looks over his shoulder at the other doorway, where Erica’s blanket-shrouded feet are just visible. He’s calming down. “No. Got to heal up. And she wants to look up some things. Our Emissary, before Kali killed her, she said some things—Erica wants to look into them. Says they’ll help her get Kali.”

“Emissary like a druid?” Stiles says. He’s sharp; he takes a step back and breathes in and then leans forward again. “Listen, you should stay the night. I owe you a set of clothes—I’ll have them in the morning, and like I said, if anybody’s following you, they’re at least three, four days off.”

Boyd looks oddly at him, but ultimately assents. And after a few more mouthfuls of water, Boyd goes to join Erica in sleeping. Stiles waits for the man’s heartbeat to match the slow thump of Erica’s, then goes outside, where Lydia joins him.

“Are you planning to help them?” she asks him. She’s got her arms crossed over her chest, and her expression’s hard to read. They’re still figuring out what banshees can do, but Stiles has noticed that she’s gotten a lot better at controlling her heartbeat, and changes in her scent aren’t as obvious as they used to be.

“I wasn’t planning on going back with them, and I don’t think they’re asking,” Stiles says. He flicks out his claws and absently chews on one. “But druids, vendettas…I never heard a story about that that ended well. There’s some stuff in my grandmother’s grimoire I want them to hear.”

Lydia doesn’t seem to find that a foolish idea, as far as he can tell, but she’s still reserving judgment. “I do not think they’re going to let you talk them out of their feud.”

“Well, I wasn’t planning on that either,” Stiles snaps. He paces off down the porch, then comes back. “Look, I was born a werewolf. I understand vendettas. It’s just—it’s not just something you do, all right? We have rules about them for reasons, and one of them is when you don’t do it well, you get everybody killed and we have enough hunters trying to do that without doing it ourselves and I just—just—they can’t do it, we might end up dealing with Kali and Ennis and Blackwood ourselves, anyway.”

“I know,” Lydia says, her arms loosening a little from their grip on her ribs. “And I’m not objecting because I’m just against helping people, I hope you know. I’m not entirely selfish.”

“All right, then what are you saying?” Stiles mutters. “Wait, are you objecting?”

It’s a few seconds before Lydia answers. “No,” she says. She sounds a little startled about it. “No. But I was thinking…we told Chris Argent we’d let him know if we heard anything about Blackwood.”

Stiles looks sharply at her. “Boyd’s rattled, and I don’t think Erica even cares about hiding herself.”

“Well, if Argent objects to werewolves, were you that fond of him?” Lydia says, arching her brow.

“You know, Erica and I don’t know each other that well,” Stiles says after a moment. There’s just something about her tone, and the way her eyes flick towards the doorway. “It was just one…you know about heat, right?”

“One of the less regrettable parts of my marriage,” Lydia says dryly.

Stiles snorts and while she doesn’t smile, she does look amused. Then they both sober up. He takes a step off the porch before looking back at her. “Fine, when they wake up, we’ll tell them about Argent and see what they say. I’m going to get my grandmother’s book from the Nemeton.”

Lydia nods and retreats into the house. He looks after her for another second, then starts out into the woods.

* * *

Erica and Boyd think it’s a great idea to talk to Chris Argent, and Erica even offers to handle killing Argent if he has a bad reaction. She’s less enthusiastic about dropping her druid’s suggestion, but Boyd doesn’t seem too fond of any kind of magic and works on her. And Stiles finally flips to the part of the grimoire that talks about how to use bits of victims against their killers, and that seems to satisfy Erica.

“Now we owe you,” she says, as she and Boyd set off.

They’re meeting up with Chris several towns over; Stiles and Lydia debated for a while about having it where they could directly monitor, but Stiles ultimately thinks it’s better to have any kill happen away from their territory. Anything Chris says about werewolves or the supernatural will be looked at in light of his father’s false witchcraft accusations—that may not be much of a problem. The more important danger, they agree, is that Chris is a lawman, and his death would attract attention for that. Maybe even military action; the garrisons have been mustering due to increasing conflicts with the local tribes.

Not that Stiles is completely comfortable with their choice, but being alpha isn’t about being comfortable, says his dead father. “I think we’re even,” Stiles says, his mind still on that.

Erica looks at him and he realizes what he’s doing, and shakes himself out of his mood. But she just smiles, and then gives him a wave as she and Boyd walk out of Beacon Hills. She looks cheerful, if you don’t look too closely.

* * *

For a while Stiles and Lydia are wary, but the weeks drag on and the most sign Stiles sees of another werewolf is the occasional distant howl of a strange omega, and those always disappear once he’s howled back. Then the snows come in force and even the wildlife seem to be hunkering down, so they start to relax.

The weather makes the news dry up too. Erica sent them a curt telegram that Argent was partnering with them, but after that they’ve heard nothing, and the lack of werewolf traffic up north also means Stiles can’t get any news outside of the papers, or the odd report from Lydia’s contacts. It’s a little hard on the nerves, not knowing, and Stiles is very aware how odd that is, worrying for people who aren’t pack—Lydia seems amused by that, now that Erica’s not actually here.

“It makes sense,” she says, as they wait out the winter inside the general store backroom. “This isn’t nearly a big enough pack for the territory you’ve claimed. And you said you grew up in a much larger one too.”

“Well, I can’t just bite a whole town of people,” Stiles mutters. He’s antsy, hasn’t been able to go out except if he’s in wolf form, and even then, he can only just about flounder his way through the drifts to the nearest well and back. “How would we even teach them? Clear out a schoolroom somewhere?”

Lydia doesn’t answer that one, just waits him out till he stops his pacing and comes back to sit on the bench across from her. They did finally get an Irish book about grammar—not a grammar book, it’s a book that talks about the historical roots of the language so it’s not that helpful for translating her grandmother’s breviary. But it’s all they have so she’s started working with it, and she doesn’t look up from her blotting paper as she pushes his cup towards him.

“I did not get the impression that Erica wanted a new alpha. Even if she likes you,” Lydia observes.

“No. Anyway, taking werewolves somebody else bit, that’s tricky,” Stiles mutters. “Their alpha’s always going to have a hold on them, unless…besides, do we have to have more werewolves?”

Lydia finally looks up. “Do we?”

He’s getting used to her. Still, she can rile people like nobody he’s ever seen with that raised brow, and he has to get up and kick around and come back before he can answer without a mouthful of fangs. “Yeah, eventually. Just to guard the borders, because magic can’t do everything and sometimes you need eyes and ears there. But honestly, if I could choose, I think right now what we need is a healer. And a blacksmith.”

“Tired of breaking your claws prying out nails?” Lydia says.

“Well, and you want piped water,” Stiles says. “Actually, is that a blacksmith who’d do that?”

“We can always put out an ad and find out,” Lydia says, pulling over a fresh piece of paper.

The snow finally starts to melt and they can get over to Shasta Springs again. Mail’s piled up, and the townspeople have reverted to looking a little askance at them, muttering about how he and Lydia have the devil’s luck, surviving out where they are. Stiles wasn’t pinning his hopes on any of them anyway, but after some thinking, he decides they shouldn’t put an ad in the papers. Instead they have their lawyer hire agents to find candidates, and then they invite any decent-sounding ones up to Shasta Springs for interviews.

It’s slow-going. Even though they have valuable water rights, they’re still so far from the major towns and roads that people are leery of moving to the area.

What they do end up getting is a steady stream of people wanting the privilege of marketing those water rights to potential wealthy backers who could pay to develop the area into real wealth. In return for a small commission, a token, really. Stiles doesn’t have a lot of patience for it, but Lydia argues him into taking the meetings anyway. “If we don’t look interested, people will wonder,” she points out. “Also, it’ll give us some idea of who might think they’d like to move in without permission. And really, if you just give them a chance, they can be very entertaining. Such lovely blueprints, Stiles. We must have the best collection in the state by now.”

She’s right. She’s also having a lot more fun than he is, and that’s why he usually ends up taking the blueprints—their San Francisco buyer sent them some engineering manuals by accident, but Stiles ran out of other things to read over the winter and ended up teaching himself the basics—and holes up in their rental house with them while she does the entertaining in the lobby of one of the local hotels.

He’s heading over to pick her up for dinner when one of the hotel staff slips out of an alley and hands him a note. It’s from Lydia, telling him to come in through the kitchens. When he goes there, a cook directs him to one of the private meeting rooms on the first floor. They’re in the middle of making some kind of dish with plenty of pepper and it throws off his nose.

Till he gets a few feet into the hall and then he stops. Listens to that heartbeat stutter, and then he takes two long strides and yanks open the door.

Peter’s half-turned towards him. “Stiles,” he says, breathing the word a little, as if he thought about sucking it back in. His mouth is pulled up and it’s a kind of smile, but it’s so practiced it looks like somebody shaped his face into it, like he’s a mannequin. No thought in it, just muscle flexing. “I was asking Miss Martin here whether you were available.”

He’s different. He even smells different. His clothes look expensive, three-piece suit with mother-of-pearl buttons on the vest and the same for cuff-links. The shine on his shoes rivals the sparkle of the cut-crystal lamp on the desk behind him. His hair’s barbered and combed back from his face in glossy waves. He’s wearing some kind of cologne that mutes his scent, and it’s probably expensive too.

“And I was just explaining to Mr. Hale here that being included as a trust beneficiary doesn’t give him any additional rights under the town charter,” Lydia says. She looks and smells angry, but in a…a smooth way. She isn’t ruffled or scared. “Honestly, I wasn’t going to bother you, but he insists—”

“Did you bring anybody after you?” Stiles snaps.

Lydia immediately stops. He’s looking at Peter, not her, but he senses her arm moving and thinks she’s just slipped her hand down to where her gun is hidden in her skirts. As for Peter—he flinches heavily and drops his eyes. His mouth goes into a rictus and he struggles with it, and when he looks up, that smile’s dropped right off.

“No. Stiles, listen, I—I had to do something about my family,” Peter says. His voice rises, then jerks back down, then starts to rise again, and he rocks on his feet like he wants to go forward. “I couldn’t just let that man get away with—with profiting off their bodies, on top of everything else. But I—I did take care of that, all of it. Gerald’s dead—”

“I know that, we get newspapers up here,” Stiles says. He remembers to shut the door behind him—nobody’s in the hall, thankfully—but then can’t bring himself to pry his hand off the handle. “Heard all about the maulings.”

“Well, they deserved it,” Peter says angrily. But even as he’s spitting out the words, his shoulders are slumping back. “I was careful. I had to be, I wasn’t that strong, and I assure you, I managed it without giving away what we are. And—”

“And what, you’re back now to finish things up here?” Stiles says.

Peter winces again. Something moves around his hands—he’s holding a hat and his fingers are crumpling the brim into shapelessness. “I found out a few things, when I was going after them,” he says, quietly, looking at a point on Stiles’ chest rather than into Stiles’ eyes. “And I looked into the title, after the killing was done, and…you set up an account for me. Kept my share of the land for me. I…I ended up using some of the money to get here.”

“Maybe we should’ve put some conditions on that,” Stiles mutters, glancing at Lydia.

She makes a face, stepping back to lean against the wall. Peter looks up at Stiles and then his eyes track off to the side. They come back to Stiles’ face and his brow furrows. “I thought,” he starts softly. “I thought, when I saw that…and you told me once that lone alphas don’t do well.”

“No, they don’t,” Stiles says, and then he can’t help snapping his teeth a little, catching how Peter nearly looks at Lydia again. “And that’s a nice thought for you to have, the better part of a year after. Besides, you’re the one who decided to leave so why you’d care what I did after—”

“I didn’t want to leave,” Peter says. He hesitates, then takes a half-step forward. His head drops and one of his hands hangs forward, as if perpetually on the verge of reaching out. “Stiles, I had to, for my family, but I didn’t want to—you saved my life. I—”

“And you tried to end mine,” Stiles snarls. He can’t hold himself back any longer. The bones in his face shift and his muscles bulge up against the seams of his clothes—he can hear the threads snapping. “That money was supposed to take away any reason you had to come back here.”

“But I had to!” Peter’s suddenly wild, even as Stiles can see him straining against the instinct to drop back. He throws out his hand and drops his hat; his head goes down but he still pushes forward, contorting as if he’s forcing himself through thick molasses. He smells of desperation and grief. “I had to, I had to do it for my family but I—Stiles, please, I’m sorry, I didn’t—I wasn’t thinking when I tried to—”

“Kill me,” Stiles says, his words distorted into a growl.

“Please,” Peter says. He lifts his hand towards Stiles and it’s shaking. “Please. I know, but…I don’t know what I’m doing. I still don’t. And I don’t have my family to see to anymore, I don’t have anything to—I’ll stay and learn this time, I swear, please just—”

Stiles can’t talk anymore. He snarls again and Peter jerks backwards, stumbling as the heel of his shoe catches on the thick rug and then slides to the polished wood. Peter catches himself against a chair, twisting it between himself and Stiles, then drags up his head.

“Please,” Peter begs. He’s shaking all over now, so much that the chair legs are rattling against the floor. “Stiles. Please. Please—think. Just think for a moment. You need a beta. It’s just you and her, and there’s so much land, and I could—”

They keep everything well-oiled here, but Stiles yanks the door open so hard that the hinges squeal. He pauses, keeping behind it, fighting down his rage till he’s sure he looks human again, and then he lets go of the handle.

Steps back. Three steps back, two to the side, not looking at Peter, giving the man his shoulder because he’s not so stupid as to give Peter his back. Then he stops.

He looks out the window. The breathing over on the other side of the room is ragged, heavy. Keeps going on and on, and then abruptly tears off.

When it resumes, the breathing is even heavier, but slow, dragging, like somebody on their last legs. The footsteps are the same way, going out the door and down the hall. And it’s ages, it seems, before Peter finally appears in the street before the hotel. Peter looks up at the window and Stiles just glimpses straining blue eyes before he abruptly turns away. And then, thankfully, Lydia pulls the curtain shut.

“We may have to cultivate the people here, after all,” Lydia says, coming over to him. “This is too far for the Nemeton to give warning.”

Stiles twists his head and looks at her, then looks away. He nods tightly and puts his hand up to the back of his neck, and the muscle there feels like twisted steel.

“I was going to get him out, and not tell you. But then…” Lydia takes a deep breath “…I thought you would want to see him, after all.”

“Yeah. Yeah, and I saw him and that’s done now,” Stiles mutters. He grips his neck, moving his hand up an inch, then yanks his arm down. Then he turns and walks out; Lydia follows without any more conversation.

Chapter Text

They were planning to stay in Shasta Springs another day, but after the run-in with Peter, Stiles wants to get back to Beacon Hills as fast as he can.

Honestly, he wants to get to the Nemeton and his den, but spring isn’t that far along. He’d have to really push himself to get out there from the general store, and then he’d arrive too exhausted to do anything. Too exhausted to chase off Peter, if the man decides to follow him.

“Will he?” Lydia says as they sit down to dinner.

“I don’t know.” Actually, she sits down. Stiles is only in his chair for a couple seconds before he has to get up again. He paces around the room and comes back, resting his hand on the back of the chair, then walks off again. “I don’t know. He’s stubborn and he does what he wants. But he’s still a beta. His instincts have to be telling him to run. I just—I don’t know.”

She watches him go back and forth a few times, her lips thinning. Then she turns abruptly to her own meal. Eats it in silence, and when she’s done, she gets up and takes his plate and brings it over to him so he has to stop. He almost tells her he’s not hungry but she has this way of staring him down and finally he just—can’t handle more than one fight at a time. So he takes the plate from her and eats where he’s standing.

“I think he’s jealous of you,” Stiles eventually says.

“I think you need to go to bed,” she tells him. She takes the plate again, then turns on her heel.

After she washes it up, she goes into the other room and comes back with her rifle and crosses in front of Stiles to set up by the window. She puts the rifle down and then bends over where they’re trying to start the wolfsbane seeds Stiles inherited, fussing with the saucers and the damp folded cloths they’re holding.

“And I remember the bullets will just slow him down,” she says, not looking up. “But that’s the point. If I just start off by screaming at him from here, I might end up blowing out your eardrums before you wake up.”

Stiles exhales roughly. He puts his hand up to rake at his hair, rocking back on one foot, and then he shakes himself. Goes over to the bed, even though he thinks he’ll be lying awake all night.

As a matter of fact, he’s barely put his head down before he’s out. He exhausted himself at some point and didn’t notice, and when he opens his eyes to the sight of sunlight streaming through the window, he’s not sure he’s still dreaming.

He sits up and a foot scrapes the floor and then Stiles looks over to see Lydia, her hair loose, curled up with one of their books and their thickest quilt. “It’s all right if you never can quite hate them, you know,” she says, very calmly, as if she’s just remarking on the weather. “It’s not a weakness. People who say that don’t have the faintest idea what they’re talking about, I’ve found.”

Stiles swings his feet down. He breathes in and out, listening to the woods outside, and then he stands up. “I’m going to put the Nemeton on notice,” he says. “If you do see him, I don’t need to talk to him again.”

* * *

A week passes and they don’t see any sign of Peter. Lydia has one scare, when she’s at the other end of the main street from Stiles, checking whether they can salvage an old saloon, and something charges out from under the building. But it just turns out to be a winter-dazed raccoon, which makes for a hearty dinner stew that night.

The tree doesn’t alert them to anything strange either, and Stiles starts to think that maybe Peter got the point. And then it’s time for their usual trip to Shasta Springs, and Stiles finds himself dragging his feet.

“Well, then stay at the house and I’ll ride into town and see whether he’s booked himself into one of the hotels,” Lydia tells him. She’s been unusually patient with Stiles, but her temper is finally starting to fray; it’s not him, he knows that, but it doesn’t make the edge of her voice any less sharp. “But for God’s sake, this is your ground. You can’t just play hide and seek, Stiles.”

“So I’ll go into town,” Stiles snaps at her.

Oddly, she subsides. She doesn’t look happy about it, but she doesn’t argue with him, and when they reach their usual rental house—they really should just outright buy it—she goes directly inside. Leaves him to carry in their things, but she does come to see him off. Still doesn’t say anything, just lays her hand on his shoulder for a second.

Stiles feels a little calmer after that, for some reason. Maybe he’s fooling himself yet again, but as he gets closer to town, he starts to think that it really can’t be that bad. He’s already gotten through the first meeting and there can’t be any more surprises for him.

And then he steps onto the main street and an alpha werewolf walks out of the nearest saloon. “Mr. Stilinski?” he calls. “Please, if I could introduce myself…Deucalion Blackwood.”

It’s midafternoon and people are everywhere. Stiles slows his step and looks over as Blackwood comes towards him, but he doesn’t fully stop till he’s determined that there are no other werewolves nearby. “Mr. Blackwood,” he says, with the curtest nod he can get away with.

The man smiles at him, just enough malice in it to acknowledge Stiles’ hostility, and then takes off the odd dark-lensed spectacles he’s wearing. Behind them are scarred eyes, pale and watery whites with unfocused pupils. Blackwood’s a well-built man, handsome besides the eyes, with ginger-brown hair not too far off Stiles’ own shade and a faint rot in his scent. He’s dressed like a well-to-do merchant, but not showy, except for the ivory-topped cane he carries in one hand.

“I understand you’re the man to speak to regarding Beacon Hills,” Blackwood says. “I have a proposition that may interest you.”

“I’m not doing business at the moment,” Stiles says. He’s trying to gauge the man’s strength. The eyes don’t mean that much to him—he can’t tell right now whether that’s real or a glamor, and anyway, even if it’s real, their other senses mean blindness doesn’t slow werewolves down that much. “If you want to arrange something for maybe the week after this—”

“Oh, fascinating. That certainly wasn’t the impression I received from a mutual acquaintance of ours,” Blackwood says, with the barest pretense at disappointment. “Mr. Hale—I beg your pardon. Have I startled you?”

Stiles presses his lips together and wills himself to be better than that, to get his heartbeat down. “That’s a pretty common name,” he says. “Are you sure we’re talking about the same man?”

“I think so. He left here under rather dubious circumstances.” Blackwood puts on a sympathetic expression as he drifts closer. “Loyalty is in such short supply these days, I’m afraid.”

“I guess it’s difficult when there are people always ready to talk you into breaking your word, just be out for your own gain,” Stiles says after a moment. “So many damn false prophets these days, luring you down the wrong path.”

Blackwood’s sympathy turns brittle, and behind it Stiles can sniff a confused rage. It really isn’t about helping Erica and Boyd, Stiles realizes; the man has no idea about any of that, thought he was going in with Stiles having no idea what he gets up to. “Well, I will admit that it’s hard to distinguish the truth-teller from the liar,” he says, his tone considerably more hostile. “But a piece of advice, from one peer to another—when in doubt, I would always go with the one who keeps his word. And I promise you, Stiles—you’ll want to hear from me again.”

He smiles again and his canines are long and sharp for just the second. Then he steps back. He starts to turn, then lifts his cane in a farewell.

“Oh, and my greetings to your lovely cousin,” he says.

Stiles nearly has to stab his claws into his palms to do it, but he makes himself stand there till Deucalion disappears into the saloon again. Then he turns around and walks out of town at a reasonable pace. Even stops to talk briefly with a shopkeeper he regularly buys supplies from, though his gut is knotting up so much he can barely keep from throwing up.

The second he’s out of sight of people, he strips down, shoves his clothes into a bush, and shifts to wolf. Then he makes for the rental house at a dead run.

He’s not even within sight of it when he stops, snarling and tearing at the ground with his claws. There’s no heartbeat in that house, none at all, and—he beats a hole into the dirt so deep that he nearly somersaults himself, then yanks out his paw and makes himself—not calm down. Not calm. But think, hunt.

For the first time in a while, he thinks of his mother. Be cold when you’re angry, son. Fire lays waste, but cold cuts deeper.

Stiles sweeps wide as he comes up to the house and picks up the trail of two alphas, a woman and a man who isn’t Deucalion. It goes straight up to the wide-open, swinging back door, and then doubles back into the woods.

Lydia’s scent is inside, but it doesn’t go with the alphas’ trail. It goes out the front door, and then abruptly does a pin turn to also go into the woods. Stiles follows it and then runs into the first of several traces of gunpowder. Then he starts coming across splashes of blood and bullet casings.

None of the blood is Lydia’s, but scraps of her clothes crop up on the underbrush. She was heading towards the—he stops, shakes his head, and then diverts from her trail. Lydia was going for the river; she knows that won’t mask her scent but what it will do is strengthen her scream.

She’s on two feet, and from the prints Stiles has seen, the other alphas are staying two-footed as well. Playing with her, they probably think. On four feet Stiles can cover rougher ground, so he takes a shortcut, racing between the trees till he comes out on a low bluff overlooking the river. He can’t see anyone and he sniffs frantically into the wood, straining his ears and—

The scream isn’t human. It isn’t even a scream so much as a primeval howl, a fierce storm wind rushing down the river’s length. The waters rise up after it, frothing into temporary rapids, and they’re terribly, terribly silent. Everything is silent as Stiles runs down the bluff.

His eardrums have burst. He can feel the blood trickling down on either side of his head and matting the fur, can feel the bright sparks of pain deep in his skull as they regenerate. And he ignores all of that, just running and running till suddenly he bursts out on them.

The ground’s all wet from the river’s surge, slippery rock, sucking mud. He clears that at first with his leap, but the man sees him just in time to dodge and he lands in a soft spot. Stiles snarls and rips himself free, but takes a slash to the flanks for it.

He wheels around and the woman tries to kick him in the face. Stiles backs up and then is distracted as Lydia shouts something; his ears aren’t quite healed and he can’t make it out. His head twitches around, and then he looks back, growling, as the woman’s toe-claws swipe just short of his nose.

A second later Stiles has lunged in and clamped his teeth around her ankle. He drives into the lunge, twisting around to avoid her hands, and then whirls so she flies away from him, ribbons of blood arcing from her crushed ankle. She smashes into a tree and then crumples to the ground.

Stiles shifts human, slapping himself up onto his knees and hands. “Kali,” he growls.

The woman stiffens. Stiles hauls himself up, roaring, only to have Lydia shout at him again. This time he can make out his name.

He twists around. Lydia’s near the river, crouched over something—someone, it’s a body, soaked through and moving weakly. She’s got her hands under their arms and is trying to drag them but they’re too heavy for her—their head lifts and Stiles and Peter stare at each other.

Then Peter’s eyes widen. He hitches up, staring at something behind Stiles. His arm flails out from under him, trying to point but too weak for it; he has burned-looking rings around his wrist. His mouth opens and he shouts—it’s not English, it’s some other language, has a chanting feel for it, despite its wild panic.

The male alpha stumbles just as he’s taking off to pounce on Stiles. Something odd happens where his foot is on the ground—a stone under it, distinctively dark-colored, seems to suddenly vanish. He falls forward and catches himself on one hand, but Stiles is already on him, wolf again, claws in his chest and shoulders and teeth in his throat.

“Ennis!” Kali screams. “Ennis! No!”

Stiles clamps down on Ennis’ neck till he feels his upper and lower teeth just touch each other through the flesh. He drags the spasming body around till he’s facing Kali. Stares right into her horrified face, then opens his jaws. What’s left of Ennis falls from them, while his blood drips off Stiles’ teeth.

Kali’s eyes light up in rage. She howls at him, arms swinging out to either side, claws fully extended. It’s a stupid pose and Stiles silently waits till her weight is fully committed back on her heels. Then he rushes her.

She isn’t prepared for it. She can’t leap forward. She does get in some rakes but they bounce off his ribs. He’s able to ram his head into her chest, stunning her, and then he shifts human, grabs her wrists and lifts her up as he stands. He slams her into the tree again, then a second time. Her knees bend and he drops her before she can kick into his gut. Steps on her leg, hard, breaking it, and then grabs her arm again and slews around to throw her up against Ennis’ body.

Her head goes up as she hits. Kali coughs roughly, her eyes popping in her agony, and then twists in on herself, blood dribbling from her nose and mouth and ears. When Stiles walks towards her, she flinches before rousing herself to snarl warningly at him.

“Did you think I’d let you do to my pack what you did to Erica and Boyd?” Stiles growls at her.

Kali goes stiff again. She’s shocked, fearful. It’s still smothered by rage but it’s getting stronger.

“I’ll kill you,” Stiles tells her. “I will. You’re not my first alpha, you—tell Deucalion, you tell him that. Tell him take his stupid promises to someone who kills their betas because that’s all they can do, because I kill alphas. That one—” he jerks his chin at Ennis “—that’s my second. And I’ll make you my third and him my fourth if you stay.”

“But you’re born,” Kali mumbles, staring up at him. “We heard you were born alpha.”

Stiles jerks towards her, then peels his lips back in a feral grin as she winces. “Yeah. I was. He’s still my second alpha kill.”

Then he walks to her. She hisses and scrambles away, dragging herself ungracefully over Ennis. When she realizes what she’s doing, she freezes and looks down and Stiles doesn’t care how pitiful that expression is. He yanks her up to her feet, twisting one arm around her back, and then he jams his claws into her. Either side of the spine, one wrong move and it’s severed.

“Please,” Kali gasps, shaking. “Wait. Please. Deuc—Deuc—he said—”

“I don’t give a damn,” Stiles says. “He killed his pack over a beta challenge, as if that’s the worst werewolves do to each other. What makes his loss so special?”

He holds her another second, then pulls his claws out of her. Gives her a shove with his other hand as he does, sending her toppling to the other side of Ennis’ body, and then he steps away. Sideways, keeping an eye on her even as she crawls painfully and frantically for the trees. That rock that disappeared from under Ennis’ foot turns up under his, and after a second, he kicks it away.

“You know,” he says, and she cringes. “If you know what’s best for you. Don’t even give him the message, just leave. You think you’re any more to him than his betas were, you’re fooling yourself. There’s a Nemeton here and I bet he didn’t tell you.”

That’s when Kali starts whimpering. She keeps crawling, leaving a wide swath of blood behind her on the rocks.

“Stiles,” Peter rasps as Stiles gets near. “Stiles. I didn’t—I swear I didn’t bring them. I didn’t know. I didn’t—”

“He can’t walk,” Lydia mutters, hauling at Peter’s arms again. “They slashed his hamstrings.”

Stiles looks at the bloody mess that is Peter’s lower legs, then jerks around. But Kali’s gone—he can still hear her limping, frantic three-legged stumble, but she’s far enough away to make him think twice about it. Because he’d have to leave Lydia and Peter to get at her. And.

“I’m sorry,” Peter’s saying, his voice rising, going thin and weak. “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Did they give him something?” Lydia hisses, slumping as Peter abruptly slumps into her, his eyes rolling back into his head.

“Maybe,” Stiles grinds out. He stoops and gets Peter, now unconscious, over one shoulder, and then stands up. “I smell wolfsbane. Probably soaked rope in it, at least.”

Lydia purses her lips. Then she takes a handful of her wet skirts. Knots them out of the way and walks over at the same time to pick up her rifle. It’s covered in mud, probably jammed, but she tucks it under her arm and then comes back to Stiles.

“When we get to the house, I’ll get everything into the wagon and get the horses ready,” she says. “Are we going to the store or the—”

“Den,” Stiles says. “I know it’s not ready, but closer to the Nemeton’s better.”

“We should still stop by the store and send a few telegrams. I can do that if you want to drive on,” Lydia says. “Stiles…they’d gotten between me and the river. He slowed them up enough for me to reach the water.”

Stiles breathes in deep, then gives her a nod. She glances at him, then goes first, knocking the dirt out of her rifle as she goes.

* * *

Peter’s awake on and off as they head back to Beacon Hills. Feverish, muttering deliriously when he is awake. Mostly apologies, but not all of them are for Stiles—sometimes he sounds like he’s talking to his sister, telling her he didn’t mean it when he said she deserved it, he didn’t really hate the place. That he doesn’t want to go. That he’ll stay with her, stay and fight and won’t run off like her coward of a husband.

“I don’t think they brought him,” Lydia says, kneeling down to help Stiles wash Peter off and see what they’re dealing with. “He showed up from the other direction, and they looked surprised to see him. I think Ennis was even going to yell at Kali about being careless.”

“Didn’t,” Peter grunts. At first Stiles thinks he’s still talking to Talia, but then Peter jerks out of his hands, twists against the mattress and turns towards him and Peter’s eyes are lucid, if filled with agony. “Farm—farm—northwest end of town—killed the farmer, they did that and hid—locked in the cellar—”

Stiles grabs Peter’s arm again. Winces at the same time that Peter lets out a hoarse cry, but he holds onto it and pins Peter till he can bend down for a good look at the rope burns looping around it. There are a couple layers of them, crisscrossing each other. “Had him for at least a few days,” he mutters, fighting down a sneeze from the wolfsbane in the wounds.

Peter stabs his claws into the mattress and rips slits into it, struggling against spasms so vicious that Lydia barely leaps back before he’s overturned the water bucket. They’re in the one finished room of the house over the den, crowded as close as they can get to the fire blazing in the hearth, and Peter’s skin still feels like ice. But he’s shivering like it’s the height of summer; he nearly skids himself onto the plank floor, and when Stiles hauls him back, he collapses against Stiles’ chest, coughing wetly till black fluid comes up.

“His legs, the cuts, they’re going black,” Lydia says. Her voice is rising in alarm, though she’s brisk and controlled, dropping leftover burlap sacks down to soak up the water.

Stiles curses under his breath and only realizes he’s slipped into Polish when Lydia frowns at him. He doesn’t stop to explain or excuse himself, just heaves Peter onto the mattress and then pivots. “Watch him. Knock him out if you need to.”

The wolfsbane seeds are still barely sprouted, and besides, they’re all back in the general store. But Stiles does have a small bag of dried wolfsbane flowers that he and his father brought with them, all the way from their old farm. When he retrieves it from his box hidden in the Nemeton’s branches, the flowers have become so brittle they’ve crushed to powder, but a quick sniff says they’ll still work.

He barely has enough to pour into the hollow of his hand, and when Peter’s hand knocks into his leg and almost makes him spill that, he snarls furiously at the man.

Peter jerks his limbs in towards himself, even his legs, his thigh muscles bulging as they try to make up for the useless lower halves. He whines at Stiles, staring up with dazed, wandering eyes, and Stiles grimaces and rumbles a reassurance.

“I’ll get it,” Lydia says, rooting in the hearth.

She gets up with a burning ember in hand, then pauses as Stiles climbs astride Peter’s waist, putting his free hand against the back of Peter’s neck to hold the man down. When Stiles nods, she comes over and dips the ember into Stiles’ palm just long enough to set the powder to burning. Stiles bites down on his lip, feeling his skin blister from the heat, but he waits for the powder to fully catch.

Then he stoops over and shakes it quickly over the rope-marks on Peter’s arms. Peter arches and screams under him, even after Stiles snarls again. More black fluid spits up out of Peter’s mouth and dribbles from his nose, while the burns go briefly dark before running red again with fresh blood.

Stiles snaps his fangs at Peter, trying to force him to be quiet, and wrenches himself around. He’s only got a few pinches left, but he contorts till he can sprinkle those over the great slashes across Peter’s calves. Then he twists back, slamming both his hands down and digging in with his knees as Peter writhes and gasps.

It doesn’t last that long. Peter’s too weak, even with pain driving him on, and when he goes limp, Stiles isn’t panting because of the effort he had to put in, pinning the man. Stiles is doing it because of the thick, fetid smell coming up from the man’s wounds.

“It’s a good sign,” Stiles grunts, hearing Lydia move. “Good sign. Poison’s all coming out.”

“I’ll go get more water,” Lydia replies. Her voice is oddly muffled, and when Stiles glances over, he finds that she’s tied a bandana around her nose and mouth, robber-style. “Start some dinner too.”

“Save the blood, he’ll need it,” Stiles mutters as she goes out.

He gets off of Peter and then puts down one knee by the mattress, rubbing his forearm across his nose. Shakes his head, then gives up and lets the sneeze come out. The floor’s already filthy anyway, and the little bit he’s just contributed will get mopped out with the rest.

After that, he pushes the sopping burlap bags out of the way, and then hunts around till he finds the rag Lydia had been using to wipe Peter down. It’s actually not too soiled, so he carries it back. Wipes off his hands, then sits down and puts his hand on Peter’s shoulder. He’s going to shift the man to lie across his lap so he can clean out the rope burns, but Peter whimpers and Stiles stops. Then just rests his hand where it is, pulling on Peter’s pain.

“I didn’t—didn’t—no, I want you to—I need you to—” Peter mumbles, growing more agitated when Stiles tries to shush him. He rolls himself over one arm, then hisses and falls back. “Didn’t ask them to come. Just—Blackwood, he came to me, but—”

He’s not going to quiet till he says what he wants, but he’s so mush-mouthed about it that Stiles can barely make out the words. Stiles pushes his legs out before him, looking around, and finally just stretches out and grabs the coffeepot Lydia had set near the hearth. It’s nowhere near brewed, but he pours some into his hand and then holds that up to Peter’s mouth.

Peter laps at it, then tips his head so he can suck the rest from Stiles’ palm. Then he slumps against Stiles’ thigh with a pained shudder, even though Stiles twists him to keep his weight off his arms. “He was around Gerard Argent,” Peter mutters, rocking his head, trying to look up at Stiles. “Gerard didn’t have enough money for him. I didn’t—thought he was a hired—didn’t even know he was a werewolf at first. He followed me one night, asked who my alpha was—wanted to know what Gerard had to do with us.”

His hand works over the mattress till he can grasp at Stiles’ knee. He can barely hold on when Stiles swipes the rag at his arm—the bleeding’s slowing, he’s finally starting to heal—but his eyes seem to grow more frantic, brighter and more desperate as he talks.

“I thought he thought Gerard had gone after us, was a hunter,” Peter says. He pauses, licks his cracked lips. Then shakes his head as a brittle laugh spills from him. “I just—I thought I’d play to that. I swear, Stiles, I just—I wanted him to go away, to just leave the Argents to me—”

“Did you give him my name?” Stiles says.

Peter goes still except for his breathing, which goes thin and ragged, nearly a whimper. His eyes drop, then close. “I…I’m sorry, I—”

“Just say yes or no,” Stiles says. He feels Peter bunch up and thinks the man might be trying to push away, and drops his arm down across Peter’s back to keep him still.

It wasn’t that—Peter relaxes when Stiles pulls him closer, his head dropping to cradle against Stiles’ stomach. “Yes,” he says thickly. “Yes, but I—I said you’d refused to come, told him it was just me, that I was after Gerard for the sake of our pack, that Gerard had killed some of us. He said he understood and wouldn’t block my vendetta, he called it, and I thought that was it.”

Stiles sucks in his breath and Peter flinches against him. But he’s not angry at Peter, not for this, and before he thinks about it, he purrs at the man.

Peter goes very still for several seconds. His eyes are open again, but his head is turned away from Stiles and he’s facing the doorway. One of his hands splays its fingers up and back, as if he’s going to touch Stiles’ leg, and then it curls nervously away from Stiles, just as he shivers with a strained exhale. “I didn’t see him again till a couple days after you—you showed me out,” he whispers. “He was pretending he’d just been traveling through, was asking whether I’d met you again, and he had the other two with him, Kali and En—Ennis.”

His voice gets raspy and then he lets out a racking cough, doubling up on himself. Stiles wraps both arms around him, keeping him from twisting off. Then shifts the grip to around his chest when he whines at the touch on his arms. That ends up pushing Peter’s head up against Stiles’ chest; Peter’s arms drag over Stiles’ lap and then Peter tucks them up against himself, twitching as his strength fails and they gradually slide back onto Stiles’ legs.

“Wait,” Stiles says, reaching for the coffeepot.

Once he’s given Peter some more of the coffee-water, Peter lets out a long, exhausted sigh. The man’s head droops into a fold of Stiles’ shirt; Stiles is trying to put the pot down so he doesn’t really notice, to be honest. Then Peter starts again, jerking his head nearly off as he throws a panicked look up at Stiles.

“I didn’t know what he wanted but I could tell—could tell, he wasn’t here for why he was telling me he was,” Peter mutters. “I went to leave and then they—I didn’t tell them anything after that, I swear. I didn’t. I didn’t. I didn’t want you dead, Stiles, I never did, I’m sorry, I just—I lost my head, I hated it, hated myself, I’ve wished a thousand, thousand times I could have—”

“What’d they tell you?” Stiles interrupts. He presses his lips together, feeling Peter stiffen, smelling the man’s anxiety rising, but then goes on anyway. “Did they tell you anything?”

“Just—they were going to have you kill me and her,” Peter says after a long silence. He’s breathing hard, and trembling because he’s fighting to hold still. “They already knew about her, I didn’t tell them. They’d kill her first, and when you came after them, they’d have you kill me.”

Stiles nods. Just what Erica and Boyd had said and he hadn’t wanted to—he hasn’t wanted to go out since his grandmother died and his whole pack had been uprooted and gone on the run. And he’s been running and running and running ever since, and for all of that, he still feels like he hasn’t moved at all. He’s still the same terrified pup.

“I know I should have just left,” Peter goes on. “I know. What I did—tried to do—but I just…I couldn’t, not again. I stayed in town. The hotel said you two came in every couple weeks, I thought…if I waited…”

“You got out when they went for Lydia,” Stiles says.

Peter draws a ragged breath, then nods tightly as Stiles moves one hand down to his side, drawing more pain out of him. “My legs weren’t cut yet. I didn’t think I’d get there in time, but—I thought, if I was dying, one way or the other, if I at least caught them afterwards—you hate revenge, I know that, I remember that, you said—”

“I had to kill my mother,” Stiles says.

It’s suddenly very quiet. Even Peter’s breathing goes down to nearly nothing. There’s the crackle of the fire, and the night noises outside, and—Lydia’s heartbeat. She’s standing in the doorway with a bucket in either hand, and Stiles has no idea how long she’s been there.

“Grandmother called vendetta on the hunters who came after us. Usually we hide but we stayed this time—one of them wounded my mother. She was alpha after Grandmother died, but the wound went bad,” Stiles says. “She went crazy. Said we were declaring war on everybody, killing them all, she was going to get us—I had to kill her. She tried to kill my father.”

Wood creaks. It’s Lydia putting down the buckets. She meets Stiles’ eyes, her face completely expressionless, her heartbeat so regular that she’s breaking out into a sweat with the effort of keeping that calm. He can’t read her scent because the air’s filled with the smell of Peter’s wounds.

“I was alpha after that, supposed to be, but I just—my father made the decision that we’d go west.” Stiles suddenly snorts to himself. “That’s just about all he would say to me after I’d killed her. I thought he hated me and was just staying so he wouldn’t end up an omega, and…then he got wounded, and it started to go bad too, and he said. He said, give me the gun, I don’t want you to have to do it again. I’m sorry I didn’t do it for you last time. So it’s not…it’s not that I hate revenge. I’m just…just not any good at it. I know that.”

He looks away. Then looks back at Peter, checking the color of the man’s skin, listening for Peter’s heartbeat. Neither are very good, but they’re better than they were and he thinks Peter should be on the road to heal now.

“Stiles,” Peter says, as Stiles shifts him back to the mattress. “Stiles. Wait. Wait, I—”

“Here,” Lydia says, thrusting out one of the buckets at him.

She tries to drop it into his hands. He gives the bottom a sharp rap and water sloshes out, but Lydia grabs the handle again before it spills.

“Goddamn it, Stiles—” she snaps.

Then she stops. He looks at her, then goes back to bending over and picking up the pot half-filled with blood she’s left just outside the doorway. Rabbits. She must have leaned on the Nemeton to find them so quickly.

Lydia slumps a little as Stiles walks back in, carrying the pot, even though she doesn’t say anything. She hefts the water buckets, then falls in after him and puts them down by the mattress. Then she goes over to the corner and digs through their supplies till she finds some fresh rags. She’s still keeping a close eye on Stiles, but she’s relaxed enough for her exhaustion to show, dropping one rag and then picking it up, stumbling on the hem of her wet skirt as she kneels down and starts to scrub at the floor.

As for Peter, he’s so relieved that he can’t even lift his head for the blood. Stiles has to hold his chin up with one hand. Then ends up sliding a knee under it, so he can use both hands to steady Peter’s head and keep the blood from spilling out over the floor.

“I’m going to unharness the horses,” Lydia says, coming over. She deposits the last few clean rags by Stiles, then turns around.

“Be out there to help in a second,” Stiles says. Some blood runs over Peter’s cheek and onto his thumb and he wipes at it. Then lifts his hand and licks it off, and uses his now-clean thumb to rub off the remaining dribble.

“I’m sorry,” Peter says, the next time Stiles lowers the pot. “I didn’t bring them, but they must have followed me. I’m sorry, I’ve been no kind of—of anything, pack or beta or even a…even grateful…”

“You didn’t know who he was,” Stiles says after a second. He glances into the pot—there’s a mouthful left, but Peter looks a little nauseated now—and then tips the remainder into his own mouth. Then he puts the pot aside and picks up a rag, starting to wipe at Peter’s face.

Peter looks down, even as his head tilts into Stiles’ hand. “I didn’t stay to learn,” he says quietly. “I didn’t care about your family, just mine.”

For a while Stiles just works on cleaning him. They’ll have to throw out the mattress and get in something else to really take care of Peter, but he mops off the blood and filth till Peter’s at least clean enough to bandage up. Those hamstrings are such a mess that Peter won’t be able to walk for a while, he notes. If they could sew them up, that’d help, and then Stiles is trying to remember whether there are any anatomy books lying around, since he’s not sure he remembers enough from his old pack’s healer to not do it crooked.

“I wasn’t going to come back,” Peter suddenly says. “I didn’t think I could. I wanted to—I’m not lying, Stiles, I wanted to, but I don’t…I don’t go back where I’ve shit. I know that, I’m not a fool. I never have before. I know the rules for when you’ve done what I’ve done. But I—”

“I’m not going to make you leave when you’re like this,” Stiles sighs, sitting back on his heels. He looks at Peter, at the man’s face warring between sudden hope and bitter knowledge, and then away. Rubs at the side of his own face, then takes his hand down and looks at the smears on his fingertips. “Look, lie down. I need to go help Lydia get the horses settled and get things inside.”

Peter licks his lips, a half-killed, anxious noise dropping from them, but in the end he never does turn that into actual words. He just stares after Stiles, stares like he thinks any second Stiles will change his mind. And even after Stiles has stepped through the doorway and out of sight, he can feel that stare.

Chapter Text

Bed the horses down in a nearby dead-end offshoot of the ravine. Get more rabbits to bleed out for the Nemeton. Carry in things from the wagon—they’d piled up some extra hides for selling over the winter—and then hide the wagon, too.

Make dinner. Dig around and find some sacks and a spare horse blanket, and swap out the pallet under Peter, then finish washing him off. By then Peter’s slipped into a deep but restless sleep, twitching and whining as they move him around without ever coming close to waking. Lydia’s grey-faced with fatigue, her hair hanging in dull tangles around her face, but she stares at Stiles till Stiles caves and slides down next to Peter, leaving her to take the first watch.

Stiles does sleep. He took a few injuries in the fight and even though those healed by the time they reached Beacon Hills, he can still feel the ache where they’d been.

When he wakes up a few hours later, he barely meets Lydia’s eyes before they flutter shut and she falls asleep right where she’s sitting, one rifle laid over her lap and another propped up against the wall beside her. He rubs the crusts from his eyes, then pushes himself up on his elbow; he listens for a few minutes, but hears no one near them, and the Nemeton is peaceful, too.

Peter stirs when he moves. The other man’s migrated up against Stiles, curling over his drawn-up arms to rest his head against Stiles’ chest. He’s whining in his sleep again and under the blanket his legs are moving in little, irregular kicks, spasming as the flesh tries to knit. Stiles puts his hand on Peter’s shoulder and Peter’s whine rises, crests, and then falls into a long, low sigh. His curls rub up over the collar of Stiles’ shirt and crush against Stiles’ collarbone, and Stiles can feel his mouth moving silently against the cloth, mumbling something.

Stiles gives it a little longer, till he’s sure that Lydia is deeply asleep. Then he slips out of the bed; when Peter starts stirring more roughly, Stiles purrs and strokes one hand down the man’s back, and that quiets Peter. He does that twice more, getting his legs out from under the blanket, then as he’s sitting on the edge of the pallet, pulling off his shoes and clothes.

He’d left that other outfit in that bush outside of Shasta Springs, he suddenly remembers, and nearly loses hold of himself trying not to laugh. A spell to just to get rid of clothes, that’s something every werewolf would love.

Barefooted, careful to ease his weight so the boards don’t creak, Stiles gets up and goes over to Lydia. He drifts his coat down over her for a blanket and stoops to check that she has the bullets cored with mountain ash—which does grow in America, though it’s not as deadly as wolfsbane—and then he goes outside.

The Nemeton’s leaves rustle and Stiles glances that way. Then he goes up to the tree. He puts his hand on its trunk and thinks of all the mistakes he’s made, all the things he’s done that he wishes he hadn’t. All the things he hasn’t done that he wishes he had. And, last of all, he thinks about how, at the end, his mother had smiled up at him.

Then Stiles drops to his hands and knees, shifts, and circles out from the tree as a wolf.

* * *

Three people in a horse-drawn wagon travel slower than one alpha werewolf, especially if they’re not using the roads. On the other hand, Deucalion would be more cautious after Ennis’ death—and Stiles just doesn’t think Kali will have gone back to warn him either. Because she knows she’s failed, and she knows that between her and Deucalion is nothing and no one. A lone alpha is just another omega.

Some of them. Others—well, Stiles is going out because for all his mistakes, he knows about those kinds of alphas. If he’s honest with himself, he’s probably more like them.

He knows Deucalion’s coming after them. So he’s going after Deucalion first, like he should have. Like he always should have.

Just as Stiles crosses out of the Nemeton’s range, instinctively stiffening himself against the loss of that presence, he picks up a scent. He immediately slips back against the nearest tree, stretching all of his senses. Waits till he’s sure, then bunches himself back on his hindlegs. Pulls his lips away from his fangs, scratches at the tree trunk to sharpen his claws, and then—

He charges. Keeping his body low but other than that he doesn’t try to hide it, sacrifices guile for sheer speed. The woods blaze by him, blurs of greys and browns and greens, and then before him there’s a tall, broad-shouldered figure, standing with feet planted wide apart, white white teeth flashing in a hideous demonic face that splits in a booming roar just as Stiles crashes into it.

Deucalion’s strong and fast, twisting to rake his claws viciously down Stiles’ front as they fall over. Stiles gets his teeth in one arm, but just the meat of it, and the other alpha blocks the rest of his claws. Then shakes Stiles off of him, rolling away and coming back up, still roaring.

He immediately takes another swipe, but he’s two-footed and Stiles is on four, and Stiles can change direction faster than him in wolf form. Also drive in low, ramming his shoulder into Deucalion’s knee till he hears the cartilage pop. The man tumbles over his back and Stiles snarls, twisting himself around, but he’s not quick enough that time—Deucalion digs the claws of one hand deep into Stiles’ flank, hauling him backwards.

Stiles scrabbles at the ground, tearing it up in clods that fly out from either side like he’s in the middle of a tornado. Pain blooms in his other flank—Deucalion’s got him with both hands.

“If you—you think I have no pack feeling, just because—because I won’t be burdened by parasites,” Deucalion spits out, dragging Stiles inch by inch towards him. “You’re sorely mistaken. And—take one of mine, then I take one of your—”

One more second, Stiles strains to hold his place. Then he lets go.

He cannons back into Deucalion, shifting as he slides across the ground. The second he feels the man’s hair against his feet, he’s kicking out. He hits soft flesh and Deucalion lets out a scream that seems to reverberate all around them. It’s outraged to the point of hysteria, and when the man not only lets go, but tosses Stiles from him, Stiles is caught off-guard.

Ground and trees do a dizzying off-kilter spin around him, and then Stiles lands against a half-buried rock with an edge that snaps at least one rib. His legs aren’t broken, but a hot flush of pain bands his ankle as he rushes to twist around, face Deucalion again, one hand clutching his burning side. Sprain, maybe.

It doesn’t matter. He didn’t get Deucalion’s eyes but his toe-claws raked so deeply across the man’s scalp that bloody strips are hanging over Deucalion’s face. Just as good as making sure the man’s truly blind. And when Stiles forces himself up, human now, bracing back on his good foot, he scoops up a big branch too.

He throws the branch to the right, making sure it lands in a big bush that rattles madly, and at the same time he launches himself at Deucalion’s left side. Deucalion’s still yelling, his head twisting back and forth, back and forth, hands clutched over his face, and Stiles thinks—

The man whips his hands down and out, seizing Stiles just as he’s committed to the leap. Stiles can’t stop himself, seeing the claws coming at his jugular, his gut. He wrenches his head around and just ducks under Deucalion’s one hand, seizing its wrist between his teeth, but the other. He can’t do anything about the other, and Deucalion’s claws go right into his belly.

They topple over again, Stiles grinding his fangs down into Deucalion’s arm against the vicious pain tearing into his middle. When they hit the ground, then he’s got the angle to grab at Deucalion’s arm, but he’s yanking on it with all his strength and he’s still barely keeping it from moving up and completely disemboweling him. He can’t pull it out; he saws his fangs against Deucalion’s wrist-bones, choking, and the blood coming out of his mouth isn’t just Deucalion’s.

“Stiles, Stiles, you fool,” Deucalion hisses at him. Trying to kick them over, put Stiles under him. When Stiles gets a foot on his leg and pins them where they are, he gasps, eyes flaring red—and focused on Stiles—and then throws his head back in a wild laugh. “Who are you doing this for? For your faithless beta? He left you. Went against you, didn’t give you anything but pain, and for all that you gave him—”

He’s bleeding out slower than Stiles is. Even if Stiles managed to bite his hand completely off, he wouldn’t bleed out fast enough. Stiles is thinking that and halfway through Deucalion musters up enough strength to drag his claws a fraction further up Stiles’ front. It’s not even an inch, but it still feels like he’s done it with red-hot pokers.

“—why wouldn’t you just take that back?” Deucalion’s saying. “Take it back, take it from that ungrateful—”

Stiles spits out Deucalion’s wrist. The effort rocks him and Deucalion tries to capitalize, kicking out against the ground. They wrestle back and forth and then Stiles just—drives himself deeper onto Deucalion’s claws, giving up an agonizing inch so he can pry one hand off Deucalion’s arm and strike the man in the face. Claws out. He aims for the eyes.

Howling, Deucalion twists his head aside. He does just enough to send Stiles’ claws raking over his cheekbone instead, but as his claws leave Stiles’ belly, they hook around and then rip out. Stiles can’t pounce after him as the man rolls away, can barely hold himself up to slap his arm across his middle and that doesn’t even begin to stem the bleeding.

So he doesn’t. He lets himself flop over and his arm goes out and he just gets Deucalion’s calf, just enough to sink in his claws to the bone. He sees the kick coming and doesn’t fight it. Uses it to pull himself up again, and then he wrenches his entire body around to dislocate Deucalion’s knee.

“It’s not your pack,” he snarls over Deucalion’s scream. He has to let go when Deucalion kicks again and he heaves himself backwards, baring his fangs as the other man coils around to face him. “Not your fight, not your beta and not your call what I do about it, any of it.”

Deucalion’s enraged. He’s breathing like a bull before a charge, his eyes the reddest Stiles has ever seen. His face isn’t shifted except for the fangs, but there’s a disturbing black tinge to the skin, as if it’s just tissue-paper over his real face, and the rot in his scent has blossomed into a stench so overwhelming Stiles almost is glad so much of his own blood’s spilled out, giving him a distraction.

And then Deucalion goes calm. His eyes fade to milky white again, his fangs disappear. He even smiles. “Stiles. Stiles, this is silly. You can’t possibly care that much for him. He tried to kill you, didn’t he?”

“I’m still not killing him for you,” Stiles snaps.

He’s just bleeding so much. His arm is shaking from holding himself up and it’s going to fail any second. He’s got time for one more lunge, he thinks. That’s—

Deucalion lunges at him. Stiles jerks backward, then corrects himself, but it’s too late, he’ll have to take claws to his chest and maybe even his neck, he’ll just have to let them rip and hope his jaws get to the man’s throat in time but he isn’t sure and.

The air cracks and Deucalion, eyes widened with surprise, slews just a little to the side. Just enough that his claws skate across Stiles’ arm instead of into his chest, giving Stiles that inch of space he needs to tuck his head in and stab his fangs into Deucalion’s throat.

Stiles doesn’t close down. There are too many things in the way, limbs holding them apart, and anyway they’re tumbling over again. He lets that roll yank the flesh against his fangs, tearing it open for him, and then he gets his knee up against Deucalion and shoves the man away from him.

Deucalion bounces once, then falls half-onto his side. He’s got both hands grabbing at his throat, bloody froth on his lips as more blood seeps out from between his fingers. He’s trying to snarl but it’s all garbled, all wet and popping—Stiles must have hit his windpipe—and anyway his eyes are doing enough of the talking. He’s furious. He knows now that whatever he says, whatever he does, all he’ll get from Stiles is more of the same.

But he’s still so damn strong. Even with his throat ripped open, he somehow staggers onto one knee. Stiles can’t get up. Can barely even keep his eyes on Deucalion. His vision keeps fading, black edges closing in, and he has to keep blinking it clear.

Deucalion gets onto his other knee, and then he heaves himself forward, his lips peeled back from his fangs.

He catches up against something. Thin and dark, fragile-looking, snaking across his chest, and when he looks down, a second dark line loops across his arm. He chokes, twists, and suddenly a whole net of it’s coming over him. Tree roots, lacing over themselves, growing so thick they look like a shirt in the time it takes for Deucalion to cough out a stunned noise.

It goes—strange for a second. It’s like they’re somewhere else—like they’re back at the Nemeton, but it’s not quite the same place. The den’s not there, the woods are a little different. All black trunks, not the mix of browns and whites, black skeletal trees in a sea of white mist. And the Nemeton’s the biggest and blackest of all, looming up behind a struggling, gurgling Deucalion, branches heavy with bloody, bloody leaves reaching down to meet the black roots till suddenly, Deucalion’s gone.

Stiles blinks. Gone, the man’s gone, and so is the Nemeton, and now there’s…somebody else.

“Shit,” says Chris Argent, rifle in one hand, the other reaching towards Stiles’ face.

“Wha—what are you—” Stiles tries to say, and he can’t finish because all the dark catches up with him right then.

Chapter Text

It’s very blurry after that. Snatches of conversation, mostly. Lydia ordering somebody to do things. Argent talking about train schedules and bullet calibers. Two of them arguing about the best way to sew on a button, for some reason.

He doesn’t really recall Peter saying anything, but there’s a heartbeat all through it, sometimes slow and steady, sometimes wild as a trapped bird. It underlies everything, and it’s not till Stiles wakes up that it recedes off to the side and he realizes it’s not his own.

Stiles is stuffed up against the base of the Nemeton, curled on his side over a pile of grass-stuffed sacks. His body feels like so much wet newspaper, twisted together, and he smells like he’s been living in a mass grave for months. It’s so bad that he snuffles and sniffs himself into something soft and slightly better-smelling, and then fully realizes that he’s lying next to another person, smashing his face into their hair.

Peter. The man’s tucked up against Stiles, his head resting on Stiles’ arm, their legs tangled together. Both of them have shirts on but no trousers, though Peter has something on his legs that fools Stiles for a second—thick bandages, looking like that’s what happened to all the pants. He smells…weak, sick, enough blood in the scent to tell Stiles that not all of his wounds have finished closing up.

“Couple days at most,” Stiles mutters, just as his ears belatedly let him know somebody’s walking up to him.

“One day,” Lydia snaps at him. She’s carrying a basket heaped high with damp-looking laundry, and moves to brace it against her hip so she can jab her finger at Stiles. “It took the Nemeton an entire day to put your insides together, Stiles, because—”

“Yeah, I know, that’s why I sneaked out,” Stiles snaps back. Beside him, Peter makes a startled noise and moves a little and then freezes—while behind Lydia, Chris Argent looks on with a second basket of laundry and a very carefully blank face. “Do you really think I’d tell you first if I was going to be stupid?”

Lydia stares at him, her mouth open, but nothing comes out except for the odd angry exhale. Her eyes, on the other hand…Stiles doesn’t remember banshee powers including death by look, but they’re not that far off.

“Look, I just—it was stupid but we weren’t going to have time for smart and I’m the alpha,” Stiles says, pushing himself up on his arms. His hand rolls over the uneven roots prodding through the sacks and he slips, falls back against the tree. Stifles his grunt and then pretends he didn’t hear the concerned noise from Peter. “If anybody’s going to—I had to fix it anyway. I could’ve fixed it earlier, I should’ve. I just…I just can’t be the one always watching people die, all right?”

“There are so many things I could say about that,” Lydia says after a long, seething moment. But she’s not quite as angry as she was before; it shows in how she’s grinding her teeth, actually giving in to her frustration. She takes a step forward, then one back. Then she raises her hand again. “When you’re better. But next time, Stiles, I will chop you up and feed you to the damn tree.”

“Lydia,” Peter says sharply. He actually smells a little alarmed, like he half-believes her.

She doesn’t even look at him. Just stabs her finger in the air as she turns away, marching back towards their house. One stab for Stiles, then one for the sky. “Chopped up!” she repeated. “Chopped!”

“She’s not bad with an ax,” Argent says, glancing after her.

Peter snarls a warning, though he remains lying where he is. He’s probably going to say something too, but Stiles pushes himself up against the trunk and Peter instead opts to twist around so he can look up at Stiles.

“What are you doing here, again?” Stiles mutters, putting his hand to his head. He’s dizzy—whatever the tree did, it probably didn’t help much with replacing the blood he lost. His hand does stray to his belly, touching the whole, unbroken muscles twitching under his shirt, but then he has to put it up with the other hand to steady himself. “You were—”

“Tracking Blackwood,” Argent fills in. “Like you wanted.”

“Well, you took your time about it,” Peter says under his breath.

The muscle in Argent’s cheek flexes, but he doesn’t really acknowledge the sarcasm. “It was hard catching up with the whole gang of them. Erica and Boyd split off back at Mount Shasta to go after a couple, while I stuck with Blackwood, but my horse threw a shoe and I got delayed. Got in right when Lydia realized you’d gone.”

Things are getting a little bit straighter, though Stiles still isn’t sure if he’s up to walking to get some water. “She did something with the tree, right?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t see it,” Argent says. “As soon as she figured out I wasn’t here to shoot her, she yanked my horse’s head around and said ride like hell that way till I saw the fighting. She did have some kind of book out, and was smearing her bloody hand over the trunk.”

If that was the spell Stiles thinks it was, they owe the Nemeton something big. Bear-sized, maybe, and soon. Deucalion alone probably wasn’t enough—anyway, for all Stiles knows, he might’ve tasted like he smelled, and if so, the Nemeton probably thinks they owe it extra for forcing him down anyway. “So you’re all right with all of this?”

Argent’s silent long enough for Stiles to make himself look up. He almost looks down right away, because Peter’s edging back against his legs, shoulders hunching like…like Peter’s trying to shield Stiles. Though Argent’s not looking threatening; he even rewraps his hands around the basket, making them more visible.

The man just looks like he’s giving the question a good amount of consideration, which honestly, seems like a reasonable thing to do. “Well, my problem with my father wasn’t about magic and witches. It was that he wasn’t driven by anything but his own greed. And from what Erica and Boyd told me, Blackwood was more of the same.”

“They’d know better than me, I guess,” Stiles says, rubbing at his head. “I wasn’t really trying to listen to him. They all right? You said they went after—”

“I think they can handle them, but I was going to head into Shasta Springs and send a couple messages to a few sheriffs I know,” Argent says. “Nothing about werewolves, just a heads-up. Lydia says Kali might’ve gotten away, and the woman does have a bounty on her head.”

Stiles lifts his hands from his own head and carefully nods. He still doesn’t feel too well, but the world isn’t spinning anymore. “Yeah. Yeah. Oh, you can’t get Deucalion’s now, could—”

“I was going to check on whether he’d left any of his things when I headed to town. It’s not the same as a body, but I have a decent reputation and it might be enough,” Argent says. From the house, Lydia calls out and Argent takes a half-step towards it. Then he pauses. “I’ll ask after your luggage, too, and bring anything back with me.”

That’s to Peter, who is still angling himself between Stiles and Argent, but who doesn’t smell surprised. Peter nods a little tightly, then forces out a thank-you.

Argent doesn’t push the point, just dips his head towards Stiles and then pivots to walk up to the house. Lydia meets him at the door and takes the basket from him, then pulls him inside by the arm, telling him to finish mopping while she hangs things to dry.

“You all right with him?” Stiles says.

Peter starts, then looks over his shoulder. His scent had been full of irritation, but now it’s sliding towards nervous. He licks his lips and gets halfway through an answer, then stops himself. Works to turn completely to face Stiles, pushing himself up against a root for a back-rest. “I don’t think I’d ever choose to be friends with one of that family,” he says, pausing every couple words. “Even if he got around to killing his father, it still wasn’t in time for my family. But I do…I do owe him a debt. He says he shot Deucalion and slowed him down before he could finish you off—that may or may not be true—”

“Oh,” Stiles says, blinking. “Oh. That makes sense, that’s why he flinched.”

A little bit of a disgruntled look creeps onto Peter’s face. He glances at the house, pursing his mouth. Then he shakes himself and looks back at Stiles. “Anyway. I’d owe Argent alone for carrying you back in time. Your heart stopped just as we got you on the roots, and…and I…I don’t think I…”

Peter gets very shaky. His voice and his hands—he pulls them off the ground and shoves them into the folds of his shirt, but the way the cloth shivers just makes it more obvious.

“I can’t say I’m not happy Blackwood’s dead, Stiles,” he says after a moment. His voice has gone from trembling to thick. “And I haven’t earned the right to ask anything of you. But if the price is seeing you die, that just…isn’t one I’m willing to pay.”

His eyes had dropped, but they’re lifting again and Stiles can’t meet them so he ducks and rubs at his temple again, even though the dizziness seems to be gone for good. “I just was trying to be alpha, for once,” he mumbles into his arm. “I’m not—I’m not g—”

“I don’t think we were ever a real pack,” Peter says quietly. He pauses, then lets out a short, constricted laugh. “Not that I’m an expert, of course, but…can we try now? Because I do—I do want one, Stiles. I want a pack. I don’t—I shouldn’t presume that you do, or that you’d want me in it, but…”

“Yeah,” Stiles says. Then he grimaces, swiping at his mouth with his hand as he looks back at Peter. “No, I mean…no. I do want one. I’m—I know it doesn’t always look like it, but I don’t want to do this alone. And…yeah. I wasn’t really—I wasn’t prepared when I found you. It wasn’t only your fault.”

Peter breathes out like it pains him, but his eyes are suddenly bright. And then nervous again, flicking over Stiles’ face. He searches and searches and finally starts to relax again; the hope comes back into his face but it’s so very fragile, Stiles almost thinks a blink would kill it.

“Well,” Peter finally says. He sounds as if he thinks the same, and every so often he flinches like he’s afraid he’s seen a crack. “Then I’ll stay.”

The way he lilts the last word, it’s a cross between a plea and an affirmation. Stiles fidgets, catches himself, and then makes himself sit for another second, just so it’s clear that he’s not running off just again. He’s just…he knows he wants pack, but he hasn’t gotten better at keeping it while he was lying on the Nemeton’s roots. He’s going to have to work at it.

And he needs some water, he thinks, as a swallow sticks so much that he has to cough into his hand. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Peter twitch and he hides his grimace in his hand. Waves his other one, then puts it on Peter’s shoulder as he heaves his back up the Nemeton’s trunk. “Water,” he mutters. “Throat’s dry.”

Some of the anxiety clears out of Peter’s face. “Oh. Oh, yes, you have to be…”

And then Peter tries to get up. His whole body goes stiff with pain, locking up for the brief second it takes for his limp lower legs to slide out from under him. Stiles barely catches him by the waist in time to keep him from cracking his head against the tree. “No, what are you doing…lie down, I can smell your legs bleeding again, I can get—”

“You just almost died,” Peter grunts. He’s not exactly fighting Stiles off, but he keeps craning his head around, trying to look around Stiles to a…there’s a bucket a few yards away.

“Well, I’m not dead now, and my legs are fine,” Stiles says. “Would you just listen—”

He gets a little sharp without thinking. Not till Peter winces, scent suddenly flooded with remorse and stinging fear, head and shoulders dropping in submission. Stiles presses his lips together and lowers the man, and then tries to figure out what to say.

“If he’s going to rip out his stitches again, you two might as well come back in,” Lydia calls out. She’s standing in the doorway of the house. “The bedding’s not dry but you can at least clean the dirt off yourselves.”

“Yeah, fine, be right over,” Stiles calls back. He pauses to catch his breath, then staggers past Peter for the water bucket.

His limbs don’t quite feel like they belong to him, all the joints a little off, but that’s cramp, that will eventually work itself out. The water helps a lot, and after he’s had a drink, he splashes it on his face. Then he grabs the bucket and takes it back with him.

“I’m fine,” Peter says, when he realizes Stiles did that for his benefit.

Stiles leans against the tree, feeling the sweat trickle down his neck. “You don’t smell like it. And I need to take it inside anyway, and it’ll be less heavy if you drink some.”

Peter looks like he’s not sure whether to be bemused or nervous, but he obligingly bends over and slurps up some water.

“Did I…did I ever get around to talking about lying, and that we can tell that better than humans?” Stiles says.

“Ah,” Peter says, startling a little. He looks up, water dripping down his chin, and then wipes that off with his hand. “No, though I…I did gather a few things, when I was on my own. But it’s probably not even close to what I should know.”

Stiles nods absently, bending over to pick up the bucket. He has another drink, then uses the remaining water to slosh some mud off his hands. Then he slips his arm through the handle, braces himself against the tree, and holds his hand out towards Peter.

“I didn’t really lie to you before,” Peter says, looking at it. He sucks his breath a bit, then lifts his hand and wraps it around Stiles. “But I’ll be—I’ll be honest now.”

“You need to learn how to lie,” Stiles grunts, pulling him up. The second Peter’s weight comes off his knees, he throws his arm around the other man and then stoops to get Peter over his shoulder. “Deucalion’s not the only rogue alpha out there, and some of the hunters know the tricks. It’ll keep you alive.”

Peter is…is heavy. Heavier than Stiles remembers, and Stiles can’t drop him, can’t bring himself to do that even before he hears Peter gritting his teeth, smells the fresh pain washing into Peter’s scent.

The house isn’t that far away, but Stiles has to give up and set Peter and the bucket down on the porch. Then he slumps lower down on the front steps, panting. He hears Peter crawling over to him, asking him something in a worried tone, and tries to wave the man off, only to end up batting the thin air about a foot to the left.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Lydia says. She comes out, looks at them, and then grabs Stiles’ outflung arm and hauls him up the steps by it.

Peter growls at her and Stiles snarls back, and then regrets it when he sees how sharply Peter flinches. He’d say something, but Lydia isn’t letting up on his arm. In fact, she drags him all the way inside, and doesn’t let go till he’s been shoved up against one of the completed walls. Only then does she walk off, muttering to herself about men and stoics and idiocy. She pauses to straighten one of the sheets strung on the lines running back and both between the walls, then slips around them to where Chris is preparing a meal, from the smell.

“She’s very…” Peter says, crawling through the doorway. He looks up at Stiles and hesitates, the slight flash of humor dying out of his face.

Stiles straightens himself up against the wall, then swings his arm out to help Peter over. “She can be a little pushy,” he says.

The side of Peter’s mouth quirks a little, but it’s not till he’s wrapped a tentative hand around Stiles’ wrist that he seems to fully relax. Between the two of them, he manages to slide himself against the wall to the spot next to Stiles; he overshoots a little, bumping Stiles’ hip, and mumbles an apology before reaching down to adjust his lower legs.

“I just want to know—” Stiles starts.

But Lydia comes back just then, carrying two tin cups filled with duck blood that she deposits into their hands. She turns around without a word and marches back to where Chris is, and then starts telling him he needs to cut smaller pieces.

“He’s more even-tempered than I would’ve given his family credit for, I’ll give him that,” Peter observes.

Stiles snorts and just glimpses a small smile on Peter’s face. He swirls the cup a few times, so any clots will break up, and then takes a sip from it. Then he stares down into the blood, wrapping both hands around his cup and trying not to sigh too heavily. “Look, I don’t…I don’t like being lied to, but I’m not—I don’t want you to die because I didn’t teach you something that important. And it wasn’t just you, I know I was bad at telling you things and it was on purpose and—even if that’s not a lie, it’s close enough. So I’ll work on that if you just…just don’t lie because you think it’s what you want me to hear, that’s all I want.”

When he looks up, Peter’s gone sober. The man purses his lips a couple times as if to say something, and once he even sucks in his breath for it, but he doesn’t actually speak up. He nods a little, then takes another breath.

“I think you had valid reason to keep things to yourself. I thought I did too, but…agreed, that isn’t the way to do this in the long run,” Peter finally says. “So I’ll take that deal. And I meant it when I said I’d learn whatever you’d like me to. Even lying.”

“I don’t think that that’s going to be that bad for you,” Stiles says.

For a second Peter goes still. But then, just as Stiles is cursing himself for the terrible, ill-timed joke, Peter gives him a smile. It’s a little tight, and from the way Peter’s drawing himself up, he’s about to be serious again, but even bitter humor is humor.

“From what Lydia says, I gather you’ve heard something of my history by now,” Peter says. He has to brace his shoulder against the wall to be able to raise his cup to his lips. “I’ll admit I’ve never been on the side of the angels, much to my sister’s dismay.”

“Well, we’re werewolves, we aren’t much like angels either,” Stiles says. He drinks some more of his blood, then reaches out and helps hold up the bottom of Peter’s cup as the tremor in Peter’s hands gets worse. “I mean, we fight a lot and. Uh.”

“Try and kill each other,” Peter finishes, as Stiles grimaces and fidgets. His tone is mostly calm, except for a sharp twist at the end that seems more aimed at himself. He drops his eyes to his cup, his arms shifting in towards himself. Then takes a deep breath and looks back at Stiles, anxiety permeating his scent. “I fought with my family. I won’t—I don’t want to lie to you about that. But I…when I had to choose between them and the rest of the world, I always chose them. And I promise I’ll regard you and Lydia the same way. I’ll learn how to be pack, I swear it.”

For all his nerves, his gaze is almost too steady for Stiles to bear. Maybe it’s how…it’s certain because Peter’s certain that he has no other choices, and that doesn’t sit well with Stiles. He’s still the same inexperienced alpha he was before Peter returned; he’s just been lucky that Lydia neither wants nor needs somebody to show her how the world works. So the idea of him being the only possible road just…it doesn’t seem true, at the very least.

But if he’s going to be any better this time around, he’s going to have to stop cutting Peter off when the man’s trying to tell him something, even if he doesn’t want to hear it. And—he really does want to be better. He really does want another time. When he’d first found Peter, he hadn’t had any idea what he wanted. Couldn’t even bring himself to ask that question. But then…he’d been moving towards that little by little with Lydia, and somewhere, in between his fight with Deucalion and waking up just now, he thinks he’s finally come to terms with it.

He wants to live. His old pack’s all dead and it still twists his heart to think about them, but he wants to live, and he wants a new pack. He wants—he wants to see if maybe, he’ll be happy with people besides his family.

Also, he thinks, catching Peter’s cup just as it finally slips from Peter’s shaking hand—he wants to see what it’s like when they’re not healing up from something or the other. “Well, first, I think we should probably just rest before Lydia gets out the ax,” he mutters.

Peter hesitates, then smiles. And then stops as Stiles holds his own cup out to the man. “You should—”

“I’m going to get more, you just finish that off since I can get up,” Stiles says, wiggling the cup in Peter’s face.

The smallest trace of irritation passes over Peter’s face, and oddly, that makes Stiles feel better about him and about them than Peter’s apologies do. Maybe because it tells him that despite everything, Peter still seems to have a will of his own. He hasn’t completely lost himself out there, either with revenge or with lack of a pack.

“We could call one of them over,” Peter says, reluctantly taking the cup. He shifts a little as Stiles rises, like he’s going to try despite his legs, and then throws out one arm, eyes widening, as Stiles wavers a little. “We should—”

“I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m just—cramping,” Stiles mutters, steadying himself against the wall. He leans away from it, cautiously lifts his hand, and then takes a step. “I’ll be right back, all right, and I’ll drink my cup in front of you. Look, I promise I’m not going to run off right now.”

Peter almost says something, but just stops himself. Still, his expression says it all for him. Especially when Stiles does come back with the new cup, and he looks so relieved his whole face actually sags. He doesn’t even protest when Stiles splashes a little more blood into his cup.

Stiles sits down next to him and sips at the blood. After a second, Peter shifts to do the same. He’s still too weak to keep the cup to his mouth, so he pushes up his leg to brace his arm. But then that starts to tremble, and finally Stiles scoots over so the other man can lean on him. Peter’s heartbeat startles and he flicks a look at Stiles, but he doesn’t move away. He’s stiff for a few seconds, and then he relaxes into it.

* * *

Once the laundry’s dry, Lydia and Chris throw together a pallet and Lydia stares till Stiles and Peter get on it and sleep.

Stiles does need it, and anyway, he should stay near Peter till the man’s healed. That’s the least an alpha can do to help an injured packmate. But he also knows that they owe the Nemeton a big meal, and then there’s got to be—Deucalion was walking around right in town, they can’t just have him disappear. And who knows if he bothered to clean up Ennis’ body.

“And at least one of us told you, Chris is going to deal with all of that,” Lydia tells him. “So don’t even think about going out.”

She must have slept at some point, because she doesn’t look quite so haggard, and the pallet next to her is rumpled like somebody was lying on it. But she’s still pretty sharp when she speaks to him, and the way she’s ripping up the sheet in her lap for bandages, you’d think the sheet had ruined her life.

“So he’s going to clean up after Deucalion and find us something to feed the tree,” Stiles mumbles, snaking himself towards the end of his pallet.

Peter’s snugged up against him again, and this time even has an arm lying across Stiles. He wiggles out from under that, but nudges his leg under Peter’s head when the man begins to stir. Then gives Lydia an annoyed look, stretching for the bucket of water and pointedly sitting back once he’s got hold of it.

She just tosses him a scrap to use for wiping off his head and neck and hands. “Well, if he can’t manage it, then I’ll deal with it. And him,” she says.

Her voice goes so sharp that even sleeping, Peter moves uneasily. They both look down at Peter, and then Stiles wipes the water from his eyes just in time to catch Lydia’s expression change.

“Are you…” Stiles fidgets with the wet rag “…do you have any problem with him? Being here?”

Lydia regards him in silence for a few seconds. Then one of the logs on the hearth cracks and falls apart, sending up a shower of popping sparks. Her eyes go to the fire, though she doesn’t start. Then she sighs and gets up onto her knees, reaching for a poker to push the wood back into a neat pile, and the way she moves, slow and heavy, tells Stiles she hasn’t caught up enough on her sleep.

“You know, you’ve never told me exactly what happened with you two. I could guess, from the way you were when we first met, but you’ve never told me,” Lydia says. She gives the fire a last stir and then sets the poker aside. Then she pulls herself onto the second pallet, tucking her legs under her skirt. “Oh, no, you—Peter talked about it, while you were healing.”

Stiles blinks. “Oh. Oh…so…uh, he said…”

“He didn’t cover himself in glory, in his version, so I actually tend to believe it,” she goes on. “So you don’t need to tell me. Though if you ever care to, I’d be interested—what I don’t believe is how faultless you came off.”

“Oh,” Stiles says again. Mostly because she keeps staring at him, and he can’t leave Peter so he thinks he’d better say something.

Lydia reaches behind her head, looses her hair, and then pulls the tail around to start combing it out with her fingers. “Look, Stiles. On its face, is trusting someone who once tried to kill you a wise idea? No. But if I have learned one thing about you, and believe me, learning anything has been one of the greatest agonies of my life—it’s that on the face is never the end of it. I don’t believe he’s going to try to kill you again. I don’t think he’s going to kill me either, now that he understands we aren’t intimate in that way.”

Stiles twitches, then coughs a little, trying to loosen up his throat. He cocks his head but Peter’s heartbeat is still good and slow, sleeping deep. “Wasn’t I out just one day?”

“Well, he talks a lot when he’s upset,” Lydia says. “And is almost as big of an idiot as you. Before I got through to him that we could use the Nemeton to heal you, he was saying we should just shove him chest-first onto your hand so you could use that to heal yourself.”

This time, Stiles can’t keep it to a cough. He actually jerks up from the wall—accidentally knees Peter in the face, though luckily, it’s not too hard. Peter grunts, cracks his eyes open, and just starts to look and smell anxious when Stiles slithers back down by him, purring madly and folding one hand over his jaw to take away the pain.

“Sorry, sorry,” Stiles mutters between purrs.

Peter looks confused, in a hazy kind of way, but he’s either tired enough or soothed enough that he drifts right back asleep. In the meantime, Lydia’s gotten up and gone to the fire to take off the coffeepot. She retrieves a pair of cups and pours herself and Stiles a drink, then sets the coffeepot back on the hearth.

Then she comes and sits down on the floor right beside Stiles and Peter’s mattress. She’s smelled frustrated this whole time, but it’s risen and ebbed, and right now it’s at an ebb. Her face isn’t showing much anger either, but for some reason Stiles doesn’t think he can rely on that.

“Would that even work?” Lydia says. “I know alphas can heal, if they give up their power, but the other way around?”

“Well, he’d die, that’d be a big difference. Blackwood must have put that idea in his head, damn him,” Stiles mutters. He sniffs at the coffee, then drinks it. Then he jerks his head up, but Lydia’s just shifting the water bucket away from the pallet. “Look, I think you’re still mad at me, and I’m sorry. It was stu—”

Lydia takes a deep, deep breath, and for a second her hair isn’t just red, it’s blazing fire, and her eyes are golden as a hawk’s, and her skin is shining white like the moon. She’s unearthly, beautiful and death incarnate. “Stiles, telling me it was stupid is being stupid. But that wasn’t stupid, what you did,” she says in icy tones. “That was trying to die. You could at least be honest about it.”

“I—yeah. Yeah, I know—I was. You’re right,” Stiles says after a long second. He twists his fingers in something, realizes he’s playing with Peter’s hair, and makes himself stop. And look back up at her. “I just…I was a terrible alpha, and I was going to get you all killed again. And I just couldn’t think of anything else.”

She’s human again. Just human, sitting there with a battered metal cup cradled in her hands, faint bloodstains not quite washed out of her sleeves and dark circles under her eyes. Human and somehow, the way she looks at him, tired and understanding and still angry, it’s both more comfortable and more uncomfortable than when she’d let the full force of her banshee side show.

“Well, then you need to stop,” she tells him. She puts her hand down as if to get up, then stops. “We’re all terrible at things, Stiles. Chris’ father was a horrible man, Peter here tried to kill the man who saved him, I blackmailed my way into a pack…we’re terrible. But the point is not to stay that way.”

“Yeah, I know,” Stiles says again. He takes a deep breath. “I wasn’t going to try and be that way again. I won’t try.”

Lydia searches his face, frowning so hard that he feels a little like her gaze is rummaging up into his clothes. Her lips tighten for a second and he opens his mouth—but then she nods and stands.

“And so you know, I don’t think you were that bad,” Stiles says to her back. “You did a deal. Lots of people do those.”

“Yes, well, even if you take a charitable view, it still wasn’t particularly clever,” she mutters. She picks up her half-made bandages, then sighs and starts to roll them up together. “Treating a pack as if it’s a partnership, when werewolves are always a messy business.”

“So it’s nice that it’s not a business now,” Stiles says. He hesitates because she hesitates, her hands tangled in the bandages. “It’s pack. Right?”

Lydia slowly jerks back into motion. Shakes her head, sets the bandages aside on a crate, and then she lies down and pulls the blanket over her. “Stiles,” she murmurs, shooting him one last look as her eyes narrow in sleep. “I am still mad at you.”

“I know,” he says. He reaches down to tug his blanket up too, and then puts his hand back on Peter, drawing on the man’s pain; he’d only half-noticed how Peter was tensing up, but he sees now how much Peter relaxes. “And I’m glad. Honestly.”

She looks at him through slitted eyes, then snorts. Tucks her head down into the blanket and goes to sleep. And so does he after a few more seconds. Smiling.

Chapter Text

Once Stiles gets a couple good meals into him, his healing picks up and he’s back on his feet. But Peter’s slower to recover, especially with his hamstrings. Chris had done his best to stitch them up, but as they heal and tighten, it becomes obvious that they aren’t properly aligned and Stiles has to make nocks in them to straighten them out.

Even then, it’s trial and error. Peter insists that he understands and that he’d rather be able to fully heal than have to tolerate a limp, but Stiles hates having to keep hurting him.

“Well, next time Chris goes into Shasta Springs, we’ll see whether our agents found any spare anatomy texts in Sacramento,” Lydia reminds him.

Stiles nods, and then gives the moose they’re skinning an extra-hard rake with his claws. He hears Peter try out a purr behind him and slows down, then shakes his head. Regrips the hide and looks over at Chris, who’s silently working his knife around the other leg. “So just how much longer are you going to be around here?”

Lydia suddenly smells very irritated, but before Stiles can look at her, Chris twists around and glances at him. “If I’m imposing,” Chris starts.

“No, that’s not what I meant,” Stiles says. “I mean—look, you saved me, helped kill Deucalion, you’ve pretty much earned a welcome for as long as you want one. I’m just wondering because—well, don’t you have more of your father’s men to chase down? Or Erica and Boyd to get to?”

“Blackwood was the last one,” Chris says. He’s calmer than when Stiles first met him. Still isn’t much for conversation, but that seems to be more his natural inclination rather than his need to keep tight rein on boiling hatred of his father. When he goes back to skinning the deer, he works with slow, meditative movements. “Erica and Boyd made it back to their territory, they sent a wire. Didn’t ask for me, so I don’t think they need me. And I guess I don’t have much else to occupy my time at the moment.”

Stiles gives his end of the hide a last tug, then flips it over and lets it hang off the carcass. He steps back to let Chris finish up, then turns around and goes up to the porch; Peter nudges a bucket of water his way and he starts rinsing off his hands and arms and face. “Really?”

“Well, my father had my farm burned down, not much I could do with that except sell it,” Chris grunts. He looks like he’s concentrating on the moose, but Stiles blinks the water away just in time to catch the man eyeing Lydia. “Didn’t get a lot, and spent it all on bullets. I could find some bounties to go after, build up a stake again, but I didn’t get into the business because of the money.”

“It’s not like we can’t use the extra hand,” Lydia says, speaking as much to Stiles as to Chris. Her scent’s still a little prickly, and it actually increases when she catches Chris glancing her way. “Summer isn’t that long here and I do not want to spend another winter in a storage room. We’ve just about the time to get on a roof and plaster everything.”

“The den’s pretty warm as it is, but you said you wanted a wood floor,” Stiles says. He does his best to keep a straight face as Lydia glowers at him. “And piped water. We still haven’t figured out how we’re going to do a water tower around here.”

Lydia is peeling potatoes for dinner, and somehow manages to send one peeling shooting across the porch to bounce off the bucket. It’s just a peeling, but it hits with enough force to make a crisp twinging sound. “Forgive me if I prefer to take advantage of the fact that we’ve advanced well beyond primitive cave living.”

Stiles laughs as he goes to dip his hands into the bucket again, but a movement off to the side catches his attention. He and Lydia both look over at Chris, who shuffles his shoulders, a little chagrined, and then clears his throat. “You need an engineer, I might know somebody,” he says.

“An engineer?” Lydia repeats, leaning forward on her crate.

“Well, he—him and his father, they were working for one of the railroads when I ran into him. I don’t know if he knows about water towers, but he knows about drains and piping,” Chris goes on, looking like he’s regretting speaking up the more he does speak. “He’s about your age, I think. No family.”

“But you just said you’d met his father,” Peter says.

Chris hesitates again, glancing down at where his knife’s sticking into the moose. “Yeah, I did, that’s how I know he doesn’t have any more family. I watched him kill his father.”

“I take it from the fact that you’re recommending him that you don’t hold that against him,” Stiles says after a second. Peter’s giving him a concerned look and Lydia is staring too, but he ignores both of them.

“Well, it was an accident—Isaac was just grabbing whatever was there and that happened to be a hammer. And anyway, the son of a bitch deserved it. Mean drunk whaling on his kid,” Chris says. He’s steadier about that, and then he gets a little awkward again. “I was staying at the same boardinghouse and I just…didn’t think the sheriff was going to give the kid a fair shake, so I helped with the body and then took him along for a few towns. He wasn’t fond of shooting matches and that’s what I had going most days, so I dropped him off with a sheriff I did trust. But I doubt he’s settled in. I could wire him and he’d probably get here in about a week.”

Stiles shakes some water off his hands, then pulls himself up to sit on the edge of the porch. He looks himself over and spots a few drying streaks of blood on his chest, and scoops out some water to sluice those off. A footstep makes him look up and he meets Lydia’s eyes; she’s abandoned the potatoes to fold her arms over her chest. She’s expectant for some reason, and when he shrugs at her, expectant and irritated.

“That going to do for the piping?” Stiles finally mutters. “It’s not like we were getting any good responses to our inquiries.”

“And that’s all you care about?” she says, her brows rising.

Peter lets out an annoyed noise, too low for human ears—not too low for Lydia’s hearing, but aside from a dismissive wiggle of her fingers, she ignores him. Just keeps staring at Stiles, who isn’t sure what she wants and doesn’t…well, even if Chris is being helpful, Stiles still doesn’t want to ask things in front of him like does she think Stiles is going to dislike other people for killing their parents, and how does that make any sense. Stiles knows she thinks he has a few screws loose about certain things, but he didn’t think she actually thought he was an idiot.

“You wouldn’t bring him up if he’s a churchgoer who’ll think we’re soldiers of the Devil, right?” Stiles says to Chris.

Chris snorts. “He’s met Erica, came out of it all right. We swung by that town for a night on our way over.”

“All right,” Stiles says. He looks at Lydia. Then at Peter, mostly as a break from her stare—Peter looks a little puzzled at the meaning but very interested in the whole process—and then he sighs and looks back at her. “Well, it’s your piped water. How much do you want to put into it?”

Lydia presses her lips together and Stiles braces himself for a sharp comment. But…then she draws back. She looks at Chris and his shoulders hunch a little, even though he’s not looking towards the porch at all. Her expression’s lightened up, more thoughtful than wary.

“I think it’s worth meeting him at Shasta Springs,” she says. “That’ll be around the time we’re supposed to get another shipment from San Francisco. Thank you, Chris. That is…very generous of you.”

Chris hunches some more. “Just think he’d appreciate a change of scenery,” he mutters.

A couple more jerks and he’s got the hide completely off the moose. Stiles grabs one of their larger knives and goes back down to help Chris quarter the body, and once the pieces are either hanging over a smoking fire or cut up for stew, he returns to the porch to thoroughly wash himself off. Chris picks up the hide and carries it off to peg it out for scraping, and Lydia goes with him. She’s not completely done cutting up vegetables so once Stiles has his shirt back on, he plops down on the porch to finish that.

“Interesting,” Peter says. He’s pulled himself over to sit on the opposite side of the pot, but he’s not looking at the carrots. “Hardly the hobby I’d ascribe to them.”

“You think Lydia’s just having fun?” Stiles says, amused.

Peter looks over, hesitates and then shrugs. He’s not quite as jumpy as he was right after Stiles took on Deucalion, but he’s clearly still nervous about where he steps with Stiles. “I’ll admit, I don’t know her well yet, but she seems like someone who is quite aware of what she’ll get out of something. I don’t mean to judge—it wouldn’t be my preference, but I don’t think she needs any warnings.”

It’s funny that Peter and Stiles seemed to be more sure of each other the first time around, when neither of them had a real clue about what the other wanted. And then Stiles grimaces at the potato he’s just diced, and thinks that funny isn’t the right word. It’s just…it says a couple things about them, about him. Things that’d be ridiculous if you weren’t living them, but when you are, they just…feel like tiptoeing around broken glass. At least to Stiles, but from how Peter keeps hesitating, he’s pretty sure the other man feels similarly.

“And it helps that Chris really is nothing like his father,” Peter adds after a moment. “Doesn’t even sound like him. Must take after the mother, whoever she was who could actually stand to share a bed with that man.”

He’s starting to sound a little tight, and just as Stiles frowns at him, he abruptly reaches out and snags an onion from the bag near Stiles. His head ducks a little more than it has to so he doesn’t meet Stiles’ eyes.

“I…I don’t think about it as killing my mother, honestly,” Stiles finds himself saying. He fiddles with a potato end. “I mean, that’s what I did. I’m not denying it. But in my head—I killed an alpha, a crazy alpha who was trying to kill my dad, and then she looked up at me when she was dying, and she was my mother again. And she was my mother when I buried her. But not right when I killed her. That’s probably crazy but…”

“I’m not sure you can apply crazy or not crazy to a situation like that,” Peter says, skinning the onion with his claws. He glances at Stiles as the papery layers shed from between his fingers. “I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been in the same position has any standing to judge how you feel about it, at the very least.”

“Yeah, well, maybe.” Stiles tosses the chunk in, then picks up the last potato. “Anyway, if you—I should tell Lydia too, but if you’re worried I’m going to run off and get myself killed every time we meet somebody who’s also killed a parent—I mean, Chris did that too. And if Isaac comes we’re going to have more people who’ve done that than who haven’t and—sorry, I’m just rambling.”

Peter gives him a quick smile, then moves back with an odd jerk. Then twists one hand around to press the crook of his wrist against his eye. “Damn it.”

“Werewolf healing doesn’t stop onions,” Stiles says, with a low chuckle. He puts down his knife and pokes around, then hands Peter a rag. “It’s just, have you ever had to do something and it’s…you don’t feel the way you think you should feel about it, and that’s why you feel so awful about it?”

“Yes,” Peter mutters. He squeezes the rag against his eye a few times, then lets it drop into his lap. Looks a little hard at the onion, then shakes himself and quickly cuts it up and throws the pieces into the pot. “If you’d known me longer, you’d think that’s a lie and you’d have reason to, but I have. I do. Sometimes I think it’s just as well that my sister died, because if she’d lived she would have—Gerard Argent was looking for a target, I do not absolve him of that. But she made us an inviting one, letting the people around here think we’re just a pagan cult, so when the Argents came they turned their backs and left us to die in the woods. I killed in her name, I killed to avenge her and I don’t regret it, but I’m also still angry with her.”

When he’s done, Peter has to take a breath. It’s a deeper one than he expected, judging from how his eyes widen. He drops his hands behind the pot but Stiles doesn’t need to see them to know they’re shaking; his heartbeat gives that away.

Then he tries to make himself look calm, even going so far as to plaster an apologetic smile on his face. But that smile cracks as he lifts his head and sees the hand Stiles has half-lifted towards him, and behind the crack it’s very raw.

Stiles pauses, then leans the rest of the way to touch Peter’s shoulder, just inside the shirt-collar. “It’s…it’s in your smell,” he explains, while the dark lines of Peter’s pain snake over the back of his hand. “You just…anyway, better?”

Peter sucks his breath a little bit. He sways and Stiles thinks he might have to catch the man, but then Peter steadies himself. Moves up against the wall for support, nodding. “Yes. Yes, thank you.”

Stiles mutters something noncommittal, a little preoccupied with tracking when Peter’s heartbeat slows down. And with not cramping; he’s stretched out a little awkwardly, but when he goes to push off against the porch floor, he realizes he still has the potato in his other hand. He twists a little, gets the potato pinched between his knee and the pot rim, and then retrieves the knife to slice it up.

“I do miss her,” Peter suddenly says. His shoulder moves slightly under Stiles’ fingers. “Very much, and it surprises me. We fought often—I didn’t get along with most of my family, actually. But you get so used to them, just to how they shade your life.”

“Yeah,” Stiles says. When Peter moves again, he does slide his hand so it wouldn’t fall off Peter’s shoulder, but doesn’t turn to meet the other man’s gaze. “Yeah, I’m—I’m used to a big pack, I know what you mean. Lydia might be thinking of that too, actually.”

Peter’s quiet for a few seconds. “That you need to be adding members?”

“Well, eventually. We have more land than we comfortably can hold, even with the Nemeton,” Stiles says. “She and I have been talking about it for a while. But there’s no rush—no other packs are that close. And anyway, I’m probably going to get a reputation once news about Blackwood starts spreading.”

“Is that something you don’t want?” Peter asks.

“It’s…something that’s going to help us.” Stiles makes a face. “I never did like fighting other werewolves, even before what happened with my pack—it’s not something my grandmother or my parents thought was that smart, most of the time. Makes me a strange alpha, I know.”

“I don’t mind,” Peter says. His voice has warmed a little, and when Stiles glances at him, he’s almost smiling. “I don’t think Lydia does either, for all her temper.”

“And you two are actual pack, I guess your opinions are what should matter,” Stiles says after a few seconds.

He doesn’t miss the way that Peter lights up and then tries to hide it, when he says that. Stiles hadn’t really planned on it, but…it’s not untrue. And to be honest, if he really thinks about it, he’s not sure he ever stopped thinking of Peter as pack. He didn’t want to see the man for a while, but pack is far more complicated than just who you like, who you want to see.

Just like living, he thinks. He takes a breath and then purrs at Peter, letting the man know he can relax. It takes a few minutes, but Peter slides closer, and together they finish preparing the stew.

* * *

Chris rides back and forth between their house and Shasta Springs into the summer, ferrying out correspondence and hides, bringing back replies and supplies. He sends for this Isaac to come up, but then ends up being delayed in Shasta Springs for a few days to settle something related to Ennis’ bounty. When he comes back, it’s with word that Isaac will actually need a few weeks to come, since the man’s going to shop for everything they need to build a water tower and connect it, the creek, and the house.

Of course, Lydia immediately asks who gave Isaac the money for that, and Chris tells her he’d handed over half of his reward for Ennis, ‘since it wasn’t truly his kill.’ He also slips her a wooden box, which she sticks in her skirts and refuses to talk about, even after Stiles finally loses patience and tells her he can smell the fluster on her.

“She was married to a werewolf. I don’t know how long, and she said she didn’t know when she did marry him, but I’d faint if she hasn’t managed to find out about gifting,” Stiles complains as he and Peter shuffle through the woods. “And Erica or Boyd, one of them obviously filled Chris in.”

One of Peter’s hamstrings is healing more cleanly than the other, so Peter can finally walk, though with a severe limp. They’re going to have to cut the misaligned one again, but Peter’s been getting a little restless and Stiles is helping him take a walk and stretch the other leg before they do it.

“Gifting?” Peter says blankly.

Stiles pauses, then grimaces at himself. “Sorry. It’s…heat’s in autumn, so it’ll—”

“Heat?” Peter says.

At that point, Stiles gives up and looks around for a handy sitting place. When he spots a fallen trunk, he maneuvers them over to it. Then he does his best to explain about werewolf courting and heat. Neither of those are really that complicated, but it’s…just not something he’s had to do before. With born werewolves, most of what happens is instinct, and really all that needs to be explained is when you’re letting that push you too far. And while his father had had a pretty good speech for it, making any sense of that would involve telling a couple stories about Stiles’ childhood that he just doesn’t want to go into right now.

Thankfully, Peter sinks his teeth into the subject and peppers Stiles with enough questions that he doesn’t have to really think through it, just answer the man. “So it’s really not like dogs,” Stiles wraps up. “A lot of bittens think like that, and sometimes you get one who’s so dead-set on it that they’ll make it work like that for themselves, but it’s not supposed to.”

“Well, if it was that debilitating, I’d imagine the hunters would have figured that out, and come reaping at that time of year,” Peter says. Then he presses his lips together and shoots Stiles a cautious look. “I’m not sure if that was out of turn—”

“No, no, my grandmother used to say the same thing,” Stiles snorts, flapping his hand. “She wouldn’t let us skip a day of work on the farm, would just get us up early and chase us into the pond so at least for the morning, we’d be too frozen to even think about it.”

Peter laughs, but it’s a little absent. He’s lifting one thigh with both hands and rotating his knee, pausing every so often. When he catches Stiles looking, he starts to shrug it off, then instead lets out an irritable sigh. “I might need to rest for a few minutes,” he mutters. “So by your terms, and it’s interesting to me that they’ve both chosen to follow werewolf custom—”

“That might just be for me,” Stiles admits. “We still are working out what Lydia can even do, never mind whether banshees have courting traditions. It’s really frustrating that we can’t read half the book she got from her grandmother.”

“Oh,” Peter says, looking up sharply from his leg. His expression’s a little stunned, but he doesn’t smell upset. He blinks a few times, then turns towards Stiles. “Oh, you know—I should’ve remembered before. There’s a—can I send a telegram the next time Chris goes to town?”

“Sure,” Stiles says. “I mean, you don’t have to ask permission for that.”

Peter smiles. “But you would like to ask, I think, and I don’t mind telling. I had a library, I think I told you once. Well, I ordered my books from people who specialize in rare languages and one of them should be able to find an Irish-English dictionary for you.”

“Really?” Stiles says. “We’ve been looking for months for one. If you could, that would be amazing.”

“I’ll ask,” Peter promises. “It’s the least I ca—”

They both go still as the wind changes, bringing a whiff of bison with it. This isn’t prime bison country but occasionally an old bull will wander into the valley. Those tend to be cranky, ready to charge even without provocation, and anyway, they’re still running on credit with the Nemeton. A bison would clear that up nicely.

Also, Peter can’t run away so somebody needs to head it off before it comes up to where they are. Stiles pulls his shirt up over his head and drops it on the log, then bends over to pull off his boots. “Watch my things?”

“Are you going after it alone?” Peter says.

“Well—” Stiles sees how Peter’s fingers ease up his leg, going for the waist of his trousers “—no. No, you’re not, you’ll get smashed. If I think it’s too big for just me, I’ll lure it into that gully we passed and block it in, but you should just wait here.”

Peter huffs a little bit and doesn’t immediately move his hands away. Then he jerks them back onto the log, his set expression abruptly dissolving to one that’s still not happy, but that is more anxious about whether Stiles has taken offense than about what Stiles is doing. “All right, I know,” he mutters, giving his bad leg a rather vicious glance. “I know. But if you do end up in trouble…maybe we should ask Chris to provide us all with extra revolvers, while he’s at it.”

“Is that what you think is in the box?” Stiles says, shucking off his pants. He pulls them up onto the log with the rest of his clothes, then bends to shift. Then pauses, leaning over to clasp his hand about the back of Peter’s neck for a second. “I’ll howl, all right? You’ll hear me.”

He catches Peter by surprise—he didn’t mean to, was just trying to reassure the man, but Peter’s eyes widen and he goes stiff against Stiles’ hand. Stiles immediately lets go, hiding his wince as he twists down onto hands and knees. As he shifts, he takes a surreptitious sniff too: Peter smells confused and frustrated and regretful, but he’s calming down. Maybe the man’s more frustrated than usual, but that’s understandable.

Stiles figures the best thing right then would be some space for them to both relax—they’ve been together constantly since Blackwood’s death, which probably is another reason Peter’s jumpy—so he lopes on down the hill, circling downwind of the bison.

The bison’s a little older and thinner than Stiles was hoping, so it might not completely wipe out their debt to the Nemeton. And it’s very touchy, swinging its head for a mock-charge at a poor passing fox, of all things. Stiles sits back on his haunches and is mulling over whether he should just run it off when the damn wind shifts and suddenly the bison smells him.

Well, it’s not up to him anymore. He goes to two-footed, jumping up into a tree to avoid its charge, and then drops with a sigh behind it. Roars out his lungs to try and dampen its temper, then sets about shooing it towards that gully.

Of course, the bull isn’t too cooperative, and Stiles is being very cautious in how he handles it. The wolfsbane’s doing well in the garden Lydia’s started, but they still have very little of it and he does not want to end up asking the Nemeton to heal him again. So he doubles down on his patience and painstakingly goads the bull into the direction that he wants it to go, till it’s finally stamping and snorting to its heart’s content behind a fence of a couple fallen trunks wedged with rocks.

That takes a lot longer than he’d hoped. He’d worked in the occasional howl so Peter wouldn’t get worried, but hadn’t heard anything in return. Which isn’t unexpected—Peter doesn’t have the nuance of howling down yet, so generally doesn’t do it. Besides, Stiles and the bull hadn’t gone that far off, and the sound of their ruckus should have kept away anyone or anything with any sense.

Of course, Stiles tells himself that and then frets so much that once the bull’s penned up, he actually runs a few yards in the wrong direction. Then he rights himself and rushes back to where he’d left Peter.

No one’s there. His clothes are still lying on the log where he’d left them, and the place where Peter had been is fresh with scent and even body warmth, so—Stiles gulps down his panic just long enough to actually listen, and picks up Peter’s heartbeat off to the side. He turns around just as a second wolf awkwardly crashes out of the bushes.

It’s Peter. For a second they stare at each other, Peter half-squashed down on his foreleg. Then, embarrassed and edgy about it, Peter gingerly rolls off his foreleg and levers himself to his feet. His bad hindleg is pulled tightly in towards his belly and makes him move with a halting, slightly swayed gait. He’s holding his head low and that helps counterbalance, but steadying himself isn’t why his head is that low.

Stiles straightens up and notices something on the log, and glances at it again: Peter’s clothes are there, just hidden behind Stiles’ bundle at Stiles’ current height. He snorts and shakes himself, then twists back as Peter limps up to him, whining quietly. When he takes a step forward, Peter immediately freezes.

He pauses himself, then stretches out his neck, sniffing at Peter’s game leg. The stitches have ripped out, but they were going to take them out anyway and there isn’t too much blood on the spot. And then Stiles notices how Peter’s starting to pant with the effort of standing and grimaces himself back to human.

Peter follows a few seconds later, rolling a little stiffly onto his hip as Stiles catches one of his shoulders. He still smells of nerves. “I’m sorry,” he starts.

“Huh?” Stiles says, pushing himself under Peter’s arm. He’s still trying to examine Peter’s leg, but he looks up as Peter sucks his breath. “Oh, I mean, I know I said, don’t come after me, but you…I mean, if you had to go…go take a piss, that’s fine.”

From the way Peter settles, that was exactly what happened. He still looks embarrassed, though it makes perfect sense to Stiles to shift to four-footed for that if your leg is injured: a lot less chance that you’re going to fall into your own puddle that way. “The bull’s taken care of?”

“Yeah.” Stiles sits back, bracing his back against the log, and reaches back with one arm to grab their clothes. He hands Peter’s to the man and then drops his pants onto his leg, working his arms into his shirt-sleeves. Takes another look at Peter, noting how gradually the man is sinking into a relieved pose. “So you figured out the last part of shifting?”

Peter goes stiff again, his eyes flicking up to Stiles and then away, as if he thinks he did something wrong. “Yes,” he says. He licks his lips and absently fluffs the shirt in his lap. “I…I managed it while I was away. Going after Gerard Argent.”

“Oh,” Stiles says.

They dress without speaking. When Peter’s pulling on his pants, he has to haul himself up against the log to do it, grunting heavily, so Stiles reaches over to help and Peter tenses up again. They’ve both been talking more about their families to each other: Stiles has managed to talk about the other members of his old pack, not just his parents and grandparents, and Peter’s relaxed enough to explain what exactly his sister had been preaching, and even the incident where he pretended to be the man in charge of arresting himself. But they haven’t actually talked about when Peter was away, aside from his run-ins with Blackwood.

Part of that’s because Chris is around. Part of it is because it’s obvious Peter actually taught himself quite a bit, on his own, with no references but himself, and knowing that makes Stiles feel both proud to have such a strong, resourceful beta and guilty that Peter had to do that for himself. So poking at Peter over that just doesn’t seem fair—it wasn’t anything Stiles had a hand in.

“It was…it was an accident, almost,” Peter suddenly says. He lowers himself back down against the log, fully dressed, and then pulls up his feet to brush off the dirt before putting on his shoes. “I was so angry, watching them walk around, not a care about all the blood on their hands, and—you were right, what you said. It’s easier to be a wolf sometimes. I just slipped into it.”

The way his voice twists worries Stiles, but before he can do anything, Peter suddenly slumps back and he’s not angry anymore. Even his tone goes limp.

“I was standing over their bodies afterward,” he goes on, gaze distant. “Still a wolf. Rage fits a wolf in a way that it’ll never fit a man, I think, and—I could have stayed that way forever. I know that. And the only reason I didn’t is I remembered you. Telling me.”

“About how to stop that?” Stiles says after a long second, when it doesn’t look as if Peter will go on.

Peter starts a little bit, then blinks as if he’s just waking up. Then his head dips. He moves his hands together, briefly clasping them, before putting them down to either side of him and taking a deep breath. Only then does he look back at Stiles. He’s trying to smile; he smells like he means it, but it’s not coming easy to him.

“I don’t want you to think I’m hiding things—I don’t want to hide them from you,” Peter says. “But this is…very different. Even without the werewolf part, I’ve never been close to anyone not a blood relation. Never seen the need to be.”

“Well, practice makes perfect,” Stiles says, because he’s an idiot who can’t think of anything better to say. “And I don’t mind—I don’t blame you for learning to shift without me, it’s just something you had to do. I mean, you had to stay human.”

He tries his own smile out on Peter. It doesn’t seem to make the man any less tense, but oddly, Peter’s scent sweetens for a second, so he is pleased to see it. “There’s…something else I should’ve mentioned before,” Peter says. “It turns out two of my sister’s children are still alive.”

“Oh, uh, congratulations,” Stiles says, rushing the words after an awkward silence. “I’m—I’m happy to hear that for you. Um, I…you smell irritated.”

“It’s not at you,” Peter says, just as hurried as Stiles. Then he sinks back and sighs and rubs at the side of his face. “It was all just very…complicated. They’re her oldest, Derek and Laura, and they’d disappeared a little while before the Argents shut us up in the house. We assumed they’d been caught out while trying to catch dinner, and that…is mostly what happened. Mostly.”

“So what’s the part where that’s not true?” Stiles asks.

Peter’s scent is a dizzying mix of irritation shading to outright anger, disgust, relief and anxiety. “Well, Derek apparently was fooled by Argent’s daughter and the old trick of pretending to be a damsel in distress—she promptly disabused him of that idiocy by taking him and his sister and trying to sell them to a mining camp operator. They killed her and got away, and we ended up running into each other outside of Sacramento.”

“They helped you go after Gerard?” Stiles says, straightening up. That would go some way to explaining how, when Peter came back, he hadn’t acted much like an omega. Desperate, yes, but he could still act human, was still comfortable in town.

“Yes,” Peter says. He purses his lips a few times, reluctant about something. “Mostly providing shelter, food, watching out when I slept. They didn’t know about the rest of our family till I told them and after that they were—I shouldn’t say useless. I took long enough to get on my feet, and that was with your help. But they weren’t helping me kill, and honestly, I was happier without them in the way.”

“So they know about werewolves,” Stiles says.

Peter nods slowly, his eyes fixed on Stiles. “They’ll keep their mouths shut about it. They’ve their own secrets, anyway—Derek can work the odd spell and Laura has a talent for herbalry, just like her mother.”

“Oh. Oh, right, you were saying about your family.” Stiles frowns. “And you did something too, didn’t you? With Ennis, when he tripped?”

For a second Peter looks blank, and then he remembers. Then, curiously, he’s embarrassed. He even flushes a little. “Oh, that. That was—it’s a parlor trick. Something I used to use to trip up the older boys at school, when they tried to follow me home. That’s all I could ever do, tricks. Certainly not even close to what you and Lydia can do with the Nemeton.”

“Well, you can’t do that kind of thing every day, unless you want to massacre the whole state to feed it,” Stiles says with a shrug. “Anyway, parlor trick or not, it helped with Ennis.”

“I’d be happy to show you,” Peter says, smelling pleased again. “It’s a simple hex. I’m sure you’ll pick it up in no time.”

“Yeah, sure, and Lydia will want to see, too.” At that Stiles starts to get up, remembering how long they’ve been out. He’s with Peter, so Lydia shouldn’t be too antsy, but she’s keeping closer tabs on him than she used to. “Oh, so where are your niece and nephew now?”

Peter puts his shoes on and then grabs the hand Stiles extends to him. “Probably still outside of Sacramento,” he grunts. “They—they don’t know exactly where I am, but they know I went back to find you. They weren’t happy about it, but they didn’t understand and that’s why I didn’t want them to come.”

“Are they going to ever want to visit?” Stiles says, swinging Peter’s arm about his shoulders. “Because…have to talk about it, but I wouldn’t rule it out. They’re your family. And we’re obviously not going to mind what they can do. Actually, if your niece knows herbalry, that’d be really useful. I just have a little I know handed down from my old pack, and Lydia’s trying to teach herself, but we should get a real healer.”

“Well, in that case, I’ll write to them,” Peter says. He stumbles a little bit, falling against Stiles, and his cheek presses into Stiles’ shoulder while they get him steady again. Then he lifts his head. “I want you to have what you need, and whatever I can do, Stiles.”

“Yeah, all right,” Stiles says absently, eyeing the uneven downslope ahead of them. “Sounds good.”

Chapter Text

“I’d want to meet them in Shasta Springs first, like with Isaac, but I think we should meet them just to confirm that Peter’s judgment is good,” Lydia says. “I may believe him about his own homicidal instincts, but I don’t know about him on his family’s.”

She’s being persnickety, but she isn’t actually trying to throw obstacles in the way, so Stiles laughs and then tosses a handful of soapsuds at her.

He’s helping her with the laundry at the stream while back at the house, Chris and Peter work on putting up the rest of the walls. Stiles nocked Peter’s hamstring last night, but Peter’s gotten enough of his strength back that even unable to walk, he’s itching for something to do, and he can do everything up to waist-height. Peter also, it turns out, has strong opinions about where windows should go, so Stiles is letting Chris put up with him and isn’t ashamed about it.

Besides, Lydia’s been complaining about the amount of washing she’s had to do lately, and how banshee gifts don’t include skin that heals its own cracking. Stiles figures he’ll lend her a hand and then go back when it’s time to start on the roof. “You know, the next time Chris goes, you could always go in with him,” he says as she flicks the suds off her skirts, her nose wrinkled. “Spend a couple days in town, straighten things out. Tidy up loose ends.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Lydia says, straightening up from the washboard.

She’s much sharper than Stiles had been expecting, and Stiles has to remind himself that she isn’t actually a werewolf, however well she’s adapted to them. “I’m just saying that you don’t have to wait for Isaac or for Peter’s niece and nephew to show up, if you want to go into town,” he says, hauling an armful of wet cloth out of the creek. “Peter and I would be fine out here and you could get a hot bath, a better bed.”

He walks the clothes over to the line they’ve strung between a couple trees, and she slowly pivots in place, watching him with narrowed eyes. “Those are all very true, but that’s not what you meant.”

“I didn’t mean to make you mad either,” Stiles mutters. He gives the shirt in his hands a good snap to send the drips scattering, then fumbles around for the jar of clothespins. “Look, it’s just I can’t really help smelling it, and it’s not like you’re turning down his gifts.”

“Well, they’re useful,” Lydia says. A little softer, but still unusually defensive for her. “Perhaps some people would consider it compromising, but in my opinion, if you live west of the Cascades, you can’t afford to turn down a spare Navy revolver.”

“Nobody’s saying you’re doing anything wrong,” Stiles says.

They both continue working for a few minutes, Stiles wishing he’d just never started the subject. Then Lydia tosses the washboard into her empty basket and wades out of the river, a bundle of sopping, freshly-washed laundry under one arm.

“When you said you were smelling it,” she says. “Which of us was that?”

Stiles accidentally snaps a clothespin in half. Cursing, he flicks the pieces aside and then rubs at the fading dent where one had caught his palm. Then he turns and roots around for where he’d left the clothespin jar. “He’s giving you gifts. Werewolf style. An engineer and a gun, Lydia, are you actually telling me you need to go to scent—”

“Men give out gifts for a lot of reasons, whatever tradition they’re following, and the vast majority of the time, those reasons aren’t favorable to anyone but themselves,” Lydia says, stalking up to him. She bends down and gets the jar, and then pushes it into his chest instead of just handing it to him. “For all I know, he’s doing it to curry favor with you.”

“Well, maybe, but I’m not the one who’s getting the gifts,” Stiles says. He juggles the jar and the last pair of trousers, then manages to get the trousers slung over the line without dropping either. “I’m smelling both of you. So’s Peter.”

Lydia doesn’t look pleased, but she doesn’t look surprised either, as she stands there slapping the clothes against her thighs to shake out water. “I am shocked he hasn’t said anything.”

“He’s trying to be polite. Also I think he’s busy trying to figure out how well Chris knows the gifting customs,” Stiles says. “He keeps asking me about how you’re supposed to order gifts, and what’s most to least impressive, and things like that.”

“And I am not shocked about that, but then, I stopped being shocked about how little certain people actually say when they talk to each other.” She mutters that mostly to herself, with an odd sidelong look at Stiles. And one of her annoyed, disappointed sighs when he doesn’t do anything but hold out his hand for the first of her dresses. She presses her lips together and he thinks she’s going to go off on him, but then she suddenly shakes her head and looks away. “He never says anything when he gives them to me. He just gives them to me. The last one he gave me was a stiletto with an ivory handle, and I loosened the blade so he couldn’t avoid me when I went to talk to him about it, and he just said sorry, he’d fix it.”

Stiles does his best to not laugh. As funny as it is, what means more to him is that little whiff of uncertainty he’s getting from Lydia. It’s something he hasn’t ever smelled on her before: not just lack of knowledge or fear, but a lack of determination. Usually, she might not be sure of what to do or how to do it, but she is always sure about whether something needs to be done, and that’s what he thinks she’s missing here.

“One of those people who don’t say much, who you don’t like,” Stiles says.

Lydia shoots him a look that’s three parts irritation, one part—she’s going to say something. She even draws a breath for it, and when she stops herself, he can hear the strain on her ribs, keeping it in. “Never mind that, that’s something else,” she says, handing him another dress. “What I am trying to get through to you is that I don’t know what the man expects back. And I can’t ask him because every time I start, he hands me another gift and then rides off to Shasta Springs.”

“Well, did you want me to pin him down for you?” Stiles asks. And then sidesteps the trickle of water she slings at him. “You know, if you do it right, the gifts are supposed to do all the talking.”

“Oh, yes, yes, so the weapons say he respects my right to defend myself, and values that I know a reliable revolver when I see one,” Lydia says tartly. “I suppose Isaac’s about showing he isn’t just a loner and can build a team when he wants to. But none of that says whether I’m supposed to—to treat this as an alliance, or a love match, or—”

“Maybe he wants you to tell him that?” Stiles says. “I mean, have you tried that? Don’t ask, just tell him? That’s what you usually do.”

Lydia stops and presses her lips together. Her nostrils flare a little bit, but then she draws back, shuffles the clothes in her arms. “I appreciate the way we are,” she says after a moment, slow and thoughtful. “Even if it’s not a business deal these days, you’ve still held up your end. But you aren’t much like most of the world, Stiles.”

“I think you’re being nice to me, so thanks,” Stiles says. She snorts but the corner of her mouth turns up, so he feels safe smiling at the blouse he’s pinning. “But if he’s smart enough to figure out what kind of gun you’d like, don’t you think he’d notice that too? Honestly, that’s why I wasn’t saying anything. I can’t tell what you want with him either. And so you know, whatever that is, so long as you’re not killing him without telling me first, I think it’s your call.”

Now that they’re down to the last few garments, she steps up next to him and they work side by side to hang the clothing. Stiles does glance over a couple times, but Lydia seems lost in her own thoughts. She doesn’t smell upset so he just leaves her be.

“You are all right with Peter. Or are you?” Lydia suddenly asks. “And I know you can handle him, and that’s not what I mean. He’s not here just out of guilt, Stiles, so—”

“I’m not going to throw myself out to get killed the next time something, somebody comes along, all right?” Stiles says irritably. He breaks another clothespin, and he’s about to fling it at a nearby bush when he makes himself take a breath, drain the exasperation out of himself. “What you said, being better. I’m going to do that. I get it, if I really want to take care of a pack, I need to do that and not just die on all of you.”

“I…actually was not asking about that, but that is good to hear,” Lydia says. She’s watching him for something; he doesn’t think she finds it, but she doesn’t look annoyed for once. Just, maybe, resigned. “I meant, you’re not making yourself get along with him, are you?”

Stiles frowns as he pulls out the last clothespin. “No. No, he’s actually pretty easy to teach, once I figure out how to do it. He listens and remembers what I say, and asks good questions, and—and I like him. I liked him before, too, we just both were so busy trying to pretend we weren’t—were more whole than we were, I think. I know he irritates you—”

“He’s occasionally amusing,” Lydia interrupts. She pulls back a few fallen locks and retucks them into her bun. “I’d tolerate him better if he stopped thinking that I’m trying to hurt you, but there are worse personality flaws.”

“And sometimes you really are, and I deserve it, and we should all be saying thank-you,” Stiles says, throwing a rueful smile at her. “Anyway, no, Peter and I are fine. It’s just…it is a little odd, this time. The first time, I think I was trying to be an alpha…an alpha the way I was told to. I wasn’t really thinking about what kind of people we are. So it’s awkward sometimes because I’m trying to be more honest about that.”

Lydia hums under her breath. She glances at him a few times, as she twitches the wrinkles out of the shirt on the line. Then she steps back, wiping her hands on her hips and shaking out her damp skirts.

“Well, I suppose there’s less harm in going slowly, most of the time,” she says. She goes back to retrieve the basket, then returns to Stiles’ side. “We might all benefit from a trip to town, now that I think about it. Show our faces, start explaining how we’re connected, or else who knows what stories they’ll start spreading about you two.”

“True,” Stiles sighs. “Yeah. That’s a good point.”

* * *

There are good points about heading into Shasta Springs. Stiles enjoys a steaming-hot bath and a haircut as much as the next person, and he might be used to sleeping on sacks, but a proper mattress is a heavenly thing.

It’s just a lot of work for him to adjust to acting like he’s in town. For the first couple hours to the first day, depending on his mood, he’s so busy thinking about how his expression should be and how long he should meet people’s eyes and whether he should put in more fumbles that he barely can remember to do anything else. Makes him even more glad that they can still rent out the house at the edge of town, so he can ease into it.

Isaac’s supposed to arrive on the stage, so bright and early their second morning, they all get dressed like the prospering pioneers they’re supposed to be. Chris even swaps his regular clothes—always neat and orderly, but clearly outfits for someone who lives on his horse—for an actual suit. It’s sober and plain, something he probably keeps around for funerals and occasions for that.

Peter also puts on a suit, but it’s a lot nicer. It’s like the one he showed up in when he surprised Stiles and Lydia in the hotel, good tailoring and a waistcoat with real silk lining. He looks so good that Stiles catches himself reaching towards Peter’s back, not because he’s trying to help—Peter’s hamstring is finally healing right, but it’s slow and he’s still in some pain—but because he likes how it curves under the man’s coat. Stiles is just lucky that right then, Chris burned bacon in the kitchen so Peter shouldn’t have smelled anything in Stiles’ scent.

“I had some silly idea,” Peter murmurs, a little embarrassed, as they’re waiting on the hotel porch for the stage to arrive. “That looking as if I was worth something might go some way towards pleading my case with you. That and I might have employed some misdirection with Derek and Laura to keep them from following me, trying to make it sound like our dispute wasn’t personal and was more of a business issue. I’ve had trouble with debts before so they’d find that believable.”

“Do you have any debts now?” Lydia breaks in, while Chris pricks alert beside her.

Peter shakes his head. “No, my sister made sure I cleared everything before we left Missouri.”

Lydia gives him a sharp look, but then goes back to her conversation with Chris—well, she talks and he occasionally nods—about the mail they’ve just picked up. Peter shifts on his feet, half-hiding a grimace. Then smiles in thanks as Stiles borrows a stool from the hotel bar and sets it down for him.

“Probably good for at least one of us to look like a banker,” Stiles says to him. “We were getting a lot of interest—”

“Still are, we just stopped answering them,” Lydia says, perusing some telegrams. “We’ll have to pick that up again before someone just barges into the woods.”

“—from speculators,” Stiles finishes. “They were keeping Lydia really busy.”

Peter looks both interested and eager. “Well, I’ve certainly experience there, and I’m happy to put it to use on the other side of the tabl—”

Chris makes a startled noise, and since he’s generally not startled, everyone looks at him. He grimaces a little at them, then holds up a slip of paper; he gets a fair amount of mail himself, from various lawmen colleagues who’d like him to come back to work. “Erica sent a telegram.”

“What’s it say?” Stiles says.

For a reply Chris just hands over the paper. Lydia walks over and has a look, while Peter peers around Stiles’ arm.

Erica’s made alpha. She doesn’t say it in so many words, but she tells them that she personally redeemed Kali’s bounty and for a werewolf, there’s no other way to read that. She also wishes them well and hopes they might visit soon and catch up, mentioning Stiles by name.

“‘Summer good but remember Stiles fond of fall,’” Lydia reads, snorting. “Well, she’s not coy at all, is she?”

“Pardon?” Peter says. He’s sharp about it, and waves of irritation are suddenly rolling through his scent.

Just then the stagecoach rumbles into view at the end of the street. Stiles and Chris step up to greet it; Peter and Lydia hang back, though Lydia comes over by the time the stage has pulled up. Stiles assumes Peter is still resting his leg and doesn’t call the man over.

“That’s Isaac,” Chris says. He nods to a young man with curly blond hair, slightly anxious-looking, who steps down into the street, spots them, and visibly blows out his cheeks with relief.

Right after him is a middle-aged man, and then a young couple—Stiles hears Peter’s heartbeat spike before he does Peter’s startled exclamation and instinctively steps backward. But Peter’s already limping up, staring at the couple.

They’re both dark-haired, attractive, but even before their scent carries over the porch, Stiles can tell something’s wrong with them. There are dark circles under their eyes and around their mouths, and their pale skin has a waxy shade to it. The woman looks around, stills as she sees Peter, then tugs at the man’s arm. He turns and his eyes start to widen before he abruptly ducks his head and coughs into his fist. A little blood is coming up with the cough—Stiles can smell that from the porch.

“That’s my—Derek and Laura,” Peter says, stiff with surprise beside Stiles. His grip on the porch rail is so hard that the wood is beginning to warp; he loosens it when Stiles nudges a knee against his leg, reminding him they’re in public, but still smells strongly of dismay and nerves. “What are they…they’re not due for another two weeks. I wasn’t even sure they’d committed to coming.”

Chris had gone down to greet Isaac, but he’s perceptive enough to realize that something’s up. He slows, glancing over his shoulder, and then continues over, collecting Isaac and drawing the man to the back of the stage, where they’re unloading the luggage. He’s telling Isaac who everybody is and explaining that they’ve arranged a room for Isaac in the hotel, nicely taking up all of Isaac’s attention.

In the meantime, Derek and Laura have started across the road towards the hotel. Lydia comes down the front steps and at first they ignore her, their wary gazes bouncing between Peter and Stiles. But Lydia stops in front of them, making it clear she wants a word. Derek scowls at her, easing in front of his sister, and then Laura pushes him aside.

“Lydia Martin,” Lydia says. “You’re early.”

“Something’s wrong with their lungs,” Stiles whispers to Peter.

“They weren’t like that when I left,” Peter mutters back. His irritation’s gone down, but his scent’s still streaked with worry.

“I’m Laura Hale, and this is my brother, Derek,” Laura says. She’s shaky, even with her arm looped through her brother’s, but she sweeps her eyes up and down Lydia in a challenge of an assessment. “I don’t think that our uncle mentioned you.”

Lydia smiles sweetly. “Well, he knows better than to do my introductions for me,” she says. “And what brings you so…precipitously…to this corner of the great state of California?”

“We’re dying, all right?” Derek snaps, looking from her up to Peter. “Figured we’d better get here on our feet instead of in a box. That what you wanted to know?”

* * *

Under the circumstances, the best thing to do seems to let Chris and Isaac go have dinner in the hotel while the rest of them go back to the rental house, which is far enough from town that they can yell without worrying about the neighbors. And considering that Derek and Laura both are bleeding in the lungs, there is an awful lot of yelling.

“Well, how were we supposed to tell you?” Derek is demanding from Peter. “You barely showed up to sleep, we had to leave meals on the shelf for you, and then you ran off to settle up with this alpha, whatever that is—”

“That’s me, actually,” Stiles says, raising his hand.

Laura looks over, Peter winces, and Derek just gives his catarrh-soaked handkerchief a rude flick. “—and it sure as hell didn’t look like you were coming back,” Derek goes on. “It’s not like you gave us any reason to think you wanted to know what the doctor said.”

“I was trying to make sure they wouldn’t ever come after us again,” Peter snaps, his temper clearly fraying. “We were the survivors, Derek, so we had a damn duty to honor our dead and since I was the only one in any shape to do it—”

“Yeah, all right, then why couldn’t you tell with your werewolf powers?” Derek snaps back. “Why’d it take the doctors six weeks after you left to figure out that the mines did this to Laura and me—”

“If you’d come out of your room once in a while, maybe I would’ve!” Peter shouts. “I can’t see through oak doors—”

“Stop it, stop it, both of you!” Laura says, jerking her hands to either side of her head. Then she slaps them down against the kitchen table. The jolt hurts her, she hisses a little under her breath, but then pushes herself up to glower at the other two. “Look. We didn’t come to argue about this. There’s nothing to argue about anyway—Peter didn’t make us sick, the mines did. Them and that Argent bitch for putting us in there.”

Derek subsides, but Peter stalks back and forth across the other end of the kitchen, so agitated that Stiles ends up rumbling a warning at him. Stiles is worried about Peter’s leg—the hamstring’s still healing and could rupture again with too much stress—but Peter seems to take it as a rebuke and promptly comes to heel. He ducks his head, then attempts to cover that up by rumpling one hand through his hair and falling back against the wall.

“We didn’t come up to argue,” Laura repeats firmly, looking between them. She starts to go on, has to clear her throat, and then slumps against the table edge, panting a little bit. But when Derek reaches for her, she irritably waves him off. “Peter, we did think you weren’t…you were done with us. But then we got your telegram, and—look, you said the bite healed you. You said you would’ve died otherwise.”

The anger rolling off Peter abruptly vanishes, and in its place is the sting of alarm. He purses his lips, casts a nervy glance at Stiles, and only then does he give his niece a curt nod. Then he jerks up his hand, holding it palm-out. “It did, but that’s not—I can’t do it. Stiles would have to, and I can’t—it’s not my decision. I can’t make him.”

“So you’re just going to let us die?” Derek says.

“Do you think I want to see that, ever see that, ever again?” Peter hisses, eyes glowing, voice barely above a growl, scent suddenly roiling with outrage and disgust—and deep down, a whiff of remembered horror.

When he speaks he half-lunges off the wall, moving sharply enough that Derek stumbles back, throwing his arm up across his face as a shield. Stiles takes it seriously enough that he finally can’t stay out of it and swings in front of Peter, putting his hands against the man’s chest, trying to push him back.

He rumbles again and Peter starts to respond, a low grumble slipping out, but then Peter hauls his head up to glower over Stiles’ shoulder. “You didn’t have to watch it last time!” Peter spits at Derek. His voice is going shaky, tearing up as Stiles gives up on pushing and reaches to cradle his neck, then his head. “You didn’t have to see it, Derek, I did, I had to watch it, all of it, I had to see everyone shrivel up like bacon in a frying pan, they went black and fell apart, and you—you—”

Stiles pins Peter’s face between his hands, shifting from the rumble to as strong a purr as he can manage. Peter’s fighting him, yanking his head around every time Stiles tries to look him in the eye, and finally Stiles has to drop some of the gentleness. Just use sheer force to trap Peter against the wall, and then he nips Peter on the soft flesh under the chin.

That finally gets through to Peter. He shudders, then suddenly goes limp against Stiles. Still shivering, his hands falling to Stiles’ shoulders. One drags down further, almost to Stiles’ breastbone before Peter pulls it up. It feels like he’s trying to wrap his fingers over Stiles’ shoulder but they’re trembling so much he can’t make them work. He breathes out a sobbing, frustrated whine, pawing at Stiles and Stiles purrs again at him, sliding one hand up into Peter’s hair, pulling the man’s head down onto his shoulder.

Peter whines again, then goes deathly silent. So silent that Stiles gets worried and noses at his cheek, then voices a short bark—Peter starts, then breathes out. Then pulls at Stiles—he’s gotten his hands to fist in the back of Stiles’ coat—as he takes another jagged breath. Something trickles down the side of Stiles’ neck and he smells wet and salt, and realizes that Peter’s started crying.

It’s still very quiet, just the odd harsher breath, the repeated hitch of Peter’s shoulders. Stiles runs his fingers through Peter’s hair, how his mother used to when she soothed him, and keeps purring as Peter works through it and gradually steadies.

They’re by themselves at that point. Lydia must have shooed Derek and Laura out—there are three heartbeats in the front yard, two sitting on the porch bench and the third on the porch floor near the railing. The one on the floor is worked up, but not moving around; of the two on the bench, one is so regular Stiles knows it’s Lydia, while the other is erratic but much calmer than the one on the floor.

Then the one on the floor asks a question about full moons, letting Stiles know that’s Derek. Lydia answers him and from how she says it, they’ve been discussing the details of being a werewolf for at least a few minutes.

“Damn it,” Peter mutters, immediately pulling back Stiles’ attention. He rocks his head a little bit against Stiles’ shoulders, then lifts it and tries to step out of Stiles’ grip.

Stiles doesn’t like the stutter in Peter’s heartbeat, or how sour the man’s scent has gotten, so he doesn’t let go. Peter doesn’t really fight it, but he does drag up his hand and use it to press at his eyes, avoiding Stiles’ gaze.

“I did not,” Peter starts. He’s trying very hard to sound calm. “I did not promise them anything. I wouldn’t—even if I were that stupid, I’d at least know better than to put it in a telegram. Stiles, I just—”

“Your nephew’s a bit of a mean bastard,” Stiles says.

Peter hitches, stopping in the middle of his sentence. Then his head twists and he lets out a short, airless laugh. “Derek’s carrying on the family temper. We actually thought he wouldn’t for a while, so it’s a relief to see that he’s not that passive, even if that sounds—anyway. I thought…I did think they might be…might be suitable pack members, did think I might ask for them, but only after you’d—had time to meet them, and get to know them, and I didn’t think they’d be so damn—”

“Well, look, they are really sick, I can smell that, so I’m keeping that in mind,” Stiles reassures him. “It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve seen somebody treat a werewolf bite like this.”

“I’m sure, but I wanted them to be right for you,” Peter says, suddenly lifting his head from his hand.

He sounds so despairing that Stiles sniffs right at his face. Stiles can’t believe Peter would think this is such a serious disaster, but—Peter does, says his face and the set of his shoulders, and the way his scent just slumps into bitterness.

“I’m not mad at you,” Stiles says, still trying to work out what’s going on in Peter’s head. “Just—just relax, it’s not like I’m going to run you out because of them. Or even throw them out, or…well, look, when you think about my record with biting people anyway—”

“That’s what I mean,” Peter says, getting worked up again. “I know you don’t want to go through all the trouble you had with me again, and you don’t deserve that and damn it, I wanted—”

“Look, stop. Just…I think your niece is right about that, we all need to stop and just—I don’t know. Have dinner. Say hi, you’re still alive after all. Something like that,” Stiles says. He gives Peter’s nape a light squeeze with his hand, holding on till he feels the man relax, and then lets his fingers stroke both sides of Peter’s neck as he lets go. “We’ll eat and calm down, and then talk about it when we aren’t yelling at each other. Or, I don’t know, if you think it’d help, Lydia and I can go off for a while and you can get your yelling done, and then we can talk.”

Peter looks slightly happier. Which means he’s still very frustrated, but at least he doesn’t look like this is something to throw out a pack member over. “I’m sorry about this,” he says, as he’s nodding along with Stiles.

“I had this jackass cousin,” Stiles says dismissively. “Everybody’s got one. I used to make up excuses to not be home when he came around, even would volunteer to muck out the dairy barn—and you know, when he died, I…I cried for him, and I really meant it, too. I wasn’t just being polite. So yeah, family. They’re…family.”

Stiles probably should have stopped before he got to the story about the barn, but he didn’t, wasn’t thinking, and now his throat’s tightened up on him.

He takes a step back to calm himself, then looks up as Peter purrs at him. It’s very tentative, and so is the hand Peter lifts and lightly, briefly rests on Stiles’ shoulder. Stiles pauses, then sighs. Gives Peter’s shoulder an acknowledging bump with his cheek, then turns and walks with the man out to the front porch.

Chapter Text

“My brother is an angry man, and he doesn’t always think about who he should be angry at,” Laura Hale tells Stiles, sitting down with him after dinner.

Lydia’s gone back into town to meet poor Isaac, who probably is wondering whether they care about him at all. After a good post-stage wash-up and a decent meal, Derek’s cooled his temper enough that he and Peter are out back and Peter’s explaining about the stories they’ve been circulating to keep the Shasta Springs people appropriately wary of Beacon Hills. It’s still a tense conversation and Stiles is keeping one ear on it, but Derek sounds fairly intelligent, and even asks Peter at one point whether he needs to sit for his leg.

“Yeah, I can see that,” Stiles says.

Laura pulls her shoulders back defensively and Stiles thinks she’s going to unleash on him. But then she just presses her lips together. She’s brought something tied up in brown paper with her and she hands it over for Stiles to unwrap.

It’s an Irish-English dictionary. “Peter said you needed this,” she says, watching him carefully.

“Oh, yeah, we did,” Stiles says, too surprised to think first. He’d actually completely forgotten Peter talking about that, what with Isaac coming in: aside from figuring out how to deal with the man, they’d run out of room at the house and had had to brush up the old Beacon Hills general store for him and Chris. “Oh…this is great. Lydia’s going to be so happy.”

“I’m glad,” Laura says, smiling.

The three Hales give off a general appearance of relatedness, but most of the time that’s coloring and attitude. Even when they’re mad at each other, when you get them together, they tend to circle in against the world. But if you look closer, Derek and Laura have the same face, but it’s not much like Peter’s.

Except when they smile. There’s something about it, a slow warmth that draws you in, that Stiles has seen only in them. “Thanks,” Stiles says, holding himself back from paging through the book. “And…Derek, well, he hasn’t apologized to me but—”

“He will. I just told him to do Peter first,” Laura says. She does so with an unshakeable certainty that reminds Stiles a little of Lydia. “Derek just—what you need to know is that idiot still thinks things would have been better if he’d died with the rest of our family. He’s angry because he doesn’t know how to fix that.”

“Yeah. Yeah, well, can’t say I don’t know how that goes,” Stiles mutters after a second. Which is a little bit more than he feels comfortable saying, and he’s aware of how Laura’s interest has sharpened, but he ignores her. Instead he gets up and puts the book in the bedroom Lydia uses.

When he comes back, Laura’s hunched over the table, coughing into her hand, and as Stiles sits back down, she looks up with bleary, pained eyes. A few blinks clear them, but they don’t get rid of the rot in her scent. “We are dying,” she says quietly. “I don’t think Derek’s ready for that, not now. I know I’m not. Look, I know this isn’t what you invited us here for, but I’m asking anyway. I don’t have any other option—the doctors give us a couple months more, no longer than the end of the year. The scrying I’ve done says the same.”

Stiles shifts uncomfortably in his chair, then catches himself. He can’t stop it, but it’s not Laura’s fault what happened with his parents, so he just tries to limit himself to fidgeting with a piece of wax on the table. “I know why you’re asking,” he mumbles.

“Peter looks well,” Laura says, suddenly more cheerful. It’s a bit forced, especially the smile she directs at the window, but the swell of surprise in her scent isn’t. “Better than when we last saw him. Part of why we didn’t think he was coming back was that he seemed like he was throwing himself into a wall, and doing it gladly.”

“He’s all right, I think. I mean, you’d have to ask him, but he seems fine with staying here. And not because we have walls to smash up,” Stiles says. He’s got something of an idea of where she’s going.

She smiles again, then drops her gaze to the crumpled, soiled handkerchief in her hand. “Derek and I, we’re prepared to do whatever you need to make this worth it to you. And…I won’t say we know exactly what we’re getting into, but when Peter was staying with us, we did see how—how violent it can be. We aren’t going to be fools about that.”

“I guess that’s good to hear,” Stiles says. He plays with the wax a little longer, then accidentally flicks it off the table. For a second he actually thinks about getting up and retrieving it, and then he gives himself a hard shake. “Listen, it’s not—pack isn’t like a business, you’re not buying a partnership. If I bite you, we’re going—we’re not going to be like family. We will be family, and even closer than that.”

Laura nods. He likes that she’s still sober and meditative, and isn’t just rushing to assure him she understands and wants the bite anyway. “We’re pushed by our sickness,” she says slowly. “But in all honesty, Stiles, Derek and I would have nothing to hold us even if we were well. Everyone we knew and loved except for Peter, they’re dead, and even if we weren’t there to witness it…the way that happened, it’s always going to set us apart from other people.”

“You’ll have to come back to Beacon Hills for this,” Stiles breaks in. “You understand that, right? That’s my territory, that’s where I’m going to stay.”

“I do. In fact, I probably understand better than anybody but a werewolf,” Laura says. She doesn’t smile for that. She tightens her limbs in towards herself, wary in an absentminded way, as if it’s just instinct for her to be careful here. “My mother called up something in the woods—she called it a Nemeton. I don’t know what Peter told you, if he—”

“No, he did, and I knew about that before I even ran into him,” Stiles says. “We’re building the main house near it—my pack, we have old traditions about how to tend to Nemetons, how to work with them.”

Laura’s eyes widen. She’s impressed—maybe even awed. It’s actually a couple seconds before she can go on, and even then, she sounds a little humbled. “That’s…that is a relief to hear, actually. Because my mother had no idea what she was doing. She knew something about how it could be a guardian, a protector, but she just—she was desperate to save us from the Argents and grabbing for straws. She did anything she could think of. And now…Derek and I, we haven’t been able to settle anywhere. We’ve tried, but something’s always itching at us, waking us up. But when we headed up this way, it got better.”

“Were you there when she woke the Nemeton?” Stiles says.

“We all were. Peter was there, too,” Laura says. She hesitates. “You know, sometimes I even dream of it. The tree.”

When they get back to the house, Stiles will have to get out his grandmother’s grimoire, but that doesn’t sound out of line with what he knows. The Nemeton willingly took on his sigil, so he’s sure that it doesn’t have split loyalties. But even so, even if she hadn’t done it right and properly claimed it, if Talia Hale had gotten some kind of recognition from the tree…it’d linger in her family. Those sorts of things, they’re like marks on the soul, Stiles’ grandmother had once told him. Which is why, pup, you better be careful whose marks you choose to wear.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet whether I want to see our old house, but I can tell you that Derek and I will be able to walk into town with you and not flinch,” Laura goes on. “But besides that, there’s…we have no one else, and we don’t want to continue that way, just the two of us. We can help you, we won’t shrink at what you ask us to do, but also we are willing to…to be some kind of company to you.”

“Even with Derek’s temper,” Stiles says.

Laura sighs a little. “He grows on you. I’ll be honest, it took me a few years and I’m his sister. But in his way, he can be as loyal as you’d ever want.”

Stiles and she sigh at the same time for different reasons. She holds herself like she might have another argument to lay out, so he waits, but nothing comes so Stiles gets up from the table. The kettle’s still full of water when he checks, so he just sets that near the fire to heat, then goes about getting the fixings for coffee.

When they’ve both got full mugs in front of them, he sighs a second time. “I—”

“We weren’t thinking you would bite us right off the stage,” Laura says. “Even Derek. We’re not well but we’re not about to drop dead tonight, so if you want some time to—”

“The weaker you get, the more chance there is that the bite might not take,” Stiles says. He rubs at the side of his head, then puts his hand on the table and starts to flick at the handle of his mug. “It took right away with Peter, but you can’t be sure it’s always going to be the same with people, even blood relations. If we’re going to do it, I want to do it away from here. I’ll come talk to you two again when we get to the old Beacon Hills main street.”

“Fair enough,” Laura says. She draws her mug towards her, encircling it with her hands, and he leaves her staring into it.

* * *

“Isaac is healthy, and is not planning on asking for the bite any time soon,” Lydia informs Stiles. “In all honesty, I think he’s still stunned at the idea that somebody might want to hire him. Seems like his father was well-liked by the railroad men, so they’ve been giving him the cold shoulder.”

“At least he’ll be simple, then,” Peter says. The way he’s looking at Stiles is far less confident than how he sounds.

The rental house only has two bedrooms. Derek offered to sleep in the kitchen, but he had had a bad attack earlier and can barely stand, so Lydia told him to just share with his sister. She’s going to ride back into town and get a room in the hotel where they’re putting Isaac up; it’s well into the night, but it’s not that far and she’s reminded Stiles that as a professional gambler, she’s had to walk darker roads to her lodgings. Stiles still isn’t thrilled about it, but he supposes that it’ll be quieter that way. Derek did get around to apologizing to Stiles, and he was irritated enough to be genuine about it, but he and Lydia don’t get along at all.

“He’s a little twitchy anyway, hardly a good idea to give him claws before he’s put together all the pipes for us,” Lydia mutters, leaning against the dresser with her arms crossed. She glances at the closed door as Derek walks around in the kitchen, coughing, and then turns back to Stiles. “Those two. They’ve got two months at most.”

Stiles hisses under his breath, then glances at Peter, who’s gone very still. Then he gives Lydia a harsh look. “Could you—”

“Sugarcoat it?” Lydia says, lifting her brows. “I know what I know, Stiles.”

“Well, just because you’re a banshee doesn’t mean you have to say it,” Stiles snaps.

“It’s fine,” Peter says quietly. He pauses, then pulls his legs up onto the bed and stares at his feet. “It’s not much different from what my nose is telling me, and anyway, you need to know that sort of thing to discuss this.”

“I still think we could handle this better,” Stiles mutters, pushing himself up by Peter. The other man glances at him, then looks away, but Stiles can feel a little tension seep out where their shoulders are touching. “Look, so you both know, I would be fine with biting them.”

Both Peter and Lydia look sharply at him. Peter’s trying to look neutral and mostly succeeding, but his heartbeat races for a second before slowing, and his scent just floods with relief. Lydia, on the other hand—her heartbeat barely skips. “You’re sure,” she says.

“I’m sure,” Stiles says a little sharply. He pulls up his knees and looks at her over them. “I don’t know about you.”

She considers him for a while. Long enough that Peter shifts restlessly next to Stiles, even leaning forward as if to rise before she stares him into slumping back. Then she sighs and pulls herself off the dresser. She takes a step forward, her arms a little tighter around her chest. “You’re the alpha—”

“And you’re the one who wanted to make sure she had a say,” Stiles snaps. “Well, I’m asking.”

“In that case, I’m not worried about them,” Lydia says. She actually isn’t sharp, but her lack of irritation just gives her words that much more weight. “On the bare facts, they’d be ideal additions. They have talents we need, they want the bite more than we want to give it to them, and they’ll have reasons to be grateful afterward that have nothing to do with the bite. They’re better even than Isaac, who could always try traveling east where nobody knows his father.”

“So you’re all right with it,” Stiles says.

A trace of irritation shows now in how Lydia’s brows pinch together. “I didn’t say that. I said on the facts. But there’s still how you feel about it, and what I want to know is whether you’ll be able to face up to biting two more people. I need you to put aside whether it helps Peter here and consider that.”

“Lydia,” Peter says angrily. His breath catches roughly in his throat, and then comes out in a harsh, humorless laugh as he straightens up against the headboard. “You could give winter lessons in being cold.”

“That’s because winter and I both know covering up something never lasts. It always comes out, sooner or later, and when the thaw comes you might not like how things look,” Lydia says. She’s not even looking at him. She’s still staring straight at Stiles. “You know we’ll be here, too. You won’t be handling Derek and Laura on your own. But still, do you think—”

“Yeah.” Stiles rubs his hands against his thighs, then sighs and reaches over to put one on Peter’s shoulder. The other man’s still seething at Lydia and as much as he appreciates it, that’s just not helpful. She’s asking a fair question—asking the question nobody else is going to. That’s what she does. “No, I did think about that. I mean, did you think I wouldn’t?”

“You have made me wonder at times,” Lydia says.

Which…fair. Not that Stiles likes admitting it, but it is. “Anyway, I thought about it,” he says after a few seconds. “And it’s…it’s like everything else, all right? I can’t just run away all the time. It’s part of being what I am, an alpha, and—and they’ll be helpful, and yeah, Peter doesn’t have to bury more of his family, and I think the good’s going to be more than the bad. So I can live with that. That’s how I feel about it, all right?”

Lydia eyes him a little longer, like she doesn’t believe him. But just as he’s starting to protest, she shrugs and pivots on her heel. “Well, then I’ll tell Chris we’ll need another wagon to carry everyone and everything back,” she says, opening the door.

She goes out, shutting the door behind her, and Stiles can’t help letting out a deep breath. He slumps against the wall, wipes off his brow, and then slumps again. Lydia is one of a kind, and he’s lucky to have her, but that doesn’t make her any easier.

“Stiles,” Peter says. When Stiles looks over, Peter has one hand raised to gesture. But it hangs there in the air, limp and still, as he purses his lips and flicks his eyes from Stiles’ face to the bed and back. “Stiles. I wasn’t—but thank you. Thank you.”

“You don’t deserve to lose more people,” Stiles tells him. “I mean, like I told her, that’s not all of why I’m doing this, but if it helps with that, I’m happy.”

Peter goes still again. He just doesn’t know what to say—Stiles can see how blank his eyes go, like he’s having trouble even understanding what Stiles is saying.

When he finally comes back to himself, it’s with a jerk. He puts his hand down on the bed, then takes it up to absently push at his hair. Then he laughs, light and soft, with eyes as warm as candlelight on a summer night.

“Thank you,” he says again.

He moves over, letting Stiles get under the blankets first. Then, when he slides under, he tucks his head against Stiles’ shoulder and lets Stiles wrap one arm around his back, hand loosely pressed to his neck to draw off any pain from his leg. Peter doesn’t need Stiles around to fall asleep anymore, but they’ve both gotten used to it, gotten comfortable with it.

And if Stiles is honest, he’s happy that way. He’s not sure about Peter, but as long as the other man’s not protesting, he’s not going to ask. It’s selfish but he just wants a little, just for himself. Just a while longer.

* * *

When they test Derek and Laura’s blood, everything looks fine. So the day after they get to Beacon Hills, Chris and Isaac move to the general store and Stiles sits Derek and Laura under the Nemeton and bites each of them on the arm.

Both of them have a pretty rough turning. Mostly because of how ill they are, and all the rot that gets turned out of them as a result. And unlike with Peter, they’re not so ill that they can just sleep through it. Derek’s quiet about it, just the odd pained grunt now and then, but Laura screams and sobs and claws up the dirt around the Nemeton’s roots. It’s hard to watch even for Stiles, and once or twice Peter goes so stiff and pale that Stiles tries to make him go to the store.

Peter insists on staying, just muttering that Laura sounds too much like her mother, and when it’s all over, he’s just as worn-out as Derek and Laura are. Stiles walks them all into the house to rest, then goes to sit on the porch with an exhausted Lydia.

“I wonder if childbirth is this terrible,” Lydia mutters.

“Have you and Chris talked about that?” Stiles wonders.

Lydia hits his arm, and then goes inside and gets her grandmother’s book and the dictionary. She makes him help her translate pages till they both fall asleep, tumbled into each other with the books in their laps.

Chapter Text

Stiles isn’t expecting either Laura or Derek to turn out like Peter, in the sense that they’ll catch on faster than he can explain, but he’s pleasantly surprised by Laura. She has recurring problems with being distracted by her new senses, but other than that, she quickly takes to being a werewolf. She even manages the full shift to wolf form before her first full moon, which she attributes to already knowing the importance of mindset in herbalry.

“If you harvest something with ill will in your heart, then the poultice or whatever you’re making isn’t going to come out the same as if you did it while hoping for the best,” she tells Stiles, mincing up herbs in the kitchen. “My mother wouldn’t even let me stand in her garden if I was angry about something.”

She’s also already proven useful as a healer, seeing as they’ve only just made it up to the Nemeton for healing Stiles after his fight with Deucalion, and building a large house in the middle of the woods isn’t easy. Chris has sprained his wrist once already and Isaac’s prone to cutting his fingers, and Lydia occasionally gets headaches from practicing her banshee skills. Laura keeps saying she’s not as good as her mother was, but she’s capable enough for what they need, and she’s certainly interested in learning more. Half the things Stiles has mentioned, she hasn’t ever heard of—and the same for him, to be honest—and so she listens as eagerly as Peter does whenever Stiles brings out his mother’s herbal. All in all, Stiles is coming to appreciate her quite a bit.

Derek, on the other hand, is harder. He’s intelligent and quick to understand when Stiles tells him something, and he’s certainly determined to learn. But he’s just…just very…angry.

“Damn it,” Derek snarls, as his claws slide out by accident and shatter the bottle he’d been trying to uncork. And then, as Laura and Stiles hop back from the spreading pool of oil on the floor, he decides to get the shards off his fingers by jerking his hand and sending them flying across the room.

One piece nearly cuts Peter, who’s come from the other room to see what’s the matter, across the chest. Another one hits Stiles on the cheek, though he only realizes when he smells the sudden anger on Peter and looks up to see the other man staring at him. He reaches up and wipes off the blood and bit of glass, and is frowning at his fingers when Peter lets out a vicious snarl.

“My God, Derek, if you’d like to try to murder us, at least do it on purpose,” Peter snaps. “Not out of stupidity, like you usually do.”

Derek’s head goes up and he stiffens. His eyes are glowing and his claws actually get longer, his canine teeth start to lengthen into actual fangs, but his scent’s as much hurt as angry. And curiously, his shoulders hunch up and one of his feet even drags backward, as if he’d rather walk away. He’s not shy about confrontations, and becoming a werewolf usually just increases that kind of attitude, so Stiles would’ve expected him to immediately go onto the offensive.

“At this rate, we’ll be having you sleep outside to save the furnishings,” Peter goes on, and Derek just pulls more into himself.

Laura is not happy at Peter and she’s pressing her lips together, leaning forward as if she wants to intervene. But she doesn’t, and Derek’s looking closer and closer to losing control of his shifting, and finally Stiles lets out a short snarl himself. “Peter, you’re not helping,” he says. “When this happens, you need to calm down, all right? Not get even more worked up.”

Stiles is saying that to both of the other men, looking back and forth between them, but he swings around as Peter makes a bitten-off noise. Peter winces as Stiles frowns, then drops his head. His scent’s gone from almost enraged to—to despondent, it’s so sour with depression. Stiles blinks in surprise and when he looks, Peter’s already backed halfway into the other room.

“I apologize,” Peter says. He takes a deep, sharp-sounding breath, as if he’ll say more, and then he abruptly turns and walks off, and all Stiles gets is a mutter about getting a bucket of water for washing off the floor.

“So is this what being alpha is about?” Derek snaps. “Yelling at people just because you can?”

Stiles glances at the man but it’s mindless reflex. It’s not till he gives himself a good shake and blinks again, and sees that yes, they’re in the house and they’re all awake, that he really looks at Derek. “Excuse me? I wasn’t yelling at—and he was mad at you!”

“So? That’s just Peter, he’s always been like that,” Derek says. He is genuinely upset with Stiles. He’s even taking a step forward, his stance aggressive like it wasn’t with Peter. “Anyway, that’s our business, it’s none of your business—”

“Actually, it is, because actually, we’re pack now, and don’t tell me I have to talk to you about that again,” Stiles snaps back. “Anyway, why you’re so damn worked up about him when he’s—”

“I,” Laura says, with enough volume and dramatic emphasis to make them both look at her. She finishes wiping the herb specks off her hands and irritably tosses the rag on the counter, then grabs a double handful of her skirt and lifts that clear as she steps over the oil. “Am going to get something to wrap those glass pieces in. And you—” she looks at her brother “—stop. Just—just stop, Derek.”

Then she stalks off. She’s going in the same direction as Peter, but he’s gone outside and past the water barrel—Isaac is still building the water tower—as if he’s going all the way to the stream for that bucket of water. Stiles rocks on his heels and debates going after one or both of them, and then sighs. He pulls himself back and reminds himself that yes, he really is the alpha, and he needs to stop getting baited into things. Takes a few breaths.

Derek doesn’t interrupt, and when Stiles finally turns back to him, Derek’s slumped against the wall and is rubbing his hand along the side of his face. The man’s anger has collapsed into an irritation that’s twisted more back on himself than on the rest of the world: when he takes his hand down, he sees that his claws haven’t fully retracted and his lips pull back into a resentful scowl. Then he presses those together and looks off to the side, smelling of disgust and frustration and a little sadness.

“Sorry,” he mutters.

“All right,” Stiles finally says. He looks around, takes a few more rags down, and drops them onto the oil so it’ll at least stop spreading. “Just…just tell me why you’re so mad I stopped Peter just now.”

“Well, he’s my uncle,” Derek says. To his credit, when he looks up and sees Stiles doesn’t understand, he looks frustrated more because he can’t quite find the words, rather than because he simply thinks Stiles should understand everything, just from that. “He…we’ve always been chased around by other people, so we look after each other. Even he does, even if sometimes he hates being a Hale.”

“He does?” Stiles says. “But he—”

Derek resettles himself against the wall, then starts picking at his claw nubbin. “Laura’d be better for this,” he mutters, mostly to himself. “Look, I don’t mean he literally hates it, it’s just—the Hales always had a bad reputation. People don’t want us to live near them, mix with them, and Peter’s…he’s tried. He went away to college for a while—I don’t really remember, I was just a kid—”

“That was when we lived in New York,” Laura says, returning with a spare jar in hand. She glances at Stiles, then eases by him to kneel down, picking up the bottle fragments and dropping them into the jar. “I was really young too, but he had to leave after a year and…and a half, I think. He and our mother wouldn’t talk much about it, but from what I heard, some of the other students, they went to the dean, and we were rich enough that he could go, but not rich enough to keep him there.”

“He did something, hurt somebody. But they did something first,” Derek adds. “Probably what they always do, call us devil-worshippers and blame us for anything bad that happens to them, no matter if we actually did it. And you know, sometimes we don’t. Curses and hexes are a lot of work.”

Stiles starts to get down to help Laura, then stops to move a chair out of the way. “But he went because he was trying to get away from your family?”

“It’s just it can be hard,” Laura sighs. “Look. I loved my mother, but she could…she could make things really hard. She never would let an opportunity pass to tell you you were dead wrong, even if being quiet would make people friendlier. Especially church people, and we didn’t go.”

Derek snorts at his hand. Then he checks his fingertips, and when he’s sure all the nails are blunt again, he rakes his fingers back through his hair. He’s thoughtful now, about as much so as Stiles has ever seen him. “We went once in a while. Peter’d make us, just so we didn’t stand out too much. He’d make fun of what the preacher was saying, point out all the wrong things, and that wasn’t so bad, but…look, Peter is how he is, but what our mother used to say, he’s like that because of which family we are. Sure, he lies and he likes lying, he’s good at it and he likes being good at it. But he started out lying because he had to.”

“He’d get us out of things,” Laura says. Just as Stiles gets down, she shakes her head and grabs his elbow on her way to standing. “No, I have them all. Peter got us out of a lot of trouble. Got us into it, too, but still, if our mother was in trouble—”

“And she was, a lot,” Derek mutters, with equal parts old resentment and still-fresh grief.

“—first thing any of us would do, we’d get Peter, and he’d always figure a way out of it,” Laura finishes. She glances over the floor, then hikes up her skirt and puts her foot out on one of the rags Stiles dropped. She swirls it around, gathering up the oil and the other rags till they’re one greasy pile. Then she reaches down and takes off her shoe, and turns to go into the other room again.

It’s quiet for a few minutes. Stiles casts around for something to do, and then spots the herbs that Laura had been chopping. They’re supposed to go into a bottle of oil, to make them last through the winter, so he gets out another bottle and opens it up and sticks a funnel into it.

“We’re used to him,” Derek eventually offers.

“I can see that,” Stiles mutters. He’s still trying to think through what he wants to do, as he’s filling up the bottle. “I know you’re…you have your way of doing things. I understand that. But you’re also a werewolf now, and getting angry isn’t how you learn to be one.”

“Yeah, I know, you’ve said that a lot,” Derek says. Not, as it turns out, accusing Stiles—the other man’s staring into the hearth when Stiles glances over. “I’m trying. I’ll try harder.”

Stiles scrapes some clingy herb bits off on the funnel rim. He could leave it at that…but that would be easy and half-assed, as his father would say. “Peter knows that too. Packs can’t just be tearing on each other all the time. Even if you pull together when somebody else comes after you, it still makes you weak.”

He keeps an eye on Derek as he says that—and on Laura’s heartbeat in the other room—but aside from a brief tightening of his face, Derek takes that fairly well. Even seems to consider it before replying. “He’s different from how he used to be,” Derek says, measuring out his words. “He used to be worse than that, and all the time. He’s different since you…you bit him, I guess. And he’s worried we’ll ruin this for him, so if he was ever going to go back to how he was…but he’s not. Honestly, Laura and I, we’re not used to that either. Used to him like that.”

“Well, I hope you can get used to it,” Stiles says under his breath. “Because honestly, I don’t like snapping at people like that, even if it’s for a good reason.”

Derek makes an odd noise, half-surprised, half-skeptical. “He does what you tell him more than I’ve ever seen with anybody, even family,” he says. He pauses, then takes a step towards Stiles. “He follows your lead, even follows you around. And when you’re around, he gets…he smells like—”

“Yeah, I know, and I.” Stiles has to pause to pull his hands back from the bottle, just in case he breaks that one. “I know. And I try to be careful about that, all right? Because you can take advantage of that, as alpha, and that’s not—that’s not right either. Anyway, that’ll wear off as you all get more comfortable with being werewolves.”

“Wear off?” Derek says, still skeptical. “Hasn’t it been almost a year since you bit him?”

“But he was away for a lot of it, and the times he wasn’t, he was really hurt. That makes you want to be near your alpha more, because you heal better when you’re closer,” Stiles says, going back to filling up the bottle. “Trust me, I’m not taking it that seriously. I know he’s still nervous about coming back here.”

Derek’s shifting in place, irritated again about something, but before he can put that into words, Laura’s come back. She has him help her with the oily rags, and a few minutes later, Peter returns, bucket of water in hand. Peter also has knocked together a mop from an old shirt and a stick he’s apparently just cut and scraped the bark from—Laura takes it from him, telling him she and Derek will clean up the kitchen.

He looks a little bemused, but he lets her have her way. And then he tenses up again, once he’s realized that Stiles is following him out onto the back porch.

“I’m sorry about my behavior,” Peter says, glancing over. “My nephew’s been a constant test to my patience since he could…but you’re right. He won’t learn to keep his shift out of sight that way.”

“New-bittens are frustrating for everybody,” Stiles says. “I didn’t want you making it worse. But it’s not…it’s not as if it’s unforgiveable. You don’t need to keep acting as if I’m going to throw you out if you put a foot wrong.”

The way Peter starts, Stiles knows he’s put his nose right into the heart of it. And honestly, that doesn’t feel that great. He’d been thinking Peter was getting less unsure of himself, but it turns out he was either paying less attention or Peter’s been better about hiding it—neither of those reflect that well on him as an alpha, he thinks.

“I appreciate that,” Peter says quietly. He glances at Stiles, then puts his hands on the porch rail. Leans onto them, taking a breath, before he steps back. “I’m sorry I’m so—so—”

“You don’t have to apologize for that,” Stiles says, doing his best to keep his exasperation out of his voice. Since that’s not going to help any more than Peter was with Derek. “Just…just believe me when I say that, all right?”

Peter nods. Then he smiles, but it’s a little shaky, even if the affection in it is genuine. “I know. I do. I do believe you. It’s not you, Stiles, it’s just…it’s not what I’m used to. You—well, you and Lydia have looked into my family’s history—”

“Everybody thought you were evil witches, wouldn’t leave you alone, well, I’m a werewolf and I know what a real evil witch is supposed to be like, and you weren’t that, whatever you did,” Stiles says.

He thinks he’s a little too tart, and he’s going to say sorry for it, but Peter unexpectedly laughs. “Yes, of course,” Peter says, his humor already dying. “Yes. I was never a true witch. Honestly, for a while I swore off everything like that completely. I think I told you, I’d gone to college for a bit…”

Stiles nods. What Derek and Laura just told him is on the tip of his tongue, but he looks at Peter, looks at the way the man’s eyes have gone a little distant with memory, and ultimately he keeps his mouth shut.

“It didn’t matter,” Peter says after a long pause. He looks down, then back up and he’s hardened ever-so-slightly. “If I’d been able to afford to leave the state…but with my family, things like distance never seem to matter. The name finds you anyway, and it doesn’t matter that it wasn’t your generation, that by this point the blood’s too thin for past glories…they’ll find you, and call you witch, and hate you anyway. So I gave up trying to pretend to be what I’m not. ‘Though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.’”

“Is that from a play?” Stiles says, as Peter changes his tone slightly.

Peter nods. “Shakespeare. Much Ado About Nothing, one of his comedies. I had a complete set of his works in my—but that’s getting off the point.”

“Well, all the point was, was I don’t care about a lot of things other people do, and I want you to stop worrying so much about what I think,” Stiles says. He reaches out and puts his hand on Peter’s arm for a moment, then pulls it away as he notices flecks of green on his fingers. He moves over to the rail and starts scraping his hand against it. “I’m still working out how to lead a pack anyway. I was born into this, but that’s not the same thing—I wasn’t supposed to inherit for a long, long time.”

His throat tightens and he looks at his hand on the rail. He’s getting better about it, but thinking about his family—it still catches him sometimes.

“I know it was unexpected, but I don’t think they would be ashamed of you, if they knew,” Peter says quietly. He’s moved a little closer. Tentative about it, not relaxing till Stiles looks up at him and then away, but he’s put his hands on the rail too and they’re almost touching Stiles’ hand. “It’s easy to listen to you. And I have met other alphas now, so I know that’s not merely being one.”

“Well, that’s good, but let’s see if I can keep us alive,” Stiles mutters.

“You have so far,” Peter says. He’s still speaking softly, but his voice has firmed up. “You’ve killed for us, Stiles, you’ve already proven that. And you’ve saved me, healed me, twice now. You’re an alpha we have chosen, not just one of circumstance.”

Stiles looks up at him. Peter really means it. He’s staring at Stiles the way that other people stare when they’re standing up in church, burying their hearts in a prayer, and it—hurts to look at, but it’s also…it’s something Stiles wouldn’t want to miss seeing, either.

“Thanks,” Stiles says. He stops, his mouth still open, and then makes an incredulous noise, but the disbelief is all at himself, for that being the only thing he can think of to say. “Thank you. That—thanks. That helps.”

“Well, I’m trying,” Peter says. He smiles and for a second it’s brilliant. Then it wavers and he looks away. “I am trying. It may be foreign land to me, but I’ll keep trying.”

He doesn’t entirely sound as if he’s speaking to Stiles with that, and the way he jumps when Stiles puts a hand on his shoulder confirms it. But he doesn’t move away. And eventually he does smile again.

* * *

Thankfully, for the sake of all of their tempers, Derek does get better. His control is still fragile enough that he doesn’t want to work magic, but he manages to master shifting all the way to wolf form, and he survives his second full moon without massacring anything or being massacred.

Autumn’s coming along and they have more mouths to feed, so Stiles decides they need to step up hunting. Make sure they have enough stocked food, especially for the days the snow’s too thick on the ground even for wolves to easily travel through. Hunting is a good pack-teaching activity anyway.

Or at least it should be. Unfortunately, autumn is also a season of increased distractions.

“All right,” Stiles says, jiggling his handful of acorns. “So the herd is here—” he points to the squiggly river he’s drawn in the dirt “—and wind is currently this way shifting this way, but the ravine cuts across, so if this acorn is me, and these two are you—”

“Pay attention,” Laura says, smacking the back of Derek’s head.

Derek jerks his head away, looking offended and wounded in equal measures. He still keeps staring off at where Chris and Lydia are talking. “Don’t you smell it? She’s been like that for the last couple days.”

Peter snarls under his breath, and when Derek looks at him, he reaches out and grabs Derek by the front of the shirt. “Can you please have some tact before she screams your head off?” he snaps.

“Banshees can actually do that,” Laura chimes in. “I helped her try it out on some of our extra squash the other day. Isaac almost walked into it and got squash guts all over his face.”

Stiles sighs and puts his hand over his face. “Do you people want to eat nothing but cornmeal this winter, or do you want nice, tasty smoked venison?”

At least all three of them look a little ashamed of themselves. Derek even manages to focus till they get through the whole hunting plan.

Of course, halfway through the actual hunt, he forgets which deer they’re trying to cut out and shifts human into the bargain, and Stiles has to divert to save him from taking an antler to the eye. Peter and Laura do stay on course and take down two bucks, which should be plenty. And Derek’s still getting over the recent full moon, and only managed his first shift to wolf a week ago, so Stiles should go easy on him.

Should, but despite his improvement, Derek still makes that a little harder than it should be. Sometimes Derek just doesn’t seem to listen to his instincts, and his problem as a newly-bitten werewolf should be not listening to them.

Take what happens once the deer are safely down. Before Stiles actually let Derek and Laura join in, he had them watch him and Peter while Lydia explained how a hunt works, including the pecking order for carving up the prey. Sure, Stiles isn’t as strict about that as a lot of alphas, and his instincts still want him to be first. He’s not asking for that much, just that he can go in and give the carcass a little nip before the others start to feed, and then he’s usually happy to wave the others ahead of him.

That’s not just him either; the others should understand to let him go ahead of them. But he and Derek both start forward at the same time and this on top of a semi-botched hunt, and Stiles just loses his temper, whipping around and slamming his shoulder into Derek.

The other wolf bowls over, legs flying straight up into the air. Then, thankfully, he has the sense to go limp and whine with his head down, but Stiles is still irritated. Stalks around Derek a bit, stiff-legged and snarling, while Laura lurks nervously near her brother’s head.

Peter had been hanging back, but Stiles stays near Derek long enough that even Peter gets concerned. He eases up, tail and head down, twisting around to offer his neck when Stiles looks his way.

Stiles pauses and Peter makes a soft, placating noise. Then bends down on his forelegs and stretches out and licks submissively at some of the blood on the underside of Stiles’ chin. When Stiles takes a step away from Derek, Peter takes a mirroring step back, towards the deer carcasses. Then another, and then, once Stiles is clear of Derek, Peter turns around with a relieved huff.

He drops to sprawl a yard away from one deer, clearly expecting Stiles to trot on by him, and when Stiles doesn’t, he lets out a startled whuff. Then rolls over onto his back, neck laid out, whining nervously as Stiles moves to stand over him, snuffing into his ruff and up along his jaw.

Derek barks a question and Stiles lifts his head, snarling with his fangs showing. But Derek is still where Stiles left him, so Stiles ignores him and goes back to sniffing at Peter. There’s something—odd about how Peter smells, and he can’t quite figure out what, and he sticks his nose deep into Peter’s fur, trying to chase it out into the open. Works his way down Peter’s belly, occasionally lifting his nose as Peter quivers under him.

He presses his nose into the crease where Peter’s thigh meets his belly and Peter’s whole body suddenly heaves up. Blinking, Stiles yanks his head up, then hops over to the side just as Peter falls into a jumble of naked limbs, human, decidedly puzzled about what’s going on, hurriedly tucking his legs up against himself as Laura makes about as close as a wolf can get to a squawk and ducks behind a bush, and—

Stiles goes human too, slapping his hand against his face. “Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” he says.

Then he shifts to wolf. Goes and gives the deer a nip each on the ear, gives the others a hurried bark to start eating, and then he goes and hides in his own bush.

Peter comes over once, carrying a piece of haunch in his jaws, but when he tries to put it down, Stiles growls at him. He walks away a couple steps, stops and looks at the bush, and then slowly goes back to his niece and nephew. And then Chris wanders down to help carve up the leftovers to take back, which is a useful distraction.

“Are you all right?” Laura asks later, at dinner.

“Why?” Stiles says to his plate.

He can tell that they’re all looking at each other. Except maybe for Isaac, who was working on the piping and is staying for the meal before he and Chris go back to the store to sleep, and who’s been glancing at the door with increasing frequency. Isaac, Stiles thinks, would not be a bad werewolf, if he ever asked. The man certainly seems to operate on the principle that the more he avoids the action, the better for him.

“Sorry about earlier,” Derek eventually says. When Stiles frowns at him, Derek sighs and pokes at his venison. “When I got in the way. I think the moon’s still making my temper short.”

“It’s also fall,” Lydia mutters. Derek grunts in confusion and she sighs and puts her knife down. “Heat season. Even packmates quarrel with each other. My husband used to take a vacation to his family’s estate, where he could hole up away from his pack till it was over.”

“That reminds me,” Chris says. “Erica sent another telegram, asking whether she could visit—”

He falters as Lydia gives him an icy stare. Peter’s tensed up as well, smelling so strongly of anger that Stiles nearly purrs at him.

“Erica?” Laura says, looking warily around the table. “Who is she?”

“She’s another alpha, her pack’s south of here,” Stiles says. He frowns as Peter’s scent gets more and more frustrated. “I met her when she was still a beta—her alpha was Kali, one of Blackwood’s followers, we told you about that. I guess we probably should do a visit sometime soon—I don’t think we’re going to be competing, so she’ll make a good ally.”

“I’m sure an alliance will suit her,” Peter mutters, stabbing his knife into his food.

Lydia looks at him, then looks at Stiles. She’s very irritated with Stiles, for some reason, but then she sighs and changes the subject to when the water tower will be full enough for a test run. Isaac is so happy to talk about that that he rambles on till the end of dinner.

“Peter asked me about Erica a while ago,” Lydia tells Stiles as they’re doing the dishes afterward. “I saw no reason not to tell him about her, so I did.”

“All right,” Stiles says, concentrating on not breaking the dish he’s scrubbing. Now that he’s looking for it, the signs of heat onset are pretty obvious: he’s restless, keeps sniffing the air, has been a little touchy for the last day or so.

Not to mention that he hasn’t been around this many werewolves for…three straight heats. Since before his grandmother died. He sniffs again, then decides that he’s going to spend the night outside. Laura still smells clear, but Derek and Peter are both on the verge, and Stiles being around is just going to speed them up.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Lydia says. She gives her hands an exasperated shake and then stalks out of the kitchen. “I will talk sense into you when I have to, but when there’s not even sense to work with—”

Stiles looks over, frowning, but all he sees is the rag she’d been using and a perfectly fine, half-dry cup. He almost calls her back to ask what’s the matter, but then he hears her outside talking to Chris and Isaac and he just picks up the mug to finish it up.

Peter clears his throat from the doorway. “Stiles. I’d like—”

“I’m going to sleep outside,” Stiles says, not looking up. “Don’t wait up for me, I just—I’m going to run around some. I’m starting heat, I’ve got to burn off some of this.”

Peter is silent. And still angry, although sadness is weaving into it. Sadness and disappointment and a thick streak of longing that makes Stiles blow his nose out into his arm, it smells so—Peter might be further along than Derek, actually. Damn it.

“And remember I told you, drink a lot of water,” Stiles mutters. “Since you missed last year, it might hit you really hard this year.”

“Yes. Yes. I’ll do that,” Peter finally says. He lingers in the doorway a second longer, then turns with a sharp rap of his heel against the floor.

Stiles winces, then shakes himself. He puts the cup away and then plunges his arms and hands deep into the washbasin. The water cools him for a few minutes, but just a few.

He scrubs harder.

Chapter Text

Heat without company takes longer, and is a lot more miserable. And since Stiles is spending it outside, he has much less to distract him. Once the last dish had been done, he’d just walked right out, leaving his clothes on the back porch—he doesn’t have any books or blueprints to take his mind off things. And you can only kill so much prey.

It’s worse, Stiles thinks, soaking himself in the creek, because for once he’s not alone. He knows where to find somebody, and he just…he just keeps thinking, every time he breathes in and thinks he can smell them on the breeze. Smell him.

But Stiles is trying to be responsible, damn it, so he sticks it out for nearly a whole day—and then he slinks back to the house in the grey hour before dawn. It’s probably not the best idea, especially as Peter’s probably hit heat by now, but he’s going to go crazy if he can’t at least have something to read. Anyway, so long as he’s quick, he figures he won’t run into anyone. Chris and Isaac should be back at the general store and Lydia likes to sleep in when she can, and none of the Hales should be up either.

Except Derek is. Pacing back and forth in the little clearing behind the house, grumbling to himself and occasionally slashing at the bushes with his claws. He’s so intent on his grievances that he doesn’t notice Stiles till Stiles is nearly under his nose.

But when he does, he does it with a fury: falling back into a crouch, eyes glowing, fangs and claws bared. Stiles pauses, sniffing the air, then suppresses an eye-roll; he knows exactly how Derek feels right now and that’s why he thinks the man could do a little better.

“Oh, what, now you’re coming back?” Derek snaps. “That’s great, show up after Peter’s already barricaded himself in.”

Stiles starts, then shifts human. “What? What’s wrong with him? Why is he doing—I told you all, you shouldn’t do that, that just makes it worse. You need to get out and move around.”

Derek hulks back, his eyes widening with angry surprise. Then he laughs shortly, waving his hand in a disbelieving gesture. “Don’t act like you don’t know, you know what’s wrong with him,” he snarls. “You’re the alpha, you know how this works, and you still had to lead him on and make him think—you know, I felt bad for some of the men he’s suckered in that way, but if he ever goes after you, you’d deserve it.”

He doesn’t know what he’s prodding—Peter hasn’t ever said out loud, but he hasn’t told Derek and Laura exactly how bad his and Stiles’ fight was. And Stiles knows that because when Derek sees how furious Stiles is, the man finally backs down.

Though even intimidated, Derek keeps in his crouch as he hops back towards the house. “You could just tell him stop it, leave you alone,” Derek goes on. “Even the preachers who go on about how sodomy sends you straight to hell are more honest than you are—”

Stiles snarls at him, but it’s instinct, reacting to the buckets of bitter anger pouring into Derek’s scent. It’s not for another second that Stiles really understands what Derek has just said, and when he does—he’s confused. “What are you talking about? What do you—I don’t care about that, I’m a werewolf, why would I care who Peter’s slept with, if you ask a priest we’re all going to hell—wait.”

He goes to move past Derek and Derek steps in front of him. Stiles snarls at him again, louder, and Derek’s instincts are saying to cave, shoulders twitching back, chin jerking up, but Derek still won’t get out of the way.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Derek demands.

“I’m seeing if he’s drinking the stupid water like I told him, since he didn’t listen about keeping himself moving around,” Stiles snaps. He’s trying to listen for Peter’s heartbeat, but Derek’s heart is drumming like it means to burst through the man’s ribs, while Stiles’ own is—he can’t even hear that. Can’t concentrate long enough, he’s just so—so—he needs to find Peter. “And then I’m asking him why wouldn’t he say something? I didn’t know—I thought that was just his heat.”

Derek starts to say something nasty back, then stutters to an incredulous stop. He’s so disbelieving that he lets Stiles shove him out of the way.

“How couldn’t you know?” Derek yells after Stiles. “He’s been like this the whole time!”

“Damn it all,” Laura says, appearing in the kitchen just as Stiles walks into it. She’s tightening her shift around herself as she glances at him, then quickly away. “Derek, shut up, I’ll—” she looks at Stiles again “—Peter’s in the cellar, I’ll go deal with Derek, just—just please, he’s our uncle, I don’t think he was trying to hurt you. Don’t hurt him.”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Stiles mutters as she pushes past him. He quickly sweeps the kitchen, spots a pot and takes it down. Scoops it full from the water barrel and then goes back around where the new entrance to the den is.

He kneels down and tugs on the loop that should bring up the door, but the door rises only a few inches before sticking. Stiles gives it another tug, then sighs and puts down the pot. If he really wanted to, he could probably force the door up, but…

“Peter?” Stiles calls.

Laura drags Derek back into the house, where Lydia’s now awake. A couple sharp remarks from her and Derek falls silent. Down in the den, Stiles can hear a rapid, jerky heartbeat. The shuffle of feet, a frustrated sigh.

“Peter, you heard all of that, I know you did,” Stiles says. “Look, I don’t give a damn who you get into bed. I—I’d be a hypocrite, all right? It’s not like I haven’t done that too.”

No response. Stiles yanks at the door again and he feels something behind it move—the door’s warping near the hinges. Whatever Peter’s done, he’s secured those and the handles, so Stiles would have to rip out the whole door to get into the cellar. Which he could do. But he doesn’t want to scare the man, and he just—he just doesn’t understand. If it was just Peter being afraid Stiles would reject him for that, why’d he block himself in the cellar like the danger is in what he might do?

“And…and if you think heat’s going to change you,” Stiles says after a moment. “It doesn’t work like that. We’re not animals, all right, we don’t lose our minds. As long as we remember to take care of ourselves. But if you’re—if there’s something wrong, if heat’s not going right, you need to tell me. I’m your alpha, I’ll figure out how to help—”

The footsteps come nearer. One of the wooden stairs behind the door creaks, and then another. Peter mutters to himself about sowing and reaping, then takes a deep breath and speaks up. “Stiles. You don’t have to—to feel sorry for me, and I assure you, I can deal with this on my own. I do remember, you did say heat’s perfectly survivable alone, and I don’t want to burden you. I understand if you have other people in mind for this.”

Stiles has no idea what the man is talking about, and he almost yells that, he’s so frustrated. And then he remembers last night, Peter’s scent changing at the dinner table, and—goddamn it. God. No wonder Lydia thinks he’s an idiot, because he is. “No, Peter, I don’t—Erica and I just had one heat, and that was just because—because I almost got myself drowned, right after you left, and I was upset and she saved me and calmed me down and I don’t know, I just needed—but I’m not—when I said she’d make a good ally, I really didn’t mean anything else. I’m not going to go off and find her for this.”

He can hear Peter completely stop breathing for a second. Then Peter lets out a sharp exhale, almost a jag of a laugh. “Stiles, please don’t make this any harder—damn it, I am not someone who turns these things down, I never have been, but I—you make me—I don’t want anything less. I want you, damn it, I don’t just want you because of the season. You. I’ve wanted you since it was just me and you in that hole and it’s you, it’s always been you and I can’t settle, you don’t understand, if we start I can’t settle and I’ve worked so. So hard to make things right, be the kind of beta you deserve and I can’t—I can’t. I can’t turn against you, not again, I can’t let myself do this, I can’t—”

Peter’s voice fades sharply as he stumbles back and then he strikes out at something in the cellar, wood cracking over his wild, desperate laugh. And then he stops talking.

Stiles grabs the handle. Then stops himself from just ripping off the door by banging his head into it. He hears Peter’s breathing and it’s just as rough as his own.

“Peter, listen to me,” he says. He breathes. Strains his hearing, his nose, all his senses, just trying to make sure the man is still with him. Trying to will Peter to stay with him, to just listen. “I know. That’s not what I was saying—heat makes you want something, but it doesn’t have anything to do with what you want. You still choose that. All right? And I thought—I wasn’t sure how much of what you did, what you’re still doing, if that’s just guilt about trying to kill me. I thought you didn’t know what you wanted, were still figuring that out. And last time where I went wrong, I was telling you how to feel and I just—I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. I could’ve lost you—I did lose you, and I can’t. I can’t.”

One more breath, and then Stiles pushes himself up and forces up the door just as Peter knocks away whatever had been jamming it. A hinge squeals, metal tearing, but Stiles barely hears it.

Peter stares up at him, wild, hopeful. Then lifts a hand, but Stiles has already jumped down into the cellar.

He knocks the other man back from the stairs. They stumble across the new stone floor, then cast up against one of the walls. Stiles has his face buried in Peter’s neck, breathing deep and long, filling his lungs with the sweet, heavy scent of the man.

In heat. Everyone thinks it’s just about sex but it’s about the smell, the way it just opens out and blooms, like honey on your tongue, like crawling into a tunnel of flowers and curling up in the warm center. About how you can breathe and breathe and end up breathing right into the real, true heart of someone.

“God, please,” Peter’s gasping. His hands go to Stiles’ waist, then to Stiles’ back, dragging down it as Stiles presses up his jaw, mouths its line before closing his hands around the other man’s face. “Please, please, guilt, no, no, God, never, never about this—”

He moans into Stiles’ mouth. His head tips up and his claws scratch down Stiles’ back. Stiles can smell Peter’s blood around the cellar, enough to make him growl and haul the man close, like maybe he can just hide Peter in himself, make sure that not another drop gets spilled. His fingers go up into Peter’s hair, twisting into it, and then he drops one hand as Peter shudders against the wall. Shoulder, then rib and top of the hip, shredding Peter’s shirt open as he goes.

Peter whines, eager for it, whines and runs his tongue along Stiles’ teeth, wrapping it around a fang as Stiles pulls back, caressing the tooth, sucking at it till Stiles has to jerk away before he bites through Peter’s lip. He laps at the hollows of Peter’s throat instead, nudging Peter’s chin up with his head.

They slip against the wall, then fall into something soft on top, hard under: a pallet spread over some crates. Stiles twists around towards it and Peter arches up against him, then drops back onto the pallet. Legs spread, he pants and looks up at Stiles with hungry, still disbelieving eyes. He can’t lie still, heat has him plucking off the pieces of his shirt, twisting in place as Stiles climbs over him, scratching off his trousers. His hands come up and run down Stiles’ chest and belly, gentle, before a vicious turn takes him and he sinks his claws into Stiles’ hips. Snaps his fangs at Stiles.

It’s play, a mock-challenge. Stiles rises to it, rises over him, lets him see his alpha. Then drops and takes him. Catches his wrists up and forces his arms to either side of him, grinding on them as he bites roughly at Peter’s shoulder and neck. Draws a little blood, not much, just enough for Peter to smell. To taste when they kiss again, Peter’s head sinking back under the pressure of it, his body pressing up against Stiles.

Peter’s whimpering now. He tugs at his arms, weakly at first, but with more desperation as Stiles licks off his mouth, then works down his front, tasting throat and collarbone, chest. A nipple, already peaked but growing hot with soreness as Stiles teases it between tongue and teeth. The twitching, flexing muscles of his belly. A quick flicker into his bellybutton leaves Peter crying out, bowing up till he’s resting his weight on the top of his head and his hips.

Then Stiles pulls himself up short. Lets the head of Peter’s stiff cock graze at his chin, but nothing else. Groaning, Peter contorts himself, tilts up his hips and the smell of him wafts up to Stiles, wet and sweet, and Stiles almost—he doesn’t. Keeps himself high, growling mindlessly. Waits out Peter’s frantic struggle, waits till Peter’s gone limp, fingers uncurled where Stiles still has them pinned.

He hauls himself back up the other man, dragging his hips so that their cocks roll and slide between them. Peter gets back a little temper, snarls weakly at him, and when Stiles lets go of his hands, Peter swats at him. But Stiles just curls his upper lip, doesn’t even fully snarl, and that hand drops. Instead Peter kneads at his own legs, so the pallet gains fresh spots of blood.

Stiles doesn’t miss the older spots, shoving Peter’s hands away as he cants up Peter by the hips, works his cock head between Peter’s buttocks. Peter lets out little begging whines, jerking himself down as Stiles presses into him, his head lolling back as he sucks at the air. He claws at the pallet, then reaches for his thighs as Stiles’ shoulders fold those up against his chest.

Peter rips open one thigh, but then Stiles is buried all the way into him. Stiles stops and pants, shivering as slick leaks out between them, a little dribble of it every time Peter twists himself. Then he breathes in, takes Peter’s wrists and pushes them down again, and starts to rock.

First heat, some small, improbably-sane part of his mind pipes up. Slow, drag it out a little, make the crash easier. He tries to listen, he really does. Goes shallow the first couple thrusts. But Peter’s crying out under him, sobbing and wrenching himself back and forth on Stiles’ cock. The knot starts to press out and Peter grinds down into it, bending his throat back so much that Stiles thinks he hears the bones creaking.

Stiles wants to bite it. Sink his teeth into that long curve, make it shape itself around his mouth. He can’t reach and he snarls in frustration, driving himself harder and faster into Peter. If he gets a little closer, just a little—he slams himself up so hard that they skid over the crates and he barely jerks Peter back in time to keep the man’s skull from cracking against the wall.

Peter doesn’t notice. He’s shivering all over, more and more violently, till suddenly he seizes around Stiles’ cock. His legs sprawl just a little more and give Stiles the room to bite into his shoulder; when the teeth sink in, Peter lets out a long, dying cry and tears one arm free from Stiles’ hold. His hand immediately clamps around Stiles’ arm, echoing the clutch of his body on Stiles’ knot, and his come streaks up their bellies, warm, fragrant, sticking their skin as Stiles heaves himself a last time for his own climax.

As they slump down, Stiles’ mouth pulls away from Peter’s shoulder. He sniffs, then rouses himself enough to press his lips back over the torn skin, holding it down till it half-heals. Then shakes himself, drags his head across to Peter’s other shoulder, checking all the bites he left there.

Peter’s still for several minutes, just collapsed around Stiles. His heartbeat’s molasses-slow, so lazy that Stiles starts to see that his eyes are still open.

“Water,” Stiles mumbles. He tries to push himself up and his arm folds out from under him. Snarling at himself, he tries again, and then looks around.

“Mmmm,” Peter says. Purrs, actually, and then his head flops over.

Following it, Stiles sees the leather of a canteen cover beside the crates. He makes a face—that’s much too small for heat—but leans over and hooks up the strap, then shakes it. And there’s still water in it, and he knew Peter wouldn’t drink enough. He should’ve just stayed.

“Stiles?” Peter says, sounding concerned.

Probably smelling Stiles’ irritation, and Stiles is even more irritated at himself. Then he shakes himself. Uncaps the canteen and pours some water into Peter’s mouth. Peter’s lashes flutter and he bobbles the first few drops, confused, but then he tips his head for it, eagerly lapping at the rim. Stiles catches himself staring at the flick of Peter’s tongue and forgets to keep a little water back for himself.

Well, he’s an alpha, he can wait a little. He drops the empty canteen on the floor and then licks at Peter’s face and neck, cleaning up the man while they wait for his knot to go down.

“Stiles,” Peter says again. His lip brushes against Stiles’ mouth, but then he withdraws instead of going for the kiss. He’s trying to shake off the daze. “Stiles. Stiles, it was never guilt. Never. If anything, it was—Stiles, I was—I was sitting there with all those bodies and I was a wolf and I remembered you saying you’d fight for me, even without knowing me, and I realized. And I was human again, I’d shifted back and I realized you were the one person—I’d been looking my whole life, and I realized I’d tried to kill you. It was—the only thing I can compare it to is when I was tied to that tree, and I realized they were going to make me die last.”

He gasps a little, at the end. The corners of his mouth twist like he’s trying to smile, but he smells upset, enough so that it’s coming through even with heat. Stiles reacts instinctively, bending over and purring, nuzzling up and down the side of Peter’s throat till Peter’s trembling hands come up and fold over his shoulders.

“It’s all right,” Stiles says. Whispers to his skin, against his pulse. “All right, it’s all right. You came back. I thought you wouldn’t, I really did, and I missed you and I just—even when I thought I hated you, I just wanted to know you’d made it, you hadn’t died. I wanted you to be alive out there, even if you didn’t come back.”

Peter makes a harsh, ragged noise. He tugs at Stiles till Stiles moves up, and then he wraps his arms over Stiles’ back so tightly that Stiles’ ribs creak. Stiles lets him, kissing him through it.

They roll over, hitch, and then Stiles twists himself and his cock slips out of Peter. His knot’s gone but Peter spasms a little against him, softened prick jammed up against Stiles’ belly, hips canting like he’s chasing Stiles’ cock.

Stiles kisses him and he starts to settle, but he seizes up again. Concerned, Stiles squirms down his hand and feels up till he brushes fingertips around Peter’s hole, and Peter moans and hikes his legs into the touch.

“Again?” Peter says, half-wanting, half-alarmed. “I thought—didn’t you say—”

“Yeah, usually once does it, but—sssh, wait, I’ll be right back, I’m coming back, just getting you water first—” Stiles pries himself away from Peter and nearly falls off the crates. He looks frantically around, hoping he doesn’t have to go all the way back up the ladder to get the pot, and then blows out his breath in relief, grabbing that second canteen. Then he crawls back onto the pallet, pushing aside the torn cloth as Peter groans and tries to curl up around him. “First heats are always the worst, and you skipped last year because you were still healing, you might just need a second—no, drink.”

He bites off the canteen’s top, spits it off to the side, and then pushes the canteen at Peter’s hands till they grasp at it instead of at Stiles. Peter snarls at him, but it’s little more than a grumble and he just laughs, steadying the canteen’s bottom with one hand.

With his other hand, while Peter’s resentfully slurping the water, he pushes Peter’s legs around and over till Peter’s lying on his belly. Then nudges Peter’s thighs apart and climbs in between them. Peter catches on and stops drinking the water, pushing his chest into the crates and lifting his hips. He’s whimpering urgently enough that Stiles doesn’t think it’s just Peter being pushy; Stiles takes a quick, messy swig from the canteen, then drops it and grasps one of Peter’s thighs in either hand.

He’s not quite ready to go again, especially if Peter needs a knot, and he thinks the man will—so he noses up between Peter’s buttocks. Can’t help but play a little, rubbing his face into their tautness, but Peter starts scratching through the pallet to the crates so Stiles stops. Pulls back, mouthing roughly at the curve of one buttock so Peter subsides with a begging whimper.

Then he pushes his face back in. Flattens his tongue over Peter’s hole, feeling the man try to rock against it, before arrowing it as deep as it’ll go into Peter. He has to tighten his grip on Peter as Peter shakes and cries out, dragging Peter back so he can lick out all that slick. Some of his own come, too, but mostly it’s slick, sticky and sweet as honey.

In no time he’s pushing Peter away, holding the man so Peter doesn’t smother him. He folds himself up every so often to press his cock against his thigh, seeing whether he’s ready, and when he thinks he feels his knot swelling again, he hauls himself up along Peter’s back, turns them on their sides, and pulls Peter back down onto his cock.

Peter’s bleeding from some light scratches on the chest and arms, Stiles sees once they’re lying down. He growls in displeasure, then nuzzles Peter’s nape when Peter lets out a worried whine. That and reaches around, bundles Peter’s wrists together and holds them firmly down. Peter groans and twists at the grip, but stops when Stiles gets his other arm around and grasps the man’s cock.

It’s slower the second time. As noisy as he is, Peter settles back against Stiles, his body relaxing into the rock of their hips, the slide of Stiles’ hand up and down his erection. He leans his head back onto Stiles’ shoulder, occasionally craning around to press his mouth against Stiles’ cheek, ear. Stiles’ hand, when it gets too dry to stroke Peter’s cock and he needs Peter to lick it wet again.

“God,” he murmurs, shivering from belly upwards. “God. So—so spread, I can’t—I’m splitting but I can’t—can’t stop—”

Stiles purrs at him, licks the sweat from the hollow behind his ear. Pulls up on Peter’s cock to rub around the head with his thumb, working its sensitive crown as Peter gasps harder and faster, hiking up his knees to press himself firmly around Stiles’ knot. When Peter comes this time, he twists his head and bumps it into Stiles till Stiles gives in and closes his mouth over the side of Peter’s throat. No bite this time, not with all the bites he’s already given that are still healing, but he sucks as hard as he can and Peter sobs, shivering into him.

That time does it, and it’s a good thing because Stiles doesn’t have a third round in him. He can’t even move enough to slide out of Peter, even though he needs to get the man more water. Maybe even some rabbit or duck blood.

“I won’t leave,” Peter murmurs. “Never. Never again, I swear.”

Stiles lifts his head, just so Peter’s curls crush around his nose and he can’t smell anything but the other man. “I’m glad I bit you. I’d do it again. If I could go back—I wouldn’t change that. I’d always bite you.”

Peter shudders. It’s a different shudder from the previous ones, not coming out of mindlessness, but the complete opposite. It’s like he’s been tied up so tight in his head about something and now the knot’s cut and suddenly he can stretch out that part of him. He shudders, and then his wrist rolls out of Stiles’ grip. Stiles lifts his head, but Peter’s already moved his hand back, lacing together their fingers. They tighten as Stiles puts his head back down, pressing his nose into Peter’s hair. And they just breathe, both of them.

* * *

When Stiles recovers enough of his strength, he drags Peter upstairs to the bedroom and stuffs the man with water and duck blood. Still, it looks like it’ll be a couple days before Peter can walk right.

“At this rate, every time he limps, we’ll know you’ve been an idiot,” Lydia says.

Stiles just looks at her, then sniffs pointedly. Turns out after shutting Derek up, Lydia had decided she just needed a break from it all and had ridden over to the general store. A couple hours later, Isaac had ridden in the opposite direction and had spent the day reading loudly from a three-volume Gothic romance while Derek and Laura soaked in the ice-cold creek. When he’d come in to get dinner for them and run into Stiles and a returned Lydia, he’d volunteered that his father had liked the brothels, and he remembers seeing a couple tools there that might come in handy next season. And then he’d grabbed a bedroll along with the food, and gone back out to keep Derek and Laura company. He’s starting to make himself very likable, in Stiles’ opinion.

“It’s not heat,” Lydia says. “Unlike you werewolves, banshees don’t need to pen themselves up most of the year and then have fits.”

“That’s unfair and inaccurate, and also, if that’s not it, then what have we been smelling?” Stiles says, irked. “Because we’ve definitely been smelling something.”

“That,” Lydia says with deliberate and great relish. “That is not heat. That is, apparently, a banshee’s way of knowing when the growing season is truly over, so you’d better make sure of your harvest before winter sets in.”

She finishes writing her letter and picks up the paper to wave it dry. Stiles shuffles through the telegrams and puts the stack down. Then picks it back up and points it at her. “So what you’re saying is, it actually is a full season for banshees, instead of just the couple days it is for us. Maybe a week if you can’t find company.”

Lydia throws her pen at him.

Stiles ducks and then swings his arm back to snatch the pen out of the air, snickering under his breath. She sighs and holds out her hand and he does not give the pen back. Instead he lays it down on the telegrams and puts that all on the table, then gets up to check the Dutch oven nestled near the hearth.

“You’re incredibly immature for an alpha your age,” Lydia snipes at him. Paper rustles and then her pen starts scratching away again. “So are we ever going to answer Erica?”

Stiles knocks the lid against the oven’s rim. He curses, listens hard for whether Peter’s woken up—still sound asleep in the bedroom—and then gently sets it back in place. The bread’s got a nice browned top, but from the smell, it’s still raw in the center. He thinks about it, then shifts the oven a few inches back from the fire.

“She wants to visit, I still think it’d be a good idea,” Stiles says. He hangs up the potholder and turns away from the hearth, dusting his hand against his hip to get rid of the soot. “Congratulate her on making alpha. We can meet who’s in her pack these days, and she can meet ours.”

Lydia regards him for a moment, pen poised over paper. She’s not questioning him, or trying to slice him up with her eyes. She’s just thinking it over, and when she nods and starts to write, he realizes she was only trying to figure out how to word the invitation.

“I’ll let you see the draft, but I take it you’re going back to bed,” she says, frowning at the paper.

“Well, Chris wasn’t going to head into Shasta Springs for another day, was he?” Stiles says. “Or would it be a couple days, now?”

“Stiles,” Lydia says, sweetly warning. “Do go to bed, before I’m forced to hurt you.”

He’s already on his way out the door, and just gives the frame a rap to acknowledge her. Then he twists down the hall and slides back into the bedroom. Peter had been asleep, but he’s awake now, lifting his head and blinking slowly as Stiles shucks his clothes.

“I can’t drink anymore, I’ll burst,” Peter grumbles. He’s moving over even as Stiles slips under the quilt, nosing his way under Stiles’ chin, sleepy breath warming Stiles’ chest. Stiles tucks an arm around him, starts to slowly pull fingers through his hair and he purrs, his head making little rocking motions against Stiles’ jaw.

“All right, all right,” Stiles says, pulling the blanket up around them. “Go back to sleep, then. Food’s not ready yet.”

Peter says something. Maybe. It’s so indistinct it could just be a slurred purr, but either way, it gets across that he’s warm and comfortable and satisfied with where he is. And he’s got a point there, so Stiles just curls up too, drifting off.

Chapter Text

The next time Stiles lifts his head, it’s late at night. Derek and Laura are inside, he thinks, muzzily, counting heartbeats. Isaac…no, he’s gone, he must have ridden back to the general store. But Lydia is still there, sleeping, so that isn’t her tending to the hearth fire.

Probably Laura, but anyway, the heartbeat and scent are familiar enough that Stiles doesn’t feel threatened. He can just let them be.

He doesn’t want to get up either—Peter’s slung around him, deeply asleep, making soft barely-noises of rest and safeness—but he needs to piss. He does debate exactly how much he needs to, but being a werewolf does nothing about that. So Stiles suppresses a sigh, and begins the slow, careful process of untangling himself without waking Peter.

By the time he’s finally free, he’s almost embarrassingly desperate. Thankfully, the window is big enough for him to hop through, so he doesn’t have to go all the way through the house. He just scrambles off into the brush, the least distance he has to go in order to keep the smell from wafting back, and does his business.

They have nice linen sheets now and Lydia is pretty militant about keeping them that way, so Stiles stops at the water barrel to rinse himself off. Then he swings back over the window sill.

Peter’s awake, Stiles can tell from the heartbeat, but it’s not till Stiles is crawling back onto the bed that Peter twists around and opens his eyes and looks at him. The edges of Peter’s scent have soured, just a little, too faint for Stiles to tell whether it’s nerves or fear or something—Peter’s stomach rumbles, just over whatever Peter had been about to say.

“Yeah,” Stiles says, relieved but still watching the way Peter’s brows pucker in irritation. “Should get up and eat. And Derek and Laura are back, I should go ask how they’re doing.”

“Has it taken Laura?” Peter mutters. He shifts under the blanket, looking reluctant, but when his gut growls again, he sighs and pushes himself up and to the edge of the bed.

Stiles hands him his clothes, then stays to lend an arm to steady the other man. He doesn’t miss the way Peter hesitates at leaning on it. Or how, once gripping Stiles’ arm, Peter tilts just till his hair brushes against Stiles’ shoulder, then overcorrects himself when drawing back. Peter is uncomfortable about something—though not with Stiles, not with the way his gaze clings whenever Stiles isn’t looking at him.

“Isaac said she’d been complaining about feeling too warm earlier, so probably early stages,” Stiles says. He touches Peter’s back, then carefully fits his hand over one shoulderblade as Peter pushes his legs into his trousers. “That was a while ago.”

“And you need to ask,” Peter says. He inhales a little, then turns up an understanding smile at Stiles. It’s a little brittle. “I’m keeping you.”

“Well, they’re both sleeping, I don’t think they’re in trouble,” Stiles says. As Peter gets up, Stiles backs up from the bed. Lets his hand slide up to Peter’s nape, running his fingertips along the tendons, then catching them on the curling edge of the hairline so they’ll tug the strands gently as he lets go. “Lydia and I made some bread earlier. Go ahead and after I check, I’ll—oh, need to step out? Want me to come?”

Peter flushes just a touch as he sways, slow but determined, towards the door. “Ah, no, I can manage,” he says. “Don’t want to keep you.”

Stiles eyeballs how much Peter’s tilting off his center. Then walks with Peter out of the bedroom and towards the back door, even if he doesn’t offer Peter another hand. “You probably don’t need to go all the way out to the stream,” Stiles suggests. “And if you want to try four legs—”

“Yes, wiser idea, should’ve considered that. But now I think I only want the trouble of dressing once,” Peter mutters, before flicking a quick, uncertain glance at Stiles. He pauses, one hand on the back door’s frame, and then smiles. It’s still hesitant but not in its warmth, a low but constant glow. Or its muted wonder, as if the hesitation might be due to sheer disbelief.

“Well, call if you need help,” Stiles says. He leans forward after Peter.

Peter—it’s not a flinch. His body doesn’t move. But his heartbeat and scent, they both twitch sharply against Stiles’ senses and Stiles brings himself up short. He frowns and Peter flinches then, ducking his head and licking his lips to make an excuse, and smelling of frustration.

Stiles doesn’t understand quite yet, but he can tell the man doesn’t want him to go. So he swings in again, but just settles for pressing their cheeks together, bringing his hand up against the other side of Peter’s head to briefly hold the man there. Werewolf custom, something he’s told Peter about, so the man won’t be afraid. Much more formal than Stiles really wants to do, but for the moment it’s probably better.

It does settle Peter down: he slackens himself, letting out a pent-up huff of a breath and then dropping till the point of his chin grazes Stiles’ shoulder. He doesn’t give an excuse after all, just saying he’ll be quick as he moves back on the porch.

Stiles steps into the kitchen—empty now—but keeps an ear on Peter till he’s sure the man’s made it to the treeline without a problem. Meanwhile he gets the bread from where Lydia had put it. Pours out some water to drink while he’s at it, then takes the still half-full pitcher with him as he goes over and knocks at Derek and Laura’s bedroom.

He’s barely rapped it when the door opens and Laura looks out at him. She’s in heat, all right, her scent heavy, sticky in the nose, but she looks like it’s not troubling her too much. Her hair along the hairline is matted with sweat, and she’s loosened her dress so much that in town, it’d probably get her marched into the sheriff’s office for not having the right business permit. But her eyes are relatively clear, and the only sign of agitation is how she’s using her claws to shred a ribbon.

“We’re fine,” she says. “Heard you and Peter talking.”

“All right,” Stiles says, holding up the pitcher.

Laura glances at it, then nods in thanks. She steps back into the room, retrieving a bone-dry jug from a dresser—which lets Stiles see Derek. The other man’s sprawled face-down on the bed, naked except for what looks like a pillowcase loosely knotted around his waist. He pats his hand against the bed as Stiles starts to ask him how he is, then abruptly coils back on himself. By the time he’s twisted to actually look at Stiles, he’s shifted to wolf and slid out of his makeshift wrap, panting heavily and rolling onto his side.

“He’s fine, he just says he doesn’t feel so itchy when he’s like that,” Laura says, coming back. She tilts the jug for Stiles to refill. “That’s all right, isn’t it?”

“Well, yeah, since we’re out here,” Stiles says. “Wouldn’t recommend it if you’re ever stuck in town, but your heats after this should be a lot easier on you.”

Derek lets out a snort, then pushes onto his belly. He hunches his back legs up under himself in a very odd, spraddled way, then shifts human with obvious effort. His eyes are a little bloodshot, but he smells exasperated enough that Stiles thinks he’ll be fine with a decent nap. “So Peter’s done now, right?” he says, pushing up the blankets to cover himself.

“Yeah,” Stiles says. He thinks about going back to the kitchen, then sighs. “Yeah, he should be fine now. So—”

“Will he?” Derek says, looking up. “Because—Laura, just for once let me—you were a—how could you not know?”

Heat is a terrible time to have this talk, Stiles almost says. He wants to say. But he’s alpha and awkward discussions come with the territory, and he knows if he walks off, he’s going to have his dead father’s voice drumming at him all day. So he sighs again. “In my defense, Peter was hurt, very badly, and he took a while to heal. I wanted to make sure he knew what he was doing, and wasn’t just driven by how he felt—I mean, how much he was hurting, or missed his family, or anything like that.”

“Fine, I can see all that. I did see it,” Derek says. Then he twitches to the side, even though Laura doesn’t look at him, just holds out the jar once she’s had a long drink. He keeps looking at Stiles as he takes the jar and then shifts his leg so Laura can perch on the edge of the bed. “But this isn’t just…just over for the year, right? Because you were saying that heat doesn’t really matter—”

“It doesn’t have to, but that’s not the same thing,” Stiles says, a little impatient. He wishes Derek would listen better, and not smudge up what he says and what Derek thinks he means all the time. “Heat’s just like…like guns and words. They matter the way you want them to matter. And I don’t know when you people went off, but Peter and me—”

“He actually tried to kill you?” Laura breaks in.

She doesn’t look or smell upset, just curious. Same for Derek, though his curiosity’s a little less bemused than hers. His eyes narrow and he studies Stiles for a second. Then snorts, shoves the jar into Laura’s lap, and flops belly-down onto the bed again.

“All right, if you look like that,” Derek starts. He glances up at Stiles, then actually smirks a little. “Peter and our mother, some of the things they did to each other…but you know what, as long as you don’t pretend it doesn’t matter, I think this should go better.”

“It always mattered, that was why I didn’t want to mess up again,” Stiles says. He’s a little heated and it slips out, and then he doesn’t want to explain it. Just because he wants a pack and is working at having a pack, doesn’t mean that he’s completely changed. But…he wants to, he thinks, taking a deep breath. “It matters. He matters to me. Look, werewolves—something you’d better learn is, when we say forever, we mean it. So we don’t say that lightly. But he’s always mattered, to me.”

Derek listens and maybe, Stiles hopes, he’s listening to all the nuances for once. He does go completely still for a few seconds, even his scent going muted.

But then he snorts again, twisting his legs in the sheets. “Well, good, maybe that’ll keep him busy,” he mutters, shifting to wolf.

As he shoves his head into the sheets, Laura reaches over and tugs them from his legs before they shred. “Sorry, Peter’s our uncle, we had to ask,” she says to Stiles. “But I’m glad to hear that, and this one here—” she nods to Derek “—he is too, he’s just being…anyway, we’re all right. We…we might go soak in the creek again when it’s morning.”

“Take some food with you,” Stiles says after a second. “And let me know before you go. You can chill yourself too much, just like when you were human.”

Laura stiffens and Stiles belatedly remembers Peter telling him about their aunt dying after a dunking. But then she just nods, leaning over to scruff her hand through Derek’s ruff, and Stiles figures it’s a good time to withdraw.

Anyway, Peter’s back just a couple minutes after Stiles returns to the kitchen. He’s grateful for the food, and then apologetic as he can barely keep himself from bolting it. Stiles laughs and tells him not to stand on manners, and then checks the hearth fire as Peter eats.

“You should go back to bed,” Stiles says, as Peter’s finishing up the crust of his bread. “Heat takes a lot out of you.”

“Well, then, shouldn’t you take your own advice?” Peter says.

He’s still sitting at the table. Stiles is standing next to him, sweeping up the breadcrumbs in one hand, and as Stiles turns to toss those into the fire, Peter lifts a smile towards him. It’s teasing, Stiles thinks from the glimpse he gets, but then he turns back, smiling himself, and Peter’s smile has gone nervous.

Peter seems to realize it and he abruptly raises his hand, even though Stiles isn’t moving away. He pauses, staring up at Stiles, searching for something and Stiles nearly asks him what—but something about Peter’s expression stops him. It’s not that Peter is missing something, is thinking he’s overstepped, that’s not the source of the nerves. It’s more…Peter moves his raised hand towards Stiles. A twitch, then a full inch, and then, as if setting it on a glass bubble, he lays it on Stiles’ hip, and breathes in as if he’s been waiting a century for that breath.

His other hand wraps around the back of his chair and he pushes himself to his feet. His body naturally angles into Stiles, who doesn’t move away, and their clothes brush. Peter inhales as he stands and the suck of air riffles the front of Stiles’ shirt, and then he exhales and the warm air ghosts along Stiles’ jaw. He’s leaning in, eyes still searching. Then he stops and they fix on Stiles’ eyes just before his eyelids shut.

He tilts his head. Pauses, his lower lip just barely touching Stiles’ mouth, because Stiles couldn’t help himself and put one hand on his waist. A little, surprised, wondering noise slips out of him and then Stiles senses him resetting his shoulders, bracing himself as he leans in and kisses Stiles.

It’s his kiss. Stiles lets Peter make what he wants of it, and that turns out to be slow, careful, almost sedate. Then an abrupt push, which Stiles takes but doesn’t fight or yield to, which just as suddenly gentles until they’re both lipping at each other, just enjoying it, not looking for anything except what’s already there.

When it comes to a natural end, Peter keeps their brows touching but pulls his mouth back enough for speech. “Stiles,” he says. “Come to bed?”

Stiles laughs, bringing his hands up to circle Peter’s waist. There isn’t a hint of hesitation now in how Peter leans against him, nor any urgency. It’s just…what seems right. “Yeah. Yeah, sure.”

Chapter Text

“They’re getting off their horses,” Derek says, shading his eyes with his hand. “Tying up in that birch stand.”

“Yeah, all right,” Stiles says, scribbling frantically on the map. “I’m almost done.”

Lydia’s already on her feet and Chris is right behind her, ready to greet the arriving werewolves. It’s one of those rare warm days late autumn sometimes throws up, a nice gentle heat, not like the blistering boil of summer, and so waiting for Erica’s pack on a sunny hilltop overlooking the Nemeton seemed like as good a place as any.

Isaac’s fidgeting over to the left, semi-hiding behind their picnic basket, while Laura’s giving her hair a couple touch-ups. Then she gets up and goes to join her brother, who’s standing behind Lydia with folded arms and the scowl Derek usually puts on when he’s not sure what to do.

Peter, who’s been contently pillowing his head on Stiles’ lap, is the last one to stand except for Stiles. His scent’s gone a little bit acidic. Not enough for anger, not sour enough for fear or anxiety—defiant, Stiles suddenly thinks, and he gets a confirmation when Peter deliberately brushes his hand against Stiles’ hip as Stiles finally pushes to his feet.

When Stiles reaches over, loosely closing his hand over Peter’s nape, Peter starts. Doesn’t jerk out of it, just takes a little while to settle under it as Stiles walks them both forward. He draws a breath as if for speech, then doesn’t say anything because Erica whoops a greeting.

She’s dressed like—like a rich pirate, Stiles thinks, like a dime novel cover, except with clothing whose dye probably won’t run in the rain. Tight trousers tucked into riding boots, a ruffled blouse peeking out of a fancy vest and man’s tailcoat, and if he’s not mistaken, that’s a gun holster on her thigh. Though it’s empty, seeing as this is a friendly meeting and all.

“Hey, Stiles,” Erica says when she’s near enough. Her alpha status shows in subtle ways; she was confident before, but it was a kind of restless, edgy confidence, challenging you to test it. Now it fits as smoothly around her as her clothes do. “Looks like you’ve built up since we fished you out of the river.”

“I’ve done pretty well, I think,” Stiles says. He goes forward and they press their cheeks together, each taking a quick sniff. Then hug in the human way, Erica leaning up because even in her boots she’s shorter than him. “You’ve been doing a few things too, I hear. Congratulations, you deserve it.”

Erica blinks in surprise, then smiles at him, wide and toothy without a hint of malice. “Boyd says hi too,” she says. “He wanted to come, but we had to leave somebody to watch the ranch, you know. So Aiden and Ethan here, they were running with Blackwood but decided life’s better as betas who get to sleep with pack at night, instead of being alphas everybody hates. And that’s Heather, she was with us before Kali went crazy, and over there is Braeden.”

As they’re named off, each werewolf dips their head. The two former alphas drop the lowest, and flash their eyes when they do so everyone can see they don’t have the alpha red. Erica wrote ahead to explain them, so nobody on Stiles’ side is surprised by anything except their names and maybe how young they’ve turned out to be, and they visibly relax when nobody reacts.

“Well, you at least have already met Lydia and Chris. And Isaac, or so I hear,” Stiles says to Erica. Then he steps back, putting his hand back on Peter’s nape. “So this here is Peter, my mate.”

Peter goes very still, while his scent swells with pleasure; he knew it was coming, they’d talked about it, but it’s the first time they’ve introduced themselves this way to outsiders. He finally tips his head back into Stiles’ grip, then clears his throat. Uncharacteristically slow to start, but once he does, he’s warmly charming. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Miss Reyes,” he says. “Stiles has said a great many things about you.”

“I’m sure,” Erica says. She’s a little dry. Her eyes have narrowed slightly but she doesn’t smell of much besides surprise. Then she shakes her head, and an amused smile spreads across her face. “Boyd’s going to be so mad he missed…well, all right, so are you showing us around or what?”

“Yeah, we were going to,” Stiles says. He holds up the map, then passes it to her. “Derek and Laura, over there, they can take your horses back to the house while we’ll walk you around right now, but you can have this too.”

“The ink’s still wet,” Erica says, looking at the map. She turns it back and forth, then laughs. “Don’t tell me you were just making these names up. I can see the cross-outs.”

“There are a lot of places to name,” Stiles says. “We’ve been working on it. It’s not my fault the government surveyors left so many blanks we’ve got to fill.”

Erica laughs again and hands the map off to one of her betas. “Fine, Stiles, whatever you say. Let’s get going, I could use a walk after that ride.”

“All right,” Stiles says. He steps back, then half-turns so they can see past him to the stream. Takes a deep breath, looking at his territory, and then turns back to his fellow alpha. “We’ll start with the creek here.”

Chapter Text

Stiles and Erica are talking again. Granted, they have plenty of reason to do so: new alliance sealed with a successful hunt, two alphas who can both boast of taking on Blackwood’s pack and coming out victorious, and any number of lesser issues. And there’s nothing particularly untoward about how they’re doing it. True, they’ve gone off a hundred yards or so from the rest, but flaying a grizzly bear is a messy business, requiring a fair amount of room, and Erica seems to treasure her wardrobe as much as Lydia does hers.

“They’re probably just talking the railroad again,” Laura offers.

Peter glances over, his brows raised, and his niece decides the better part of courage is discretion, turning her attention back to where she and Chris are sorting through the bear’s guts for choice bits. His nephew doesn’t even bother to prod, just complains louder as he and a couple of Erica’s betas wrestle with disjointing the bear’s limbs. That and shifts around so that the bulk of the carcass is between him and Peter.

“Once you’re done, you might as well go up to the house and get a cooking fire started,” Lydia says, and when Peter looks up, she drops a hefty chunk of soap in his hand.

She levels a contemptuous look at him, brazen about exactly how ridiculous she thinks he’s being, and then deliberately twitches her pristine skirts away from his filthy feet as she turns. An extra twitch for Argent’s benefit and then she’s stalking away over the bloody clearing, dirty skinning knives collected in one hand. As he watches, she stops and looks pointedly at a discarded knife till the beta picks it up for her. One of Erica’s betas, as a matter of fact, but that has absolutely no effect on how cowed they are by her.

Peter idly wonders whether that might have repercussions in werewolf diplomacy, then snorts and turns away. If it does, he’s sure she and Stiles have already discussed it to death and Lydia’s gone ahead to do what she cares to do anyway.

Honestly, Peter thinks as he walks down to the creek, he has no real quarrel with the woman. He doesn’t care for her manner most of the time, but he’s rarely ever based his actions on pettiness like that; with his family, he hadn’t had the luxury of mere spite. And he does recognize her many good qualities—if nothing else, she has a talent for spurring Stiles to survival, and for that alone, Peter owes her more than his life.

Still, her airs…he’s musing on how tolerant Argent is of them when instinct makes him prick alert, lift his head. He’s just in time to catch Stiles’ eye: his alpha breaks off conversation with Erica to stare across the clearing at him. There’s nothing in the stare but a mild curiosity, which is satisfied as soon as Peter lifts the bar of soap in his hand, so it’s not fear that makes Peter dip his head. Nor is it worry that has him running one hand through his hand, then dragging the trails of clotted blood and dirt down across the length of his throat. Giving his filthy hand a good wiping on his hip, pulling at his trousers as he does. They’re his oldest pair, worn thin in the seat, pulling up tightly between his buttocks before he gives them a careless tug down.

Does Peter think that there’s really anything between Stiles and Erica? No. Oh, Erica gives off a whiff of attraction but it’s general and constant, no real sharpness to its interest, and as for Stiles, he smells of caution and embarrassment. And Peter doubts it’s an act on either’s part. Werewolves can lie, and lie well, but they aren’t inclined to. People generally aren’t either, since lying is a true art and takes effort and practice and, when done well, far more of an investment than the truth, and when you add heightened senses to that, werewolves have even less of a desire to do so.

So it’s not jealousy, which is probably what his inexperienced niece and nephew are thinking, that drives Peter to take his time reaching the creek, stripping off, kneeling down to work up a lather in his hands that he can then spread over the rest of himself. It’s not anything so shallow, when he hauls himself into waist-deep water and then spreads the suds over his body, drags them through his hair till he has a froth of white dripping into his eyes.

He does like to be clean—as clean as one can be in the wilderness, but that’s rather more so than the untutored might think. In addition to Lydia’s fortune, they take timber and hides to sell in Shasta Springs, and the railroad’s offering them quite a bit of money to ensure a reliable water supply for the planned line extension. They can afford the soap, and they don’t lack for good, brisk-running streams to use it in.

The water’s still in his eyes when Peter straightens back up, even though he gives his head a toss. He puts one hand up, scraping his eyes clear, and then absently squeezes it through his soggy hair. Looks down at himself, noting that a few soapy streaks have somehow survived the dunking. He touches one, following its haphazard track along his pectoral, then sweeps it off with a fingertip.

As he does, the back of his hand grazes his nipple. He shivers without thinking—the water’s cold, and if anything, werewolf blood runs hotter than normal—and then brings his hand back again. Deliberately runs his finger over the stiffened peak, breathing in as the half-numbed flesh belatedly sparks. Then again. With his other hand, he rakes his hair again, ridding himself of a distracting trickle down his cheek, and then he lifts that one and palms his other nipple with it. Chafing it till some of the water’s chill leaves, stirring up the blood under his skin and then stopping himself, pressing both hands flat to his ribs. Gasping a little, neck stretched out, head tipped back, feeling a sunbeam trace across his shoulders and lick into the hollows under his shoulder-blades.

“Peter,” Stiles says. Squatting at the edge of the stream—the pool, really, a miniature inlet scooped out from the main flow. He’s relaxed, his elbows resting on his knees, his hands dangling so just his fingertips dip into the water, but he smells hungry. And his eyes—

“Hmmm?” Peter tilts his head back a little more as he turns to face the other man. Watches Stiles’ gaze fix on the soft front of his throat, feels the icy dribble of water coming out at his nape and coursing down his spine. He moves his hands further down his belly till they’re under the water.

Up in the mountains the streams are so clear sometimes that they don’t even seem like glass. It just doesn’t look like there’s anything between you and the bottom—or in this case, between Peter and his cock. Submerged deep in the cold water but it’s rising anyway, growing long and hard and stiff, heated flush spreading out from where his fingers massage it. He slips one hand under his balls—in the stream, their dusting of hair waves around his fingers, its coarseness softened to something closer to down—and a deep shiver takes him, blooming out from his gut and then passing up through his shoulders so he can hear the patter of the drops falling off his hair behind him.

Stiles breathes in. Shaky, and Peter smiles to hear the stutter on it even as Stiles snaps out a sharp, wordless command. Not a bark, the word doesn’t do justice to how the noise seems to come up from some ancient wood, cutting through the ages till it shakes Peter’s bones for his insolence.

He’s not rebelling either, he really isn’t. People who knew him before would never believe it of him, that he’d drop his head so eagerly, come so gently to the hands that cup around his face, beg so nakedly into their palms—but then, they never understood a damn thing about his family, let alone him.

“There you are,” Stiles murmurs. He shifts on his feet, rumbling lowly as Peter laps the salt from his hands, flattens his tongue into their warm centers. One of his hands goes back, tangling through Peter’s hair, and clasps Peter by the nape, and it’s not the coldness of the water that makes Peter shiver.

“Stiles,” Peter says. His voice has grown thick, clotted like the blood he’d been rinsing off himself. He sounds like an animal.

Breathes like one, all caught pants and gravelly groans as Stiles lifts him out of the water. But he’s still a man, still can be taken by surprise at the strength of—Stiles is lean and fine-boned, looking like a strong wind could carry him off, and yet there’s not so much as a gasp as he drops Peter onto a damp mossy patch. When he drops himself, it’s not exhaustion; it’s pure hunger.

Cunning, too—he sees the way Peter flexes, marks the way Peter reaches for him, and quick as lightning, he’s twisted Peter’s hands back to the ground, pressed his head under Peter’s bobbing cock and pressed his tongue right up into the stretch between Peter’s hole and Peter’s balls. He’s burning after the water, burning and beautiful and Peter’s scream collapses in on itself before it even leaves his mouth, ends up nothing more than a strangled ‘ah!’ and even that dies as Stiles laves him, bathes the sensitive skin till it’s a shaking, needling, blissful burn.

Peter drags his knees apart, arches himself up against the push of the slope. He feels pebbles and grit fall off his back where the moss wasn’t deep enough cover, but he can’t stop himself, can’t even think what he might be stopping himself from doing. He writhes and whines, staring at the dizzying blue sky overhead, gasping so hard he half-thinks it’s really the bottom of the pool he’s looking at.

Stiles mouths up onto his balls, sucking their edges against blunt teeth till Peter’s wild with sensation. The head of Peter’s cock is scraping past his cheek, sometimes beating it, but he doesn’t seem to care—Peter cares, cares because the vague pressure of those touches is brutal in its inadequacy, torturing already tender flesh as he rocks uselessly on his hips. One brush of his cock against Stiles’ nose sends a sharp, snorting gust across the head and it’s like somebody’s drawn a razor blade over his skin, it cuts so.

He whimpers and Stiles rubs one cheek against his thigh, purring comfort and reassurance. The more Peter struggles, the more Stiles purrs at him, insistently nudging till even he can’t resist that primeval pull. He goes limp, barely breathing. He doesn’t have the air for it but he purrs back, responds to his alpha, lets their voices mix together to reinforce the message that it’s safe, that he’s protected, that his alpha will take care of him.

Of course, then Stiles laughs and swallows down his prick. It is not because Stiles can be a complete bastard at times—and Peter can’t help but admire that too, can’t help it even as he’s wrenching every tendon in his body to breaking point with his climax.

When he goes limp this time, it’s with the intention of not rising for the next several hours, at least. His lungs are burning. His body aches—aches like he’s merely human again and has run for miles and miles. He’s as slack as a rag doll, and when Stiles’ hand closes around his cock, he can’t even twitch, even though the touch feels like a coil of lightning wrapped around scalded skin. All he can do is moan.

Stiles purrs at him again and if Peter had even a speck of energy, he’d growl at him, alpha or not. But he doesn’t, so he lies there as Stiles pushes up on both arms, nuzzles his groin around his softening cock. The flick of Stiles’ hair against him finally drags a shiver out of Peter. Then another moan, as Stiles continues to purr. The man rubs a hand against Peter and it’s not another tease, it’s slow and just firm enough so that it settles rather than works on Peter’s nerves.

Peter licks his lips, then goes back to gasping. He feels Stiles’ weight slide onto his leg, and then up it. Stiles’ hand circles up from his groin to his stomach, and then drops so both the man’s hands are stroking his still-spasming thighs. Soothing them, calming them, and when he’s panting a little less, they start to dig in and knead the tightened muscles. It feels good, good in a more muted but deeper way than Stiles’ attentions just a few minutes ago, and Peter finds enough strength to hitch into it.

“Hold still,” Stiles says. He’s laughing, but there’s an undertone of demand to his voice.

Since Peter doesn’t have the breath to speak, he answers with a whine and a lifted chin. Stiles purrs again, approving, and pulls himself up so he’s straddling Peter’s leg. His cock rubs against the inside of Peter’s thigh, heavy, a little sticky in its passing, and then he reaches down and rocks against Peter again, using his hand to press his erection into Peter’s thigh.

He hikes himself up onto Peter’s other leg and does the same thing, and then he splays himself across both legs, angling so his cockhead smears its dribble behind Peter’s balls—Peter hisses and shifts at the pressure—before dragging around Peter’s cock and being crushed into Peter’s stomach as Stiles stretches himself across Peter, twisting to catch his mouth just under Peter’s jaw. The man sucks the soft flesh there to a stinging swell while he inches his lower half up Peter’s torso, his fingers rolling his cock into Peter’s belly.

Peter smells the man’s arousal, smells the wet trails that Stiles is stickily painting all over him and then understanding hits him. He shudders. Lets his head ride up under Stiles’ hot, clinging mouth. Closes his eyes and tracks it by smell, where the other man’s marking him. Ribs, breast, and then Stiles twists fingers in his hair and arches up for a hard kiss, just as Stiles’ cock head massages across his left nipple.

“Saw you,” Stiles mutters. He lifts himself, thumb slipping behind Peter’s ear to press gently into the hollow there, and then seats himself again, teasing Peter’s right nipple with his cock. “Saw you, saw you, did you think I didn’t?”

“N-no. No, no, not that,” Peter groans. He’s got some control over his wrung-out limbs again. Enough to stretch himself under Stiles. To look up through his lashes, look while the heat in Stiles’ eyes grows and grows, and then to force his hands up onto Stiles’ hips.

He only manages it for a few seconds, only while Stiles is pressing his knees under Peter’s elbows, and then his arms flop back over his head. He groans again, then lets his mouth hang open as Stiles tilts Peter’s head, guides his cock over the edge of Peter’s jaw and between Peter’s lips.

Peter sucks as best he can. He’s sloppy, loose, unable to keep his mouth from falling open in muffled whimpers, clenching his hands in the moss over his head as he laps the sticky, salty drops from Stiles’ prick. When Stiles suddenly pulls back, Peter thinks it’s because of him and he whines in apology.

Stiles grunts, bats his hand against Peter’s head and Peter just makes out the man’s head shaking—then Stiles goes rigid and still, hands dropping to grab at the ground as his come runs all over Peter’s throat. Smearing up onto the underside of Peter’s chin, dribbling into the dips of Peter’s collarbone, and then, as Stiles heaves himself back down to lie on top of Peter, smudging all the way down to nearly Peter’s ribs.

“There,” Stiles mutters. He rests his head against Peter’s shoulder, then lifts it just as Peter gets one arm down and around his back. “You all right?”

“Yes,” Peter says. He smiles. Flicks his tongue just behind his teeth, and then smiles again as Stiles snorts and kisses him. “Mmm, yes, though now we’ve lost another bar of soap. Lydia—”

“Cheaper to order in bulk anyway,” Stiles says. He runs his fingers along Peter’s jaw, then smiles himself. Slow, content…and yet still hungry. The kind of hunger that has nothing to do with just the mere needs of the body. “Well. I guess you could take another bath, but they were going to start carrying pieces back to the house. Lydia sent Isaac to start up the fire, by the way.”

“She does think of everything.” Peter turns his head and presses it into Stiles’ hand, just breathing in the smell of them mixed together. Then he rolls over onto his side as Stiles gets off him. “Suppose that leaves us to guard the rest?”

“I guess,” Stiles says. He squats by Peter for a second, then leans over and presses a kiss to the edge of Peter’s jaw, just short of the bruise he’d bloomed. When Peter sighs, just letting the twinge of pain blur out, Stiles snarls so softly only another werewolf would hear it. Understand it. “You know, Erica thinks you’re pretty handsome. She was even saying maybe I wouldn’t mind, the three of us, just for fun…she’s a good alpha, but honestly, I’m glad they’re so far south. They’re going to have to leave in a few days.”

It’s not that Peter thinks Stiles would ever leave him. Even when he’d betrayed the man, had done the worst a beta can do to an alpha—Stiles hadn’t left. And never mind who physically stayed where, that was Stiles reaching out to keep the land title out of the Argents’ hands. Stiles lifting whatever protection Gerard Argent had had, and letting Peter’s sister’s curse take the man. Stiles had had him covered before he’d ever come back to Beacon Hills.

It’s that Peter has said many things to many people. Peter has lied, has fooled, has made others dance to the tune of his pleasing, and never mind lying, he knows very well the art of leading another with words alone. But when he looks up at this man, he doesn’t have a single thing to say for himself. So that’s why. That’s why he speaks the only other way he can, pushing up on his arm and pressing his mouth to Stiles’ mouth.

Chapter Text

“What the hell,” Derek says, half-starting from his chair as Peter suddenly upends the crate’s contents onto the table between him and Laura. “Listen, we heard Stiles go out, that’s why we went in here to give you two some—”

He stops when he sees Peter’s face. Peter smells both angry and sad, which is just about how he normally is when Stiles wanders out in the middle of the night, but his expression is a lot more complicated than that. And familiar—Derek’s seen that face on Peter before, whenever their family’s had to uproot themselves and leave town in a hurry. It’s the face Peter uses when he’s done something he doesn’t care to brag about, even though honestly, those times tend to be the times when Derek thinks he might understand the man.

“Yes, he’s gone out for a walk, so we might as well get this over with,” Peter bites out in clipped tones.

Derek presses his lips together, then braces himself and starts to ask what Peter means. But a touch on his arm stops him. He looks over and Laura’s reaching for something on the table, her other hand still on his arm and slowly clenching down on it. Then he sees what she’s reaching for, and he clenches his own hands against the table-top.

“Stiles kept these,” Peter explains after a couple seconds. He stares down at the table, then sets the crate on the floor. Pauses to stare again, and then he finally takes a seat. “He…went back there, went through anything that was left and this is all of it.”

“Oh.” Laura doesn’t look up. Her hand is still hovering over the blackened, misshapen lump on the table, so distorted that it looks like a flattened rodent. Still, they both know without being told that it’s their mother’s favorite brooch.

Not everything’s covered with ash. Some of them look pretty clean and Derek almost asks Peter, but then he remembers that that candlestick wouldn’t have been at their mother’s house anyway. Stiles must have gone through the other homesteads too—well, they’re just lying around empty, Derek thinks.

He pushes himself up. His sister’s hand tightens on him, then jerks away almost convulsively. She won’t meet his eyes as she picks up a leather pouch full of letters. “Aunt Nicola,” Laura whispers, sliding out one of them.

Derek’s hand shakes, but he makes himself pick up the Bible. He opens it and the damn pages flip right to the family tree, and then he has to drop it. He winces at the thump it makes, and then tenses as Peter makes a movement towards him.

Peter slows, looking at him. Then deliberately reaches over and closes the cover. A paper, wrinkled and water-stained, flutters out and he frowns and picks it up. Then he freezes, but his heart’s thumping so furiously that Derek straightens up in alarm. “Peter—”

“The damn title to this place,” Peter mutters. He makes as if to fling down the paper, but at the last moment he catches himself, and instead he puts it back in the Bible, so careful it’s almost a mocking exaggeration. Though there’s no humor in his face.

“Well, that’s useless now anyway, isn’t it?” Laura says. She takes a deep breath as Peter looks at her, her eyes widening, and under the table her foot bumps hard into Derek’s leg. Then she reaches over and pulls the paper back out. Gets up, watching Derek and Peter as much as they’re watching her, and goes over to the fire.

She hesitates long enough that either of them could stop her. When they don’t, she drops the paper into the flames.

Peter suddenly exhales heavily. Then he sags in his seat as if he’s very tired, one hand coming up to rub at his face. “Yes, it was voided anyway, and what matters now is we’ve got a right through the trust Stiles set up,” he says, low, close to a sigh. “I told you both, he’s planning to add your names too.”

Neither of them had been pestering him over it, but Derek wasn’t going to bring that up even before Laura shoots him a warning glance. “Did he,” Derek starts. He takes a breath. “Are they—is there a grave?”

At first he doesn’t think Peter will answer them. The man’s completely silent, and the part of his face not covered by his hand is screwed up into a tight grimace. Peter talking is about as easy on you as using a bunch of needles pounded into a stick for a comb, but Peter silent is dangerous.

“Well, most of this, I’m not sure it’s usable,” Laura says with sudden, strained briskness. She comes back over and begins to sort the things into piles. “I don’t—I won’t be wearing Mother’s jewelry, and I think she’d say just finish it and melt it down and make something—”

Peter abruptly lifts his head and she falls silent, edging slightly closer to Derek, who for his part flattens his palms against the table in case he needs to get up between them. But Peter doesn’t look like he’s going to go for anyone. He just looks…looks at a complete loss. It takes a while to recognize it since Derek’s rarely seen that look on his face.

Well, Stiles puts it on him, Derek amends. But that’s a different kind of confusion, and this just…it’s so quiet and undramatic that for a second his uncle seems like a stranger. He knows Peter grieves for their family, but this isn’t how Peter grieves. At least it’s never been how he’s seen Peter grieve, and Peter plays a lot of things close to the chest, but with grief he’s always played that for the whole world to see.

“Yes, she’d say that,” Peter finally says, so softly that even with their new hearing, they strain to make out the words. He blinks a few times, then shakes himself hard. Then he reaches over and picks up Aunt Nicola’s letters. He sifts through them and then suddenly lets his hands fall limply to the table, so the sheets scatter out of the pouch and across the wood. “She could be so damn pragmatic about nonsense like that, and then…you know, I thought for a little while about writing to Karl’s family. I knew Nicola’d kept these, knew I’d find the address in them.”

Nicola’s husband had fallen out with his family back in Missouri over marrying her, Derek remembers. But they’d all been soldiers, the men, had fought in the Civil War and rumor had it they’d been involved in some of the bloody pre-war raids. So he can guess what Peter had been thinking.

“Then I thought, never mind that, I’m a werewolf now, I can do it myself,” Peter goes on. He inches one letter with his finger, then lifts his hand and runs it back through his hair. Then he suddenly gets up. “Well, do whatever you two want with all of that. The Bible—keep that, but the rest I don’t care about. They’re all gone and them and I never cared for the same things.”

“Peter,” Laura says, taking a step after him. She’s always been warier of him than Derek was—well, Peter can make things fun, when he wants to—but at the same time, she’s always tried harder to sympathize with him. A lot like their mother, with how contradictory she is about their uncle. “Peter, wait—”

He’s just going to stalk straight out, Derek thinks, and then they all jump as somebody’s tread suddenly sounds on the front porch. That’s one of the most irritating things about learning to be a werewolf, one second birds half a mile off are deafening you, and the next you’ve concentrated so much on trying to read somebody’s heartbeat that you miss the gun about to go off near your head.

Anyway, it’s Stiles. Thankfully. He walks in and of course he’s not startled to see them, though he’s curious. Then his eyes drop to the table and he grimaces. “Oh,” he says. He hesitates, then takes a step back. “Sorry. Didn’t realize you were—”

“We were—I was leaving it to Derek and Laura to divide up,” Peter says. He’s pitching his voice to be soothing, but the way he’s holding himself, how he’s looking at Stiles—Derek doesn’t have to be a werewolf to read the anxiety in it. “I was just about to go back to bed.”

Stiles looks him over and there’s no way the man doesn’t miss all of that, he’s too smart. But he just shrugs at Peter. “Oh, well, no rush. I’m just going to crawl in myself—sorry about waking you.”

He withdraws and Peter follows him, assuring Stiles all the way that there’s no issue, that Peter needed a little water anyway. Derek snorts and Laura glares at him. And then steps on his foot, and all right, it saves him when Peter suddenly walks back into the kitchen, but that still hurt.

“The pitcher’s there,” Laura says, nodding, as Peter looks around.

Peter spots it and goes over to pick it up, and gets halfway out of the kitchen when he suddenly stops. He looks up at her and she blinks hard with surprise.

“He did say he’d buried any remains he found, but he couldn’t tell—they were just fragments of bones,” Peter abruptly says. “No marker, though the ground should still be so burnt, I doubt you can miss it. You can put something up if you want, but I have no plans to go back there.”

“Well, we weren’t going to make you,” Derek says. He pauses to grimace off Laura’s look, then sighs and lifts his hand. “You should get a cup too. Shouldn’t you?”

For a second he thinks Peter might snap at him, but then the man just gets a cup. Walks out. Derek lets out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, and then ends up looking at the table again. He stiffens, then gets to his feet as Laura goes back to sorting the—their inheritance.

“What is wrong with him?” he mutters.

Laura glances at him, then nudges his shoulder with her own. “Don’t start, Derek,” she mutters.

“Not Peter,” he says, and to hell if Stiles can hear through the walls. Somebody really should just—he stops, staring, only now noticing the slight wetness to his sister’s eyes. “Laura.”

“God,” Laura says. It’s only been a second but her voice is utterly changed, thick and breaking, and when he puts an arm around her, she immediately slumps into him. “God—goddamn it, Derek, we should’ve killed that bitch faster.”

It wouldn’t have helped their family, he almost tells her. Kate Argent took them too far off, they wouldn’t have gotten back in time—but he doesn’t, as his sister turns her face into his shoulder. He just tightens his arm around her, and turns his face from the table.

* * *

“It wasn’t anything you did,” Stiles tells Peter again, sounding very tired.

Peter is selfish, he’s always been, and so he will admit that when Stiles is exhausted, it’s better for him. The man’s not so careful of himself, doesn’t stop at just wrapping an arm around Peter to keep easing Peter’s pain as they sleep. Sometimes he’ll burrow his face into Peter’s hair and draw deep breaths that warm Peter’s scalp, his fingers drifting down the collar of Peter’s shirt to rest against the bare skin of Peter’s back. Or he’ll give Peter’s jaw a quick nuzzle, even the odd flickering lap of his tongue—he apologizes for that when he catches himself, muttering about wolf habits, while Peter tells him it’s no hardship and ignores how it’s all he can do to not tip his head so their mouths touch.

At any rate, it’s a torture, that glimpse of what might have been, but a torture Peter cherishes nonetheless. But Peter is not so very selfish that he can ignore his own desires when he hears the strain in Stiles’ voice, and so he does, in fact, want to help when he lays his hand against Stiles’ cheek.

He’s only just learned the trick of drawing pain himself—Stiles wouldn’t teach him till his hamstring was sure to heal—and he has to concentrate to do it. Because of that he misses whatever Stiles’ initial reaction was, but he can’t miss it when Stiles wraps one hand around his wrist.

“No, that’s…not that I don’t appreciate the thought,” Stiles hurries to say, a reassuring purr underpinning the words. “It’s just—dreams, you know, they’re not real pain.”

“Nightmares?” Peter says. He’s sometimes wondered about that, but Stiles is so quiet about it—just a few twitches, if even that. Most of the time the only sign Peter has before Stiles wakes is a sudden jump in the man’s heartbeat. “Well, they’re not real, that’s true, but I don’t know that I’d say they aren’t truly painful.”

Stiles looks so somberly at him that he thinks he’s misspoken, and he’s licking his lips to correct himself when a small, sad smile spreads across the man’s face. “Thanks,” Stiles says. He pauses, then laughs ruefully. “Yeah, I know, it’s just…you have to be quiet about them. I mean, that’s what I was always taught. Be quiet, or the hunters might catch you.”

“If you want,” Peter says after a moment. “If you want, I’ll stay up and watch.”

“What? No, we’re fine, even if someone was around, this close to the Nemeton they’d never get us before we found out. Don’t worry about it,” Stiles says dismissively. He shifts under the blanket as if he’ll rise again, then flops back with a frustrated face. He exhales loudly before rolling back to face Peter again. “No…it’d help more if you stay and go to sleep. I’m not going to leave again, I promise. I…it’s just relaxing, listening to a packmate sleeping.”

Peter nods. In all honesty, he doubts that sleep will be within his reach any time soon, but—if it truly will help the other man, he’ll find a way. He’s faked harder things.

“All right,” Stiles says, smiling again and sliding his arm over Peter. “Well, good night, Peter.”

“Yes, good night,” Peter says, settling his head against the other man’s shoulder. “And good dreams, Stiles.”

Chapter Text

“This might interest you,” Peter says, taking back the book. He flips through it, then extracts a torn page. “Do you know any Latin?”

“Enough for service,” Chris answers tersely. This talk had been going too civilly, considering the history of their families.

Peter nods. “Well, let me explain,” he says, holding up the paper. “You’ll see that some of the words are underlined. Those are the parts that talk about when a witch is to be sentenced and burned—”

Chris takes the paper out of Peter’s hand. He doesn’t move quick when he does it, just makes himself sure of the movement, and werewolf or not, that startles Peter so much that he doesn’t resist. Nor does Peter stop Chris when Chris takes the book too, and after shoving the page back into it, tosses it all onto the fire.

Peter looks at the curling, blackening pages, the leather cover blistering off them under the heat. His lips are pressed together but he’s not showing any glow in his eyes, and he does do that when he’s truly upset, Chris has noticed. “The only reason I hadn’t done that myself,” he says slowly. “Is Stiles sometimes reads it. It does have some useful parts, apparently, and anyway, he’s a glutton for knowledge, any knowledge.”

“Well, there’s got to be more than one copy in the world,” Chris mutters. “Order him another one. I’ll pay for it.”

“I’d already ordered one,” Peter says. He watches the book burn for a little longer, then looks up at Chris. “I said I wouldn’t try to kill you, since you saved Stiles’ life. But if we’re to live together, that’s different.”

“Yeah, I figured,” Chris says. A piece of one page flutters out onto the edge of the fire and he pokes it back in with his boot-tip, then stands back. “So?”

“I suppose I’ll let her mind you. You’ll need to ask somebody about these things and if she doesn’t mind being the teacher, that’s her business,” Peter says after a long, silent consideration. He takes a half-step back before he finally stops looking at Chris.

Chris purses his lips, and then he stays by the fire till every speck of the book has gone to ashes.

Chapter Text

There’s something digging under one corner of the house, Peter thinks as he surfaces out of sleep. Too small for a rabbit, maybe a squirrel. He tries to ignore it, but the scratching is persistent.

Being a werewolf is in no way a curse, as far as Peter is concerned, but sometimes it certainly is a nuisance. Peter grunts in irritation and pushes his head under the blankets, meaning to shift his hearing to his alpha’s heartbeat. Then he pauses as Stiles moves against him, but the other man’s just resettling to keep them wound up together. One arm cradling Peter’s head, the other draped over Peter’s waist, with a couple fingers drifting down onto Peter’s buttock.

No guile there, just the unconscious coincidence of the sleeping, but as Stiles tightens his arms around Peter, his fingers twitch and their tips graze up the buttock’s swell and the resulting shiver that goes through Peter dismisses the last vestiges of slumber from his mind. Peter nudges his head into Stiles’ chest again, but it’s no longer because he’s seeking a distraction.

Well, not for himself, at any rate. His lips come to rest against Stiles’ skin, just against the gentle ridge of the man’s breastbone. He pauses again but Stiles is still fast asleep, heartbeat unhurried as the drip of spilled molasses. When Peter licks his lips and then presses them to Stiles’ chest again, Stiles stretches a little bit, a low grunt spilling out, but that’s just mindless reflex. Stiles is a little ticklish there, Peter’s found.

Peter smiles a moment, remembering how Stiles looks when he laughs that carelessly, and then moves on. He’s a little sad to dislodge that hand so sloppily cupping his buttock, but he’s dropping out of Stiles’ embrace as he lays soft kisses along the other man’s torso, working his way onto the belly. He’s lazy about it, letting the curve of Stiles’ body drift him sideways towards a hip, and then he props himself up to mouth his way back to the bellybutton.

There he dares to be a little more palpable, dipping his tongue-tip just over the rim. The muscles under his chin flex sharply and he inhales sharply, so it’s almost as if his breathing drags the skin up against his lips. Then he chuckles as fingers come down to twist in his hair. Chuckles, and allows his tongue to hang out to just catch against Stiles’ belly as he tips his head up to meet Stiles’ amused eyes.

“Doing something?” Stiles asks, voice rough with pleasure.

For an answer Peter pushes down, presses his nose and mouth into the very edge of Stiles’ groin, right at the hairline. Wiry hair scratching his lower lip, he keeps his eyes on the other man as he breathes in deep and long, taking up Stiles’ scent.

Stiles’ eyes narrow a little. His hand tousles absently in Peter’s hair, and then he twists to get his other arm behind him. Pushes himself up a few inches, enough to brace against the headboard, but the fingers in Peter’s hair pull him along too, so Peter doesn’t take it for a negative. On the contrary, Peter flicks his tongue out again and then laves down till he’s wetted the spot enough to keep the hairs down when he lifts his head.

He purrs at Stiles—purring can be for any number of reasons, Stiles has told him. For comfort, for reassurance, for enjoyment. Right now it’s for encouragement, even though Peter can feel the stir of blood in the cock nudging against his throat, and Stiles snorts but he obliges, running his thumb over Peter’s cheekbone. Peter sighs and leans into the touch, almost lifting himself off the other man, and then he twists back just as Stiles’ hand starts to slip under his chin.

Back and down, his mouth making a tight cup around the head of Stiles’ cock. Stiles sucks his breath and jerks his hips and his cock slides out of Peter’s lips. Peter purrs again, then, before Stiles can get irritated with him, pushes his hand under the man’s prick and lifts it back to his mouth.

He swallows the head again, fitting his lips just past its flare, running the flat of his tongue over it as Stiles groans and rocks up towards him. For a few seconds he bobs over the other man, sucking lazily, and then he lifts his mouth again. Stiles hisses but just watches him, slit-eyed, hand still in Peter’s hair as Peter rolls the man’s balls in one hand, making up a little for the sudden withdrawal.

Peter smiles and the fingers knot in his hair, and he lowers his head again. This time he takes an inch more of Stiles’ cock into his mouth. He leaves off the teasing with his tongue and just flattens it against the sensitive underside, letting the pressure of his swallows do the work. Stiles groans again, deeper, almost dropping into werewolf registers; his hips slide down the bed and his feet go under Peter’s arms, then lift to hook him towards the other man.

He goes with it, a little bit. Lets another inch of cock press into his mouth, and then he pulls back completely. A thin string of precum and spit hangs between his lip and the cock head and he dips to lap it in, then quickly pulls his head up just as Stiles growls impatiently. “You always want me to pin you?” Stiles mutters.

“No, of course not, I enjoy variety as much as the next man,” Peter says. He shifts a little nearer, noticing how the fall of his breath on Stiles’ cockhead puts skips in Stiles’ heartbeat. “I’m just taking the opportunity to observe, since I can. There’s no—”

“Oh. Oh, yeah, that,” Stiles says, with a resigned sigh. “Knots are just for heat. Honestly, if those came out every time, I think a lot more people would know about werewolves by now.”

Peter tilts his head, mulling that. It’s an interesting conclusion, and one—something bumps against the underside of his chin, leaving a sticky spot, and he looks up just as Stiles shakes his hand free of Peter’s hair and reaches down to wrap it around his own cock. Peter makes an annoyed noise without thinking and Stiles laughs. Eyes him, grinning, before ostentatiously removing the offending hand.

“Agreed, lust usually is the vice that leads to the most foolishness,” Peter mutters. He puts on a disgruntled look, but when he sees Stiles start to push up, as if to take hold of him, he drops the act and drops himself back onto Stiles’ cock.

Stops with the playing entirely and just puts himself at the other man’s disposal. He’s quite good at that, and that’s both a matter of self-belief and a fair number of testimonials—and Stiles seems to think so as well, judging from the way he slumps back against the bed. Stiles’ hand grazes at Peter’s forehead, then goes back to cup the back of Peter’s head.

Still, the man’s not so forceful as others would be, as he could be. He could set the pace if he really wanted—but instead he leaves that up to Peter, even when the effort of doing so is visibly twisting at him, turning the muscles in the legs under Peter as rigid as iron, pulling his lips back so Peter glimpses a lengthening fang. The sneer’s as unintentional as the caress when Stiles had been sleeping, not anything like a threat, and that lack is a better spur to Peter than any curse or blow.

When Stiles comes his hand even snatches away from Peter’s head, falling instead to grip at the blanket. Peter misses it, misses the slight pressure and the warmth of it, misses it to the point of nearly releasing Stiles’ cock too early, and so he’s a bit sloppy with his finish. Not that Stiles seems to mind, from the way he pulls Peter back up over him and then laps the come right from Peter’s lips and chin.

“Good morning,” Peter says when the man is done.

He’s still a little breathless, and made more so when Stiles, laughing under his breath, cups both hands under Peter’s buttocks and pulls up on them, digging his fingers deep between their heft and pressing their bodies together. “Yeah,” Stiles says as Peter gasps and hitches, clutching at Stiles’ shoulders while their bellies squeeze his so far untended erection. “Yeah, it is. And how do you like your mornings?”

“Oh,” Peter says, low and rough and long, riding out a shudder as Stiles’ fingers knead at him, making his knees drop to either side of the man’s waist. He gets his elbows down on the bed, then rolls his shoulders, stretching his body back into Stiles’ grip, and laughs as he smells a resurgence of arousal coming off the other man. Laughs and moves to put his throat right over Stiles’ mouth. “Oh—oh, you can guess, can’t you?”

“Yeah, maybe,” Stiles says. He leans up and just nips at Peter, just the slightest touch of teeth at the Adam’s apple. Then drops back, lazy as summer, as Peter moans and rubs into the man’s belly. “I don’t know. You just said you like variety—”

“Stiles,” Peter half-gasps, half-reproaches. “Oh, for—later, second round, but for now, please, your fingers, please—”

“You always think we’re going to get another round,” Stiles snorts, but he’s already rolling them over, pushing them to the side of the bed.

They keep something there. Mail-order hand cream when Shasta Springs has it, oil or well-rendered fat when it doesn’t, but there’s a jar and Stiles withdraws generously from it, then tugs Peter to spraddle higher onto him before working his coated fingers into Peter. “Come on, keep it off the sheets, even my healing can’t take all that scrubbing,” Stiles mutters.

Peter just groans, his head tucked firmly into the crook of Stiles’ neck. “Please,” he moans. “Please, my cock—”

“You have hands too,” Stiles says, sighing, with his hand already pulling Peter’s wrist around. He laces their fingers together, then pulls free, leaving a slippery coat on Peter’s fingers that he then closes around Peter’s cock.

Panting, Peter levers himself up with his other arm, making a little space for their still-wrapped hands to work. And seats himself deeper on the fingers also working him, in him. He cries out a little, into Stiles’ neck, and rocks forward into their fisted hands. Then back, and then forward again, and on and on till he finally finds his own release.

“Oh,” he sighs, subsiding onto the other man. He shivers a little, feeling the lap of a tongue against his shoulder, and then arches into it, his still-trembling muscles aching as they close around the fingers still in him, a purr rolling out of his slack mouth. “Mmm.”

“You aren’t just falling right back asleep on me, Peter, you woke me,” Stiles says. “Peter. Peter, if the sheets get messy, you’re washing them out this time.”

“I heard you,” Peter says, though it’s a breath and a half before he actually begins to pull himself up. He feels Stiles’ fingers slide out and he jerks to a stop, whining, clenching down on nothing for an exceptionally sore moment, and Stiles makes a low enough, wanting enough noise that Peter glances hopefully at him.

“You’re terrible,” Stiles says, insisting on sliding out from under Peter. Then he twists around, grabbing Peter by the hips and keeping Peter from sitting down and soiling the sheets.

Peter leans into Stiles till the man’s dragged him so far that he has to put a foot on the floor, and then he stands. “Yes, yes, but you’re wonderful, so on the balance, I think it’s satisfactory.”

Stiles laughs. It doesn’t match how he looks at Peter just then, but the mismatch isn’t worrying. It’s only that the laugh is quick and weightless, a burst of fleeting amusement, while the way he looks—that’s a steady, constant thing, a warmth that could last a whole life. That will, if Peter has anything to say about it.

“C’mere,” Stiles says, curling his hand around Peter’s nape. He pulls Peter into a soft kiss, then brushes his fingers along Peter’s throat as he backs off. “All right, so we’re up. Might as well make something of it.”

Chapter Text

“Definitely surveyors,” Laura reports from her hiding spot at the edge of the cliff. “I don’t think they’re camping here. One of them is leading off the horses—probably going back to that bend in the river.”

Peter makes an assenting noise from behind the log he’s using as a makeshift desk. “Well, this isn’t close enough to worry about,” he says, making marks on his map. “But can you get any ideas as to where they’re planning on going?”

“Towards the mountains,” Derek says. He squirms a little closer to the edge, then brushes off his sister’s hand. He’s not moving the bushes, and even if he was, the little party in the valley below isn’t paying a bit of attention to this direction. “I’m betting that way. They’re miners too, I can see the pans on the one horse.”

“Miners?” Peter says, looking up sharply. “You’re sure?”

Derek is, but he glances at his sister anyway. Old habit—neither of them ever really have an idea as to what’s going through Peter’s head, but Laura is a little bit better at judging his temper.

At least, she was, till Peter ran into Stiles and suddenly Peter’s actually talking about his plans and giving out warnings instead of just insults. Peter still doesn’t ask for people’s opinions—except for Stiles—but they’re both convinced it’s not an act on his part. It’s just…strange. Welcome, compared to how he was before, but strange. They’re still getting used to it.

“I see the pans too,” Laura says. “Why?”

“Well, the railroad, we do want, just under certain conditions,” Peter says, with a little sigh to say they’ve been told this and should remember. “Can’t stop progress, after all. Miners, on the other hand…they just bring floods of greedy strangers to pillage the place. Do they look professional to you? Can you see any company marks?”

“No,” Derek says, worming back out of the brush. He starts to get up, ducks as both Peter and Laura hiss at him, and then crawls on his hands and knees till he’s gotten back to Peter’s log. He dusts his hands off on the bark before taking the candle and string Peter offers him. “If we’re just going to scare them off now, how are we supposed to find that out? They won’t be around for long enough for us to sneak down.”

Even before Peter levels a contemptuous look at him, he knows that he’s said the wrong thing just from how Peter’s heartbeat changes. Derek presses his lips together, then twists around and starts digging in his pockets for a match for the candle. No point in arguing with Peter about this sort of thing, that’s still the same.

“Wait,” Peter says, and when Derek casts a wary look up, he finds his uncle scowling in thought, not annoyance. Peter considers whatever it is he has in mind for a little longer, then reaches out and takes back the candle. “Fair point, Derek. You two keep an eye on them. I’m going to call the others. I have an idea.”

Derek blinks. Opens his mouth, shuts it, and in the middle of that, he feels a tug on his arm. It’s Laura, and once she’s pulled him back alongside her at the cliff’s edge, she goes flat with just much of a surprised look as him.

“I think he meant that,” Laura says after a second. “The part where he was calling you smart.”

“Yeah.” Derek moves to get a leaf out of his mouth and then realizes he’s still holding the string. He winds that up around his wrist and then squints as the little group below start poking along the banks of a stream. “Do you get the feeling that they’re going to be a lot worse off than what we were planning?”

Laura nods. They watch the prospectors for a few more minutes. When a wolf howl bursts up through the air, one of the men jumps and puts his hand to his gun, but otherwise the group stay calm. Just listen for a little bit, and then casually check their weapons before going back to what they were doing. Decent experience with the outdoors, Derek interprets.

“Do you feel sorry for them, or anything like that?” Laura asks.

Derek frowns at her. She’s serious for all of a second, and then she grins and reaches over to ruffle his hair. Grins even more when, annoyed, he bats her off.

“I don’t either,” Laura mutters. “Idiots don’t read the articles we’re feeding to the papers, they deserve it. I worked hard on those rumors.”

* * *

The man walks up slow and careful, his empty hands high to either side of his head, even after he’s breached the dim circle of firelight. “Just saw the fire,” he says, nodding a thanks as they lower their guns. “Wouldn’t trouble a stranger, usually, but it’s cold tonight.”

He’s welcomed gruffly, but without undue suspicion. They’re all old hands at the wilderness and no fools, but he wears a hunting knife on his belt, not a revolver, and has a brace of rabbits slung from his rifle. That and the clothes—plain, well-worn and well-cared-for—say he’s no outlaw, and the brisk way he trades their coffee for some remarks on the state of the local natives say he’s not a prospector either. The leader gives that a test by brushing back the blanket covering their equipment and the man flinches, then averts his eyes as if it’s some horror rather than just panning gear.

“Never been the type for chasing gold,” he says when pressed. “Just nothing but madness from what I’ve seen. I don’t mean to insult the present company, but all the gold in the world isn’t worth it to make up for what I’ve seen.”

Well, they’re getting comfortable now, relaxing their bones after a hard day of work, and the night might be chilly in these woods, but the fire and the coffee—and a nip of whiskey per cup—is doing its work. Can’t say as they haven’t heard the stories about this area, either, and this man with his dusty leathers and weary grey eyes, he looks like he might know a thing or two. Besides, it’s the flipside of hospitality, the guest offering up some entertainment in return. So they ask him, and by God, does he have a story to tell.

“Yeah, it’s cursed,” he tells them. “Been cursed for as long as anybody can remember. Oh, the town, no, that’s not so bad, though not everybody can stand it. Just doesn’t seem to agree with some, though I haven’t heard of people dying there the way they’ve—that’s getting ahead.”

“Let me start at the beginning, as much as I can with something like this. It’s bad land. How or why, nobody knows, but it just doesn’t like people. They just seem to come to bad ends. Some say it’s something in the woods, just likes the blood. No, not an animal. It’s not something you can get in your sights and shoot, and if you do sight something, you’d better check it twice and make sure you’re shooting what you think you’re shooting.”

“What do I mean? Well, what I heard, some families came up here to settle, and everything went all right at first. Knocked together the town, and then they started spreading into the woods, and that’s when all the trouble started. They started hearing things. Wasn’t animals—animals don’t wear shoes, do they? Doesn’t sound the same when they’re walking after you at night, tapping on the trees you go by, and then you don’t see anything when you turn around. Sometimes there’d be screaming, and you’d run out and find yourself in the middle of the woods, nobody but you for miles.”

A loud wolf howl suddenly rises through the night, right as a log in the fire cracks like a gunshot and falls apart. More than one of them jump, and aren’t ashamed to admit it, but the stranger sits there as calm as anything. Just sips his coffee, wetting his throat to go on.

“Wolves. There are wolves, and I’ve seen them. Big ones, and smart as hell. They’ll trail you for days if you aren’t keeping an eye out for them—but they’re still wolves. We’ve all seen a wolf or two, and anyway, that’s not what I meant with the screaming. These screams, the worse part, they’d sound just like people you know. Like your neighbor, or maybe your wife, and you hear them and even if she was lying right next to you, for a second you’d just wonder.”

“The screaming, it was getting people worked up. You don’t sleep, you’re looking over your shoulder all the time, it’ll make you short-tempered. Couple fights broke out. People got hurt. You know, out here, you stick together if you can, keep an eye on each other, but it got so that people weren’t doing that so much as keeping an eye on the other, if you understand me. And that’s when they started seeing things, too.”

“Oh, depends on who you’re talking to. Seems like everybody saw something a little different. Some people were seeing the ones they’d left back East, others were seeing ones who’d died on the way. Yeah, I know, a ghost story sounds a lot like bad nerves and not having a good doctor in town to anybody who’s handled himself around here for a couple years, but I’m just telling you about them. And I’ll admit, it starts sounding strange even to me when you start seeing ghosts of people who aren’t dead yet. That’s what started happened, you’d see your neighbor peeping in your window and the son of a bitch, he’s not supposed to be there, he damn well shouldn’t be after he took those steers of yours. So you shoot at him, and then when you get outside, nobody’s there.”

The fire’s starting to die a little. It needs another log, but nobody can quite stir themselves to get up just yet. More wolves are howling at the moon, and sure, they don’t sound too close, but it’s still eerie as hell, the chorus of them. And then, at the very tail end of it, just as the leader’s gotten up the nerve to stand, comes a howl that’s not a howl. It’s faint, hard to be sure about it, but by God, that isn’t a wolf who screams like that, rising higher and higher till it seems like all the metal’s rattling. Them and the soul, too. It’s that kind of scream.

“Next day, you get up your courage and go over, just to check. You think you’re putting your life in your hands, because who knows if they’ll call you a murderer,” the man says over the scream. He’s talking as low as the scream is high, but somehow his gravelly voice comes through clear as a church bell on a calm night. “But you’ve been up ever since, and you just think you won’t ever sleep again unless you know. So you go, and what do you know, the bastard’s walking around healthy as anything on his spread. You’re so happy about it you forget about those steers and just go on home, and think maybe it’s just a bad dream, maybe you lay off that whiskey a little, and you’re coming up the front steps when there she is, brains blown out against the wall, lying under the window, and you swore to God nobody was there last night.

He pauses to wet his lips again. His brow wrinkles and he puts his hand up to it, pressing at his temple as if he’s got a headache. He stares down into his cup, not out at his frozen audience.

“Well, you’re standing there like a fool, just staring, when the door opens and she smiles at you. All pretty, her face washed clean of the blood, smiling like the day you got married, and she just holds out her hand and tells you come in, you look so cold. Come in, get warm, and you think—you don’t think. You can’t, really. You just think, not a dream, not something this bad. You just got to be dead, that’s it. Just up and died when you didn’t notice, and you feel the weight of your gun in your hand, and remember once a man told you if you think you’re trapped in a dream and want to wake up, you just have to die. That’ll make sure of it. And hell, if you’re already dead, it doesn’t matter one bit, does it?”

That’s when he looks up. He’s pushing his hand against his temple and he pushes it up so far it knocks off his hat and they can all see the big hole that’d been hidden under it, sticky-rimmed with blood and so dark in the center it looks like a hole clean through the earth.

“You know,” he says, serene as anything. “I’m still wondering whether it’s all just a dream.”

The fire goes out.

Just out. Not like somebody tossed a bucket of water onto it—that’d send up a shower of sparks, but the fire is just—gone. Gone like the very ground swallowed it up, and now it’s pitch black and where it’d been there’s screaming, screaming, it’s a woman and she’s in hideous, agonizing pain, you can just hear in the way her voice shreds what’s left of your soul and you can’t help her. You can’t even help yourself. All you can do is run, run as fast as you can, run from the horrid shadows that suddenly sweep down at you from every tree and bush. Monstrous shadows, shadows without anything to cast them, shadows that snap at you like living things and you just know if you let them get you, you won’t live to find out.

Run till your legs fall out from under you so long as it gets you away from that accursed place.

* * *

“You are quite the storyteller,” Peter says with grudging approval. “I wouldn’t have thought it if I hadn’t heard it, but credit where it’s due, I expect that story will be coming up in saloons all the way to San Francisco.”

Chris shrugs where he’s helping Stiles and Lydia pick through the miners’ left-behind baggage. “Didn’t think anything near the truth was going to work,” he mutters. “Don’t know about you, but there are too many lawmen who got involved with hunting down my father’s men. They’d still remember the details, might get interested.”

Laura stiffens and the horses she’s minding move nervously against their reins. She hands those over to Isaac and then drifts over to Derek, who’s looked up from the loops of string he’s still manipulating. They’re both eyeing Peter, but while Peter’s face tightens, his heartbeat and his voice both stay reasonably level.

“Sensible,” is all Peter says, before turning and walking over to Derek. “How far out are they?”

“Maybe a mile,” Derek says. He twists the string, his eyes briefly hazing over, and then makes a face. “I’m starting to lose touch. Could keep going, but need to spill a couple drops of blood to keep the shadows up.”

“I think that’s good enough. That’s just about where the Nemeton stops too,” Stiles says. He’s also come over, and as he stretches his head into the wind, getting a scent, he lays his hand on Peter’s shoulder. The two of them share a look, and then he smiles as his hand inches up towards Peter’s nape. “Worked pretty well, that one. And—” he looks at Derek “—that was really convincing. I would’ve thought Chris had a real bullet-hole in his head, if it wasn’t that I couldn’t smell any brains.”

Derek blinks hard, surprised at the compliment. “Smell, right. I’ll get that in there next time. Not that they were going to notice, but—”

“Well, maybe we can try that spell with werewolves,” Peter says, with a sidelong look at Stiles. “It’d certainly be less dangerous than fighting every omega who wanders in.”

Stiles snorts, but it’s absentminded, while the way he rubs reassuringly at Peter’s shoulder is quite deliberate. “Yeah, yeah, though you never know how educated an omega is,” he mutters. “Even if the spell works, I still wouldn’t be sending in Chris for that.”

They’re going to start arguing again about whether Stiles needs to be up front for every fight, so Laura takes a step back. Not that she’s afraid either of them will get violent, but she’s heard that one enough to know nobody’s going to win—except maybe the Nemeton, since Stiles tends to go hunting when he’s frustrated.

She takes another step back, then stops to help Derek get up from where he’s been squatting, and that’s when Lydia chucks something at Stiles. He snaps it out of the air with his hand, moving as easily as he looks startled, and then frowns at the canteen. “What’s this for?” he asks, while Peter glowers at Lydia over his shoulder.

Lydia completely ignores Peter. “If you’re going to just stand there, you might as well put out the candles before the whole forest burns down. I think we’ve got everything of any interest, so there’s just what to do with their things.”

“I was going to—well, fine,” Derek mutters as Stiles absently upends the canteen over his candles. He shrugs off Peter, who’s switched to being irritated at him, and just sighs and reaches down to collect the candles.

“Could just sneak ‘em back into Shasta Springs,” Chris suggests. “We don’t need any of this.”

“Leave it on somebody’s doorstep?” Lydia says.

“I was thinking middle of the church graveyard.” When they all look at him, Chris’ bland expression doesn’t so much as twitch. “Seems like it’d go with the story.”

Stiles snickers, but then shakes his head. “All right, let’s not get too carried away,” he says. “It’s probably just about time for us to be a little less creepy, so why don’t you just take it to the sheriff and let him know we found the horses wandering around with it all packed on them?”

“Last time the hotel maids were whispering about whether I was really a hundred years old, and using magic to make myself look younger,” Lydia says, which is her way of agreeing with him. “I would prefer not to be a literal fairytale witch.”

“Could get you a new dress, if you think that’d help,” Chris says. Still bland. “That dark grey one’s a little…dark.”

“And now they’re flirting,” Derek mutters under his breath. “Can we volunteer to take the horses back to the house?”

“Isaac said he’d do that before we started,” Peter mutters back.

Derek turns around and glares at Isaac, whose scent whiffs of nerves but who just shrugs helplessly. “Well, I’ll take help,” Isaac offers.

“See, it’s nice when we all work together,” Stiles says, smirking around at them. “Isn’t it?”

Chapter Text

“You’re in my light,” Lydia says, looking at Peter over her embroidery. She draws the needle through the linen very slowly and extends her arm far beyond the necessary degree, so that the shadow she throws upon the wall resembles a great, swooping bird of prey.

Then, as quick now as she’d been slow before, she stabs the needle back into the linen. Peter snorts, but steps away from the hearth. He even retrieves a spare lantern from the shelf and lights it for her, though when he makes to hang it from the hook nearest to Lydia, she irritably swats at him with the end of the pillowcase.

“Would you just go to bed?” Lydia says. She looks at him again, then shifts about on the bench so that her legs are crossed the other way under her skirts. “I fail to see what you’re accomplishing by staying up till you fall over.”

“Well, I fail to see why you’re redoing your bed linen at this early hour,” Peter snaps at her. “Is that such a great emergency, that the mail drop’s let you know you’re behind the style of four months ago?”

He shouldn’t rile her. Of course she’s far too intelligent to rise to the bait, and merely smiles at him, silently promising to take it up later when he’s all but forgotten about the matter. Which is why he shouldn’t rile her, because she has a long memory and tends to her grudges more assiduously than anyone he’s ever met outside of his own family, but he can’t help himself. The house does not yet have a clock, but as he paces about the kitchen, he keeps thinking he hears a steady clicking from somewhere. Low, persistent, maddening.

Peter looks about, wandering into one corner and then the other, even though he’s well aware that it’s all in his imagination. He even goes into the hall, where he stands for a few moments, listening to the slow, soothing heartbeats of his niece and nephew in their bedroom. Lydia spends half her time in Beacon Hills proper these days, now that they’ve built out the general store enough for Isaac to have a separate room, but she still reserves her bedroom at the house solely for her own use.

When spring comes, they plan to add on another bedroom for Laura, but in the meantime she’s sharing with her brother again. She’s taken it well enough, Peter thinks idly, just before he turns on his heel and walks back into the kitchen.

“He’s fine,” Lydia says, so exasperated that Peter pulls up short. She’s never shy about showing her contempt of others, but rarely so forceful about it. “If he wasn’t, the Nemeton would do something. And no, I don’t underestimate his silly impulses, but I do believe he knows better than to wander beyond its reach by himself.”

“I’m well aware of that,” Peter mutters, though even as she’s pulling a disgusted face at him, he’s turning to glance at the window.

It’s pointless, since it’s a cold, snowy night, with a blustering wind that’s piling up the drifts and so they’ve pulled all the shutters tight. He can’t see a damned thing.

He wishes he could hear, at least, but the falling snow deadens sound so that he’s not much better off than before he was a werewolf. He could—Peter catches himself mid-step towards the door, then forces himself to draw back. Going out without a firm idea of where to go would be extremely foolish in this kind of weather. Werewolves are hardier than humans, but they’re not invincible, as he himself has reminded Derek enough times. And they can freeze to death.

Peter grimaces and pushes that thought away. He’s warm and safe inside, and being just as foolish as if he’d be outdoors. Lydia’s right, he knows that. There are any number of reasons why Stiles might be a little late, and it’s doing him a disservice to think the worst. He might look like a naïve youth—and amuse himself and Peter very much with that—but he’s a seasoned alpha and far more knowledgeable than Peter about the wilderness, and living in it.

Worrying about Stiles is, Peter grimly admits to himself, too new an experience for him to know how best to handle it.

He looks at the door again, then sighs. A flicker of movement at the side brings his head around, but Lydia’s apparently given up on him, and is restraining herself to merely giving her needle short, angry jerks. Peter presses his lips together, then gives himself a hard shake. Waiting is what he should be doing, and he’s not doing even that very well.

With the snow as deep as it is, Stiles had warned them he might be slower than usual, and Peter had been prepared to spend the night reconciling their accounts. He’s done very little of that, and he reluctantly is seating himself at the table with the ledgers and order slips when his ear finally catches a hint of a crunching foot.

Peter’s immediately at the door, barely acknowledging Lydia’s question with a wave of his hand. He listens harder, and when he’s sure of it, he picks up the lantern he’d lit for her and unbars the door and leans out into the dark.

A bark floats through the night and he answers it with his own. He sounds nakedly relieved, but he can’t muster up the pride to care, wading out onto the porch with the lantern. A few more minutes, and he can just make out Stiles’ outline against the falling snow.

Stiles barks again, sharper, with more than a hint of stern disbelief, and Peter is halfway back into the kitchen before he realizes. He pauses and something pushes at his back. Then Lydia grabs him by one arm and jerks him to the side, with as little care as she would a broom or some other inanimate object.

“Do you want the wood to warp, and for us to tear up the floor?” she says, throwing down a handful of rags. Some of them miss the melting snow that’s piling through the open door, but she pays them no attention, pulling her shawl tightly around her as she goes off to prod the fire with a poker. “And wasting half a cord of wood, with all the cold you’re letting in.”

Peter starts to reply, but then snow splatters against his side. He turns and wolf Stiles looks back, arching repeatedly and beating his tail to shake off the snow. Then Stiles stalks right up to Peter, twisting his head to shove the top of his skull into Peter’s knees.

“Yes, well, you’re dragging in just as much,” Peter says. Despite Stiles’ patent irritation, Peter can’t help laughing. He simply can breathe enough for it now.

He twists around to let Stiles slide past him, bending down to ruffle one hand through the sleet-covered fur. The strands clack against each other and a few of them sliver cuts along his fingers, but he ignores the slight prickling. Ignores Stiles’ continued pushing at his knees, too, till he’s got the door shut again, and the lantern hung above it.

Lydia returns with a blanket, warmed from sitting near the hearth. She hands it to Peter as Stiles shakes himself up into human form, so chilled that even though he’s in the kitchen, his breath is misting, and then walks away. So it’s only Peter to whom Stiles turns a frustrated face. “I told you not to stay up,” Stiles says.

“The accounts needed to be done,” Peter shrugs. “I suppose I got a little too caught up in my work.”

He and Stiles both glance at the papers on the table, and then Stiles snorts. Gives Peter a bit of a suspicious eye, though he’s eager to step into the blanket Peter wraps around him. He lifts a hand and rakes it through his hair—water flips from his fingers into Peter’s face. Peter frowns and steps back, looking around, and then finds a dry rag just as Stiles is apologizing.

So instead Stiles smiles ruefully. He lets Peter rub at his face for a few seconds, then catches Peter’s wrist and pulls it away. “I think you’ll be at that the rest of the night if you don’t watch out,” he says. “I feel like ice is coming up out of my skin, it’s so damned cold out.”

“Well, all the more reason to get it off you,” Peter says, though he doesn’t fight the other man. “Did you fall into one of the creeks?”

“Oh, no, honestly, it’s really not that bad,” Stiles immediately demurs, looking as if he thinks he’s upset Peter. He shakes himself under the blankets, then moves towards the fire. Pauses to poke a few of the rags on the floor more firmly into the puddles, then moves on. “But there was definitely an avalanche up on the north face of Triskelion Hill. Don’t look like that, I got there afterward. I just stepped into a giant snow sinkhole that wasn’t there before, but I climbed out.”

Peter’s oddly glad to see that Lydia, who is holding a steaming pot of coffee, is looking just as incredulously at Stiles as Peter is. “Well, I’ll mark it on the map,” she finally says. “And when Chris and Isaac make it over, I think it’s as good a time as any to start patrolling in pairs.”

Stiles blinks hard, opens his mouth, and then yelps as she produces a brimming mug from somewhere and presses it into his hand. He drops the blanket trying not to spill it on himself—Peter catches it before it reaches the floor—and by the time he’s looked up again, Lydia has retreated into the hall.

“It really wasn’t that dangerous,” Stiles says.

“I think you’d better warm up first, before the next round,” Peter says. He gives the blanket a shake to work out some of the dampness it’s already absorbed from Stiles, then starts to drape it about the other man’s shoulders again. “God knows ice in the bones hardly is going to keep you quick enough to match her.”

Stiles glances at the hall, then looks over Peter. “Please tell me you two weren’t arguing while you were waiting up.”

Peter opens his mouth to answer and instead a startled yelp comes out, as what feels like a block of ice covers his foot. He jerks and the so-called block flexes, proving it is in fact Stiles’ foot; Stiles makes a quiet but thoroughly amused sound and withdraws his icy toes.

“I don’t know, I know her temper, but I think I’ve got a couple tricks on my side,” Stiles says. He downs some of the coffee, then looks back at Peter. Still amused, but his humor is cooling. “I know you’re annoyed too—”

“Not annoyed. Just…impatient, I’ll admit,” Peter says. Then he steps up against the other man. He’d kept hold of the blanket and now he pulls it up about Stiles’ neck, with his hands on the inside so they press against the chilled flesh. And he pushes his feet against Stiles’ feet again. “We do have a very nice bed now, and I would like to enjoy it.”

“You would, would you,” Stiles says, his voice warming again. He drinks some more coffee, then switches to holding the mug with one hand as he deliberately, with a broadly telegraphed motion, slips his hand in between the buttons of Peter’s shirt.

The coffee’s warmed his fingers some, but they’re still cold enough that Peter shivers from the touch. Then Peter sets his jaw and presses into Stiles’ hand. “Why, of course, Stiles. It’s always been my dream to have my own private glacier. What better way to preserve my looks?”

“I can think of five right off the top of my head, and they don’t even involve the black arts,” Stiles snorts.

But he doesn’t push Peter away. Instead he finishes his coffee, the occasional shiver taking him as his body slowly loses its chill. Not all of that is from the cold—he’s exhausted, Peter can see and smell. His head is drooping towards Peter’s shoulder, and he gives Peter’s wrist an absent nuzzle as Peter gently chafes at his shoulders and the top of his back.

“It really wasn’t anything,” he mutters as Peter takes the cup and sets it aside for washing later. “At least that was easy, I didn’t have to chase anybody off. Just had to trudge through all of that back here.”

“Well, and now you can rest,” Peter says.

Stiles smiles at him, content, a little drowsy. Peter’s always acutely aware of how close he came to throwing this all away, but when Stiles looks at him like that, it—it’s not a close shave, but a bloody one, a cut he still feels deep inside.

His—his mate, impossibly enough—his mate sniffs sharply, eyes narrowing, and then leans in to bump their foreheads together. Withdraws his hand from Peter’s shirt and wraps that arm around Peter’s back instead, holding them in place as their breath mingles.

Then he half-turns and pulls them into their bedroom. He lets go of Peter to grab up a handful of the blanket and scrub it half-heartedly against himself, trying to get a little drier before he crawls into bed. Peter misses him, even though they’re standing in the same room—misses the shape of him, the press of him. But that’s hardly practical, and even for werewolves, this isn’t an hour for useless fancies.

So Peter sits on the edge of the bed and pulls off his clothes. His skin starts to prickle—it’s noticeably cooler than the kitchen—and he gives his arms an absent rub, then slides quickly beneath the blankets, deliberately sprawling so he’ll warm the greatest expanse possible. Stiles follows him seconds later, though the man is a little more restrained of where his limbs go. And then Stiles laughs again, his breath puffing at Peter’s hair as Peter pointedly curls up around him.

“I can’t be that warm yet,” he says. “Your teeth are chattering.”

“You’re exaggerating,” Peter says. And is right, though in all honesty, he is working very, very hard to not gasp at how cold the other man is.

Stiles purrs at him, then worms an arm out and over both of their heads to tug up the blankets. Then he pushes at the pillows. He seems to settle after that, but just as Peter is relaxing, he hooks his arm over the headboard and makes as if to pull himself out of Peter’s grip. Peter growls.

It’s pure instinct, not a speck of thought in it, let alone calculation. In fact, once Peter’s mind does catch up, he nearly winces—Stiles has gone still and Peter’s learned enough of werewolf ways now to know that’s not proper for a beta. Although—Stiles lets out a low chuckle, interlaced with purring, then rubs his face against Peter’s hair so Peter can tell the man is grinning.

“All right, all right, if you want to freeze yourself so much,” Stiles says.

“Yes,” is all Peter says.

He stays as he is. Stiles brings his arm down to cradle his head, then shifts it lower, more onto his shoulders so it’s under the blankets. Their combined breath is quickly heating up the space and Peter thinks he can hear Stiles’ heartbeat slowing. He’s still listening for that when sleep catches up with him.

* * *

Thankfully, the storm is a one-night wonder, and is over by the time the sun rises. Everyone but Lydia bundles up tightly and goes out to shovel the snow away from the house, clearing paths down to the creek and across to the Nemeton. Stiles and Lydia spend some time checking over the great oak, seeing that its needs are tended to, while the rest of them work on the horse-trail that leads to the town.

Peter would rather be at the tree, learning its lore, but it’s his nephew’s turn to see if they can add any fresh food to their larder and so Peter reluctantly forgoes the opportunity.

“Because you just like hoping I’ll mess this up, and you can lecture me,” Derek says, gutting the rabbit he’d flushed out. “I wasn’t bad at hunting even before Stiles turned me, you know.”

“Yes, I do, and it’s not the meat you bring back that worries me,” Peter says dryly. He steps around the other man and pokes his shovel into the snow till he strikes hard earth. There he digs a hole, and he doesn’t stop when the snow is cleared away. “And don’t look at me like that, Laura, I’ve never questioned your ability to not poison us by accident.”

“Just on purpose,” Laura says, nearly as dryly. She’s holding a berry-laden branch and is patiently clipping the frozen spheres off and into her basket with her claws. “You really think an omega would come this close? I can still smell our chimney from here. I think even normal people could tell somebody’s around.”

Derek glances up, frowns, and then looks at the mess before him. He looks irritated, but doesn’t hesitate as he picks up the entrails he’s just scraped out and starts tossing them into the hole Peter’s made. He’s quick when he thinks to be; Peter just wishes he’d think that way more often.

“It’s not trying to hide where we are, it’s trying to hide any clues about how many, what we’re interested in, what our resources are,” Peter explains with a sigh. “I don’t think it’s wise to give them any clues that we don’t have to. Relying solely on the Nemeton as a warning—”

“Well, not arguing about that,” Laura says. She stoops and shakes her basket, peering into it, and then resumes berry-picking. “Less we have to ask it for things, the better, in my opinion. I’m sure Stiles and Lydia know what they’re doing, but it still makes my nerves creep.”

Peter starts to explain, yet again, how Stiles and Lydia handle the ‘accounting’ for the Nemeton and how they should virtually always be ahead, but then something about his niece’s tone catches his attention. “Are you still dreaming about it?”

“No,” Derek says curtly. “No, and good.”

Laura looks a little irritably at him, to which he just turns a shoulder and works on skinning the rabbit. The pair of them have always been close, sometimes to the point that their mother worried about them excluding their younger sister, but they’ve changed since the Argents massacred their family. They aren’t quite…distant, but Derek certainly shows his disagreements with Laura more often, and more visibly, while Laura pushes back on his hot temper more than Peter remembers.

“No, that all stopped once we came back here,” Laura says to Peter. “But sometimes I just…get a feeling around it. Like it could start them right up again, if it felt like it, and it’s just so—so damn human, that feeling, when it’s a tree and that’s just not how it should be. Don’t you—do you ever feel that?”

“When Talia first called on it, I didn’t feel that it sat well,” Peter says after a moment’s thought. “But after that, I didn’t notice anything. Of course my attention was occupied elsewhere.”

He actually doesn’t mean to needle them, is only stating a fact, but both Laura and Derek grimace. Then Derek gets up, the rabbit bundled in its own hide. Derek puts that aside and scoops up some snow, using it to rub the blood off his hands. “I honestly don’t want to talk about this,” he says. “It’s probably just that we left—not that we wanted to, but it’s a tree, what does it care?”

“Well, it’s not going anywhere,” Laura says. She bridles a little and then makes an effort to calm herself. She even picks up her basket and goes over to put the rabbit in it, then turns to Peter. “But if that’s it, why didn’t you—”

“But that was after Stiles came and had been working with it,” Peter says. He pauses, absently twirling the shovel in his hands, then leans on it. “I’ve never asked, but he set up the trust with me in mind, after all. I think he may have intervened with the Nemeton as well, told it not to bother with me. Or maybe not even that—I still don’t quite understand its nature, but it does seem to anticipate his wishes sometimes.”

Peter tells them that calmly enough, but in all truth, the thought has only just occurred to him. He’s surprised by it—then angry with himself, for not guessing at that sooner. Angry and this other strange, twisting feeling, painful but somehow making him feel far more aware—far more knowledgeable, more understanding, and he’s always been of the school that believes more knowledge is better. Even if it’s a fuller knowledge of just how Stiles saw him at his worst and still cared for him.

He remembers coming back to his niece and nephew, telling them it was done, their family had been avenged, and then sitting in his room and thinking that the blood on his hands was neither satisfying nor distasteful. It had simply been—cold. Sticky. Nothing, really, and with all their family’s killers dead, he had had nothing. He’d made sure of that, he’d known that mere moments after striking out at the man who had saved his life. He’d known that and when he had looked up the land title afterward, it’d been nothing too. Simply the last mindless impulse of a dead man walking, a sadistic desire to confirm all the doors were shut to him. And then—going to that lawyer, being told that he had money. He had property. He had someone watching out for his interests, even as he’d thrown them away. He had someone—someone who still wanted him to make something of himself.

Peter is not someone who troubles himself much with guilt. He’s been judged guilty by the world so many times, he thinks it does the job quite well without his own efforts added to it. And somehow Peter still finds himself in these moments, wondering just what he did to deserve all of this. Maybe it’s the feeling that, as with Laura and the Nemeton, something is always waiting to snatch away the peace, and being born a Hale has taught Peter well that the world will not shower sympathy on his losses.

“…made it after all,” Laura says.

She’s standing straight and tall, chin lifted into the wind as she listens. Derek is standing beside her, a loop of string pulled half out of his pocket. He doesn’t push it back in till a distinctive whistle reaches them—Chris’ signal—and for that Peter gives him an approving nod.

His nephew blinks hard but refrains from making a comment that will make Peter regret the gesture, so perhaps the lessons are sticking with Derek. Peter hadn’t thought too much of his sister’s children before—they’d been frightened and resentful, which Peter could understand, but what he never could was how hard they’d insisted on remaining so, and made life harder for both him and their mother. The world wasn’t going to let up on them, so they might as well learn to fight back.

Or so he’d thought. Talia had had somewhat different ideas—but Talia is dead, and her children are grown. Laura kicking the rest of the dirt into the hole, while Derek trudges a little up the slope, clearly checking the approaching horsemen’s back trail. Listening to Peter once in a while, now, and he in turn thinks he’s coming to appreciate their audience.

“Lydia thought you might wait a day,” Peter says when Chris is near enough.

“Thought about it, but seemed better to get over now.” Chris is on foot, leading his rather tired-looking horse. He steps back and brushes at the thin plates of frozen sweat on the beast’s flanks, then lets out a low soothing noise as Isaac, who was in the saddle, clumsily gets down from his horse and nearly blunders the two mounts together. “Well in town is frozen over, and we didn’t have anything long enough to poke a hole in it. Besides, thought you might need us.”

“Need us?” Peter says.

Chris frowns in surprise. “You didn’t hear it? The howl?”

* * *

They reconvene back at the house. Not immediately—horses need to be rubbed down and fed, Derek has to spit the rabbit for roasting, Lydia needs to scold Isaac for leaving water puddling on her one rug—but as quickly as is practical, so Chris can explain more fully.

“Day before this last storm, I was up at that one,” he says, pointing to the map they keep tacked against one wall. “I heard a howl, but just one, far off, and it sounded thin. Could’ve been a coyote. I thought about coming out here early, but I fell in a pond and went to the store to dry out. Time I was dry, the snow had started falling. And I thought if it was an omega, you’d hear it too.”

The spot he’s indicating is one of the abandoned homesteads, one that had belonged to an Argent supporter. Chris occasionally goes and cleans them out, burying any human remains he finds and then burning the rest to the ground; anything he finds, he brings back and shows to Stiles and Lydia. Stiles doesn’t take anything, out of courtesy to the Hales, Peter thinks; Lydia occasionally takes something, but only to have Chris trade it for more supplies. She can be considerate, as long as it’s on her terms.

“How far off?” Stiles asks, and then he frowns at the map while Chris is trying to answer. “If you were there and you thought it wasn’t between you and us—right?”

“Right,” Chris says.

“—then it’s down that offshoot with the strange echoes,” Stiles mutters. “Could be anywhere down to the railroad junction, it’d travel so far. Most of that’s not within our limits.”

Lydia purses her lips. “But you wouldn’t think we need an extra hand over that.”

“I was getting to that,” Chris says. It’s mild enough, but it’s a little more of a push than he usually gives her and Peter is interested to see that Lydia is amused by it. “I thought I heard it again during the storm.”

Everyone tenses at that. Peter looks at Stiles, who is staring intently at Chris. When Peter shifts nearer to him, Stiles doesn’t purr, his usual reassurance. Instead he swings up his arm and lightly grips Peter’s nape without looking away from Chris, a gesture that’s as aggressive as it is protective, as Peter understands it.

“The wind was up, and I couldn’t make it out that well,” Chris goes on. “It was just the one howl again, and honestly, I can’t guarantee it was a howl and not just the storm.”

“But I heard it too,” Isaac breaks in. He looks a little nervous at the sudden attention, but stands his ground. “I don’t think it was the storm.”

“Do you have any idea of the direction?” Lydia asks.

At the same time, Stiles drops his hand from Peter and steps up to squint at the map. “If they heard it, but we didn’t, and the Nemeton didn’t pick them up, the omega’s got to be east towards the mountains,” he says.

Lydia looks at him, resettling her crossed arms against her front. “But weren’t you over that way?”

“Yeah, but if they’re howling into the wind, and I’m upwind, with the storm going I might not get it,” Stiles mutters.

“So you were that way, and didn’t find anything,” Chris says.

Stiles grimaces in irritation and drops back. “I said I was upwind, so I wouldn’t smell them, and I couldn’t hear a damn thing,” he says sharply. “I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on that. Besides, I didn’t go past the Nemeton’s reach, and if they’ve heard we have one, they could know to stay just out of range. So the only way to be sure is to go again, now that the storm’s gone.”

“If they are beyond the Nemeton’s range, then they’re also beyond our boundaries,” Lydia says. When Stiles looks at her, she’s examining the nails of one hand with elaborately casual dismissiveness. “Just a reminder.”

“Yeah. Yeah, sure,” Stiles mutters, rolling his shoulders as if trying to shake off something.

He’s irritated with her and fighting it down. Beyond the pair of them, Derek and Laura are exchanging uncomfortable looks. Isaac’s leaning on the wall behind and between them, and he gets Laura’s attention with a hand gesture, then makes more signals at Stiles. Laura makes a face, nods at Lydia, and then realizes that Peter’s watching them just as her eyes start to roll. She catches herself and looks down, quickly composing her face to something more neutral.

“The Nemeton still hasn’t found anything,” Lydia goes on. She’s still making as if her nails are absolutely fascinating, but she’s raised her gaze enough to take in Stiles over her hand. “Perhaps they’re actually intelligent enough to just avoid us.”

“Maybe, but it’s winter and all the herds are down in the valleys where we are. There’s nothing to eat up in the mountains, so I don’t want to bet on it,” Stiles says sharply. He looks at the map again, then steps back and turns on his heel. “I want to at least see who they are.”

Lydia sighs, but stays where she is as Stiles stalks out onto the back porch. In fact, she even dares to raise a brow at Peter, as if he’s somehow being tardy.

But Peter sets that aside for later. Chris is already asking about how they should split up to cover the ground, but Peter ignores that as well, following Stiles through the door.

They did clear off the snow as best they could, but there’s so much of it that mounds of it are spilling over and through the railing, crowding back onto the porch so that only a small part of it is free to stand on. The moment Peter’s outside, he’s nearly standing on Stiles’ feet. Stiles blinks as Peter pulls up, looks down, and then sighs. “You’re going to lose a toe if you keep doing that.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask if alpha powers include a defense against frostbite,” Peter says. They tend to go barefoot indoors—Lydia is fanatical about keeping them clean so the odd splinter is far less trouble than perpetually scrubbing off tracked-in dirt—and he’d forgotten to put his boots back on.

Stiles smiles, but it’s already half-dead as he puts his hand on Peter’s arm. He pushes as if to move them back inside, then stops and sighs. Tugs a little instead, towards him, and when Peter obligingly leans forward, he puts his chin over Peter’s shoulder and inclines his head a little, his breath whuffing slowly through Peter’s hair.

He’s taken to doing that occasionally when he’s meditating on something, particularly if they’re alone. Peter isn’t entirely sure whether that’s a general werewolf habit or just peculiar to Stiles—since becoming a werewolf, Peter has noticed he has more of an inclination to physical gestures, and not just with his mate—but he hardly objects to it.

“I must’ve gone right past them,” Stiles eventually mumbles.

“In a raging storm,” Peter points out, a little startled. He’d assumed Stiles was upset because the man had some suspicion of a more serious danger the rest of them had missed. Omegas aren’t to be taken lightly, of course, but they are…they’re not an uncommon issue, and the pack has handled several with little issue. “You said yourself, the wind was up and in the wrong direction.”

Stiles makes an acknowledging noise, but it’s reluctant. Then he steps back, one hand pressed to the side of his head. He shakes himself, then looks up with a sigh. “Well, anyway, we should still see if they’re heading out or not. If they’re just hanging around here, I don’t like that either.”

“Why not?” Peter asks. He does his best to not sound accusing or belligerent; he truly isn’t either, he simply doesn’t follow the man’s reasoning. “What’s the danger? It does sound like a single omega.”

“Yeah, but if they hang around—if you let them, they can start getting ideas about coming in, killing off the alpha,” Stiles says. He pauses to listen to something, then pushes past Peter. The door’s still a little ajar and he palms it fully open, then stands at the threshold as he scrapes snow off his feet. “That’s happened, lone omega sneaking in.”

“Well, would they really win a pack like that?” comes Derek’s voice. He and Laura have been listening all along, apparently; as for the others, Peter can hear Lydia quickly filling in Chris and Isaac.

“No, unless the alpha was a real piece of work, but omegas don’t think like that either. I mean, if one of them wants to join another pack, they’ll—there are ways for them to let you know, and they’ll do it as soon as they can. They know that packs will assume they’re crazy otherwise,” Stiles says. He finishes cleaning his feet and steps inside, and then abruptly twists back to look at Peter. His eyes flick over Peter’s face and then he looks a little sheepish. “I know that makes us all sound like we’re—we’re cruel to omegas, but—”

“It sounds sensible enough to me,” Peter says. “If you can’t think to show you’re peaceful, or don’t care to do so, I don’t see why we should assume you’re safe to have around.”

Stiles relaxes a little, then grimaces again. Then he reaches out and pulls Peter in by the arm. “Blue toes, never something you want to push your healing on,” he mutters. Once Peter is inside and the door is shut, he steps on Peter’s feet and starts pushing at them with his own, still-cold toes. “All right, well—”

“We don’t have enough daylight left to do the whole valley, so I think the best course is for you to get to high ground and send up a challenge,” Lydia says briskly. “Chris and Peter can divide up the rest, and go to the two biggest streams to watch if that flushes out anything.”

After a second’s thought, Stiles nods. “I think you should keep back somebody,” he says, clearly assuming Lydia will stay here. “If the Nemeton picks up something, I want to know without having to wait till I come all the way back here.”

Nobody argues with that, but there is some debate about who that should be. The problem is, becoming a werewolf gives one an instinctive, if somewhat primitive, understanding of wolf howls, but that understanding doesn’t come with an ability to howl intelligibly. Peter and Derek and Laura have had to learn that, as they would with any other language, and none of them have completely mastered it. Derek’s noticeably better than Laura, much to her irritation, but he doesn’t mind scrapping with another werewolf and she does.

On the other hand, she’s also their main healer, and Stiles eventually decides it’ll be more useful to have her come along. Not because he expects them to need her, given that it’s likely just one werewolf. “But maybe they just want a little help, some food or clothes or medicine, and then they’ll go away,” he explains. He’s obviously doubtful about it. “That can happen too. Not that often, but this is out west and Erica was saying there are more omegas running around overall. Maybe they’re more used to asking packs.”

“And it’s customary to provide that sort of aid?” Laura asks.

Stiles sighs. “Well, it’s up to each pack. I don’t think there’s really something you can call a custom, but personally, I don’t think you should kill off every omega you run across. That tends to get you a reputation with hunters.”

“Hunters?” Peter says. “Wouldn’t they approve?”

“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” Stiles says, making a face. “There are some, they don’t do the kill themselves. They run werewolves towards each other, figure we’ll either kill each other or start up a vendetta and get ourselves killed later.”

“Sounds like Wells Fargo,” Chris snorts. “Hiring one outlaw to shoot another.”

It’s on the tip of Peter’s tongue to ask whether Chris speaks from firsthand experience, but just then Lydia rattles down a canteen against the table. She gives Peter a sharp, knowing look, and then lays down the rest of her armful with a little more care. “All right, it’s settled,” she says. “Derek and I will watch out from here. I’ll warm up dinner too, but I’m not going to let it boil away, so if you’re not back by moonrise, you’ll have to settle for it cold.”

“Sounds like we’ve been told,” Stiles says, amused. He bends down and picks up Peter’s boots, then his own. “Let’s get going.”

* * *

Of course Stiles and Peter and Laura shift to wolf form, since they can travel far quicker that way, but a wolf’s ability to communicate is a little too limited for complex subjects such as, for example, temporary truces. And it’s highly unpleasant to negotiate while naked in the middle of the winter woods, so Chris and Isaac, both riding, carry bundles of clothing for them.

They travel as a group till they reach the first of the streams. The ground is relatively open and easy to keep watch over, so Laura and Isaac stay there. Isaac’s competent with a gun, but he isn’t one for close fighting and his nerves aren’t the best.

Chris is probably the best rifle shot among all of them, and his tracking skills are good enough that he can occasionally get the better of Derek and Laura—and once with Peter, although Peter had been caught by one of Lydia’s screams and was half-deaf at the time. He’s serious enough about Lydia that he’s made plans with Isaac to build another water tower near the Beacon Hills main street, so in the spring he can renovate a house there and have the running water she wants. And of course, he’s been welcomed into the pack by Stiles, and Peter trusts Stiles’ judgment.

That still doesn’t make Peter enjoy being left alone with the man.

Well, Peter admits, he’s not really been left behind. The way the land is around the second stream, it needs two people to ensure all possible approaches are being watched. Anyway, it’s hardly as if Stiles needs Peter’s assistance to climb up the mountainside and howl out his lungs. And Peter agreed to this.

He still doesn’t like it. He’s gotten dressed and wrapped himself up in a thick blanket Chris thoughtfully—damn him—brought along, and the two of them are sitting some hundred yards apart on separate rocky outcrops. Close enough for conversation, with werewolf hearing, but Chris hasn’t made any attempt at that. Instead, as soon as rifle and hunting knife and spare ammunition had been arranged to his liking, Chris had settled down to whittle what appears to be a lady’s hairbrush handle. It’s infuriating.

In all honesty, Peter doesn’t feel a need to hold Chris to account for the deaths of his family. The men he’d killed down in Sacramento had gone a long way towards slaking his blood thirst, and then the—the disaster he’d made of his return to Beacon Hills, that had taken up far too much attention for him to even think about vengeance. And when he’d finally had the time again…revenge is something that must be nurtured as carefully as any plant, as anyone familiar with William Blake would know. He had stopped doing so, and in the intervening time it’d withered away.

Peter still feels a visceral repulsion from any reminder of the Argents, but it’s closer to a mindless reflex. And he doesn’t really think of Chris as an Argent; the man’s done a thorough job of erasing any likeness between himself and his father. But he’s made it easy for Chris as well. He hasn’t raised nearly the fuss that he could. For good reasons, and he doesn’t regret the choice. He just thinks sometimes that Chris takes it for granted.

Oh, the man’s careful of him and Derek and Laura, but Peter questions whether that’s really to do with them, or whether it’s down to his relations with Lydia and his own hatred of his father. And sometimes Peter feels that old, bitter, gladly perverse part of him lift its head and whisper about how it’d be like to really test the man, to find out. To prove it.

A howl breaks through the air. Peter starts up from his perch, then takes a deep breath as he recognizes Stiles’ voice. He feels strange for a second, as if he’s been underwater and just burst through the surface. He doesn’t need to gasp but he feels one in his chest anyway, a tight strain that gradually dissolves as he listens to the challenge Stiles puts out.

He finds himself smiling, even as he shakes off the blanket and applies himself to scanning his surroundings for any signs of strangers. He can’t help it. He still can’t believe it, to be honest. Him, out in California. With land of his own and the ability to keep anyone who he doesn’t care for out of it—without the worry of wondering all the time what others might accuse him or his family of, what monsters they might see when they look at him. A werewolf with a werewolf pack and a werewolf mate, and not only happy, but secure. He can’t ever remember feeling so…so strong, even as a child. Confident in himself, he has, but that’s not the same.

Stiles stops howling. The echoes carry on for several minutes, reverberating with greater and greater distortion down the valley. Peter pushes the blanket aside and turns his head into the wind, straining to hear anything under the echoes. Even if the omega chooses not to answer, they should at least be pushed to start moving.

But he doesn’t pick up anything. Then Stiles starts howling again, too loudly for Peter to hear much else, and Peter sits back to wait. They’ve agreed that Stiles will stay up on the mountainside for five sets.

Halfway through this set, Peter starts up again. He thinks he’s heard something, but it’s too far—he shakes his head, frowning, and then lifts it again. It’s coming from very far off, but at the same time it seems oddly present, as if it’s a living thing that’s circled all around him. He pushes himself up as the sound starts to grow in volume.

Then another werewolf howls. High and frantic, and from the direction of the Nemeton. It takes a moment for Peter to recognize his nephew’s voice, and even longer to understand what Derek’s saying. The howl is garbled, something about danger but not any more specific than that. Stiles seems to agree, immediately switching to a questioning cry, and a second later Laura’s voice lifts with the same tone.

Peter’s tempted to join in, but Derek’s nearly screaming now and with the other two, it’s all just so muddled—

Shit,” Chris suddenly snaps. It’s so crisp it cuts straight through the howling, soft as it is. “Shit, Peter, get him—tell him get off—”

Peter looks over and sees the man on his feet, jabbing frantically at the mountain where Stiles is. No, Chris is pointing far too high, but he can’t possibly see anything at that height. Even the trees are mere dark specks—

Chris swears again, then snatches up his rifle and fires a wild shot into the air. Peter flinches but it’s pure reflex. His eyes and all his attention are glued to the mountaintop, which is—is wrong. Something about it—and then he sees how the snow is folding, like a wrinkle in a bedsheet, a thin crease running haphazardly across the mountain.

A scream rises in his throat, but even as it’s breaking, the crease has already moved visibly down the mountain. Peter spits out a thoughtless snarl instead, tearing his clothes off and shifting into a wolf.

Chris shouts at him but he races on past the other man, heading up the mountain. A small part of him knows that he can’t possibly climb it in time—that he might be running into the avalanche himself, but it’s like a sign for the side of the fork he doesn’t take. He doesn’t care.

And then he can’t hear Chris anyway. The air is thunderously filled with the rumbling avalanche, blotting out all else. It’s so loud that it rapidly goes from cacophony to something—something almost like silence again, it’s so all-encompassing. Everything seems a little dead, a little like Peter’s been thrust into the center of a bale of wool. Even though the very earth is shaking, and the tremors are coming up through his paws and rattling his bones so he can barely stay upright.

He sees the trees bending with the shakes and he stumbles over and over, clawing and dragging himself on his belly sometimes to keep pushing forward. Rocks slice up his paws and scrape the rest of him; he leaves behind tufts of bloody fur, but throws himself forward anyway, sometimes slipping on his own blood.

Suddenly the earth disappears out from under one paw and Peter falls so sharply that his breast smashes into the ground before he can catch himself. All the air’s driven out of him and he can do nothing but twitch helplessly for agonizing seconds, gasping and gasping to no apparent effect. Then, too slowly, feeling returns. Pain in his chest, and then in his shoulders and forelegs as he jerks himself free of the burrow that’d tripped him. He flexes his leg and thankfully, it’s not broken, just badly jarred.

Peter limps on a few feet, then pauses. He needs to regain more of his breath than he has, but also, he suddenly realizes he doesn’t remember this part of the mountain. He knows well the spur Stiles had went to, and had been heading for that—or so he had thought. But the landscape doesn’t match his memory.

He huffs and stamps his paws against the ground, feeling a rising wave of—the huffing saves him, staves off the frantic clawing at the back of his mind. Because he can still smell. Even with all the snow, he can smell and the smell is right. He has been here before, he remembers that one half-rotted trunk, with its peculiarly pungent, almost onion-y growth of mushrooms.

But it looks different because of the avalanche. He must just be on the leading edge—the snow doesn’t look too disturbed, but great boulders had been pushed ahead of the snowpack, smashing down into the trees and clearing swathes of the underbrush. And then Peter looks at the sky, the moon and stars, and realizes just how long he’s been running.

Peter huffs again, then swings his head so his muzzle slashes deep into a nearby drift, sending up a shower of freezing, shocking snow over him. He needs to think. He’s always been able to think, even when by all regular social standards, he should be too paralyzed with fear or disgust or plain moral values to. That’s his strength, that’s always been, that he never is that soft. That stricken. That he’s never cared so much—he needs to fake that, even if it’s no longer truth. He needs to make himself handle this.

It’s quiet now. The avalanche is long over, and the mountainside has settled again. Peter inhales, coughs roughly and shivers—half-frozen gobs of sweaty froth fly off his fur—and then inhales again. Takes in enough air for it, then tilts his head up and howls.

Then he listens. His heart—he thinks he tastes it on the back of his tongue, when after a terrible silent second, a reply comes drifting on the wind. Peter sags so much his belly nearly touches the ground.

And then he picks himself and he sets off. He makes himself keep to a quick trot, knowing he’s already close to blown and can’t afford another wild dash, but when he first gets a whiff of Stiles’ scent, he breaks into a run. Then catches himself, and then does it again when he sees the huge fallen tree, its roots twisting some ten feet in the air, like an upturned octopus, and then glimpses the furred lump under it.

Stiles barks at him as he slides hastily to a stop before the other man. Peter whines back, dropping his head, but he’s too distracted to feel much urgency about showing respect. He sniffs for blood and internal injuries, then sets himself back on his haunches and stretches out of his wolf shape.

Peter doesn’t go human, not yet. He’s still furred, but he squats on two legs as he examines the situation. The tree is far beyond either of their abilities to shift it, but it doesn’t seem as if Stiles is actually trapped by it so much as entangled in the branches. There’s blood, but not much, and Stiles smells more exhausted than truly hurt. When Peter starts to push and pry at the branches, Stiles twists and crooks himself vigorously enough to help—it seems that the only reason the man is still trapped is that the trunk has lodged against a rock outcrop and the rock’s prevented Stiles from breaking the branches he needs to.

Well, Peter takes care of that quickly enough, and then pulls Stiles out. Stiles grunts, wrenches himself from wolf to fully human, and then flops off Peter. “Leg,” he says. “My leg, you need to break it.”

Before Peter can ask what he means, Stiles holds it up and Peter can see how the foot is at an entirely unnatural angle to the rest of it, even though the flesh has healed perfectly. Peter grimaces and shifts fully human, shivering absently at the cold. “Laura has to be coming—”

“Yeah, I know, she’ll help me do it right when we get to her, but right now I need it so I can at least walk,” Stiles says firmly.

Peter presses his lips together. He’s tried to learn as much as he can—but there’s simply so much, senses and customs and language. And try as he might, aware as he is of their healing ability, he still has human reactions to potential pain. To delivering it to someone who he very much wishes to not hurt, and he just isn’t sure that he ever will be as cavalier as Stiles is about injury. Some things, Peter thinks, a werewolf simply has to be born into.

But Stiles is asking, so Peter swallows his reservations and holds Stiles’ ankle as the other man twists the bones into breaking. He can smell a whisper of marrow and it raises bile in his throat; he swallows hard to keep it down as Stiles hisses and wrestles with his leg, pushing the bones into better order.

“Shouldn’t it be healed by now?” Peter mutters, as Stiles continues to grip his leg.

Stiles glances up and Peter suddenly realizes how grey-faced the man looks, how deep the sourness in his scent goes. He’s clutching his leg so hard the flesh under his fingers is whitened, but his hands are still trembling. “Wore myself out too much, fighting to stay on top of the snow,” Stiles mutters. “Be fine, don’t worry, can feel it healing, just slow, just need—need a nap. Long one. ‘s just temp’rary.”

“Well—” Peter starts.

A wolf howl interrupts him. Laura, asking what’s going on. Stiles starts to answer her and ends on a rough strangling noise. Then he makes a face and attempts to lean over, apparently to bite up some snow to wet his throat.

He can’t reach. Peter’s torn between holding Stiles’ mending bones and scooping snow up for the man. Then he clucks irritably at himself. Stiles looks over, but for once Peter ignores that. Instead he gives Laura a curt answer, telling her to hurry up. Then he shifts his hands carefully off Stiles’ leg, giving the other man time to adjust. He gets Stiles a handful of snow, and then tells the man he’ll go get a branch to splint the leg, shifts wolf again, and pads off.

It’s harder than it should be to find a damned stick. The snow is difficult to move through, so swirled up and loose that even as a wolf, Peter finds himself floundering through it, and the available wood is maddeningly unsuitable. It all seems to be either a full-grown, uprooted tree, or miserably small splinters.

Peter has to wander off till he can’t even see Stiles anymore, which he hates. But he needs a damned stick, and when he finally spots a reasonably-sized branch sticking out of a drift, he’s so relieved that he forgets himself.

The smell of another werewolf hits him like a slap across the face. He yanks himself up, blowing the whole capacity of his lungs out through his nostrils, and then he whirls in place, straining eyes and ears and nose for the stranger. Growling low under his throat, weight pushed back so his bristling shoulders are humped up.

A low, neutral bark comes from his left, and as Peter pivots that way, the omega comes into sight. Head carried up, not down, a casualness in the stride that doesn’t bode well. Male, Peter notes. Fur matted down, but not from ill-health—smeared on purpose with some sort of paste that’s deadening his scent. His eye-glow is blue and his body is heavily scarred, with a thick one cutting across his face, even across one eye that’s a dull white—truly blind, Peter thinks, not the half-act Deucalion Blackwood had had.

The omega stops several yards away from Peter, precisely out of lunging range. They stare at each other for long seconds.

Then, with a dragging snort, the omega shifts. As a man, he’s burly, swarthy with a thick black beard, his shoulders broader than Peter’s by a good hand’s-breadth. His hair is lightly silvered, but Stiles has told Peter that it’s difficult to determine werewolf ages by sight after thirty or so. When he speaks, his accent is faintly Texan. “That your alpha?” he asks.

Peter’s between him and Stiles. The stick is also behind Peter, and he takes a step back so he’s alongside it before he shifts. “Yes,” he says. “Stilinski.”

The omega’s brows rise. “Oh, a Stilinski? I knew one, years ago, up in the Midwest. A woman, Wanda. Related?”

Stiles’ grandmother. Likely the omega’s a born, if he’s so knowledgeable. Peter rolls his shoulders and makes no secret about how he’s sniffing the air. “And what would be your interest if they were?” he asks. “Or weren’t?”

Aggressive, that’s the omega’s scent. A lack of anger, which Peter wouldn’t have mistaken for harmlessness even before Stiles bit him, and more worryingly, a lack of fear. Some amusement now, to go with the toothy smile the omega gives him—several of those teeth are broken and jagged, making him look feral even without fangs showing. “What’s your interest wandering off this far from him?” the man asks. “You came running up fast enough, I heard that and all the yelling, and now you’re stomping off back here, smelling as mad as a wet cat.”

Peter knows his scent spikes with surprise and nerves. He’s not learned how to mask that. So he doesn’t pretend otherwise, but simply lets himself start. Then pulls himself further into a defensive crouch. “And again, what’s your interest?”

“Oh, I don’t care much,” the omega says, grinning. “Nothing to me what you were hoping to find in the snow. Not my alpha, and I don’t deal with alphas, haven’t for couple years now.”

“You haven’t, have you,” Peter says slowly. Most omegas don’t survive more than a few months. The ones that do are almost always the dangerous ones. “Then you’re enjoying life without a pack?”

“You’re a bitten,” the omega says suddenly. He eyes Peter with a growing satisfaction that sets Peter’s teeth on edge. “And I didn’t say that, did I?”

Peter presses his lips together, makes as if he’s thinking hard. He is, that’s not a lie. The hardest part of lying, which most people never realize, is how rarely it’s actually needed.

“No, you didn’t,” Peter says. He glances around them, then tilts his head to listen behind himself. “I should go back. He’s going to notice I’m gone, and then notice you.”

“You think?” the omega says with a snort. “Well, didn’t notice the snow coming down on him, did he?”

When Peter slews back around and faces the man, his shock at the implication is completely unfaked. The omega smiles at him and nods, and then takes a couple steps closer. Stops as Peter flicks out his claws, then shrugs.

“I want a goddamn warm place to sleep off the winter,” the omega says, in a very straightforward, almost undemanding tone. “I’m pretty easy, I think. Living on your own, you learn not to need much. Not as much as those alpha bastards keep telling you, trust me. Now you…you. What do you need, you think?”

It’s a few seconds before Peter answers, and when he does, he drags the words out of himself. “I think I need to see to the alpha,” he says, with a slight nod on ‘see.’

The omega squints at him, then snorts again. “Well, aren’t we all the same, every pack,” he says, sauntering up. “Don’t worry, I’ve been where you’ve been. Sometimes you just have to look after you.”

“Indeed,” Peter says.

He moves well back as the omega comes towards him, which widens the omega’s grin. The other man drops onto all fours mid-stride and shifts to wolf, and then trots purposely past Peter, who puts one hand on the branch jutting from the snow. It rocks in his grip—not attached to anything, he thinks. Good. And then he snaps the branch out and swings it at the omega’s head, muttering under his breath.

The omega’s reflexes are good, of course, and he immediately ducks—except his foot inexplicably rolls under him. He goes human and tumbles down to one knee, his arms thrown up to try and block Peter. One arm does get in the way, buffering some of the blow’s power, but Peter connects with his skull soundly enough that the omega stays on his knee. And then the second blow lays the omega out, the branch cracking off its lower third at the impact.

Not dead, but certainly not going to pull any tricks with snow, if that indeed wasn’t an idle boast. Anyway, Peter’s still fatigued enough that he has to stop and use what’s left of the branch as a cane, catching his breath. He listens closely to the omega’s skittering, uneven heartbeat, watching for any signs of revival. So closely, in fact, that the crunch of snow underfoot makes him start and almost fall off the branch.

He looks up and Stiles, limping on three legs, pauses. Then comes over till he’s on the other side of the omega. Stiles shifts human and then drops heavily so he can cradle his leg in his hands. “I heard,” Stiles says when Peter starts to explain. “Didn’t hear his heartbeat before, but when he was talking, I could hear him, smell him. Stupid, did he forget that?”

Stiles gestures at the paste smeared over the man, then flops onto his side so he’s resting on his elbow. He’s panting and Peter starts to get up to go to him. Drops the stick, remembers why he’d left Stiles in the first place and picks it up again and then rounds the omega’s head.

“So that’s the trick,” Peter says. “As long as he was still, we wouldn’t not—”

The omega’s heartbeat changes and Peter jerks around, flinging up his arm—but Stiles has already lashed claws in and out of his throat, snarling fiercely, heaving himself off the ground so he’s half-between Peter and the thrashing, dying omega. Stiles stiff-arms off Peter’s attempt to drag him farther away, then slaps at the omega’s hand when it comes near them. It might not be on purpose—the omega’s eyes are already glazing over—but at any rate, Stiles’ claws come away with strips of flesh that he has to wipe off in the snow.

“I remembered what you said, about it not being wise to kill every omega you meet,” Peter says after a moment. “And he did say he’d known your grandmother.”

“Doubt it, he probably just heard of her,” Stiles says. His voice still carries growling undertones. When Peter crouches down next to him, his hand shoots out and grips Peter by the arm. Tight, not painfully so, but tight. Then he pushes himself up to a sitting position and moves his arm to Peter’s shoulders. He goes still when Peter presses against him, then relaxes and runs his fingers through Peter’s hair, encouraging the nuzzle. “If he really knew her, he’d know to not pull that play-dead trick. She taught us all better than that.”

Peter hums in acknowledgement, and files the question of what exactly the ‘play-dead’ trick is away for later. “Well, at least we won’t be left wondering,” he says.

Stiles snorts. He moves his face alongside Peter’s, rubbing his cheek up, and then his lips brush Peter’s temple, a second before he laughs. “Yeah. Yeah, well, I draw the line at them trying to get at you. That was smart, by the way, letting him think he’d got you suckered in. He’s big, even I wouldn’t want a straight fight with him.”

Peter smiles, where his mouth is pressing against Stiles’ jawline. Smiles, and then shifts his head a little lower, so as Laura’s howl rises into the air, Stiles can lean up and answer her.

* * *

It’s about a half-hour before Chris, reduced to going on foot, finally reaches them. Then an hour and more before the three of them—Stiles’ leg splinted with the help of Chris’ scarf—reach the spot where Chris had had to leave his horse, and close to three by the time Laura and Isaac meet them there.

Stiles’ leg only needs a minor adjustment, but his healing still isn’t up to speed, so he takes Chris’ horse, and he and Isaac head back to the house. Laura and Chris stay behind to help Peter dispose of the omega’s body. Chris also wants to leave some markers, so he can come back later and search around for anything the omega had left.

“You want to go, I’ll handle it,” he says to Peter, as the shrinking specks that are Stiles and Isaac go down the mountain.

“I’ll stay.” Then Peter makes himself at least look at the other man. Everything Chris is suggesting is eminently sensible, after all, and what Peter himself would do. It’s only that Peter is rather worn out at the moment, that’s the only reason the other man said it first. “No, I think it’s best if we have a werewolf look as well, so we don’t miss anything. The snowpack’s still not too stable and if we don’t look now, it might shift again and take any scents with it.”

Chris looks a little reluctant, but he rarely argues and this is not one of those times. He simply retains that dubious expression as he and Peter and Laura fan out over the area.

Well, he and Peter do. Laura walks with Peter till they’re out of human earshot, paying very little attention to the landscape around them. “I’m a werewolf,” she says.

“My dearest niece, I’ve been one for a year longer,” Peter says. “You still can’t tell a spiral from a sun carving.”

“God, Peter, sometimes I don’t know which of you is more pigheaded, you or Derek,” Laura sighs. She stumbles into a drift, then hauls herself out, beating her skirts against her legs to shake off the snow. “Well, as the pack healer, I say you’re just as exhausted as Stiles and when he gets some sleep, he’s going to be mad as hell at you. And mad at himself for not dragging you with him, and then you two can go on and on till we all tear out our hair. No wonder Lydia’s a banshee, she needs the lungs for yelling.”

Peter stops and looks in surprise at her. She’s a Hale, so a sharp tongue is no surprise, but unlike most of their family, Laura’s never been one for grudges.

Laura stares defiantly back at him, then turns around. She points off towards the cairn marking the omega’s body. “Dead,” she says. “And you know, he looks so damn proud of you about it, and I just don’t see what you’re trying to prove here.”

“It’s not about proof,” Peter says after a long second. “It’s a debt, Laura. You should understand that.”

“I know, all right, because we didn’t come back right away,” she says. And suddenly her defiance is gone. Her shoulders slump and her voice is a drooping whisper, and when she pushes the hair from her face, she moves like a very old woman. “You don’t have to remind me.”

“That—that actually wasn’t.” Then Peter stops. He collects himself—he is tired—and then lifts his hand and puts it on Laura’s shoulder. When she starts, he almost takes it away, but then she turns and she’s not accusing or wary, but simply confused. “I didn’t mean that.”

She looks at him for a little while. “Are you still mad at us for that?” she finally asks.

He had been once. That had been the main thrust of all their disagreements, during their time in Sacramento, that once free of Kate Argent, they hadn’t immediately gone to see what had become of the rest of the family. Instead he’d had to blunder into them, and even then, after knowing, they were still playing at little mice, hiding away from their rightful duty towards their dead.

Peter had meant it at the time, and he still thinks there is valid truth in that. But now…he does see too that that hadn’t been the true root of his rage. He’d been running from his failures too, after all.

“I still think it was a mistake on your part,” he tells her. “But it’s a past error—well, as long as you don’t make it again.”

Laura changes, slightly and yet significantly. She barely moves but her face clears up and Peter’s surprised to realize she puts honest weight on his opinion of her. Her chin dips a little, and then she straightens up, brisk again. “Then just go back with them. I’ll keep an eye on Chris. Not that he’s going to do anything anyway, but if he does, I can take care of it. If I miss something, you can lecture me about it, but the omega’s dead, it’s just about figuring out where he came from now, and I think Stiles would rather fuss over you.”

Peter starts to object, but it’s out of habit, really. He’s too used to not hearing any sense from his niece. But everything she’s saying does seem to be perfectly logical, and if he’s honest, highly attractive too. He’s too exhausted to find the flaws—so he should work harder, but.

“Look, I’m the healer,” Laura says, with a hint of exasperation. She pushes at his arm. “I know I wasn’t as dedicated about it as I could’ve been before, but I’m trying now too. So just—Peter, just let me be that, would you? You need to go home, for your health if not Stiles’.”

“All right,” Peter says.

He honestly doesn’t mean it, in the sense that he doesn’t mean to say it. But she’s so insistent that he has to respond to her, and when he opens his mouth, those are the words that come out. And once the words are out…he doesn’t take them back.

Doesn’t want to take them back, and at that point Peter knows it for a lost cause. So he sighs, and at least makes an attempt to remind Laura of the most likely clues she needs to keep an eye out for. And then he turns away from her, and walks back towards the downhill trail.

Peter has to pass Chris, who’s come back to the omega’s grave, to do so. “I’m heading back,” he says.

Chris turns and looks down the mountain. “Well, you can still catch up, but it’d help if you called out to them.”

“Full of suggestions tonight, I see,” Peter mutters.

“You know, if nothing else, I think you can trust that if my father wanted you dead that badly, I’ll fight to keep you alive,” Chris says. He’s sharp in a way he never is with any of them, dropping that dry patience of his to show an anger almost as deep-running and old as Peter’s. “Just about the best judgment I know of, the way he had of going after people who deserved it the least.”

“Well, with us you must have to rely on that more than you like, and you don’t like relying on your father for anything, if I’m not mistaken,” Peter can’t help retorting. The man just irks him, even without their families’ history.

Chris regards him for an unnervingly calm second. “I know the kind of man you are,” he says. “I’m not stupid. And tell the truth, I don’t mind so much having an eye kept on me. It’s the reasonable thing to do. But what isn’t reasonable, is doing it when you know if I ever come after you, it won’t be that way. That’s stupid, that’s what that is. And you’re not stupid.”

“I’m flattered,” Peter says after a few seconds.

A thin smile crosses Chris’ face. “You would be,” he says, right before swinging his rifle off his back and shooting into the air.

Well, then Peter has to howl, so Stiles and Isaac and Laura don’t mistake that for a different kind of signal. Stiles immediately calls back, welcoming with a clear gladness that makes Peter’s chest tighten a little.

Peter has to go after that. Even if Chris flaps a hand at him as he walks away, a laconic dismissal of a thanks Peter hasn’t given and doesn’t intend to give. Infuriating—but it can wait. The man is right about that, Peter knows how to handle it the right way, the better way. They both deserve no less.

* * *

“You are massacring it,” Peter informs his nephew. “Also, for the last time, take your feet off my bed.

Derek rolls his eyes, but puts his feet on the floor where they should be. He flips the page of the book he’s been grudgingly reading aloud, then flips it back. “Well, I can’t help it, they’re all idiots,” he says. “If they want to die that much, why don’t they stop making speeches and just kill themselves? And if they don’t want to die, why don’t they get up and pick smarter fights?”

Peter lies on his bed and for the thousandth time, curses the deceptiveness of werewolf healing. That, and winter, and cold, and being so careless as to think a frantic run up a mountainside followed by a fight wouldn’t result in a chill. True, it’s not nearly as bad as before he was bitten, but aching bones and a dull but persistent headache and blocked sinuses are still hardly pleasant.

“You do not read Shakespeare’s tragedies for the strategy lessons,” he mutters.

“You could start off by telling me that,” Derek retorts. “You’re always saying I need to work on that, so if you hand me a book, what am I supposed to think?”

Thankfully, Peter’s saved from even attempting to explain by the opening door. Stiles comes in, carrying a steaming mug, and starts to greet them. Halfway through it Derek deposits the book in Stiles’ free hand and slips out the door while Stiles is giving it a bemused look. Then Stiles just kicks the door shut and climbs onto the bed next to Peter.

“I was going to side with you, but if you’re starting him on Titus Andronicus, I can see his point,” he says, handing Peter the mug.

“I didn’t start him on that, he picked it. He’s the one who wanted a play that wasn’t about a doomed romance.” The mug holds some sort of broth and Peter’s throat is scratchy, but he resists the urge to just down it and instead gives it a cautious sniff. And his suspicions are proven right when under the rich, savory smell of gamebirds, he detects several herbs.

Then he pushes himself up against the headboard, feeling the mattress shift beside him, but Stiles has already swung an arm about his shoulders. The other man slides under the blankets, his legs grazing in a rather distracting way against Peter’s, while his hand sneaks up to wrap over the one Peter has holding the mug.

“I had a bowl, and look at me, cleared up my cold,” Stiles says in a patently wheedling tone.

“Yes, I know, I recognize the recipe,” Peter says. “Talia swore by this one and she was right to, since I can’t remember it failing once. But that doesn’t make the aftertaste any better, Stiles. Unless being a werewolf changes your sense of taste.”

Stiles gives him a wide-eyed, innocent look, and manages to hold it for several seconds before sighing and dropping his head to Peter’s shoulder. “All right, honestly, I had to hold my hand over my mouth to keep from spitting it back up,” he says. “But come on. Do you want to be stuck inside for the rest of the winter?”

“Would that really be so terrible a fate?” Peter asks.

He looks at Stiles and Stiles smiles, then tips his head so that their brows are touching. Stiles’ hand slips from the mug to Peter’s wrist, loosely circling it, while Stiles’ other hand sneaks up to lay across Peter’s belly, a warm, reassuring weight. “Lydia says I’m still off patrolling,” he says instead of arguing. “I told her my leg is fine, but she thinks I should take one more day, just so that we’re sure my healing is recovered too.”

“Which seems to support my point,” Peter says.

Laughing, Stiles twists himself a little more over, so that he’s fitted against Peter from the chin on Peter’s shoulder down to the toes teasing at Peter’s ankle. Then he draws one leg over both of Peter’s, while the hand he has on Peter’s belly begins to smooth back and forth, slowly petting up the hem of Peter’s shirt till it finally runs onto bare skin. Peter breathes in a little more deeply and Stiles suddenly flattens his palm, splays his fingers, and in an instant the touch turns from flirtatious to a firm demand.

“Do you want to just be sick the whole time?” Stiles murmurs. His lips work across Peter’s cheek, then dip behind Peter’s ear as a shiver that is not the chill runs through Peter. Down on Peter’s belly, his fingertips are flexing lightly, little not-quite scratches that pull up warm strings of heat to pool under the skin. “Peter? When we’ve got a day in bed?”

Peter leans his head, allowing that warm mouth better access to the tender flesh and Stiles nibbles his way to Peter’s throat. Nips a little harder, once, and when Peter moans Stiles rumbles pleasantly to him. Then nudges his jaw back towards the damn mug.

“Fine,” Peter mutters. “Be it on your own head, then.”

He takes a deep breath, then downs the mug in one swallow, which long experience has taught him is the best way. It goes down smoothly enough, but as he opens his mouth to gasp, the aftertaste hits him. Both in the mouth and in his belly, where the stuff is roiling, and—

A hot tongue pushes into his mouth, shocking him out of his rising nausea, and then Stiles firmly seals their lips, both hands coming up to cradle Peter’s head as he groans and closes his eyes. At some point Stiles has gotten rid of the mug, and the book’s disappeared too, and anyway all Peter cares to do is hold onto the other man and just fall into that sweet, warm mouth.

When the kiss finally ends, Peter’s slid back down the headboard and Stiles is sprawled atop him, half-straddling him. The other man pushes briefly up to kick off his trousers, then wriggles down again, smiling and lazily stroking one hand along the side of Peter’s face. His thumb rolls up over Peter’s lower lip, toying with it, and then he bends down and nibbles at the lip’s curve, even though Peter’s still panting from the kiss. Peter lets his head loll and Stiles plays a little, rubbing their noses together, sucking at his own thumb so Peter feels just the grazes around that against his mouth.

Then Peter gets enough air back to join in, and Stiles is happy to let him, dropping the hand to sink it into Peter’s hair as they lap at each other. Press the kiss back and forth, one leading, then the other, and then they lose track and simply mold into each other, almost one single warmth.

Of course, then Peter’s body decides he needs to shiver. Stiles immediately lifts his head, though at least he leaves his fingers in Peter’s hair. He frowns down at Peter, eyes distant as he listens for the heartbeat, sniffs a little. Then they focus on Peter again and he laughs. “It was an hour or so for me, so maybe two for you,” he says. “We’ll still have plenty of time to enjoy it.”

“I know, but I still,” Peter starts. Then stops himself, because he’s being petty and that is a plain waste of time.

Stiles looks down at him. Not smiling now, but still, affectionate. Looking at Peter with that kind of happiness in his eyes, aware yet unconditional. Then he leans over and kisses Peter very lightly, reassuring, not lustful.

“I’ll be here,” he says. “I’m staying. I’ll keep you warm, and when you wake up, I’ll be here. I promise, all right?”

Peter wishes he had a speech for moments like this. Something out of all the books in his repopulated library—but then, none of them seem worthy either. Not real enough, not solid enough, just words when this is flesh and air, blood and heartbeat. Living and with him, and so all he can do, honestly, is bare his throat and offer up himself.

Stiles nuzzles him, lipping up under his chin, then wraps one arm around Peter. Purring, his fingertips gently rubbing Peter’s temple as Peter sighs and closes his eyes and finally goes to sleep. Yes, he can do that, he’s done all he can. For now, of course, but still…he’s done. He can sleep.

Chapter Text

One of the alleged risks of the West is its tendency to cause men to ‘go native,’ or so Peter’s heard from every greenhorn who ever stepped off the stagecoach. And it’s not entirely untrue, although people exaggerate the risk while underestimating the vast differences in what is required to survive out West, compared to even the most rural areas of the East. Not to mention the grossly inflated shipping charges imposed by the railroads.

Most of the time, ‘going native’ is merely adapting your hand to what you have, without wasting the tears on what you don’t. In Peter’s own experience, he’s never stopped missing certain sundry comforts of the East, but that doesn’t mean he sits around and moans over it when he could be doing something more productive. And his lack of moaning doesn’t make him an inch less civilized than any soft-handed idiot rotting away in a clerk’s office back East.

But, he’ll admit, sunbathing isn’t remotely civilized, and he enjoys it very much. Not that pale genteel imitation the ‘promenade,’ which is really more of a social caricature, but true sunbathing: fresh out of a cold stream, spread bare on a sunny hillside for most of a long summer afternoon, without a speck of shame about his nakedness or idleness or plain, unadulterated selfishness. No, it’s utterly unreconstructed behavior, and if that makes him a savage, well, he’s doing it as a wolf so that’s fitting enough.

The wolf part is critical. He can’t really put it into words, but there’s just something irresistible about the whole thing when he’s in wolf form, something about how the slack weight of dangling forelegs on his chest and the riffle of an occasional breeze through his belly fur feels. He’s tried it human—of course he has, they have the whole forest to themselves—and it just isn’t the same. Just doesn’t have that extra touch of hedonism that ensures he doesn’t even care about the indignity of it, rolled onto his back with his tongue threatening to slide out from between his canines, a flicker of wind stroking down the length of his body to tease at his genitals.

A sluggish interest stirs in the back of Peter’s head, but it’s just unthinking reflex and a semi-conscious twitch of his hips at the impertinent breeze removes the tickle. He paws at the ground with a hindleg, rebalancing his spine against the slightly uneven ground, then lolls his head to the side. Stretches his jaws out in a hinge-popping yawn—catching a whiff of approaching werewolf with his inhale.

Peter turns his head the other way, slitting his eyes against the sunshine, though he’s already recognized them. Stiles slows a little, barking an inquiry that Peter…can’t quite work up the energy to answer, though his tail manages to thump once in the grass.

His mate pulls himself up, peering at Peter, and then snorts and ambles the rest of the way over, more bemused than irritated. When Stiles reaches Peter’s head, he stops and bends down so that they carry out the obligatory nose-touch. Then he lifts his head, snorting again at how little Peter shifts himself to do that. Peter rumbles a placatory noise but Stiles doesn’t smell annoyed, not really, and the sun is so warm and the grass is so cushioning, and…he does twist his head about, following as Stiles slowly stalks around it and down to stand alongside him, but that’s the most that his muted curiosity drags out of him.

Stiles pokes his nose into the side of Peter’s throat. It’s a little cool, on sun-simmered fur, and Peter starts, then grumbles before he can help himself. Head cocked, Stiles looks at him, then raises a forepaw and prods the ridge of Peter’s breast. That’s enough to spur a half-hearted grunt out of Peter, who bats away the paw and then grudgingly begins to roll over. What on earth the man wants—all the chores are done, as far as Peter can remember, and he’s honestly a bit annoyed at having to bother to think about whether that’s the case now, and…

A nip behind his left ear brings Peter’s thoughts to an immediate halt. It’s not painful, just pressure, but the instincts it triggers are undeniable. Peter stops half-rolled to his belly, the beginnings of an inquiry worming up his throat, and Stiles casually steps over him till the other werewolf’s straddled Peter. He noses at Peter’s ruff a few times, then plops himself onto Peter’s back just as Peter’s opening his mouth.

So the inquiring bark comes out a gusty grunt instead. Stiles is not exactly light as a wolf, that form much more accurate as to his strength and power than his lanky human one, and as Peter gulps to catch his breath, his mate rubs his muzzle up along the side of Peter’s jaw, purring lowly.

Peter grunts again and squirms under him, knowing damn well that’s not so much comfort as the closest a wolf’s vocal chords can get to snickering. Whatever worry had begun to sprout in Peter’s chest has completely disappeared now—Stiles wants to play, that’s why he wouldn’t let Peter just continue to doze. He’s an alpha, yes, but sometimes Peter thinks he can take that alpha energy and—

Stiles nips him again, closer to the throat, and then presses his muzzle to Peter so that the sides of his teeth dig through Peter’s fur to just graze at the skin. Still annoyed, but with that quickly dying, Peter lets out a feeble growl.

His mate is having none of it. Oh, there’s no anger in it, but the thump of his legs against Peter’s flanks is unequivocally firm, as is the way his teeth prick into the looser skin of Peter’s ruff. He presses Peter to the ground, holds Peter there for the space of a breath. His breath pushes out between his gripping teeth into Peter’s fur, hot, a hundred times hotter and closer than the sun’s rays just a moment before, and spreading that heat slowly across Peter’s throat, just as a corresponding heat is crawling up Peter’s belly.

When Stiles lets go of him, Peter stays down. Shivering, and then a second later he can no longer hold his wolf-form and he’s sprawled in all his bare human state, still shivering as Stiles’ fingers clasp his arms. He found his wolf-form in rage and hate, that’s why, he sometimes thinks—why when he’s safest, happiest, most satisfied, he can never stay in it.

“Sorry,” Stiles mumbles, mouth nursing at the slight raw pinpricks his teeth have left on Peter’s shoulder and neck. “You just looked so silly like that, couldn’t help it.”

“Silly.” Peter draws in an already-shaky breath as he hikes his knees out, arches his ass to seat the other man’s cock between his buttocks. He cranes his head back and Stiles nuzzles in behind his ear, then twists forward for a brief but deep kiss. “Mmm, silly, is that what you were thinking? When you saw me?”

“Well, a second ago, yeah, just with that big grin on your face.” Stiles laughs into Peter’s skin, less mocking than savoring, and then smooths that into a low, encouraging growl as Peter rubs himself up against him. “Your tongue was even hanging out, a little.”

Peter snorts. Then sighs, arching, as Stiles drags his fingers down both of Peter’s sides, streaks of pressure angling down towards Peter’s hips as they start to hitch against each other. “I don’t think so.”

“It was,” Stiles insists, though he seems more interested in kissing Peter’s shoulderblades.

“Hmm, no, I deny everything, you must’ve been mistaken,” Peter murmurs. Then he puts his cheek down on the grass, just as Stiles inhales to reply, and stretches out his throat, soft begging noises dribbling out of his lips.

Stiles sucks his breath back instead, his fingers tightening on Peter. Then he presses down against Peter, mouth fastening to the tendon running up Peter’s neck, snarling fiercely, possessively—there’s more than a tinge of amusement to it as well, he certainly hasn’t missed the distraction. But he’s not about to refuse it either, it seems.

Uncivilized behavior—yes. Proudly so.