Stiles Stilinski arrives back in Beacon Hills the week before his sixteenth birthday.
He is late.
His father picks him up from the bus station, and Stiles hugs him tiredly and tries not to notice how much older he looks. It’s been five years since Stiles saw him last. Five years since the family convinced John Stilinski that a trip to Poland was just what Stiles needed to get over his mother’s death, and just what John needed to sort himself out. Stiles remembers packing for a few weeks, but it’s been five years.
His dad no longer smells like whiskey.
He no longer smells like home either.
Stiles stares out the window of his dad’s cruiser at the familiar streets of Beacon Hills. Familiar, but somehow brand new. Things aren’t exactly how he remembers them. Sometime in the last five years his memories have faded, have cracked around the edges. They’re flawed. They’re false in entirely unimportant ways that make Stiles worry that maybe none of his memories can be trusted, and that everything he’s ever thought he knows is build on a shifting foundation of sand.
The fire hydrant is on the other side of the intersection than he remembers. The book store has a red awning, not a blue one. The house at the end of the street has two stories, not one. Tiny things, but a ball of anxiety sits heavily in his stomach. How can this be home when it didn’t even stick in his memory right?
How can this be home when Stiles knows he speaks with a slight accent now? When sometimes the first word he thinks is Polish, not English. How can this be home when his dad steals glances at him like he’s a stranger?
Stiles is a stranger, and he is set on a stranger path than his dad could possibly know.
The house is the same as Stiles remembers, but the dimensions have shrunk. Stiles was ten when he packed a bag and went with his babcia.
It was only supposed to be for a few weeks.
“You remember the way to your room, right?” his dad asks him. His voice sounds like it’s close to cracking.
“Yeah. Thanks.” Stiles lifts his suitcase and carries up the stairs.
He passes through the ghost of a little boy dragging his the other way, thump thump thump all the way down.
His room belongs to a ten-year-old boy. His old clothes have been cleaned out, but everything else is still here. Stiles wonders if that’s for his benefit. Did his dad really think this day would come, or could he just not bring himself to throw anything away?
Did he ever really dare to imagine Stiles was coming home until Stiles called last week?
There is a Lego robot on the shelf. Stiles picks it up and holds it in his hands. He stares at it for a while, trying to remember how to play with it, and then sets it down again beside the framed photograph of his mom.
Dinner is awkward. His dad asks about his flight, and Stiles tells him about his two-hour layover in Frankfurt, and how it was a long flight from there but he was lucky enough not to have anyone in the middle seat. His dad doesn’t ask about Poland, or about the family there.
Stiles doesn’t ask why his dad never tried to come and get him.
He goes to bed early, claiming jetlag.
He doesn’t sleep well.
Stiles walks to school on his first day, and resolves to get a driver’s license as soon as he can. He wonders if his mom’s old Jeep is still in the garage. He wonders if he can even bring himself to ask his dad if he can have it. He’s not sure he has that sort of claim to his dad’s affection anymore.
School is school. It’s startlingly different than school in Opoczno was, while at the same time depressingly similar. Stiles finds himself struggling for his first few lessons. He has to train his brain to be receptive to learning in English again. Most of the kids give him curious looks when the teachers announce the newest student and then proceed to stumble the fuck over his name.
“It’s Stiles,” Stiles tells them. “It’s just Stiles.”
“Oh thank God,” one of his teachers says. It’s the one with the crazy eyes who wants to be called Cupcake. “Because it looks to me like your parents just painted you in treacle and let you roll around in a Scrabble set.”
And Stiles gets the Scrabble set thing. But treacle? What the hell is that about?
Finstock is definitely going to be his favorite teacher. He’s too weird not to be.
There’s a boy at the next desk who chews his pen and wrinkles his forehead at his textbook and looks quietly panicked when Finstock starts talking about an upcoming quiz. Stiles is almost certain he’s a werewolf.
He’s probably even in the Hale pack.
Stiles doesn’t tell him who he is.
That’s not the way this thing works.
Stiles hasn’t even finished his compendium yet.
A compendium is kind of like a résumé, and kind of like a bill of sale.
This is all the shit I know.
This is what you’re getting.
It’s yours now.
Stiles’s is dedicated to Laura Hale.
Stiles finishes his compendium a few nights before his sixteenth birthday.
Stiles doesn’t like to do the math.
Stiles is sixteen in three days. Laura Hale is—he thinks—ten years older than him.
It’s not ideal.
But neither of them have any say in it. This was decided before either of them were born.
“Hey, kiddo,” his dad says, leaning in the doorway. He’s wearing an expression that’s caught between hope and fear.
“Hey, Dad.” Stiles closes his compendium and drums his fingers lightly over the leather cover. Stiles went hunting with his Uncle Bogdan to kill the wolf himself. His Babcia showed him how to skin it. He learned how to make the cover for his hand-stitched book, and how to carve runes from the bones.
A wolf for a wolf, Babcia said.
It was also a symbol, Stiles thought.
Everything I know, everything I am, and it is bound by the wolf.
But maybe that’s not what the wolfskin leather means at all.
But maybe it’s as simple as I will kill other wolves for you. Here’s my proof.
“It’s your birthday on Monday,” his dad says. “Anything you want to do?”
“Oh,” Stiles says, and blinks. His mind is a blank. “Um.”
“I thought you might want to catch a movie or something after school,” his dad says. “Or we could pick up some burgers and a new video game?”
Those are the exact things Stiles would have loved to do if he was still ten. Of course, he kind of still wants to do them so it’s hard to resent his dad even a little bit for still treating him like the kid he was. Apparently the ghost of that kid is still haunting this place, and he’s slipped back into Stiles’s body and has burrowed deep in his bones. It would be so easy to give voice to him again.
“That’d be cool,” Stiles says, chewing his lower lip for a moment. “Could we get In-N-Out? I haven’t had an In-N-Out cheeseburger in forever.”
His dad gives him a shaky smile. His eyes are shining. He clears his throat. “I think we can arrange that, son.” And then, like he’s afraid if he stays too long that his presence will shatter something between them, he backs away. “Goodnight, Stiles.”
It wasn’t your fault, Dad.
It wasn’t true.
I lied to you.
Stiles’s throat aches too much to make his voice much louder than a whisper. “Goodnight, Dad.”
Beacon Hills feels wild at night, like it’s been built on the cusp of a storm about to break. Stiles sits in front of his open window and listens to the howling wind.
On Friday afternoon Stiles lines up at the DMV with his dad beside him.
“You’d think your uniform would get us to the front of the line at least,” Stiles says.
His dad snorts.
On the day of his sixteenth birthday, Stiles skips school. He shoves his compendium in his backpack, picks up the keys to his mom’s old blue Jeep, and navigates his way out toward the Preserve using a combination of his childhood memories and Google maps.
He’s nervous. His sweaty palms slip on the steering wheel more than once, and his heart is beating too fast.
This is what he trained for though.
This is what he came back for.
He’s sixteen today, and he has his compendium, and he knows the ritual.
Stiles follows the curve of the road through the Preserve. The trees crowd the road, and Stiles drives slower than he needs to, because he’s not used to driving yet and because there’s a part of him that really doesn’t want to get there any quicker.
When he rounds the final curve, Stiles slams on the brakes and gasps in shock.
What the fuck?
The Hale house is a burned-out shell.
The kid smells like ink and anxiety. Derek watches him from the trees as he approaches the house, his red flannel shirt flapping in the wind behind him. He’s pale and slim. His movements are jerky and sharp. He stares at the house, mouth open and eyes wide, and curls his fingers around the straps of his backpack.
And then he climbs back into his Jeep and drives away.
Stiles can’t just ask his dad for all the details, because how’s he going to explain why he needs to know?
Oh, yeah, Dad. By the way, I come from a long line of emissaries on Mom’s side, and we’re totally supposed to get bonded to werewolves when we turn sixteen. And since Mom really dropped the ball on that since she came here and met you, everyone’s kind of relying on me not to fuck it up.
He says, instead, “I went out to the Preserve. What happened to the Hale house?”
His dad tells him about the fire, and Stiles knows, okay? He knows that a pack of werewolves don’t get taken out by a goddamn electrical fault but he nods and makes a sympathetic humming noise and tries not to let his dad see the flash of horror in his eyes.
What the hell happened?
The next day at school Stiles introduces himself to the werewolf kid in his economics class, and gets invited to sit with him at lunch.
“So, like this might be really insensitive,” Stiles says over his tater tots, “but are you affiliated with the Hales?”
Scott McCall’s jaw drops. “Um, what?” He tries for a casual laugh, which really doesn’t fly at all. He’s terrible at lying. “Why would you ask that?”
“Well, I figured your family is either a part of their pack, like some second-cousins or whatever who inherited the place, or you’re a part of the pack that killed them and took their territory.”
Scott’s eyes get very big. “Wh-what?”
“I know you’re a werewolf,” Stiles tells him, keeping his voice low. “If power’s shifted, that’s cool. I’m not looking to start anything with your alpha. I’m just trying to get the lay of the land, okay? Because last I heard, Beacon Hills belonged to the Hales.”
“Hunters killed them,” Scott says in an undertone.
“All of them?” Stiles asks in a hoarse whisper.
“Yeah,” Scott says, and then blinks. “Well, except for Derek.”
Laura Hale is buried in the cemetery with the rest of her pack. Peter Hale is in a coma in the hospital, and Derek Hale… Derek Hale is living in an abandoned railway depot, according to Scott.
It’s all very confusing.
Scott is an omega, he doesn’t know what happened to Laura, there’s some unknown feral alpha roaming the town, and everything is a mess.
Stiles goes to the railway depot.
He doesn’t know if Derek Hale is there or not. Maybe the noises he hears are the rats in the walls, or the possums in roof. Maybe it’s the wind again, howling in the absence of the wolves.
Stiles takes his compendium out of his backpack, and squints around in the gloom. “My name is Stiles Stilinski. My mother was Claudia Kozłowa. I was supposed to bond with Laura Hale, because she would one day become the alpha and I would be her emissary. I don’t know…”
His voice trails off.
He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do now.
That night Stiles has a frantic conversation in Polish with his babcia, his voice strained with anxiety. When he turns around he catches his dad staring at him, his face drawn.
No, he wants to say. No, I’m home now. This isn’t what you think it is.
But his dad barely speaks a few words of Polish—certainly not enough to correctly interpret Stiles’s rising panic—and he is already moving away from Stiles, heading for the kitchen and putting space between them again.
He doesn’t say anything.
Stiles goes to bed early.
When Stiles was ten, he learned that magic was real and that he was magic.
He learned that werewolves were real and that one day he would bond with one.
When Stiles was ten, Babcia didn’t go into details about that.
When Stiles was ten, he learned that magic was a secret and that he couldn’t tell anyone about it. And he learned that magic had a price.
When Stiles was ten he choked down his tears when he spoke to his dad on the phone.
“I don’t want to come home,” he said, the lie threatening to shatter him into a million pieces. “I don’t want to come home because you drink too much and you frighten me!”
Stiles was never scared of his dad. Scared for him maybe.
And he wanted so much to come home.
Stiles is drawn to the Preserve when the night is dark and the canopy of the trees waves above him like the surface of the ocean. The woods are wild on nights like these, and Stiles is as restless as the wind in the leaves. He is drawn to the Hale house, to the blackened bones that stand in the clearing, to the charnel ground.
It’s there that the wolf falls into step beside him.
“You’re late,” Derek Hale says.
“Yeah,” Stiles says, tearing his gaze away from the burned-out remains of the house. “Sorry.”
Derek Hale is pale in the moonlight, all angles and sharp edges that are hardly softened by the moonlight at all. He is the only member of the Hale pack left in Beacon Hills. Well, apart from the catatonic uncle.
Stiles knows what he has to do. He knew it even before he checked with Babcia.
“I—” Stiles’s heart skips a beat. “My name is Stiles Stilinski. My mother was Claudia Kozłowa. I have completed my compendium, and I offer it—”
“Go away, kid,” Derek Hale says, and curls the corner of his mouth in a snarl. “I’m not interested. There’s no Hale alpha anymore. There’s no Hale pack. Get the hell out of here and leave me alone.”
Beacon Hills is wild at night.
There is no Hale alpha and there is no Hale pack, but there is an alpha.
A hulking beast of an alpha, caught in some twisted, corrupted form that is a mockery of both wolf and man, and its red eyes flash as it lopes alongside the Jeep.
Stiles grips the steering wheel tightly and drives as fast as he dares.
The boy is the sheriff’s son. Derek follows his scent to the sheriff’s house. The old blue Jeep is parked in the driveway. There are claw marks on the rear fender.
Stiles opens his compendium and looks at the name inside the front cover: Laura Hale. He crosses it out.
“You’re a very troubled young man, Bilinski,” Finstock tells him when he hands back his assignment.
It was supposed to be on economics.
Instead, Stiles wrote five thousand words on male circumcision.
He still gets a B+.
“Very troubled,” Finstock repeats.
Yeah. Finstock doesn’t know the half of it.
There are deaths. There are late night phone calls to the Stilinski house. There’s Stiles’s dad’s sigh as he dresses again, the dull thunk of the gun safe being closed after his dad gets his firearm, and the click of door being locked behind him. Minutes after that there’s the sound of the cruiser’s engine turning over.
In the morning there’s a note on the fridge.
Had to go into work – Dad.
Stiles traces his dad’s handwriting with his finger, and imagines that there is still love behind those words, when maybe there is nothing at all.
The Hale house draws him. Stiles circles it in his mind, swept closer and closer with every rotation, a piece of debris pulled in by the maelstrom. He is haunted by the destruction, frustrated to find his own future in ashes too, and a secret part of him aches for the pack he never knew. He wants to spit in the eye of the universe for this. For the last five years he’s spent learning, for the father he pushed away, for everything he’s already sacrificed because he was born to be the Hale emissary… so fuck the universe.
All those hours, his hand cramping as he wrote out his compendium, and Laura Hale’s pack was already dead. And then so was Laura, before Stiles even set foot back in America. Stiles doesn’t know who the punch line of this sick joke is: him or the Hales.
Stiles is drawn to the Hale house.
He leaves footprints in the dew-damp grass as he circles the remains of the house in the night. The woods are encroaching on the house. What was once the lawn is overgrown now, and saplings grow in place of blades of grass. The stars are very bright out here, and Stiles tilts his head like a sharp-eyed bird and picks out the constellations.
Mountain ash trickles from his fingers like an afterthought.
The alpha growls, eyes flashing red.
It is a beast. It is monstrous.
Stiles extends his hand, turns, and encircles himself with ash.
“You can huff and puff all you want, alpha,” Stiles tells the beast. “I don’t belong to you.”
The beast growls again.
“I was promised to the Hales,” Stiles tells it. “The Hales.”
The beast roars.
The boy smells of fear when he enters the depot, but he doesn’t falter.
“Derek Hale? The alpha’s after me. I need your help.”
He holds his leather-bound book up, and turns so that he shows it to every dark corner of the place.
Then he sets it down on the floor and waits.
“Jesus fuck,” Stiles says when Derek Hale’s teeth break the skin of his wrist. Derek’s not an alpha, so it won’t turn him—the main reason most emissaries are bound to betas before they become alphas of their packs. There are other ways to ensure immunity to the bite, because the system isn’t perfect and sometimes an alpha bonds to an emissary post-alphahood if their previous emissary dies, or if there was no emissary available before now, but those methods of ensuring immunity are apparently incredibly fucking painful. Not the only reason Stiles has chosen to bond with Derek Hale over the feral alpha, but he won’t pretend he didn’t factor it in. Although this right here? This fangs tearing into soft, bloody flesh? Yeah, this here hurts like hell too.
Derek holds his wrist and lifts his bloody mouth away long enough to inspect the wound. Then he ducks his head again, and licks the wound.
“So,” Stiles says, his voice ragged with unshed tears, “we’re bonded. I no longer have a feral alpha on my ass, and you have yourself an emissary.”
Derek’s expression is hard to read. It’s customarily hostile, but there’s also a vulnerability to it that can only come from being a pack animal completely bereft of pack.
If Stiles had been here…
He curls his fingers, brushes the tips of them against Derek’s jaw as Derek licks the wound again.
Derek meets his gaze.
“So,” Stiles says, drawing a deep breath, “what do we do now?”
A bond is a shifting, mutable thing. It will take a while to settle. It will take a while for Stiles to sink into all of Derek’s grief and guilt and misery and anger and remember how to breathe.
His tears sting when he cries for the pack he never got to meet, but whose loss he feels acutely through the bond.
He wonders if it works the other way.
Will Derek get to mourn two dead moms now?
Is that the gift Stiles has given him?
“Stiles.” There’s heartbreak in his dad’s eyes.
Stiles sets his homework aside and resists the urge to squirm.
His dad steps inside his room. “We need to talk, son. I know…” He clears his throat. “I know you’re not happy here, but—”
“No, Dad, I—”
His dad steps forward, and grabs Stiles’s sleeve. Tugs his arm up, shoves the sleeve of the hoodie back to expose the dressing on his wrist that Stiles thought he’d hidden so fucking well.
“It’s a dog bite!” Stiles blurts. He pulls his wrist back, and unfastens the clasp holding the dressing closed. He starts to unwrap it. “It’s just a dog bite, Dad!”
His dad looks torn between relief and horror as Stiles exposes his wound. “Oh, Jesus, kid. Did you go to the hospital? What if it was rabid?”
“It’s fine,” Stiles says. “Dad, it’s fine.”
“Jesus, I thought…” His dad straightens up, drags his fingers through his hair.
“Dad,” Stiles says. He stands up. “I wouldn’t do that. I wanted to come home. I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner. I missed you.”
And suddenly they’re hugging, and Stiles is crying and his thinks his dad is too, and he’s ten years old again, and he’s sixteen, and he’s every age in between, every day when he squares his shoulders and swears not to let his hurt show, every night when he cries into his pillow because he misses his dad so badly, and it’s a different sort of pain than missing his mom, and some days it hurts even more than his mom dying, because his dad is alive, his dad is right there in Beacon Hills, but Stiles isn’t allowed to go home yet.
“ Proszę, babciu! Proszę!”
It was an unfair burden to put on a child.
It’s still an unfair burden.
“I missed you,” he repeats, and his tears choke him.
“God,” his dad says, voice muffled somewhere in Stiles’s hair. “I missed you too, kid. Missed you so much.”
The bond wraps around him like the coils of a boa, and squeezes. Stiles tries to sleep and can’t. He’s restless. Too cold, and then too warm. He can’t find a comfortable position. The patterns the moonlight makes on his wall and ceiling are distracting.
There is a wolf lurking around the edges of Stiles’s consciousness now. A silent, brooding presence in the corner of his mind. Watchful.
Stiles bares his throat to the wolf, and then he bares his teeth.
Stiles is as deadly as a wolf, in his own way.
Stiles wants the alpha dead.
Stiles lays a trail with his spark, and follows it through the darkness.
It leads him to the hospital.
It leads him to a man who tilts his head on an angle and smiles and says, “You must be Stiles.”
It’s Peter Hale.
Fire is cruel. Fire cracks Derek’s veneer too. Peter Hale’s skin blisters and burns and melts like plastic, and Derek watches, jaw clenched so tight it’s trembling. Stiles wonders what he sees. He wonders if he sees the man that Peter was as the rest burns away under the flames.
There’s a saying, isn’t there, about cleansing the world with fire?
Except fire isn’t clean at all.
“Derek!” Stiles reaches out and grips him by the wrist. “You have to end him!”
Because Scott is here too—it feels like half the fucking school is, actually, it’s a total mess—and Scott has this crazy idea that if he kills the werewolf who made him, he can become human again. Stiles can’t let that happen.
“Do it!” Stiles screams at him, and Derek steps forward.
He swipes his claws through Peter’s throat.
When he turns around, his eyes are red. “I’m the alpha now.”
For the first time since coming back to Beacon Hills, Stiles feels something inside him settle into place.
Stiles has burned as many bridges as he’s built. The friends he almost made at school keep their distance now. Scott wears a look of betrayal whenever he glances at Stiles. His dad has noticed how many nights he’s not at home, and his hurt is morphing slowly into suspicion. Even Derek, who holds the echo of Stiles’s heartbeat in his own ribcage, growls at him when he goes to the depot after school.
“You planned it.”
“I planned for you to kill the alpha,” Stiles says, lifting his chin. “I didn’t know it was your uncle at first.”
Derek folds his arms over his chest. “And when did you know?”
“Why does it matter?” Stiles asks.
“Because he was pack!”
“He killed your sister. You had every right to kill him.”
“That wasn’t your decision to make!”
Stiles snorts. “Someone had to!”
Derek’s eyes flash. “Get out.”
Stiles’s stomach clenches. “What?”
“Get out.” Derek shakes his head. “Take your fucking book, and get out.”
Nobody told Stiles what would happen if his alpha rejected him after they had bonded. It feels like he’s swallowed razors. Stiles lies curled up on his bed, whimpering in pain, with his compendium open in front of him, and his cellphone clutched in his hand.
He closes his stinging eyes. When he opens them again, he flails back. Derek is standing beside his bed, scowling.
“Fucking bond,” Stiles mutters.
Derek sits down on the edge of his bed, and puts a hand on his shoulder. A wave of relief rolls over Stiles, lifts him, and carries him. He shivers, and closes his eyes again.
“You crossed Laura’s name out,” Derek says.
Stiles opens his eyes again. “Yeah.”
Derek meets his gaze. “You wrote mine in.”
“You chose me.”
Stiles nods again. “I mean, it was you or a feral alpha, so.” He shrugs.
Is that a smile from Derek Hale? That has to be a sign of the impending apocalypse.
“But also,” Stiles says, “I’m going to choose you in the future too. Just so you know.”
He wonders when the last time was that someone chose Derek Hale. When someone looked at him and judged him worthy.
“You don’t even know me.”
“Not yet,” Stiles says. “But I’m going to.”
Beacon Hills is quiet at night. The wind whispers through the trees in the Preserve, gentle and soft. Stiles closes his eyes when Derek runs, and follows the glittering string of the bond in his mind. His wolf is strong and fast.
Stiles sits in front of his open window, and leafs through his compendium.
Everything I know, everything I am, and it is bound by the wolf.
The compendium says many things in many languages. It also says unwritten things:
This is all the shit I know.
This is what you’re getting.
It’s yours now.
It says: I will kill other wolves for you. Here’s my proof.
Stiles crossed out Laura’s name once, and wrote in Derek’s.