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(In My Hand) The Golden Bough

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In the dream, it’s a warm, yellow day.

He’s small, and content, and unafraid. He can smell something baking - fruit and sugar and pastry, inside the house - and the forest, beyond the edge of the porch. He’s in someone’s lap; he can see his hands, small, shredding broad blades of grass. Somebody is stroking his hair.

Mom is sitting on the porch, bent over something with concentration. In her hands is something silver that flashes.

Not far away, people are laughing.

It’s a good dream. He’s been having it a long time.

Aunt Pearl comes back to town on a Friday afternoon.

From the look on Dad’s face, she was not expected.

Stiles wasn’t expecting her either, but he still grins wide enough that he feels the stretch, drops his backpack and nearly trips over his own feet in his haste to get across the living room to where she’s standing in front of the sofa.

“Holy crap! Are you real? Did you bring presents?”

“Stiles,” Dad says, low and aggravated, but he’s just rubbing his temples. Aunt Pearl always brings this out in him.

“Who do you think you’re talking to, smart boy? You think I forgot your birthday?” Never mind graduation, of course; probably too mundane for her to remember. Aunt Pearl hugs him, strong arms holding him close, squeezing him until he imagines his ribs creaking, but he’s gotten used to this kind of handling, being part of a werewolf pack.

“My god, you’re so tall!” she exclaims, holding him at arm’s length. Somehow Aunt Pearl is still both taller and broader than him, but she’s always been an Amazon of a woman and remains one at seventy-five. She claps hands on his shoulders. “And muscles! Where did these come from?”

“Clean living,” he says soberly, before cracking another grin. She eyes him, something shrewd in her expression when she nods, and then looks at Dad.

“Well, John? I don’t want to impose. I really would have called but I had to get on a plane in a bit of a rush. I really can find a hotel room. It’s no--”

“Of course you can stay,” Dad says, looking tired. “You know where the guest room is.”

Dad turns and walks into the kitchen, and Stiles hears dishes clanging around.

“Well,” says Aunt Pearl. “Your dad’s mellowed.”

Aunt Pearl was really his mother’s aunt, but Stiles has always just called her Aunt Pearl. Throughout his childhood she was a series of whirlwind visits and real-life adventure stories about her travels all over the world; travels that sounded a little too adventurous for a veterinarian. But she and Mom had always been close, and she’d always come bearing presents, and she drove Dad crazy.

This last point is something that has not, apparently, changed.

Stiles hasn’t seen her since the funeral, but she’s never been a constant presence. They’ve gotten postcards at Christmases and birthdays. Sometimes she sends weird packages. Once a crate of plantains; another time, incense that sent Dad into a sneezing fit for two days.

This time, the first thing she pulls out is a huge tin of macadamia nuts. Stiles won’t let Dad have any until he’s Googled them.

“Just give me a minute,” Stiles says, munching a handful of nuts as he types on his phone with one hand and clutches the tin protectively to his chest with the other. “Okay,” he says at length, “good fats only. You can have some. But only in moderation!” he adds, as Dad takes a handful and retreats grouchily to the kitchen. Aunt Pearl regards him fondly.

“Still watching his diet?” she says, tossing a nut into her mouth.

“Forever and always,” Stiles says, putting the tin down on the coffee table and ignoring the sad look on her face that says she understands exactly why Stiles does it. “So Hawaii, huh?”

“Mmm.” She nods her head. “Birds,” she says, cryptically, and doesn’t seem inclined to add anything else. Stiles rolls his eyes and stuffs another handful of nuts into his mouth.

Derek gives him a weird look when he shows up to the pack meeting that evening, and not because he’s late. He nodded off at his desk after dinner and had to scramble.

“What?” Stiles asks, because by now he recognizes that weird crinkle between Derek’s eyebrows as the quasi-territorial, something-has-upset-the-delicate-balance, you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter one. He’s been wearing it on and off for weeks, though he hasn’t said anything out loud. Stiles has been writing it off as worry about the coming Fall.

But Derek twitches as if trying to shake something off. “You’re late,” he says, though it’s obviously not what he meant to say.

Stiles glances at his phone. “By like, forty seconds. Chill out, sourwolf.”

“You smell weird,” says Erica, coming up behind him and sniffing at his neck in the loud, obnoxious way she does when she wants to be annoying. She wrinkles her nose. “Like cookies. And... medicine.”

“Oh,” Stiles says, comprehension dawning. “My Aunt Pearl - my great-aunt. She’s a vet.” It would not surprise him at all that the smell of a vet might have unpleasant associations for his packmates, despite the number of times Deaton has saved their various asses.

“Aunt Pearl is here?” Scott calls from the door, where Allison is toeing off her boots. Derek is really uptight about shoes on the carpets. Scott bounds up to Stiles, excited. “That’s awesome! Did she bring presents?”

Scott loves Aunt Pearl. When they were really little it was Aunt Pearl who helped them build the treehouse in Scott’s back yard, who told them scary stories about travelling in jungles and mountain ranges and fighting monsters. Also she used to give Scott candy even when Mama McCall said he’d had enough for the day. Stiles had nothing on Scott for hyperactivity back in kindergarten.

“Books and pictures, mostly,” Stiles tells him. “Also something that may or may not be a shrunken human head.” It’s totally a dehydrated gourd, but Scott’s eyes widen anyway.

“Come to dinner. She asked about you. Practice your everything’s-fine face first though, maybe.”

Scott gives him a wounded look. To be fair, he’s gotten a lot better lately at acting as though they didn’t have a secret supernatural double life with people who aren’t involved in it, but Aunt Pearl can spot bullshit a mile off and Stiles can admit to being a little worried about her smelling a rat this time.

Not that it would matter if she did. They have so many layers of bullshit contingency plans for stuff like this, and anyway, secrecy is generally assured by the simple fact that no one would believe the truth, even if they found out about it.

Aunt Pearl is a ruthlessly practical woman. She’d probably just think it was drugs. Or that he and Scott were doing it (ew); she is, to date, the only adult in Stiles life to take him aside and give him The Talk with special addendums for hypothetical bisexuality, and she always did think he and Scott were a little closer than normal.

(Repeat: ew.)

“Be careful,” Derek says, needlessly, and he has a weird look on his face, the scrunchy-eyebrowed one that means he’s worried, not mad. Stiles stares at him.

“Yeah, of course,” he says at length, “but seriously man, Aunt Pearl’s cool. Also awesome. Like... Indiana Jones and Jessica Fletcher rolled into one.”

Lydia snorts, and Stiles valiantly does not whirl around and point a triumphant finger in her direction. He totally would have pegged her for a Murder, She Wrote fan.

Jackson’s snort is somewhat less delicate. “Shut up man, I used to watch it with my mom,” Stiles says, but Jackson just rolls his eyes.

“Training Sunday,” Derek says at last, and pins Stiles with a look that makes him hang back as everyone else files out; as Isaac wanders upstairs and engines start up outside.

“What?” Stiles asks, when Derek just stares at the closed front door, hands on his hips, brow still furrowed and Concerned.

“I... don’t know,” Derek says at last. “It’s just a feeling. So be careful.”

Stiles takes a few steps closer, which he has found is remarkably effective at making Derek ditch the reflexive Scary Alpha shit he puts on during meetings and lapse back into more reliable body language. Stiles doesn’t even know if Derek knows he does it, but it works: Derek turns to face him and drops his hands to his sides.

“An impending doom feeling or a huh-so-apparently-mermaids-are-a-real-thing feeling?” A real thing that Scott is apparently allergic to; that little adventure still holds the record for stupidest mishap in Stiles’ notes.

Derek looks at him, frowning, thinking. “Neither,” he says. “I don’t know how to describe it, okay? It’s just...” He shrugs in a way that on anyone else would look like “helpless.” But not freaked out or scared or angry, so Stiles mentally downgrades it from “Danger, Danger” to “Disturbance in the Force.” Occasionally Derek will sense things that he detects purely by virtue of being a werewolf. Stiles has never seen the others so it; maybe it’s something to do with being born rather than bitten. Maybe Derek just trusts his instincts more. He’s usually right, though.

“A feeling,” Stiles agrees, pressing his lips together. “Sure thing. Eyes open.” He tosses off a little salute and heads for the door.

He’s feeling pretty good about the world as he turns the Jeep onto the road back into town. No threats to their lives lately, the hell of high school very nearly behind them. His very last final ever is in seven more days, and his eighteenth birthday in thirteen, at which point the double-edged sword of Can Legally Buy Porn and Can Be Tried as An Adult comes clanging down. And everybody else was in a good mood tonight too, even Derek, despite being all twitchy over his werewolf radar ping. A couple of times during the meeting he even actually smiled, which is something that’s been happening a lot more over the past year or so. Stiles doesn’t know how he’s supposed to feel about Derek smiling, especially given the way it seemed to kick him right in the chest the first time he saw it.

Okay, every time he sees it. Whatever. He’s not made of stone.

He can’t even imagine how Derek would react if he found out he was the catalyst for Stiles’ journey of bisexual self-discovery last summer. He definitely can’t even think about Derek and the possibly worrying amount of porn he watched without thinking it would probably be better to actually die than face that embarrassment. There were a few close calls with prolonged staring and other related crush symptoms that an alpha werewolf could probably pick up on - and Stiles tries not to remember the mini-panic attacks invoked by his sudden realization that werewolves can smell arousal, but in hindsight Stiles is pretty sure that any signals he may have been putting out were safely hidden in the ambient funk of teenage hormones.

He’s got a handle on it, these days, he thinks. Their relationship has progressed from “holy shit, that’s Derek Hale, possible serial killer” to “oh, hey, it’s Derek.” Which is where it is now, with the occasional sexy daydream. Derek is undeniably hot, but he’s also... well. Derek. Stiles likes him as an actual person. He thinks they might even be friends, beyond the weird, inexplicably visceral sense of affection/belonging that comes with being Pack.

So it’s a good thing Stiles has a handle on it.

Anyway, it’s really no worse than zoning out over hot actors. Though okay, Chris Evans hardly ever strips down to nothing but a pair of worn jeans and engages in half-naked sweaty wrestling matches with all of Stiles’ friends.

Shaking his head, Stiles focuses on the road and tries to remember what’s in the fridge at home. He hasn’t gone shopping this week, so it’s probably down to moldy bread and wilted broccoli, but he can’t actually remember. He decides to check at home first and then go shopping if necessary; Dad shouldn’t be home from work for another hour at least, which gives him some lead-time if he wants to head off the “but this is why pizza delivery was invented!” train at the pass.

He’s surprised and pleased to find Aunt Pearl in the kitchen and two pots on the stove, the woman herself pulling a casserole dish out of the oven.

“You’re home!” she sets the casserole dish down on top of the stove. “I thought I was going to have to do the vegetables myself.” It’s unquestionably a command, along with a pointed finger in the direction of the bag of zucchini sitting on the counter. Stiles takes a detour to sniff the pots on top of the stove - he has no idea what it is, but it smells amazing - before dropping his stuff in the hall, toeing off his shoes, and getting to work.

A small mountain of peeled and chopped vegetables later, Aunt Pearl hands him a glass of juice and tells him to stand down. He pulls out his chem homework instead. Watching her cook in their kitchen makes him think too much of Mom, and it’s better to have something else to focus on.

“I went through your box,” she says, stirring something with a wooden spoon. “Very organized.” She gives him a look, eyebrows raised, mouth pursed, and he knows she’s making fun of him. Dad makes fun of the colour-coding too.

“Look, my system works.” Not to mention brings a 65% guarantee that Dad will actually eat what he’s given. He tried sorting the recipe box by ingredients, or mealtime, or type of cuisine, but the traffic-light system is a lot simpler. Green’s a guaranteed hit, orange is edible and filling and best not used as a main dish, red’s healthy but only to be used as a punishment when Dad goes off-book with curly fries and take-out meatball sandwiches.

Aunt Pearl looks at him, and her face softens into a smile. “You’re a good boy,” she says.

“Not that he appreciates it,” Stiles jokes.

“He does,” she says. “He’s never been good at letting other people take care of him. It’s not in his nature. But you’re like your mom. You’ve got her spark.”

Stiles is ducking his head and smiling before his brain catches up to the actual words, and he looks up again. For a moment, he’s seeing double, Mom standing where Aunt Pearl is standing, but in the present Aunt Pearl has got her back to him and hasn’t obviously noticed anything off. It’s just a word, he reminds himself, as she nods to herself and continues.

“Your mom had such a spark in her, Zim. You’ve got it too. It makes me miss her less.”

It makes me miss her more, Stiles thinks, but says nothing.

Half an hour, a delicious meal that he didn’t have to cook and a plethora of Dad’s dubious faces later, Stiles is full, tired and content. He sits at the table and watches Dad and Aunt Pearl clear up, load the dishwasher, and bicker pleasantly about the food, which Dad loved, even the cucumber zucchini salad, which was just vegetables, hah.

He’s glad she’s here. It’s nice, having someone else cook a meal, set the table, be the nexus of family togetherness for the evening; Stiles doesn’t mind that it’s almost always him, but it gets tiring sometimes. Having Aunt Pearl here is like... like... when Mom was alive.

The passage of time and the undiscussed but mutually-agreed-upon silence that he and Dad practice mean that he’s out of practice guarding against it, so it’s a bit of an adjustment; something that keeps catching Stiles flat-footed. He hasn’t seen her since Mom was sick. Since Mom died. Long enough that the memory is fuzzy around the edges; thinking about it for too long makes his head hurt.

It’s weird. He’s glad to see her. Her presence is grounding, a shock of warmth, but at the same time he hasn’t felt this lost in years.

But Dad is smiling when he turns to look at Stiles, so Stiles smiles back. Aunt Pearl gives him a knowing look and places a piece of cake in front of him.

“Eat,” she says, in a tone that brooks no argument.

Stiles eats. It’s easier than thinking about it.