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With Just the Door Ajar

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And were you saved,

And I condemned to be

Where you were not,

That self were hell to me.

 

So we must keep apart,

You there, I here,

With just the door ajar.

Emily Dickinson

Beacon Hills is dark and mostly deserted when Stiles pulls up to the house. There's space on the driveway which is nice; the main Reyes of Sunshine truck is there, so no one's out on a job, but the pink mini that Erica was driving during Stiles' third year at college is absent.

Stiles kind of hopes she still has it, and not just for the times when she throws the keys at Boyd's head and makes him drive it. An unwelcome feeling churns in the pit of his stomach, but he pushes that away. He's not ready to admit out loud that he missed this stupid town.

It's been six years since he's actually physically stepped foot on this particular driveway but nothing's really changed: there's still the loose flagstone by the garage door which Mona keeps tripping over. Stiles might actually be able to fix it now; he's been picking up some skills over the last few years.

He goes around his car to the passenger side and pulls out his overnight bag and a large paper bag of collected souvenirs from his travels over the last six months. He hasn't seen any of the family since their last awkward family Christmas together in Tenerife, and Erica seems to view the trinkets and postcards as a weird sort of apology for him not coming back.

Well, she takes the stuff instead of insisting he say sorry. The Reyes aren't entirely a shining example of talking about their feelings. It's why Stiles probably fit in with them so easily.

And he's lurking outside like an idiot, lost in his own thoughts, because it's been six months since he last saw his family and that's something he wants, even if it has to mean coming to Beacon Hills.

The key's still under the third flower pot. Some things never change.

Stiles juggles his bag of souvenirs under his arm and pushes into the house, kicking off his shoes and locking the door behind him. There's the sharp scent of apple blossom in the air and an unfamiliar phone table in the hall, but everything else looks the same. There's a warm glow coming from the direction of the sitting room, so Stiles slides his shoulder bag onto the stairs and carefully carries his bag of souvenirs in front of him, like a shield.

Mona doesn't even notice him for a long moment. She's looking tired in the artificial light; Stiles needs to swap the light bulbs for a brighter wattage, because Mona's wearing glasses and he doesn't remember her needing them much before. Her heart-shaped face is lowered studiously as she jabs a silver needle through an embroidery hoop, stitching neat tiny blue stitches into stretched white cloth, and her trademark-Reyes golden curls cascade over both shoulders, cut shorter than he remembers.

There are a couple of white spirals in that golden tumble of hair and Stiles' stomach tightens again. He's a coward for avoiding Beacon Hills, he knows that; he should have taken time out of his hectic training schedule to come home.

"Is this the kind of welcome home a guy can expect around here?" Stiles asks, a genuine smile sliding onto his face even through the fatigue that's been clinging onto him since LA; he hadn't wanted to stop since hitting the coast and he's paying for it now.

Mona's head whips up and her instant look of delight shaves five years from her face, easily. She twitches and then scowls down at her feet; Stiles looks down to see she's got them elevated on a cushioned stool and for good reason - her right ankle looks approximately the size of a tennis ball.

"You said you weren't coming until next month," Mona breathes, and he's already halfway across the room, ditching the bag of souvenirs in Erica's favorite chair and bending down to look at her foot.

"What happened?" Stiles touches the arch of her foot gingerly and she winces; when he looks up at her, she looks sheepish.

"I tripped up at the kitchens," Mona says. She still sounds slightly giddy at the word kitchens, as well she should; up until four years ago, she ran Reyes of Sunshine from the house's small kitchen. Mona once semi-convinced herself at one point that that was why Erica had run away from home, the chaos of living in a business. Renting the kitchens of the local Beacons Hotel when they're not being used had been a phenomenal step up for the Reyes' small catering business. "It's just a sprain, I'm semi sure."

"You're semi sure," Stiles repeats and rolls his eyes, shimmying out of his jacket and throwing it over the back of Erica's chair before heading out to the kitchen. "First aid kit still in the same place?"

"You don't have to—" Mona calls through, but doesn't finish the sentence; Stiles had his inherited Stilinski stubbornness, and had picked up some of the Reyes stubbornness to add to that mix. Stubborn was mostly an understatement now. Bullheaded some people might say. Fundamental trait for dealing with werewolves is how Stiles thinks of it.

"This has cobwebs on it," Stiles says, judgmentally.

"Yeah. I use it much less since you left for college."

Stiles dusts off the green plastic box and pads back into the sitting room with a betrayed look on his face. "I'm wounded at your vague accusations of my clumsiness," he says, shaking his head. "Wounded."

"From the boy who tripped over his own robe during graduation and gave himself a concussion," Mona says.

Stiles narrows his eyes. "I'm twenty-seven, Ma. I'm not a boy anymore."

Mona looks at him, her cheeks coloring in the same way it did the first time he called her Ma; she'll never be Mom, but she's still important to him in a way no one else in the world is. She took him in when he had a cold house and an insurance payout and a town full of sympathy and loved him when no one else could. Stiles owes her so much.

"I guess not," she says, eyes flickering over his broader shoulders. "But you'll always be a boy to me."

"Like you'll always be the most beautiful woman in Beacon Hills to me," Stiles says. "But don't tell Erica I said that."

"You ridiculous charmer," Mona says, but her cheeks are still bright pink and her smile is warm. The smile tightens when Stiles pulls off her slipper and starts to work a bandage around the injury, feeling gently with his fingertips as she does so.

"Wiggle your toes," he mutters automatically and she does. "It's not broken. Just a bad sprain. But we'll keep an eye on it for the next couple of weeks, see if it heals or still hurts, 'k?"

"Couple of weeks," Mona says and her expression turns speculative. She hasn't seen him for anything longer than a week since he graduated college. "Does this mean—"

Stiles smile widens and he neatly tucks the bandage into itself. "I passed my probation. The company's given me a six month sabbatical to help me do a little research and figure out which division I want to be assigned to permanently. I thought I might spend that time here." He looks up, fake-shyly, even though he can feel her pulse speed up in anticipation through the fingers he still has pressed against her ankle joint. "If that's okay with you?"

"That's more than okay," Mona says, her smile stretching with genuine joy. "It's perfect."

Stiles smiles and pulls his hand back from her ankle. "Try wiggling it."

She dutifully does as she's told and her eyebrows lift a little. "Wow. That's good."

"Don't take advantage of it," he instructs her, climbing to his feet only to sink down next to her onto the sofa; she turns her body as much as can towards him without moving her ankle. "You still need to rest it and keep it elevated."

"I know," Mona says, sounding almost sulky for a moment. There's so much of Erica in her mother; Stiles can't help but love her for that even if nothing else. She nods at her foot. "Was that something Scott's mom taught you back when, or—"

Stiles doesn't mean to tense, especially not enough for Mona to notice, but she slides a hand onto his shoulder companionably and he doesn't hide the sadness that washes over his face. "Took a couple of first aid courses at work," he says. "I may or may not have been clumsy on the job and you can't prove anything."

"I like your hair," she says, instead of making another joke about his clumsiness; with her ankle it would be hypocritical, anyway. She darts a hand up to his longer hair and he ducks away.

He went back to the buzz cut at the end of junior year, in a futile attempt to cling onto what he knew. Accepting that his hairstyle had no affect on the horrific events of that year has taken him a while. "My mentor says I look like a boyband member," Stiles says, wrinkling his nose.

"I thought he was at one of the main offices?" Mona says. "How—"

"They gave me a satellite phone which hooks up to the internet," Stiles says and he doesn't stop wrinkling his nose. "They can literally get hold of me anywhere. And let me tell you how much my—" He still stumbles over the right word. "Company has no idea whatsoever about time zones."

Mona gives him a look. And yeah, some of Stiles' weekly phone calls have been at odd times of the day.

"Point taken," Stiles says, rolling his eyes.

"I don't suppose any of the departments involve not traipsing over several time zones per week?"

Stiles is quiet for a moment. "It's—" He rubs the back of his head. "Maybe? I mean, it's—"

"Hey." Mona's thumb catches the edge of his neck and she smiles. "It doesn't matter where you end up working. As long as you vacation with us at least twice a year."

"Sounds terrible," Stiles says, relaxing into her touch. "Last year's vacation to Tahiti was, like, the worst."

Mona laughs and takes her hand back to pick up her stitching again. "I totally agree. The all-inclusive cocktails, the hours of sunbathing, the heated pools—"

"The all-you-can-eat buffet."

"The hot lifeguard that only wore tiny orange speedos and nothing else."

Stiles laughs sharply at the memory. "I thought Boyd's eyes were going to fall out, he was glaring so hard."

"He actually got a letter from the lifeguard the week after we got back," Mona says, resuming her tiny stitches.

Stiles frowns. "Banning him from the French Polynesia?"

"See, this is why you should use Facebook for more than sharing pictures of cats," Mona says. "Boyd and he are practically online BFFs now."

It's the beginning of an old argument and Stiles shifts restlessly for a moment. "I didn't even sign up to Facebook."

"You telling me you didn't have one in high school?"

"Sco-" Stiles swallows. "An old friend deleted it with his elbow by accident. Which is ridiculous, because trying to delete Facebook intentionally is basically rocket science."

"Then how come Erica keeps showing me your updates on her phone?"

"Lydia made my new one in college. I'm pretty sure it's Jackson that puts the cats on it because he's too manly to put them on his own feed."

"Jackson. That does explain your sporadic status updates, actually."

"I don't think I even want to know what he's been writing," Stiles says, shuddering.

Mona smiles. "It's not always that bad." She looks at him. "Maybe you should go change into something more comfortable, hon? A suit can't be very relaxing."

"I see your subtle way of telling me I stink from travelling for the last eighteen hours," Stiles says, "and relent that a shower and change of clothes would be nice."

"Your room's the same as you left it," Mona says. "Except Erica probably stole half your clothes."

"Of course she did," Stiles says, rolling his eyes as he heads for the stairs. "No closet is safe."

He doesn't linger too long when he's upstairs; the house feels bigger than it used to be and a little colder. Or maybe Stiles' memories have just been coloring everything.

As expected, his closet is decimated, but there's something new in there too - a red hoodie with the note "ironic clothing for when you come home, loser <3" impaled on the hook of the hanger that just makes him shake his head in muted amusement.

It was Erica's return in senior year that gave Mona the idea to adopt Stiles fully, even though there was no reason to really do it, because Stiles was a handful of months from being able to move out on his own. But Erica had warmed to the idea so quickly that Stiles didn't want to say no and she's ended up as the best sister he never had. Even if he's pretty sure all his Batman t-shirts are gone, goddammit Erica.

He pushes his nose into the hoodie, just for a moment, and it smells of her. She can't even give him new clothes. Or maybe it's just that crazy werewolf scenting thing. He sighs, but it's a fond sound, and shuts the closet.

He showers quickly in the family bathroom, because the bathroom which adjoins his bedroom is full of Erica's lingerie (and oh, some things never change) and dresses automatically in the spare pants and shirt in his carry-on bag. It's a little formal, but the clothes he left behind are too much the outfit of the teenage self that Stiles was trying to leave behind. He'll get more suitable clothes for his sabbatical soon. Lydia will probably snap his hand off if he goes shopping without him. Stiles looks contemplatively down at his left hand, but decides he probably needs to keep it.

Stiles hurries downstairs, because otherwise nostalgia will send him to the desk and bookshelf, to touch all the debris of his final teenage years in Beacon Hills: he's not ready for that. Not ready to remember the memories that objects can sometimes spark.

It's a good thing he hurries, because the first thing he does is catch Mona trying to hobble with four bags and three full carry boxes towards the door.

"What do you even-" Stiles starts and shakes his head, jogging forwards to take the cargo from her hands. "I thought I told you to rest."

"You said not to take advantage of it," Mona says and gives him a look which says it's his fault for teaching her how to be pedantic. "Not to not use it at all."

"It was implied," Stiles says. "Seriously. What do you think you're doing?"

Mona sighs. "Once upon a time I was the adult under this roof…" At Stiles' amused look, she shakes her head in rueful surrender. "The Baccari account is having a pre-wedding party for the guests who can't make it to the full week retreat Julia's throwing for her guests. I tell you, it's a good thing the husband-to-be is loaded."

The name doesn't ring a bell, but the week retreat does. Mona and Erica have both mentioned something about a whole week of baking while on Skype. "Oh. Is that the couple who are renting that resort at Beacon Cove?"

"That's the one," Mona says. "Julia's a friend of Lydia Martin, so they're throwing the pre-wedding party up at the big Martin house, for the guests who can't make the retreat. Erica's in the bridal party too; Julia's such a nice girl. We have tea every Saturday — she's a herbal botanist in her spare time, and she makes the most refreshing herbal teas. She's a lovely girl."

"And this all means you're carrying a ton of stuff on a sprained ankle because—" Stiles prompts.

Mona rolls her eyes at him and then sighs again when she realizes that's not gonna wash with Stiles. "I made extra cakes, but Erica didn't think they'd need them all, so I left them here. Turns out—"

"Yeah, okay," Stiles says and takes the last of the boxes from Mona's hands. "I know where the Martin house is, I can take them."

"Stiles," Mona says, "you just got back. And they still need frosting. I couldn't ask you—"

"First, yes, you can," Stiles says, "so gimme the van keys. Second, I think I can remember how to frost a couple of boxes of cupcakes."

Mona sags, realizing she's not won this round, and she reluctantly takes the van keys from her pocket and presses them into his hand. "You don't have to do this," she says. Up close, she looks even older. Stiles' chest pangs with regret.

There are ghosts in Beacon Hills for him, painful memories of things he's lost, but maybe there were things that could have kept him here, if he'd given them more of a chance.

"I know," Stiles says and smiles at her. "I want to, Ma."

"There's meringue frosting too," Mona says, clearly still a little reluctant to let him go. "And—"

"Relax. I've got this. I did work for you for three summer vacations in a row. I can handle a little frosting." Stiles wrinkles his mouth wryly. "Trust me when I say it's one of the easiest tasks I've had this year so far."

"That job of yours," Mona sighs. "It's a good thing it pays you so well, that's all I can say."

Stiles adjusts the boxes in his arms and hides the rueful smile he wants to make in the side of them. "Yeah," he says. "I'll be back soon."

Mona's smile is tentative, like she doesn't believe it. Stiles pushes down the feeling of guilt. Heaven knows he can't change the past, but he can change the future. And his future's going to be ruled a lot less by fear from now on.

It's the mantra for his life now. He's an adult and he's damn well going to act like one.

#

Even though it's been about six years since his last cupcake run, Stiles hasn't lost the knack of balancing the carry boxes on one arm so he can open doors: he even remembers to double loop the bag of decorating equipment so that it doesn't slip off if there's a handle which needs him to push down.

Which, if he remembers Lydia's service entrance correctly, is the case.

The truck is actually a new one, although Erica definitely drives it — the seat is set back for her long legs and there's a pink sparkly air freshener shoe hanging from the mirror, along with a pair of purple fluffy handcuffs.

They're just for show. Erica's real handcuffs were a present from Stiles three years ago, when he learned how to embed wolfsbane into the material so that Boyd (or so Stiles likes to assume — he does not think of his adopted sister in bed, nope) can't easily escape from them.

He has to park down the block from the Martin house. There are a lot of cars parked in front and lining the streets; he can hear the tinny strains of music when he opens the car door and jumps out onto the sidewalk.

It's relatively cold for a California spring evening and Stiles wishes he hadn't left his new ironic hoodie at home; his suits are designed for ridiculously warm climates and the cool air is making his shirt stick to his back uncomfortably.

Stiles stacks the boxes carefully in his arms and locks up the van. His feet remember the way even before his brain does: for those college summer vacations, Lydia made him come over here nearly every other day.

Mostly because she knew his bad memories of Beacon Hills were tied up elsewhere in the town. Her house was basically neutral territory.

He hasn't been to this house since spring break, the final year of college. Like him, there's been a few superficial changes on the outside, but there's no hint on what to expect inside. Besides, Stiles knows more than anyone not to judge on appearances.

The music's so loud that he can feel the rhythm of it through the sole of his shoes as he approaches the back entrance. The party hasn't spilled outside, so maybe Lydia's parties have matured a little over the last six years.

Lydia hadn't changed much herself the last time Stiles saw her — she made Jackson schedule in a week in Singapore for their extended world-trip honeymoon a couple of years ago and talked Stiles into taking that week off so he could show them around — and he calls her at least once a week, usually for an hour before calling home so that he can wind Erica up by already knowing some of the gossip. But telephones and low-resolution webcams aren't the best way of keeping up with people; Stiles remembers again the tired lines around Mona's eyes and the grey in her hair.

Even seeing someone every few months isn't enough. Not really.

Stiles tries to stamp down on those feelings, but it's getting harder. It's been growing harder to ignore them. Sure, Stiles hates Beacon Hills, blames the familiar streets for not being able to protect them better, loathes the creatures and evils in it that took so much away from him.

But it's also his home and he's been running away for so long that he can't fully remember why.

Well, at least the oddly brisk temperature of the air can be a nice excuse for why his eyes are stinging a little. Stiles hikes the boxes higher so he has a better grip and moves to the rear of the house.

He raps politely on the door and rings the service bell, but there's no response. It's not unsurprising; the music inside is Jackson-style loud. Stiles still remembers their first semester at college: Jackson's entire floor took his music system hostage and made him pay for it back with Red Bull and subs. (It may or may not have been Stiles' idea.)

God, if someone had told Stiles back in freshman year that his college experience would be on the east coast, no Scott in sight, and with Jackson and Lydia as his BFFs (and as housemates for the second and third year) —he'd have laughed himself silly. He'd have taken werewolves are real as more likely to happen.

The fact that both actually happened is beside the point.

There's loud laughter from within and Stiles gives up — the door's probably open. He leans his elbow down on the handle, because it's always been a little stiff, and it does creak open, so he lets himself in.

Stiles kicks the door closed behind himself and heads straight for the kitchen.

He has to stop still in the doorway and he can't help the wide smile. It's been two years since he's seen her face in the flesh and she's still as radiant as the sun.

And about as observational as someone with their eyes glued shut sitting in a dark room, but then she is practically perfect in every way; it's only fair that she does have a couple of fatal flaws. Namely, her observational skills and her weakness for Jimmy Choos.

Stiles quietly slides the carry boxes onto the large wooden island and he leans against it, striking a pose. "Hey, sexy lady, feel like saving a square on your dance card for a lonely fella in need of some sweet company?"

"Sorry, buster, I'm married—" Lydia starts, swinging her gaze scornfully in his direction, a champagne glass idly in one hand. Her jaw slackens, just for a moment, but then she's striding across the kitchen in impossibly high heels, her strawberry-blonde hair flying into his face as she throws herself at him. "You asshole. It's called a telephone. You use it and let us know your flight times. I thought you were coming back next month."

Her face is suspiciously damp against the side of his cheek and he drags her in closer, fingers splaying across her hips, catching at the end of her waist-long strawberry blonde hair. "You smell great," he says.

Lydia pulls back, rolls her eyes, and cuffs him around the back of his head. "Two years and I smell great. Hello?" She steps back a couple of paces and gestures down at herself. "I'm twenty-eight, Stiles. I have the fucking figure of a sixteen year old. Compliment me accurately."

"You're okay looking," Stiles says, pursing his lips and pretending to look her up and down, assessing her. "Maybe a little bit of baby fat still on your elbows—"

She slaps at his arm, but her stretched wide grin betrays her real feelings about him being there. "Jesus Christ, Stilinski. Here you are, standing in my kitchen. I should have you shot."

"Well, you'd have to find yet another caterer," Stiles says, easing his bag of equipment from his elbow and setting it on the kitchen island next to the cupcakes. "Ma said you needed more baked goods?"

"Ma was right," Lydia says, rolling her eyes again. "Fucking werewolves, eating me out of house and home."

"I always thought you liked Jackson eating you out," Stiles says, hiding his smirk as he starts to open up the three plastic carrying cases. The smell is delicious; his mouth waters and he has to sternly remind himself that they're for customers only. He rolls up his sleeves before washing his hands in the sink, smiling at Lydia's ever-present antibacterial soap.

"Pervert," Lydia mutters and leans over the things he brought, sticking her finger in the nearest tub of frosting.

"Unhygienic," Stiles says, mock-slapping her fingers away with the edge of a disposable decorating bag. "Do I know where those fingers have been?"

Lydia smirks prettily. "All night long," she says, swivelling on her heels for a moment. "Although, Jackson's out on patrol. So you won't have any clue who's been enjoying these babies." She wiggles her hand in illustration.

"Besides yourself, you mean," Stiles says, ignoring the pang of disappointment that Jackson isn't here. Which means Lydia set the music to this volume. Ugh. Jackson's a terrible influence.

"I'm just going to ignore your lewdness," Lydia says. "Seriously, what have we got here? It tastes like a sugary, heavenly cloud."

"It's Ma's secret meringue frosting recipe," Stiles says. "Does something weird if we decorate off premises; it tries to meld with the cake if you leave it too long. If you want your cakes to look pretty, I have to frost them here."

"Tastes good," she says, licking her finger lasciviously. "Do you still get a boner when I do this?"

Stiles wrinkles his nose. "Probably, if you keep it up. But Jackson wouldn't be too impressed." He grins as she nods and washes her hands at the sink instead. "I'm surprised you can even taste the frosting considering." He nods at her drink.

"Shut up, this is the good stuff, not that 70% proof stuff we drank in college," Lydia says. "This has nuances of flavor and is five hundred dollars a bottle." She lets out a squeal and grabs at his arm. "Stiles. You're back in Beacon Hills. I just. This is huge. How long?"

"Well, if you don't squeal like a banshee," he says, earning himself an elbow in the side and a huff of annoyance, "and draw all the bad creatures to the backyard, um… Up to six months, I guess."

Lydia squeals again. He shoots her a look as he spoons frosting into the decorating bag and she shrugs unapologetically. "I'm a banshee. Don't be species-ist."

"How's that going, anyway?" Stiles effortlessly spaces out the cakes, dropping them in formation on the plates and testing the frosting by squirting some of it into the frosting container to check it's running smoothly. "Pretty sure you'd have told me if you'd managed to top finding that body in the Wet Market."

"Ah, Hougang," Lydia says, with a faint wistful sigh.

"I guess I was hoping your silence on the subject meant Beacon Hills' annual body count had finally decreased."

"It has," Lydia says, shrugging. "I guess. It's never been as bad as the shit storm of high school. I haven't even had to use my powers in-" She frowns. "I don't even remember how long. It's been good."

Stiles offers her a lukewarm smile, but there's no real happiness in it, even though being around Lydia again makes his shoulders feel less tight. "So," he says, starting on the second plate of cakes, "Mona didn't tell me. How do you know Julia? The bride?"

Lydia exhales, and when he looks up, she's chewing her bottom lip. It's definitely one of her tells and it usually means she's forgotten to tell him something. His stomach tenses up in anticipation. "About that," she says, heavily, "it's—"

"Hey, is Mom here with the cakes yet?"

They both look up in unison to see Erica pause in the middle of clattering into the kitchen. She's always been a force of nature.

Stiles actually only saw Erica a few months ago, but you'd think otherwise, from the way she screams and throws herself at him. "Oh my god, I know you said you were coming back, but I thought you weren't coming until at least next month, you fucking loser," Erica yells.

"You call me a loser," Stiles says, bringing his elbows up to return the hug so he doesn't have to wash his hands again, "she calls me an asshole," he nods his head at Lydia, "and you wonder why I don't come home much?"

"You are an asshole," Erica says and pushes her nose into his neck, making a snuffling sound.

"Hey, enough, you already scented me at Christmas," Stiles says, not really trying to push her away too hard.

"And you're welcome for me doing it to you now," Erica says. "Seriously, do you work with were-monkeys? You smell like were-monkeys."

"There's no such thing as were-monkeys," Stiles says. "I think we'd know by now if there are were-monkeys in the world."

"Well now you smell better," Erica says, with a long sniff.

"Great, so can I get back to work?" Stiles gestures at the cakes.

"Oh, yeah," Erica says, pulling back. "Wait, why did Mom send you?"

Stiles eyeballs Erica. "Her ankle?"

Erica looks sheepish. "She said she'd be okay," she says, pouting, but reaches a hand out to the tub of fondant roses to help.

"Not without washing your grubby hands first," Stiles says, with an echo - he looks at Lydia in surprise and she hides her smile in her glass of champagne. "Ugh, give me that, you've given me bad habits," he snarks, and takes Lydia's glass, meaning to just pretend to take a sip because he wants to drive back. He inhales and nearly takes a mouthful in surprise. It smells like herbs, not fermentation. "Non-alcoholic?"

"Even though school's out for a few weeks, there's a big teacher training thing in the morning," Erica says, shaking her head in disapproval as she makes a show and dance of washing her hands. She spins on one heel and sashays over to the fondant roses, delicately and rapidly placing them on the frosting. Stiles is surprised at her skill and feels bad: this is her full-time job, now. Of course she's good at it. "Most of her guests tonight are teachers too. I guess even just thinking about teaching with a hangover is no fun."

"It's really not," a woman's voice says from the doorway and her voice — it just does something to Stiles. Makes him freeze and he doesn't know why. The voice slides down his spine like nails on a chalk board and he has to fight to un-tense his stomach because, damn, he hasn't been this jumpy since that awful time ten years ago, when he accused Ms. Blake of being the evil murdering Darach, and—

"Holy shit," Stiles breathes and then clamps a hand over his mouth and screw whoever told him that he was grown up and a mature adult (his mentor at work is obviously an idiot for telling him that) because wow, he feels about sixteen years old again. Lydia elbows him in the side and it serves to kick-start his voice box. "Sorry. I mean. Sorry. I'm—" He grimaces. "I should go. I was just here with, sorry, cakes."

Well, at least Ms. Blake — for that's definitely who's just come through the door and is staring at him in mild horror — can't accuse him of not using the word sorry. "Stiles," she says, somewhat awkwardly. "Sorry cakes? Is that a new flavor?"

"Julia's the bride, dumbass," Erica says. "I thought Mom would have told you."

Stiles awkwardly looks at the cakes and calculates the three minutes it will take to finish them off. That's clearly one hundred and eighty seconds too long in this situation. "Well. She did. And she didn't. I mean-I'm trying to apologize." He looks back at Ms. Blake and looks her in the eyes. "I'm trying to apologize to you."

"With cakes," Ms. Blake says, her brow furrowed.

"Wait," Stiles says and frowns, "Julia? I thought it was Jennifer."

"Oh, my god," Erica says. "Are you completely ridiculous, or—"

"He wouldn't know, Erica," Lydia says, shooting Erica a nervous look. "It's not like it's a… subject I've brought up with him. Have you?"

"I already feel like I'm in an awkward sitcom," Stiles says and he does feel that. He feels like he's halfway between edging for the cakes to try and finish them off and fleeing through the door never to come back. "If someone can give me the cliff notes…"

"My name's not Jennifer Blake," apparently-not-Ms.-Blake says, straightening and walking forwards a little. "That's why you could never find my paperwork, Stiles. I think that must be a large part of the reason that you thought I—" She twists her pretty mouth wryly. "My real name's Julia Baccari. I was under witness relocation after witnessing the murder of my friends. It was only natural that you'd think I was hiding something awful."

"Oh, my god." Stiles rubs his hands over his face, swallows hard, and looks up. If he does this fast, he might survive it. Motherfucking grown up, that has to be his mantra to survive coming back to Beacon Hills. "It doesn't matter. It shouldn't have ever mattered. This is years too late and it's not enough, but I hope you know I am sorry for how I treated you back then."

"I know," Jennifer — well, Julia — says, stepping forward again, smiling shyly. "Stiles, I mean c'mon, the situation, it was only natural that you would be upset, that you would want to lash out-"

"And it was completely unfair to lash out at you," Stiles says, firmly, because goddammit he is an adult and he is going to do this right. Before running away and crying into at least two pints of cookie dough ice cream, possibly, but at least he is going to do this apology correctly like he should have the instant he threw out that ridiculous accusation.

"It was—" Julia starts, but Stiles doesn't let her interrupt.

"My dad was dead," Stiles says, holding eye contact with her, "but that's no excuse for how I treated you. I should never have accused you of being an evil mass murdering hell-beast and I should have apologized sooner." He nods his heads at the cakes. "I did kinda think about sending you actual sorry cakes."

"I don't suppose sorry I thought you were a mass murderer fits on a cupcake," Lydia says, smirking a little.

"I'm just here to deliver and present the cakes and then I'll go," Stiles says. "I'm sorry if I've dredged up old pain and I hope you can find it in your heart to—"

Jennifer — ugh, Stiles, get it together Julia doesn't let him finish, either. She throws herself forwards, pulling him into a hug and he startles into it, putting his arms around her. "Apology accepted, Stiles. Before you even made it." Her flawless brown hair, still waist-length and glossy, tickles his nose; she smells really good, actually, like… honeysuckle and dill seed. It's a weird combination.

He's also only letting his brain go on a tangent because of how absolutely relieved he feels. Her forgiveness is like a weight coming off that Stiles didn't even know that he'd been carrying. His vision is a tiny bit blurry when he steps back, but if Erica tries to say later that he was crying, he'll deny it forever. "Thank you," he breathes, a little overwhelmed.

"If anything I think I need your forgiveness," Julia says, clasping her hands together earnestly as she steps fully back from the hug. "You haven't been back to Beacon Hills in years. You've been away from your pack. I mean. The Hale pack's your pack too. And if I've been anything to do with that, fear of how I'd react, I'm so sorry. I—"

"Nothing to forgive on that front," Stiles says, holding up his hands. "Believe me." He turns back to his cakes — and deviates back to the sink when Lydia kicks him - and he watches Julia covertly as he picks up his decorating bag for the third set of cakes. "I've mostly been on assignment with my job. It's… chaotic."

"Oh, my god," Erica whines, leaning over the table and scattering crystallised rose petals on the second plate of cupcakes in a way that should be random and all over the place, but they land precisely where they're supposed to. "Do not get him started on his job, he will talk your ear off for half an hour and you're still no better off as to figuring out what his business actually does."

"We're an international consultancy," Stiles says. "With sales, problem solving, and occasional marketing. I'm in the research division. In a nutshell, I go to weird countries for a few weeks, sort out their problems, and occasionally try and sell them a product to make sure their problem doesn't reoccur."

Julia frowns. "So what would you give as your job title to someone who doesn't have half an hour to spare?" She wrinkles her mouth apologetically. "I'm kind of supposed to be hosting my pre-wedding party."

"Yeah, congratulations on that," Stiles says. "You look beautiful tonight. Any guy would be lucky to have you."

"I forgot how much of a ridiculous charmer you were," Julia says, leaning over and smelling the cakes.

"That's only because the last time you saw me I was generally scowling at you and calling you a hell bitch," Stiles says, shrugging. "I can see why you might forget the nuances."

"You avoided the question," Julia tells him.

"He's good at that," Lydia says and reaches out for one of the cupcakes.

Erica's the one who slaps her back with one of the decorating bags. "They're not yours until they're out on the trestle tables. Rule number one of Reyes of Sunshine catering. The food's ours until it's perfect."

"You mean what would I write on my resume?" Stiles contemplates it as he ignores Erica and thinks about a joke his mentor likes to tell. "Troubleshooter."

"It's definitely more exotic than high school English teacher," Julia says, ruefully shaking her head. Stiles applauds his inner monologue for giving her the right name this time. "You should come, Stiles."

"If you make a that's what she said joke," Erica says, "I will cut you."

"I would never," Stiles says.

"Four words — Seychelles, three years ago," Erica says. "The last vacation with mom and dad, and that Turkish waiter."

"That's fourteen words," Stiles says, "and Evren's love for me was pure. You're still annoyed he offered more camels for me than for you."

Erica makes a disgruntled noise. "I don't know why Mom and Dad ever fully adopted you. We could have been living in bliss on a camel farm right now."

"I don’t think I want to know," Julia says, looking between them.

"It's best not to ask," Lydia says, nodding sagely. "The Reyes have a mantra about the family that vacations together, stays together. So when Stiles wouldn't come here—"

"Couldn't," Stiles interrupts awkwardly, side-eyeing Julia warily. "It was quicker to fly to where they were going than back here, so I could be back at work early enough and not miss out on a day of vacation because of travel—"

"When Stiles wouldn't come here," Lydia repeats, squinting at him and daring him to argue again, "they went to him."

"You weren't whining in Singapore," Stiles mutters, rubbing his forehead with his forearm.

"I meant, you should come to the wedding," Julia says, nodding. "It'll be great. We've booked this beautiful place in Beacon Cove, fully ours from Saturday until the wedding on Thursday morning, it's basically a free vacation." She touches his elbow and looks at him earnestly. "I won't let you say no."

"He'll be coming anyway," Erica says, sprinkling the last set of cakes with chocolate shavings. "We're catering half of it."

"I mean he should come to the wedding and be involved," Julia says, shooting a look at Erica. "Like you. You're helping with the catering and you're in the bridal party."

"I dunno if I would fit in with the bridal party," Stiles says, starting to roll away the used decorating bag to fit into one of the empty carry cartons. "I'm lacking vital equipment."

"You've always lacked balls," Erica says, "now it'll just be official." She smiles so wide for a moment that she flashes her wisdom teeth.

"C'mon," Julia says, taking Stiles' elbow. "It'll be great. Say you'll be one of my guests."

Stiles opens his mouth, because he's been so rude to her in the past, it would be rude to say no now, right? He's about to say something to that effect, when the doors slam open one more time—

—and Stiles is about three hundred per cent done with the whole situation.

The weight that was lifted by Julia's forgiveness is suddenly back again and Stiles feels almost bowed under by the burden of it; something twinges sharp and low in his gut, like a physical burn of pain.

Stiles hasn't seen Derek Hale for six years. Six, horrible, long years. Not since the week after his college graduation, Stiles' last week in Beacon Hills, when he'd been a complete idiot, when he'd thrown his dignity to the wind and outright begged Derek to leave Jennifer and come with him, come see the world, come be with him

In this moment, on seeing the clearly unwelcome visitor in Lydia's kitchen, Derek doesn't wolf out, but his expression comes close. Instead, he snarls under his breath and storms out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind him. The crack as it hits the door frame echoes through the suddenly stiflingly silent kitchen.

Stiles tries to swallow, but his mouth is suddenly parchment dry. "I should be going," Stiles mutters automatically.

"Oh, no," Julia says, "don't, he'll get over it-If anything, he's the one that owes you an apology, I mean, I wasn't there at that terrible fight you two had, but, I mean, he got the blood from it all over me."

"Uh," Erica says, slowly looking between them, and at Lydia looking guiltily at the floor. "What's going on here? Are you saying Derek has something to do with the fact that my own hard-won-adopted brother hasn't been back to town in six freaking years?" She glares at the door Derek stormed through, her golden curls whipping through the air. "I'm gonna rip his Alpha head off. Julia, do you mind if your groom has a head?"

And oh. The shock of that rips through Stiles like a bullet wound. And he sadly has experience on how to stoically handle those, thank god, because he manages to hide some of his shock by leaning his weight against the kitchen island and Erica's still too busy contemplating violence on Derek's person to hear his stuttering heartbeat. Stiles forces himself to breathe evenly and speeds up on putting his decorating equipment back in its box.

Because of course Derek's the groom.

Of course.

Jennifer is Julia, and Derek left Stiles to be with Jennifer, so he left him to be with Julia, and it makes all the terrible sense in the world.

"Cool the jets, Erica," Stiles says, ignoring the way his chest is cramping. "Derek and I just kind of had a bitch fight at one of his pack leaving his territory."

"That makes sense. Ugh, men," Erica says, sitting down on a stool and scowling at the cupcakes.

"Hey."

"You're my sibling, yo, you don't count," Erica tells him.

"Adopted sibling," Stiles corrects.

"Shoulda come back early so I could have convinced Mom to just keep fostering you," Erica says. "Would have been a whole less heap of trouble."

"Should have convinced Cora to leave you and Boyd in the caves she found you in," Stiles returns. It's an old argument. Erica flips him the old response with her middle finger.

"What kind of bitch fight?" Erica asks. Stiles wrinkles his nose and looks at Julia.

"Probably about him letting the antichrist in his pack," Julia says, rolling her eyes, but she looks more amused than anything.

"I'm melodramatic when I'm holding a grudge," Stiles says, shrugging. "Hey, you're the one that forgave me. You can't take it back now."

"I don't want to," Julia says.

"So it was a melodramatic bitch fight," Erica presses, because she doesn't know when to stop, even though Lydia's giving her a death glare.

"There was shouting and hair pulling and slapping," Stiles says, dryly. "And throwing things."

"I wish I'd been there," Erica says, swaying dreamily.

"I kinda still have one of the scars," Stiles says, rubbing at his hip ruefully.

Erica slips off her stool, instantly pissed off again, and she heads for the doors, deviating to pick up one of the steak knives sitting in a wooden block by the microwave. "I'mma rough up your fiancé a little, Jules. Don't worry, he'll heal."

"But we have human guests," Julia calls after her. "At least only stab him where his clothes can cover it up!"

"Whatever," Erica calls, slamming through the doors.

Stiles facepalms. "I do not know what I did to deserve her as a sister, I do not know what I did to deserve her as a sister."

"I thought you were happy when the Reyes decided to take you in," Julia starts, voice wobbling in concern.

"This is just how he shows affection, Julia," Lydia explains, moving over to pat Stiles on the head like he's actually a puppy. "I blame my husband, really."

"I blame Jackson for everything anyway," Stiles says, still hiding his face in his hands. "It's easy to do and it makes me feel good."

"See what I mean?" Lydia says. "Jackson's one of the best friends he has."

"I'm BFF with an ex-lizard," Stiles says. "My life is woeful."

"So back then, you calling me a butchering sociopath was practically a love declaration," Julia says.

"Exactly," Stiles says, lowering his hands. "You get me like no one else does, Julia. Ditch Derek and marry me?"

Lydia digs Stiles in the side with two fingers. "What have I told you about marriage proposals?" "That everyone likes them?"

"That one every ten minutes makes them worthless and tacky," Lydia enunciates slowly.

Stiles smiles at her, but only because otherwise he feels like clawing his face off. Derek's out there. Derek. Derek is out there.

Derek is marrying the woman whose face has haunted his nightmares for years. If he blinks too long, in the darkness, he can see a glimpse of the image he's carried around since finding his dad's body, tied to a tree and three-way killed. Of Jennifer Blake's face pressed up against his dad's neck, smiling and smiling and smiling—

Stiles swallows a mouthful of bile. The honeysuckle and dill seed scent of Julia's hair hits the back of his throat and he feels sick.

"If you do still have a scar, I have a salve that works wonders," Julia says.

"You should listen," Lydia says. "I mean, we all whined like anything when she introduced weekly meetings for the pack, but that whining? Totally ridiculous. Her herbal tea has done wonders for my banshee control."

"And if it helps, now you can actually find the paper trail to my thesis on herbal botany, instead of worrying that my weird knowledge of wild plants is from me practicing druidic mystical powers, or whatever." Julia's smile is fond, not teasing, and Stiles shakes his head ruefully.

"Thanks," he says, keeping it brief. "I'll consider the wedding invitation."

"Do," Julia says and she reaches out as if to touch his cheek, and then draws her hand back as if thinking better of it. She smiles at him awkwardly. "I guess I've got to go back out. Placate the wild beast. Mingle with my guests."

Stiles nods, briskly this time. "I'll bring the cakes out in a minute and then I'll get out of your hair."

"You don't—" Julia starts.

"I've been awake now for nearly forty hours," Stiles says. "I need to go home and sleep off the travel, stat, or else resign myself to trying to bodily meld with the next French press I see."

Julia laughs gently. "It was nice to see you Stiles. I mean that." She holds his gaze for a moment, nods, and then turns to head back into the party.

As soon as the doors close, Stiles sags against the kitchen island, trying his best not to heave a world-class sigh. He closes his eyes, just for a moment, even though he knows it's useless to blank the world out and pretend it doesn't exist.

He really wants to. His gut is still tight and heavy and his chest feels like it's fizzing with the pain.

Lydia moves closer, her heels clacking on the tiles, and she leans against him, her slight weight a reassuring anchor. She just holds him for a long moment, her hair tickling his neck, and he pushes his cheek into the familiar sensation.

When she speaks, it's just one word. A question. "Still?"

She doesn't have to clarify. Stiles draws in a haggard breath and he keeps his voice low. The werewolves are occupied, but they're also werewolves.

"Mrs. Whittemore," Stiles says to the surface of the kitchen island, slow and steady, "even you cause my heart to flutter every now and again. I don't think I've ever learned how to turn my heart off."

He shudders and Lydia's hand curls around his waist, heavy and reassuring. "Derek's an idiot," she says into his skin, as soft as a secret. "He always was an idiot to let you go."

A thin laugh escapes out of Stiles' throat; it sounds alien and unnatural and Stiles tries to push it back inside.

Lydia squeezes his left hand with her left hand and pulls back far enough to look him in the eye. "You gonna be okay?"

Stiles stares back at her, eyes moist. "I'm always okay," he says.

It's a lie, but it's one she accepts, with only a small sigh into the space between them. "You should go home and get some sleep," she says and actually makes a shooing gesture. "I'll take the cakes through."

"You sure?" Stiles asks.

"I wouldn't have said it if I didn't mean it," Lydia says and she pushes him to the door, thrusting his empty boxes into his hand and throwing his jacket over the top. "Shoo. Scram. I'll give you tomorrow to get settled and then I'm gonna come pick you up Saturday morning for coffee. It'll give me a good excuse to show up a little late to the resort."

"You?" Stiles says.

"Yeah," Lydia says. "Like you're not going to pretend to think about it and say no." She pats him on the cheek. "None of us would ask you to do that. So. Coffee."

"Coffee," Stiles says and doesn't argue with her. "I'd like that."

"Duh," Lydia says. "I remember college. I have up-close-and-personal memories which prove your blood is half caffeine."

He smiles at her over his armful of cupcake debris and does as he's told, pushing out of the house and hurrying over to the van before he does anything else. Like sob uncontrollably in her arms.

It'll be good to get home, Stiles thinks. Get some sleep. Get some distance. Figure out a way to say thanks but no thanks to Julia for the wedding invite. He pushes the stuff into the back of the van, slams the door, and almost has a freaking heart attack out there on the street.

Man. Derek Hale hasn't been able to scare him like this since the first few months of knowing him.

Derek's just standing there, on the corner of the sidewalk, shoulders bunched with tension.

Stiles has been a fan of the expression nothing has really changed, but even though Derek physically looks the same - something's definitely changed with him.

He's regressed. Back to the Derek Stiles met after Scott was bitten.

Stiles can feel the loathing of Derek's scowl, even from twenty feet away, and he has to fight his own body not to shiver at the intensity of the glare. Derek's eyebrows are bunched and his face is cast in sharp, defining shadows by the moonlight. It's a waning moon, not a full one, and it illuminates Derek in a contradiction of black and white.

So much for Peter insisting once upon a time that all werewolves were shades of grey, but then, Peter did always go for the perverted jokes.

"You don't have to be an angry guard dog," Stiles bites out, fumbling out the keys to open the van. "I'm going."

Derek's glare remains fixed on his face, his eyebrows angled with tangible hatred, and Stiles gets an impulse he hasn't really had for years now, to just curl up under blankets and cry.

Stiles will be damned if he shows any sort of emotional reaction like that ever again in front of Derek Hale. His fingers want to curl into fists, but he keeps them loose and focuses on opening the van.

Derek's always been stoic, if Stiles blanks out the memories of being curled around his body in the dark where they whispered secrets into each other's skin, and he's been blanking out those memories for years. Stiles almost expects to be able to leave without Derek saying anything — his eyebrows have always been clear enough when it comes to threats — but he does actually get words this time.

Seven words.

"You should have stayed gone. You should—" Derek says, his fists clenched at his sides. Stiles looks at him and hates that he forgets how to breathe for a few seconds.

The words slide like acid down his throat and Stiles' jaw tenses. "Probably," he says and climbs savagely into the van, gunning the engine before his seatbelt's even secure.

As he drives away, he can't help but check the mirror.

Of course Derek's gone.

The empty space of shadows and grass mocks him as he drives away.

#

Stiles flings the equipment into the kitchen, jacket and all, and slinks back into the sitting room. Mona hasn't moved in the hour he's been gone and he sits down next to her, hands on his knees, and stares at the wall.

The walls have been repainted in the last few years. That's a detail Skype hasn't let him pick up on; the walls are a muted lemon, warmer than the magnolia of his final high school years, and the blue mark from when Erica managed to throw a Sharpie ink first into the wall above the fireplace is completely covered.

Stiles stares at it blankly, idly wondering how many coats of the light colored paint was necessary to get rid of it completely.

"Erica texted me a picture of the cakes," Mona says, "so your moping can't be because you did a bad job."

Stiles blinks a few times, the words filtering his brain like they're having to travel through a swamp to get to him. He turns to Mona and frowns. "I think I just won the most awkward delivery transaction award."

Mona lowers her stitching. "Hon, two years ago my ex-husband's new wife made me make cupcakes for her baby shower."

Stiles thinks about it and opens his mouth.

"For the baby he gave her while he was still with me," Mona finishes.

Stiles winces, but shrugs. "I might still win."

Mona looks at him skeptically.

"I once accused the bride-to-be of being an evil mass-murdering ho bag," Stiles says. "And I used to date the groom."

Mona's skeptical look fades and she grimaces. "Maybe you win."

Stiles grunts.

"This the fella who broke up with you in senior year?"

Stiles grunts again, avoiding her eyes.

"He doesn't deserve you," Mona says and she wrinkles her mouth. "I'm sorry, I should have prepped you on who it was, I didn't think—"

"It's not your fault," Stiles says. "It was just…" He shrugs stiffly. "A surprise." He gives her a side-look. "She invited me to the wedding week," he continues. "Would you think any less of me if I—?"

"Oh, honey, there's no way I could ask you to help for that," Mona says, firmly. "We can manage without the help. I wouldn't ask you to go through a week designed around making your ex get closer to someone else."

"It's just…" Stiles shrugs wryly. "I thought I'd be brave and come back to Beacon Hills and try and be a grown up. I'm twenty-seven and I feel—"

"—just like a teenager still," Mona says. "Sorry, kiddo. That feeling never goes away. The term grown up? It's kind of a lie. People don't grow up, they just grow old."

Stiles looks at her sadly, at her new wrinkles, at the empty space at her side where her husband used to sit. He inhales and then opens his mouth to speak and then snaps it shut, feeling silly.

"I'll call Julia in the morning and tell her you won't be coming," Mona says.

"I can handle it," Stiles says, automatically, even though he's feeling an embarrassing rush of gratefulness towards her right now, "I'm totally a grown-up who can make valid, mature, adult decisions without needing my Ma to help me."

"I know, I know," Mona says, looking amused. "Let your Ma feel useful again, huh?"

"You're always useful, Ms. Beacon Hills Business Woman supreme," Stiles says.

"Charmer," Mona says. "And don't worry about the wedding week. Erica and I've already got an outside team coming in to help us. You just take the time, settle back here, enjoy some of this sabbatical time to get your head where it needs to be, yeah?"

Stiles smiles at her and he can't temper the sadness in it. Mona leans over and places her hand on his cheek.

"I'm glad you're home, chickadee," she says.

"Me too," Stiles says. Even though he's not entirely sure now that he means it.

He kisses her on the cheek and shuffles the path to his room; this time, after a brief wash in the tiny en-suite bathroom, he slides into some of the clothes that have survived Erica's cull of his closet — an old pair of sweatpants and one of his more embarrassing t-shirts (Kirby insisting he wants you inside him). The sweats just about fit but the shirt's much too small now, damn his mentor's training regimes. He ends up snuggling into the red hoodie that Erica got him: it's comfortable and fits him and he sinks into his bed with a tiny sigh.

It's all he wants to allow himself, but as he curls up into the soft cotton of the sheets, his shoulders tremble and sleep is elusive.

Which is probably for the best when, an hour later, a warm weight joins him in bed and a familiar hand gropes his ass.

"Oh my god," Stiles whines, the sound muffled into his pillow. "Incest."

"Yup," Erica agrees, shoving her nose in the space between his chin and his shoulder, and slapping him on the ass just to make sure. "Incest is best, put your family to the test."

"I feel violated," Stiles says, but he tugs up the covers and she snuggles under, all elbows and hair. It's just like his last semester of high school and three years of college vacations, all over again.

"I'll violate you for free, bro, any time. Just ask." Erica rubs her chin against his shoulder. "You've bulked up even more over the last few months. Freak."

"Says the werewolf," Stiles says, rearranging her arms, locking her in place. Like most werewolves she's a mini heater and unlike some of the werewolves Stiles knows, Erica keeps herself mostly clean; her perfume's soft and appetizing, rosewater and vanilla mixing with the detergent of the sheets. Erica smells a lot like Lydia, actually.

Like home.

"I'm sorry I forgot you and Derek had your thing once," Erica says, muffled into his body. Ah. Apparently someone re-educated her after Stiles left. Probably Lydia. Stiles doesn't blame her for not remembering; the last two years of high school had their own troubles for Erica. "I'm so sorry."

"It's fine, I'm over it," Stiles mutters, but his heartbeat picks up and she can hear it. "Ugh. Werewolves. It was just a shock," he amends. "I should have known."

Erica nuzzles him. "I can depose Derek as Alpha if it would make you feel better."

"The idea of you as Alpha is terrifying."

"Cora can be our Alpha."

"Cora's still sick," Stiles reminds her.

"Cora's still pissed that you call us and hardly ever call her," Erica corrects.

"She doesn't— I'm not—" Stiles tires of being unable to finish a sentence. He squints into the darkness and then shifts around in her embrace to face her. "I'm not the same person I was."

"Yes, you are-"

"Some of me," Stiles says, simply. "But I think it's a good thing. If we all stayed the same forever…"

"I'd be the epileptic loser you never noticed and you'd be the loud screwball," Erica says.

"I was going to put that in a more mature and grown up way," Stiles says. "But yeah. Loser and screwball. Sounds like a sitcom." Yeah, that's not the first time he's had that thought about his life. Especially lately.

"You're a sitcom," Erica says.

"Your face is a sitcom," Stiles says, automatically.

"That it is," Erica agrees. She leans up and kisses him on the mouth; just a press of lips to lips. Comfort and familiarity, mixed in with all the chaos. "We're going to be all right, Stiles. Time's been good to us. We both needed to mature. Now we're motherfucking grown-ups and everything's going to work out just fine."

She leans over and grabs his ass again. Stiles can't help the caustic burn of a giggle that slides out of his own mouth and he resists the urge to cover his mouth, to stuff the sound back in. Dammit, he is allowed to be happy.

He's allowed to have a home.

"I am glad to be back," Stiles says and Erica nuzzles her forehead against his.

Yeah, maybe it's not a lie after all.

#

The downside (one of many) to Stiles' job jetting across half the planet is that his internal clock is screwed up.

Despite his mentor insisting he try and get up at 6am no matter the time zone, it's nearly noon by the time Stiles manages to rouse himself. The bathroom's empty apart from Mona's usual trail of baby powder footprints and he takes advantage of having a functional bathroom for the first time in months; some of the countries he's been in recently are lucky if they even have a source of clean water.

The late start is annoying, but Stiles isn't going to let it interfere with his new mantra.

He's a grown up. The last six years have been an escape, pretty much literally, and if Stiles is going to make the right decision over his future, it's time to make some peace with the ghosts of his past.

After a quick shower and raiding the fridge for a lunch which would make his mentor appalled at the carbs to protein ratio, Stiles notices the truck is gone and he checks the family computer; Mona's calendar has them at the hotel kitchen, doing some prep work for the Baccari wedding.

Derek's wedding. Awesome. He considers not going to the hotel - denial's worked for him in the past - but he doesn't want Mona and Erica to think he doesn't want to spend time with them, so he laces up his sneakers and jogs to the hotel.

Jenny on Reception was actually in Stiles' home room for most of high school and like most Beacon Hillians she recognizes him on sight, even with the added muscle. She might even be flirting, but Stiles has never been good at noticing that; that's probably why his own flirting tends to be over-the-top and ridiculous.

Subtlety is a lost art to him.

Erica puts him straight to work as soon as he ducks into the kitchen, throwing an apron over his head and a saran-wrapped ball of white fondant at his head. At least it's an improvement from being smacked by some of Roscoe's inner workings.

Baking is almost… therapeutic. Stiles is more confident with his physicality and control than he's ever been and there's something calming about kneading fondant until it's soft, and adding drops of coloring until the right shade is reached.

Mona and Erica babble contentedly while they work, experimenting with cupcake flavors, Stiles thinks, from the complicated flavor chart on the wall. He's happy for them to be creative and to do grunt work. He owes them so much time. And maybe with that time he'll feel comfortable joining in with their chatting, but for now, it's nice to have it wash over him.

Stiles is busy coloring fondant so it's the exact shade of peach that Julia's requested for the color scheme (seriously: peach and baby blue. Some brides have no sense of color) when that odd combination scent of honeysuckle and dill seeds hits his nose and Stiles doesn't even have to look up to know that Julia's come into the kitchen.

He tenses automatically, which is ridiculous; it's just a throwback to his entire senior year. He feels like he spent that whole year, sick and loathing her, feeling it deep under his skin that he was right. That Jennifer Blake wasn't just a boyfriend stealer, but a murderer too.

Even though he was wrong, he can't pull back that feeling. He can't turn off the way it feels to have her around, like a chill deep inside the core of his spine.

The hair on the back of Stiles' neck prickles and he freezes, just for a moment. That sensation always used to mean something else. It used to mean that Derek was around.

"I don't really mind," Derek says, his voice faint in the background. "As long as it tastes, y-know—" He gestures vaguely.

"Men," Erica says loudly. "They're all the same."

"Don't mind her," Mona says, chuckling in the polite we-have-company way. "She's been mad since Boyd added crispy marshmallow squares to their wedding Pinterest page."

"Stiles doesn't know it yet, but he's making us a Batman cake for Boyd and my wedding," Erica says.

"Stiles can hear you," Stiles calls out without turning around. Oh, right, yeah. He came back to Beacon Hills with the mantra of you're a fucking grown-up, act like one, so he turns around and gives a polite smile and half a powdered-sugar dusted wave.

"Stiles can tell Julia to her face why he's planning on turning down a generous and fun wedding invitation and leaving us females to languish alone in the kitchen for the full week," Erica hollers back.

Ouch. Super werewolf hearing was a bitch; Erica probably heard Mona phoning Julia to tell her.

"Stiles has to prep for his new job," Stiles says and then does turn around to look in Julia's direction. She looks oddly crestfallen. "It was a lovely invitation and it meant a lot for you to ask me, but I have a new job coming up and it's huge. I need to get my brain in order, really. And... learn how to stop talking about myself in third person."

"Julia agrees it's a good idea," Julia says, gamely. "And she's sorry to hear you won't be there." Stiles nods and turns back to kneading color into the frosting. He does smile a little now his face is turned away; Derek looks ridiculous in the kitchen. Dark and brooding doesn't exactly go with the spread of pastel colors and smiles that Reyes of Sunshine are producing.

"Erica still thinks you're a loser," Erica sing-songs.

"Mona," Julia says. "How about you and I go have an adult cup of my peppermint tea and try to have some decent conversation? I'm sure Erica can handle walking her Alpha through the cupcake tasting. If D likes something, I will."

"Of course," Mona says. "The concierge left the staff room open for us to do some of the wedding favor prep work. I'm dying to show you the candy containers in real life."

"Play nice," Julia murmurs, presumably to Derek but probably to Erica.

"So," Derek says, when the door closes. "Cake?"

Stiles lowers his head, concentrating on kneading the sugar as if it's the most interesting activity in the world. The dark orange swirls into the white like ripples in a whirlpool, slowly tingeing the whole thing into the terrible color Julia wants for the wedding. Stiles sort of wants to know how Julia got Derek to agree to the eye-searing color scheme, but even though Derek's right there, Stiles' self-preservation skills outweigh any curiosity he feels on any subject.

He can survive being back in Beacon Hills. He can survive the constant reminders of his mom and dad, of Scott, of that whole hellish time when the Darach plagued them before just disappearing, apparently satiated by the twelve sacrifices.

But maybe his confidence of surviving is because his dialogue so far with Derek has been familiar territory - threats and a shallow comeback - and Stiles is a coward who is totally okay at not pushing at that status quo.

"I'm not ready yet," Erica says. "Go bother Stiles while the last tester tray cools in the blast chiller."

"Uh," Derek says.

"I'm the Alpha of the kitchen," Erica snarls and Stiles bites back a laugh, chewing on the inside of his cheek, because that was their favorite we-are-now-siblings joke throughout the last half of senior year. Who was the Alpha of what. Who could have the most ridiculous Alpha title. "And the Alpha of the carving knife," she adds.

"Uh," Derek says and there's the sound of the metal stools clanging against one of the metal work tables: he's obviously backed away in a hurry. Werewolves can survive being stabbed, but it hurts — especially when Erica's on the other end of the blade.

Allison gave her some knife classes as a welcome-back-to-Beacon-Hills present. No one had been terribly impressed. Well, Cora had been kind of impressed, but violence was one of her favorite things, so it wasn't surprising.

"Uh," Derek says, closer now; Stiles can see the dark blur shifting closer in the table's reflective surface.

"Don't break a muscle thinking of something to say," Stiles says while Erica snorts in the background.

"I wasn't—" Derek starts. There's a scratching sound. Derek developed that particular tic — which means he's searching for what to say — during the summer between junior and senior year.

That was the summer Stiles and Derek started their thing. Derek had spent a lot of time scratching the back of his head the day before they got together. And the day before they broke up.

I'm not right for you. (I don't believe you.) You're young. (That's never stopped you before!) I- (I don't have to be a werewolf to know you're lying. Just tell me the truth. Tell me why you don't want to be with my anymore.) I don't love you. (That's not what you said last night.) I lied.

Stiles swallows back that memory. Ten years ago and he still carries it like a scar.

"Your… Mona. She is an excellent cook," Derek says, eventually.

"I have definitely missed her food," Stiles says, fake cheerful. "Every time we meet up, it's at somewhere catered. I'd suggest hiring a self-catering villa next time, but... I guess when you vacation you don't want to work." The effort is difficult, especially with Derek's folded thick eyebrows a definite presence in the corner of Stiles' eye. His heart is thumping a little fast and he hates that, because Derek will know, but... there's a lot of things that can cause a heart rate increase. Fear. Hatred.

He can't imagine that Derek's self-esteem has increased to anywhere near the point required for him to think Stiles might still be pathetically carting around feelings for him.

"You don't have to worry," Stiles says, viciously beating the fondant and hoping that Derek thinks that Stiles is imagining doing it to Derek's face. "I'm not going to be in your territory permanently."

Erica makes a disgruntled sound in the background and mutters something under her breath; Stiles is glad rather than jealous for once that he doesn't have superhearing. It's not always healthy to know someone's hidden feelings about you.

"That's not what I—" Derek starts and Stiles looks in Derek's direction to see Derek looking at him and it's so weird, because Stiles - Stiles has changed in the last six years since he saw Derek last, on that last stupid day after graduation, Stiles' last day in Beacon Hills for six years. Derek hasn't changed a bit and it weirdly stings. There's an undefined expression on Derek's face that looks like a halfway tie between constipation and regret. "I never wanted you to feel like you had to—This is your home too and— But... maybe it's been easier for—" Derek wrinkles his mouth and shakes his head, unable to finish his sentence. Or any of his sentences.

His inability to deal with words has apparently become even worse in the last few years.

Stiles frowns. "Easier for what?" he asks, because Derek has to mean easier for himself, because it hasn't been easy for Stiles at all.

"Okay, loser, your cakes are ready," Erica hollers, definitely in her outside voice. Which is ridiculous, considering she's barely three meters away. Stiles doesn't know whether to feel sad or happy that some things don't change. Because while a lot of things have changed about Stiles, there's a lot that hasn't. Including the way his stomach churns when Derek's anywhere near his thoughts, let alone so near.

"Yeah," Derek says to Erica and turns to move past Stiles, but he stops, just for a moment. "Easier to give you up and—" Derek says, in a rough quiet sort of voice. Stiles moves automatically, sharp and fast because he's been working on his reaction speeds, but either he's not fast enough, or Derek wasn't looking at him when he said it.

Stiles stares, perplexed, at Derek's back as he walks back to Erica. He has to have made that up. Derek can't have said that. Derek was the one who broke it off.

He turns back to coloring the fondant, because if he doesn't, he'll probably end up punching Derek in the face for old time's sake.

Not punching him is sort of torturous. Stiles has to focus on the feel of the fondant under his fingers, sticky and smooth, the scent of it sickly sharp in his mouth. He'd always had a bit of a sweet tooth before his dad's death, but either losing his dad made the whole world lose its sweetness, or moving into the Reyes household - sharp and thick back then with the scent of sugar and sweet batter, because Mona did all the baking in the home kitchen - has made Stiles immune to sugar's Siren call.

Overexposure. They say that, with time, is the best way to get over anything. But Stiles spent the whole of senior year still in Derek's company and every day had made it worse, made it so that Stiles could feel where Derek was just from the section of skin tingling, thrumming to Derek's presence.

And the worst of it all is that Stiles had stayed away from Beacon Hills deliberately, had used the excuse of his mom and dad and Scott as petty stupid defences, when really—

Really, Stiles was just tired of the way his body naturally attuned to Derek. To something he couldn't have in a different way to not having his dad anymore.

His dad was dead and gone and no amount of wishing could bring him back. But Derek was alive, walking around and alive, walking around and alive and in love with someone else — and all amounts of wishing just made Stiles feel sick and stupid and so fucking young.

God, what kind of an idiot is Stiles. He'd been seventeen. Seventeen. Seventeen was for first loves and melodramatic train wrecks. You weren't even supposed to find your true love — if such a concept even existed — at age seventeen and Stiles had told himself this repeatedly, over and over, when the bliss of it felt so impossibly good that Stiles needed something, anything, to anchor him down to the ground. To the place where his father was gone, but someone loved him.

Stiles' fingers claw into the fondant and he kneads it viciously, angry with himself. Teenager Stiles had been an idiot.

It all made textbook sense. Stiles spent most of junior year spinning out after his dad was found tied to the tree, three-way killed. It had been easier once Cora brought Erica and Boyd home, but that wasn't until senior year - junior year had been hell. It had felt like someone had ripped open his chest and sunk something evil into the core of his heart for him to carry around forever.

He'd been so stupid that summer, to believe the soft tentative kisses that Derek pressed against his mouth, to believe the heady, dizzy nights together were anything more than comfort, Derek taking pity on a broken teenager and offering temporary sanctuary in his arms, in his bed.

Kissing Derek back then had felt like a religious experience, a slice of light after a year of constant darkness and terror, and Stiles had fallen in love, open hearted for the first time since before his mom got sick, because teenager Stiles was a fool.

Even a decade later, adult Stiles is apparently still paying the price, because Derek's back in his life for about five seconds and his body is responding ridiculously: sweaty palms, racing heart, and that damnable tingling skin which tells him exactly where in the kitchens Derek actually is.

Ugh. Even the way he'd felt so sympathetic when Derek broke it off with him makes Stiles' stomach churn. Stiles had been understanding. Cora was alive, but she was sick. Stiles was starting the last big semester of his senior year. It was only natural that Derek would get skittish and want to take a step back. Stiles had spent that whole first day back at school after the winter vacation still brimming with the hope of it. They would find a cure for Cora, Stiles would graduate, and Derek would have had time to miss him.

Walking into English class after school to pick up the homework assignment Ms. Blake had forgotten to give him during class and finding her with Derek, clothes in disarray, lips swollen, panting, still lip-locked—

It's not even the worst of it, really. The worst is that even though it took Stiles two months to even suspect Jennifer as the Darach and another two to gather enough circumstantial evidence (because there was never any primary evidence that the Darach left behind), Scott looked him in the face and told him the only reason he was doing it was because he was jealous of her.

Scott. He feels bad for thinking negatively of his once-upon-a-time best friend, especially considering the circumstances, but the sourness is still there. If his best fucking friend couldn't even suspend disbelief for one second to even look at the damn evidence...

It hadn't stopped Stiles. He'd confronted her in front of all of the pack, only to be thrown out. Erica was the only one to stand up for him, but even she thought it was transference.

Grief and pain and jealousy of the woman who he saw as taking Derek from him. As taking everything. And yeah, Stiles apparently hasn't gotten over that dark voice inside of him which still thinks it could be her.

He's a grown up now. That's what leaving was all about, and travelling, and working so hard. Finding out who he is, in a world without his father, without Scott, without Derek.

Turns out, Stiles is actually an okay guy, which is what even college didn't wring out of him.

"Uh, Stiles, you're kind of dissolving the sugar," Erica says. Stiles startles to find the kitchen occupancy down to just him and Erica and Stiles colors awkwardly as he looks down to find perfectly mixed, slightly too-sticky fondant in his fingers.

He hasn't zoned out on a task like this in years. He'd like to chalk that up to his regime of meditation and new diet as control over his ADHD, but no, the focus was all rage and denial.

"Where's, uh, whatsit?" Stiles asks, hating how subdued his own voice sounds. He doesn't know whether to be happy or not that his fondant-smashing has managed to obliterate the thrum in his body which tells him where Derek is at all times: he guesses it is a relief to know he can block it out.

"Whatsit," Erica repeats, with a tone which sounds way too much amused for Stiles' good, "picked the cakes he wanted and left to go to the resort," Erica says. "He's gonna open up, give Lydia's schedules to the resort staff, make sure blah blah blah I stopped listening." She waves a hand vaguely in the air. "He's gotten much more dull since you left. All business, no play."

Stiles squints. "Did he ever play?"

"I'll concede the point," Erica says, shuffling behind him. Erica's hand slides over his shoulder, followed by her chin. "I know it's hard, but I think you're doing the right thing not coming," she says.

It's a whole new tune to what she was saying yesterday. "I—" he starts.

"I can hear your heart racing, dummy," Erica says. "You're still in love with him, aren't you?"

"It's been ten years since we broke up," Stiles says after a painful moment of silence, finally stopping his weird campaign to melt the sugary paste and rolling the fondant into a ball to put into the container. "That would be ridiculous."

Erica just looks at him for a few moments. Stiles refuses to look at her. Oh, wait. That's probably not the mature thing to do. "You do excel at the ridiculous," she says, breaking the awkward silence.

Stiles flickers a look up to her; it probably shows too much, because she just shakes her head and moves in, slotting her head into the space between his head and his shoulder, turning her face into the skin of his neck.

"I just-" Stiles exhales and continues putting the fondant into the container, even as Erica wraps her arms around his waist. "I had a plan for this six months. Hang out with my family. Avoid the hell out of—" His voice hitches and he shakes his head ruefully. "Y'know, I still can't even say their names without flinching?" He pauses, his hands flexing into the rolled ball of fondant.

"Allison," Erica says, her voice soft. "Derek."

Stiles doesn't shudder much, but it's enough for her to catch, her body pressed up so close to his. "I just— Do you remember before we even knew about werewolves?"

"Yeah," Erica says. "Screwball and loser."

"I always thought I'd hit my twenties and things would make sense. That coming out of our teen years, things would—" He gestures vaguely with one hand. "I don't feel an ounce different. You're supposed to feel different, getting older, aren't you?"

"I think it's all a lie," Erica says. "Like how people say that you stop getting pimples when you stop having an age that starts with a one."

"Werewolves get pimples?" Stiles squints at her. "Can't you just, like, scratch them off and-"

"The pimple heals in place," Erica says, pulling away from him. "Don't think I didn't try and cut a chunk out of my neck. According to Derek, puberty's just one hell that werewolves get twice as bad."

Stiles makes a noncommittal noise. "Derek," he says, the name feeling like a weird new taste in his mouth that he's yet to discover if he likes it or not. "How, uh. How has he been?"

Erica side-eyes him. "You've been avoiding even saying his name for the last million years, Stiles. Do you really wanna know?"

Stiles ducks his head for a moment, but nods.

"He's been good," Erica says, her voice gentle, like she's wondering whether this is too much. "He's a teacher now."

"I—" Stiles' eyebrows try their best to meld together. "What subject?"

"History, if you can believe it," Erica says, leaning against the counter, idly playing with the strings of her apron. "Apparently since Mr. Westover…" She trails off to give Stiles time to stomach the name of one of the other Darach sacrifices. "They couldn't fill the role for long. They kept getting sick, leaving town. Turns out our very own Alpha was like, one semester away from a History degree. Julia persuaded the local college to transfer his credits and he did a teaching course after and bam. Mr. Hale, History teacher."

"I bet he's popular," Stiles says. He doesn't correct Erica in her assumption that he didn't know Derek's subject specialism. It feels weird for him not to be one of the only ones to know about Derek's thing for the ancient past.

"They both are," Erica says. "Practically half of the guests for the wedding week are ex-students."

"Huh." Stiles joins her in leaning against the counter. "Never would have pictured that."

Erica looks at him, an unreadable expression on her face. "It's not like time was going to stand still just because you weren't here, Stiles."

Stiles' mouth opens, because—oh, it's harsh. And true. But it's hard to hear, too hard on top of everything else, and he doesn't know how to answer her. Her expression slides into something defiant. Like she's testing him.

"Leaving," Stiles says, unevenly, "was never about you, Erica."

"No, nothing ever is."

Stiles shrugs at her. "Staying could be."

Her defiant expression wavers and she jabs a finger at him. "But you just told Derek—"

"—exactly what he needed to hear to get him out of my face," Stiles says and shrugs. "If werewolves want the same rights as humans, they gotta stick by human law. I have land in Beacon Hills. Which makes it just as much my territory as anyone else's."

Erica lets out a huff. "Kinda want to be there when you say something like that to Derek's face."

"Kinda noticed he was still giving grumpy cat a run for his money." Stiles shrugs. "Also note I used the term permanently. I'm human. I've got an expiration date."

"Ugh, morbid much," Erica says, "and hey, I'm gonna die too-"

"Is this really a conversation I want to be walking in on?" Mona asks from the door. Stiles looks up to see Mona and Julia have come back into the kitchen; Julia's arm is looped through Mona's. They look thick as thieves and Stiles has to work not to show how visibly freaked out he is, because his brain can't shake the idea that Julia's a snake, winding her way around his adopted mother.

His brain is being ridiculous. It's got to be jealousy. It's got to be his stupid heart, trying to still vainly find a fantasy where he can get Derek back. Which is ridiculous. Derek's ancient history now. Nearly a decade. So much an ex that he's practically extinct.

"Stiles was just whining about how he really wants to be a back-up bridesmaid, but we're both deathly allergic to skirts," Erica says.

"You're wearing a dress to the wedding, Erica," Julia and Mona say in tandem, then share a small smile; it must be something they've had to say a lot.

"Ugh," Erica says.

"You used to wear skirts," Stiles says, not seeing the problem.

"I still do," Erica says. "But dresses are traumatic. And I can never find one that works with my rack."

Stiles pulls a face.

"It's too bad you're wearing one for the wedding," Julia says. "Unless you want me to be sad. Do you really want your Alpha's mate to be crying on her wedding day?"

Stiles' stomach drops, just for a moment, and his chest feels hot. The way she's saying Alpha's mate so casually is… way more of a blow than he ever expected it to be. His eyes sting a little, but thankfully Julia's too busy looking at a scowling Erica.

"Ugh, emotional manipulation," Erica says, narrowing her eyes at Julia. "It's a good thing I like you."

Julia smiles widely. "Which flavors did D pick?" she asks.

"I left some for you to try too," Erica says and tugs Julia over. Mona shoots Stiles a smile, which fades when she sees his expression.

"Why don't you get home?" Mona suggests, squeezing Stiles' arm. "We can finish up here."

Stiles nods and peels off his apron, handing it to her gratefully. She takes it and moves to follow Erica and Julia over to the cakes, clearly interested — and because she goes that way, Stiles isn’t fast enough: he can't catch her before she hits the ground.

One second, Stiles is smiling sadly at his adopted mother. The next, she's shaking, going pale. And the next, she's half on the ground, and Stiles skids across the floor in time to at least pillow her head on his knees.

Mona turns her head to one side and throws up over the tiles; her body shakes under Stiles' fingers and he looks up to see Julia and Erica wearing matching shocked expressions.

"Mom," Erica says, dropping to her knees in front of her. "Mom?"

Mona's eyes are glassy as they flicker between Erica and Stiles; they roll back in her head. He takes Mona's pulse automatically, sliding his fingers to her neck. "Her pulse is thready," Stiles says and his eyes meet Erica's, brimming with worry. "We need an ambulance."

#

"Rain check on the coffee before you leave for the wedding," Stiles says, as he connects through to Lydia's cell. They've never been much for regular hellos. "I'm on the road."

"The hell?" Lydia blurts. "Look, I know Derek and Julia's wedding was a shock to you, but you don't have to leave because of that shit—"

"I'm not leaving," Stiles says and the car rumbles beneath him, catching on the Botts' dots dividing the highway. He swears under his breath and fixes his eyes more firmly on the road. "I'm on my way to Beacon Cove. Mona's sick."

"Shit," Lydia says. "Shit. What happened?"

Stiles gives her a brief summary — Mona collapsing, Julia driving them to the hospital, and the doctors wanting to keep her in for a few days for observation. "So I offered to replace her."

"Stiles," Lydia says, berating him.

"I know, I know," he says, sadly. "It's a fucking bad idea. But Ma wouldn't cancel. Erica says they've been having money trouble and she wouldn't let me pay their mortgage off, so…" He shrugs, even though Lydia can't see it down the phone. "This is the best alternative."

"So—"

"Anyway, Erica's still at Beacon Memorial hospital; she needs me to handle a delivery. It's due in about thirty minutes."

"And you couldn't call me earlier?"

"Well—" Stiles starts.

"You were planning something melodramatic, weren't you?"

"Maybe," Stiles allows. "Do you forgive me?"

"I shouldn't," Lydia says. "But—I kind of have to?"

"Why? Not that I'm ungrateful—"

"Because I was kinda gonna call you to cancel coffee anyway?" Stiles can even hear Lydia's wince down the line. "I've been feeling a little queasy all day, can't keep anything down—"

"Are you okay?" The fear is immediate; Mona had been sick too.

"Relax, Stilinski. I'm okay now, just my stomach's feeling a bit sensitive. Jackson won't drive me up to the resort, though, not while I'm feeling like this."

"But you're still coming," Stiles says, panic crawling into the pit of his stomach. He's faced down werewolves and kanima and worse over his life, but the idea of facing Derek getting married to someone else without his college pack around him…

"Keep your big girl panties on," Lydia chides. "Of course I'm coming."

Stiles tries to hold back his sigh of relief and he checks his phone screen — the GPS program running tells him how close he is. "I'm just pulling up to the resort now," Stiles says. "Let me know when you plan to get here?"

"You should be so lucky," Lydia says and disconnects him.

It's a yes, because Lydia's very assertive about her nos. Stiles smiles ruefully and then is distracted when he pulls off the highway, following the signpost to the imaginatively named Beacon Cove Resort. The actual cove is a mile away from the resort, but the grounds alone… Stiles can see why it's a popular wedding resort. He makes that judgment as he drives past a flourishing orchard, a creatively landscaped flower garden, and a Japanese rock garden, before he even sees the building itself.

And wow is the word Stiles wants to use to describe the resort's architecture. He's been to over seventy different countries over the last six years and met a multitude of people and seen some incredible sights, but sometimes it's the good old USA that surprises him the most.

This place is basically a fairytale castle. Seriously. There are even turrets. The building's surrounded by winding, stony paths that loops around the corner of the building like a semi-circle and then loop back on themselves, and Stiles can see a couple of groundsmen pottering around with rakes, keeping the lawns clear of branches and removing some premature fallen leaves that are scattered across the curving paths.

Erica told him to park in the staff parking lot and there's not much space, which is a surprise to Stiles — he thought considering the Reyes of Sunshine involvement that there would be very little staff actually working the resort, if not the kind of place where everyone pitched in to keep the place clean and functional. That seems to be entirely wrong — the place is basically a hotel. The clerk at the front desk checks him in and stores his bags behind the counter, because Erica's left a message for him. Eloquently, it says PUT IT ALL IN THE KITCHEN, LOSER.

Inside, the building semi-reminds Stiles of a hospital, which isn't cheerful at all — the walls are white, interspersed by vapid watercolours in black frames — and the shiny floor is black-and-white checkerboard at an angle. If it had been at right angles to the wall, Stiles would have had to fight the urge to organize human chess. There are wooden plaques at nearly every junction of the large hallway the reception clerk pointed him to, clearly labelling directions to various places — a dining hall, the A, B and C wings (obviously the sleeping quarters — the clerk gave him a key to a room on the B wing, ground floor), a bar, a gym, a sauna, a sun room, a chapel, a library, and finally Stiles finds a sign which says Kitchen.

This place is huge, which is just about awesome because there's maybe forty boxes in total, and Stiles is left on his own with a small trolley that can take about two of them at once to cart them halfway across the full length of the building through a long and decidedly dark basement-level hallway. Ugh, Erica's got her werewolf strength, she probably didn't even think twice about this being an awkward way of doing things.

By the time he's done, it's late. He manages to wrangle a sandwich from the skeleton staff manning the bar and then he heads back to the front desk, rescues his bags from the clerk, and finds his room in the B wing.

The room's nice — a large King-sized bed, an ensuite bathroom, and pine furniture which clashes a little with the peach soft furnishings and curtains. There's a card on the pillow with a neat schedule for the full week with MONA ALANA REYES printed across it, but Stiles is too tired to read it.

Stiles does a preliminary check of the wing, listening out for who might be here or not (there's definitely a couple of people moving around, but Stiles doesn't recognize their voices), but he's too tired for a full perimeter check of the building. Instead, he makes do — making sure he has a knife or two close to hand, bolting the door, checking he can get out of the window in case of a fire, setting an alarm for the morning — and then he surrenders to sleep.

The morning comes sooner than Stiles wants it to and he takes his time getting up, reaching for the schedule that was on his pillow and scanning over it.

It's ridiculously full of things — what looks like two different stag nights for some reason, and plenty of organized events, like a pool party, and various spa therapies, and dance classes, and trips out to the local beach — this thing is like one of those 18-30 vacations that Erica keeps dragging him to, although this schedule looks like it's going to be kinder to his liver. Helpfully, highlighted in red, are the events Stiles is helping Erica with — a practise dinner, a couple of bridal party events where cupcakes have been requested, a dress fitting (oh, god, Stiles hopes his suit is going to cut it) and the actual wedding dinner.

Stiles eyeballs most of the scheduled events. Hopefully he can get out of most of them with the excuse of doing prep.

On the flip side of the card is a summary of the facilities offered at the resort. There's a breakfast and lunch buffet in the dining hall between 07:00 and 09:00, and 12:00 and 13:30, and dinner is available in the bar after 18:00 until midnight for the three days that the Reyes aren't catering — on those nights, Stiles notices that there are events planned in Beacon Cove itself, so presumably most of the guests will be hitting up the local restaurants or takeout places.

Stiles wonders how many guests there are. Going by the numbers Mona was talking about, there has to be at least eighty. Stiles hopes there are going to be more. The more people, the better chance he has of avoiding everyone.

Well. Of avoiding Allison and Derek, anyway.

Stiles even starts to wonder if Derek is even here yet. He probably will be, Stiles thinks, and then he scowls at himself. It's after seven — he promised Erica he'd help her in the kitchens when the workers Ma found got there and if he comes too late, she won't forgive him. He has time before that, though, so he decides to unpack.

At least this part of life — packing and unpacking for a week of staying somewhere new — is a familiar one to Stiles. He has the routine almost down pat, although normally he's packing suits and robust clothes for inhospitable environments, and this time it's still suits, but clothes that will survive a few hours in the kitchen. Stiles regrets ever mocking Derek back when for his eternal supply of black t-shirts, because Stiles' white t-shirt collection is on a definite par.

He hangs up the dress shirts first and the suit that he bought for Lydia and Jackson's wedding. There's no trouser press, so he opens up the amazing ensuite bathroom, turns the shower onto hot and fills the room with steam before turning off the spray and hanging up the shirts on the rail. He wants to take a shower himself, actually, especially with the alluring nature of that hot spray, but he's been out of the pack too long, and there will be too many pack members around. He needs them to be used now to his scent at its most potent, so that they'll adjust quicker to him being around.

And Stiles is thinking purely about them adjusting and he isn't adjusting to the idea of it all. He'd vaguely considered what coming back to Beacon Hills would mean, but he'd never thought it would be like this. Mainly because he's not entirely the masochistic sort.

He'd pictured hanging out with Boyd and Erica, spending a couple of wine-soaked evenings with Lydia and Jackson reminiscing over their shared hell-raising (almost nearly literally, fuck all sophomore years of everything ever) college experience, maybe even attempting at least to have an uncomfortable stilted breakfast with Allison (probably trying uselessly to have a decent conversation before both storming out), and maybe even a couple of awkward hellos and lunches with Cora, who would rather punch you in the face than hold a grudge.

He'd hoped to avoid Derek. He'd pictured how he would suavely nod and look away if meeting him by accident in a public space.

He hadn't thought for one minute that he would end up in this place. Trapped. While the guy he apparently still had messy, angry feelings about married a woman he shouldn't still have messy, angry feelings about.

Now he's going to have to be constantly hyperalert, constantly trying his best to melt into the background. He'll probably have to do the awkward reunions under heavy scrutiny and at least Cora will enjoy the audience when she does inevitably punch him in the face. If nothing else, Derek is a champion at avoiding him when he's still there. See: Beacon Hills, most of Stiles' last semester of senior year.

And man, Stiles had totally forgotten Beacon Hill's love of dramatic irony when he turns back to fold up his t-shirts to put in the available dresser and his door smashes open.

Stiles turns around automatically, hands raised in a defensive position, because years of inhospitable environments as a relatively wealthy white westerner has led him to many sticky hair-raising situations in hotel rooms, and Stiles wonders if he has time to grab for the repressor cuff, or even the knife he has permanently stashed in his travelling bag side-pocket since his second semester at college, when a wendigo got into the girls' dormitory.

The knife is wooden, but treated with a myriad of herbs. It's ready to fight off a dozen supernatural creatures at a moment's notice, but still sharp enough to do copious damage to a human invader.

He doesn't have time to get the knife before Derek's all the way across the room and shoving him bodily against the nearest wall.

Talk about a blast from the past. "Wha—" Stiles gets out. Derek's hands are splayed, full against both shoulders, and his face is close. His eyes aren't flashing Alpha red, but he's breathing hard, a hint of spittle flying from his mouth, and his shoulder muscles are bunched, tense. A blast of heat hits Stiles' skin and yeah, this is definitely a trip down memory lane and a half.

Derek's the one who's pushed himself in and close; he can't complain if Stiles stares at him. God, this is the weirdest kind of exquisite torture. Derek's still as beautiful to Stiles as he's always been, his dark stubble and eyelashes a path that Stiles wants to trace with his fingertips. But he's not allowed to do that anymore.

"What the hell do you think you're doing here?" Derek hisses.

Stiles swallows hard, horribly aware of how it feels to have Derek's weight pushed up against him, the still-too-familiar push and press of Derek's body against his. Jesus, he's pathetic, but no hook up for the last decade has even come close to the way Derek made him feel.

"Ma was sick, Erica needed someone else," Stiles says. "And your wife-to-be wanted me here. I couldn't say no. I'll stay out of your way as much as humanly possible—"

Something in his answer is displeasing — Stiles' back more firmly communes with the wall, pain splintering out, but the fingers gripping his shoulder hard aren't claws. Stiles isn't in immediate danger, so he doesn't have to give up the ace in his hand just yet. He balances his weight, though, just in case, and if he screams, Erica did say she was getting here with Boyd in the morning. It's late enough for her to be here.

He hopes. Because when he looks into Derek's eyes — in the way he promised he wouldn't in the crazy happenstance that Derek had reverted to his pre-verbal, pre-Scott-as-pack ways, Derek's pupils are unhealthily wide.

"Dude," Stiles blurts, "what the he—"

So of course, with the increasingly confusing nature of events, Derek has to kiss him.

What.

Stiles struggles automatically, but Derek's fingers are spread wide, pushing deep - he has to notice Stiles isn't the same thin wiry kid he used to be. He's filled out not quite enough to rival Derek, but he can more than stand up for himself against Jackson now (which Jackson found out to his dismay in the gym in the hotel in Singapore a couple of years ago; Stiles wonders how much Jackson's been working out, actually, in order to beat him. Probably insane amounts) and he's totally mentally digressing, but only because Derek's mouth is still against his — all heat and possessive curl — and Derek has to know, has to by now, that Stiles is only putting up a token resistance.

Betrayed. By his own body.

But not by his morals.

Stiles tears his mouth away. "What do you think you're—?"

"My question," Derek says, his voice rough, and he pushes his face into the curve of Stiles's shoulder, actually nosing away the fabric of his t-shirt. His stubble is a burn against his skin that shoots down the inside of his bones right to his toes and instantly Stiles is half-hard in his pants, like he's still a teenager, and fuck, Stiles should get away from this. He can, he really can. He knows half a dozen throws and holds now that work on any size werewolf, even an Alpha, at least temporarily — the only reason he's not is...

Okay, he's been betrayed by his morals after all. His morals are fucked. He wants this.

Wow. It turns out Stiles did grow up when he left — into a weird, denial-happy kind of asshole.

Well. It's not like anyone would argue that he never had the potential of that, growing up. Harris would be first in line.

Except he's dead, the same way as his dad, and that at least brings Stiles into focus long enough for him to hear what Derek's muttering.

"I wanted you away from all of this. Don't you know— Don't you even know—?"

"Know what?" Stiles manages, half-gasp, half-painful exhale.

"How you even look," Derek snarls and everything in Stiles sparks sharply to life as Derek without fanfare, without grace, shoves his hands down inside Stiles' pants and just grabs him, roughly. Stiles spasms into Derek's tight, knowing grip, and cries out involuntarily, which is fucking ridiculous because the last ten years of his life have been about finding some damn control. "Can I?" Derek asks then, his words half a murmur against the side of Stiles face. "Please, tell me, tell me I can—"

No is what he should say, but "Yes" is what comes out of his mouth, flies out like his morals have flown away, and Derek starts to move his hand, and seriously this cannot even be happening.

If Stiles hadn't been halfway around the world, didn't know from hours of painstaking research that love potions and arousal remedies and fuck-or-die herbs were all myth, he'd suspect Derek was thusly drugged, but even the darkest, deepest deathly druidic magic could only manage a half-paltry attempt at seduction and surely no one on earth would waste that sort of ritual on a moment like this.

A moment that has to be half-dream, half desperate fantasy, because no one has ever made him feel the way Derek can make him feel, and this is bliss and torture all at the same time. This isn't something he can keep. It's a one-off moment, fuelled by weirdness and weakness and repressed anger, and Stiles falls against Derek, panting hard, and Derek's still talking.

"You should have stayed away," Derek murmurs, his words a constant stream, like he's terrified if he stops he'll stop being able to talk forever, and even Derek's stoicism couldn't handle total silence. "I can't— You can't expect me to stay away with you right here, it's unconscionable, it's too much of a demand— I can't cope— I can't—"

"Hey," Stiles says then, grabbing at Derek's face with hands that had been uselessly flexing against the wall, and he makes a shushing sound that he doesn't even really intend. "Hey, c'mon, breathe. You're okay."

Derek lifts his head, pushes his forehead into Stiles', and makes a rending sound, like something inside is torn apart. "Only with you," he says, but it's broken, and Stiles thinks he's interpreted it wrong, and Stiles opens his mouth to tell him so, and Derek kisses him again, like a wild thing.

Maybe it's typical wedding nerves. An ex appears on scene, and suddenly it's a whole rainbow of potential in the face of sex with the same person for the rest of their life. Lydia had almost been like that - a week before her wedding to Jackson she appeared on Stiles' Skype window, sobbing, make-up running everywhere, because she wanted— she wanted

And maybe if Stiles had been in the same room things might have accelerated weirdly then. Instead, he talked her through her tears, reminded her of the excellent world of toys and online erotica, and read her through some of the more soothing sub-clauses of their prenuptial agreement.

He wonders for the weirdest second whether Derek and Julia have a pre-nup, but then he supposes it's redundant; in the event of a divorce, Derek has to keep the kids, because he bit most of them.

It is the weirdest second, because the groom of said pre-nup still has his hands inside Stiles' underwear, and Stiles is definitely not the bride in this situation.

Uh, or any situation.

His hands fall from Derek's face, because it's too intimate, and he slides his hands down Derek's back automatically, searching for purchase, and he's considering adding his own hand into proceedings - even though it puts the whole incident into mutual territory as opposed to a panicked-groom-doing-this-to-a-hapless-innocent-kitchen-assistant territory — when Derek's thigh rubs up against his, and Stiles realises three things in painful, confusing unison:

One, Derek's already hard and rutting against his leg.

Two, just that amount of friction is enough for Derek to come against his leg, hot liquid dampening through Derek's pants to leave a horribly dubious stain on Stiles' leg.

Three, those two thoughts and Derek's knowing fingers are enough to bring him to a startling, painful conclusion of his own as he spills into Derek's hand with a cry that Derek swallows up with one more kiss.

With what ends up being one last kiss, because Derek pulls his hand out, and then steps back, blinking hard. He looks at Stiles in almost horror, which does nothing to lessen Stiles' mental feeling that he's just been hit by the strangest tornado - and he must look it too. Hair mussed, clothing in disarray, cock hanging out limp and spent, mouth swollen with angry kisses, shoulder reddened with undeniable stubble burn.

Derek blinks, and shakes himself, and he takes another step backwards, looking wild-eyed and annoyed with himself. "I—" Derek starts.

Stiles looks at him sharply, not even bothering to fix the disarray he's in. "Don't even try saying sorry," Stiles says, and it comes out of his mouth like acid.

Derek flinches. "I'm—" he starts, and then he looks so lost that Stiles just wants to pull him in close and lie to him, tell him that everything's going to be okay, even though that's not something he could ever promise. "You need to try and stay away from me," Derek says. "I apparently— I. Just keep away. Keep away."

And as quickly as he'd come into Stiles' room, he's gone, a storm of displaced air and a torrent of numbness for Stiles as he stares into the vacated space that Derek's left behind.

I apparently. I apparently. What was Derek even going to say?

I apparently can't stay away from you, Stiles' brain finishes, and his brain races, because what the fucking fuck ever is going on.

Stiles' fist clenches, and he reluctantly heads into the bathroom, moving his suit and shirts to one side and shedding his clothes, because natural scents be damned, werewolves were never appreciative of the smell of spunk.

He has no idea what just happened, but if it's more than last minute wedding nerves... he's going to find out.

#

Stiles is still a bundle of energy when he gets to the kitchens, and Erica's already conducting the catering team like she's some sort of demented dominatrix.

To be fair, the people Ma have found to help for the week are letting her do it, which is somewhat bizarre to see. The twins in particular seem entranced by the way Erica's stomping up and down, outlining the plans for the practice dinner, the rehearsal dinner and the main dinner like Coach Finstock outlined lacrosse matches. Mostly haphazardly, like a force of nature.

Erica's using a cleaver the size of her head as a baton to conduct her new kitchen minions, and Stiles is too scared to do anything but slip an apron over his head and line up with the others.

"Hey bro," Erica says. "I'd like you to meet the resort's catering team — this is Ennis, Kali, Thing One and Thing Two." Stiles politely nods at the row of four admittedly very attractive caterers; Ennis is taller than Boyd, Kali's gorgeous, and the twins could give Derek's perma-scowl a run for its money

"She means Ethan and Aiden," the happier-looking of the twins says. "I'm Ethan."

"Hey there," Stiles says, waving exaggeratedly.

"This here is Stilinski," Erica barks, pointing at him. "He prefers to be called Stiles, but you can refer to him as 'hey, you' at any point in the proceedings, you have my express permission."

"You're the best boss ever, sis," Stiles drawls. Erica bounces happily. She's tried to restrain her curls but they frizz out from the scrunchie pulling her hair backwards, wilder than ever. She looks so happy, and why shouldn't she? A kitchen with sharp knives and hot stovetops everywhere you looked couldn't be home for an epileptic.

He wonders if she's always wanted to cook, or if she's just trapped into it, and he hates that he doesn't know. He should know. But it's the kind of thing you know only after sticking around for a while, not the sort of thing you can pick up in vacations to exotic places.

Stiles tries not to fidget.

Staying is on the cards, not that he's said it out loud; the sabbatical is for him to decide between the three paths he has in front of him. The Californian job is the only one that would allow him to stay in Beacon Hills indefinitely.

If he can survive this weekend, if he can survive seeing Derek get married to the woman Stiles still can't stop thinking of as his father's murderer, then he can probably manage it.

Trial by fire, he thinks, and misses part of Erica's plans.

"Stilinski," Erica howls.

Stiles snaps back into attention and sends her a lazy salute. "Yes, ma'am."

"Don't fucking ma'am me," Erica says, eyes narrowing. "I was going to let you make the bridal shower cupcakes, but after that display of insubordination—"

"I zoned out for a minute."

"Rude insubordination," Erica continues, waving the knife at him, "you can do veg prep with Ennis."

Stiles looks down the line; Ennis smiles at him, slowly, showing quite a lot of teeth. "Awesome," Stiles says.

He does pay attention to the rest of Erica's instructions. It's only today and the wedding day itself that Stiles needs to help — the catering team can handle the regular meals, it's just the fancier stuff for the rehearsal dinner and the wedding dinner itself that they can't, plus the baking. Being put on prep suits Stiles — it's only the baking stuff he picked up during his last year of school and the summers in-between college semesters. He can handle basics. He pulls Erica aside after the catering team disperse to cook the night's first meal.

"We're not doing a whole lot," Stiles says, looking around at the catering team, admiring the way the twins get to quick work butchering what looks like a whole half of a cow. "Did Julia even need us?"

"For the cakes, yeah," Erica admits. "And for some of the fancier sauces and desserts. Which I happen to be a master of, FYI."

"I remember," Stiles says. "My entire team wrote a sonnet to the fudge donut bits you sent with me last year. It was even in iambic pentameter. I nearly fainted."

Erica smiles, leans against the nearest counter, and her nose wrinkles. She looks at him sharply. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," he says.

She's too close and the look she gives him is way too perceptive; for a moment, Stiles thinks that Derek's fingerprints must be visible on his skin. He did apply foundation to hide the stubble burn — he learned for his job, dammit, and he's done way weirder things in the name of it, okay; the week in the drag revue act will probably haunt him forever, thank goodness for his friends in the Jungle for the eyeliner tips — but she's both a werewolf and very important to him.

Stiles plays his best card — looking angelically innocent. It's basically a calling card which says he has something to hide, but she knows his history; knows he can out-persist any of them.

Erica's scowl deepens, a sign she's going to attempt to out-stubborn him into telling her the truth — but they're interrupted by Julia poking her head into the kitchen. She smiles when she sees them and beckons them over.

"You can come in," Erica says, but Julia shakes her head a little; she seems to be giving the other kitchen helpers a wary glance and Stiles doesn't blame her for it. The twins are currently flashing knives around at an impressive speed and Kali's glaring at the stove like she can raise its temperature just with her stare. "Or we can come out there," Erica finishes, tugging on Stiles' sleeve before he can make an excuse. Stiles tugs off his apron and follows her out.

"I just wanted to make sure you were settling in," Julia says, gesturing at the view; the kitchen's directly adjacent to a beautiful dining room. Stiles follows her gesture and looks at the view. It's idyllic for a wedding resort; a crystal-clear lake, sweeping green lawns, surrounded by picturesque woodland. Even the sky's gotten in on the beautiful view, cotton-soft clouds piling up to the sky.

There's a serenity to the view that Stiles' heart yearns for. It's a gorgeous place. He can see why Julia's picked it for her wedding; the photos are going to be legendary. Julia in an exquisite white dress, Derek in a tux—

Guilt washes over him and he has to fight not to visibly tense up, because he's a fucking idiot. Derek's bride-to-be is right here, and she hasn't done anything wrong, and Stiles is a little shit.

It's not going to happen again. The anger burning in his stomach is good fodder for his resolution. Whatever happened with Derek, it's a one-time thing. It's a result of years of pent-up resentment at their last crappy goodbye, that's all it was; anger and panic and built-up energy because they didn't get a suitable farewell.

Grooms and brides got cold feet before their marriage. It's just a thing, a thing that happens, and it's good that Derek blew it up at him and not at someone willing to do them harm.

"Sure," Erica says. "The kitchen is great, we're all set for the dinner tonight, and I really—"

"Not shop talk," Julia says and smiles at them. "I meant what I said before, Erica. It doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to the cake, or the wedding dinner—"

"—or the rehearsal dinner, I'm doing the rehearsal dinner too," Erica says and then side-eyes the kitchen. "Think we're gonna need the practise to make sure we can do it with just six of us, one of the guys the agency you recommended us is sending later in the week is blind— Not that I'm being discriminatory! But—"

"I wasn't going to let her do the rehearsal dinner," Julia says to Stiles, faux-confidentially. "But Erica thinks I'm paying Mona too much."

Erica folds her arms across her chest stubbornly. "It's more than twice than we've ever been—"

"And I'm telling you, it's still a third of what any other caterer pitched to me," Julia says.

"Any other caterer's much more practised—"

Julia steps forwards and takes Erica by the hands, angling her wrists towards her, and Stiles—Oh, this is the sort of stuff that got his goat ten years ago. Displaying her vulnerable parts to a werewolf: it's classic trust-encouraging body language and Julia's movements are always so careful. She has to know what she's doing. "I trust you," Julia says, finding and holding Erica's gaze. "I know you won't let me down."

Erica's smile is shyer than her usual cocky smirk. "You're right. I won't."

"I might," Stiles volunteers, waving an arm like they're back in English class. Julia smiles indulgently at him.

"So dinner, rehearsal dinner, cupcakes, main cake," Julia says. "And table favors. That's it. I paid for a place this big because I wanted to have a good time with my friends. With my pack. And that includes you, okay? I'm generously allowing you to ditch some of my celebrations to help your mom's business out, but any more and I'm gonna think you don't like me."

"I guess I didn't really think of it like that," Erica says, using the handle of the cleaver knife she's still toting around to scratch her nose thoughtfully.

"And the dress fitting is now," Julia says. "That's why I really came, to get you so you wouldn't weasel out of it."

"But—" Erica says. "The practise dinner— We're still prepping."

"You've already given us the orders," Stiles says. "I'm sure we can handle things while you go get trussed up in a pretty, pretty dress."

"I don't think—" Erica starts.

Julia waves her hand in front of Erica's face and snaps her fingers to get her attention. Erica straightens oddly for a moment, her gaze drifting off behind Julia. Stiles doesn't blame her — the view is phenomenally pretty. "You will be wearing a dress, Erica. I'm the bride, you have to do what I say, remember?"

"Yes. Stiles can handle an hour in the kitchen without me," Erica says.

Stiles gives her an askance look. "Sound more convincing about your confidence in me, why don’t you?"

When Stiles returns to the kitchen and tells them that Erica's not going to be there for a couple of hours, the four assistants immediately relax.

"Oh, thank fuck," Thing One, the happier twin, says and freezes. "Oh, man, she's your sister, right?"

"It's okay," Stiles says, tugging his apron back on. "I'm adopted."

"Dude," Thing One says. "Like, from a kid, or—"

"I was seventeen, actually," Stiles says. "Which is weird, I know, but Mona insisted and Erica was so unsettled at the time — it was nice, actually. I mean, my dad—"

"I'm sorry," Thing One says. His face crinkles up sympathetically.

"You don't even know what happened," Stiles says. "My dad could have run away with the circus. Or—"

"You're from Beacon Hills. We've been there before. Ennis was even arrested by your dad once," Thing One says.

Stiles blinks a few times. "I. Uh." He frowns down at the carrots he's supposed to be peeling.

"He was a good guy," Ennis says, from behind his pile of potatoes. "I'm sorry we didn't hear about his murder until it was too late."

"You know some people don't like talking about death as much as we do, right?" Thing Two offers, pulverising some of the raw beef he butchered earlier with a meat hammer.

"Those people are odd," Kali says, chopping vegetables aggressively. "As well as the people who keep insisting I wear shoes inside."

Stiles turns around and opens his mouth to say something helpful about kitchen hygiene, but she sends him an irate glare and Stiles shuts his mouth. He lived with Erica for a year and Lydia for two years and he knows better than to risk the wrath of any of the women in his life.

Especially when she's wielding a cooking knife.

#

Travelling through a handful of time zones per week means that Stiles can be a morning person — but only when he knows for sure when morning is. Being in the same time zone for more than two days in a row is what's confusing his body right now.

The rehearsal dinner yesterday went well. Stiles even avoided all the embarrassing speeches and he ended up hanging out in the kitchen eating leftovers with the twins. Erica sneaks out halfway through the middle course to join them, showing him pictures of the terrible bridesmaid dress she had to wear, and she spent the rest of the meal commiserating with Kali over the pain of impossible shoes.

Stiles also got out of the mass invitation to join Julia and Derek for champagne in the resort bar and he stole off to bed, mostly feeling sorry for himself at just how right they all look together.

He hasn't been back in California long enough to adjust to the time and instead of being up early enough to go for a run, maybe check out the resort gym facilities, he has about enough time to take a shower and get dressed before hurrying to the dining hall before the catering team stopped serving breakfast.

Because he is so late, the tables are all mostly full; the only table with a lot of space is solely occupied by Derek, scowling down at a tablet in his hand like it's the worst thing on the planet. He's either stubbornly avoiding looking at Stiles, or he still has a hang-up about technology. Maybe both.

Stiles keeps as much out of Derek's eyeline as possible and grabs at some of the breakfast buffet still left out; it's in stainless steel trays, kept warm by heaters underneath, and thankfully for Stiles' appetite, it's both help yourself and there's a lot of food left. Stiles knows pretty quickly why - the empty spaces on Derek's table will be for his pack. Erica said something about the wolves having one last patrol to do before coming up.

It means Stiles has a little breathing space to try and prepare for seeing familiar faces again. His stomach tenses miserably at the idea. He catches Lydia's eye first. Well, actually, he catches Danny Mahealani's eye first. Who just nods at him blankly in… non-recognition. Seriously? Wow, that's a blow to the ol' self-esteem. Or maybe Danny's just pissed, 'cause, yeah. Stiles sort of stole Danny's best friend during college. Whoops. So, he ends up catching Lydia's eye second and lets her wave him over, and that's a total mistake.

Because she's sitting drinking herbal tea. With Julia. And Cora.

Shit, shit, shit.

Stiles opens his mouth.

Cora looks the same as ever, if a bit pale, and there's a crutch leaning against her chair. Yeah, reason one billion and three why he didn't want to come back to Beacon Hills. When Cora had come to Beacon Hills in senior year, she'd been so bright, so full of life as she dragged Erica and Boyd behind her.

Seeing her fade to how she is now - frail, a shadow of her former strength - it's hard. And Stiles has been a giant jerk for not being able to deal with it, considering how hard it must be for Cora herself to deal with it, but… he's become very good at giving excuses over the years and she deserves more than that.

At least he can let her have the first word. It's not much of an offering, but it's a start.

"If you're opening your big mouth just to say hi Cora, don't bother," Cora says, waspishly. Stiles snaps his mouth shut. "You've got a lot of making up to do. A lot. You can start by giving me your bacon."

"Bu—" Stiles starts. Julia and Lydia turn identical expressions in his direction and yup, Stiles is appropriately terrified. He lowers his plate, letting Cora take his bacon and one of his pancakes too. He even manages to restrain the "bacon hills" joke he kinda wants to make.

"You can grovel more later," Cora says and gestures at him with a shooing motion.

"Bu—" Stiles starts.

"Go on."

Stliles huffs, but turns on his heel obligingly.

"Mucho grovelling," Cora informs his back.

"Yeah, yeah," Stiles says.

"If you don't mind ladies, I'll take my leave," Lydia says to Cora and Julia. "I'll make sure this one doesn't cause any trouble."

Lydia beams at Stiles brightly. She's a vision in yellow, a gauzy scarf around her neck which speaks volumes that Jackson's oral fixation hasn't gone away and Stiles swallows down a joke about needing sunglasses; Jennifer back then never reacted well to anything that could vaguely resemble a blind joke, and Stiles doesn't want to rock any boats during this wedding.

"Good luck with that," Cora says. She narrows her eyes at Stiles. "We'll be talking later, asshole."

"What is it with the women in my life all wanting to insult me?" Stiles demands.

"Can't think of a single thing," Julia says, burying a smile in her tea-cup, and Lydia and Cora snicker.

Stiles sighs. "I'll grovel later," he promises Cora and waves goodbye as Lydia loops her arm around his, dragging him away. She leads him to a table in the middle, which has a handful of unfamiliar faces - and one very familiar face.

"Oh, god," Stiles whines. "I'm dazed by the unreasonable brightness of your outfits and I have to sit downwind from Jackson? Seriously, Lydia, I've done nothing to you to deserve this."

Lydia rolls her eyes and unceremoniously shoves Stiles down into a chair.

Jackson gives him an unimpressed look and tugs subconsciously at his shirt; it's a shade of sunflower yellow which matches Lydia perfectly. Of course it does. Stiles can still remember Jackson's howling in second year when he found out that Lydia had replaced his entire wardrobe. I'm not an accessory, banshee; you can't match my clothes like I'm a fucking paint swatch! Lydia's comeback had been epic. I can if you ever want to have sex again.

…yeah, Jackson hadn't won that argument. He tried to point out that he could get a new girlfriend, but he really shouldn't have said it while Lydia was drying cutlery. Even now, Stiles still gets flashbacks to the creative ways that Lydia used their kitchen knife set in their final year at college.

"Can it, Stink-linski," Jackson grumbles. "Remember how we talked about these sounds which you think are words but are actually monkey sounds? You're making them again. It's undignified."

"You're overly qualified to recognize the lack of dignity in others," Stiles says, jabbing a fork into his sadly-depleted pile of breakfast foods. "Considering how dignity-free you are yourself."

"Fuck, I must be a little bit brain damaged," Jackson says, shaking his head. "I can't believe I missed you."

Stiles blinks as Lydia shakes her head at them both. "Did you get hit on the head recently, Dick-more?"

Jackson's eyebrows knot together. "Don't make me regret the compliment, Piles."

Stiles grins and Jackson slowly returns it for a second.

"Don't mind them, Braeden," Lydia tells a gorgeous black woman sitting across from them, watching their exchange with worry. "This is basically their mating ritual."

Stiles and Jackson turn identical looks of horror in her direction. Lydia smiles demurely.

"Stiles, this is Braeden Morrell," Lydia introduces. "You remember Ms. Morrell."

"Ah, the creepy ass guidance counsellor," Stiles says, then freezes when he realizes it's Braeden's surname too. He winces at her apologetically. "That you're… related to. Sorry. My mouth just runs away with me sometimes."

"Don't even worry about it," Braeden says, waving a hand dismissively. "I've always thought Aunt Marin was a little creepy; I'm pretty sure she hasn't aged at all in the last twenty years."

"She's coming later in the week, right?" Lydia says. "She and Alan?"

Alan, Stiles mouths at Jackson, because since when has Lydia been on first name basis with Dr. Deaton? Jackson just looks smug. Ugh, and Stiles can't even punch that expression from Jackson's face. Life is so unfair.

"Alan's coming later in the week, but Aunt Marin's already on her way. Something about classes with the bridal party."

"Waltz," Jackson says, sadly, like he knows what Braeden's talking about. Maybe it's some sort of French program.

"Anyway," Stiles says to Jackson, "I wanted to ask — how's the new building work going?"

"Oh, you'll never hear the end of it now," Lydia says, rolling her eyes.

"Great," Jackson says assertively and starts talking about his newest venture; a chain of sportswear stores with a lean towards fashion. His flagship store's going to be in Beacon City and he's been hitting a raft of in-city bylaws and construction codes that even his lawyer father gets a headache when he looks at.

Stiles nods supportively and eats his breakfast. This he missed, sorely. Dartmouth had been a good experience for the three of them. They'd been their own pack, Lydia their Alpha (obviously); Jackson insisted Lydia was the looks, he was the brawn and Stiles was the comic relief, but really, that was just Jackson being a douche. Which apart from being a fundamental aspect of Jackson's personality, is much easier to take when you know the trick to Jackson's emotional state.

Meaning, the more he tries to dick you off, the more he actually gives a shit. After the night in first year of college, when there was a partial lunar eclipse and Jackson drank two bottles of 70% proof vodka and Jackson admitted he was jealous of how much Sheriff Stilinski loved Stiles, so obviously, without needing Stiles to do a thing to prove his love... It was harder to hate the dickhead.

Not impossible, Stiles thinks, subconsciously rubbing the back of his head where Jackson had hit him once with the tree branch and not the chupacabra they were chasing, but much more difficult a task to hate someone when you've spent three years studying and hunting creatures of the night with them.

Even when they elbow you in the gut when you're eating some admittedly spectacular pancakes, causing you to almost choke on them.

"Head's up," Jackson mutters and glances significantly behind Stiles.

Stiles makes the rookie mistake of turning around in his seat, in time to see Allison come into the room. He thinks he can see Chris and Melissa behind her too, but that's an extraneous detail to the stomach-dropping thing that happens next.

Namely, Allison — who has apparently only gotten more beautiful with age, which how is that possible — catching Stiles' eye, paling, and turning around and fleeing from the hall.

Stiles' gut aches and that's even before Derek gets out of his chair, throws the dirtiest look at Stiles that he's ever thrown, and then follows her out.

For a moment, there's a lull in the room, as faces curiously turn in Stiles' direction; his cheeks burn from the attention and he stubbornly turns back to his pancakes, shoving them angrily in his mouth.

"Wow," Braeden says, whistling low and long. "What did you do to deserve that reaction?" She looks at Stiles in obvious interest and Stiles scowls at the butchered remains of his breakfast.

"Long story," Stiles grunts.

"She kinda blames him for her boyfriend dying," Jackson says, helpfully.

Stiles glares at Jackson and Jackson shrugs, unrepentantly; Lydia helpfully kicks him under the table, but banshees don't come with super strength - Jackson barely bats an eyelash at her.

"Thanks," Stiles mutters.

"You're welcome," Jackson says, smiling widely at him.

#

Escaping to the kitchen directly after breakfast is supposed to be that; a literal, physical escape from the space where Derek can come in at any time and puts Stiles off his game. But even the kitchen isn't safe.

Stiles knows Chris Argent has entered the kitchen before he lets on: the great thing about kitchens is the number of reflective surfaces, allowing him to see things going on behind him without even having to turn around. Melissa McCall is with him, but the sight of her distinctive dark curls doesn't stab him in the gut quite as much as he feared it might.

In the main part of the kitchen, Melissa finds and then hugs Erica, and so does another woman — it's Allison. Stiles freezes in his task only for half a second before he forces himself to calm down. Stiles' breathing relaxes before his shoulders do and he's mad at himself for a few seconds more, because isn't his whole coming home mantra supposed to be that he's a grown-up? Yeah, he's kinda failing on that count.

In the background, Melissa starts asking Erica about Mona's condition, and Stiles sideglances at one of the stainless steel counterparts to confirm what he suspected would happen when small talk started; Chris Argent's coming his way.

"Hi, Mr. Argent," Stiles says, not looking up from chopping his chocolate into small enough chunks to temper nicely. He looks up a beat later to see Chris smiling at him cagily.

"Mr. Stilinski," Chris says, inclining his head. "It's been too long."

"Stiles," Stiles says, amused at Chris' formality. "If you don't mind. Mr. Stilinski was—"

"Of course," Chris says, kindly interjecting before Stiles has to dredge up his father out of his memories and into his words. "And you must call me Chris, I insist." Chris looks at Stiles, assessing his work. "Nice knife skills."

"Oh, my god, dad, not Stiles," Allison says, hurrying over and then stopping a few paces away, her cheeks burning red.

Stiles looks up, sharp and horribly dismayed, because he knew their relationship — or the tiny fragments of what might have been nearly friendship, once-upon-a-time — was bad, but not that bad.

Allison winces. "I didn't mean it like that." She dimples an apologetic smile at Stiles that has an inch of shyness in it. "I meant he shouldn't target you. He just finished training his last hunting apprentice a few weeks ago and he's been looking for fresh meat ever since. Do not get sucked in." She gives Chris a fond if annoyed glare. "The pay's terrible."

"Hey, I don't have unlimited funds," Chris says, holding his hands up.

Stiles smiles politely. Well, he tries. It's the thought that counts.

"I'm sorry about earlier," Allison says, turning her right foot onto its side; a classic tell that she's feeling embarrassed.

"Don't mention it," Stiles says, not quite able to meet her eye.

"It's good to see you," she says, in a subdued voice, surprising Stiles into meeting her gaze. "You look well."

"Thanks." Stiles attempts a smile again, but this one probably looks like a grimace. "You too."

"Thanks," Allison says. The atmosphere is so thick that Stiles thinks even his excellent knife skills couldn't cut it.

"Are you and, uh," Stiles gestures his head in Melissa's direction. "Staying until the wedding?"

Chris follows his gaze briefly. "No, no. Melissa and I just came to drop Allison off. We'll be stopping for lunch, but I have a supplies meeting in San Jose on Tuesday-"

"And I have shifts Monday to Wednesday," Melissa adds, coming up alongside Chris and-hello, letting him slide an arm around her waist. When did that even happen?

Well, it's not Stiles' place to know this sort of thing anymore. He doesn't get to know. It's none of his business.

"Stiles Stilinski," Melissa says, flickering her gaze up and down him like he's a patient to be diagnosed. "Long time no see."

The last time he saw her was Scott's funeral.

"Six years," Stiles says. "And three months, six days and four hours. Not that I'm counting."

Melissa's kind smile turns down at the edges and she doesn't seem to know what to say. Stiles is an expert at making things super awkward. It's not difficult to remember why he didn't want to come here for this week.

And also why he didn't want to come back to Beacon County period.

"You'll still be here for the actual ceremony, right?" Allison asks, tugging on her dad's sleeves. "Because I need camera backup. I need as many shots of Erica in an actual dress as I can get hold of."

"Hey!" Erica hollers from across the kitchen. "I heard that."

"Wasted if you didn't," Allison calls back and she opens her mouth — possibly to say something werewolf-related — but then she colors when her dad raises an eyebrow and inclines his head in the direction of the catering team; Stiles nods his head at Ennis, who's looking curiously at Allison.

Once upon a time he'd have warned Ennis off, but Allison wouldn't appreciate him stepping in — she can more than take care of herself.

"We're gonna, um," Melissa says, eloquently, and points at the doors.

"Yeah," Chris says. "Long drive back to Beacon Hills. It was nice to see you again, Mr. — Stiles."

"You too, Chris," Stiles says.

Chris nods and ushers Melissa over to the door. Allison hovers anxiously for a moment, torn between saying something to Stiles and going with her dad. Stiles looks at her, not wanting to sway her decision either way.

Mostly he doesn't trust himself to say something he shouldn't.

"I don't blame you," Allison says, darting a hand forward nervously, her fingertips grazing Stiles' elbow. Her eyes widen a little, like she's not so sure she should be doing that. "I never—I should have made sure you knew I never blamed you for not being there when it happened." She hasn't changed much outwardly, but up close, Stiles can see the increased definition in her arms and calves.

She's still hunting. Stiles would bet all his money on that, except he's not exactly hurting on that front.

"I wouldn't have believed you," Stiles says, softly. "I blamed me too."

"I wasn't there either." She frowns and then looks at him, eyes shining. "Do you think you and I could maybe… Try to be friends? I mean. I know we never really interacted too much back, then but—"

Stiles shrugs. "I don't know, Allison. We're different people now."

Allison looks at him, a frown wrinkling her pretty face. There's an extra wrinkle on her forehead that he doesn't remember; she's aged after all. But subtly. Like a ninja. But then, Allison got the closest to being a ninja than any of them, so he supposes it's only apt.

"Maybe," Allison allows and backs up a few paces, a glance betraying her aim to follow after her father. "But it doesn't mean we can't try?"

Stiles looks at her and shrugs. "I guess not."

Allison's mouth turns down at the sides, obviously not entirely happy with his answer. "I'm gonna—" She thumbs at the door and Stiles nods, turning away so he doesn't have to watch her go.

Erica slides in next to him just a few moments later, of course.

"That looked rough," she says, rubbing his shoulder with one hand; she's been touching him a lot since he came back, more than she ever has when they've been on their twice-yearly family vacations. It's either a wolf thing, or she's having trouble reconciling with the fact that he is actually there.

Stiles shrugs.

"You're allowed to talk about your feelings, y'know," Erica says. "It's not like your balls are gonna fall off."

"Thanks," Stiles mutters.

"Mostly because you lost them years ago." Erica nudges his hip with hers. "Wanna do me a favor?"

Stiles looks at her. "No."

"Too bad, I accidentally called it a favor when it's actually an order," Erica says.

"This is my surprised face."

"It's just your regular face," Erica says. "Which should probably learn to stay away from mirrors; I don't know if Julia will get her deposit back if you crack them all."

"Everyone's a comedian."

"Yeah, well, you weren't around. I had to learn to fill the silences somehow."

Stiles lets out a huff. "Are you saying Boyd's natural talkativeness wasn't enough to compensate?"

"Boyd," Erica says, "has said exactly six words to me since I got him here."

"And they were?"

"Off to find the pool, babe," Erica says, mimicking Boyd's low drawl.

Stiles chews his lower lip. "Is he—"

"He's going to be fine hanging with you, dumbass," Erica says, cuffing him lightly around the back of his head. "He's been on, what. Five of our family vacations? Was he weird with you then?"

"Well, no. But his pack wasn't around then."

"You mean his Alpha wasn't around then," Erica corrects.

Stiles shrugs.

"Boyd loves you," Erica says and slides her arm around his waist. "Like I love you. Madly and completely and sadly platonically, because can you picture that threesome, damn."

"Boyd would break me in two," Stiles says. "So—what was this favor you wanted?"

"I left four boxes in the back of the van," Erica says, holding the keys out. "You're strong enough to go get them on your own, right?"

Stiles smirks at Erica and takes the keys. "I think I can handle a few boxes."

#

As he carries the boxes down the long hallway back to the kitchen, Stiles is feeling pretty good about himself. Actually, he's kind of being a little smug about the fact that Cora hadn't punched him in public. Well, yet. But it's still a win.

Anyway, it's perfect timing for what happens: namely, he manages to physically regress ten years in one terrible short moment.

And of course for a moment of epic stupidity, this throwback-event that testifies to Stiles' monumental ability to turn into the human-equivalent of an octopus wearing roller skates is because Stiles is apparently way too overconfident on the subject of how many boxes he can comfortably carry at once. Because carrying four 25-pound boxes of cupcake decorations and ingredients might be less weight than the 180lbs he can benchpress now, but they're hella more awkward.

Stiles should have expected to drop them, really, but the fact he didn't anticipate it happening at all is what makes him more embarrassed. Especially when he finds out that tripping over something on the hallway floor hasn't just taken himself down. Apparently he's squashed one of the boxes too. One of his hands is currently shoved right through it. If that was all it was, Stiles would be okay, but nope, it can't be just that simple a mistake.

Because Stiles isn't alone in the hallway when it happens.

Stiles props himself up on his hands and looks in dismay at the collateral damage to his moment of epic clumsiness. It's not just himself that he's knocked over.

It's Julia.

And she's covered his shirt in the contents of a box she must have been carrying. Some sort of dried herbs, Stiles thinks; if he didn't have powdered sugar up his nose from putting a hand through one of his own boxes, he'd be able to tell for sure, but yeah, it looks like dried herbs. Probably for the tea that Lydia keeps going on about.

"Oh my god," Stiles says — at least his recent years of physical training means he can climb to his feet gracefully, even if apparently his downward journeys aren't as smooth; he offers a hand down to Julia to help her up. "I'm so sorry."

"What the hell Stilinski?" Julia yells, looking completely distressed.

"I'm sorry, I tripped on something—I didn't mean—" Stiles tries to support her elbow to help her get to her feet, but she yanks her arm backwards sharply. Stiles frowns and steps back, bending down to rescue her box from the sad mess of dried herbs and powdered sugar.

"I've got that," Julia snaps, reaching for the box and grabbing it to herself protectively.

Stiles opens his mouth to say something, but he's interrupted — by one of the twins from the catering team. They're standing in the hallway and looking curiously at them both. Stiles feels stupid for not noticing their arrival.

Julia turns as she climbs to her feet and her angry expression immediately fades away.

"Erica sent me to see what was taking you so long," the twin says. He smiles politely at Julia and then he glances down at the boxes on the ground. "And I guess I can see what the delay was!"

"I'm kinda clumsy," Stiles explains, gesturing at the most damaged box.

"Just… clean this up," Julia says, gesturing vaguely at the mess and turning away, her heels clacking along the hallway as she speeds off without giving Stiles another chance to apologize.

"She seems delightful," the twin says, as soon as Julia's out of earshot. "What's that term they use? Bridezilla?"

Stiles shrugs. "I did crash into her and wreck her tea." He sniffs at the sleeve of his shirt: it smells like sulphur. Brimstone, his brain provides. Brimstone for removing an enemy's power over you.

"It looks like it's just some sort of herbal tea," the twin says — and Stiles is going to guess this one is Ethan, because he's smiling at Stiles and Stiles has noticed that Aiden's face can't quite manage that. "No one's going to be drinking tea. Not with the amount of champagne I've seen people downing already."

Stiles pulls a wry face and nods. "Yeah, I guess."

"Well. Let's get these to the kitchen, tidy you up, and see what the damage is somewhere where there's decent lighting," Ethan says, turning to stack up the three undamaged boxes, before kneeling to start gathering up a few of the cupcake cases which have spilled from the box Stiles crushed.

"Good plan," Stiles says and kneels down to help pick up the debris from his fall. As he kneels, though, his fingers graze something soft — he pulls it up and frowns at it, running the gauzy material through his fingers. He knows this wasn't in any of his boxes. It's bright yellow and made of silk; against the cold tiles of the hallway, it would have been perfect to trip over.

Stiles is pretty sure it was also the same scarf that Lydia was wearing earlier. Well, it makes a sad sort of sense. Lydia always did use to be very talented at making him fall for her.

"That's just your color," Ethan says, looking down at Stiles with an intense expression, like he's trying to mentally divest Stiles of all his clothes, actually. Huh. Stiles' gaydar is not that consistent, but it's pinging with this guy like whoa. Which is weird, because he hadn't gotten that vibe from the twins until now.

Maybe the other twin's straight.

"Thanks," Stiles says and pockets the scarf to give it back to Lydia. "And for the rescue."

Stiles gestures at the direction that Julia left in.

"Rescue?" Ethan blinks. "That seems an awfully weird word to choose."

Stiles manages to push the escaped items back into the crushed box. "I guess," he says, not wanting to go into his messed-up past. Ethan's cute, in a bland sort of way, and he looks like he could hold Stiles up against a wall without breaking a sweat; Stiles does not want to alienate a potential hook-up on top of the kinda shit week he's having. "It feels apt around her."

"Yeah," Ethan says, easily picking up the three full boxes without even making it look difficult. "Cal seems to think so too."

Stiles thinks back to the others on the catering team. "Kali does seem nice."

"Yeah," Ethan says, but it's after a beat where Ethan's clearly flummoxed. And that's interesting. Stiles loves a mystery and it looks like Ethan's hiding something. "Yeah, Kali is nice," Ethan says, finally deciding on something to say. "These go to the kitchen, I think?"

"Yeah," Stiles says, getting to his feet and picking up the last box, holding it gingerly together. "You go on ahead. I've got to try and salvage what's left of this one. I'll just hold you up if you wait for me, so go."

"I'll let Erica know what's happened," Ethan says.

Stiles lets out a noise of displeasure. "Do you have to?"

"Well," Ethan says, walking backwards, the three heavy boxes looking weightless in his arms, "I wouldn't say no to rescuing you again some time, Stilinski. Maybe at the stag night thing?"

"Yeah," Stiles says. "Maybe." He watches Ethan smile and hurry off first, under the pretence of juggling around the contents of the damaged box to keep them safe. From this angle, it's not a bad view at all.

Maybe Stiles will get double lucky and the mystery Ethan is hiding is down his pants.

#

The box that Stiles crashed a hand through wasn't completely a tragedy, but Stiles did manage to crush over three hundred fondant roses, which need to be remade immediately. He tries doing it in the kitchen, but there's not enough counter space, and eventually Erica just sends him out to the dining hall.

Which would have been fine, except the tables have all been pushed to the outside to leave a space in the middle. Stiles eyeballs the wooden floor warily, but carefully tugs his box of fondant and tools over to one of the side tables and starts to lay things out.

He's getting into the rhythm of things when Morrell slides up right next to him.

She's quieter than a werewolf. Stiles is proud of himself not for jumping and squealing like a five year old.

"Long time no see, Stiles."

Stiles gives her a shrug, because he's not entirely sure how you interact with your old school guidance counsellor. Especially when he spilled so many secrets to her over his high school years.

"You're looking good, Ms. Morrell," Stiles says, starting to roll up his next fondant rose. His fingertips are slowly staining orange. It could be worse. One summer, Mona made him help her decorate five hundred cupcakes with green fondant bows. Jackson had thought Stiles fingers had gotten gangrene and were going to fall off; Stiles chased him for ten minutes just waggling his fingers in Jackson's face, while Jackson shrieked hilariously.

"Please," Morrell says. "My name's Marin."

"Marin," Stiles says. "Oh, wait, I think I met your niece?"

"Yeah, when I got in earlier, Braeden mentioned that she met you," Morrell says.

"I must have made an impression."

Morrell's smile turns sly, cat-like. "I didn't hint that it was a good impression."

"Yeah, well, my reputation around here's kinda shot," Stiles says. "I don't know why Julia insisted I come."

Morrell looks to the doors, maybe checking to see whether Julia is around. "Between you and me?"

Stiles frowns, but nods, encouraging her to go on.

"You ever heard the maxim keep your friends close, but your enemies closer?"

Stiles' frown deepens, and he opens his mouth, but Morrell turns on her heel and starts striding across the room.

"I've got a wedding dance rehearsal in here," Morrell says and that makes a weird amount of sense, even though Stiles doesn't know Morrell all that well. She's a guidance counsellor and a French teacher and she can read ancient Latin - it stands to reason she's probably just talented at everything.

Stiles looks sadly at his spread out decorations and tries not to think about seeing Julia and Derek dancing together. It makes his chest hurt a little. "Do you need me to move?"

"No. But I would appreciate it if you didn't laugh at some of the poorer students in my class," Morrell says, opening a panel in the wall that Stiles hadn't noticed, and pulling out a CD from it.

While she messes with the controls, eventually coaxing the music system to play some soft piano music with a distinct three-four beat - Stiles guesses waltzes are traditional for wedding dances - he carries on with the decorations, getting into a rhythm. Even though he hasn't made fondant roses for maybe four years (he made Erica some cupcakes for one Christmas to prove he hadn't lost the knack), he hasn't forgotten how to do them. The muscle memory's still there in his fingers.

He still watches his work carefully, though, because it does need concentration so that they're all the same size and same thickness. Stiles likes repetitive work and it's easy to get through it with the waltz rhythm as a soundtrack to it. He's so engrossed with the work that he might have missed everyone coming in for the dance rehearsal.

If he didn't have that stupid Derek-radar still.

To Stiles' credit, he only lifts his head up once. Erica, Boyd, Lydia, Jackson, Derek and Julia all come through the door in a group. Their body language is…

Stiles wants to use the word heartbreaking, because their body language is perfect; they're all leaning into each other, huddling close, faces relaxed and steps confident. This is a close-knit group. A pack. A pack that Stiles used to belong to. He's never felt quite so much of an outsider until now.

He's never felt so much more like an omega.

Lydia and Jackson were his for longer and he risks another quick glance in their direction; Jackson catches his glance, motions at the roses and mouths nice exaggeratedly. Stiles flips him the bird and Jackson grins widely; Lydia looks between them and rolls her eyes.

"Eyes on me," Morrell says, clapping her hands, and Stiles forces his eyes down onto what he's doing, Morrell's voice a calm monotone in the background as she gets the three couples to walk through some steps. It's clearly not their first lesson, but Stiles can't help catch the odd glimpse of the rehearsal. Boyd's as stiff as a board, Erica keeps standing on his feet, Lydia's a little uncertain on her feet (but she's not kicking off her five-inch heels so it's probably her own fault), Jackson's okay but keeps forgetting his steps, and Julia and Derek—

They don't need the practice, Stiles thinks, seeing them pressed up against each other. Apparently it still physically hurts him to see them together and Stiles has to pause from rolling one of the roses to clench his fists together for a few seconds and calm his breathing. Shit. This really wasn't supposed to hurt this much.

Stiles gives himself just a few seconds to wallow in the pain and then he unclenches his fingers and forces himself to concentrate on the task. Eighty down and only two hundred and twenty more to go and if he looks at the fondant roses, he doesn't have to see the way Julia's body curves into Derek's, or the way his large hands sit on her hips, gentle and firm.

He's concentrating so much that he doesn't hear the door open, but he does hear a clumping sound, and when Stiles glances up Cora catches his eye. He kinda hopes for a second that she's going to avoid him, but no, as soon as she sees him, she clutches more tightly onto her crutch and limps over towards him.

She sits herself down in a seat right next to him, where she has a good view of the dancing, and she grabs one of his roses, eating it whole before he can stop her. He glances at her and she chews it defiantly, daring him to say something about it. Her skin is pale and she might look ill, but her eyes are alive as ever, a spark burning in them that in the years he's been away from her hasn't been quenched.

Stiles just rolls his eyes at her and keeps going.

"You're a coward," Cora says, quietly. Stiles gives her an angry side-glance, but continues his work.

"I've been told," Stiles says. He makes the mistake of following Cora's gaze and sees Derek and Julia waltz past, beautifully smooth, while Morrell's melodic voice praises them. Their movements are so elegant. Stiles thinks of his earlier clumsiness and feels stupid; his co-ordination has gotten better with years of focus and training, but he's still ungainly. Maladroit was the term Morrell liked to use, back in high school. How did Stiles back then ever think he and Derek had a chance? They are chalk and cheese in all the worst ways.

Julia's elegant, warm-hearted, has the same job, is the same height, is flawlessly attractive (well, maybe her teeth have more character than most, but so do Derek's, not that anyone would risk telling him to his face) — she's basically a perfect fit for him.

Cora coughs. Thankfully for Stiles' decoration efforts she's covering her mouth. Stiles' mouth turns down with worry.

"I can't believe you're still sick," he says, quietly. "Deaton's still not found a cure?"

"Apparently he's working on it," Cora says. "This is where you apologize to me, FYI."

"Apologize?" Stiles asks.

Cora shoots him a death glare that is probably patented by the Hales. "If you're aiming for the wah-wah, the town reminds me of my dead family angle, I'm not beyond reminding you how much worse Beacon Hills is for me. And I still stay in that stupid place."

"I've been working for the last six years," Stiles says, and on its own, it does sound a pitiful excuse. "And you have something to stay here for. I'm not pack."

"Bullshit," Cora says. "You smell like pack."

Stiles gives her an askance look. "Because Erica keeps snuffling into my neck."

"I don't snuffle," Erica calls over.

"Ms. Reyes," Morrell snaps.

Stiles colors. The others are listening in? Ugh.

"My apology. While there are witnesses."

Stiles glares at her. Cora's watching him steadily back, unflinching. "I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"For not asking why none of you went out of your way to ask me back if that's what you're all so pissed about?"

Cora's mouth tightens into a line.

"Or how about, I'm sorry I didn't know any of you gave a shit," Stiles says. "Or how about I'm sorry that I thought your Alpha saying go away and don't come back meant go away and don't come back—"

"You never did a single thing Derek told you to back when," Cora says. "So why did you listen to him that one time?"

Stiles sighs. "Fine, I'm a big giant coward. Does that make you feel better?"

"Yup."

"And I should have Skyped you more."

"Yup."

"And I can get out of grovelling for years by, like, buying you a car or something."

"Y—What?" Cora stares at him.

"I'm not above blackmailing for affection."

Stiles makes the mistake of looking up; Derek glowers at him from Julia's shoulder and Stiles looks sharply away.

"But—" Cora says.

"He's rich, dumbass," Erica calls over from where she's badly waltzing with Boyd. "How else do you think we're barely covering our mortgage but can manage to go to, like, Tahiti twice a year."

"Ms. Reyes," Morrell snits again.

"Sorry," Erica says and accidentally stamps on Boyd's toes again.

"If you're rich why are you—" Cora gestures at the menial task in front of Stiles.

"Mona won't take any of the money," Stiles says, shrugging. "And I still wanna help." He lowers his voice. "Insurance payouts make people antsy."

"Oh," Cora says. "Yeah. Derek gets shifty on that front too."

Stiles doesn't mean to flinch. Cora doesn't call him on it; he's managed to hit close enough to home for her, too.

"So now you're back," Cora says, "and buying me a car…"

Stiles smiles at her ruefully. "I'm on a six month sabbatical from my job."

"If you're rich," Cora starts, "why—"

"I like my job," Stiles says. "I keep saying that to Erica, too, but she doesn't believe me. Why would I even do it if I didn't like it?"

"You've stayed away from us for six years. You can't say you liked that 100%. I can hear if you lie."

Stiles grimaces at her. "My job's kinda exhausting. So they've given me a sabbatical. See if I want to keep skipping timezones every few days, or-"

"Or?"

"There's a lab in London," Stiles says. "Better hours. But London."

"A lab," Cora says. "What the hell do you even do?"

Stiles wrinkles his mouth up. "How long have you got?"

"For you?" Cora leans back in her seat. "Maybe ten minutes. If you're lucky."

"Not enough time," Stiles says. "It's a lab. Lab work. Research.Science." He waggles his fingers over the roses in front of him. "Or there's the main headquarters. There's a management position my mentor's encouraging me to accept."

"Where's headquarters?"

"Beacon City," Stiles says. And ducks as one of Erica's shoes flies over where his head was.

"You just said California, you dick!" Erica hollers. "I was picturing, like. LA. Not 5 minutes drive away."

"That's it, Ms. Reyes. Take Boyd and get out of my sight," Morrell shrieks.

"I'm going, I'm going," Erica says, slipping off her other shoe and aiming it at Stiles too; it misses, skittering under the table. Boyd looks relieved to be dragged away.

"I'll see you later for a private session, you obviously need the help," Morrell calls after them.

Erica glares at Stiles as she passes him. "You never offered to buy me a car."

"Where did your pink mini even come from?" Stiles hollers back.

Erica does pause then and look a little flummoxed. "…Santa Claus?"

"Idiot," Boyd says, fondly, and drags her through the doors before she can disrupt the dance practise any more.

"You should think about the management position," Cora says, her fingers gripping onto his forearm. "I don't care what Derek or anyone else told you forever ago. You're pack. You're pack. Erica and Boyd want you here. So do Lydia and Jackson. Julia too. We outnumber them. If we want you in, you're in." She turns her face to the dance floor. "No matter what the others say."

Cora's face wrinkles. Stiles knows that expression — Derek's said something under his breath, just loud enough for her to hear.

Which means Derek's been listening to all of it. Stiles risks a look up and Derek's glaring at them both, intensely, until Julia sweeps him around. Stiles lets out a tiny, shuddering exhale and tries to make his fingers stop trembling enough to start rolling out the roses again.

"C'mon," Cora says. "Show me how to do this." She wrinkles her nose. "If you can be generous with your time for family, so can I."

"I'm not—"

"I mean you are my family," Cora says. "Don't make me stab you, even though you know you deserve it."

He can't help but stare at her. At the paleness of her skin and the few grey strands in among the thick curtain of her dark hair. He only knew Cora for a year and she spent the whole time declining, getting sicker and sicker, but he hadn't realized just how much he'd missed her. Until now.

"Stop staring at me, Stilinski," Cora tells him.

"Whatever, Hale." He throws a lump of the fondant at her head. "C'mon, let's show you how to do this."

Cora's a fast learner. Of course she is. And she does seem quite happy to be doing it, as happy as he ever remembers Cora being. The biggest clue is that she's making the roses and not throwing them at Stiles' head; Cora's tendency towards violence decreases a little when she's happy. There's a little bit of awkwardness in the space between them, but... it's thawing. A little.

Stiles starts to think that maybe there could be a place for him in the pack. Not a big one, not in the middle of things, but on the outside. Like a consultant. A part-time consultant who can occasionally helpfully stab things and then run away.

He looks up as Julia laughs, curving her body in towards Derek, and a stabbing pain slams through Stiles' chest. He looks down at his own hands and they're trembling.

Maybe there is a place for him, but the real question is: does he even want it if there is?

#

Stiles is pretty sure that after spending all day making decorations he did remember to lock his bedroom door before falling asleep, just in case Derek tried a repeat of what happened the other day. He doesn't think it's likely, especially not now the resort is filled with guests for the wedding, most of whom Stiles doesn't know, but if for some wacky reason it does, Stiles kinda doesn't trust himself to say no.

Apparently he still wants Derek in any way that Derek will allow him and that's pretty freaking problematic.

It's too bad that when Stiles locked his door, he forgot about the whole werewolf propensity to climb in his bedroom window.

Thankfully it's just Erica, although she looks startled when Stiles rolls out of bed and lurches towards the bag on his dresser top with his weapons in; it's a semi-mistake, because she beats him there and whistles when she looks inside. "I knew you were packing, bro," she says, flickering a glance down at Stiles', uh, morning condition. "But I didn't know quite how much until now."

Stiles colors and yanks the bedspread towards himself, wrapping it around his waist.

"You could have knocked," he snits. Erica holds up two of Stiles' knives and a mini crossbow.

"Seriously? You came this armed to a wedding?"

"Correction: I came prepared to an unknown location for a week with a group of people with a long history of getting into trouble."

"Touché," Erica allows and pricks herself in the finger with one of the wooden knives. "Sonofa— What is this even made of?"

"A kind of Brazilian ash tree only found in, like, one protected habitat," Stiles says, snatching away. "Good luck working in the kitchen now."

"Huh?"

Stiles gestures at her finger. Which is decidedly not healing.

"I'm right-handed, I'll deal," Erica says, staring at her fingertip in fascination, like she's never seen blood before. And then she looks at him, the bedspread rumpled around his waist and she frowns.

"What?" Stiles says.

"I thought you said you were keeping safe on your travels for work."

"I am," Stiles says, gesturing with one hand at the weapons in her hand. "I'm prepared more than most travellers who don't know that sometimes they need mountain ash, or—"

"Then how did that happen?" Erica says, her voice quiet.

Stiles freezes. Shit. He knew he should have worn a t-shirt to bed, but he's gotten lazy over the last few years. So used to be being comfortable in his skin, being on his own and having no one around to hide his secrets from. He shrugs stiffly at her. "I go to some pretty rough areas. A white westerner looks like pretty easy pickings to some locals."

Erica stares at him wordlessly for a moment. When she does speak, it's just one word. "London."

Stiles' eyebrows knot together. "What?"

Erica lays the weapons down gently on the top of the dresser and moves over to Stiles, placing one hand on his stomach, over the claw marks there. She has trouble meeting his eyes for a moment, but then she swallows and forces herself to look up at him. "I don't know what it is you do out there. But I've got a good enough imagination and it terrifies me. If— If it's too hard to be back in Beacon Hills— If I'm not enough to overcome that pain— I understand. Choose London. The lab work. Please don't go out there again. I can't bear it, Stiles. You're my brother. And I know that's only on paper, but—"

"Hey," Stiles says and cups her cheek, pulls her in close: when her face meets his neck, there's moisture. She's crying. For him. "Hey." He runs his hands over her back, letting the bedspread just drop and she trembles against him, just for a moment, and he lets her draw on his strength, holding them both upright. "It's fine. I'm fine. I'm not going back. Even if— Even if I can't stay here—"

"Derek's an asshole," Erica snuffles into his skin. "I wish he wasn't marrying Julia. She's no good for him."

"I thought you liked her."

"Eh," Erica says. "To be honest, she's a little too perfect. It creeps me out."

Stiles laughs. "That's a terrible attempt at making me feel better. But thanks."

"I'm not without an ulterior motive, here," Erica says, pulling back; she's dry-eyed now, but her make-up's a little smudged. Stiles pulls a face and backs up to pass her a packet of wet wipes. "Ugh, really?" She sighs and clatters into his bathroom to use his mirror. Stiles uses that distraction to slide some pants on and a shirt. "Julia's having a girly day."

"Okay," Stiles says.

"For the whole bridal party," Erica says.

Stiles groans. "Oh, my god."

"You know how much I hate these so-called girly days. I need the moral support."

"I wish Ma was here," Stiles sighs and rubs a hand through his hair; it only makes it look wilder, but there's not much he can do with it at this length. He'd shave it, but he does enjoy his mentor's boyband jokes.

"She's going to make it to the wedding, she thinks. I called her last night. She's feeling a lot better."

"That's good," Stiles says.

"Plus, I need another favor."

"Is this one of those favors which is also an order?"

"You catch on quick." Erica comes back out of the bathroom, looking brighter-eyed without her almost-perpetual dark eye makeup. She looks younger, more like the pre-werewolf Erica. Stiles kinda likes it. He likes the idea of people thinking of her as vulnerable and then getting a surprise when they realize that even her personality has claws. "Isaac was whining about having to sit through a practise dinner. So he's throwing a practise stag night. Which means, twice the possibility of strippers."

"And?" Stiles says, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

"I need you to keep an eye on Boyd for me, keep him away from the naked ladies," Erica says.

"Wh—"

"I'm on the rag and if he comes back horny, he'll wanna do stuff. I can't sleep if he's beating off next to me—"

"This is way too much information," Stiles says, unplugging his cellphone from the wall and opening up a new message.

"Eh, you've heard worse."

"True." Stiles slowly types out a message; he had to give back the satellite phone on his last week in South Africa and he bought a new kind of smartphone to replace it. It's taking him a while to get used to, but at least his favorite apps still work on it. "Fine, fine. I'll go and keep Boyd's eyes averted. But I can't promise he won't get turned on by, like, linoleum or something. You're all weirdly hormonal like that."

"Once," Erica says, "it was once that I got turned on by flooring. And it was carpet! It was super soft! And— who are you texting that is more important than hearing me embarrass you, huh?"

"You'll want me to send this message," Stiles says and shows her the screen.

To: C. "Narrowed my choice to London or Beacon City."

"C?" Erica questions.

"My mentor. He's the one waiting for a response to where I wanna work."

Erica smiles at him and leans over to hit the send icon for him. Stiles watches as the message darkens into a red box, meaning it's sent, and he lets out a slow exhale which isn't shaky.

It's the right decision.

"C'mon," Stiles says. "Let's get this girly day over with."

Erica squeals and drags him to the door.

"Are we not going through the window?" Stiles asks, innocently.

Erica rolls her eyes, but it's affectionate and something in Stiles' chest unfurls a little.

Maybe he can stay in Beacon County after all. Maybe there's enough joy to overshadow the pain. He doesn't voice this out loud, doesn't want to raise Erica's hopes up too much, but... he's a little bit hopeful himself. Maybe is a lot more than he's had in his heart for a long, long time.

#

"Gotta say, I'm not really seeing that this is a girly day," Stiles says, sitting in the deck chair conveniently closest to the table full of fruit, drinks, and an array of make-up. "Add some beer, some gassy moments — it's practically a man day."

"With more boobs," Erica says, pushing her chest together and looking down contemplatively.

"Oh, my god, do not make me look at your chest," Stiles says, leaning forwards and waggling his eyebrows at her regardless.

"Incest: Fun for all the family," Erica says, waggling her eyebrows in return.

"A plus to the beer plan," Allison says, lolling on a chair opposite Stiles, sipping at a glass of apple juice and looking a little displeased that it isn't beer. She's a little tense, like she's going to run, but she didn't flee when Erica dragged Stiles into the group, so—Stiles is taking that as a win.

"Sorry about the lack of beer," Julia says from behind them, "but I can get some champagne in a bit."

"I think she has shares in the brand," Cora says dryly from beside her, leaning on her crutch.

"I added something which helps get werewolves drunk," Julia says. "And I might have made a few too many bottles. A girl only gets married once."

"Or four times, if she has a good pre-nup," Lydia says.

"Champagne sounds appropriate," Allison says. She squints in Erica's direction. "We can have a drink-off?"

"I'll beat you hands down," Erica declares.

Stiles smiles softly at their antics. It's nice to see them getting on — the tension between them used to be at insane levels. Apparently all it took to make them friends was to have Scott out of the picture—

Okay, now he's feeling queasy. Cora settles down opposite Stiles, but Julia sits down next to him, which is surprising.

She links her arm through Stiles': he just about manages not to flinch at her. "I'm sorry I snapped at you yesterday. It was an accident and I was just—" She sighs. "As much as I don't want to use the word, apparently bridezilla is somewhat applicable."

"I'm sorry I knocked you over," Stiles says.

Julia smiles at him. "It was just some harmless herbal tea, Stiles. I had more in the car. I was stressed over some of the wedding details. I didn't mean to take it out on you."

"Ah, transference," Stiles says. "If I had a problem with that, I'm pretty sure you could strip me naked, write hypocrite in lipstick across my chest and leave me stranded halfway across country."

"That's what they do on stag nights," Lydia corrects him. "Hen nights are much more genteel."

"Remind me again what you did for yours?" Stiles says, wagging his finger. "Because Erica showed me some of the photos. I haven't seen as many penises since I accidentally wandered into the back room of a club in Amsterdam and it was, like, glory hole-central—"

"Oh, my god," Cora says, slapping her hands over her face. "I forgot how much you overshared."

"More penises than even in the lacrosse locker room?" Lydia asks.

"Not all of us got naked in there at the same time," Stiles says. "Those of us with healthy low esteems waited until the pretty ones were done preening and admiring themselves in the mirror. I remember when Scott—" He stops and looks away from the girls, realizing he's let his guard down and said too much.

"When Scott what?" Allison prompts, cutting the awkward silence in two. "C'mon, Stiles. Look at me." He does, slowly. "It's been six years. I wanna talk about him. I'd like to."

"Yeah, Stiles," Lydia says, leaning back on her hands. "What did McCall do?"

"He decided I must have been shy about exposing myself in public," Stiles says. "So he pantsed me. Out on the field."

"Oh, my god," Erica says. "Why have I never heard this story? Shouldn't that have been, like, all over the school?"

Stiles smirks. "So I'm standing there, with my dick out, in the middle of the field — and Scott's standing there triumphantly— Like, legitimately beaming in pride at my public nudity—and Greenberg chooses that exact second to barf halfway across the school field. Everyone was watching him and not me."

"Lucky," Erica says.

"So I pulled up my pants and since then, Scott thinks my dick must be so obscene that it made Greenberg vomit, so he worked super hard to protect my privacy."

Julia shakes her head, smiling with amusement. "And didn't Scott—"

"Oh, Scott was firmly in his no homo phase — he got over that — so he didn't look," Stiles says, shrugging. "I think it actually makes me less sad that my best friend died… still thinking I had mutant junk."

"Are you sure you don't?" Cora asks, sweetly.

"I'm not stripping for you girls," Stiles says, flatly. "My self esteem is still low and you all hang out with werewolves. This—" He gestures at himself. "This does not compete."

"Alas, I can confirm his junk is not mutant," Lydia says. "I shared a house with him for two years, we had too many bathroom close encounters for anyone's liking and his junk is perfectly normal."

Stiles coughs into his hand, melodramatically.

Lydia rolls her eyes. "Perfectly above normal," she corrects, in a deadpan tone which tells them all clearly that it's not accurate.

Stiles sighs.

"Well, I think this fixes things," Erica says. "I think we're all agreed that you, Stilinski-honorary-Reyes, are coming back to Beacon Hills for good."

"I am?" Stiles says.

"You are," Julia says, sing-song.

"We talked about it and agreed," Allison says.

"We're not letting you get away again," Cora adds.

"Jackson would never forgive me if I didn't agree," Lydia says.

Stiles kinda doesn't know what to say. It's a little overwhelming, the five of them smiling at him encouragingly. "How about I promise to think about it?"

"Close enough for now," Cora grunts. "But I'm kind of sick of losing pack members. It would be a massive turnaround for my tragic life if one came back." She looks up at him through her eyelashes. "My stupid brother had me return and he swears it was like, Christmas and his birthday all rolled up together."

"His birthday is Christmas," Stiles says, glaring at her. Cora shrugs, unrepentant.

"Well, ladies — and honorary lady—" Julia quirks a grin at Stiles. "We need to get this party started. I'll go grab a couple of things — I'll be right back."

Stiles watches Julia head into the resort. "Should we be letting her fetch things? It is her wedding week."

"She'll have a secret hiding spot somewhere. Pretty sure that she's getting some of her special champagne and Isaac's all over that shit if he finds it," Erica says."I could totally do with getting a little drunk. The catering team mom found are so much hard work, so much."

Stiles opens his mouth, because a) it's his default reaction to most things to be honest and b) werewolves can't get drunk. And also c) he hasn't even seen Isaac since getting here, which means he's probably another person to add to the avoiding Stiles tally.

"Julia's a herb master," Erica says."There's this combination of like, dill seed and—"

"Honeysuckle?" Stiles guesses, remembering Julia's pervasive scent.

"Yeah," Erica says, frowning. "You knew of something that could get me drunk and you didn't tell me? You're kind of a jerk, Stilinski—"

"No, it's just... what she smells like," Stiles says.

"Oh," Erica says. "Yeah, I guess she does. Anyway, it, like, delays our blood from healing for an hour or two. Not so good if we're out fighting pixies or whatever—"

"They weren't pixies, they were ghouls," Allison corrects.

"—or whatever," Erica says, glaring. "But awesome when it comes to alcohol."

"Well, you can drink, but I'm not going to." Stiles glances over at the trolley of girly spa things and gets up to snag one of the bottles of fruit juice. "I have to drive into town later to get some more supplies to replace the stuff I crushed yesterday."

"Sucks to be you," Erica says, grinning lazily at him.

"I think I'll have one of these too," Lydia says. "The stuff she's bringing is alcoholic and I—"

She stops what she's saying and everyone freezes and stares at her.

Lydia frowns and then she winces and smiles uncertainly at Stiles.

"You had champagne at the party at your house," Stiles says, slowly. "But that was non-alcoholic because they were—" He grins at her, widely. "Did Jackson knock you—"

"Oh, my god," Lydia says, rubbing at her forehead, her cheeks burning pink, and she ducks a look back at the resort. "Is anyone listening in? Erica? Cora?"

Erica's grin is wide and she looks up at the resort, squinting, obviously using her werewolf senses.

"I can't tell," Cora says, quietly.

"Doesn't matter," Stiles says and slides his cellphone out of his pocket. Thankfully he charged it up last night — he sweeps his thumb across his pages of apps until he gets to the page of apps he's helped design and he activates it. "I wrote it as a piece of software when I was still at high school; managed to convert it to an app a couple of years ago. It's—"

"White noise," Cora says.

"I can't hear anything," Allison says, frowning at it.

"It stops werewolves listening in," Stiles says. "It's somewhat a fundamental discovery when you're 17, have a werewolf for a foster sister and you want some alone time."

"Ugh," Erica says, "would I listen in?"

Stiles just gives her a look.

"Okay, fine, I did always wonder why your dick never fell off from disuse," Erica says, rolling her eyes.

"So it's just us hearing this?" Lydia says and she looks around the group. "You've got to promise to keep this quiet."

"You're pregnant," Allison says.

Lydia looks at her sheepishly and nods. She looks proud of herself and pats at her flat stomach. "Already twenty six weeks along and not even showing a little," she says. "Mom was like that too. She only showed in her last month."

"Oh, my god," Cora breathes, "the pack's going to have a baby."

"I was going to tell everyone after the wedding," Lydia says. "I didn't want to steal Julia's thunder. I'm still surprised none of you wolves scoped out the heartbeat."

"You have to be really close to hear a baby," Cora says and grabs Lydia's hips, resting her head against her stomach. "This close."

Lydia looks down at Cora, unimpressed. "That's the last time you grab me without permission."

"Whatever," Cora says, pulling off and grinning. "Strong heartbeat."

"That's what Jackson says," Lydia says, taking the seat Julia evacuated next to Stiles. "But I'm still a little worried — a banshee and a werewolf? Has that happened before?"

"I guess I can ask my dad," Allison says, pulling out her cellphone.

"Do you still have those contacts?" Lydia asks Stiles. "From college?"

"Maybe," Stiles says. "I'll send a message."

"I just—" Lydia shakes her head. "Mom and Dad still don't know about all of this. And if a banshee-werewolf hybrid is going to come out, like, blue and furry—"

"Your parents are going to love it," Stiles says. "Whatever it looks like. The only thing they've ever failed at is loving each other."

"And if they don't—you've got us," Allison says. She glares at Stiles. "All of us."

Cora picks up Stiles phone and looks at it.

"Why couldn't you have used this yesterday?" Cora whines, sniffing at it, like its scent would reveal Stiles' secrets. "Derek's been on my case non-stop. If you wanted a car, you should have just said. Stiles needs to make his own decisions and not have the pack emotionally manipulate him into staying if he doesn't want to. Blah, blah, blah."

"Ugh, Derek," Allison says, in a tone which says she's clearly never really gotten over Derek biting her mom. "I'm still a little weirded out that he's actually getting married to Julia. Call me a sentimentalist, but I kinda always thought you and he would—Y'know." She gestures ineloquently.

Stiles squints at her, putting his energy into masquerading disbelief when inwardly he's kind of dying a little. "Please. Derek and I dated—if you can even call it that—for maybe nine months, tops?"

"And Derek and Julia have been dating, maybe, four months?" Erica says, scratching her nose and looking to the others for confirmation. "I mean, we've all thought it was fast—"

Stiles stares at her. "Excuse me?"

"Pretty sure it's because Derek's decided he doesn't want to have sex with her until after the wedding," Cora says, wrinkling her nose. "Who knew my stupid brother was such a traditionalist?"

"Well," Erica says to Cora, "last time he had sex with a woman out of wedlock, she was shit-crazy — sorry, Allison."

"My aunt was crazy. No offense taken."

"Shit-crazy," Erica continues, "and burned your family alive, so you can't fault him for being cautious—"

"No, no, no, rewind a little," Stiles says, putting his drink down and staring around at them all. "Derek and Julia have been dating for… for years. Nearly a decade. I mean. The day after Derek broke up with me, I walked in on him kissing her."

"What?" Erica stares.

"I knew that part of the story," Lydia says, a little smugly. "But I didn't know that you thought they'd been dating all this time."

Stiles shakes his head, bewildered. "He told me they were. When I—" He flushes and abruptly looks away.

"When you what?" Erica says, in a hard voice.

"When I came back from college and sort of maybe kind of… begged him to reconsider dumping me?" Stiles winces. "It wasn't exactly one of my finest moments."

"Things make a little more sense now," Cora says, in a small sort of voice.

"Anyway—It's fine. Things work out how they're meant to. I mean, Julia even invited me to the wedding. Not even invited, insisted. Do you know how many exes normally get pushed into coming?" Stiles gestures. "It's because there's a reason most brides don't invite the ex to a wedding — if they think have a reason to be insecure. And when it comes to me, believe me — I'm not even a slight threat."

Lydia and Allison make a small hmm sound of agreement — but Erica and Cora exchange a look.

"You heard the lie, right?" Cora asks Erica.

"Totally," Erica says and she purses her mouth thoughtfully in Stiles' direction. "He's hiding something."

"What?" Stiles blurts. "I don't know what you mean—"

"Lie," Cora says.

Lydia's eyebrows lurch upwards and Allison smirks and Stiles hides his face with his hands, his cheeks heating up, because yeah, the handjob the other day — he's kind of a threat. Even if he wasn't consciously thinking it, apparently his subconscious is on the job sufficiently to announce it to the werewolves in the group.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Stiles says.

"That's usually me," Julia says from behind them. Everyone freezes and Stiles slowly turns to look at her, but she's pulling a cart containing a crate of 12 bottles of champagne and she's smiling softly, so she can't have overheard — Stiles' heart is beating a little fast and he's relieved Julia's not a werewolf and can't hear his guilt.

Cora looks at Julia warily, but pushes herself up to her feet to help dish out the champagne — she shares a conspiratorial smile with Stiles as they do a complicated switch-around and put fruit juice in Stiles' and Lydia's glasses.

"I want to raise a toast," Cora says, holding up her glass of champagne, clinking it against Erica's glass. "To my brother and the one he loves."

Cora's smiling at Julia, but for a moment she catches Stiles' eye and her expression makes it hard to Stiles' to breathe for a moment — there's something intense about it, but he doesn't get the chance to ask her about it, because a few minutes after the toast she pales, and Julia ends up leading her back inside.

Stiles watches her go, a weird lump in his throat.

"Soooo," Erica says, looping her arm around his, "tonight. Don't forget about my favor."

"I won't forget to keep Boyd away from the strippers," Stiles says. "You need to stop calling orders favors."

Erica beams. "But where's the fun in that?"

#

Jackson's in his room when Stiles retires to it to change for the stag night, flicking through one of the complimentary magazines with an eternally bored expression.

"I don't think the club we're going to lets you in if you're wearing sneakers," Stiles says, because he could say get out of my room but he has about three years of college experience knowing that Jackson is selectively deaf when it comes to phrases like that.

"I'm apparently not allowed to go to this one or the next one," Jackson says. "Trust Lahey to plan two stag nights because he's not smart enough to fit it all into one."

"Cora said it was because he was pissed at having to sit through two formal dinners and if he was going to sit through two dinners, he wanted two nights out." Stiles shrugs. "I see the logic."

"You would," Jackson says. He fumbles with the magazine and Stiles rolls his eyes and shuts the door, pointedly activating his white noise app.

"So… why aren't you allowed to go to the stag night?" Stiles pushes Jackson aside to sit cross-legged at the head of the bed, pulling the pillow out to put behind his back.

"Apparently if Lydia can't drink, I can't drink," Jackson says, rolling his eyes.

Stiles squints at Jackson. "You know you're going to make a great dad, right?"

"Shut up, I didn't come in here for your cheap validation."

"Nope, you came in to whine," Stiles says, shoving at Jackson with his feet.

"He's not allowed wine either," Lydia says from the doorway.

"I thought your gizmo stopped people listening in," Jackson says, snagging Stiles' phone and jabbing at it.

"It stops werewolves overhearing. But regular hearing still works." Stiles grapples with him to take his phone back, smacking Jackson on the forehead with it when he gets it.

"Boys," Lydia snits, pushing down and settling herself in between them, reaching around Stiles to steal his pillow, snuggling into it.

"Aren't you supposed to shove that up your dress?" Stiles says. Lydia turns and bats him in the face with it.

"Asshole," Lydia says. "You know Jackson doesn't like it when you call him that."

Jackson and Stiles burst out laughing.

"I was just telling Jackson he's going to be a good dad," Stiles says. Jackson pulls a face. "It was mostly a lie. He'll suck. But at least he's rich enough to get your kid a lifelong course of therapy."

"Ha, ha," Jackson says, as Stiles leans in to noisily kiss Lydia on the cheek, before hopping up to head for his bag again.

"I have to change," Stiles says, "if you two don't mind—"

"Nope, we don't mind the show," Lydia says.

Stiles rolls his eyes and strips his shirt off without flinching — the three of them were so close for the last two years of college that nudity between them isn't a big deal. He reaches for a clean one.

"Not that shirt," Lydia says, without even leaning around to see which one he's picked up. "You're planning to get some action, right?"

"Ugh," Stiles says and pushes it aside in favor of a tighter one.

"Better," Lydia says.

"I'd like to get some action. Take my mind off things. But Erica's got me on Boyd watch." Stiles pulls a face as he pulls his pants down. "You don't want the details, believe me."

"Babysitting Boyd?" Jackson huffs. "Well. Maybe it'll be good practise."

"I am not babysitting your brat," Stiles says, "Nope, nope—"

"Yep, you are," Jackson and Lydia say in creepy unison.

"I almost forgot—" Stiles says and pulls out the yellow scarf he tripped over earlier. "This is yours."

Lydia reaches over Jackson's legs to take it and she frowns at it. "I wondered where that went — where did you find it?"

"Down the basement hallway, between the staff parking lot and the kitchen," Stiles says.

"I don't remember even going down there," Lydia frowns.

"Might have been the other morning," Jackson offers. "When you threw up after breakfast?"

"I guess," Lydia says, pocketing the scarf. "Not those pants," she adds and Stiles pauses, one leg into a pair of black pants. "The others ones. And pack lube and condoms."

"Definitely," Jackson says, glaring at Stiles. "I'm not dealing with you when you've gotten halfway to a hook-up and then had to quit because you don't have any protection. You're unbearable."

Stiles scowls at Jackson, but does what they both say, angrily shoving condoms into the pockets of the tightest pair of pants in his bag. "I can't believe I've gotten to a point in my life where Jackson Whittemore is calling me unbearable."

#

Stiles sits next to Boyd at the back of the bus that takes all the guys down into Beacon Cove, mostly because he can rely on Boyd not to say anything. There are so many people on the bus he doesn't know that it's almost a relief to see some people he does recognize — including the twins from the kitchen, which is definitely something Stiles can go for. Thing One — Ethan — has definitely been flirting with him.

Stiles is thrumming with nerves while on the bus, but they vanish when they reach the place Isaac has found. Mostly because it's big enough that he can avoid everything he's trying to avoid and there are enough locals milling around and eyeing him up that maybe oblivion can be on the week's menu after all.

It's way more Stiles' scene than sitting around a pool, gossiping and drinking juice. The music is low and pounding: it has a decent beat that Stiles can feel come through the soles of his shoes and up through his bones. The place is dark enough that he can sink into the shadows and there's plenty of alcohol flowing. Stiles doesn't recognize half the people here and there's definitely some locals too and it doesn't take him long to realize that if he stays near the middle of the club, Derek and Isaac aren't too near him to cause him any bother.

Well. Derek glares at him sourly across the floor, which just prompts Stiles into buying the most obnoxious cocktail on the menu. When he's gulped that down, the whole situation seems a little more... survivable.

Even better, when he goes to get a second drink, it's already been paid for; when Stiles glances down the bar, he sees one of the twins from the catering team smiling at him.

He can't tell which one, but it doesn't matter; Derek's still shooting a hateful glare in his direction and suddenly the only thing Stiles wants in this world is oblivion of some sort. It doesn't matter what it is: alcohol, sex, violence. The twin - whichever one of the two it is, Stiles can't tell from this distance - is looking at him like a promise of at least two out of the three, and honestly, Stiles isn't that picky which brand of oblivion gets him tonight.

The amount of emotional pressure over the last couple of days has been immeasurable. Stiles is being crushed by it and, for just this night, he wants to forget.

Stiles keeps his eyes on the twin and downs his drink in one go, not looking away as the twin approaches him. It's a taunt and a promise in one smooth combination and the twin knows it; he swallows hungrily and his gaze sweeps up and down Stiles' body slowly, not even hiding his interest.

"Hi," the twin says, mouth curling into a smile. Ethan, then.

"Hi yourself," Stiles says and doesn't wait for an invitation; he grabs the front of Ethan's t-shirt and tugs him onto the floor. On the raised dance floor, the rhythm of the music is even more palpable; it's easy to grab Ethan's hips and guide them into position. Ethan's hand slips down to Stiles' ass without much lead-up, but that's okay. Stiles is looking for something to help him forget, not a long-term relationship. Ethan moves well to the music, hips snapping to the beat, and he pushes his mouth against the juncture of Stiles' neck, teeth lightly grazing the skin there, and yeah, that's about what Stiles' wants - a frisson of pain alongside the pleasure.

Stiles' hands slide into Ethan's hair, holding him there, encouragingly; that's when another body pushes up against Stiles' back and Stiles turns his head to see the other twin, Aiden, plastering himself along Stiles' back. Aiden's hand slips down and cups Stiles' burgeoning erection and the friction of that one touch is enough to bring him to half-mast; Aiden lets out a noise and Stiles grinds his rear backwards, undulating with the music, and nearly hisses in success when Aiden's erection presses up against his ass.

Aiden's mouth finds the other side of Stiles' neck and Stiles grabs hold of Ethan's cheek, turning the face of the twin in front of him up enough for a dirty, open-mouthed kiss. One of them, and Stiles isn't sure which, has clever fingers working his shirt out of his waistband; he lets out a soft moan that's swallowed into Ethan's mouth and the pounding music, but the twins both twitch against him like they've heard it, and Stiles pulls out of the kiss with Ethan to twist his head back at an awkward angle. Aiden dives in and licks into his mouth like Stiles is dinner. And if a threesome with two hot, muscled twins is what's on the menu, Stiles is totally onboard with that.

They're still moving to the music, but it's a formality; the rhythm is almost sex on its own. Stiles' erection is painful and he makes the mistake of looking up when Aiden lets his mouth go. For one second, Derek's furious gaze is on his across the dance floor. The next, there's a hand on his shoulder, and he's being physically hauled away from the twins, Derek's death glare up close and personal.

"Hey!" Stiles yells, keenly feeling the lack of the nice hands and pressure against him, and it's the shock of being yanked away that leaves him pliant enough for Derek to manhandle him into the nearest bathroom.

The shock doesn't last too long, but it's long enough for Derek to kick open the three stalls and to block the main door with a garbage can. Stiles glares at Derek, his confusion replaced by seething rage, because how dare he, how dare he—

Derek's breathing hard and his pupils are a little dilated and Stiles sees red. It's been a while since he's had to fight a werewolf, but it's like riding a bike. Stiles reaches into his pocket and pulls out the thing he keeps on him a lot when he's working; it's been a long time since he's had to use it, but Stiles knows his luck when it comes to Beacon Hills and supernatural creatures. He knew he'd need the cuff.

It's the work of a second to reach out and clamp the metal bracelet around Derek's wrist, because he's too distracted - too sure a human can't hurt him - to stop Stiles. Derek's eyes flicker down to the cuff; he reaches out with his left hand to snap it off and fails. "What the hell-?" Derek asks, snarling.

"Don't be a baby, it's just a repressor cuff," Stiles says. "Lydia and I designed them in college. Just enough of an electrical signal to shortage out a werewolf's... special skills." Stiles grins and that's probably his mistake, because Derek lets out this hissing noise and punches Stiles.

Well. He tries to. But Stiles is too fast for him and he hasn't spent the last six years away from Beacon Hills idly; he side-steps and Derek's punch overbalances him — it's easy from there to let Derek's momentum keep him going forwards. Stiles grabs Derek's elbow and sharply grabs him by the nape of his neck, slamming Derek face first into the nearest mirror.

He should feel bad, but oh, this feels so good. Derek ruined his life in a lot of ways. This is payback for a thousand different things. Derek hisses again and oh, that's probably the deeper, growling sound that Derek usually makes through his werewolf teeth. Stiles can't help but smirk smugly because Derek won't be turning any time soon; there's at least an hour's juice in that baby.

Derek's long arms lash out and the rage is palpable on his face; Stiles ducks out of his way and then thinks fuck it, because he's never going to get a chance this good again. He leaps in and punches Derek directly in the face.

It's the wrong thing to do in such close quarters, because Stiles has given himself too much momentum and Derek uses that to turn and bodily shove Stiles into the sinks. His back fires up with the pain, but it's a dull throb; there's way too much adrenaline coursing through his body. He'll feel it later.

He balls up his fist again and smashes Derek across the cheek and in the stomach and Derek just yells, a howl tempered down to human strength, and he barrels himself at Stiles, lifting him up and pushing him against the mirror; there's a cracking sound, meaning Derek's pushed him with enough force to break it. Stiles doesn't care — he reaches out and grabs Derek by the scruff of his neck, and kicks off against the wall, managing to slam Derek back into the toilet stalls.

The whole structure shudders, not designed to take that sort of abuse, and Derek pushes Stiles back, making him stumble into the opposite wall, and Stiles raises his fist against to punch Derek, but Derek grabs hold of it, and it might be only at human-level strength, but the cuff doesn't disable his muscles from doing their job and Stiles' head thuds into the wall, cushioned last second by Derek's hand.

Stiles opens his mouth to yell at Derek, to taunt him on, but of course that doesn't happen. Of course Derek uses that opportunity to press against him, and his mouth finds Stiles' mouth like they're polar opposite magnets.

Stiles kisses back, because he can't do anything but, because the touch of Derek's lips against his have always short-circuited several processes in his brain, but he doesn't let the kiss be anything more than an extension of their fight: Stiles' tongue is a weapon and Derek's mouth is territory he plans to win. To ravage until nothing else survives in the hot, wet space of their joined mouths.

Derek lets out this desperate sound and it brings Stiles out of the moment enough to remember that this is wrong, this is beyond wrong — he tears his mouth away from Derek's and glares at him.

"You're not—" Stiles starts. "I can't—"

"You can," Derek says, his eyes wild, his face painted with a thick streak of blood across his cheek and Stiles doesn't know which of them it's from.

"I can't," Stiles snarls and lashes out with his elbow, catching Derek in the jaw, ricocheting his head against the nearest sink. Derek falls to his knees and tugs at the cuff on his wrist, baring his teeth up at Stiles. There's blood in his mouth and Stiles stares down, waiting for Derek's next move, tensing and ready to move, ready to fight back—

"If this is how you want it, then—" Derek says and instead of launching up to fight Stiles, he reaches up and yanks down Stiles' pants with both hands, bringing them to his knees; cold air hits Stiles' thighs, and he hisses in displeasure.

"If you think—" Stiles starts, and he wants to say he's not interested, but he's been half-hard since the dance floor, and being knocked around violently has done nothing to lessen it at all. If anything, the sight of Derek on his knees, streaked in blood and disheveled, is what ensures his hard-on is not going to be dying any time soon. "You're delusional, this is not how I want it," Stiles says, but he doesn't move away. He doesn't know if he can, especially not when Derek's hands move to the waistband of his boxers, the heat of his clever fingers grazing the hair on his stomach. Heat pools in Stiles' groin. "You're getting married."

"I'm not married yet," Derek says, sounding somewhat determined, and he looks almost angrily up at Stiles. "I don't know what you— Those two were all over you—"

"That doesn't—" Stiles goes to yank his pants up, but Derek's hands clasp around his, and the touch is an electric current passing through them both. Maybe the cuff's malfunctioning a little. "You don't get to care, Derek. I'm not anything to you. Not anymore. You made that perfectly clear—"

"Don't you remember us?" Derek's voice is low, like pure sex, and Stiles shudders. He's still not moving away. Why the hell isn't he moving away? "This is the last—The only time—I can be free with you—You said—"

"I said a lot of things once," Stiles manages to say, his breathing labored and his glare defiant.

"You said—I deserved… nice things," Derek says, gritting the words out like they hurt.

Apparently Derek's decided that the nice thing he thinks he deserves is Stiles' cock; he presses his face into Stiles' cloth-covered erection and noses at the tip of it. He's a good thinker, and pushes his palms to fully cover Stiles' stomach, hands sliding over his t-shirt possessively, and it's when Derek's tongue darts out to lick Stiles through the material that Stiles' resolve just about dies; his hand slides into Derek's hair and it's like coming home.

Derek takes that for the permission it is and he lowers his hands enough to draw Stiles' erection free; there's an awkward moment when the chill of the bathroom catches his sensitive skin, emphasising the thick throb of his need, but then Derek's mouth closes around the length and Stiles is lost to that familiar, addictive heat.

Ten years ago, Derek was almost obsessed with Stiles' cock, taking any excuse to put his mouth on it in some fashion, or his hand. Their nine month relationship, such as it was, wasn't purely sex — but when it was, it was amazing. And while Stiles had thought it must have been some sort of werewolf thing, for Derek to be able to deepthroat him without even a second's hesitation or battle against a gag reflex, maybe it's some sort of Derek thing.

The cuff is cold against the skin of Stiles' hip as Derek braces one hand against Stiles', the other slipping around to cup Stiles' ass, his thumb smoothing against the heated skin, leaving a trail of pleasure that coils tight in Stiles' groin. Pressure builds between his legs as Derek's mouth slides the full length of Stiles' cock, sucking him eagerly, the flat of his tongue tracing the ridges, teasing along them before he pulls back to lick at the slit, pre-come smearing his lips obscenely.

Derek looks up at Stiles through dark eyelashes, his human-colored eyes locked to Stiles' face with an almost tangible intensity and he doesn't look away, even as he takes Stiles' erection into his mouth to the base.

Stiles lets out a sound, a whimper that seems to tear from his mouth without his control and his head thuds back, hitting the cold tiled wall. He can't keep looking as Derek takes him like this, he can't. Derek seems to take him looking away as approval to speed up, his fingers clenching into the muscled curve of Stiles' ass cheek as he swallows Stiles down, fellating the length with precision, heat and that endless enthusiasm for Stiles' cock that Derek had displayed ten years ago. Like Stiles' body was a drug and Derek couldn't get enough of it.

The air fills with the wet sounds of Derek's mouth sliding against Stiles' erection and is punctuated by a muffled soundtrack of their restrained noises. Outside, the club's pounding with music and Derek's borrowing the rhythm, underscoring it with wet, perfect suction, and Stiles isn't going to last long at all. The whole world has narrowed down to this pinpoint of pressure, to this moment of giddiness where everything is Derek's mouth, taking Stiles' cock relentlessly.

"Gonna," Stiles manages, "I'm gonna—" and that's all the warning Derek's gonna get; Derek pulls back, the reluctance clear by the slick popping noise as Stiles' erection slides free from his mouth and Derek's spare large hand curls around Stiles' erection, and it's not Derek's mouth, but it's just the same perfect, addictive heat.

Stiles comes with a groan he can't suppress, painting a stripe of come over Derek's face, the white fluid catching on Derek's eyelashes in a way that shouldn't be so hot, but is. Derek's going to be the death of him, Stiles swears, and he can't catch his breath as Derek soothes his fingers over Stiles' cock, remembering that Stiles' cock isn't super sensitive after coming, that he can wring a few more shudders from Stiles' body before any touch is too much.

Yeah, Derek's always been able to take his breath away.

Derek's still hard in his jeans, the bulge more than noticeable, and he looks at Stiles intently, still on his knees; his other hand is still on Stiles' ass and he flexes his fingers, one of them reaching out, grazing Stiles' asshole. Even though it's just a soft, tentative touch, Stiles' ass automatically clenches, and although five minutes ago he wanted nothing more than to smash Derek Hale's stupid face into pieces, there's something he needs more — he's nodding even before Derek's asked the question. Derek bites his lower lip, which has always been distracting, but Stiles' focus isn't on there: it's on the spark of pleasure that shoots through his spine as Derek's finger sinks into his ass, pushing in just as far as Derek's second knuckle, and now all Stiles can think of is Derek. In him. Right now.

Derek's eyes are dark as he fucks his finger into Stiles' ass in a few shallow thrusts and he smirks slowly, his eyes not leaving Stiles', as he slowly massages the opening. Stiles' ass clenches, again, again, but it's not enough, the only thing Stiles is aware of at this moment is that he's empty, he's so empty, he's been empty for years—

There's a clattering sound, a flash of metal as Derek drops the cuff to one side, and its power has died well before it should, Stiles needs to look at the battery power, or do some research into the amount an Alpha needs to be held back for longer than just a handful of minutes. Derek's free of the restrictions now, but it doesn't stop him.

It just makes him faster. Stiles is on his feet one second and being hoisted up in the air the next; his body remembers this, legs automatically wrapping around Derek's body, and he pants wetly into Derek's neck as both of Derek's hands span his ass, spreading his cheeks, one of his fingers sliding back into the needy heat.

"Please," Stiles pants, only half aware of what he's saying. "Please, I need—"

"What do you need?" Derek asks, his voice low and too measured. Meaning he's having to fight for his words just as much as Stiles is.

"Don't," Stiles says, squirming as Derek's finger teases him, fucking into him shallowly. His erection, half-awake even after blowing a load on Derek's face, twitches hopefully at the sensation."Can't—"

"What," Derek says, through clenched teeth, "do you need?"

Stiles lets out a moan and lifts his head enough to push his forehead against Derek's. "You," Stiles says, his throat burning with the truth in it, "I need you. I need you in me. Derek."

And it's his name that does it. One of Derek's hands disappears, just for a moment, and Stiles is pushed against the wall again — but it's just to keep him up, long enough for Derek to open his own pants and to reach into Stiles' pocket to pull out the tube of lube in there. Stiles is never usually super thankful for werewolf super smelling, especially when it sometimes used to mean showering like four times a day at college until Jackson learned to filter it out some, but sometimes it has its advantages.

Stiles wriggles, and it's wanton and probably desperate, and he's rewarded by Derek's erection bumping up between his thighs; Derek shushes him and pops the cap off the lube. The next sensation that hits him is cold, the lube is fucking freezing, and Stiles chokes out a laugh at the absurdity of everything, right until Derek's finger slips fully inside; Stiles' inner channel grasps futilely for the digit, but Derek pulls it out far too soon and Stiles lets out a sound that's pretty much pure distress, even as the distinctive sound of Derek sliding a condom on rustles in Stiles' ear.

"I've got you," Derek murmurs, his stubble a hot graze against Stiles' cheek. "I've got you."

Stiles opens his mouth to say something, anything, probably completely nonsensical, but Derek chooses that moment to line himself up, to slide himself inside Stiles' too-welcoming body.

"Shit," Stiles murmurs, lost to the sensation of Derek's body filling his in the most intimate way, "shit—"

"Better not," Derek manages and the joke's not that funny, but Stiles gasps out a laugh anyway that turns into a moan as somehow, impossibly, Derek's cock strikes the gland inside him which makes everything in his body turn to fireworks and purest pleasure. "You have no idea how you feel, do you?" Derek asks, his voice a rough mess against Stiles' neck, and they both moan as Derek lifts Stiles up slightly, dragging him up Derek's cock before letting his weight slide him back down. "How it feels—"

"I've got— some idea—" Stiles manages and he tugs at Derek uselessly with one hand, and Derek gets it; he manages to step to the right, still buried balls-deep in Stiles body, and he lowers Stiles down until he's on the counter; he gives Stiles half a second warning, before using the new position to fuck into Stiles' body relentlessly. Stiles cries out and holds on, his ankles crossing on Derek's lower back, his fingers clutching uselessly at Derek's shoulders.

It's unfair how fucking good this feels, at how good Derek's cock looks, disappearing into Stiles' body; Stiles' head drops back in pleasure of it and Derek's mouth finds his bared neck, nuzzling and licking at the skin. Stiles catches a glimpse of them in the cracked mirror, but it's too much to look at for more than a second, because this is a sight that shouldn't exist, that should never exist — because it's scorching as hell and that's where Stiles is going.

Derek's not entirely talkative during sex, preferring questions when he does talk, and Stiles always used to try to coax more out of him, but he doesn't want to. Not right now. Not with Derek's dick fucking into him so perfectly, thick and hard and filling Stiles up in the way he's been craving, been missing, for years. He's close, he's so close, and he thinks Derek is too; Derek's rhythm speeds up to stuttering and Stiles grips onto him.

"Come on," Stiles hisses, "come on, come on—"

"Planning on it," Derek grits out and Stiles startles into a laugh that Derek breaks in two with his mouth — and this, this is what Stiles misses more than the sex, the way that Derek's mouth knows his. The way that kissing between them is an art form. It used to be something they could do, would do for hours, back in the beginning, when everything was bright and new and unspoiled. Stiles' reaches his hand down to his cock and tugs at it, ruthlessly despite the burn from the oversensitivity from coming so recently and he kisses Derek furiously, his tongue mimicking what Derek's cock is doing to him.

"Fucking come in me already," Stiles says and he can feel Derek's cock pulse inside him at the words, straining to comply and Stiles is close, so close to coming again, his prostate being stimulated with every perfect long thrust — and of course, this is the moment that the door rattles.

Stiles freezes at the same time Derek does; Derek's cock pulses thickly, sheathed fully in Stiles' body, and Stiles clenches at the length.

"Are you okay in there?" a voice hollers through and Stiles had frozen before — but now he goes stiff with it. Which is ironic, because the part of him that was stiff almost instantly does its best to aim for the opposite state. Stiles is going to get erection whiplash from this week. "The door's jammed — do I need to get a manager?"

Derek's eyes widen and Stiles can see the exact moment that it hits Derek. Exactly what they're doing.

Exactly how bad it is, considering Isaac's the one at the door.

Stiles clears his throat. "Um, the handle's looking a bit odd. I think I can get it," he calls, flushing guiltily. The cold creeps in, crawls along his bare skin, and Derek pulls out of Stiles, a panicked look on his face, and Stiles swallows down the hiss he wants to make at having to let it go. The mood's instantly gone and now everything feels wrong.

"I'll wait here just in case you can't," Isaac calls through. Stiles can't look Derek in the eye and he quickly pulls up his pants and underpants, and pulls out his cellphone, activating the werewolf white noise. "This will keep him from hearing you, but you need to stay quiet," Stiles whispers. "Leave it at the reception desk when you get back to the hotel for me." Derek ducks his head and backs off into one of the stalls, bolting it shut behind himself.

Stiles stares with loathing at the empty door and then panics for a second; he dips and picks up the abandoned cuff and he tugs up his collar to hide some of the already-blossoming bruises, but there's not a lot that he can do it hide what he's been doing.

Still, it's none of Isaac's damn business. Stiles splashes himself with cold water and the nerves of having to face Isaac — with super werewolf senses at his disposal — is enough to kill the rest of his erection, which is at least a small mercy to find in this giant clusterfuck. He takes a deep breath and goes to the door, kicking aside the garbage can and opening the door.

He hasn't had a lot to do with Isaac for a long time. Mostly because Isaac's in the blame Stiles for not being there crowd when it comes to placing blame for Scott's death.

Although what Isaac thinks Stiles could have done to stop Scott from— It was too late. Stiles had already left Beacon Hills. He'd been gone a year before they all went to that stupid motel and— It's not like Stiles could have even stopped what happened. Scott was—And he—What, did they think Stiles could talk someone out of that sort of thing? Really?

Stiles has to stop thinking of it. The pain of the memory is almost too much. Isaac's expression is inscrutable as he stands there, the strobe lights of the dance floor providing a colorful backdrop. Stiles pockets the cuff and looks at Isaac defiantly, daring him to say something confrontational. Robbed of what was shaping up to be a hell of an orgasm, Stiles' body is flooding with repressed energy, and cuff or not, Stiles has come up against a few werewolves and not come off too badly.

Isaac opens his mouth to say something, but slides it shut when he looks past Stiles to see the chaos in the bathroom; his dark expression takes in the cracked mirror and the splatter of blood across the floor, and across Stiles' shirt, and his mouth shuts mulishly, any sound of concern that he might have made a casualty to the insane tension between them.

"Thought someone in there might have been in trouble," Isaac mumbles, not quite meeting Stiles' eye.

"Yeah, well," Stiles says, his voice thick, "there are some things I can handle."

Isaac's gaze crawls up to met his and Stiles gazes back coolly, defiantly. "I—" Isaac starts.

"You're standing in my way," Stiles says, not letting him finish; Isaac's hands are halfway into fists at his side and Stiles hates this. He hates everything. And he's tired. All he wants to do now is crawl into bed and never come out again."If you'll excuse me—"

Isaac ducks his head and moves aside a pace to let Stiles pass, but he puts a hand on Stiles' shoulder, and Stiles grabs out, automatically locking both of his hands around Isaac's wrist, body tensed to throw Isaac to the ground if he has to. Of course, if Isaac is spoiling for a fight, without the cuff powered up, Stiles will probably end up smeared into the floor, but maybe that oblivion will be good, for a little while. Salve some of the ache from whatever messed up thing Derek's doing to him. Isaac lets go and Stiles tentatively lets his grip go, his eyes locking to Isaac's warily. "I was just gonna say," Isaac says, his voice gentle. "You need to be careful."

His eyes go past Stiles to the chaos of the bathroom, to where Derek's hiding, and Stiles tilts his chin up, stubbornly glaring at Isaac. "We were never friends, Isaac. You don't get to tell me what I do or don't need."

They might have stood there for a long time, but thankfully life is occasionally kind and throws Stiles a bone (hopefully to compensate for when life is unkind and throws him an embarrassing boner) — and Stiles has a perfect excuse to flee Isaac's side.

"Motherfucker, no," Stiles says and yells at Boyd, "No looking at the strippers, pervert! I'm on orders!" He glances cursorily at Isaac. "Later," he mutters and fairly flies to go drag Boyd away from the four gyrating women in Las Vegas showgirl outfits that he has led out onto the dance floor.

#

Even though Stiles gets a cab back to the resort, Derek must beat him there — as soon as he comes through the front doors, the receptionist hands him his phone. Stiles pockets it and hurries to his room, thinking about sleeping — but knowing as soon as he hits the mattress in his room that sleep is going to be elusive tonight.

Stiles knows that Lydia's room is somewhere on the same hallway as his, but he doesn't go to find it, or call her to get the exact number.

He revives an old tradition instead: namely, texting her even when he's just a couple of rooms away and it would be cheaper to talk to her.

Hey L- you awake?

Of course. There's too much nature here. It's playing havoc on Jackson's sinuses. I swear he snores worse than you do after a tequila bender.

I don't snore.

A-huh.

I make growly dragon noises.

How old are you again?

Maybe about thirteen. No, three.

What did you do.

No question mark, Lyds?

DON'T CALL ME LYDS.

No question mark?

There's no question you did something stupid. You went to a stag night with your ex. It's ass o' clock in the morning. So what did you do.

Stiles thinks about how to phrase it. I really messed up.

Jackson's complaining about the noise I'm making. The noise I'M making. Save me from this hypocrisy. Can I come to you?

I don't know if I can confess my guilt to you face-to-face.

Guilt?

Bucket-loads.

Stiles jolts up when there's a soft knock on his door and he gets to his feet tentatively, palming one of his knives and heading over to the peek hole. When he sees it's Lydia, he sighs, and opens the door.

Lydia gives him a sweeping look and she hugs her dressing gown closer and heads straight for Stiles' bed, throwing herself on it and crossing her legs. She pats the bedspread. "Come on. Tell Aunty Lydia what you did."

Stiles pulls a face, but flicks the bolt on the door and crosses the floor; he reaches for his cellphone and puts on the white noise and lays his wooden knife down next to it. Lydia's eyes track that movement.

"Seriously," Lydia says, "what did you do?"

Stiles sits down next to her, but doesn't draw up alongside her. He sinks his head into his hands and just shakes his head, because it's all too much — it's all been too much.

"Maybe the worst thing I've done in my life," Stiles says. "I just—This whole freaking week—I was supposed to be coming back to see what I wanted to do, not keep messing shit up even more."

"Things are never as bad as they seem," Lydia says, slowly.

Stiles buries his face even further into his palms. "I had sex with Derek."

Behind him, Lydia's breath is even. Too even. She's counting to make sure it is, stopping herself from saying the first thing that's come into her head. "I see," she says, her tone forcibly neutral. "When?"

"A couple of hours ago," Stiles says. He drops his hands into his lap. It's easier not to look at her for this. "I was dancing with the twins—"

"The cute ones from the kitchen?" Lydia sounds approving. "Nice work."

"Yeah," Stiles says, "it was nice. Things were getting a little hot and heavy, y'know?"

"Yes, you're a chronic oversharer. I do know."

"It was going just fine. Right until Derek hauled me into the bathroom." He continues by giving a brief description of events, as brief as he can, and the words don't do them justice. It's only when he gets to the end, the description of Isaac's reaction, that Lydia moves; she plasters herself against his back, a warm weight, an anchor to this room, this moment.

"Right," Lydia says, after Stiles has finished. "And… is this the first time he's confronted you since you got here?"

"Not exactly?" Stiles says. Lydia makes a disgruntled sound in the back of her throat.

"Clarify what you mean by not exactly," Lydia says.

Stiles sighs and gives her a brief run-through of the first day hand job. "And I'm pretty sure—I mean, it has to be cold feet—I mean, you know how you were before your wedding."

"Stiles," Lydia says. Stiles' wrinkles up his mouth. "Stiles, turn around and look at me." She shuffles back a little and Stiles turns around slowly, reluctantly. Her eyes are shimmering with unshed tears. "I hate this. You deserve so much more than this. You really do."

Stiles shrugs, one-shouldered.

"No," Lydia says. "No, don't give me some half-assed shrug. You never think you deserve anything good. And that's why you keep letting people treat you like shit. That's why you never fight for what you want. What you deserve."

Stiles frowns at her. "But I—"

"You had a shit hand dealt to you in Beacon Hills," Lydia says. "Your father was a good man. Scott was a tragedy. And Derek—Derek was so fucking gone over you and for him to be all over Jennifer—"

Stiles' frown deepens, because the way she's talking… "I thought you liked Jennifer. Julia."

"I'm just saying… It feels like something else is going on." Lydia's gaze drops past Stiles' face, locking onto a space of nothing behind him. "Nothing makes sense." She punches him on the shoulder and it really hurts. Stiles sometimes forgets that all three of them trained to fight during college; sometimes knowing what's out there, knowing what lurks in the dark, isn't the best thing in the world when you're fighting to keep a sane mind. "Including you holding out on telling me about the hand job. Seriously, Stiles. How'm I supposed to live vicariously through you if you keep things from me?"

"You don’t need to live vicariously through my sex life," Stiles says, staring at her, appalled. "And you constantly tell me I overshare. And you have a more active sex life than I do?"

"Yeah, but mine doesn’t have two dicks in it."

"It totally does. Jackson's penis… and Jackson himself."

"Stiles."

Stiles sighs and pulls a face. "I'm a bad person, though. I don't deserve nice things."

Lydia looks at him sadly.

"He's getting married, Lydia. And I'm the ex showing up on the scene, reminding him of the benefits of the single life." Stiles sags against her. "I need to learn to say no."

"I'm not even sure you do," Lydia says and she crosses her legs, looking at him firmly.

"Uh, in what land is having sex with the groom a few days before his wedding—"

"Well, that's slightly not amazing of you. Especially considering you only just got Julia's forgiveness."

"Oh, god, I'm going to hell," Stiles moans. "And I don't even have a handbasket to travel in. How does a person even fit in a handbasket, anyway? I've always wondered about that."

"Maybe you'd fit in if someone chopped you up."

"Morbid, much?"

"I'm not the one who answered the door with a knife in his hand."

"Yeah, well, not all of us can scream so loud that bad guys fall over from the sheer power of it," Stiles says, eyeballing her.

Lydia purses her lips. "I'll give you that one."

"So. What do I do? Apart from. Y'know. Not having sex with the groom again."

Lydia looks at him, thoughtfully. "Use your words."

Stiles narrows his eyes. "Riiiight."

"I'm being serious," Lydia says. "Right now, you've got three major things stopping you from coming back home. Where you belong. One being… I don't fully believe you've stopped suspecting Julia of being evil."

Stiles makes a sad noise.

"Two being Derek."

"You keep saying these names and they keep hurting me."

"Three being the fact it's the town that killed both of your parents."

Stiles sighs. It's always wrong to hear it out loud.

"You can't do anything about number three," Lydia says. "Well. You could get a place in the city. That might work."

Stiles makes a noncommittal sound. Beacon City's still too close to Beacon Hills in his mind, plus Derek's old loft is in Beacon City. And the small apartment where Peter got beheaded. The sound of the chainsaw still haunts Stiles' dreams sometimes.

Oh, wait. Peter could have fit in a handbasket, actually. Hmm.

"For number one," Lydia says. "It'll just take time. I know. I still flinch every time I drive, wondering if I'm going to end up where I'm intending to go. It gets better with time."

"I guess I can trust you on that."

"Thanks for that ringing endorsement, Stilinski."

"You're welcome, Mrs. Whittemore."

"As for two…" Lydia twists her mouth, thinking about it. "You gotta tell him."

Stiles' eyes fly to hers. "Tell him what?"

"You know what," Lydia says.

"But he's getting married."

Lydia holds his gaze, putting her hand under his chin and holding him still. It's a good thing. Stiles doesn't feel like he's part of the world at all and her touch is like an anchor.

He's always suspected that should he become a werewolf, Lydia would have been his anchor to keep him human. Romantic love has nothing to do with it; their love is deeper than that.

"Yeah, Derek's getting married," Lydia says, nodding. "But he's not married yet. You've got a window. A really small one, but a window nevertheless. Say something. Tell him how you feel."

"Great," Stiles says. "So he can crush my heart again."

"Yes," Lydia says, her tone simple, but her eyes wet with emotion. "But your heart needs to know for sure. That he's gone. That you don't have a chance."

Stiles pulls a wry face, because she's right. She's so right.

He's in love with Derek. He has been for years. And he's been lingering on the pain, on the guilt, on the anger, pushing everything down into his job. Now he's on sabbatical and doesn't have his job to hide behind and life is shoving him into dealing with his problems so much faster than he ever anticipated. But that's life.

And maybe Lydia's right.

Maybe he doesn't deserve to be forever waiting around, blaming everything on things that don't really matter.

"Okay," Stiles says. "Okay. I'll try."

"It's the best I can ask for," Lydia says and she slides her fingers from under his chin to his cheek. "You deserve a happy life, Stiles. I've never doubted that." She reaches up and kisses him on the cheek, before sliding off the bed and heading for the door. "And honey?"

"Yeah?" Stiles says, squinting up at her lazily.

"Remember to jerk off before you go to bed. You're never good company the next day if you're post-coitus interruptus and haven't manually taken care of it afterwards." Lydia smiles sweetly and lets herself out.

Stiles glares after her, but he has to concede she's right. About, well, everything.

He sighs down at his crotch. "Looks like it's just you and me, buddy."

#

Stiles spends the whole day pretty much successfully avoiding everyone. It's a regression back to his teen years, definitely, but he can't bring himself to care.

The wedding's tomorrow and everything in his brain is screaming with it. He should be doing what Lydia says and trying to find Derek to tell him—But he's such a freaking coward.

At least he manages to get out of the actual stag night — by "forgetting" to catch the bus — and he trades his place on the hen night to Erica, because she's trying to smuggle Boyd in.

Namely by putting a wig on his head and shoving him at the back of the girls' bus. He watches the buses depart to Beacon Cove, his head pounding.

It's his own fault that he hasn't been able to tell Derek anything. He should have just manned up and gone to find him. Gotten that final rejection once and for all.

He could go mope with Lydia and Jackson, both staying in because of their mutual vow to avoid alcohol, but they'll probably just say I told you so repeatedly, and Stiles—

Stiles has to stand back tomorrow, because he's a coward, and watch the man he's still hopelessly in love with marry someone else.

He changes into his gym clothes and hits the winding trails of the resort, sneakers pounding the weird twisting route. It helps, but not enough, and it seems about typical that

the path just brings him back to the front doors of the resort again.

It's a metaphor for his whole life. Continuously happening across the same, painful situations, over and over again.

Stiles leans against the front wall, trying to settle his breathing, the cold settling in sharp against his exposed skin, biting through the thin cotton of his shirt. He pushes the heels of his hands into his eyes and shakes himself.

He's overwhelmed. That's the right word for it. There's too much going on, too much pressure, and his brain is twisting every which way. He can still hear Erica's laughter ringing in his ears as she got onto the bus, high-pitched and so happy, and he can't fucking breathe.

He heads back inside to find Allison and Cora escaping the hen night by holing up in the bar with a couple of bottles of Julia's champagne and they try to entice him into a drink now he's not driving, but something in his face makes Cora just pour him a drink silently and push it over to him. Stiles takes it and leaves, heading back outside, because his head is thick with confusion and he can't think a whole thought through without feeling sick.

He looks down at the glass of champagne still in his hand and considers it. He could get smashed. It's an attractive prospect, but Stiles can't control much in his life at the moment, apparently. He really hates being manipulated at the best of times and this whole week feels like an epic manipulation.

The glass is sailing through the air before Stiles can even fully register that he's thrown it: the way it shatters into a thousand fragments when it hits a tree trunk is an offbeat balm to his fractious soul. He stares at the glass fragments and then shoves his hands in his pockets. He needs to get away from this place and if he can't in conscience drive away and leave Erica to it, then he can at least temporarily escape the building.

He finds himself stomping along the resort's weirdly curving pathways again and the shape of the path seems oddly familiar — Stiles thinks he's almost remembered the fact pinging in the back of his brain when he catches sight of something that makes his brain abruptly empty.

Derek will probably forever cause him to have that reaction.

Stiles stares, flexing his hands, and swallows.

He doesn't know how Derek's escaped the stag night, but… It's an opportunity. And Lydia's right. He needs—He needs to talk to Derek. To finally know once and for all that it's impossible, so he can move on permanently.

Derek's shoulders tense as Stiles ambles up the rest of the pathway. Stiles doesn't stand close to him — he stops a few paces away and follows Derek's gaze out to the picturesque lake. Sometime in the next twenty-four hours, Derek and Julia will be posing for wedding pictures here, Stiles thinks. It's beautiful. The moon — barely a sliver, because werewolves getting married near a full moon is probably a bad idea — is curving into a smile on the lake's placid surface and Derek's dark silhouette of a reflection is bisecting the moon's smile in half.

It's a metaphor for something, Stiles thinks.

He considers aying hello, but it feels weak. Derek's eyes flitter towards him, wary and uncertain, and Stiles looks away.

"I won't tell Julia about what happened back in the club," Stiles says, steadfastly not looking at him. "As far as I understand it, things like that happen before a wedding. It's nerves. Nerves can get the better of you. I'm not here to ruin anything."

Derek makes a soft sound under his breath and the water picks it up, echoing the sound back at them like it's the gasp of someone dying. He manages one word. "Stiles."

Stiles shuts his eyes for a moment, because even just his name, that's too much. It's all too much. He's still so much in love with Derek that he can't breathe with it. Coming here was a mistake. He should have just thrown money at the situation and run away.

He opens his eyes to look at Derek, still expecting Derek to be staring out at the lake, but Derek's staring directly at him, eyes wide with what looks like a painful combination of fear and something else more tangible, more animalistic.

"Don't say my name like that," Stiles says, and he gives up on his voice being able to stay calm. "Just please—I can't take you saying my name like that—"

"Like what?" Derek's jaw is tense, like he's having to fight to get the words out. His eyes shimmer in the reflected moonlight and his gaze is so intense that Stiles is having to fight to breathe.

"Like it means something to you. Like I still mean something to you." Stiles shakes his head. "I can't take you not meaning it—"

Derek stares at him, looking almost anguished at Stiles' words, and he doesn't have the right, not when he's the one that made them an impossibility beyond whatever this thing left between them is. His entire body tenses and he says, in a low voice, "Stiles."

The hurt wells up in Stiles' gut like he's been shot. "Doesn't a damn word I say even sink in?" He steps forwards, rage throttling through his bones, and he lifts up a finger to jab in Derek's direction. "Does it not matter an inch to you that this is hurting me? It used to matter to you."

"Stiles," Derek says again, his mouth folding into a line, his face trembling with the effort.

"Jesus—Freaking—How can you—" Stiles gestures wildly, but Derek stares at him, and Stiles almost recoils from that expression. Derek's fingers are claws, digging into the side of his leg and—

Derek is literally fighting himself to say just that one name.

Derek is literally straining with the effort just to say Stiles' name.

How the hell hadn't he noticed this before?

The implication of it crawls down Stiles' entire being like an ice cube being dropped down the back of his shirt. Fear and panic and rage and pain smash in his chest, a maelstrom of feelings, because he'd never considered it as a possibility. Because he always believed he didn't deserve nice things, so Derek throwing him away—Scott being mean—

It had always been what Stiles deserved.

All of his conspiracy theories had been focused on his dad's death. On the dead.

He hadn't thought about the living.

"You can't say anything, can you?" Stiles stares at Derek in horror. "You can't—You literally can't—"

Derek swallows and he looks so scared, so terrified, that Stiles can't give into the raging impulse in the back of his mind, which is to go get his weapons, go get all his weapons and raise some hell

"Stiles," Derek manages again and it's desperate, a plea, a prayer, and Stiles flinches at the emotion in it that he can hear now, now that he's actually listening for it.

For someone to steal someone's voice, they would have to be powerful. Stiles has done a lot of research into magic over the years, unable to let go of the idea that the Darach had plagued their town, killed twelve people and vanished.

Sacrifices were for stored power, for a base amount of magic that the druid could tap into. Essentially the most important part wasn't the number of sacrifices — although three has magical significance — the most important part was the type. The Darach had sacrificed his dad specifically because there wasn't much better sacrifice-material around.

It meant the Darach hadn't been cautious. They weren't scared of repercussions. Someone more cautious wouldn't have gone for one of the most visible figures in town.

Stiles mind is locking in the past, because the present is too confusing. Derek's lost-looking stare is wild and world-upsetting and desperate. Like if he can stare long enough at Stiles, Stiles will figure it out.

So maybe the information is in his head. Stiles tries to count his breaths like Lydia does when she's overwhelmed.

Lydia. Lydia's been throwing up. Lydia hasn't found any dead bodies since Hougang. Had she found any before? Or was it only with Stiles that her power worked? So what was different when she came out with Jackson to see him there? Stiles' presence?

No, that seems too egotistical. So if it wasn't Stiles, maybe it was something in Singapore. Some herbs. The food. Darachs often use herbs in their rituals to enhance their power.

Julia is a herb master. Julia… was in Beacon Hills. Lydia was not in Beacon Hills when her powers were active. Something in Beacon Hills is maybe suppressing Lydia's powers. And god, Stiles knows he shouldn't be blaming Julia, it's his ridiculous fixation on Derek, the wish for everything to be right and Derek's marrying Julia—

Except, Derek has been so loyal in the past to his friends. He took Erica and Boyd back into the pack, even when most people would have thrown them out into the cold. Derek's not actually the cheating type. So why has he been all over Stiles? Cold feet explains some of it.

He can't help thinking about Julia, and Lydia's powers. Lydia has tea with Julia. Stiles walked down the hallway the other day and slipped on Lydia's scarf, colliding with Julia and spilling her tea everywhere. Lydia's pregnant. She's suffering from morning sickness. She has tea with Julia in the morning. Jackson said Lydia must have lost the scarf that morning, after throwing up her breakfast. Could she have done it deliberately? As a sign? Did her banshee powers make Stiles collide with Julia for a reason? Or is that wishful thinking?

If the Darach did not vanish, as everyone presumed, the Darach would have still been in Beacon Hills. But there were no suspicious deaths, past the ones they already knew about. If the Darach couldn't kill for power, there was always the chance that he (or she) was drawing on a living person's power.

Or a living werewolf.

Like Derek. And how best to draw power from someone, then being eternally at their side?

This can't be right. This can't be the answer. It can't have happened again — Stiles having the answer and no one listening to him. Matt Daehler had been bad enough, but this is a thousand times worse.

Derek stares at him, miserable, loathing, and Stiles' stomach sinks.

It could be true. Because maybe that's just what life is, for both Stiles and Derek. History repeating itself, over and over.

Kate was a psychopath who used Derek to take his family away. Has it happened again to him too?

"Julia," Stiles says and saying it out loud is all the confirmation his mind needs. Every fact zeroes down to the truth, fighting past the denial, past the thousands of time he's told himself to stop suspecting her, because his whole pack had told him he was being stupidly jealous and he'd had to work so hard to believe them.

Derek says nothing.

"Julia," Stiles says again, slowly, tremulously, and he's furious, he's boiling with it, but something's keeping him here instead of him instantly running off to punch her in the face. Derek, of course. It's always Derek. "She's—" The realization is cold and terrible. "She is the Darach."

Derek's expression is wretched, torn. His head doesn't move. His expression stays frozen.

It's the loudest yes Derek's ever said.

"And you—" Stiles' reasoning spills out loud, because in his head, everything is screaming.

Why would Derek marry her? If she's got him under a spell, if she's pulling everything from him, why would he marry her? Binding oneself to another, like in handfasting or marriage, can strengthen a ton of Celtic rituals. Stiles can see why a Darach would want to marry, especially to a powerful werewolf who was basically a constantly regenerating battery, but why would Derek agree to it? Even a mind-controlling spell couldn't make him voluntarily marry someone.

Derek's agreeing to marry her for a reason. And what reason would make him do something that terrible? Saying it out loud makes the jigsaw pieces even more start to fall into place. "And you have to marry her because—"

Derek's gaze dips, sorrow tearing at his face.

There's only one person in the world that Derek would put himself through so much torture for. Pack is important, pack is oxygen and ohana and limbs to a werewolf, but there's one thing in the world that Derek has which is more important to him than pack.

Something Derek cannot replace, because she's the last of the birth family he has left.

"Cora," Stiles says. "Jesus fucking freaking hell. I'm going to kill her. I'm going to—"

Derek looks panicked and he flings himself forward, grabbing Stiles' face between both hands and he shakes his head desperately. If Julia has him under strict magical control, allowing some of his actions and disallowing more, then it stands to reason he would be spelled into protecting her. Magic can’t do anything long-term to emotions, though. The desperation is all his.

Derek needs Julia alive. But why?

"If Julia dies, Cora dies," Stiles realizes. "Fuck, fuck, fuck. And there's nothing… Isn't there anything? No. No, there can't be, because you've been looking for years. If there was something—"

Derek inclines his head, just a little, still holding Stiles' face tightly.

"She killed my dad," Stiles says and it's Derek who has tears come to his eyes first and Stiles' limbs collapse beneath him — Derek tries to hold him and they sink to a heap on the gravel path. Far in the distance, he thinks he hears the music playing in the bar. Maybe they're back from the stag night already. Wherever they are, his friends are enjoying themselves, not knowing what was boiling underneath this whole masquerade of a wedding. "Who else knows?"

Derek frowns at him.

"She's magicked you into being quiet," Stiles says. Derek's silent, but that's another yes. "Does Cora know?"

Derek shrugs.

"I don't think she could know, not and still be calm around her," Stiles says and Derek's still against him, another yes, and oh, god, Stiles is going to be sick. His thoughts are racing and everything inside of him is burning. "Jesus, Derek, there—This is— Why couldn't you—"

Derek looks miserable.

More pieces fall into place. "Whenever you managed to hint it to someone else, she—" Stiles' body does spasm and he stumbles towards the lake, falling to his knees and Derek's hands falter for a moment and then settle on his back, soothing, as Stiles' stomach tries to empty itself and fails. Stiles hauls in desperate breaths. "She hurts more people. Like Ma. She has tea with Ma." His eyes turn back to Derek's. "She was the one who put Ma in the hospital. Why would she—"

Derek's gaze dips —guilt, probably.

"Julia knew if Ma couldn't come, I would have to," Stiles says. "She wants me here. What the hell for? God, and you can't even tell me."

Derek's gaze lifts back up to his and he looks so sad that Stiles can't help leaning his forehead against Derek's. The touch is an anchor, but it's also a revelation; Derek's trembling against him. Hiding in with the guilt and pain, he's also terrified.

"Scott," Stiles says. "Tell me Scott didn't—"

Derek makes this noise, this sad and desperate noise of reverberant longing, and his hands clench in Stiles' back, and he buries his face in Stiles' shoulder. The skin there goes damp with tears and Derek's falling apart in his arms and Stiles can't blame him at all.

Scott knew. Scott telling him he wasn't pack—

Was that Scott trying to save him?

Scott has to have known if Stiles had stayed in Beacon Hills, he would have pieced this together quickly and he would have gone after Julia and with what he knew then…

He would be just as dead as his dad.

As Scott.

Oh god. I miss you. I miss you both so much.

"I wish you could tell me," Stiles says, in an uneven voice, "I need to hear you tell me you're doing this for a good reason, because—"

But Derek can't, even though his shoulders bunch, and he's physically straining to try and do so.

Stiles exhales a burning breath. "I know you can't. Just relax." His eyes sting and his body would tremble too, tremble like Derek's, but if he lets himself fall apart right now, he's going to keep on falling and if he confronts Julia now, unready, he'd probably just be signing everyone's death warrant.

Mona. Erica. Lydia. Cora.

The fact that he mentally doesn't add himself to the list is finally sharp and telling — these women mean so much to him and they're being manipulated by the freaking Darach.

But they're also alive right now. She doesn't want them dead — at least not yet. That gives Stiles time.

It's just Derek that probably doesn't have any time.

"Okay, okay, let me think this through," Stiles says. "Can you do anything that indicates a yes or no?"

Derek stares at him. Stiles sits back on his heels and looks across at him, and he wants to touch Derek's cheek, and—why not, really? He slides his palm across the rough skin and Derek pushes his cheek into the gesture, eyes fluttering shut, a thin whine escaping the back of his throat just for a second.

"She's a Darach. She sacrificed twelve people over my last two years of high school. Three virgins, three warriors, three healers, three protectors. So she has those powers, but no more." Stiles' voice cracks a little, because his dad was one of the latter, and Derek's hand reaches out for his — and falters. Like he can put his hand down Stiles' pants but suddenly not be able to touch him comfortingly. Stiles jerks his head in a nod. "I get it, Derek. You're making the best of a terrible situation. I don't blame you, okay?"

Derek's eyes skitter away, like he blames himself regardless, but asking Derek not to take full blame for everything is like asking Lydia to stop watching The Notebook at least once a week.

Stiles reaches out and pulls Derek's hand to his. "If there were fifteen sacrifices, then we'd have known what she was doing. I mean, we always thought guardians were going to be next. But why would she need the power of guardians, if she has an Alpha werewolf under her thumb?"

Derek ducks his eyes again and he looks so ashamed, that he couldn't stop this — that yet again, some psychopath is using him to get what they want — the anger in Stiles boils up and he has to swallow hard to stop from throwing up.

"You have to marry her," Stiles says, "or she kills again. She kills Cora. Or… she stops giving Cora the tea that's… making her a little better. And that's just the beginning." Stiles' fingers tighten on Derek's hand. The pieces are slowly coming, making up the fill picture, and man, Stiles wishes he wasn't alone right now.

Scott would know what to do, but Scott was dead, and they said suicide, but Stiles knew… He just knew Scott wouldn't kill himself.

"Your actions have been restricted by her magic," Stiles says, still trying to piece everything together. "But when I came… You've been able to fight it. Not a lot. Not by much. But you've been able to kiss me, because… I wasn't around? She didn't think to tie me into the spell, because I was avoiding Beacon Hills. But then why would she invite me to the wedding?"

Derek's hands are still trembling and Stiles puts both of his hands around them, trying to still him.

"To gloat?" Stiles frowns. "Maybe she just wants to gloat? She's a bad guy. It's what they do. And she's gone to so much effort for the wedding, so the wedding—"

Stiles shakes his head. His brain is racing and he has a thousand theories that don't make any sense without confirmation. He wants to run, to start fighting now, but he can't run into this situation. Not without potentially making everything worse.

"Circle," Derek says, his voice in a hiss, his teeth gritted.

"Circle? What would—It completes a circle? The wedding is a circle?"

"Currents," Derek says and then he starts coughing, pulling his hands free and tearing them away from his mouth, trying to wipe them on his pants before Stiles sees the blood.

"Motherfu—" Stiles starts to curse and then swallows it back, because there isn't even a swearword strong enough for how he feels. He hovers between a thousand reactions and he climbs to his feet. Derek looks scared, but Stiles just dips his hands in the pond, washes them like he can wash away blood. He looks down at his own reflection and his expression is fear and loathing and panic.

It's like getting a glimpse at his seventeen year old self again.

Maybe that's why he's never felt like he could grow up. Because his life stopped back then, when the Darach killed his father.

When Julia murdered his dad.

Stiles' hands are fists. His nails bite into the skin. He's a bundle of energy. He is a storm with nowhere to target. He is fury and wrath and he is denied the blood that will cleanse this rage.

"Scott knew," Stiles says and digs his fingernails in deeper. "He knew and she—She chose fire for him to walk into, just to hammer in the point." Blood drops from his fingers, splashing into the water below and Stiles watches it, dispassionately. The rage has nowhere to go and numbness is an old friend that Stiles has a welcome for.

If he doesn't feel it, then he can pretend he's not falling apart at the seams.

Julia doesn't have a magic spell on him, as far as Stiles can tell, but he's just as trapped. Derek. Erica. Cora. Mona. Lydia. Jackson. Allison. Boyd. He used to think he'd lost everything, but there's still a massive list of people to lose.

It's just typical timing that Stiles realizes how much in Beacon Hills he has to stay for in the instant he finds out about the one thing that he won't be able to live with. How could he stay, knowing Julia's controlling it all? But then, how can he leave the people he cares about to their fate?

Stiles turns to Derek, who's back on his feet, his shoulders hunched and a thousand years of sadness on his face.

Stiles feels so weary when he asks, in a small voice, "I can't stop her, can I?"

Derek says nothing, but that's an answer.

"Jesus," Stiles breathes and his yearly quota of blasphemy and swearing has probably been blown just in these last ten minutes, but he has the feeling he would be forgiven for it. Mind fuck doesn't even cover it. "How do you even—and you're going to be married to her."

Derek's face tightens, in a what can you do expression.

Stiles' hands hurt and his gut hurts and his chest hurts and he's moving forwards again before he can think about it, gently cupping Derek's cheek in one hand. "You always were a sacrificial bastard," Stiles whispers, because that's always been Derek he knows to the core.

He remembers Cora falling sick a few weeks after her triumphant entry into Beacon Hills, with Erica and Boyd in tow. And then when it got really bad, a couple of weeks before Christmas; there was a rainstorm and Derek ran into it, screaming into the wind for them to take him and not her, take him and not Cora. Stiles had just run out into the rain and held him, held him for hours even as they both got soaked, as the sky lit up around them like the clouds themselves were catching on fire.

"And what happens when you're married?" Stiles says and his voice trembles.

Derek might be under some sort of spell to stop him from being able to reveal the truth of what's going on, but the spell can't stop his real emotions leak through and he looks terrified. Stiles does the only thing he can — he flings himself forward and holds on as tight as he can. Derek's hands slip down to grab his hips and he's holding on too hard, digging bruises into Stiles' skin, and he doesn't care. He doesn't care. He'll hold onto Derek as long as he can.

And with the wedding tomorrow, that's not long at all.

"You won't even be able to do this much, will you?" Stiles says and he pulls back, but only far enough to take in Derek's face, to drink in his fear, because Stiles is going to have to fight the long fight from afar. Play the long game to rescue his pack. His family. And who knows how long that's going to take?

He's going to spend the time, Stiles thinks. He'll let Julia think he's gone to London. He might even go to London. There's a great research facility there. Surely they'll have some lore on Darachs…

"I wish—" Derek starts, but that's as far as he can manage. Stiles thinks back to the few things Derek's managed to say to him. Most of it has been half sentences. Would anyone even notice that he'd been magically muzzled? Derek's not famous for using his words well.

Stiles thinks he knows what Derek's saying now, though. "Yeah," Stiles agrees, "yeah."

Derek huffs against him, his breath warm on Stiles' face. He lifts strained eyes to Stiles' gaze and he swallows, looking desperate. "Can I—?"

Stiles frowns, not really knowing what Derek's asking, but then Derek's gaze dips to his mouth and oh, of course, the only thing Derek has been able to ask him. He gulps down a breath and either the oxygen content of the air around the lake is low, or his heart is racing too much to process the oxygen.

Tomorrow Derek's getting married. Druids are pretty hot on rituals, so maybe even the wedding itself is a spell, trapping Derek further into her web.

This might be all they can have until Stiles can find a way to get them out. To get them all out.

Stiles nods and Derek touches his mouth to his and Stiles, as always, is lost.

This kiss is urgent and Derek doesn't even hide his intent — his hands wander south and Stiles can't help the moan he lets out into Derek's mouth, because he never thought he would have this again and if this all goes wrong, he won't.

This could be the very last time he has Derek, and Stiles hadn't known their previous last time, pre-break-up, was the last, so he didn't take his time. If he'd known, oh, how he would have lingered.

This time, and it's not perfect, it's outside in the middle of nowhere, with misery and doom snapping at their heels, but Stiles—Stiles is going to linger. Just a little.

Just in case.

Stiles steps back, moving slowly, letting Derek follow him. Derek kisses him like he's starving for air, like Stiles is all the oxygen he'll ever need, and even though Derek's teeth catch on his lips too sharply and Derek's grip on his hips is painful, it's still perfect.

Derek's maybe been waiting for this as much as Stiles has.

Stiles leads Derek gently backwards, fumbling his hands away from Derek's neck for a few, desperate seconds to scramble at the door to the lake's boat shed. Somehow they manage to get through the narrow door, even though Derek won't stop kissing him and after Stiles tries three times to shut the door, Derek lets go just long enough to slam the door and push Stiles up against it.

Stiles lifts up his legs obligingly, wrapping them around Derek's waist, and Derek lifts him as always, so easily and quickly that Stiles would gasp at the speed he does leave the ground, except Derek's already stolen most of his breath.

Derek pushes in, growling into Stiles' mouth, and a frisson of electricity sparks through Stiles' body as Derek grinds his crotch into Stiles' — they're both hard and all rational thought flees Stiles' mind. Oh, he wants this. This is home. Not Beacon Hills. Not a cold, empty, boarded-up house that Stiles can't bear to sell, or a cosy lemon-colored house where Erica's lingerie clutters up his ensuite bathroom. Home is the circle of Derek's arms, the press of Derek's body against his.

Stiles tears his mouth away so he can breathe and he gulps in cold air as Derek's mouth blazes a trail against his throat, flat human teeth grazing a claim. "Do you remember that motel? The first time we ever had sex?"

Derek makes a sound and his hips surge forwards, bumping Stiles into the wooden wall of the structure, displacing some dust and fragments of a spider web from the ceiling onto them.

"I think this place is classier," Stiles breathes and Derek makes a sound which is half a sob, half a laugh and Stiles pushes at Derek's shoulders. "Over there. There's blankets over there."

Derek slides his hands under Stiles' thighs, lifting him up and even though Stiles clocks in at more than the one-forty-seven pounds of his past, Derek still carries him like he weighs nothing at all, which to be honest has always been a turn-on.

Derek lays him down on the blankets and Stiles can't care less that they're dusty or dirty. Not when Derek starts to peel him out of his clothing, brushing each piece of wear aside with a soft, reverent trail of kisses, like Stiles is something to be treasured.

Like Stiles is something to be worshipped.

By the time Derek tugs Stiles' underwear down, helps him lift his long legs out, Stiles is the one that's trembling. Derek shucks his own clothing off like it's an afterthought and when he presses his body against Stiles', naked skin against naked skin, Stiles almost wants to cry with how good it feels.

Derek tangles their legs together, their erections brushing and sparking and sending a jolt of energy that bubbles out from Stiles' groin and rushes through his bodies to all of his extremities. He tangles his fingertips in the hair at the nape of Derek's neck and Derek pushes himself up enough to spread his hand across Stiles' chest, his eyes stroking across the skin there like Stiles is a book that's been forbidden to him until now.

Derek looks upset as he drinks in the sight and his fingertips dance a delicate trail over the injuries — a burn by his right clavicle, a pattern of gunshot wounds that Derek can cover with four fingers and a thumb, a long nasty cut which misses Stiles stomach by half an inch.

"Lydia, Jackson and I hunted at college," Stiles says. "You know that." He shakes his head ruefully. "We weren't so good at it, at the beginning. But… It had to be done." Stiles can't keep the sadness out of his tone when he says, "You know the price of doing what has to be done more than anyone, I'd suspect."

Derek still looks upset and he pushes up to his knees. Stiles is about to bemoan the lack of contact, but Derek uses the space to crouch down, to place a kiss against each of the scars and the movement is so tender that Stiles can't bring himself to raise that complaint.

Especially when Derek's kisses move slowly southwards until he's nuzzling down the trail of hair and he noses at Stiles' erection for a few seconds, breathing in the smell, and Stiles props himself up on his elbows to watch as Derek's finger and thumb circle the base of Stiles' erection and his tongue swipes against the head, drawing up a taste of the leaking fluid.

The fear and anger and rage is still in Stiles' chest, but it loosens an inch at that touch. Heat pools insistently at his groin as Derek licks against his length again and then his mouth closes over the end, a warm and unsteady suction enveloping his most sensitive skin.

"I don't think you have any idea," Stiles says and Derek looks up at him through his eyelashes, cheeks hollowing as he slowly edges Stiles' cock down his throat. "How you look," Stiles just about manages to finish.

Derek pulls off with a loud pop and a sly grin that flutters across his face for half a second says quite clearly that yeah, Derek's pretty sure he knows how he looks right now. He wraps his fingers around Stiles' erection, steadfastly ignoring his own even though it hangs, heavy and red, bobbing between his thighs and straining with want. Derek tugs at Stiles' cock, applying just the right amount of pressure, remembering that Stiles can take it hard and rough at the start for a little while. He pressures his thumb into the head, collecting more drops of Stiles' pre-come, and he looks at Stiles intently as he proffers his thumb, urging it forwards to Stiles' mouth and Stiles is confused for a moment, until Derek nods, and he wants—

Oh. Stiles opens his mouth and Derek pushes his thumb into the wet heat and it should be weird that Stiles is tasting himself, but it's not. The thick, bitter flavor floods his mouth and he takes advantage of Derek's thumb in his mouth, swirling his tongue over the pad, sucking his thumb in deeper, locking eyes with Derek at the same time, letting Derek know exactly what he would be doing to his cock if that was in his mouth.

Derek full-body flinches and he presses a kiss to Stiles' cheek as he pulls his thumb out and Stiles watches him warily for a moment, totally unsure as to what's coming next — and he's surprised by what Derek does, because they really didn't switch much when they were together, because as addicted as Derek was to Stiles' cock, Stiles was the same amount hooked on having Derek's cock inside him, anyway he could get it.

It doesn't mean that Stiles didn't love it the other way around. It was just… rarer. Which makes it all the more special when Derek puts his hand behind himself and his eyelashes flutter briefly as he breaches his own entrance with the tip of his thumb. He sets his teeth in his lower lip and Stiles can't see from his angle, not fully, but Derek's arm is tensing and Derek lets out this strained, desperate sound when Stiles brings up his hands to smooth over Derek's hips. Derek even lets Stiles jerk him off for a few moments, his erection heated and hard in Stiles' fingers, but he rests his other hand over Stiles' grip, stilling him, shaking his head.

"Need," Derek manages and Stiles pulls his hands away, reluctantly, watching as Derek's hips flex interestingly, before Derek lifts himself up a little, shuffling forwards, and Derek's fingers grip the base of Stiles' erection once more — but only to steady it as he brings himself down onto it. Stiles doesn't know where he wants to look more — at his cock disappearing into the depths of Derek's body, at the rosy hue flushing across Derek's defined chest, at the blissed-out expression on Derek's face. Derek's teeth are set firmly in his lower lip as he lowers himself inexorably down, not stopping, his body focussed on relaxing enough to let Stiles in.

It's probably going to hurt a little, without enough lubrication from Stiles' spit to ease the way, but Stiles can kind of understand. He wants this to hurt a little too. He wants to be able to walk away from this moment and remember it in the pain of his body, to mentally set it alongside the ache in his chest that's going to take so much longer to heal than any bruise or friction burn could last.

They both gasp when Stiles bottoms out and Derek's expression is so full of pride as he looks down at Stiles and Stiles' heart almost bursts at the sight of it. Like if Derek could trap this moment in a bubble until the end of time, he would.

"You feel—" Derek manages, "you feel—"

"Yeah," Stiles mumbles, the pleasure of Derek surrounding him so fully, so intimately, wrecking any coherency he might have been able to manage until now. "Yeah."

Derek's answering grin is almost feral — and that's when he starts to move, relentlessly, fucking himself on Stiles' dick like he's starving for it. Stiles can't stop himself from crying out and he pushes his own fist into his mouth, biting down to stop the sound from being too loud, because he isn't using his white noise, so anyone could hear, anyone—

The panic of that is too late, though — Stiles is too washed-out, strung-out with pleasure for logical thought, as Derek fucks himself onto Stiles in the age-old rhythm that's always felt so new, so amazing every single time with Derek. This has always been something they excelled at, even among their early fails — they always found some way to make pleasure curl between their bodies and it only ever improved with time and Stiles' insistence on copious practise.

And even ten years later, neither of them have forgotten the steps of this dance.

Derek's losing himself in the rhythm, head tilted back, muscles straining with the effort of lifting himself up only to impale himself back down just as deeply and it's good, it's great, but it's not enough for Stiles. He needs more—he needs more everything, but more contact will do for now. He paws at Derek, pushing at him, and Derek understands, because of course Derek understands him.

They would still be together if it wasn't for Julia. Stiles could cry with it, except this moment is not for tears.

Derek uses his strength to flip them over while they're still connected, pulling Stiles on top of him, and the speed of it takes the breath out of him for a moment — Stiles pants as he regains his bearings, bracing himself by placing both palms flat on Derek's broad chest, feeling the rise and fall of his breaths through the broken skin.

He stays still, feeling his cock pulse in the warm heat of Derek's body, and Stiles looks at Derek hopelessly, helplessly, and his smile is tremulous at best. "I love you," Stiles says and starts to tentatively move, trying to show Derek how much he means it. He soothes his hands up and down Derek's chest, one sweeping movement for each of his thrusts. "I've always loved you, Derek."

Derek's muscles all clench at once below him — his body tightening almost painfully on Stiles' erection, the welcoming heat gripping him like he never plans to let him go — but he can't muster a sound in return that say the words. He moves a hand up to Stiles' face, smoothing his thumb over the crease at the corner of Stiles' mouth and Stiles turns his face and catches his thumb in a soft kiss.

It doesn't matter that Derek can't say it back, because Stiles can feel the truth of it, in the racing heartbeat he can feel trembling against his lips.

Stiles takes a moment to lean down, to kiss Derek's mouth, to sink into that warmth, until the sensation of being connected to Derek is too much to focus on more than one thing at once; he moves his mouth to Derek's neck and buries in deep as he snaps his hips in a faster rhythm, driving himself as deeply into Derek as he can. Derek's hands grasp at his thighs and Derek lifts his ankles, hooking them around Stiles' back, digging his heels into the straining muscles of Stiles' ass as he starts to pound into Derek, unable to resist the addictive heat.

The air is thick with their joined sounds, of skin slapping against skin and there's a high-pitched whine which is rending the atmosphere into jagged pieces and Stiles doesn't know whether the sound is being pulled from his throat or Derek's. Maybe Derek, because Stiles opens his mouth and lets his teeth sink into the skin of Derek's neck. He bites down and clings on and tries to slip a hand between them to jerk Derek off, but Derek bats his hand away and the whining sound increases. Derek's erection nudges against the taut skin of Stiles' stomach and Stiles isn't going to be able to keep this up forever, no matter how much he wants to.

His heart is pounding so loudly that he almost misses that Derek's managing to make more coherent sounds and when he does focus in on what Derek is saying, Stiles just about loses it.

"Stiles. Stiles. Stiles."

It's just his name, over and over, but it's enough, it's more than enough. Stiles tenses, braces himself to pull out, but Derek's heels dig insistently into the curve of his ass, urging him to stay in and Stiles lifts his head far enough to see Derek's expression, and his expression is so intent that Stiles can't refuse him — he locks his gaze with Derek's and continues to move, thrusting into him, almost dizzy now with the perfect friction where their bodies intersect.

Stiles finds Derek's hands with his own and pushes them down into the blankets, and thrusts a few last times. He brushes his lips against Derek's and says one thing, "Derek," and comes so hard that his vision whitewashes and his toes bite into the ground and he can forget, just for this second, that the world has gone to hell without a handbasket in sight.

When he regains the ability to perceive the world in more than blocks of light and sensation, Stiles realizes that Derek's still hard between them and this time Derek does let Stiles move his hand down.

Derek's gaze is locked on Stiles' hand movements and although his teeth are worrying at his lower lip again, obviously trying to hold it back and make this moment last, his orgasm spurts between them, a mess of warm fluid hitting them both. Stiles holds himself above Derek just for a moment before the sheer ridiculousness of this whole situation hits him and he lowers his head, chuckling into the side of Derek's neck.

There's nothing especially funny about any of this, but Stiles can't help the laughter that hiccups out of him and Derek's arms move around, holding him closer, and they must be making a mess, but oh, Stiles doesn't care. He's still inside Derek and he doesn't want to leave — but he has to. They both make a sound when he withdraws and Derek's hands run up and down his back and Stiles makes the effort to turn around and lie on his back next to Derek, their sides touching. Derek runs a hand lazily down Stiles' arm and his eyes are unfocussed as he stares at the ceiling.

Stiles follows his gaze upwards. The whole place is dark and shabby, paint peeling across the wooden boards. Now the fever of being together has cooled, Stiles can feel the cold creeping in and the roughness of the ground beneath the blankets.

"I have to—" Derek says and he looks across at Stiles, their faces so close, and Stiles just nods, because yeah, Derek has to go. Back to pretending everything's fine, when it's the most opposite to fine it can be. "I'll go first, and you—" Derek's trying to hold a brave expression, but his face crumbles and Stiles leans across because he can't stand that sadness on Derek's face. He wants to wipe it away almost as much as he wants to obliterate Julia from the face of the planet.

But that's not something he can do right now. Not without a lot of subtle, clever research. With the twelve sacrifices powering her, Julia will be difficult to beat and she'll be looking for enemies.

This isn't going to be something that Stiles can solve by stabbing it.

But he can wipe that expression from his sight. Stiles leans in and kisses Derek and it's soft and warm and it should be perfect, the way their mouths slot together, but it's nothing but sad, because they both know what this kiss means.

Goodbye.

Stiles sits up as Derek reluctantly pulls away and gets to his feet, avoiding Stiles' eyes as he gets dressed and hands Stiles his own clothes. The air is thick between them and as Stiles pulls his shirt on, Derek's standing still in the dark, looking down at Stiles with an inscrutable expression.

Stiles opens his mouth to say something, but ends up snapping his mouth shut, because there's nothing else to say. So he just shrugs at Derek, because what else can he even do at this point in time?

Derek swallows hard and takes a deep breath, smoothing his jacket down with hands that tremble for a few moments, until he takes another deep breath and squares his shoulders, flexing his hands a few times, stretching his neck a couple of times.

Just like he does every time he's readying for a battle.

Stiles' heart breaks just a tiny bit more and he nods at Derek encouragingly. "Go get 'em, tiger," he says, his voice cracking.

Derek gives him a fondly exasperated look, because both of them have Tobey Maguire Spider-man issues and then he turns and leaves abruptly and Stiles almost can't breathe for a second, like Derek's exit has sucked all the air out with him, leaving Stiles in a vacuum.

Stiles struggles to breathe and manages it, his lungs burning with the effort for the first few breaths and then it gets easier and it shouldn't. He shouldn't be able to breathe in a world where this sort of stuff happens.

He allows himself a few minutes to be self-indulgent with his pain and he draws his knees in to his chest, leaning his head down and shaking into himself. He doesn't quite cry, but it's the closest he's been since that last time Melissa called him, to tell him that the pack had been out at a motel and there'd been an incident and Isaac and Boyd were nearly hurt, but Scott— Scott—

Oh, there are the tears. Stiles shoves his fists into his eyeballs, pushing too hard, and he swallows the tears back down, because no, no. He's not going to fall apart right now. There's not a lot he can do, not without ferreting out what defences and spellwork that Julia has guarding the pack, the resort, the whole wedding.

He pulls out his cellphone and sighs over his empty messages, because it means his contact isn't easily available, which means this next message — an innocuous can we chat message — may not be answered as quickly as Stiles would want it to be.

Then he takes a deep breath and pushes himself up to his feet.

The time for feeling sorry for himself is over.

He slips out of the boat shed and takes a deep breath. He didn't bring his protection kit, only weapons, but suddenly arming himself after a week of only carrying the repressor cuff and his phone at most might look suspicious.

There is an unsuspicious way of protecting himself. Stiles checks the grounds and sets off at a purposeful walk towards the kitchens.

The catering team are hanging out in there. All the prep work that can be done tonight is already done — Stiles can see several trays of vegetables and can smell the stuffing and pre-roasted joints — and they seem to be just chatting quietly, if a little heatedly. There's a fifth member of the group there now, too — a man wearing red glasses, a white stick hooked over his elbow. Oh, Erica did say the agency was sending another guy for the final day.

Stiles should probably go over and introduce himself, but having all his fears and suspicions from ten years ago become confirmed is making him care a little less about politeness. Julia shouldn't notice something up, because after all, Stiles has always excelled at being a bit of a jerk.

He heads for the crate of herbs that Erica brought, hoping that it won't look too odd that the catering assistant is going for herbs.

Stiles hums quietly under his breath and picks out his best hopes of providing a little protection. He's not excellent at herbs, certainly not enough to poison people with tea, but he knows the basics. He steals a cloth napkin from the resort's supplies, lying it out on a bench to make a bundle for his herbs.

First he pulls out a bay leaf, excellent for casseroles, stews, steaming with vegetables — but more importantly, magical protection. Next he adds a little all spice for energy. Where basil is, no evil lives, so he adds a leaf of that too. Black pepper is probably unnecessary, but it does banish negativity and protects from evil, so it can't hurt. Ginger adds to the strength of the combination and finally, he adds some sea salt, to ground the mixture.

He wishes he had some mistletoe, but that's something Stiles stopped carrying years ago, trying to accept he would never find his father's killer. His nearest stash is in his bedroom in Beacon Hills, in his dad's house, boarded up and locked away.

He looks down at the combination, feeling antsy, wishing he had some help, but there's no one he can trust right now. Not without potentially putting them in danger. Oh, he could tell Erica and Lydia in a heartbeat and he even thinks they'll believe him this time — but with them both so close to Julia, there's just too much at risk.

Especially with Lydia's pregnancy.

Stiles takes in a shuddering breath. He needs to get a hold of himself. Maybe Julia will put his nervous energy down to resentment and jealousy. She'll probably love that.

It's probably is why she's invited him. To gloat.

To rub in her absolute win.

Stiles rubs some dried mint into his wrists to hide Derek's scent on his body. It's a little overpowering, a little too obvious, but Stiles can cry kitchen accident. He starts to put the herbs away and when he turns back to loop up the napkin, make it a bundle he can carry around, the blind kitchen assistant is standing right next to him.

"Grargh!" Stiles manages, in surprise. Then, more eloquently: "Hello! I'm Stiles. Hi. I'm Erica Reyes' brother, fellow kitchen assistant monkey. I'm pleased to meet you?"

He doesn't mean it to come out as a question, but up close, this guy is kinda creepy. Stiles frowns and shoves that thought away, because it's got to be mean to think negative things of a person with a disability.

"Deucalion," the guy says. "I'm Deucalion." He shoves a hand out, missing Stiles completely — Stiles dubiously takes his hand and the guy, Deucalion, shakes it firmly. Stiles thinks something hypocritical about why someone would have a name like Deucalion, remembers his own birth name, and feels bad for that thought too.

"Hi," Stiles says again, redundantly.

Deucalion's smile is wide. "I think we're done for the night, Stiles." The way Deucalion lingers over his name makes him shiver a little and Stiles berates himself internally again. Just because he was right and Julia is a mass-murdering monster from hell doesn't mean he can completely abandon his plan to finally achieve something more closely resembling functional adulthood. "Interesting herb mix," Deucalion says, like he knows something.

"Uh," Stiles says, as Deucalion leans over and neatly starts folding up the cloth into the perfect shape for a hex bag. "I like to experiment, it's—"

Deucalion's smile freezes and he picks up the bundle, shoving it into Stiles' hands.

"Incoming," Deucalion says and Stiles frowns, because incoming what. "Keep this one safe, he's interesting." Stiles turns on his heel, just in time to see Aiden and Ethan coming towards him and their eyes are glowing red and what. Fucking what.

Ennis and Kali's eyes are glowing red too and Stiles has the sinking feeling that if Deucalion lowered his sunglasses that they'd be red too and shit, he only has one repressor cuff and he inhales sharply —making himself bigger makes slipping someone grabbing him easier, because then all he has to do is exhale to make their grip looser — and Ethan shakes his head at Stiles, like he can see Stiles is about to defend himself.

"Let us rescue you," Ethan says, softly, and there's something in that which makes Stiles pause. "There's a larder back here. Stay until one of us lets you out."

Stiles frowns, because he doesn't like the idea of being trapped, but Aiden actually hands Stiles a carving knife and Deucalion holds out his hex bag like an offering, neatly twisted and knotted, and Stiles can't take on five Alphas single-handedly.

"Dill and honeysuckle," Kali hisses, sniffing towards the door and Julia, Julia's coming. Stiles' eyes widen, and he decides to risk Ethan's suggestion. He nods thankfully at Ethan and slips past them, shutting himself into the larder and holding the door closed. He shoves the tip of the knife in the lock, just in case someone gets the bright idea of locking him in, and a quick glance upwards assuages his fears a little — because that's definitely an air duct trapdoor in the ceiling.

Casting around, Stiles takes in the shelves and the tins of food and knows he can climb up into the ceiling if he needs to. His escape route fixed, Stiles stills and listens in as the door to the kitchens swings open and the clack of high heels follows.

He clasps the pouch of herbs to himself. They'll help hide him.

Well. Hopefully. Stiles hasn't half-assed a plan like this since…

Going out to the woods to look for a dead body.

And that time, Scott ended up as a werewolf, and Stiles thought his life had changed forever then. He just hadn't anticipated at that point in his life that there still was a lot more changing to come.

I miss you Dad, Stiles thinks, and shakes with it for a second. I really freaking miss you.

"Hi, everyone," Julia's voice says, in a low purr. "I wondered when you'd be showing up, Duke. I can call you Duke, can't I?"

"Julia Baccari," Deucalion says. His voice is freaking creepy, even muffled by the door. "It's taken us a long time to find you."

"And now you've found me too late," Julia says. "And it's gotta sting that you failed at all those super subtle attempts to poison my food. Really?"

"Hmm," Deucalion says. "You win some, you lose some."

"You know, I wondered if you'd take the bait. Take this job. It's why I made sure to leave my name with the agency. Even though you have to know — I would only be reclaiming my real name if I didn't have to hide anymore." Julia's voice is like ice. "I have a reason not to have to hide anymore."

There's a very large crashing sound. Like two werewolves landing hard on something breakable. Like, for example, the pile of a hundred plates Stiles saw stacked up at the back of the kitchen.

"We're not here to cause trouble," Deucalion says. "We came, we saw, we poisoned, we decided not to conquer—"

"Decided not to—" Julia repeats and then starts laughing. "You can't conquer. McCall's potential scared you off long enough for me to get my claws deep into Beacon County. I'm one with the telluric currents, Duke. Do you have any idea what it's like? To be so connected to the world's magic? I am Beacon Hills now. You can't stop me."

"I can try," Kali hisses, in a low, angry tone. There's a screeching sound, and a thump, and then the sound of Kali wheezing hard.

"Let her go," Ennis shouts. "Drop her, Julia, she left you alive, isn't that enough?"

"Left me—she slaughtered my pack. One by one. I was practically dead. If it wasn't for the Nemeton, I would be dead." Julia laughs, bitterly.

Nemeton. Stiles frowns, the three syllables ringing a bell. Some sort of a Druidic ritual space. Sometimes it was a stone structure, sometimes it was a natural place, like a grove. It could be anywhere, but it's nice to have a clue this early in the game.

"Is there a reason you're confronting us now?" Deucalion sounds almost bored, even though Kali's choking is a constant soundtrack in the background. "I presumed you were waiting for after the wedding."

"Well, it's true the ceremony will bind the pack's power to me permanently," Julia says. "But I'm plenty enough powerful as it is." She must do something — there's a crashing sound and Ethan makes a sad sound and a hiss of anger. Aiden, then. "You made a mistake not coming after me in Beacon Hills."

"You were alluring, that's true," Deucalion says. "But Beacon Hills came with its own… intricacies."

"McCall's potential as a True Alpha, you mean?" Julia laughs, sharp and cold. Stiles frowns. Does she mean Scott? What the hell is a True Alpha? It must be rare if it hasn't come up in Stiles' reading. "Yes, I see where that might have made you nervous. The chances are when you bait a True Alpha, that's when they rise into their power. You literally make your own monster." A melodramatic pause. "I guess that works as a description of me, huh?"

"Let her go," Ennis pleads in the background. "We won't bother you."

"Correction. You can't bother me. I'm already too powerful. And tomorrow, I'll just be even more powerful." Julia stalks across the kitchen floor, heels clacking, and how much power is she displaying right now? Enough to make five Alphas cower. An Alpha pack. Jesus. Only Erica could employ a pack of Alpha werewolves to cater a wedding.

Only… it's probably not a mistake. Julia's a master of manipulation. Stiles isn't here by chance and this Alpha pack…

The agency Julia recommended me, Erica had said, and Stiles' eyes burn for a moment as he holds back a tear, because it would be a tear of pure fear, and that's not a good emotion for this scenario. God, she's been playing them all for years.

"If you want to die today, I have a myriad of methods," Julia offers. "I literally compelled one werewolf to walk into a puddle of oil holding a sparking flare, once. It's not often as an English teacher that I get to show some real creativity, but I can bring it, if you're so inclined."

Stiles' gut tightens and boils. Scott. His fingernails of his right hand find the soft flesh of his palm again and dig in deep, even though the gouged marks from last time haven't even slightly healed. The sour tang of his blood reaches his nostrils, stronger than the herb combination clutched in his left hand.

It clears his head a little, oddly. The rousing smell of war.

That might be what he'll need, to stop her, but the idea of a pyrrhic victory is much too likely for Stiles to kick down the door and try to spark up that war right now.

"I have the protection of a pack," Julia says. "And more power than you can dream of. You could try and attack me right now. I think I'd enjoy that. Tonight I could stop you. But from tomorrow? Tomorrow I'll be mated to the biggest Alpha in the country, the oldest and most respected pack. You won't be able to touch me — but I'll be able to touch you. I'll be able to play you like puppets. So I don't mind inviting you to stay. Enjoy the party. It's the closest you're ever going to come to me."

Julia makes a sound, like snapping her fingers, and the kitchen doors open again — and growling sounds fill the kitchen, growling sounds that sound familiar. Stiles' stomach hurts. Is that Erica's growl? He hasn't heard her wolfed out for years, but it does sound like her.

"Just to show how easily you'd be under my command," Julia says and then clicks her fingers again.

"Oh, hey, J," Erica says. "We just came to see how the food prep was going. Kali, you look a little winded, are you okay?"

"Fine," Kali says, sullenly.

"See, babe, I told you everything was fine," Erica says.

"Yeah, I know," Boyd says.

"I'm a little confused why you're hanging out in the kitchen with me and not out on the second stag night," Jackson says.

"Well, Derek went walksies, it wasn't fun crashing it anymore without the groom to mock," Erica says.

Despite his fear, Stiles cracks a sad smile trying to picture what Erica will have done to try and disguise herself as a guy.

"Derek—Huh, I bet he did," Julia says, thoughtfully. "You should go to the bar. We'll get some drinks in before the big day."

"Great suggestion, J," Jackson says.

There's clattering, so maybe it's the Hale pack werewolves leaving, and Stiles stares at the closed door. Even with all his weapons, he couldn't do a thing on his own.

Well. He couldn't do anything sensible on his own.

Stiles is just about thinking he can maybe try getting out of the larder when—and he doesn't even see it clearly, just a blur of movement, a loud sound, and—

Is that Julia's hand, sticking through the larder, yanking him into the door?

She's so strong, so strong, and Stiles' face explodes into stars as she smashes it against the inside. He manages to push the hex bag into his pocket, for all the good it will do. It's when he's fumbling for the repressor cuff that she lets him go and the door flings off to one side, Stiles' knife clattering uselessly to the tiles and Julia doesn't even bother to throw one of her sweet smiles in his direction.

Her expression is cold as she stares at him.

"Of course. Always a Stilinski where you don't want to find one." Julia's face is angled, cold. "Do you know your father would have survived if he hadn't been poking his nose in where it didn't belong?"

Bile rises in Stiles' throat and he glares her down. "Murderer," he hisses, not bothering to hide his hatred. Panic claws at him and his brain is already shrieking high-pitched, Mona, Erica, Cora, Lydia— He sighs, and sags, already defeated before he can even put up any sort of a fight. He looks up at her, resentful and hating. "You already know you've won. Gloat away."

Julia blinks. "I'm supposed to believe you're just going to sit there meekly? I can see the weapon in your hand—"

"This?" Stiles says, pulling up the repressor cuff, and tossing it to one side reluctantly. "It only works on werewolves." He can't help the glare. "Not Darachs."

"You really are a coward," Julia says, smirking. "When I told Derek to break up with you, and sealed it with a very pleasant kiss, I'd expected that you would try and fight for him. But I guess you're just not strong enough." She looks at him, gaze sweeping over his body. "You're pathetic."

"I could still cause you trouble," Stiles says, but he's not so sure about that right now. He shrugs. "I'm an unknown quantity. I'm just telling you that I'm not going to cause you trouble. Hell, we both know even when I was hellbent on causing you trouble, all I did was amuse you more."

"True," Julia says. She purses her lips. "But I still can't risk you running around causing more trouble before the ceremony. After the wedding… I don't care much what you think you can do. I guess I could kill you — but it would be nice to rub my victory in your face. No one around here fully appreciates what I've done, after all." Her grin widens and she clicks her fingers. "Jackson, Boyd—" The two werewolves in question reappear at the door, eyes blank. "Help me take Stilinski to his room. He's had much too much to drink."

Stiles glances over at the Alpha pack and they're pressing themselves along the back wall, eyeballing Julia warily — and Julia just preens under that attention — and then Jackson and Boyd grab hold of both of his elbows and start to frogmarch him along the long hallway towards the B Wing.

With Julia and Boyd around, the stag and hen nights must be over. And that means there's a lot of people in the resort. Stiles is mentally counting up the bodies, trying to calculate the odds of running into someone and Julia being the Darach is in the realm of apocalyptic-level catastrophes — so it shouldn't be a surprise that the odds aren't good and they aren't ever in his favor.

Allison's the first to see them. At first she doesn't, crossing across the hallway with a half-drunk glass of champagne in her hands. And then she sees them — Boyd and Jackson frogmarching Stiles, Julia pushing him from behind, and her expression changes into fear. She's straight into action, putting her glass down on the nearest sideboard, but it's as cover to draw a knife out of her jacket, because bless Allison to the ends of the earth, she's forever prepared for trouble. Allison draws the knife back to throw it and Julia snaps her fingers.

Allison straightens. Pockets the knife. Stares ahead with glassy eyes.

Oh. Oh, they're all under Julia's spell. Julia chuckles, low in her throat, and nudges a cold hand between Stiles' shoulder blades, pushing them all forwards.

Allison's standing stock still and Julia puts a hand on her shoulder, smiling at her. She reaches over and pushes Allison's champagne into her hand and tucks Allison's knife back into her jacket. "You should go to the bar, honey. Enjoy the rest of the party."

"I should," Allison says, turning and starting to walk in the opposite direction.

"Hey, Allison," a female voice calls out and Stiles sees the bright flash of yellow before he even recognizes the voice. His throat clams up. No. No, Lydia can't see this, she can't—

"What's going on?" Lydia asks, coming through the nearest door into the hallway, her eyes wide with fear, and — Julia just snaps her finger and Lydia straightens, her gaze focussing on nothing, in the distance.

Stiles' fingers curl into claws and dig into his sides.

"You're starting to see, aren't you?" Julia says, in Stiles' ear. Her breath is warm against his skin. "How very little chance any of you even had against me?"

Stiles lets himself shudder, even though Julia will enjoy it too much. It's actually good that she's come this close and not smelled Derek all over him. It means the hex bag's doing its job.

"Lydia, come help us take Stiles to his room. He's had a little bit too much to drink," Julia says and she snaps a finger.

Lydia's tense posture relaxes and she smiles at Stiles, blandly. "Let's get you to your room, Stiles," she says, in a flat tone.

Julia stalks ahead of them and Lydia joins Boyd and Jackson in marching him to the room. His throat is dry and his heart is racing. Even if he had a full army… The possibilities flutter around his brain; they're all flawed and he mentally shoots them down, one by one.

It's an odd comfort that if Julia wanted him dead, he'd be dead already.

Julia pushes through into his room first and Jackson and Boyd haul Stiles through afterwards. Julia wiggles her fingers and goes straight for Stiles' bag. She pulls out his small selection of weapons, waggling the wooden knife at him.

"This is so cute," Julia says. "Even if there'd been trouble, you know the pack can handle it. They don't need you." She steals one of Stiles' plain t-shirts to wrap his weapons in and holds them close to her chest. "Nobody needs you."

"Nobody needs me," Stiles says. "But Derek loved me. And you and I both know he still does."

It's a gamble, baiting her, but needling the bad guys is kind of Stiles' trademark. He's never really learned when to keep his mouth shut.

He's expecting her to rear back, to hit him, to decry that Derek loves her to the ends of the planet.

Instead, she just shrugs. "Love is for idiots," she says, looking at him dispassionately. "I loved my pack once and Kali and Deucalion took them away. Love just gets you pain. Now power… That's what gets my motor running." She taps the point of one of Stiles' blades against the palm of her hand, drawing a line of blood that heals almost immediately.

"Three healers," Stiles says, squinting at her.

"Yup." Julia smiles at him. "You know, you call me a murderer, but all the sacrifices… They were for the greater good, Stiles. And Derek volunteered, did you know that? He would be my living guardian, so I didn't have to kill three more. I don't kill extraneously. Twelve deaths… It's not a lot to ask, for the benefits I'll bring to town."

Stiles stares. "I don't understand."

"Once the wedding's over, I'll be so powerful nothing will bother Beacon Hills again. Doesn't that sound wonderful? Someone had to make the hard choices, but once I return…" Her grin is wide, fierce, burning with her conviction. "I'll be Beacon Hill's guardian angel." She wrinkles her mouth. "Well, a fallen angel. But then again… No one's perfect." Her grin fades, back to a cold expression. "And some of us are more flawed than others."

"I'll take the Darach floored for five hundred, Alex," Stiles snits.

Stiles' head snaps backwards, Julia just having to idly wave her fingers to deliver a force similar to a roundhouse punch from a heavyweight champion. The pain helps ground Stiles a little.

"Protect him," Julia commands, pointing at Lydia and Jackson. "Make sure he's at the wedding. I want him front and center. So I can taste his pain. Boyd, you're with me." She dimples a smile at Stiles. "Your poor sister would probably appreciate it if we cleaned up the kitchen."

Lydia and Jackson both nod in creepy unison, Jackson's grip tightening on Stiles' shoulder as Julia swans out of the room, Boyd in tow. Lydia follows after her, just far enough to get to the door and lock it. She turns on her heel.

"Jackson," Stiles says, his voice low. "Listen to me. It's me, Stiles. I need you to snap out of this."

Jackson tilts his head at an unnatural angle and glares at him.

"Seriously, I'm harmless," Stiles says, aware his breaths are increasing in speed and trying to keep his voice low and almost melodic. Maybe he can hypnotize Jackson, until he can get into a position to try and take him out. "What did I ever do to you? Except, y'know, lock you in a police van in the middle of nowhere. And advocate killing you. But that was just when you had that little skin problem. Scales were not a good look for you, buddy."

"They really weren't," Lydia says and she holds up a pair of handcuffs, smiling at Jackson. "This will make things so much easier, love, don't you think?"

Jackson looks confused, but nods, and he turns Stiles around, hooking the chair in the room by his ankle and dragging it out from under the desk into the middle of the room. He grabs Stiles, readying him to push into the chair — and Lydia's a blur of movement. With one well-placed shove, Jackson's the one that sprawls into the chair and Lydia yanks Jackson's arms behind him, cuffing them together.

"Ha," Lydia says, clapping her hands together. She turns to Stiles and arches an eyebrow. Her eyes aren't distant now and she's smirking widely.

"Uh," Stiles says and holds up his hands slowly, "Julia's the Darach. And I think she's been poisoning your drinks. The tea—"

"And probably the champagne," Lydia says, blowing a stray strand of hair out of her eyes and pushing Jackson down in the chair when he tries to struggle. "Just stay there, sweetie. Mama will deal with your hangover later." She eyeballs Stiles' clothes. "Do you think we should gag him? I think we should gag him."

"What—" Stiles starts. "How—"

Lydia sighs and wrinkles her mouth and then nods determinedly, like she's psyching herself up. "I didn't know. Not until I was a few paces behind Allison, and I saw what Julia did to her." Her gaze turns sad and worried. "I guess because of the baby, and the morning sickness, I've been throwing up the tea she usually gives me for the last few weeks."

"I'm going to kill you," Jackson manages to say, glaring at Stiles, bunching his muscles and straining at the cuffs.

"Are those the cuffs I got for Erica to give to Boyd?" Stiles asks, pointing at them.

"Yeah, she lets us borrow them sometimes," Lydia says. "Jackson likes—"

"A-la-la-la, I don't need to know," Stiles says and heads over to his dresser, handing Lydia a sock to gag Jackson with as he pulls out his phone.

"Do you have any contacts in the area?" Lydia asks.

"Maybe," Stiles says. "Do you know who else Julia regularly drinks her herbal tea with?"

"The whole pack, once a week. Me, usually every weekday morning," Lydia says, wrinkling her nose. "And Cora at least twice a day," her voice wobbles at that one. "Did she—"

"I'm going to guess she's the one that made Cora sick, yes," Stiles says. "And she's been holding her cure over Derek's head for years."

"Jesus—" Lydia breathes and then shakes her head, pushing aside processing events in favor of thinking proactively. "Obviously she hasn't been having Jesus for tea. Um. Your Ma. I'm sorry, Stiles."

"I know," Stiles says. "Anyone else?"

Lydia scratches at her neck. "Obviously the pack. Some of the teachers. Morrell, sometimes. I think I've seen her having tea with Deaton, too."

"No parents?" Stiles asks, cautiously.

"Not mine," Lydia says. "Not Melissa. She's done her best to stay away from us as much as possible—"

Stiles feels cold. Is that because Melissa's smart, or because Scott managed to communicate enough to her before he died that Julia was evil?

"How about Chris Argent?" Stiles asks.

"Well, he's mostly around with Melissa," Lydia says, frowning at the question. Then her frown clears. "Oh, duh. Chris Argent. Of course he's a local contact." Her expression is fond as she idly pets her struggling husband on the head, ruffling his hair in a way that irritates the hell out of Jackson when he's not under a spell.

"Yup," Stiles says. "Kind of my main contact, actually." He hits send, as Lydia's curious gaze flies to his face. Stiles grins at her quickly, but the grin fades when the call clicks through to voicemail.

"Try the McCall house," Lydia suggests. Her expression is sad when she adds, "The number's still the same."

Stiles can type that number more easily than he can remember his own cellphone number. His fingers have the number embedded in the muscle memory. When it clicks through to voicemail, he tries the hospital — Melissa's supposedly at home, getting ready for the wedding tomorrow. On a whim, he asks for news about Mona — and hears something that makes his stomach sink.

And he'd thought things were getting just as bad as they could be.

"What is it?" Lydia says, eyes boring into his. She's always known when he's found out something terrible.

"Ma was discharged this afternoon," Stiles says, worry burning through him like a firestorm. "The nurse said she was probably—"

"Call her," Lydia says, reaching out to put her hand over his.

He tries. "Voicemail," he says, his voice catching, and he sinks onto the end of the bed, shaking his head. "I don't know who else to call. Not anyone that could get here quick enough to help." He takes a few deep breaths, because he can't afford a panic attack now, and looks up at Lydia. "We need a plan."

"I want to say run," Lydia says, her hand on her stomach. "But I—I don't want to know what she'll do to the people who we leave behind."

"And I don't think we can snag everyone," Stiles says. "You saw how fast she healed. It turns out that the catering crew Erica employed, it's a pack of Alphas. Not one Alpha werewolf, five of them. And she had them cowering against a wall…" He puts his head in his hands and slams it down several times. "And the things she was saying—"

Lydia sits down next to him, her eyes worriedly tracking over Jackson's body, and she leans into him, curling her arm around his, hugging it to herself protectively. "We should have listened to you." She turns wide eyes up to him, water pooling in them with her worry. "Back then. When you said she was evil."

"It's okay," Stiles says, his voice thick. "She's good at what she does." He looks down and thinks hard, leeching from her warmth and support, taking strength from it. "She's very good. She'd have a back-up plan. Just in case the wedding can't happen." He turns to her. "And we can't get in touch with Chris and Melissa."

Lydia frowns. "What are you saying?"

"She said Derek volunteered to be her living guardian," Stiles says. "And volunteered. That has to be the key part. Like… Why have a wedding at all? I'd bet anything, anything, that her ritual for ultimate power needs him saying I do voluntarily. He's under a severe spell at the moment, but maybe during the ceremony—"

"A spell," Lydia says and she shakes her head again, like she's trying to clear her head. "That makes sense. Why he didn't let us know she was evil, if he volunteered to protect her."

"But if it's a voluntary thing… He could still say no. And the amount of planning and power…" Stiles frowns. "She has a back-up plan. For sure. Three victims lined up, ready to kill on the off-chance that Derek says no."

"Three guardians," Lydia says. Her eyes widen even more. "You don't think Chris and Melissa—"

Stiles looks at her. "Chris has never not answered my phone calls over the last ten years. Not once. And believe me, I could have done with him not taking the call when he was in bed with someone — who I now know is Melissa McCall. Oh, my god. Oh, my god. I've heard Scott's mom's sex noises. Well. As if this day hasn't traumatized me enough."

"Scott," Lydia says, her voice breaking midway through his name.

Stiles nods, slowly, sadly, because Scott's death might have been a registered suicide, but Julia made him walk into that spilled gas. Scott's death is just one more murder to add to her tally.

"You've not used your powers since the wet market in Hougang," Stiles says, "right?"

"Yeah," Lydia says. She gets to her feet, scowling fiercely at the door. "As soon as I came back, that's when Julia started inviting me for tea every Saturday." Her hands clench into fists. "I'm going to rip her face off."

"No, you're not." Stiles stands up and closes his hands around hers. "We're going to get out of here."

"But what about—" Lydia says, gesturing at Jackson, and then at the wall, meaning everyone else.

Stiles stares at the walls bleakly, stomach crunching unhappily. "The pack would kill me if I didn't get you away from here," he says and Lydia stares at him, just as miserable. "Jackson would personally rip my throat out. And until we can break her power—"

"But the things she could do to them if we go—" Lydia says, wringing her hands, and then she straightens, tilting her chin. "You're right. I know you're right. We need to find Chris Argent." Her eyes flutter a little. "I think—I think you're right. I'm kind of getting that feeling in the pit of my stomach, now I'm thinking about him."

"The same one as in Hougang?"

"I think so," Lydia says, her brow furrowing. "He's in danger, I can feel—Tightness. Like around my chest. And a smell—Something earthy."

"Lock onto that smell," Stiles says, grabbing hold of her elbows, anchoring her to him. "What can you associate with that smell?"

"It's too far away." Lydia's frown deepens, more than it would if she was paying attention — Lydia would never consciously risk wrinkles that deep. "I can't focus—Dammit." Her faraway gaze focuses in sharply on Stiles' face. "This was so much easier back in high school and college, when we could just get in my car and drive to the store and end up driving right to where someone was in danger—"

"Then let's go," Stiles says, winching the window open and peering outside, calculating the distance to the parking lot and the potential obstacles in-between.

With the herbs to mask their scent, he thinks it's worth risking it.

"We'll have to leave Jackson behind," Lydia says, following his gaze, and then staring back at her still-struggling husband miserably.

Stiles smirks. "I like this plan more and more."

#

Lydia's vibrating with worry for the whole drive and Stiles is too choked up with feeling to make conversation as she drives his car. Stiles drums his fingers against his knees nervously. Although they're a good hour's drive away from the resort now, both their minds imploding over what could be happening behind them, the idea of her chasing them is heavy on both of their minds.

Druids — good or evil — had a strong connection to nature. She could send a storm to them, to effortlessly bring them to their knees at a distance. Still, Stiles knocked Jackson over the head pretty hard before they left, and tied him up securely under the bed. Even if Julia comes back to check on him, they've got a decent head start.

"Oh, my god," Lydia says, "say something. I'm not used to Stiles Stilinski being quiet."

"Hm?" Stiles says, distracted by the time. It's after midnight now and the wedding's due to start at ten. If he can't find Chris Argent, his next contact is in London: the total downside of doing most of his hunting in foreign climes is not getting to know the American hunters who don't like to trave. There's no flight fast enough to get help in time from the hunters Stiles knows well enough to call up and ask for their help. "Oh, sorry." He drums his fingers against the car door instead for a few moments. "Um, so, I had sex with Derek."

"No, you already told me that," Lydia says. "Handjob in your room, interrupted sex in the club—"

"—the full horizontal mambo in the boatshed, a few hours ago?" Stiles winces at her reflection in the rear-view mirror.

"Oh my god, Stiles," Lydia says. "When the—When even did—"

"Well, the wedding prep was getting to me, so I went outside to get some fresh air," Stiles explains. "And I met Derek at the lake and all he could say was my name, like his heart was breaking just saying it. And then I realized he couldn't even finish a sentence and it was like he was struggling to even speak—"

"He gets like that sometimes," Lydia says and her fingers tighten on the steering wheel. Her voice goes quiet. "We just thought he was missing you."

"And that's when I realized he was under some sort of spell," Stiles says. "You know the amount of research I've done on magic. To maintain something that huge, it's Darach-level supernatural fuckery. So—"

"So you realized Julia was evil, probably going to kill us all, and you stopped to have sex with him? Really?" Lydia's meticulous concentration slides from the road for one second, in order to give Stiles an appalled expression.

Stiles holds his hands up in defence. "I know. It was just—I didn't know then just how impending the doom was." He wrinkles his mouth. "I thought I had more time, I guess. That's… always been my thought when it comes to Derek Hale." He looks down at his lap. "And I've always been wrong."

Lydia reaches over to put one of her hands on his, the other staying on the steering wheel, her worried eyes scanning the road ahead like she's expecting Julia to jump out and say boo. "You were more right than any of us," she says, quietly.

"You weren't supposed to notice anything wrong," Stiles says. "Julia's been playing all of us."

"Yeah," Lydia says, the bitterness in her tone palpable. She pulls her hand away from his, but only to settle on her stomach. Her fear is tangible too. Stiles vows no matter what happens… Lydia and her baby are getting out of this. No matter what they have to lose.

And maybe that makes him as reckless as Julia.

Stiles has never deserved nice things.

The silence falls again. Stiles sighs. "I'm going to message some of my other contacts," he mumbles, and sends a barrage of text messages, a combination of codes which basically imply nuclear clean-up.

It's only when shadows fall over the car that Stiles looks up again and when he looks out the window, he stares. "I know this place."

"Sure," Lydia says. "We're just coming up to the apartment block which—" Her sentence falters and she frowns, navigating them neatly into a stop in front of a sign which reads Beacon Hills Preserve: No Entry After Dark.

Well, Stiles has been ignoring that sign since he was a teen. He gets out of the car, popping the trunk and pulls out a couple of torches, handing one to Lydia, who gratefully takes hold of it. Stiles slides a few weapons into his belt — the ones in his bag weren't the only ones he was packing, obviously. There's not enough weapons in his car to take Julia down, though. Especially if everyone who's drunk tea or champagne is under her control.

Lydia looks down at the contents of her trunk and her voice is huskier than normal. "That's… a lot of weapons, Stiles."

"C'mon," Stiles says, pulling the trunk closed and loading his favorite sidearm with wolfsbane bullets — ostensibly the go-to bullet for werewolves, but they work just fine on a wide variety of species. He's not exactly in the mood tonight to go for his more maim-first-kill-later type of weapon. "Concentrate on that scent you thought you picked up back in the resort."

"Wow," Lydia says, "like I'm not going to smell earth and moss in the middle of Beacon Hills' Preserve…" Her gaze goes distant again and Stiles' fingers tighten imperceptibly on his weapon, because he's probably going to associate that with Julia's mind control finger-clicking for a long time. If he survives whatever he ends up planning to take Julia down, that is. "This way," she says, gesturing with her torch and taking off before Stiles can take the lead.

Stiles hugs her shadow the whole time. If it's not Chris in danger, her banshee powers will be picking up someone's imminent death and with Lydia, it's usually extremely violent.

Like that time in college, second year, when her craving for late-night curly fries led them right in the middle of a territory dispute between some vampires.

Yeah, Stiles could have lived without knowing they existed.

On the plus side, they definitely didn't glitter in daylight. Stiles was glad to bust that fiction wide open.

He probably could have done without him literally busting that fiction wide open, all over himself, because vampire viscera was really hard to get out of clothing, but… nothing in life was ever easy. Ever.

And maybe that was why Stiles felt like he hadn't grown up, or maybe Mona was right.

Maybe you didn't grow up, you just grew old.

If you were lucky.

"Wait," Stiles says. "Wait, I know this place." He stumbles forward into the empty clearing, memories assailing his senses as he looks around. "This is… This is near where Scott and I were—That first time, when Scott was bitten. This was where Laura Hale's body was found. Well, half of it."

"I know this place too," Lydia says, her voice a whisper and she lifts up a hand, trembling. "Don't you remember — the tree I used to draw in junior and senior year. I guess—I guess that I drew it upside down?"

Stiles pushes his racing thoughts aside, because this is definitely the time for action. "This is where he is, then. Chris? CHRIS. MELISSA. Can you hear me?" He raises his voice. If there are creatures in the woods that his voice will attract, he really doesn't care right now. "CHRIS ARGENT. MELISSA MCCALL."

He falls silent, to give them time to respond, and he holds up a hand to Lydia — he can definitely hear something. He closes his eyes and inhales slowly, listening over the sound of his racing heart. "This way," he says and moves over to near the severed trunk of the tree — there are too many twigs and branches and leaves at one side of it and he bends over, pushing them out of the way — and his heart almost skips a beat in relief when he finds a trapdoor underneath.

He wrenches the door open and holds his torch and gun out.

"Stay behind me," Stiles commands Lydia, not wanting to leave her exposed above ground without a weapon, but unwilling to risk her to what might be waiting down the steps.

Just because it might be Chris Argent doesn't mean that Julia's hasn't been thinking twenty steps ahead.

She hasn't, though, and maybe that's just cocky overconfidence that she could keep Stiles at the resort; whatever the reason, Stiles runs forward gratefully, passing Lydia a knife and then kneeling at Melissa's side, starting to cut away her knots.

"You found us," Melissa breathes, pressing a grateful kiss against Stiles' cheek. "I can't believe you even found us—She said no one would find us—That you would all be fixated on the wedding—"

Chris waits for Lydia to cut his hands apart before taking the knife from her and efficiently slicing himself free of the rope in one movement. He looks at Stiles, his expression heavy. "Sitrep?"

"Julia Baccari is the Darach," Stiles says, as he starts back up the steps, urgency giving his tone gravitas. "The wedding's some sort of ritual to cement drawing power from the Hale pack, as far as I can tell. There's ninety guests on site, the champagne has been drugged, some sort of combination which compels the subjects to do what they're told to do when Julia snaps her fingers. I haven't been able to bring any, but it has dill and honeysuckle in the combination. Allison's definitely under control, I'm sorry. Julia's powerful — the caterers Erica employed to assist us were a whole pack of Alphas and she scared them—"

"An Alpha pack?" Chris swears, creatively, and Stiles is glad he has no deeper level of panic to descend to, because Chris — unruffled, experienced Chris Argent — cursing is always a terrible sign.

"I've texted for reinforcements, but the nearest patrol has to be ten hours out, maximum. The wedding's in just over nine hours."

"We need weapons, then," Chris says, taking Melissa's hand and helping her out onto the ground. Lydia follows, looking between Stiles and Chris nonplussed.

"I have some in the car, but not enough," Stiles says. "I've got a stash in the garage of my old place."

Chris nods. "I've got some old contacts in town. Retirees who might be persuaded to join our effort. Given the appropriate… motivation."

"The werewolf whitenoise app gave us half a billion in revenue last year," Stiles says. "I think we can manage."

"Stiles," Lydia says, slowly. "I… thought you gave up hunting after college."

Stiles quirks a grin at her as they hurry back to the parked car. "I guess I did give that impression."

"Stiles was your last apprentice," Lydia realizes. "Allison told me he'd graduated and that's why you were so antsy looking for a new one.

Melissa looks at Chris in quiet surprise as she tugs her cardigan around herself more tightly. "I thought—I heard you talking to him on the phone. I would have heard if you said Stiles. You said his name was—" She frowns. "Preshe— Pshemyswaff?"

Stiles holds out a hand sideways to her in greeting. "Przemyslaw Stilinski. Pleased to make your acquaintance." Melissa looks down at his hand, squinting. "You knew Stiles was a nickname, right?"

"But Allison said hunters were badly paid," Lydia says, "and you've been—Rich since your dad's insurance settlement came through. Jesus Christ, Stiles." She punches him in the arm and it's quite a blow. Stiles is going to regret what he's about to do, namely, give Melissa instructions on how to get to the safe house in San Jose until they know it's safe.

If Lydia, her unborn baby and Melissa are all that Stiles can salvage from this, it's going to have to be enough.

"Okay," Chris says, "explanations can wait. Right now we have a Darach to stop." He pauses at the car and frowns. "Run over quickly what she's said to you. All of it."

Stiles repeats everything she said, making sure not to paraphrase, because back at the beginning of his apprenticeship, Chris had been startlingly thorough about his ability to repeat a bad guy's monologue exactly.

It was a good skill to leave. The monologue of the villain was usually their fatal flaw. They tended to be cocky, to give a clue in them that led to their downfall.

Stiles can tell from Chris' grin that Julia's not the exception to that rule.

"What?" Stiles says. "What did you figure out?"

"Patience, young padawan," Chris says, with a tug of his lips which says he's been waiting years to use that one on Stiles with an audience that will appreciate it. He reaches into Stiles' pocket and steals his phone. "What's the zipcode of the resort?"

Lydia leans over and keys it in to Stiles' map app.

"She can still take three guardians," Chris says and flips the screen towards Stiles. He's clicked the option to turn on overhead photographs and Stiles feels abruptly like an idiot.

The windy paths around the resort.

They're in the shape of a five-fold knot.

"The root cellar back there—That's what's known as a Nemeton," Chris says.

"She said without it, she'd be dead," Stiles says, slowly.

"This is why she hasn't pushed for a nice outdoor wedding in the woods," Chris nods back in the direction of the tree. "Because the telluric currents are just as strong there and she could keep her source of power a secret. But because the resort is so remote, she needed to keep us beneath the Nemeton in back-up."

"The chapel's at the center of the knot," Stiles says, prodding at the screen, and stealing the phone to bring up a diagram of the resort's layout from the resort's website.

"If she goes through with the ceremony… She'll be unstoppable," Chris says. "But even if we stop it, the Nemeton… She'll still be powerful. The Nemeton is the source of her power."

"Like a battery," Stiles says. "And my dad—and the other sacrifices—that's what powered it up for her. That's why she kills people, isn't it? She was planning to kill you if she couldn't go through with the ceremony…" He sighs heavily, shaking his head, and then he squints at Chris. "I have a spare can of gas in the trunk."

"We've got a lot of driving to do," Chris says, opening the car door, gesturing for Melissa to get in. "So—"

"I've got something else in mind," Stiles says.

#

When they pull up to Beacon Cove Resort, it's quiet, but not too quiet.

Gathering up supplies and recruiting some men to assist took a little time, and they wasted half an hour getting Melissa to drive Lydia away. Stiles ended up having to chloroform Lydia in the end, and as he bundled her in Melissa's car, Melissa's gaze was fierce.

"Kick her in the ass for me, Stiles," is all Melissa says in what could be the last time they speak — Stiles is under no delusions that anyone could survive this fire fight. There's enough resources in the safe house for Melissa and Lydia to make a break for it, to get free from Julia, and the hunting network in London will get them to Europe and protect them from there, if it escalates that badly.

Stiles will be able to give much more to the upcoming fight now he knows Lydia's free and safe.

The parking lot is full and no one's outside, but the faint sound of organ music is tinny in the air, and there's a car with JUST MARRIED painted on the back waiting at the front of the building.

And in the parking lot is Erica's distinctive pink mini. Erica drove the Reyes of Sunshine van up to the resort, so Mona will have come up in Erica's car. Which means Mona's definitely in there, just as much a potential victim of the probable upcoming cross-fire as all the other people in there.

Stiles swallows at the sight and then turns his focus inwards.

They've got a job to do. Mona's just one more reason why this plan can't fail.

Even though the ceremony must already have started, it's only important that they get there before the important part; Stiles makes one stop before they make their way to the chapel.

The Alpha pack are still in the kitchen, which is both a good thing, and kind of pathetic, if Stiles is being honest.

"Hey," Ethan says, when Stiles climbs into the kitchen through the window, "she didn't kill you. I'm glad."

"I don't care," Aiden tells him.

Kali scowls at him and—she seems to have removed her footwear in favor of tapping her footclaws against the kitchen tiles and how is that sanitary?

"I came by for a favor," Stiles says.

Even Ennis manages to look disgruntled at that.

"And you've all been working with Erica," Stiles continues, pulling a wry expression. "You know when I say favor, I mean order."

"Really?" Aiden's claws come out and he looks at them almost disinterestedly. "And how are you going to order us around, huh?"

"Firstly, my gun's kinda full of wolfsbane," Stiles says, holding up his weapon. "But… secondly… I'm presuming you're hanging around because you wouldn't be paid if you left. Even a pack of Alpha werewolves have gotta eat, am I right?"

"Do hurry on before I die of boredom?" Deucalion says, sounding incredibly surly.

"And bear in mind, we're not anyone's army," Ennis says.

"He means we're not fighting your battle for you," Kali says, rolling her eyes.

"Mostly," Ethan says, helpfully, "we wait for people like you to do the hard work and then swoop in and take what we want when both sides are exhausted and on the verge of dying horribly without any of our assistance necessary."

Stiles gives him an appalled look. For a pack of Alpha werewolves, they're kind of giant cowards.

"It's my fault," Deucalion says, sighing. "I've been trying to teach them that the best way to get what you want is for the target to give themselves to you on their own. It's not been working too well for the last couple of years."

"I'm so sorry you're having trouble with your path of villainy," Stiles says, deadpan.

"So what's your secondly?" Aiden growls.

Stiles smirks at him. "Secondly, I have a new dish I need to add to the wedding menu."

Ethan groans. "Oh, come on, it's already five courses—You know how painful it's going to be, handing out dinner we can't even poison to the ratbag, demonwitch whose making our lives a misery—"

"Oh, I don't know," Stiles says and looks at Ethan intently. "You might enjoy preparing this dish. If I hunt one down for you… how do you feel about Roast Darach?"

Deucalion's sunglasses flash red. "We're listening."

#

They approach the doors of the chapel cautiously. There are only eight members of resort staff, drugged and glassy-eyed under Julia's control and taking them out is easy.

"Are you ready?" Chris says, keeping his voice low. "Everyone in there is probably drugged. She could compel them all. We're not entirely prepared. I don't see this happening without collateral damage and there's a lot of people in there that—"

He doesn't finish the sentence, his eyes lingering over the seam of the double doors worriedly.

Allison's in there too.

"What I'm saying is we might have to hurt people we know," Chris finishes.

Stiles flashes a look at him. "I'm kind of an expert at that," he says, thinking of the disappointment on Erica's face, every time he didn't come home.

"Okay," Chris says, "on one, two—" He falters, frowning at the chapel's doors, tilting his head to one side. "Can you hear that too?"

"Shouting," Stiles says and they have a plan of cautious entry, and the six they managed to recruit are holding back, waiting for the signal to go in — but panic clogs up his throat and he moves without thinking, terror blinding his sense.

When he pushes open the door, no one even really notices him come in. All attention is at the front of the chapel.

Where Cora's standing.

On the altar.

Screaming swear words at Julia and Derek both.

"Does anyone protest — of course I fucking protest, what the hell — why would you have anything to do with this fucking bitch?" Cora gestures at Julia, who startles backwards.

Julia looks the picture of virginal innocence and she seems to be trying to keep up the act that she's just a blameless victim of Cora's crazy. She's doing a good job — if Stiles didn't know for sure she was a mass-murdering freak, he'd nearly be taken in by the glossy tears, the slack shocked mouth.

"Cora," Julia gasps. "I've been nothing but nice to you—"

"Nice?" Cora shrieks. "I did the math, Julia. And too many things happened the Christmas I got home. Me falling sick, Derek breaking up with the guy he's in love with and then me miraculously getting better—I can't believe it took me so long to see! So yeah, does anyone protest to this marriage — I do! I FREAKING DO."

"Cora," Derek says, pleadingly. "Cora, please. Step down. She's not—She's sick—We can—"

"Once someone has protested, I can't continue," the dazed vicar at the front says and wow, that's kind of hypocritical, a Celtic dark druid having a Christian ceremony.

"Bullshit, that never happens at the movies," Cora says and then shakes herself, like realizing she's yelling at the wrong person. "HA. That's even better! Foiled! By his sick and weak baby sister! Take that, you foul Darach—"

"Oh, you're calling me a Darach, I've heard that delusion before," Julia says and for the first time, she seems to realize Stiles has come in. She points at Stiles, melodramatically. "So this is your revenge? I steal your boyfriend ten years ago and you coach poor, sick Cora to break up our wedding for you? You're despicable, Stiles."

Several faces turn his way and Stiles almost reels backwards from the expressions of disgust. Julia's obviously not using her finger snap control at the moment and maybe that gives the ritual more power if she's not using any herself.

The expressions say that they're starting to believe Julia over the distressed Cora.

"If it helps, I protest the wedding for less insane reasons," Stiles says. "I'm in love with the groom."

There's an audible, dramatic gasp, and everyone turns to face Julia and Derek, looking for their reactions. Stiles almost flinches when he sees Mona's face turning his way, but he keeps his gun trained in Julia's direction.

Derek grins, just for a second, before schooling his expression, and saying, in a vague attempt to try and save Cora from this mess, "Don't be ridiculous, Stiles—"

"Cora's cornering ridiculous at the moment, let's be honest," Stiles says, which just makes Julia smile a little, like Stiles is proving all her points for her. Derek throws him a grateful look, which yeah, that's ridiculous. Stiles is carting a gun around — Derek can't expect this to be all resolved peaceably.

Then again, Derek's not got the perfect history of always making good decisions.

"Stiles," Cora says, looking devastated. "I don't care if this kills me. I know her tea's been curing me, but it's been… I'm only living half a life. I'd rather die than have her keep my brother and friends under her thumb. I can't believe you think I'd want that, Derek."

"I—" Derek starts and chokes up, clearly about to say something that Julia wouldn't approve of.

"Stiles — surprisingly — is winning the poll at the moment of voice of reason," Julia says. "He's a smart boy. I'm sure he knows…" Her head tilts a little, the gauzy white material of her dress swaying hypnotically. "He knows how to make the right decision."

"Actually, I meant that Cora was being ridiculous not being more prepared for causing a scene at a wedding," Stiles says and Cora's head snaps up triumphantly. He holds out a container. "Me, I know it's not December, but I dropped by my old house and brought something kissing-related." His expression flattens. "Mistletoe, anyone?"

Before Julia can react, Stiles flings off the top of the jar and throws it outwards. The herbs still in his pocket might protect him from subtle magic, but mistletoe is something much more visceral. It's right up there with mountain ash and wolfsbane when it comes to getting results in the battle against supernatural evil.

Of course, Stiles isn't exactly expecting the result he does get.

He should have done this years ago.

Because Julia rears backwards — and holy shit, she's not just using magic on his friends.

She's also using magic on herself.

Namely: her appearance.

The mistletoe surrounds her like a cloud and she flails, screaming and tearing at it, as her face splits apart.

No, her face is split apart. That's her real face. Terror and scars and destruction. Mangled beyond recognition.

Julia shakes herself and her normal face reappears, but she's not smiling now.

"Fine," she snarls. "Let's do this the hard way."

She clicks both fingers at once and nearly everyone in the entire room suddenly straightens, standing up with an ominous, thundering crack when their feet hit the wooden floor in unison. A hundred blank faces turn in Stiles' direction.

"Shit," Stiles says, eloquently.

Julia grins and she flings out both of her arms. "You just blocked off one avenue for me to get power," she says, stalking forwards a few steps, her white gown flying out behind her, "but I can still take power — there's always the old-fashioned method."

The floor rumbles and there's another cracking sound and then vines start ripping up through the floor and through the ceiling, wherever there are wooden planks to force apart.

"Who shall I take, Stiles?" Her smile is macabre. "Three emissaries?" She twitches a finger and Deaton, Morrell and Braeden are obscured by a flurry of vines and then the vines drag them upwards, separating their limbs, suspending them like starfish ten feet above the ground. The action seems to wake them from the champagne-induced stupor and Braeden starts to struggle first, kicking out, but the vines just hold them tighter.

"Or maybe I could convince some more werewolves to take their own lives," Julia says, her eyes flashing white and three of the vines descend from the ceiling, looping themselves into nooses; Julia snaps her fingers again and Isaac, Erica and Boyd start to climb up onto the pew, reaching up for the vines.

"Look at you," Julia hisses. "Did you even think you had a chance of stopping me, Stiles? I've won. I have your pack. I have your sweetheart. And you're one pathetic human on your own."

Stiles' gut tightens in fear and there's a smashing sound behind them — but this time it's not Julia, it's Chris and the ex-hunters he managed to round up.

"I'm not entirely alone," Stiles says and thumbs back at the hunters.

Julia's eyebrows twitch as Stiles and Chris hold up their weapons in identical poses at the same time.

"I told you I was a troubleshooter," Stiles says, mildly. "It's perfectly true." He cocks his gun unnecessarily just to be melodramatic. Chris hides a slight smile. "I shoot trouble."

He shoots her in the kneecap, just to prove a point. Of course the wound heals, but her expression is full of loathing when she looks up. "It doesn't matter if you have a thousand hunters at the door," Julia hisses. "This entire place is designed to protect me. I got into their landscaping plans years ago. The chapel's built on a sacred grove. The paths are a—"

"Five-fold knot, blah blah blah," Stiles says.

"Fine," Julia says, drawing herself up. "If you want a fight, you've got one." She clicks her finger again and — all that serves to do is to make people start to wake up. Julia blinks. That's not the action she was going for, then.

"You were right," Chris says, conversationally, "she did have a little power stored up."

"But not enough," Stiles says, like they're not standing in the middle of a giant shitshow.

"What—" Julia starts and for the first time her confident expression falters.

"I accidentally burned down your Nemeton," Stiles says, reloading his weapon. "It's funny how when you store up the power of sacrifices into something and it goes up in smoke—"

"I still have enough power," Julia says and she throws her fingers in a star-shape towards Stiles. A wall of energy comes towards him and he has to throw himself to one side, landing on the laps of several now-murmuring guests and ah, hell, he's landed right in Danny Mahealani's lap.

"Dude," Danny whispers.

"Dude yourself," Stiles hisses back, as he pushes himself between Danny and his pew companion, getting to his feet and aiming his weapon in Julia's direction, "the bride's a crazy magic-wielding murder, you all should be ducking and hiding."

Stiles aims his gun and fires, but he just hits vines — Julia's sending them all over the place and her focus is purely on Deaton, Morrell and Braeden, tightening the vines, strangling them. This place is still a five-fold knot and even if killing the Nemeton has removed the power of her original twelve sacrifices, three more will still give her new power.

Cora, bless her heart, jumps from the altar and tackles Julia, slicing at her, and something about that movement releases Derek from under Julia's control and he joins in, trying to take Julia to the floor. Both of them bounce back from one of her gestures and land hard with a crack on the floor.

"Start getting the guests out," Chris hollers, gesturing at some of the hunters, who nod, and start laying down covering fire, taking out the vines that are trying to re-block the door and stop anyone from leaving.

Stiles reloads his weapon and crawls back out into the central aisle, aiming his gun at Julia again — but then his gun flies out of his hand and flies at speed towards the front of the church, smashing against the wall and discharging harmlessly into the stone. He sighs.

"Hunters and their reliance on their weapons," Julia says and she might be cackling. Her nose is bleeding now, running a trail of red into her white gown and her immaculate up-do is coming loose, but she's still trying to magically strangle Deaton, Morrell and Braeden.

Stiles takes one glance at the far wall, where all their guns are lying, dismantled and shattered, in along with some other things. Like Cora's metal walking stick and a metal collection plate.

"She summoned base elements," Stiles yells to Chris, who's ducking another of Julia's powerful air blasts as he helps protect guests, trying to get more of them out of the building. "Metal."

"Men," Chris roars, "wooden weapons. Now."

Julia has to lower her hands and duck from the wooden knife that Chris flings at her with precision and then again from the chunk of smashed floorboard that Allison throws. Allison's blinking and shaking her head, like she's finally shaking the control Julia has over her and she looks pissed. Julia gestures, but it must be another base element move, because everything wooden flies up in the air a few feet. Only to sink right back down.

The good part of that is that Stiles catches his knife again. The bad part is that the pews launch up and then crash back down, knocking nearly everyone to their feet.

Including, though, Deaton, Morrell and Braeden.

Julia roars again and goes again for the wood — and Stiles manages to cling onto his weapon long enough to ride the trip up in the air; he lets go of the knife and lands a neat forward roll in the middle of the aisle, before pulling out yet another weapon from his waistband.

Julia turns to him and puts her hand out — and can't summon that weapon from his hands. She pulls a face. "What is that thing?" she spits, as she claps her hands and, oh, that's great — Erica, Boyd and Jackson are heading towards him, eyes blank and teeth sharp.

"My niche is in designing non-lethal weapons for hunters," Stiles says and shrugs casually, like three of the pack aren't advancing towards him, snarling. "Mostly ones that can get through airport security. We travel a lot."

"He's been revolutionizing hunting for us," Chris says.

"Like this plastic version of the repressor cuff," Stiles says, neatly ducking, throwing himself forwards and managing to use the cuff as Jackson launches himself forwards first. Jackson shakes himself, the power suppression taking hold and Stiles punches Jackson right in the face. Jackson hits the floor, unconscious. Stiles looks down at him. "Even though we're friends, that never grows old."

Stiles holds up the next thing in his arsenal, a gun that's actually made of plastic. "You can control wood, metal — tell me, did the ancient druids ever come up with a magic spell for controlling plastic?"

Julia howls and holds up both her hands, pointing them in Stiles' direction and, yeah, he's probably baited the villain for the last time, he thinks, seeing a maelstrom of fire start to blitz between her hands. Her smile widens in anticipation of her victory and she flings one fireball at Chris, who dives behind a pew, and then another fireball at Stiles, who scrambles to get out of the way, but he doesn't have anywhere to hide behind. It's going to be too late — except, he's forcibly smashed out of the way. The wind's knocked out of him and stars explode behind his vision.

Stiles looks up in time to see that it's Derek who's managed to barrel into him, knocking him to safety and covering his body with his own. Derek's face is bowed and straining; Julia's blast of fire is coursing into him. The smell of scalding flesh fills the air, but Derek doesn't cry out, even as his body spasms in agony. Stiles scrambles his arm around Derek's flailing body to try and fire his gun, but it's too late.

Namely, because Julia's too busy crumpling to the ground.

Stiles looks up to see Cora standing behind Julia, breathing hard, a heavy book held aloft in her hands.

The terrible sounds of crashing and fire and gunfire that had filled the air peter out and Stiles is only aware of the sound of people panting and the soft noises of pain. His vision is blurry — apparently is blood coursing down from his forehead that's obscuring his sight, how about that — and it takes him a moment to look behind her, at the empty lectern that probably usually holds the book that Cora's holding.

It's got to be a lucky blow, at the exact time Julia ran out of power, but still — it's a magnificent sight.

Derek's gone limp over Stiles, but Stiles can feel his breathing, rapid and heated against the side of his face. He's okay. For any given value of okay. For them, okay tends to just mean still breathing. Stiles can work with that.

"Head count," Chris croaks from where he's landed, pushing himself up a little, and then being knocked back to the floor by an over-exuberant Allison, who apologizes for winding him in a shaky voice that Stiles understands. Behind them, he catches a glimpse of Danny and one of the hunters with their arms around Mona. She looks shaken but alive and Stiles sends up a thousand silent thank yous to whoever's listening that he didn't have to be the cause of her getting hurt.

"HELL YES," Cora shouts. The priest, cowering down by the altar, slowly makes the sign of evil in her direction.

"Ha," Stiles says, pointing at the book in Cora's hand, "who knew Cora Hale was going to turn into a bible basher?"

"That pun is terrible," Derek wheezes, pushing himself up slowly to a sitting position and holding his hand out to help Stiles up. "And trouble shooter? I shoot trouble? You need to go into pun rehab."

Stiles shrugs, unrepentant. He'd probably say something, but—Derek just finished a full sentence. Two. And some fragments, but the two full sentences is an improvement. It's a great sign that despite the chaos and despite the blood staining the floor that makes Stiles' head spin and join in on Chris' head count, it's a sign that maybe everything's going to be okay.

Especially when it turns out there's no casualties. Well. There are seventeen broken bones, some nasty burns and gashes, several concussions and the champagne (and really, they all should have known better than to take a champagne toast from Julia just an hour before the wedding, really) means that Jackson's broken nose still hasn't healed yet and that's more amusing than it should be.

The less amusing part comes when ambulances come up — not only ordered by Lydia and Melissa in anticipation, but also bearing Melissa and Lydia as passengers.

Stiles would be furious if he had the energy. He'll probably be plenty furious later.

Right now, he has something more important to deal with.

"I saved the day," Cora says, from where she's sitting on top of Julia's unconscious body.

Stiles picks his way over the debris, Derek following close behind and he stares at her. "Excuse me?" he blurts. Behind him, Chris and a few of the hunters are headed over, ropes and other things in their hands ready.

"Hello," Cora gestures, "without her tea I'll probably die. I'm brave!"

"Cora," Derek says, falling to his knees in front of her, his face a wreck of an expression, "I—"

Cora rolls her eyes. "Did what you had to, to keep us safe, blah blah blah." She narrows her eyes at him. "How long have you been under her spell?"

"I'm going to guess about ten years," Stiles says. Derek looks weary. "Dude, you can use your words now."

"I can. Doesn't mean I want to," Derek snaps and then he softens. "It's nice to have the choice now."

"You should come sit by your sick sister," Cora says and then she looks down at her knees, suddenly nervous about the implications.

"Hey," Derek says and does sit down next to her, perching awkwardly on his unconscious nearly-wife's legs. He puts his arm around Cora. "She still has tea left. We have time. We'll figure it out. And—" His expression goes a little distant. "Now she's not magically compelling me to steal Deaton's memories all the time, maybe he can figure out a cure."

"What?" Deaton croaks, climbing out from one of the shattered pews.

"I was under a spell," Derek says quickly, wincing.

Deaton looks like he's considering it. And then he shrugs. "Your mother once got me turned green for six months. I suppose it could be worse."

Stiles huffs out a breath which might be a laugh in another lifetime, but his throat burns and he's choked up by the potential of how badly this all might have gone.

Someone clears their throat loudly and Stiles looks up to see Chris looking down at him uncomfortably. "Uh, can you tell me why there's an Alpha pack outside asking for you, Przemyslaw?"

Derek's eyebrows furrow. "What the hell is a Pshemyswaff?"

Stiles shakes his head and pats Derek consolingly on the shoulder. "C'mon. I need you to pick up your near-miss. I kinda made a deal with the devil." Derek and Chris give him identical stares. "Show me your bridal lift, big guy," Stiles says, blithely ignoring their glaring. He squints. "Too much too soon, huh?"

#

The deal with the Alpha pack is swift and brutal — Stiles gives them Julia, they promise that neither she nor they will cause them any trouble and none of them will step foot in Beacon County ever again.

Most of the pack gathers to watch, squinting as Stiles efficiently, quickly, and ruthlessly hashes out the details of the deal.

"Is he—did he just manage to get them to promise to fight for us at some point in the future?" Erica asks quietly.

"I think so," Allison says, watching the proceedings like it's a tennis match.

"Deal," Deucalion hisses. "Just hand over the druid before—"

"I'll hear if she or you cause trouble," Stiles says. "I've got people everywhere—"

"I said deal," Deucalion snaps and he jerks his head at Ethan and Aiden. "Grab her. Come on."

"Finally," Kali mutters as the Alpha pack start to stride away, Julia flung over Aiden's shoulder like a sack of potatoes. "Next time we go undercover, can we find somewhere I don't have to wear shoes?"

"So," Stiles says, turning to Derek and tugging at him, "tell me now you can how you broke up with me to keep me safe?"

Derek blinks at him and huffs and says, "You know I did." He glances past Stiles guiltily. "I'm so sorry," he says to his watching pack. "I tried, but she was too strong."

"She duped us all," Erica says, speaking for all of them. "And we weren't even under her spell until this week. We had less of an excuse than you did."

"We should have noticed," Isaac says and looks at him apologetically.

"Aw," Stiles says and jabs tiredly at Derek. "You were under a spell. And I couldn't use true love's kiss to fix it. I'm disappointed."

Derek's eyebrows do something complicated. "We could pretend?" he says.

"Annnnnd that's me outta here," Cora says. "Someone let me use them as a crutch? Or carry me out of here? Before I barf?"

"There's a lot of food in the kitchens," Erica offers.

"Are there any fudge donut bits?" Chris asks. "You sent some with Stiles last year. I did write you a thank-you note."

"The one that rhymed?" Erica says. "Nice work."

"I want savory food first," Boyd grunts.

"Well. You'll have to help me cook it," Erica says. "Stiles made my other assistants run away."

"We can help. Let's go," Jackson says, tugging at Lydia, who makes a sound of disappointment at being dragged away.

"I think I'm done pretending," Stiles says, palming Derek's face. Derek nuzzles into the gesture. Derek looks exhausted and like he's aged ten years in a day, but he's free from the spell and his pack have survived and Stiles is even confident that they'll find a cure for Cora now.

Derek pushes in, leaning his forehead against Stiles and Stiles leans back, letting Derek take his weight. "This doesn't feel real," he breathes, into the small space between them. "I'm going to wake up and still be trapped in this nightmare."

Stiles slaps Derek's ass, just because he can. Derek lets out a desperate gasp of a laugh. "Real enough for you?"

"I just can't believe—All I had to do was burn down a tree to weaken her?" Derek shakes his head.

"Oh, my god, a Hale didn't think of burning something down as the solution to something," Stiles says. "Shocker."

Derek tries to shoot him an annoyed look, but the smile that won't go away kind of ruins the effect. "I can't shake the feeling that this is all a dream. I don't deserve nice things."

Stiles suppresses the laugh, because that's been his phrase for so long. "You're in luck, Mr. Hale." He leans in and kisses Derek, a press of lips to trembling lips and Derek shudders. "I'm not a nice thing."

"Huh."

"Lydia would agree with me," Stiles defends. "She was totally judgmental that the first thing I did after finding the truth was jump your very attractive bones."

"You told her?" Derek scowls. "But—" His eyes cross for a moment and he sighs. "It was the only way I could show you that things weren't right. There weren't many things the spell allowed me to do. It was a loophole. I exploited it."

"Mm, you did at that."

"I would have used my words," Derek says. "But I was cursed. I was under a spell!"

Stiles narrows his eyes. "How long are you going to try and get away with that excuse?"

"I suppose it depends," Derek says, unevenly. He stares across at Stiles, his expression so intense that Stiles can't breathe again. "How long are you willing to let me get away with it?"

Stiles thinks about his answer and leans in, whispering it into Derek's ear.

Derek's smile is soft and the best thing Stiles has seen for years as he says, "I can work with that."