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Better Fortunes

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1.

The void goes on forever. There is no sound, no light, no sense of time or motion. He floats in a nowhere place, defined by the absence of anything but a cold that is so absolute it becomes a weight. It bears down on him, snaking into his bones, his heart, his mind. He can feel the very foundation of his being cracking under that gelid pressure. Thoughts and memories coalesce, become amorphous and vague. He tries to scream, but physicality feels like the dream of a stranger, and with a jolt of horror he realizes that he can't remember where his mouth is.

The agony goes on and on until he knows, without any doubt, that it will destroy him. The void will break him down until there's nothing left but spare parts, and it will truly, finally, be the end of him.

 And then, completely without warning, he wakes up.

Consciousness hits Stiles like a sledgehammer. He gasps, the ragged tearing sound of his own inhalation nearly deafening him as he rolls onto his stomach. He swallows down the taste of bile and curls into the fetal position, trying valiantly not to throw up. The cool air stings his throat as he takes in desperate, greedy breaths, struggling to rein in the trembling of his limbs. Every nerve in his body is screaming, hypersensitive to the point of physical pain. He whimpers at the taste of his own tongue, reels at the sensation of his blood pounding through his veins. Never has he been so aware of his own heartbeat.

The smell of rich wet soil fills Stiles’ nose as he attempts to blink the phosphenes out of his eyes, and it takes him a long, terrifying moment to reassure himself that he hasn’t gone blind; the sky overhead is dark. It’s the middle of the night here, wherever here is, and because his entire life has been one example of Murphy’s Law after another, rain is pouring out of the pitch-black sky in unending sheets, plastering his hair to his face and soaking through the layers of his clothes.

Slowly, and with the help of a nearby sapling, Stiles levers himself first onto his knees, and then fully, if awkwardly, upright. He battles back another wave of nausea as he performs a cursory check for bodily damage.

All things considered, he’s managed to come out okay. The jagged wound on his forearm is still bleeding sluggishly, so he tears a strip off of the hem of his t-shirt and binds it sloppily around the incision. He tries to ignore the way his fingers fumble and shake. The back of his head is throbbing where one of his would-be kidnappers had walloped him, and he hisses in pain as he tentatively pokes at the lump. In his torso there’s the sharp, persistent burn of a broken rib, probably sustained as the result of the fall from his second story bedroom window, but his legs are miraculously free of any injury other than what feels like a bone-deep bruise. He hopes that the relative easiness of his breathing means that the rib hasn’t punctured anything important.

The rancid cherry on top of the shit cake that has so far been his day reveals itself when, in an attempt to get his bearings, he holds out a hand and murmurs a conjuring of light. Where there should have been a globe of steady warm illumination, only a weak hiccupping glow flickers in and out of the air above his dirty palm. Stiles lets his eyes fall shut in dismay.  His reserves must be almost completely dry. He can barely feel his magic, a guttering flame in his mind’s eye– even the booster runes tattooed along the dip of his navel are kicked. A shudder trips up his spine, and he wraps his arms tightly around himself to ward it off, chilled by more than the rain and the coolness of the night air.

Light blossoms in the distance, cascading through the backdrop of trees with the accompanying hiss of tires on pavement. Stiles flinches away instinctively, fear and pain constricting his lungs before he forces himself to take slow, intentional breaths. If all has gone the way he’d planned, logical certainty dictates that wherever he is, he’s far away from the people who had come for him in his crappy little apartment in Greenpoint.

The incantation had been over six months in the making, after a truly disconcerting bit of fortune-telling courtesy of an oracle in Astoria. The prediction had been given as part payment for a tidy bit of warding he’d done along the storefront of the seer’s newly opened bakery. Stiles had sat at one of the rickety tables near the big picture window, surreptitiously brushing flaky crumbs of phyllo dough off his chest. The oracle, a Greek woman of indiscernible age who had introduced herself as Pythia, had sat across from him and stared out into the middle distance, dark eyes turning vacant and distant. Slowly, and to his alarm, her irises had begun to shrink, first to the size of her pupils, and then to the size of pins. Soon, all that had been left was the unblemished white of the sclera.

“You are wanted,” she had said, the words hissing out of her like they were travelling a very far distance. “But it is not you that they want. They know what lies sleeping in your depths. They are the invaders, the desecrators. They will come for you, and you will unravel.

Until that moment, Stiles had scoffed at most assertions of fortune-telling, finding little to no evidence to substantiate those claims. Despite this, there had been something about the look on the oracle’s face that had shaken him. She had patted his hand, pitying, perhaps, or regretful, but still completely resigned to the outcome of her prediction.

“Sorry,” she had said. “You are a sweet boy, and I knew your mother. If I could, I would have given you a better fortune. A long, happy life. Adventure, family, romance with a dark-haired stranger. At least now you have a bit of time, to prepare.”

And prepare he had. If there is one thing Stiles is good at, it’s having a plan. He’d thrown himself into research, and after six months of wading through magical theory, he’d developed a prototype. A little bit of blood coupled with the right words and his own special brand of intent, and Stiles would be transported instantly to the place where he would be safest. It had been a completely unorthodox marriage of blood magic and highly theoretical teleportation metaphysics, and once Stiles figures out where he is and has a moment to repress the soul-shattering horror of the void he'd traveled through to get here, he’s going to find the time to be very impressed with himself.

The distant car passes without incident, and Stiles lets out a tense breath. Standing in the dark getting soaked is not helping his current situation, no matter how attached he’s gotten to the tree he’s been using as a crutch. He wants to find civilization, wants to try to get word back to Lydia so that she knows he isn’t dead, needs to find a place with a hot shower. With a grunt, he gives the trunk of the sapling an affectionate pat, and then begins the slow and painful trek towards the road.

 

 2.

Derek wonders sourly if there’s anyone out there having a worse night than he is. Rain floods out of the sky in biblical quantities, making it nearly impossible to see– the Camaro’s wipers are doing their best, but it’s a losing battle. The storm had already been in full swing by the time he had beat a hasty retreat from his now very ex-girlfriend’s apartment in Redding, and the deluge seems to have no intention of letting up anytime soon. If the visibility gets any worse, he’ll have to pull over and wait for the storm to pass. Derek squints out into the night and tries not to draw any parallels between the weather and the current state of his love life.

His phone begins to buzz in the passenger seat, and for one tempting moment Derek considers letting himself believe that he can’t hear it over the pounding of the rain. He glances over and sees the smiling face of his beloved older sister on the incoming call screen, and bites back a groan. If he doesn't pick up, Laura will just keep calling, and Derek knows from experience that if she still can't get ahold of him, she'll just show up at his house. Better to answer now and get it out of the way.  Derek slides his thumb along the answer bar and transfers the call to the Camaro’s Bluetooth function, letting the phone drop onto his lap as he navigates a tricky curve in the road.

“Laura, I’m driving–,” he begins, and then winces when her voice fills the car’s interior, shrill with righteous indignation.

“Derek Edmund Hale, how could you!”

And this is why you should never date your sister’s friends.

“Look, Laura, I–”

“Jennifer is a wonderful person! You two were perfect together!

“Lau–”

“She’s smart, beautiful, and very career oriented! What more could you possibly ask for?

“Maybe you should date her,” Derek mutters, and then before Laura can finish drawing in an outraged breath he adds, “personally, I prefer it when the person I’m seeing isn’t also hooking up with their ex.”

For one blessed moment, silence reigns aside from the pounding of the rain. Then, with a remarkable show of adaptability, Laura snarls, 

“That fucking bitch.”

“Language,” Derek says absently. “You have tiny ears in your house.”

“The kids are asleep,” Laura huffs dismissively. “I could parade through the living room with a marching band and they wouldn’t notice. Stop trying to distract me.”

“I’m not,” he lies. “But, Laura, it’s fine.”

“I disagree,” Laura growls. “I think I should rip out her spleen and feed it to her. How could she?”

She’s your sister, he reminds himself. She’s your last remaining family member in the world and you love each other, and that means not throttling her when she’s being overbearing and self-righteous.

“Laura,” he says calmly, “I promise you that it isn’t that big of a deal. I’m not even that upset. Ultimately, Jennifer and I didn’t like each other very much. It was going to end either way. I think we only kept up the charade because we were both afraid of disappointing you.”

There’s a stiff pause on the other end of the line, and Derek viciously stomps down on a pang of guilt. Laura has been butting her head into his love life since he’s been old enough to understand why certain people made his face get all red. She means well– Laura is truly incapable of meaning otherwise– but over the years her machinations have led to disastrous and mortifying results for Derek. He’s hoping that this time, she’ll take the hint.

“She still deserves to rot in hell,” Laura mutters finally, but it sounds like the wind has definitely been taken out of her sails.

“Look, can we talk about this tomorrow?” Derek squints, trying to make out a blob of color that his lights have just picked up in the distance. The implacable rain is making it incredibly difficult to discern what the shape could be. A person walking along the side of the road, maybe? He hasn’t passed any broken-down cars, and the last rest stop was about fourteen miles back, so it seems bizarre for there to be someone wandering around out here. He hesitates, and then eases his foot onto the break. “I have to go, there’s someone on the road.”

What?” Laura’s voice goes Alpha sharp with alarm. “Have they been hit?”

“I don’t think so,” he says slowly. He can see clearer now that he’s slowed down some. It’s a guy, he thinks, walking just off the shoulder of the road, hunched down into himself to keep the rain out of his eyes. “I think he’s lost. I’m going to see if he needs help. Call you in the morning.”

Derek, wait,” Laura begins, but Derek has already ended the call.

He pulls up alongside the walking person, schooling his features into what he hopes is a friendly expression before rolling down the passenger’s side window.

“Hey, there,” he calls, leaning across the gearshift to get a closer look at the drenched figure. “You okay? Need a ride?”

The guy’s shoulders tense at Derek’s words, and he turns to face the car slowly, like he’s afraid of what he might see. It’s dark as hell out there, but in the reflected glow of his headlights Derek can make out a white angular face under a sopping mop of dark hair. Young, but maybe not as young as he looks– there’s a hint of a tattoo on the sliver of pale throat poking out from the guy’s hoodie.

“You some kind of crazy murderer, or what?” the kid asks. He shuffles closer to the car, mouth twisting into an unimpressed grimace.

“What?” 

Derek blinks at him, thrown by the bluntness of the question. The kid huffs and makes an odd gesture with his hands, leaning in to meet Derek’s gaze with a hard stare. His eyes, a tawny brown that might have been warm under different circumstances, are huge in his pale face, rain water dripping from his long lashes and off the upturned slope of his nose. A few drops hit the leather interior of the passenger door with an audible splat. He looks too young to be out in the middle of nowhere by himself, and painfully exhausted, so when he finally speaks, Derek is startled by the intensity in his voice.

“Bear you any ill will unto me?”

Ah. So, the kid is a lunatic. Derek should have known better. What kind of person goes for a walk in the pouring rain at midnight? Still, he’s a little offended. He opens his mouth to tell the kid so, and is therefore completely flummoxed when what he says is,

“I bear you no ill will.”

They stare at each other a little more, rain now fully soaking through the remaining dry patches of the kid’s hoodie. And why are there dry patches? It’s been pouring for hours, and there isn’t anything but woods along this stretch of road. Derek wonders if the kid has been in some kind of accident. The very tip of his pink tongue rests against the bow of his upper lip as he inhales, like he’s tasting the truth of Derek’s words.

“Okay,” he says, finally. “Cool. No hospitals.”

And before Derek can ask him what he means, the kid’s eyes roll back into his head and he crumples like a discarded toy onto the pavement.

 

 3.

Stiles swims in and out of consciousness, rousing just enough to catch snippets of the world around him before the darkness at the edge of his vision pulls him back under. The utter blankness of his sleep scares him, reminds him of the void in which he'd almost lost himself. He wishes he could dream. 

The first time he wakes, he has the impression of motion, hears the banging of a door and the rise of panicked voices.  His cheek is resting against something warm and firm and, best of all, dry. He nuzzles into that heat and allows sleep to take him again.

The second time, pain drags him, gasping, into the land of the living. He thrashes, trying to shove away the source of the agony, and that only makes it worse. Strong hands hold him down and a commanding voice calls for someone named 'Derek'. Within seconds the pain is gone, cool numbness taking its place, and he falls back gratefully into nothingness.  

The third time, he feels cool hands on his forehead and hears a comforting female voice telling him that he's doing fine, he's safe, everything is going to be okay. 

"Mom?" He tries to stay, tries to reach for her, but his eyelids are so heavy, and he has to go away for a while. 

The fourth time he wakes, it sticks. 

Stiles sits up, and then immediately wishes he hadn't. The room spins dizzyingly as he eases himself back against the headboard, which is about the time he realizes that he's in a bed. It's a nice bed. There’s a floral quilt draped over his legs, and the pillows he's leaning against are the genuine article, double stuffed and plush as all hell. He squirms a little against them as he takes stock of his situation.

The room is small enough to be cozy, with buttercream walls that warmly reflect the midday light, but nondescript enough to be a guest bedroom. He’s relieved to see that the door to the hallway is open. Not a prisoner, then, or a hostage. His memories of the previous night are fuzzy, but he has the distinct impression of a black muscle car and a lot of stubble, and an upstanding citizen that generally does not make. He fingers the clean, neatly dressed bandage around his forearm as he continues his perusal of the room. A few photos on the wall of smiling dark haired people he doesn't recognize, a couple amateurish paintings, a small bookshelf in the corner, and–

And on a love seat against the far wall, sitting perfectly still with an open magazine in her lap, is an attractive young woman around his own age with a mass of blonde hair, peering at him curiously with keen brown eyes.

Stiles makes a sound like a cat that's just been stepped on, and promptly falls out of the bed.

“Ow,” he hisses as pain flares in his ribs, bright and unwelcome. “Ow, ow, ow, ow.”

The girl snorts and gets to her feet, padding over to help him untangle himself from the quilt.

“Derek’s gonna be so pissed that you woke up when he wasn't here,” she says conversationally. “He stayed with you for like ten hours straight. Laura had to make him get some sleep.”

“Who the hell is Laura?” Stiles grumbles, allowing the girl to lever him up out of the bedding. He’s impressed by the ease with which she maneuvers his lanky frame– she must be a lot stronger than she looks. He sits on the edge of the bed and presses his fingers along his side, wincing at the tenderness he finds there.

“Derek’s sister,” the girl says unhelpfully, bending to pick up the quilt. “Here, take the other end of this.”

She tosses him one edge of the quilt and then backs up until the fabric is taut enough to fold. They watch each other with varying degrees of suspicion as they first halve the blanket, and then quarter it. When the girl steps forward to join their two ends, she stays close, perching on the foot of the bed.

“Erica,” she says, holding out a well-manicured hand.

 Stiles stares at the offering, and then slowly reaches out to take it. He searches tentatively for his spark, and is pleased to find it burning hot and alive, crackling just under his skin.

“Stiles,” he says, and lets the barest trickle of power flow over her, just enough to pick up on any nefarious inclinations, if she were to have any.

What he finds is… not nefarious, but something strange, and almost familiar. He frowns and pushes a little deeper, and is completely unready for the sudden friction as his magic comes up against a foreign energy. The reaction is instantaneous, like flint hitting tinder, and a sharp pinprick of discomfort flares at the point where their palms touch. The girl drops his hand with a yelp.

Ow,” she complains, massaging the fingers of her right hand and glaring at him with wide, baleful eyes. “What the hell was that.”

“Static shock,” Stiles lies easily, pulling his own hands onto his lap and trying like hell to keep his breathing even. “I'm prone to them. Sorry, shoulda warned you.”

The girl– Erica, apparently– narrows her eyes like she can tell that he's not being forthcoming with the truth. There’s a tense moment where Stiles thinks she’s going to force the issue, and he has his thumb pressed against one of the nastier defensive runes on his left wrist in preparation for sudden violence, but all she does is blow her breath out in a huff and roll her eyes.

“I'm starving,” she announces, running her fingers through her mane of blonde hair. “Are you hungry? I think we have lasagna in the fridge.”

As soon as she says it, Stiles realizes that yes, he is hungry, ravenous even, and has been since he opened his eyes. His stomach makes a rather aggressive grumbling sound at the mention of food.

“Uh, sorry,” he says, patting his belly and shooting her a rueful grin. “I think that's a yes.”

“No kidding.” Erica grins back, her earlier wariness forgotten, and the smile lights up her face. She hops to her feet and darts across the room to pick up her discarded magazine, brandishing it at him meaningfully as she beckons for him to follow her. “You can help me with the crossword. Sundays are the worst, I think Will Shortz is out to get me.”

“He's out to get all of us,” Stiles assures her, getting to his feet.

Despite his natural proclivity towards paranoia and the fact that he has no idea where he is or what kind of trouble he’s found himself in, Stiles can't help liking Erica. He supposes it's impossible to dislike a person who willingly does the New York Times crossword and promises to feed you, regardless of how very not human they are. He rubs his fingers together, recalling the shock of that unknown force. Yeah, definitely not human.

“Derek’s the real crossword whiz,” Erica says as she leads him down a hallway past several other closed doors. “He's the one who got me into them, to help with my– uh, anger management issues.”

“Ah,” Stiles says, noting the last-minute word substitution and filing it away for further examination.  “Right. About Derek...”

Forty-five minutes later, when the man in question walks through the front door, it's to find Stiles and Erica sprawled across his living room couch, eating forkfuls of lasagna out of a Tupperware and arguing passionately about the true definition of the word “bi-annual”.

 

 4.

Derek has spent most of the last fifteen hours in a state of panicked confusion. It had been instinct to dart out into the rain and pick the stranger up, laying him as comfortably as possible in the passenger seat of the Camaro, but it had gone against everything in his nature to not immediately hightail it to the nearest emergency room. Instead, he had gotten back into the driver’s seat and floored it for Beacon Hills.

It was slow going. The storm had made it impossible to speed, and for one awful moment he’d thought that the kid had died right there in his car. After a few seconds of careful listening, he’d realized that his passenger had fallen into a deep catatonic state, his heartbeat nearly inaudible, his breath coming so deep and slow as to be imperceptible. Like a hibernating bear, he’d thought, turning the heat on full blast with shaking fingers. The guy’s clothes were still soaked, his lips tinged blue with cold, his dark hair plastered to his brow. Derek had shrugged out of his jacket and draped it across the other man’s prone form, then picked up his cell and dialed the one person who’s been getting him out of trouble his entire life.

Laura had been waiting for him in his living room with a very apprehensive Melissa McCall, whose dark eyes had sharpened into professional concern as she took in the sopping bundle in his arms.

“He just collapsed,” Derek had told them desperately. “I don't know what's wrong with him. He smells like blood.”

“Let's get him upstairs,” Melissa had said, glancing at Laura for permission to take control of the situation. She’d hissed in sympathy when she peeled back the messily bound strip of fabric on the kid’s forearm. “He’ll need stitches. I have my kit in the guest bedroom.”

The kid had slept through all of it, save for one horrible moment when Melissa had begun stitching up the cut on his arm. Derek had taken his pain while Laura and Melissa held down his thrashing limbs, his pale face contorted in agony.

“There’s no way he should have felt that,” Melissa had said grimly. “I shot him up with enough anesthesia to numb a horse.”

“What does that mean?” Laura had wondered, staring down at the kid’s sleeping face.

“I'm not sure,” Melissa had replied, brow furrowed with thought.

They’d managed to get most of the kid’s wet clothes off, and had redressed him in a pair of old pajamas Derek had found in a rarely used dresser drawer. As a rule, werewolves tended to be ambivalent about nudity, but Derek had felt distinctly uncomfortable as they stripped the kid out of his protective layers. There was something unsettlingly vulnerable about the depth of his unconsciousness. Derek’s discomfiture had only increased when they’d peeled away his undershirt to reveal a plethora of finely rendered tattoos spilling across the pale expanse of a surprisingly well-muscled chest. He had averted his eyes as they’d wrestled the stranger into the pajama top, unable to shake the feeling that they'd all just witnessed something unspeakably private.

“We need to talk,” Laura had said grimly, and pulled him into the hallway.

“Thank you for coming,” Derek had murmured, the moment they’d stepped outside. His hands had still been shaking a little from adrenaline. “Are the twins okay?”

“I made sure Isaac was awake before I left. He’s keeping an eye on them. Did you see those tattoos?” Laura had shaken her head, frowning thoughtfully down the hall. She looked so much like their mother that the sight of it had clutched at Derek’s heart. “Tell me exactly what happened.”

Derek had kept an ear on the guest bedroom as he reported to Laura, giving her as detailed a description of the events of his evening as he could remember. He could hear Melissa murmuring to the stranger, soft words that sounded as if they stemmed less from a career in nursing, and more from being the mother of a kid like Scott.

“He was scared,” Derek had concluded. “It looked like he expected me to hurt him, and his body just shut down the second he was sure I wouldn't.”

“Smells like trouble.” Laura had sighed. “Maybe we should take him to a hospital and let them figure it out.”

“He was scared,” Derek had repeated. “We can't just toss him out into the storm and wash our hands of it. I can't.”  

He’d been unsure as to why he was arguing the point, just knew that he felt responsible somehow for the bedraggled stranger he could now hear snoring softly into the pillows of his guest bed.

Laura had looked at him for a long moment, her eyes soft.

“You sound like mom,” she had said finally, unintentionally echoing his own thoughts. She’d pulled him into a powerful hug, letting him scent her until his nerves felt steadier, and then left him to watch over his charge.

He's a little annoyed at her, now, in the way only a little brother can be. He wishes that she hadn't forced him to drive to her house to sleep (“You’ll just fret if you try to sleep there, Derek, and you need the rest. You look like crap.”), but Laura had spent their youth keeping the both of them alive by being as bossy as possible, and at thirty-two years old, she’s gotten really good at it.

He'd been a little concerned about leaving Erica to watch over the catatonic stranger. He loves Erica to distraction– she’s been his best friend for nearly ten years now, and he would do anything for her– but even he can admit that she isn't the most adept at social de-escalation. If the kid wakes up panicking, they might have trouble.

Derek hurries down the stairs and into Laura’s kitchen, struggling to tug his sweater into place. She and the twins are sitting at the dinette, munching on matching bowls of chemically orange Mac’n’Cheese.

“Hey, sleepyhead,” Laura says with a grin, and the twins turn to greet him. Fiona reaches up for a hug and a kiss on the cheek, her dark hair catching in Derek’s scruff. Caleb gives him a more subdued nod and offers Derek his fork.

“Laura only made enough lunch for us because she said you were gonna sleep forever,” he says, solemn as ever. “You can have some of mine.”

“Thanks, bud,” Derek says, touched. He runs his hand through Caleb’s curls as he scoops up a forkful of pasta. The nine-year-old turns his face down to the table, trying to hide a pleased smile.  “Tomorrow I'll make you real lunch.”

“B.L.T.’s?” Fiona asks hopefully, poking at her macaroni and wrinkling her nose.

Hey!” Laura huffs, faux offended. “This is kid food. You're kids. Eat your yellow dye number 6.”

Caleb dutifully retrieves his fork from Derek and resumes shoveling cheesy carbohydrates into his mouth. Derek takes a second to enjoy their presence, comforted by the strength of the pack bonds he can feel thrumming with life between the four of them.

“I'm heading back to my place,” he says reluctantly, brushing cheese dust out of Fiona’s braid. “Where’s Isaac?”

“In his room,” Laura answers. “Napping, probably. As should you be, now that I think about it. You got, what, four hours of sleep?”

Derek waves her off, ignoring her frown.

“Five. And I want to get back in case something's happened.”

“Erica would have called if something was wrong,” Laura reminds him. “She can take care of herself.”

“It's not Erica I'm worried about,” Derek mutters, patting down his pockets to make sure he has his wallet and keys. Laura doesn't respond to that, rather conspicuously, and when Derek glances over he finds her watching him with an odd look on her face.

“What?” he asks.

“What is it about this guy?” Laura sits back in her seat, transitioning from the role of big sister to Alpha with ease. She cocks her head to the side and narrows her eyes when Derek avoids her gaze. The twins trade uneasy looks, apprehensive in the face of the sudden heaviness between the two adults.

“I don't know what you're talking about,” Derek says stiffly, because it sounds saner than Something about him feels important. In truth, Derek doesn’t understand why he cares so much about the peculiar young man who had collapsed beside his car. It might have been the fear he saw in the kid’s eyes, fear which had been replaced by relief when Derek had promised not to hurt him. It could have been the way the stranger had curled into himself while he slept, face mashed against the extra-stuffed pillows on Derek’s guest bed, arms wrapped protectively over his own torso. It could have been his smell, a heady mix of honeycomb and lavender and the sharp metallic taste of an electrical storm. Regardless of the reason, there’s a certainty lodged in Derek’s gut, and he won’t let Laura bully it out of him.

They continue their stand off for another ten seconds before Laura sighs and waves him off.

“Fine,” she says, “go check on your stray. Be careful, though. If you feed him, he might think you mean to keep him.”

At this, Fiona perks up again, the tension in her small shoulders loosening a little.

“Did Derek get a puppy?” she asks cautiously. Caleb lays a hand over hers under the table, quieting her, and Laura catches Derek’s eye guiltily.

Derek bites down on the spike of fury that hits him every time the kids look afraid to speak up. He and Laura forget sometimes how vastly different their childhoods were. Derek had had a whole sixteen years before the fire took away their home, sixteen years to laugh and to fight and to be forgiven. Laura had nineteen.

The twins had spent six of their nine years locked in a cage.

“He kind of did,” Laura says, making her voice light and playful. She slings an arm around Caleb’s shoulders and leans forward conspiratorially. “Actually, your Derek saved a man’s life last night.”

Derek huffs and rolls his eyes, blushing furiously under the identical expressions of delight and admiration on the twin’s faces.

“Finish your goop!” he commands, ruffling his hand through two sets of dark hair and hightailing it out of the house before Laura can start in on how brave he was. He can hear her cackling even over the rev of the Camaro’s engine.

Derek stops to pick up some coffee beans at the café on the way to his part of town. In his usual day-to-day he tends to only buy decaf, because much like alcohol, the caffeine doesn't really affect his system. Humans like it, though, so he buys a promising dark roast and hopes for the best. On a whim, he asks for an assorted box of pastries, too.

Nerves make him jumpy as he navigates through the pleasant, sleepy streets of his neighborhood. He isn't entirely sure what he's so worried about. Erica wouldn't hurt the guy unless he attacked her for some reason, and Derek can’t see the wan young man hurting anyone but possibly himself. Still, Erica isn’t, well, nice. She can be abrasive even at the best of times. Derek is hardly the poster boy for normal social mores, but he at least had to go through a couple of years of therapy when Fiona and Caleb came into their lives. Erica had started life with sharp edges, and though she's softened somewhat since her adolescence, she can still use them to cut at the slightest provocation.

For some reason, it matters that the guy likes them

Derek’s hopes that the stranger would still be asleep, therefore rendering his worries moot, are dashed when he pulls into the end of his long driveway and picks up the sound of raised voices coming from the house. With a sigh, he grabs the coffee and pastries and makes a break for the porch.

 

 5.

“It means twice a year! How are we even having this argument?” Stiles glares at his companion, spearing a chunk of reheated lasagna and waving it around for emphasis.

“No, dummy, that's semiannual,” Erica says snottily, scooping up a blob of mozzarella and popping it in her mouth. “Bi-annual means every two years, like the Olympics.”

“That's biennial, you lunatic,” Stiles scoffs, and then glowers uncomprehendingly when she grins like he’s made a hilarious joke. “Plus, the Olympics happen every four years.”

“Nope,” Erica says, drawing the word out in an infuriating sing-song, all the more irritating because her pitch is perfect. “They alternate between Winter and Summer every two years. Bi-annually.”

Stiles gapes at her, outraged to the point of momentary dumbness. Finally, he tugs the Tupperware into his lap, shielding it from her questing fork.

“You’re the devil,” he tells her, “I can't believe I shared lasagna with you.”

“Oh, please,” she says, her smile going sharp. “Like it meant anything to me.”

Stiles gasps and clutches at his heart in faux horror, and is about to inform her that Tupperware sharing is sacrosanct under the Stiles Stilinski Friendship Accords (est. 2001, notarized by L. Martin), when there’s a polite cough from the front hall that nearly makes him upend the whole tub into his lap.

“Heeey, Derek,” Erica says, using Stiles’ moment of surprise to steal back the lasagna. “Guess what? Stiles is terrible at crosswords.”

“Am not,” Stiles grumbles mutinously, craning his neck over the back of the couch to catch a glimpse of his supposed rescuer, and–

Oh.

Oh, wow.

Erica had been surprisingly taciturn about the man who had apparently held vigil at his bedside all night. She’d answered Stiles’ questions, yes, but had done so in a vague, nondescript kind of way that ultimately only left him wanting to know more. Who is Derek? Derek owns the house. How old is he? A little older than Erica, who herself is a year younger than Stiles. What does Derek do for a living? He makes things. And on, and on, until his mental image of the man took on a smudgy, indistinct shape. Muscle car. Stubble. Crossword puzzles. Maker of things. He’d painted himself a picture and found it interesting, if a little strange. Now, faced with the reality, he could throttle Erica for not giving him time to prepare.

Derek is tall, although not quite as tall as Stiles, and his shoulders are broad under the soft, pumpkin colored fabric of his sweater. He wears worn jeans that hug muscular thighs, which flex visibly as he shifts his weight. His hair is dark and thick, and just a little messy, like he’d been running his fingers through it on his way here. Even though, if Erica is to be believed, Derek is running on a handful of hours of sleep after a full day and a half, he still manages to be the most beautiful thing Stiles has ever seen in real life. Hands down, no contest, and he’s including that succubus he’d met in Hell's Kitchen the previous May.

“Uh, hey,” Stiles says, sounding dazed even to himself. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Derek's voice is soft and mellifluous, hardly the gravelly baritone that Stiles had been anticipating. It’s a nice counterweight to the stubble. “I brought coffee.”

Marry me, Stiles thinks. Out of the corner of his eye, Stiles can see a slow, predatory grin spreading across Erica’s face.  Her gleefully knowing expression helps to break him out of his trance and he scrambles to his feet, ignoring Erica’s responding “Oof,” when his elbow catches her in the side.

“I'm Stiles,” he says, extending his hand for Derek to shake. “I hear you saved my life.”

“That might be a slight over-dramatization,” Derek says, ducking his head a little and stepping forward to take Stiles’ hand. He actually looks kind of embarrassed, like he’d only done what anyone would, and doesn't understand why people keep slapping him on the back for it. Frankly, it's adorable.

Derek’s hand is big and fine-boned, warm against Stiles’ cool skin, and Stiles can't help the little searching tendril of magic that flows through the connection. In fact, he's suddenly having a difficult time containing his spark at all. It's thrumming beneath his skin, pulsating and bright in his mind’s eye. It feels like electricity expanding to fill all of his empty spaces, like holding light in his mouth.

Much like with Erica, there’s a crackle of force that pushes back against Stiles’ own magic once it breaches Derek’s body. Unlike with Erica, the resistance holds for only a second, and then–

Stiles drops Derek's hand and stumbles back, cheeks going hot. Derek is staring at him, panting, impossibly multicolored eyes opened wide.

“What was that,” he breathes. He brings his fingers to his lips like he might be able to taste the aftereffects of the pure, unadulterated joy that had shot through the channel that had opened, unbidden, between Stiles’ spark and the raw, natural force that lay close to Derek’s bones.

“Static shock,” Stiles and Erica say in unison. They both sound equally convinced, which is to say, not at all. Stiles clears his throat and shoots Erica a dirty look. She grins back at him, smug as hell. He returns his attention to Derek, who is looking between the two of them with utter bewilderment.

“Say,” Stiles says, throwing caution to the wind. “Would it be possible for me to borrow your phone?”

 

6.

“Static shock my ass,” Erica mutters as she follows Derek into the kitchen. He’d handed Stiles his cell phone and then beckoned for Erica to follow him, giving the guy a modicum of privacy. “He did something.”

“What?” Derek’s voice sounds like it's coming from a great distance, and he shakes his head to clear it. He sets the bakery box down on the thick block of oak that tops the kitchen island and wanders over to the hutch where he stores the serving platters.

“That thing he did,” Erica says, insistent. She wiggles her fingers meaningfully.  “Juju. Whammy. Whatever.”

“You felt it too?”  

For some reason, the idea causes a sharp pang of disappointment to flare in Derek's chest. He busies himself with unpacking the pastries onto the plate.

“Felt like touching an electric fence,” Erica grouses, snatching a blueberry danish and hopping onto one of the comfortable high-backed bar stools lining the island. “Made my hand numb for like ten minutes.”

That's not what it felt like, Derek thinks. It felt like–

Derek at five years old, being tossed into the air by his father, over and over again. Every time, he shrieks with delight at the weightless moment when he reaches the zenith of his flight. Every time, he falls with the certainty that there will be strong arms to catch him.

Derek at twelve, on his first official full moon run. Laura nips at his heels and goads him into a game of tag, and the hulking, beautiful form of his mother, a darker patch of night against an already pitch-black sky, watches over them as they run and run and run.

Derek at nineteen, sitting awkwardly next to Laura on the McCall’s old, beaten up sofa. It's their first Christmas with the new Beacon Hills pack, and everyone is being very careful around each other. Melissa makes enchiladas with red and green salsa and Isaac flinches at the Christmas poppers, but manages a wan smile when Laura trades his knock-knock joke for her paper crown. During the gift exchange, Erica tosses Derek a clumsily wrapped oblong and scowls when he looks surprised.

“I'm your secret Santa,” she snaps defensively. “Take it or leave it. It reminded me of you.”

Under the garish wrapping paper is a burgundy sweater, cashmere soft in his hands. It has thumbholes. Derek’s fingers tremble as he shrugs the sweater on, and the fabric is plush and smooth as it slips over his face. He tugs the thumbholes into place and opens his mouth to thank Erica, and then shocks them all by bursting into tears. He cries until the pack crowds around him, and he cries as Laura murmurs comforting words into his hair, and he cries still, because never in his wildest dreams would he have believed that someone could look at the man he has become and think, “Soft.”

Derek at twenty-six, weeding the garden with Fiona and Caleb. It's been a rough year– the twins still barely speak, still cry in the night to be forgiven for trespasses they'd never committed. Still, every day is better. Beside him, Fiona gasps, and then flinches away guiltily when he turns to see what caught her attention.

“What is it?” he asks, keeping his voice gentle.

“A baby,” she whispers. To her right, Caleb is tense, watchful. Ready to spring between them if necessary.

Derek peers over her shoulder, trying not to loom. Fiona has her hands propped up around a small, pale green shoot.

“They’re irises,” Derek says. “Remember, we planted them in March?”

Fiona nods, but doesn’t take her eyes off the plant. There’s a question taking shape in her head, Derek is sure, but he’ll be damned if he knows how to deal with it. Not for the first time, he wishes his mother could be here in his place. After a long moment, Fiona puts words to whatever she’s feeling.

“Who will protect it?”

 It's not a rhetorical question. In fact, she says the words with such force that it becomes a demand for an answer, and that, if anything, shows how far she’s come. Her tiny palms form a wall around the seedling, a bulwark against an ugly world. Slowly, so slowly, Derek reaches out and covers her hands with his. She’s so intent that she forgets to flinch.

“We will,” he promises. “We’ll help them all grow.”

Fiona gazes up at him, eyes wide. Caleb is looking at him, too, not just in his general direction, but staring him right in the eye. His characteristically somber expression has gone lax with surprise.

“Help them grow,” she echoes, and then for the first time in the year that she’s been living with the Hales, Fiona smiles. For Derek, the world shifts on its axis.

Touching Stiles had felt like that.

 

 7.

Stiles shifts his weight from foot to foot, listening to the dial tone drone in his ear.

“Come on, Lydia,” he murmurs, “come on, pick up, pick up, pickuppickuppick– YES! Hello?”

There’s a breathless silence on the other end of the line, and then, “Stiles?”

Her familiar voice detonates an explosion of relief within him, and he sinks onto the couch, knees weak.

“Thank god,” he says, “thank god you’re okay.”

“Stiles, what the fuck is going on? No, more importantly, where are you?”

“I'm safe,” he says, although he's a little fuzzy on when he became so sure of that. He peers around the edge of the couch and through the open door to the kitchen, where Derek is pulverizing beans in an honest-to-god manual coffee grinder. “Not exactly sure where I am, though. California, maybe? I think I remember Derek’s car having California plates.”

“California? What? How are you in California? Who the hell is Derek?” Lydia’s voice, typically measured and perfectly controlled, is now reaching a pitch that tends to culminate in shattered glass. Stiles holds the receiver away from his eardrum with a wince. “If this is some weird quarter life crisis, I'm going to immolate you.

“Lydia, listen to me. I'm safe. I'm in good hands. It's just– it's all gone sideways.” He scrubs a palm over his face, the gravity of the previous night’s events suddenly threatening to overwhelm him. He watches Derek fill a kettle with water and set it on the stove. The man moves with purpose around his kitchen, obviously comfortable in the space, and the confidence of his movement settles some of the rushing in Stiles’ ears.

"Stiles," Lydia says, in the eerily sweet tone she uses just before she really loses her temper. "Explain."

"Uhhhh. Okay," Stiles flounders, grasping for focus. Derek catches his eyes and smiles, a little awkwardly, like he isn't entirely sure that he should. It softens his face in a way that plays fast and loose with Stiles’ concentration.

"Well," he begins hesitantly, "the good news is that the galaktoboureko isn't the only authentic thing in Pythia's bakery."

He walks Lydia through all of it, starting with the disturbing prophecy he'd received, shivering at the memory of Pythia’s rough, distant voice and her pale eyes staring out at him, opaque as marble.

They will come for you, and you will unravel.

When he finishes, Lydia is silent for a long, long time. He can almost see the gears in her head turning, slotting all this new information into place. Abruptly, he misses her so much he feels like crying.

“Stiles, why didn't you tell me?” she asks, eventually. She sounds untroubled, clinical, even, but they've known each other for a long, long time, and he can read they hurt in her voice.

“I didn't want to worry you,” he admits. “And besides, I mean, the oracle of Delphi? Peddling baklava and loukoumades out of a bakery in Queens? It sounds insane.”

“And yet, here we are,” she says, sharp enough to cut iron.

“I know.” Stiles shuts his eyes against the truth of her words. The darkness reminds him of the void, and he shivers again. “I'm know, Lydia. I'm so sorry.”

He explains the events of the previous day, starting from the moment he’d been jumped in their modest two-bedroom apartment. He tells her about the men who had been waiting for him, hooded and sinister and speaking of sacrifice. Of absolution. He tries, haltingly, to explain his escape, and this is where Lydia interrupts him.

“Translocation as a mode of transportation has been largely disproved,” she muses. “You do realize that this spell you've developed could be completely unique. Did you document your research?”

“Of course,” he says piously. “I encrypted it into one of our prom photos. It should be on the drive.”

“Of course,” Lydia sighs. “So, what exactly is our game plan here?”

Stiles sits in silence for a moment, trying to think. He wishes desperately that he could see her face. A low murmur of conversation floats out from the kitchen, and he thinks he hears Derek laugh. Absurdly, the sound anchors him against another wave of panic.

“These creeps were the real deal, Lydia. They knew where we lived, they knew my schedule, and worst of all, they had real power. Things got dicey. I had to jump out of a window.”

On the other end of the line, Lydia is silent, patiently waiting for him to say what they both know is the only option. Still, Stiles hesitates, unwilling to give way to the inevitable, and as always Lydia steps up to finish what he can’t.

“We have to crash the shop. New York isn't safe anymore.”

Crash the shop. Burn the ledgers. Escape with what you can. The small, beloved consulting business that they’d been developing since their teens, now only so much shared history. Stiles feels like crying.

Lydia, ever the pragmatist, abandons woe in favor of good, solid planning.

“I can be on a flight in three hours,” she says briskly. “I'll bring your spare ID, and– no, actually, I'll leave your cell here. We’ll have to get you a new phone, and probably a new laptop. You said you lost your keys and wallet in transit, right? Then we'll just have to operate on a purely cash basis for the next few months, until we figure this out.”

He listens to her lay out a succinct and logical plan of action, letting her surety bolster him against the anxiety that threatens to overwhelm him.

“What about these people you're staying with?” Lydia asks suddenly. “You're sure they're not involved?”

“Oh, not like that,” Stiles assures her. He sneaks another glance into the kitchen in time to see Derek depressing the filter on a French press. He has his sleeves pulled up to his elbows, and the way the tendons in his forearms flex makes Stiles’ mouth go dry. “They're good, just… irregular.”

Irregular.” Lydia sounds more curious than concerned. “What kind of irregular, exactly?”

“Strong.” Stiles lowers his voice even more, till it's barely audible. “Meat eaters. Good hearing, too. Erica knew that Derek, specifically, was standing behind us before I even knew another person was in the house, so a first-rate sense of smell, or maybe some sixth sense kinda deal. And there’s a duality there. I used my spark for a sweep of intent, just a quick surveillance to make sure I wasn't in the hands of axe murderers, and there was something else there already. A layer of… something.”

“Well, I'm glad to see you still have your powers of description,” Lydia says, dry as drought.

“Shut up, it's hard to explain. It was like there was another entity under the skin, something woven seamlessly into their own bodies, like code.” Stiles sighs, giving up. “Erica’s did not like to be touched, but Derek's…”

Oh?

Stiles cringes. He knows that tone of voice. He'd spent a good deal of their childhood in detention because of that voice.

“No! Never mind. Everything is fine and you definitely should not come here. Go to Aruba, you deserve a vacation.”

Text me the address,” Lydia says, ignoring him easily. “And stay safe. Our parents would part the veil just to throttle me if I let anything happen to you.”

“Love you too, Lydia,” Stiles says, smiling despite himself as he ends the call.

He opens Derek’s Google maps app and sends her his pinned location, startled to discover that he's way up in the mountains of Northern California. He wonders if he’d miscalculated the efficacy of the translocation spell’s safety clause. Surely there were safer places than the middle of the goddamn forest. On second thought, though, it had brought him to Derek, and he’s having an increasingly hard time believing that that’s a bad thing.

Stiles leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees and staring blankly at the discarded crossword puzzle Erica had tossed onto the coffee table. In his mind, he arranges all the information that he’s gathered about his rescuers thus far: dual-nature, carnivore, hearing, strength. That all adds up to a shifter of some kind, and as a rule, shifters tended to be social within an internal hierarchy. In most cases, that means a leader.

Stiles and Lydia have a working relationship with a skulk of kitsune who have been living in the Lower East Side since the tenement days, and overall, they were a decent bunch. Stiles is in a darts league with Kira, the youngest of them, and over the years she and Lydia have developed a friendship rooted firmly in their shared love of history. Kira’s mother, however, gives Stiles the heebie-jeebies. As the head of the Yukimura clan, Noshiko had been the one responsible for calling the shots, and Stiles had been put off one too many times by her disregard for anyone but her own flesh and blood. She’d teased him once, telling him that he lacked the perspective of her nine hundred years, but in his opinion, living that long with that much power tends to skew a person’s moral compass.

Stiles hopes the person in charge in this case is a little more flexible. He wonders how many members there are in this…what, pack? Pride? Herd, cackle, streak? They could be werestoats for all Stiles knows. He hopes that whatever they are, they don't eat wayward magic users. He clambers to his feet and stretches, being careful not to jostle his sore ribs. As he works out the kinks in his shoulders, Erica’s earlier words come back to him.

Laura had to make him get some sleep.

Laura had to make him. It's a leap, but Stiles has gambled with less for higher stakes. He sets his jaw and takes a moment to feel the buzz of magic under his skin before turning and marching into the kitchen.

“O-kay,” he says, tossing the cell to a startled Derek. Erica takes the opportunity to pilfer another Danish. “Take me to your Laura.”

 

 8.

In the end, Laura comes to them.

“I left the kids with Melissa,” she says, slipping out of her jacket and hanging it on one of the hooks in Derek’s foyer. Derek shifts his weight nervously and locks the door she’d just walked through. “It's her one day off and she's already exhausted from last night’s shenanigans. Your stray better be worth it.”

“He's not my stray,” Derek says, but it sounds weak and he knows it. Laura gets a glint in her eye that only increases his nerves.

They find Stiles and Erica in the kitchen, heads bent over the crossword, which they've actually made some progress in now that Derek has settled their “biannual” debate. (“It means both. Don't look at me like that, I didn't litter the English language with contronyms.”)

“Five letter word for quickly,” Stiles says, snagging the pen out of Erica’s hand.

“Apace,” Laura drawls, raising an eyebrow in Derek’s direction.

Stiles jumps at the sound of the unfamiliar female voice, whirling in his seat to face them. Erica has to grab onto the back of his shirt to keep him from overbalancing, rolling her eyes like she's been doing it all their lives.

“Hello, Stiles,” Laura purrs, grinning with altogether too many teeth. “You look better than you did when we met.”

He does look better, Derek realizes. A vivacity is returning to him with every passing minute. There’s actual color in his cheeks, and the half-starved quality to his expression has faded, as evidenced by the trail of pastry crumbs down the front of his shirt. On top of the very literal hunger he’s assuaged, the intrinsic hollowness that had embodied him when he had first collapsed next to Derek’s car appears to be filling. It shows in the bounce of his step and the quirk of his smile.

 It really is a nice smile, objectively speaking. Derek forces himself to look away, feeling the dreaded heat of a blush start to burn the tips of his ears.

“Laura, I presume?” Stiles stands, looking like he wishes he was wearing something other than a secondhand pair of flannel pajamas. “I can see the family resemblance.”

He gestures to his own face, doing something complicated with his eyebrows that reminds Derek of someone who’s just been goosed. Laura turns her scary smile onto Derek, and ever so slowly raises her other eyebrow.

“I'll make more coffee,” he mumbles, and ducks behind the kitchen island, ignoring Erica as she silently pantomimes a clucking chicken.

“I was under the impression that there was something you wanted to talk to me about,” Laura says, letting some of the Alpha bleed into her voice. Derek winces at her tone and busies himself with the coffee grinder. That voice is the one his sister uses to extract information, to demand respect. It's made bigger men than Stiles take a step back, but it doesn't seem to faze him. On the contrary, he leans forward and nods to himself like he's just solved a particularly irritating riddle.

“Right. Yes. Let's talk terms.”

Terms?” Laura stares at him, smile gone. Her eyes, a truer green than Derek’s own, narrow suspiciously. “What terms?”

Stiles makes a sweeping gesture with his hands, encompassing himself, the three of them, the kitchen, possibly the entire world. His shoulders are set with resolve.

“Cards on the table time,” he says. “I'm quite literally at your mercy until my sister gets here, which she will at some point in the next twenty-four hours. Beyond that, she and I are in something of a quandary. Bad men are conspiring against us for reasons yet unknown. A group of them tried to kidnap me out of my apartment in Brooklyn yesterday evening, and I escaped, but only just. If your brother hadn't had the decency to stop and help me, I'd probably be dead from exposure in a ditch somewhere.”

Erica and Derek exchange startled glances. Brooklyn? She mouths, and he shrugs, at a loss. Stiles plows on, unperturbed.

“Now, that problem is for me, and I'll deal with it in my own way. Or, I supposed we’ll deal with it, once Lydia has strong-armed her way onto the next westbound flight. What I would like from you, if you can spare it, is sanctuary.”

The werewolves have gone very, very still. Laura doesn't take her eyes off Stiles, her face carefully neutral.

“I'm not sure what you mean,” she says, nonchalance dripping off every syllable.

“Oh, come on,” the kid huffs impatiently. “I'll show you mine if you show me yours.”

In a startling burst of movement, Stiles flings out his hands, long fingers spreading wide. It's a broad, theatric gesture, like that of a street performer about to reveal his big finale. After a long, uneventful moment, the three members of the Hale pack share expressions of slightly confused embarrassment.

“Wha–,” Laura begins, but the word dies in her throat.

Odd, actinic light has begun to bleed through the thin cotton of Stiles' borrowed shirt, leaving an afterimage against Derek’s eyelids when he blinks. At first it pools just below his collarbone, but in seconds a line of the light is branching out across his right shoulder and down the length of his arm, pausing to loop in a whorl around his bicep and then corkscrew down to his wrist. The air in the kitchen shifts, thickens, like the pressure change right before a massive thunderstorm. Erica bolts from her stool with a curse, exchanging a frantic look with Derek as Stiles extends a forefinger and presses it to the block of oak topping the kitchen island.

 At his touch, the wood bursts into life. Fledgling branches creep up along the surface in a flurry of growth, budding and leafing before their eyes like a nature documentary played in double time. There’s a hum in the air, a deep bass note that reminds Derek of a favorite book of his where the authors describe the sound of trees growing in fast-forward– a sound usually made over hundreds of years, sped up into one bone-rattling rumble. The scents of lavender and honey are thick enough to taste, pervading the kitchen along with a subtler whiff of ozone. A gentle nudge makes Derek glance down at his hand, where what looks to be a premature acorn is trying to fill the space occupied by his thumb.

 Derek drops the kettle. The bang makes everyone jump.

“Sorry,” he says faintly, staring down at the seed. Already the shell is starting to harden.

Stiles exhales slowly and removes his hand from the island top, shaking it a little as if he's trying to rid it of that pins and needles feeling you get when your limbs fall asleep.

“Uh, that may have been a little over dramatic,” he mutters.

In fact, he looks vaguely embarrassed. A splotchy pink blush is beginning to spread from his cheeks to his neck. Erica is gaping at him, eyes wide in disbelief, and Laura is so still that Derek knows she's doing everything in her power not to shift. She smells angry and bewildered, never a good combination, and Derek… Derek doesn’t understand why everybody looks so upset. He pokes at one of the oak leaves, smiling a little at how green and healthy it is.

“How am I going to plant it?” he wonders out loud. The silence following that question is deafening, and when he looks up, they're all staring at him. “What?”

 

 9.

Plant it?” Laura’s voice is high with incredulity, and she gestures wildly at the living counter with hands that contain more claw than fingernail. “Derek, it's furniture.”

Stiles winces. He probably should have led with something a bit subtler, but his spark had been itching to be used ever since he woke up. Somehow, being drained the night before had only made his magic return with a fervor, and now it thrums through him, more accessible than it has been in years. With a frown, Stiles rubs at the spot on his chest where a thirteen-year-old Lydia had tattooed the intersecting lines of a Proto-Nordic bind rune.

“I don't mind,” Derek is saying. He seems to be adapting remarkably well to the fact that his kitchen has turned into a localized agricultural phenomenon. “The twins will love it.”

Laura sighs and rubs at her temples, but there’s a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth that she can’t quite seem to smother. Stiles perks up hopefully at the sign of humor. He straightens when she turns to survey him, trying to look as professional as one can in a borrowed flannel pajama set.

“Look, kid, as–,” she hesitates, glances at the foliage that is still growing, albeit slowly now, and shakes her head, “impressive as this may be, it doesn't offer me much in the way of utility. We're werewolves, not wood nymphs. Although I'm not convinced Derek wasn't switched at birth.”

“Hey,” Derek says, glaring at her as he moves his coffee mug to make way for a new cluster of branches.

Ah, Stiles thinks. Werewolves. He decides to keep the idea of werestoats to himself.

“This was just an example,” he explains hurriedly. “A, uh, slightly ostentatious example. Botanical thaumaturgy is just one of several services I can provide to you and your pack. I can do protective wards, or charms. I can lift basic curses, cure almost any skin condition, and rid you of all those pesky gluten allergies. Hell, I can do houses, too. With me around, you'll never have to worry about flood or fire again.”

Derek and Laura both flinch, and Stiles hesitates, sensing a faux pas on his part. Erica glares at him like she wants to kick him, and sidles over to Derek as if to oh-so-casually inspect his side of the island. Laura doesn’t bother with such tact, striding into Derek’s space and leaning into his shoulder until he unclenches a little and starts to lean back. Stiles thinks he recognizes this shade of grief, and only now, with a sinking feeling in his stomach, does he begin to wonder why the Alpha of a pack of werewolves is so very young.

The siblings have a silent conversation comprised mostly of eyebrow while Stiles stands meekly in front of them, attempting to look harmless. After an agonizing ninety seconds, Laura sighs.

“You can stay,” she says begrudgingly. “For now. And just so we’re clear, we’re talking sanctuary in return for free labor on your part. Nothing for nothing. And don’t think we aren't returning to the subject of your alleged kidnapping.”

“Hey, works for me,” Stiles says. “You won’t regret it.

“Don’t say that, kid.” Laura groans, running her fingers through her shoulder-length hair. “That’s like Tempting Fate 101.”

“Sorry.” Stiles shrugs, unconcerned. “Old habit. Listen, I can start today if you want. I’ll go right now if you give me a minute to find my shoes.”

He frowns, trying to remember if he’d been wearing shoes when he’d woken up in the woods. The events of the previous night post-translocation exist in his memory in a series of adrenaline-sharpened snapshots, but he seems to be lacking details.

“How about you just rest up,” Laura says dismissively. “You can start in the morning. You went through a trauma last night, Stiles. I’m suspicious, not heartless. You say your sister is coming?”

“Tomorrow, or the next day.” He nods his confirmation, fighting back the compulsion to tell Laura that she should be suspicious. “She’ll bring money. I can pay you for letting me crash here until then.”

“Don't be ridiculous.” Now that Laura has come to a decision, her discomfort seems to be fading. She grins, sharp green eyes glinting wickedly. “Derek brought you home and fed you, it's his responsibility to make sure you get well enough to survive out in the wild.”

Stiles glances between the siblings uncertainly. Derek looks like he’s barely restraining himself from elbowing Laura in the ribs. There’s a joke in there that he’s pretty sure he’s not supposed to get.

“Uh, I feel fine,” he says.

“Yeah.” Laura’s grin widens, and Derek bends to pick up the kettle, grumbling under his breath, “I bet you do.”

 

 

 10.

Stiles insists on helping Derek move the countertop out into the back yard.

“You don’t have to,” Derek says, unscrewing the last of the bolts and setting it with the others on the draining board. Until now, the 4-by-6-foot block of oak had essentially been operating as a butcher block, and it outweighed Derek even before the addition of its new limbs. Taking in Stiles’ lanky frame, Derek can’t help but doubt his ability to share the load.

“It’s my fault you’re even in this predicament,” Stiles mumbles, poking at one of the happy little leaves. “It’s the least I can do.”

Derek hums noncommittally and walks over to the door to the left of the stove that leads out into the back yard.  Once opened, he thinks it’ll be just wide enough to accommodate both the block and the brand-new foliage. He stares out into the yard for a moment, letting the familiar sounds of the preserve wash over him. When he turns back to the kitchen, Stiles is watching him with an appraising look on his face.

“What?” Derek asks.

“Why aren’t you freaking out?” Stiles demands. “Or, like, at the very least chewing me out for ruining your property? That island couldn’t have been cheap. I’d be pissed if I were you.”

Derek blinks at him, and then shrugs.

“You didn’t ruin it.”

“Uh, I kinda did, dude,” Stiles insists. He jostles one of the branches like it proves his point. “It’s not exactly able to perform its function anymore.”

“No, that’s not what I meant,” Derek says, and then hesitates, trying to find the words. “A few years ago, there were a couple of big electrical storms that hit the area. We lost a lot of trees in the preserve that year.”

“Okay,” Stiles says, brow furrowed in incomprehension.

“One of them was this huge oak out by my family’s property. It, uh. Well. I had a lot of good memories of that tree, and when Laura and I saw that it had gone down, I decided it was a waste to let it get turned into mulch.” He nods at the island, and sees the exact moment when Stiles connects the dots.

“Dude, you made this?” he exclaims, looking at the kitchen island with new respect.

Derek shrugs again, embarrassed. “I didn’t make it, just…repurposed it.”

In truth, every member of the pack now possesses a bit of that tree. The massive trunk had lent itself to a pair of end tables for Laura, serving bowls for the McCall household, a set of picture frames for Erica, bookshelves for Boyd and Isaac. It had felt right to Derek. Appropriate. He and Laura had spent their childhood climbing in and out of that tree, had pushed their younger siblings and cousins in the tire swing that hung from one of the giant branches, had camped out under its welcoming canopy and shared ghost stories when they hit their teens. It had been a constant part of their old lives, nearly as intrinsic as the moon, and after it had fallen, Derek had fashioned it into things they could carry with them into their new ones.

“It’s better this way,” Derek says, meaning it. “It’s better that it’s alive.”

“Oh,” Stiles murmurs. He nods, like he somehow understands what Derek is trying to say. Then, his face falls. “Oh, man, wait, I should warn you. Stuff like this is, like, never permanent. I can’t, you know, actually bring things back to life, I can just kinda convince them to remember what being alive felt like for a little while.”

Derek raises his eyebrows at this, nodding at the healthy green of the leaves.

“You must be very convincing.”

In the end, and even with Derek’s additional lycanthropic strength, it does take a considerable effort on both their parts to maneuver the piece of wood out into the back yard. Derek can’t help the startled laugh that escapes him when they lift the block off the island base to reveal the dense thicket of fledgling roots that have taken up residence there. Stiles grins at him sheepishly, but thankfully doesn’t apologize again.

           

 11.

Derek directs Stiles to a sunny corner of the yard, and then leaves him to balance the block of wood on its side as he jogs over to the gardening shed to retrieve a shovel and a bag of potting soil.

“I can’t believe you’re actually planting this thing,” Stiles says, staring fixedly at the herb garden that lines the back porch as Derek strips out of his sweater. Christ, the man’s arms should be illegal. “I told you, in a couple of hours it’s going to go back to being inanimate, just with more…branchiness.”

Derek shrugs, which seems to be his go-to form of communication when he isn’t telegraphing his feelings through his surprisingly expressive eyebrows. His undershirt is a simple heather gray tee that hugs his broad shoulders in a way that Stiles finds to be indescribably distracting.

“It’s alive now,” is all he says, and Stiles sighs and gives up on not being hopelessly charmed.

It takes Derek about twenty minutes to dig a hole big enough for the whole slab of oak to rest in comfortably, and Stiles peppers the comfortable silence with all the gardening facts he can think of, appreciatively watching the bunch and swell of Derek’s biceps as he shovels mound after mound of dirt into a neat pile. He thinks about Erica’s earlier assertion that Derek made things for a living

“So, are you, like, a carpenter or something?” he asks, when Derek pauses to step back and judge the size of the hole.

“Not really,” Derek replies, brushing dirt from his hands. “It’s more of a hobby than anything else. A few of the locals have been nice enough to buy some of my work, but I do landscaping to pay the bills.”

“Huh.” Stiles cocks his head thoughtfully. “I can see that. This garden is pretty awesome.”

“Thank you,” Derek says, like it’s no big deal, but Stiles is delighted to see that his ears have gone pink.

The garden is awesome, now that Stiles is taking the time to pay attention to it. There’s about three quarters of an acre back here, hemmed in by the tall rustling trees of the preserve. Beds of dahlias and peonies and other flowers Stiles can’t even begin to name line one side of the yard, colors bright and oversaturated in the late afternoon sun. Vines of delicate mauve clematis climb up a trellis that someone, presumably Derek, has affixed to the side of the house. There’s purple smoke bush, and lush hydrangeas with their papery watercolor blossoms, and a bright salmon azalea bush that is growing unchecked next to a huge wood-slatted composter.

In a far shady corner, a small area of the yard has been sectioned off with knee high iron fencing. Stiles wanders over to the patch, leaving Derek to lower the oak into the earth by himself.

The section of garden is set so far back that it’s nearly hidden by the trees of the preserve. It’s probably six-by-six feet in area, and completely crowded with a thriving swath of purple flowers. The iron fence is situated so that the first of the blossoms pop up a few feet into the plot, ensured by the placement of some large stone slabs. It gives him the impression of a pen, like Derek has done his best to hem in the ground that the flowers are growing in, while still giving them space to flourish.

“Don’t touch those,” Derek calls.

Stiles pauses with one foot hovering guiltily over the top of the fence. He considers pretending that he hadn’t been intending to do just that, but then remembers that he is, by nature, essentially shameless. He glances over his shoulder, but Derek has his back to him, busily filling in the area around the oak with rich, dark topsoil.

Stiles turns to inspect the flowers as well as he can from behind the fence.  The blossoms are innocuous enough, petals hooded similarly to snapdragons, but with each bloom articulated as opposed to growing in clusters. The flesh of the flower is thin, with a delicate tracery of darker lines that reminds Stiles unsettlingly of veins under pale skin.

“It’s monkshood,” Derek says, and Stiles jumps. In the seconds that he’d been admiring the flowers, Derek had managed to walk up behind him without making a sound. He steadies Stiles with a hand on the shoulder, and gives him a small, apologetic smile that somehow manages to convey the fact that he’s laughing inside. “Aconite. They’re poisonous.”

“I’ve heard of Aconite,” Stiles says. “Lydia uses it with a couple of other herbs to treat her migraines.”

“Your sister, right? She probably uses the stuff that’s been processed,” Derek says with a shrug.

“Stepsister, actually,” Stiles corrects absently, “not that you’d know it from the amount of grief we give each other. Why do you have poisonous flowers growing in your yard?”

“It crops up,” Derek says, and Stiles narrows his eyes at his overly casual tone. “Seemed better to contain it than to let it sprout up where someone could go blundering into it.”

“Huh.” Derek is hiding something, Stiles is sure of it, but he decides to leave it be for now. “How thoughtful.”

“The kitchen island is planted,” Derek says, abandoning the topic of aconite altogether. “Which is sentence I never would have anticipated saying. All that’s left is to water it. I thought you might want to do the honors?”

“Oh.” Stiles blinks at him, oddly touched. “Yeah, okay.”

He follows Derek back to the shed to pick up a large copper watering can, its sides all mottled with green oxidization. They fill it with the hose hooked up to the side of the house, and Stiles is delighted to see fat, happy honey bees bumbling around a teeming bed of coneflower next to the spigot.

“You really like growing things, huh?” he muses, poking at one of the spiky blossoms. One of the bees flies over to inspect his outstretched hand, bumping into his palm once before buzzing off to romance a nearby flower. Predictably, Derek shrugs.

“Seemed better than the alternative,” he mutters, so quietly that Stiles thinks he might not have even been intended to hear it.

He thinks about that as Derek shuts off the hose, thinks about it as he lugs the watering can to the other side of the yard, thinks about it some more as he lets water pour down over the newly living oak.

“Look,” he says carefully, “you don’t know me from Adam, so don’t feel like you have to tell me anything, and you should feel free to tell me to fuck off if I’ve overstepped, because that’s what almost everybody does anyway–,”

“Stiles,” Derek interrupts, sounding amused, “ask me whatever you want.”

“Okay.” Stiles takes a deep breath and then plunges on. “Earlier, I mentioned house fires, and– well. You and Laura kind of…reacted.”

Derek is very still, his beautiful face unreadable in the fading golden sunlight. He stands with his hands in his pockets and watches the water seep into the dark soil, silence stretching between them. Stiles tries his hardest to resist filling it. Just when he thinks he won’t be able to stand it anymore, Derek speaks, soft and hesitant.

“It’s not something we really talk about.”

“Okay.” Suddenly, Stiles feels horribly guilty. “It’s okay, I’m sorry I asked, I–,”

“You don’t have to apologize,” Derek says gruffly. “It’s just– everybody in town knows. I can’t remember the last time I talked to a person who didn’t know.”

Stiles shuts his mouth and gives Derek his full attention.

“There was a fire,” Derek says, and the words sound like they’re being pulled forcibly from his mouth. “My senior year of high school. Some half-feral Alpha had been going around biting kids, and my– my mom had been hunting him down, trying to get him out of town.” His voice stutters slightly at the mention of his mother, and Stiles winces with empathy. “I guess he thought he could claim the territory if he got rid of the established pack. Laura and I had snuck out to this party that a bunch of seniors were throwing, so we were out of the house that night, and– well. There was no one else left.”

“Jesus,” Stiles whispers.

“Laura killed him,” Derek says bleakly. His eyes have gone distant, like the past has superseded the dreamy light of sunset in the garden. “We found where he was hiding out in the preserve, and he kept trying to call to the kids he’d turned, but they all knew Laura from school and they wouldn’t touch her. Turns out he was sick, or something. Some hunters had messed him up pretty badly, and he couldn’t win in a fight against a newly minted eighteen-year-old Alpha who hadn’t fully accepted the fact that she’d never be able to hug her mother again.”

Stiles thinks of Lydia after the accident, the way she’d shut out everybody except for him, treating the rest of humanity like an enemy. It had taken a long, long time for her to forgive the world for being a place where drunk drivers could exist, and to forgive herself for not understanding her powers enough to predict the fact that their parents would be mowed down by one. He doesn’t say that he understands, because he had always hated it when social workers and family acquaintances had said it to him, but he has to say something.

“What happened to the kids?” he asks, instead. “The ones that were bitten?”

“One of them died,” Derek says hollowly. “A girl in my grade named Paige. Hated my guts, but she was– she was cool. A cello player. As for the others, well, you’ve met Erica.” For the first time since Stiles had been dumb enough to bring this up, a ghost of humor returns to Derek’s face.

“So, they’re in your pack now?” Stiles whistles. “That’s, wow. Kind of awesome, actually.”

“It took a while,” Derek admits. “One of the betas, Scott, wouldn’t have anything to do with us unless we let him tell his mom, and Laura was so scared that I was going to be taken away from her and put into foster care because I wasn’t turning eighteen for another six months. She kind of panicked. Hired a solicitor to deal with the insurance, and then packed us into my dad’s Camaro and took off. We didn’t even stay for the funerals.”

“You didn’t miss much,” Stiles mutters without thinking. “A bunch of crocodile tears and people trying to make their deaths about them.”

Derek’s eyebrows shoot up towards his hairline.

“Sorry,” Stiles says wryly. “You’re talking to another card-carrying member of the Young Orphans Club.”

For some reason, this makes Derek laugh, showing off his slightly wonky front teeth and the way his eyes go all crinkly and warm, and then Stiles is laughing too, slow at first and then so hard that he has to brace himself against Derek’s shoulder.

“Christ, that got dark,” he says, wiping at his streaming eyes. “Sorry, I really wasn’t trying to bring that all back for you.”

“It’s fine,” Derek assures him. His shoulder is firm and warm under Stiles’ fingers, and he lets his hand drop back to his side before he can do something stupid, like squeeze the muscles there. “We came back after I turned eighteen, and everyone forgave us eventually for skipping town. Laura formally adopted Isaac and Erica, and we sat down and explained everything to Mrs. McCall and Mrs. Boyd, Boyd’s grandmother.”

“You have someone in your pack named Boyd Boyd?” Stiles asks incredulously as he helps Derek lug the gardening supplies back over to the shed. “Like, I know I don’t have any ground to stand on when it comes to the weird name department, but yikes.”

“His first name is Vernon,” Derek says, a small grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. “But don’t ever call him that if you want to keep your teeth.”

“Noted.”

Stiles follows Derek inside, and then lets himself be bundled onto the couch while his host whips up a simple dinner of lemon chicken and roasted vegetables. They watch TV while they eat, bickering companionably over baseball stats and team loyalties, and it’s all so domestic and comfortable that for the first time, Stiles manages to forget the fact that there are people out in the world who at the very least intend to intimidate and kidnap him. That light, untroubled feeling manages to last until they’re washing up their dinner plates, when Derek’s cell rings.

“It’s, uh, your sister,” Derek says, a little awkwardly. He waits with the receiver held away from his ears as Stiles hastily wipes his hands free of soapy water.

“Lydiaaaa,” Stiles says, trying to sound cool and unruffled and like he hadn’t been wondering what Derek’s stubble tasted like. “How’s tricks?”

After a significant pause, Lydia says, “I’m going assume that your brain has been fried by your experiment with translocation and the strain of having to interact with an attractive bearded werewolf, and therefore will ignore the fact that you just opened this conversation with ‘how’s tricks’.”

Derek chokes on his gulp of iced tea, face flaming as he coughs. He waves away Stiles’ concerned pat on the back.

“Just going to go shower before getting ready for bed,” he mutters, ears burning a tomato red, before beating a hasty retreat from the kitchen.

“Well, he definitely heard you says that.” Stiles sighs mournfully. “How do you even know what he looks like?”

“The magic of Facebook, Stiles,” Lydia says. “There aren’t actually that many Derek Hales on the internet, and only one had friends named Erica and Laura.”

“You didn’t have to look them up, you’re going to meet them all tomorrow.”

“About that,” Lydia says, and Stiles feels his heart sink. “I did everything I could, but you got yourself almost-kidnapped during the height of graduation season, and every flight to California is booked until Friday. I’ve left my personal number with four different airline staff with strict orders to call me if there are any cancellations, but until then we’ve got to wait it out. I’m trying to see if I can get a connecting flight through Cincinnati, but even then, I wouldn’t be able to get there until Thursday at the earliest.”

“Damn it,” Stiles mutters, good mood deflating. Four days without Lydia. Four days by himself in a strange town, relying on the kindness of near-strangers. Four days of the constant, suffocating worry that Lydia would come home to an apartment full of hooded, sinister men.

“I’m staying with the Yukimuras,” Lydia says, uncharacteristically gentle as she addresses the one thought that scares him the most. “Noshiko has agreed to give me temporary protection, and Kira’s volunteered to guard me until I’m out of immediate danger. Nobody’s touching me while I have a thunder kitsune watching my back.”

“You have to be careful,” he insists, feeling anxiety bubble up in his throat. “Lydia, I know you think of everything and that you don’t need me telling you this, but.”

He doesn’t have to finish the sentence. They’re all the other has anymore.

“I’ve begun making discrete inquiries,” Lydia says. “We’re going to figure this out, and nothing is going to happen to either of us. That’s a promise.”

“No promises,” Stiles says.

It’s an old joke, from back when they were snotty kids trying to reconcile the fact that his widower father had fallen in love with her single mother. Stiles had still been smarting over the loss of his own mother, and was therefore simultaneously fascinated by and wary of the elegant Ms. Martin and her distant, impatient daughter. Regarding academic and emotional intelligence, Lydia had been lightyears ahead of the rest of their peer group, and she hadn’t known what to do with a hyperactive kid with a buzz cut who still needed a nightlight and woke up most mornings crying his mother’s name into his pillow.

I’ll bury you alive in McCarren Park if you don’t stay out of my stuff, a seven-year-old Lydia had snapped, already pushed to the breaking point by Stiles’ incessant questions and inability to keep his toys on his side of their bedroom. That’s a promise.

Stiles, already over-aware of his ADHD and curious to a fault, had replied, No promises.

“I’ll see you on Friday,” Lydia says, still soft. “Try not to annoy the locals into eviscerating you before I arrive.”

“Love you too.” Stiles is smiling despite himself when he ends the call. He leaves the cell lying conspicuously on the counter, and then heads back up to the guest room and the comfy bed, calling goodnight to Derek as he passes the hallway bathroom.

 

 12.

“So, what’s the PC term for a male witch these days?”

Derek pauses in his tinkering with the espresso machine behind the small front counter of Laura’s bookshop to shoot Isaac an admonishing look. They’ve only been here for twenty minutes and already Isaac has managed to ask a handful of invasive questions. The kid thought he was a subtle inquisitor, but that was only because the little old ladies who made up most of Hale Books’ customer base let him get away with murder. Thankfully, Stiles doesn’t seem to mind too much.

“Depends, I guess,” he replies absently, brow furrowed as he chalks something complicated onto the side of the big bookshelf lining the far wall. “You’ve got your modern wiccans, your old-school magi, your Hellenistic góēs. Or you can go with my personal favorite, the D&D classification.”

“What, like Dungeons and Dragons?” Isaac scoffs, leaning insouciantly against a display case of harlequin romances and endeavoring to subtly catch a glimpse of whatever Stiles is sketching onto the shelf. “That’s a joke, right?”

“Wizards, who study magic like science, Warlocks, who get their powers from a patron, and Sorcerers, who have to learn to control their natural magic lest it consume them. It’s a pretty dope categorization, dude.”

“You forgot Bards,” Derek mutters, trying to see if the compressor adaptor on the milk frother is loose. He wishes he had a flashlight. Laura likes to keep the light in the bookstore low and cozy, opting to provide reading lamps for the rare customers who take the time to sit and read in one of the over-stuffed armchairs in the corner. Normally he likes the warm, dreamy quality of light that this provides, but he’s finding it less charming now that he has to figure out why his sister’s crappy second-hand Bunn machine is making flat cappuccinos. When he looks up to find his mini wrench set, he finds Stiles staring at him with that now-familiar thoughtful expression on his face. “What?”

“Is he always like this?” Stiles asks, directing the question to Isaac. “Like, he’s got the muscle car and the stubble and the eyebrows of doom, and then he just goes and says something to completely subvert his own stereotype.”

“Eyebrows of doom?” Derek echoes, caught between offense and amusement.

“You get used to it,” Isaac says, readjusting his scarf. “He’s such a marshmallow that he has to even it out by dressing like a dirty criminal.”

Derek scowls at them as Stiles lets out a startled laugh, and then bends back to the faulty milk frother, wrench in hand. He tunes out the rest of their conversation, focusing instead on the job in front of him, letting his mind wander. It doesn’t occur to him until much later to realize that Stiles had never actually answered Isaac’s question.

Stiles had been wide awake when Derek had walked downstairs just after sunrise, pacing around the kitchen and murmuring to himself, exuding that same tantalizing scent that had filled the room after his stunt with Derek’s kitchen island. He’d very politely waved away Derek’s offer of coffee, and had instead insisted on beginning to ward the house.

He’d seemed almost jittery to Derek as he made his way to each of the four exterior corners of the house. His disquiet reminded Derek of the itch under the skin he himself experienced on full moon nights, the way the lunar pull made him feel over-full, the way he was never quite comfortable no matter what he did. There was no denying that Stiles had power, not when Derek could taste it in the air and feel it in the hairs on the back of his neck as Stiles pressed himself against the house’s foundation and whispered words in languages that not even Derek could understand.

When he’d finished, he’d stood up with a satisfied smile and brushed grit from his fingers.

“That should do it,” he’d said, and although there’d been no obvious physical change, Derek had experienced a subtle difference in feeling when he looked at the house. Before it had just been a place, a den of comfort for himself and his pack but still, ultimately, just a structure. Now, there was a genuine sense of protection, of solidity and refuge, warm and welcoming. He had taken a deep breath, feeling a tension he hadn’t even known he’d possessed ease from his shoulders.

“All done,” Stiles says now, stepping back to admire his work and pocketing the little piece of blue chalk he’d stolen from one of the packs Derek keeps around for the twins. Isaac gives a low whistle.

“Neat,” he says, sounding begrudgingly impressed. “What do they do?”

Derek ducks under the counter and trots over to their corner, peering over Stiles’ shoulder to see what had garnered Isaac’s appreciation. Stiles gives him a crooked smile and shifts a little so he can see better. On the rich darkly-stained surface of the bookshelf, Stiles has drawn several intricate sigils. There are some basic geometric shapes that Derek recognizes– a triangle, a pentagram, a triquetra– and others that are unfamiliar to him. Strange, looping lines that intersect in ways that hurt his head if he focuses too hard on them. Abrupt dots and dashes that read like accents.

“They’re beautiful,” Derek says honestly. “What do they mean?”

“I thought it would be a good idea to cover all the bases,” Stiles replies, grinning bashfully. “Fire, flooding, ill intent, electrical failure. Threw a charm against termites in there too.” He points to the individual sigils in the cluster as he names them.

“And that’s it?” Isaac asks, a little doubtfully. “I mean, no offense, but you drew those with a fourth grader’s chalk. It doesn’t really feel like a permanent solution.”

“Ye of little faith,” Stiles teases, and then he’s shrugging off his newly washed and dried hoodie and exposing the tattooed expanse of his arms. He hesitates, and then for some reason his eyes meet Derek’s.

“Is it gonna freak you out if I do this in front of you?” he asks. “I kind of sprung it on you guys yesterday, and you hung back when I was doing your house this morning. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“Oh.” Derek blinks at him, surprised. “No, you don’t make me uncomfortable. I mean, it doesn’t bother me. I just didn’t want to make you feel like you had an audience.”

“Aw, thanks, buddy,” Stiles says, clapping him on the shoulder with a broad smile. “That’s actually really thoughtful. I appreciate the sentiment.”

Derek’s breath catches a little at the way Stiles’ smile lights up his whole face, brown eyes warm and shining. He ignores Isaac, who’s muttering something along the lines of God, Erica was right, and offers Stiles an encouraging smile of his own.

With that, Stiles turns back to the task at hand. He takes a slow, even breath and then presses the middle and pointer fingers of his right hand to a sigil on his left forearm. Derek notices that it matches the one on the bookcase that Stiles had pointed out as protection against flooding. Almost instantly the tattoo begins to glow, that same pulsing actinic light that he’d seen the night before. He has to look away as Stiles begins to speak softly, a lilting, almost poetic litany of words. Derek thinks he hears him use the word ὕδωρ, the Greek word for deluge, but the rest are unfamiliar to him. After a moment, Stiles moves his fingers to a different tattoo, this one by his wrist. The first tattoo retains its glow as he invokes the power of the second symbol. Derek and Isaac watch, fascinated, as Stiles repeats the process two more times, each invocation heightening the smell of lavender and honey, that same sense of shifting pressure.

“Okay,” Stiles says, a little breathlessly, once there are four glowing sigils on his forearm. “Here we go.” He reaches out with his left hand, lines the tips of his fingers over the corresponding sigils and then presses down.

Light explodes out of the points of contact. It fills the whole shop, blinding Derek and making Isaac yelp and stumble back. There’s that hum again, more of a feeling than a sound, deep and resonant in Derek’s chest. He scrubs at his eyes, trying to block out the light, afterimages dancing across his eyelids. After a few slow seconds, the glow begins to fade, and he risks cracking open an eye. After the flash-grenade brightness of the spell, the bookstore appears to be almost impenetrably dark.

Stiles is standing slumped against the wall, an expression of complete shock on his face.

“That,” he says shakily, “has never happened to me.”

 

13. 

Stiles tries to catch his breath. His heart is pounding, adrenaline pulsing through his veins as his magic swirls under his skin like an overeager puppy. He can feel the effectiveness of the wards pulsing in the air, taking root even as the residual thaumaturgic light fades from sight. It had felt as though the magic was being amplified, folding in on itself and redoubling, getting stronger with every answering echo and yet never degrading, always staying true. He stares at his shaking hands.

“I don’t understand,” he whispers. That’s twice in as many days that his magic has slipped his control. Had he fucked up somehow? Had his trip through the void broken him? Out of habit, he rubs his palm against Lydia’s bind rune. It had been whole when he’d checked it in the mirror this morning, so it couldn’t be–

“Lavender?” Isaac asks faintly, distracting Stiles from his spiraling thoughts.

“And honeycomb,” Derek is saying, helping his pack mate up from where he’d stumbled and fallen. “And something else.”

“Petrichor, maybe,” Isaac muses, dusting off the seat of his jeans and straightening his scarf.

“Ozone, I thought.” Derek shrugs. “Like right before a thunderstorm.”

“What?” Stiles looks between the two of them, bewildered. They both turn to stare at him, surprise written on their faces.

“You can’t smell it?” Derek asks, sounding genuinely curious. “I noticed it last night, too. It’s pretty prominent, I would have thought even a human could pick it up.”

“Are you saying I smell?” Stiles demands, and then narrows his eyes when Derek bites down on a smile.

“Your magic, maybe,” he says, faux placating. “Did it work, by the way? That was one hell of a light. I don’t remember that happening this morning.”

“It did work. It absolutely worked. One might say it worked suspiciously well.” Stiles pokes at the wards, slightly silvered where they’ve burned into the wood. “This shelf isn’t made of some kind of mystical wood, is it?”

“Not as far as I know,” Derek says thoughtfully. “It’s just some maple I got wholesale from a retailer out in Redding.”

Stiles stills, a hint of something beginning to take shape in his mind. “You built this?”

“I built all of the shelving in here,” Derek says with a shrug. “Didn’t seem right to make Laura hire a carpenter when I could do the work myself. I did the counter, too.”

“Hmm.” Stiles stares into space, mind racing. “Didn’t build the house, though, did you?”

“What? No.” Derek is watching him curiously now, head cocked to the side in a way that invites a dog joke that Stiles is not going to make. “Are you going to tell me what this is all about?”

“Maybe later,” Stiles says absently. Maybe once I get a clue, he thinks.

“Well, this was fascinating,” Isaac drawls, back to his unruffled self, “but I have to open the shop now, or we’re going to miss the midday rush. Derek, did you fix that shitty machine?”

“I don’t know,” he admits. “I was trying to isolate the issue, but then I got distracted.”

Stiles follows the other men back over to the counter, still thinking hard. When Isaac runs the espresso machine, it produced a perfectly frothed cappuccino. The cup of coffee sits innocently on the counter, dense foam decorated with a four-leaf clover that Isaac had pulled out of habit.

“But I didn’t even really do anything to it yet,” Derek says, brows knitting in confusion. “I was just tinkering around, I wasn’t even sure what was broken.”

In unison, both men turn to stare expectantly at Stiles.

“Don’t look at me.” Stiles shrugs his hoodie back on, shoving his hands deep into the pockets. “Maybe you’re a better tinkerer than you realized.”

When I warded the place against electrical failure, he thinks bitterly, that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.

 It shouldn’t have worked.

Stiles is good with wards, has always been good with them. It had been the first thing he’d learned, after the shock of losing their parents had jumpstarted the power that had been lying dormant just under his skin. Alan Deaton, an old friend of his biological mother’s, had fostered Stiles and Lydia for a while, before Deaton’s coven had interceded and they’d been shuffled back into the system. The strange quiet man had given them books filled with complicated, esoteric lesson plans and exercises in control. The wards had come naturally to Stiles. Protect, defend, purify. It had settled his magic, given it an outlet that was productive, not to mention lucrative.

All that means, however, is that Stiles knows how warding works. A house warded against fire will still burn, eventually. Not as hot or for as long as it normally would, and the flames would be discouraged from spreading, but fire is still fire, and you can’t erase an element. All you can hope for is the chance to give yourself enough time to fill up a bucket and deal with the problem the old-fashioned way. There are rules with magic, and there is always a price. No creation without loss, and no loss without creation.

The rules have apparently taken a leave of absence, at least as far as Derek Hale is concerned, and Stiles finds that troubling. The oak had still been green and happy when he’d gone to check on it that morning. He has no doubt that if he held a lighter to any of the book’s in Laura’s shop, the flame would slide off the pages like water off a duck’s back. That’s how deep the warding had taken root. So far there’s been no repercussions, but…

“Do you want to get some food?” Derek asks, breaking him out of his reverie. He holds his phone, and Stiles can see a string of texts from someone named IMPERATOR HALE. “I know it’s kind of early, but Laura says we should come over for dinner at her place around six-ish, and you haven’t had breakfast yet.”

“I want French fries,” Stiles declares, firmly pushing his concerns to the back burner. No need to freak out about something he can’t control, at least not until Lydia arrives. And, hey, maybe Derek did fix the espresso machine by accident. “No, curly fries. And a milkshake. Do you guys even have diners on the west coast?”

It turns out that they do. Derek takes him to a place called Ethel’s, where they get a chocolate milkshake and a French dip sandwich with a side curly fries for Stiles, and a turkey club for Derek. People greet Derek like just seeing him out and about brightens their day, their smiles turning curious when they see Stiles standing beside him at the counter. Derek orders all of their food to go, and then shamefacedly explains to a suddenly starving Stiles that he has a hard time actually eating in diners and similar fast food restaurants.

“It’s the fryers,” he explains. “Even places that keep their kitchens pretty spotless, like Ethel’s, don’t think to scrub down every nook and cranny, and grease gets caught in places like the air ducts, and after a while it goes bad.”

“Ahh,” Stiles murmurs. “The drawbacks to lycanthropy. That’s a bummer, dude.”

Derek shrugs. “Normally there’s nine of us, anyway. We don’t really fit anywhere, so it isn’t much of a loss.”

“Do you guys usually share meals?” Stiles asks, genuinely interested. He and Lydia are always looking to expand their bestiary, and they’ve had little to no interaction with the tightly knit communities of shape-shifters that live in New York. Shifters usually prefer places like Beacon Hills, where they can set up definitive territories and stretch out. The city is generally considered to be too much of a melting pot for anyone to lay a true claim to it.

“We try to,” Derek says. “Boyd is taking night classes at the community college, on top of working full time, so we have to work around his schedule a little bit. Still, we all try to get together at least three out of five weekdays, and we usually spend weekends together as a pack.”

“Is that a werewolf thing?” Stiles wonders. Their food has arrived, and he takes the bag before Derek can grab it, waving him away. “I got this, you talk.”

Derek sighs, but holds the door open for him as they make their way out to the parking lot.

“It’s a werewolf thing, but it’s also a– a family thing. We all had it pretty rough when we were younger, and spending time together as a family helps to reinforce the fact that none of us are on our own anymore.”

Stiles is quiet for a while as they load into Derek’s muscle car and pull out onto the main road. Finally, he says, “It sounds like you’ve thought about that a lot.”

Derek grins that shy, hesitant grin again, like he’s not sure he’s allowed to. “Mandatory therapy for three years. It’s something I’ve talked about a lot.”

“Hmm,” Stiles muses, and then, to lighten the mood, he asks, “So, what does Erica do for a living?”

At this, Derek actually laughs, and it makes Stiles feel breathless all over again.

“Would you be willing to believe that she teaches art at a kindergarten?”

“Wait.” Stiles turns in his seat, aghast. “Someone put that nut in charge of the malleable, trusting minds of this great country’s youths?”

“They’ve voted her best teacher in the county for four years in a row,” Derek says, trying for deadpan and missing by a mile.

Stiles sighs. “We’re doomed.”

Derek tells him about Erica’s class while they head back to the house, and then they trade embarrassing sibling stories as they unpack the food and eat it out on the back porch. Warm, clear sunlight cradles the garden bursting with life, loosening the stiff muscles in Stiles’ neck as he dunks his fries into the chocolate shake. He listens contentedly as Derek relays a story about the time that Laura had almost gotten them arrested for underage gambling in a casino outside Las Vegas, and tries not to worry too much about how much he likes the guy.

Derek is…well, to put it plainly, Derek is kind of awkward. He’s obviously smart, and his sense of humor is razor sharp, but talking for too long seems to make him uncomfortable, and he’s kind of a clunky storyteller, and he ducks his head whenever Stiles manages to startle a laugh out of him, like he doesn’t want Stiles to see him smile too much. And he cares. God, is it ever so apparent that he cares, about his landscaping, about his pack, about the few locals who offer to buy his woodworking whenever they manage to run into him in town. It’s that loyalty, the way his face shines with affection when he tells Stiles about Laura’s reaction to his recent break up, that really makes Stiles’ pulse kick up a notch.

Which is just about the last thing he needs, with his magic on the fritz and group of hooded freaks out there potentially trying to sacrifice him.

After lunch, Derek gives him a ride to the Public Library in town, dropping him off out front with the promise of returning in a few hours.

“I have to do some work for a client across town,” Derek says apologetically, digging around his wallet for his library card. “I’d normally try to reschedule, but this really is the last week to get forsythia in the ground.”

“Good to know.” Stiles grins, accepting the card. “I’ll survive on my own until you get back. Maybe I’ll make some friends.”

This doesn’t appear to ease Derek’s concern at all. He waits until Stiles is safely in the lobby of the library before peeling away, and Stiles watches him go with a warm, unfamiliar feeling in his chest.

The Beacon Hills Public Library is one of the oldest buildings in town, a surprisingly gothic stone structure that, as Derek had explained, was protected by some kind of architectural conservation by-law. Still, Stiles is pleased to see that its antique vibes don’t carry over to the computers, a handful of sleek Mac desktops that take up one wall in the back. He nods to the disinterested librarian and scuttles over to sit in one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs, booting up a monitor and pulling out his list of items to research.

Lydia had told him not to worry, but Stiles prides himself on being a natural born worrier. He’d decided pretty much immediately after their conversation last night that he’d make his own inquiries the first chance he got.

He opens a tab in the browser, peering over his shoulder to make sure there’s no one around, and then types in the address of an invite-only discussion forum he’d established several years prior. He spends a few minutes clicking around the “Concerns” thread, answering a few of the easier questions and sending some of the trickier ones along to the few contractors that he and Lydia occasionally delegate to. When his inbox is organized, he cracks his knuckles and opens a new thread.

Enquiring Minds

Posted by SSLMConsultation on May 11th, 2017 at 13:46:

Stiles had let himself into their unlit apartment the previous Sunday, juggling an armful of grocery bags from the Key Foods a few blocks away. Lydia had been out on yet another Tinder date, this time with some moody artistic type with good cheekbones, and Stiles had been anticipating having the apartment to himself for the night. He’d fumbled with the light switch, and then lugged the groceries into the kitchen, setting them on the counter. It had been unseasonably cool for May, and he’d spent a pleasant day out in Red Hook, gently negotiating hunting territory between a local dock owner and a newly emigrated ruksalka. All he’d wanted to do was to shower away the brine and river mud, and he’d already been shrugging out of his layers when he’d turned on his bedroom light and found the five men waiting there for him.

They’d been dressed in roughly woven robes, the cowls pulled low over their faces, hiding them in shadow even with the illumination of the overhead light. They’d stepped forward to meet him, moving with an awful fluidity, and Stiles had screamed at them to stay away, stumbling back into the hallway and into the arms of yet another hooded man. His hands had gripped Stiles’ forearms like iron bars.

“You have been chosen,” his assailant had whispered. The other men had echoed him, like the words were a prayer conducted in church. They’d come close enough for Stiles to see the scarification around their mouths, even as their hoods hid the rest of their features. Strangely geometric lines cut directly into flesh, a formation he hadn’t recognized detailed in shiny keloids across lips and chins.

“You will absolve us.” The hands grasping Stiles’ forearms had begun to burn, and Stiles had recognized the precursor to a binding, could feel it sucking away at his control already. No, he’d thought desperately, tasting panic like bitter metal in his mouth. No, no, not like this.

“Your sacrifice will be the catalyst. You will show us the face of the divine.”

“I fucking won’t,” Stiles had snarled, and he’d lashed back with the heel of his boot and kicked the robed man squarely in the groin.

With a grunt, the man had released him, and Stiles had fallen into a crouch, running on pure instinct. He’d lunged forward, feinting for the door leading to his and Lydia’s adjoining bathroom, and then spinning down and away from grasping hands, through the ranks of men. Leaping over his desk, he’d thrown his reading lamp through his bedside window, shattering the glass. Without looking back, he’d vaulted out into the night.

There was an aluminum awning over the stoop of their building, and that had broken Stiles’ fall enough that when he finally hit pavement, he hadn’t felt anything too important rupture. Gasping for air, he’d struggled to his feet, elated by this close call, already thinking of the fastest route to the local precinct.

There were more men waiting for him on the street. They’d come for him, implacable, murmuring the same words over and over again. Absolve us. Be the catalyst. Show us the face of the divine.

Stiles had thought of Lydia, of the devastation on her face as she’d stood, frozen, in the playground of McCarren park, twelve years old and screaming, screaming, screaming in the moment of their parents’ deaths. He’d wondered if she would scream for him now. Then, he’d taken a shard of glass that had tumbled with him from his bedroom window, and opened the flesh of his forearm, pressing two bloody fingers to the newest tattoo on his chest and speaking the words that had swept him away from the little apartment on Kingsland Avenue and into the oblivion of the void.

Now, Stiles types up everything he can remember about his would-be captors, from the potential fabric content of their robes (hemp, or roughly spun linen) to the formation of their Euclidean scarification (the closest he can find is an invocation of Mercury, and he spends a solid ten minutes going down a rabbit hole of Ancient Roman mysticism). From what he’d been able to tell, they’d been mostly Caucasian, but he’d seen at least one pair of brown hands reaching for him, so race doesn’t appear to factor into it. Twelve men in total, gripped in the throes of some sort of religious mania, faces hidden from the light. He shivers at the feeling of phantom hands on his forearms.

By the time Derek makes it back to the library, Stiles has printed out a half-inch thick stack of responses, which had come flooding in the moment he’d posted the new thread. He saves a few links in the drafts of his brand-new Gmail account, and is in the process of transferring the emergency funds from one of his savings accounts into Lydia’s checking account when Derek strolls in, looking absolutely devastating in dirty jeans and a ratty old sweatshirt.

“Hey,” he says, oblivious to the way the librarian has nearly fallen out of her chair in an effort to look helpful and inviting. “Are you ready to wrap things up around here? We’re due at Laura’s soon.”

Stiles blinks up at him blearily, and then checks the time.

“Holy shit,” he says. He’d been hunched over the computer for nearly four hours, completely caught up in a research spiral, and he’d barely noticed the passage of time. “Yeah, lemme just finish this up.”

Derek leans his hip against the desk and flips through some of Stiles’ print outs, brow wrinkling at whatever he reads. Stiles hasn’t bothered to peruse the responses yet. He’ll do it tonight, after he’s warded Laura’s house and he can spread the pages out on the guest bed at Derek’s and go to town on them with a highlighter.

He finishes the last of the money transfers and then clears the web history before clicking out of the browser with a sigh. His spine pops as he stretches, spreading his arms wide and yawning so hugely that his jaw nearly dislocates.

“You don’t have to go to dinner if you’re tired,” Derek says, his face going all frowny with concern. “I don’t care what Laura says, you’re not some kind of indentured servant.”

“It’s fine, dude, seriously,” Stiles says, gathering up his papers as he stands. “The warding is good for me, too. I get edgy without an outlet.”

Derek hums noncommittally as he follows Stiles out of the library, giving the librarian a polite nod when she tells him to “Have a good night, Mr. Hale,” her voice dreamy with longing. He still doesn’t seem happy as they walk out into the cool twilight, and Stiles falls into step with him, knocking their shoulders together.

“Hey. Seriously, man, I feel fine. Just too much time staring at a screen, nothing to worry about.”

“You–,” Derek begins, and then stops, apparently collecting his thoughts. What he comes up with, eventually, is, “I don’t like this.”

Stiles blinks at him, faltering a little. Derek walks a few feet ahead of him and then turns when he realizes that Stiles has stopped in his tracks. Disappointment is worming its way into Stiles’ gut.

“Look,” he says, shoving his hands into pockets and staring down at the pavement. “I know it’s a pain in the ass to have some stranger taking up space in your house, okay? I know this whole situation is, is, less than ideal, and I promise I’ll be out of your hair as soon as Lydia gets here, I just– I literally don’t have anywhere else to go, dude, and I–,”

“Stiles.” Derek’s voice is startlingly close. A warm hand closes gently around his right wrist, tugging a little until Stiles looks up and meets Derek’s gaze. Those kaleidoscope eyes are intent on his, soft and fond. “That’s not what I meant. You’re welcome to stay with me for as long as you want. Hell, your sister can stay too, I have the room. I– I like having you around.” He squeezes Stiles’ wrist, and it feels like a blessing, like he’s washing away the memory of the kidnapper’s grip. “I like it.”

“Oh.” Stiles’ face feels absurdly warm.  “I– okay.”

“What I don’t like is you taking all of this on by yourself.” He nods to Stiles’ stack of papers. “You should let us help.”

“Fine.” Stiles has to look away from all of that earnestness, stares at the faded Hale Landscaping logo on Derek’s sweater instead. His spark feels electrified, fizzing away like a live wire under his skin. “I’ll think about it.”

“Good.” Derek drops his hand, and the lack of contact feels like a physical loss, an ache in his chest. “Let’s go eat, I’m starving.”

He leads Stiles over to a beaten up pick-up truck with the same Hale Landscaping logo emblazoned on this side.

“What happened to the fancy muscle car?” Stiles teases, trying to shake the urge to find an excuse to touch Derek again.

“You can’t fit a wheel barrow in the Camaro,” Derek says primly, settling into the driver’s seat and starting the engine. “And driving around with daisies in the back seat would mess up my image.”

Stiles snickers as they pull out of the parking lot, and sits back to watch the town go by. The drive to Laura’s is over surprisingly quickly. Like Derek, her house backs up onto the preserve, but in a much more populated part of town.  They’d had to drive for at least a few minutes before they came across any of Derek’s neighbors, but Laura’s sprawling Victorian two-story has about an acre of yard separating it from two other houses.

The front garden reminds Stiles of Derek’s back yard, the way everything has been allowed to grow the way it wants to. Not manicured, exactly, but organized and brimming with color.

“Is this your work?” Stiles asks, nodding at a raised bed of sedums set into a swath of rustling, sweet-smelling grasses. Derek smiles like he can’t help himself, letting his hand trail through waist-high grass as he leads Stiles to the front door.

“Laura’s garden was my first,” he admits. “I started working on it the minute she bought the place.”

“It’s gorgeous,” Stiles says honestly, and Derek ducks his head, trying to hide his pleased, flushed face.

“Wait till you see out back.”

Stiles jumps a little at Laura’s unexpected voice. He’d been so caught up in watching Derek’s ears turn pink that he’d missed her opening the front door. She stands there now, hip resting against the frame, grinning at them like she knows the punchline to a joke they’re unaware of. “You’re late, baby brother.”

“My fault,” Stiles says immediately, before Derek can apologize. “Sorry to keep you waiting. You have a lovely home.”

“Well, I’ll let it slide this time. Come on in.” Laura stands back, letting them through the door. They’ve barely made it over the threshold when a pink and brown blur catapults itself into Derek’s arms, squealing with laughter.

“Fiona!” A harried looking young man with a flop of dark hair and an uneven jaw jogs into the foyer, trailed by a boy of about nine. He stops when he sees Stiles and Derek. “Oh. Hey, Derek. Uh, hi.”

“Stiles,” Derek says helpfully, adjusting his grip on the little girl still giggling helplessly in his arms, “this is Scott. Scott, Stiles.”

“Nice to meet you, dude,” Stiles says, offering his hand. Scott’s answering smile is like the rising of a very small sun.

“My mom was the one that stitched you up,” he says happily, shaking Stiles’ hand with force. “She’ll be glad to see you up and about.” He turns imploring eyes on Derek. “Please come help in the kitchen. Fiona keeps eating all of the strawberries we were gonna use for dessert.”

“We should have dessert now,” says the little girl, hugging Derek around the neck. She has little pink beads in her braided hair, matching the pink of her shirt and jeans. “It’s dumb to wait to eat the best thing.”

Derek disentangles himself from Fiona’s grasp, setting her down gently.  He smooths back her braids, squatting down until they’re eye to eye.

“It is dumb,” Derek says seriously. “But sometimes you do dumb things for the people you care about, because you respect them. Okay?”

“Okay.” Fiona sighs deeply, rolling her eyes, but she’s still smiling. She grabs Derek’s hand and tugs him up. “Come on, let’s go show Scott we love him.”

Derek sends an apologetic look back at Stiles as he follows the little girl down the hall towards the kitchen, and Stiles waves him away, grinning at how helpless Derek is in Fiona’s tiny hands.

“I didn’t realize you had kids,” Stiles says to Laura, unable to keep the surprise out of his voice. Then he remembers the sidewalk chalk that Derek had retrieved for him from one of the many bedrooms in his house. “Oh, wait, maybe I did.”

The little girl, Fiona, couldn’t be less interested in him, too preoccupied with happily filling Derek in about her day. Her brother, however, stiffens abruptly at Stiles’ words. He steals a glance at Laura when he thinks she isn’t looking, small face pinched with sudden aprehension.

Laura, however, doesn’t miss a beat.

“Well, I do. Surprise!” she says easily, reaching out without looking to tousle the boy’s unruly curls. He ducks his head in a passable imitation of Derek, like he has to shield his smile from the world. “I hope you like green bean casserole, because that’s all I had in the freezer, and Derek was too busy chauffeuring you around today to come cook for us.”

“Ah. Sorry,” he says, addressing the boy directly. The kid shrugs, not meeting his eyes.

“Derek says that he’ll teach me to cook once I can reach the cabinets,” he murmurs, his voice soft and dead serious. “That way he doesn’t have to worry so much.”

The boy spins on his heel and follows his sister into the kitchen without waiting for a response, shoulders stiff. Stiles raises his eyebrows at Laura.

“He’s, what, nine going on forty-five?” he asks.

“Yeah.” Laura stares after him, losing some of that exuberance. “We’re working on it.”

“Is their dad…?” Stiles doesn’t finish the question, unsure if he’s overstepping his bounds. Even beyond their tawny golden skin, the siblings don’t really resemble either of the Hales. Laura sighs, hands on her hips.

“They’re my kids,” she says, quiet and fierce, “but, no, they don’t have a father. Or a mother, really. Just us. A Laura and a Derek. A pack.”

“Copy you,” Stiles says, holding his hands up in supplication. “I read you loud and clear. And for the record, I love green bean casserole.”

“You’re a good kid.” Laura sighs expansively, and then visibly lightens, slinging an arm around his shoulder and squeezing hard enough to bruise. “I’m glad Derek talked me out of leaving you in the preserve for the coyotes.”

“Uh. Thank you?” Stiles says doubtfully, and lets Laura lead him into the wolves’ den.

 

 14.

Derek steps out onto Laura’s back patio, letting the cool night air wash over his face. He needs to cool down, needs to relax. He can feel heat in his cheeks.

Stiles is back in the living room, charming the pants off everybody, even the kids, and it’s making something in Derek…not yearn, exactly, but want. It’s crazy. He doesn’t even know the guy, really. Stiles has been in his life for less than forty-eight hours, and yet…

The smell of lavender floats in on the breeze, and it startles him, makes him glance over his shoulder, trying to see how Stiles could have snuck up on him. The patio is empty, however. He can hear Stiles in the living room, laughing at something Scott says, and with a rush of embarrassment he realizes that the scent is being carried on the breeze from a small crop of herbs in the butterfly garden. He walks over to the little patch of earth and crouches next to the lavender, rolling one of the buds between his fingers and inhaling the aroma it releases. It’s always going to remind him of Stiles now, he thinks.

So strange that he should know only the most basic information about the guy, other than their few shared moments of personal tragedy. He wants to know. He wants to know how Stiles got his tattoos, how he learned to make wards and pour life into dead wood. He wants Stiles to trust him enough to tell him how he got onto the side of that road that night.

Why aren’t you freaking out? Stiles had asked him, and Derek realizes that it’s a perfectly valid question. He should be freaking out. Derek has always been wary of strangers, always the more suspicious of the Hale siblings. Laura is generally the one to coax him out of his shell, reminding him that he has to socialize, that there’s a world outside of the pack. It’s immensely out of character for him to be so comfortable sharing his space with an outsider, bringing him into the fold, introducing him to the twins. He doesn’t understand his own motivations.

Touching Stiles had felt like coming home. Derek had stood in the parking lot at the library, holding onto Stiles’ bony wrist, and there hadn’t been a single part of him, man or wolf, that wanted to let go. That should scare him. The fact that Stiles has made his heart pound more in the last twelve hours than Jennifer had in the entire six months they were dating should be troubling.

Instead, he just wants to find an excuse to touch him again.

Derek stands, rubbing his hands on his sweater, unintentionally transferring the scent of lavender to the fabric. He’s disappointed with himself. Stiles has been through a trauma, is still recovering from whatever hell he’d gone through on Sunday night. Even at dinner there’d been moments when he’d gone distant, when the acrid scent of anxiety had spiked in the air around him. He needs safety and comfort, not some emotionally crippled werewolf with a crush.

“Derek?”

He turns to find Caleb in the doorway, silhouetted by the light in the mudroom.

“Hey, bud,” Derek says, forcing himself to calm. Caleb trots outside, hopping down the patio steps and making his way to Derek’s side. “What’s up?”

“Erica and Laura want to play Pictionary,” the boy says wearily, jamming his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He sounds like a put-upon father talking about his excitable kids. “They say you have to come in to make the teams even.”

Derek runs a hand through the boy’s curls, scenting him automatically, and Caleb slouches against his side and looks a little less woeful.

“What team am I on?” he asks.

“Me and Melissa and Boyd are on Erica’s team,” Caleb says, trying for casual and missing by a mile. The kid idolizes Boyd, so much so that Derek can’t help but feel the slightest pang of stupid, shameful jealousy. It had been months before Caleb had been able to look at Derek without fear, but he’d taken to calm, quiet Boyd almost immediately. “I think Laura wants your friend on her team, so you can play with us.”

“Sounds good,” Derek says, patting the boy on the shoulder. Then, because Caleb has shown time and time again that he’s a better judge of character than the rest of them put together, he asks, “So, what do you think of Stiles?”

Caleb gives the question the same serious consideration he gives everything, small brow furrowed. Finally, he says, “He’s cool.”

Coming from Caleb, that’s as good as a friendship bracelet and a declaration of undying loyalty. Yeah, Derek thinks mournfully as he follows the boy back into the house. I think I know how you feel.

In the living room, Derek finds Stiles in animated discussion with Scott and Isaac about some video game he’s never heard of, waving those long, elegant fingers in the air as he makes his point. He lights up when he catches sight of Derek in the doorway, his copal eyes softening as he smiles. It makes Derek’s entire body feel warm.

“Christ, Derek, get a grip,” Erica mutters from her customary spot draped across Boyd’s lap, and he makes sure to elbow her in the back of the head when he walks past them to sit next to Melissa on the love seat.

“Hi, sweetie,” Melissa says, patting his hand. “How was your day?”

“Nothing to complain about,” Derek admits, and then tells her about old Mrs. Hendrickson’s vegetable garden, and how well the tomatoes and snow peas are doing. By the time Laura makes it back from the kitchen, arms laden with a massive store-bought angel food cake topped with whipped cream and whatever strawberries Fiona hadn’t managed to scarf down before dinner, he feels more like himself.

Pictionary is surprisingly fun. Derek had thought he’d be too self-conscious to enjoy himself, but Stiles appears to be almost effortlessly fitting in with the pack, and somehow that helps Derek relax. Laura’s team eventually wins, but even Caleb doesn’t seem too upset by the loss, nearly vibrating with pride when Boyd compliments his drawing style.

After the game, Stiles helps Derek bring the dishes into the kitchen while Laura corrals the twins upstairs. He grins at Fiona’s loud attempts at bargaining for another hour before bed.

“You’ve got a great family,” he says quietly, running the faucet over the cake plates before passing them to Derek to put in the dishwasher.  “Or pack, I guess.”

The words make Derek want to explode with happy pride. He catches his reflection in the window behind the sink and barely recognizes the sappy grin on his face, ducks his head in the hope that Stiles hasn’t noticed. Erica was right. He needs to go for a run or something.

“I see now why you spend so much time with them,” Stiles adds. He runs his thumb around the lip of the bowl Laura had used to whip the cream, and Derek hurriedly looks away as he proceeds to licks his finger clean, humming contentedly.

“They’re not too terrible,” Derek says, wincing a little at how strangled his voice sounds. “I hear Scott is picking you up tomorrow.”

“Can confirm. We’re going to ward his mom’s house.” Stiles runs warm water into the mixing bowl. “Although I think that just might be an excuse to play Call of Duty.”

“I’m glad you like them,” Derek blurts out. He takes the mixing bowl and puts it into the dishwasher, feeling Stiles’ surprised gaze on his profile. There’s a long moment of silence before Stiles speaks again.

“Why?” he asks, voice soft. “Why does it matter what I think? Why are you being so– so understanding about everything?”

Derek closes the dishwasher and turns to face the other man, who suddenly seems unsure of himself. They’re closer than Derek had realized, barely two feet apart, and Stiles almost looks like he’s standing in soft focus, the warm light of the kitchen mellowing his edges. Even frowning, he’s the most beautiful thing Derek has ever seen.

“This isn’t some kind of White Knight complex, is it?”

“Wrong fairytale,” Derek says quietly. The world feels like it’s shrinking until it’s just the two of them, the space between them filled with warmth and the smell of lavender. “No, Stiles, I don’t think you’re a damsel in distress.”

“Then why?” Stiles meets his eyes, searching for something. Derek slips his hands into his pockets, resisting the urge to reach out and smooth the crease between his brows.

“I don’t know,” he admits. “Laura asked me the same thing, and I– I don’t know why. This just feels right.”

Stiles sucks in a shallow breath. His long lashes cast shadows across his cheekbones as he looks down, just for a second, at Derek’s mouth.

“Hey,” Erica says from the doorway, breaking the spell. “If you guys could cool it for a minute, Laura says it’s time to ward the house.”

Derek sends her a caustic glance as he and Stiles step apart, heat flooding his face. Her answering grin has him momentarily contemplating the benefits of throttling his own best friend.

“I’ll finish this stuff up,” he says gruffly, busying himself with the remaining dishes so he doesn’t have to look at Erica’s smug face.

“Awesome, thanks, dude.” Stiles scrubs his hands through his mop of hair, two spots of pink burning on his cheeks. “Don't want to keep Laura waiting.”

“Wise.” Derek waits until Stiles has shuffled out of the kitchen to find his sister before rounding on Erica. “Was that necessary?”

“Yes,” she says primly, and sashays out after Stiles.

Derek scrubs forcefully at the casserole dish for a few minutes, before giving up and turning the faucet to the coldest setting. He waits until the water is slightly warmer than the vacuum of space, and then dunks his whole head under the spray. Melissa finds him toweling his hair dry a few minutes later.

“Do I wanna know?” she asks, grabbing the Britta out of the fridge and filling up her water glass.

“Probably not,” Derek replies honestly, pressing the damp hand towel to his eyes.

“Well.” Melissa sighs, and pats him on the back. “In my unsolicited opinion, I think you’re doing the right thing. Not the easiest thing, for sure, but the right thing.”

“Thanks,” Derek groans, his voice muffled by the towel.

The next day, Derek sends Stiles off to Scott’s with a hanging basket of lobelia for Melissa’s kitchen, and then sits on the back porch with a cup of coffee, feeling utterly useless. Stiles had been up late after they returned from Laura’s, commandeering Derek’s dining table and laptop, laying out and going over every single one of the printouts he’d brought back from the library. He’d taken breaks to pace through the house, muttering to himself about things Derek couldn’t hope to understand. His smell is everywhere, now, save for Derek’s own bedroom, which is a line of thought that Derek refuses to follow.

The newly planted oak block now has a healthy, two-foot sapling growing out of its center. It doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down. Stiles frowns at it every time he sees it, like its existence troubles him, but Derek is secretly thrilled.

After the silence in the house gets oppressive enough to set his teeth on edge, (And when had that happened? Derek loves silence, thrives in it, but now the house feels too empty) Derek shoots Scott a text to let him know where to get ahold of him in case of an emergency, and then hops into the Camaro, gunning it down the driveway towards the town and his studio.

 

 15.

“Your mom is awesome,” Stiles declares, crunching happily on a handful of Doritos. Scott beams at him, his easygoing grin bright enough to light the room.

“She’s the best,” he says proudly, and Stiles can’t help but smile back. It’s impossible not to be endeared by Scott, with his puppyish enthusiasm and overabundant good nature. They’ve been vegging out on the McCall’s couch for the better part of two hours, the warding having taken all of ten minutes. Call of Duty had led to SuperMario, which had finally led to MarioKart, at which Stiles is absolutely trouncing Scott. “It wasn’t always easy, my dad not being in the picture and all, but she’s an amazing mom.”

On the coffee table, Scott’s phone buzzes with an incoming call. He tosses his controller down and picks the cell up, frowning slightly at the display.

“Hello?” Scott blinks as the person on the other line speaks at length, a little furrow of confusion forming between his brows. After a moment, he holds the phone out to Stiles. “It’s for you.”

Me? Oh, uh, okay.” Stiles sits up out of his boneless sprawl and snags the phone out of Scott’s hand. “Um, Stiles speaking.”

“You’ll never guess what I heard from Danny,” Lydia says promptly. City sounds filter in through the background, laughter and car engines and the distant sound of a siren. New York City in a sound bite.

“Should I even ask how you got this number?” Stiles muses, getting to his feet and beginning to pace.

“Your werewolf boyfriend gave it to me. Now, guess what I heard from Danny.”

“He’s not my–,” Stiles glances at Scott out of the corner of his eye, feeling a flush start to work its way to his cheeks. Scott has one hand over his mouth, poorly disguising a grin. “Ugh, never mind. What’s the scoop?”

“Someone contacted him about setting up an untraceable bank account for a shell corporation,” Lydia says grimly. Stiles frowns at her tone.

“Isn’t that kinda part and parcel with what Danny does?”

“It is.” Lydia pauses, and then, “He usually isn’t interrogated about you during the interview process, though.”

What?” Stiles pulls the phone away from his face and stares at it for a second, and then brings it back to his ear to say, “Sorry, what?”

“A man contacted Danny a few weeks ago, claiming that he spoke for someone named Brother Viduus. Over the course of their first conversation, he started slipping in questions about you,” Lydia informs him. “What are you like to work with, would Danny recommend you, harmless stuff like that. Like he was going to approach you about a job. By the time they were discussing rates, however, the questions had gotten a lot more invasive. Did you have any safe houses in the city, how did our parents die, what did Danny know about that thing with the gym.”

Stiles is still embarrassed about the thing with the gym. It had been during his eighth-grade formal, and he’d been having an anxiety attack in the boy’s washroom borne of too much Red Bull and the stress of deciding to ask Susie Brownstein to dance, and before he’d realized what was happening his magic had crashed through him like a dam breaking under a great deluge. He’d accidentally burst half of the lightbulbs in the school before Lydia had found him and bundled him off to their apartment. She’d given him his first tattoo that night.

“Viduus, huh?” Stiles says miserably. “Isn’t that some kind of metal band?”

“Not my forte.” Lydia sighs. “Kira and I are meeting Danny for lunch now, he’s going to tell us all about it. I’ll let you know what’s what.”

They say their goodbyes, promising to talk soon. He doesn’t tell her to be safe. He’ll have to trust that she knows what she’s doing. She’s never let him down before.

“Your sister sounds super intimidating,” Scott says, awe in his voice as he takes the cell that Stiles offers back to him.

“That’s just because you don’t know her,” Stiles responds, slumping back onto the couch.

“Oh, is she one of those people who’s actually a big ol’ softie on the inside once you get to know her?”

Stiles stares at Scott’s sweet, guileless face.

“No, buddy. Once you get to know her, she’s terrifying.”

Around 4PM, Scott drives Stiles into a very chic part of town, a sort of modernized industrial area with clean brick buildings and a lot of good street art.

“It used to be all these abandoned warehouses,” Scott says enthusiastically as they drive by a building with its loading dock wide open, a couple of men in paint spattered clothing sharing a beer under the warm glow of a string of fairy lights. “There was even this old rundown train depot that was just sitting around collecting squatters and tetanus, which made absolutely no sense because Beacon County hasn’t been on any kind of train route in decades.”

He slows at a stop sign and points to one of the larger structures, a stunning turn-of-the-century depot with beautiful arched windows and an honest to god clock tower. It doesn’t look at all abandoned to Stiles.

“Derek and Laura bought it after they came back to Beacon Hills,” Scott explains. “They’d inherited all this money, and didn’t want anything to do with it. It was Derek’s idea to put it back into the community. They converted the whole depot into studios, got the Historic Preservation Society to put it on the list of protected buildings, and started renting out cheap space to local artists. Word got around, and now the whole area has turned into this cool art community.”

Stiles gives a low whistle, impressed.

“That explains why everyone in town looks at Derek like he’s Prince Charming,” he says. “Well, aside from the fact that he looks like Prince Charming.”

Scott laughs, pulling into the lot in front of the train depot, parking just a few spots away from Derek’s Camaro. The lobby of the building is a huge, vaulting space, pristine white walls broken up by a sweeping granite staircase leading up to a second level. There’s a little lounge area set up in the center of the room, plush armchairs and a comfortable-looking couch.

The building splits into two wings, and they wander down the left hallway as Scott points out where the old teller booths and waiting areas used to be. Some of the studios they pass have their doors open, and Stiles sees canvases with splashes of bright acrylic, several silkscreen tables, and one hulking metal structure that he can’t quite decipher the shape of. There’s music spilling out from under the doors, coupled with the sound of laughter and quiet conversation. They pass a small group of older women exiting a studio about halfway down the long corridor. One of them, a wiry silver-haired lady wearing over-sized dungarees, calls out for Scott to give his mother her best wishes.

“This is a nice town,” Stiles murmurs, almost to himself. Coming from a lifetime spent in the city, it’s jarring to be in a place where knowing your neighbors is not only expected, but encouraged. The man that lives next door to Scott had been getting his mail as they left, and he’d walked over to shake Stiles’ hand and introduce himself. Stiles had had to remind himself not to be suspicious of the man's smile.

“It’s a lot better with the pack around,” Scott says. “Those few years when Laura and Derek were gone were rough. Crime rates went up, weird stuff started happening. People disappearing, things like that. It stabilized a lot after they got back. Laura says it’s because there’s always been a pack in Beacon Hills. We belong to the town, and the town belongs to us.”

“You’ve got the land in your bones.” It’s something his mother used to say. Stiles can’t help but return Scott’s brilliant smile. “It must be a good feeling.”

“You’re with the pack now,” Scott says, like it’s the least complicated thing in the world. “You’ll know how it feels sooner or later.”

They stop outside one of the last studios, tucked away in the westernmost corner of the building. Scott pushes the door open, calling out a cheerful greeting, and Stiles’ whole world shrinks to encompass the sight of Derek Hale in faded jeans and a ratty u-tank, sawdust sticking to the sweat in his hair, the corded muscles of his shoulders bunching and flexing as he works a lathe across the surface of a bureau. The studio is well organized, but obviously worked in, shelves of half-finished projects lining one wall, a wide assortment of tools hanging from pegboard above a work table sporting a state of the art miter saw.

“Scott.” Derek stands up straight, laying the lathe down carefully. His eyes find Stiles’, and something in them softens. He offers that wonderful shy smile. “Stiles.”

“Hi,” Stiles says weakly. “This place is amazing.” You’re amazing.

“Thank you,” Derek says, like his opinion matters. Stiles doesn’t know what to do with his hands.

“Do you have anything to drink?” Scott asks, wandering over to a mini-fridge plugged into a corner outlet and starting to poke around inside. “I think I’m probably gonna need a drink.”

It turns out that Derek does indeed have a six-pack of beer, plus a few bottles of something that Scott calls “wolf brew”. There are familiar flowers floating in the amber liquid.

“Hey,” Stiles says, “That’s aconite. Like from in your garden.” He narrows his eyes. “Are you growing werewolf weed, Derek?”

No,” Derek protests, at the same time as Scott laughs and says, “Hey, kinda!”

“It is not ‘werewolf weed’,” Derek says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Another name for aconite is wolfsbane. It tends to crop up wherever a pack settles, and while most of it is deadly, there are some strains that can be cultivated to produce an effect that’s similar to human intoxication, and– Scott, stop laughing.

They order a small army’s-worth of Thai food and eat it out back as the sun sets, exchanging friendly greetings with the people who filter in and out of the pleasant veranda. Stiles drinks four of the six beers and is warm and deliciously buzzed by the time the gibbous moon has risen. Derek collects the take-out containers and ushers them back into the building to lock up the shop, and Stiles can’t help but lean back into the sturdy weight of Derek’s hand on his shoulder, wants to turn and press his face into the hollow of Derek’s throat, wants to see if his skin tastes like the salt of his sweat, wants, wants, wants. He wonders if he imagines that Derek lets his fingers linger a bit longer than is strictly necessary.

They wave goodbye to Scott in the parking lot, he and Stiles agreeing to meet up the next day for a movie marathon once he’s done with work.

“Erica told me you made things,” Stiles says, smiling at Derek’s profile as the werewolf eases the Camaro out of the lot and points it in the direction of home. “That first day, before I met you.”

“It’s a hobby.” Derek keeps his eyes on the road, but Stiles doesn’t miss the way the corner of his mouth ticks up. “You should see some of the artists who work out of the depot. They’re incredible.”

“I like your things,” Stiles insists. He looks at his hands and flexes them, for once not worrying about the flare of power under his skin as his spark pulses in his chest, like it wants to reach across the console and touch Derek itself. “My magic likes your things, too. That’s never actually happened to me before.”

After a significant pause, Derek says, “Really?”

“Yep. Completely new territory.” Stiles waggles his fingers. “You’re the only person it's ever had an opinion about.”

Another pause, and then this time, so softly that Stiles almost misses it, Derek says, “Good.”

The smile doesn’t leave Stiles’ face the whole drive home.

 

 16.

Derek wakes up to the sound of tires on the gravel of his driveway. He lurches upright in bed, confused and bleary-eyed. The time on his alarm clock reads 5:17AM.

He can hear soft, slow breathing in the guest bedroom, the rustle of the bed clothes as Stiles turns over in his sleep, which rules out the possibility that he’s gotten bored waiting for Derek to wake up and decided to take the Camaro out for a joyride.

Derek slips out of bed, stepping into a pair of sweatpants and the tank top he'd discarded into his hamper before going to bed. He decides against turning on the lights, padding downstairs on silent feet, Laura’s number on speed dial on his phone. He focuses his hearing as the mystery car makes it to the end of the driveway, engine quieting as it shifts into park. There’s the faintest murmur of an unfamiliar female voice. He hits the call button.

“There are people in my driveway,” he murmurs, in response to Laura’s sleep-addled, “Whassit?

There’s a pause on the other line.

“How many?” She sounds much more alert this time.

“I can't tell,” he says, moving over to the living room window and peering out through the blinds. The night is impenetrable, but he can hear the sound of bodies moving around just out of sight. “Maybe two?”

“I'm on my way,” Laura says. He can hear the jangle of her keys through the receiver. “Don't do anything stupid.”

Derek slips the phone back into his pocket and creeps into the foyer, trying to focus on the people outside instead of Stiles' slow, steady heartbeat. That heartbeat is messing with his concentration, getting under his skin, making him want to shift into his wolf form and protect, defend. A subsonic growl rumbles its way through his chest, and he flexes his hands, fingernails lengthening into razor sharp claws. 

Just outside, there's another murmur of voices, followed by a conspicuous silence. Then:

"Well, aren't you going to open the door?"

Derek blinks. It's woman's voice, and an impatient woman by the sound of it. Strangely familiar, too. He shakes himself out of his partial shift, and sheepishly opens the front door. 

There are two women standing on his porch. One of them, a slender Japanese girl carrying about twice her weight in luggage, is trying to politely stifle a yawn behind one hand. The other, a fine-boned redhead wearing improbable heels and a put-upon expression, plants her hands firmly on her hips. He recognizes her from the photo Stiles had shown him the night they’d eaten out on the back porch and swapped stories about their sisters.

“Hardly the warm welcome I was looking for,” says Lydia Martin, raising a perfectly groomed eyebrow. “We’ll work on it.”

“Um. Sorry?” He steps back, opening the door wider so that they can enter. “Come in.”

Lydia gives Derek a tight smile and brushes past him, back straight, eyes narrowing shrewdly as she takes in her surroundings. The Japanese girl gives Derek a lovely apologetic smile, and extends her one free hand.

“I’m Kira,” she says. “I’m Lydia’s people person. You have a lovely home.”

“Derek.” Derek shakes her hand, beyond confused. “Here, let me help with those.”

He accepts a few of the duffle bags, surprised by how heavy they are. He gives Kira a considering glance, inhaling surreptitiously as she drifts by, light as a feather on her booted feet. Electricity. The buzzing, crackling pop of a breaker box during a power surge. Kira catches his eye and, still smiling, answers the question he hadn’t asked.

“Thunder kitsune,” she explains as they make their way into the living room. “Stiles and Lydia are good friends of mine. I’m here to make sure they don’t get into too much trouble.”

“Like a bodyguard?” Derek asks. The girl can’t be more than 110 pounds soaking wet, but he supposes he shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. He can list all the things he knows about kitsunes on one hand.

“Kind of,” Kira says, grinning wryly as they watch Lydia disappear up onto the second landing. “Most of the time, I have to protect the world from them.”

 

 17.

A cold finger prods Stiles out of uneasy dreams.

“Wake up, wunderkind," says a wonderfully familiar voice. "We have a lot to talk about."

"Lydia?"

Stiles bolts upright, sending himself flying off the mattress and onto the floor. Again. He winces as the sudden impact jolts his still-bruised ribs. Lydia hauls him back onto the bed by the collar of his sleep shirt.

“I’m glad to see you’ve settled in,” she says, raising a sardonic brow at his wall of library printouts, which he’s arranged with masking tape so he can cross reference all of his responses at once. “Although I’m genuinely surprised to find you slumming it in a guest bedroom.”

“You’re here.” Stiles blinks at the impossibility of her, standing with her hands on her hips and surveying the photos of the pack lining the walls. It’s like watching two worlds collide. “How are you here?”

Then, because the relief at seeing her is nearly overwhelming, he stands and pulls her into a bear hug. She sighs and hugs him back fiercely, tucking her head under his chin.

Don’t do that again,” she hisses, smacking him in the shoulder with a thwack of her palm. “I do not enjoy worrying myself sick about you.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault some weirdo with a robe fetish wants a piece of this.”

Stiles knows he’s grinning like an idiot, but he truly can’t help himself. He’s just so damned glad to see her. The past few days haven’t been nearly as distressing as they could have been, thanks to the kindness of the pack and the general wonderfulness of Derek’s presence, but there’s something about knowing that Lydia is nearby and ready to fight for him that he finds to be comforting on a molecular level.

Below them, the front door slams. Stiles can hear Laura’s voice through his open bedroom door.

“We’d better go down,” he says. “Time for you to meet the Alpha.”

“Ah, yes.” A slow, predatory smile spreads across Lydia’s face. “The lovely Laura Hale. I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“Uh. Wait.” Stiles stares after as she pushes past him and starts down the hall, a definite swing in her step. “Hey! Lydia, what’s that supposed to mean? Lydia?”

He follows her down the stairs, and is delighted to see Kira standing around the coffee table in the living room, talking to the Hale siblings and a moon-eyed Scott. The kitsune’s face breaks into a wide smile of genuine pleasure, and she excuses herself to trot over and give him a tight hug.

“Glad you’re not dead, Stilinski,” she says, patting him companionably on the back. “I’ve been stuck in various cramped vehicles with a very unhappy Lydia for the last nine hours. You owe me one.”

“Awww, you love us,” Stiles says, grinning down at her.

“Ms. Stilinski,” Laura says, offering her hand out for Lydia to take. “I was under the impression you wouldn’t be here until later this week.”

“It’s Ms. Martin, actually. I kept my mother’s name. Regardless, you can call me Lydia.” Lydia gives Laura’s hand a firm shake, her hazel eyes bright and assessing. “I felt that my presence was needed here sooner rather than later. There was a red-eye flight to Reno that got us in a little after one, and it’s not too far of a drive.”

“Three hours if you speed like a maniac,” Kira mutters, giving Stiles a significant look. “Plus, she wouldn’t let me choose any of the music.”

“Well,” Laura says, eyebrows inching up toward her hairline, “I’m sure Stiles is thrilled to have you, but Derek probably could have done without the mini heart attack.”

“You never really know what someone is like until they’ve been rushed out of bed before sunrise,” Lydia says, giving Derek a brilliant smile. “You get extra points for helping Kira with the bags.”

“I’m going to make coffee,” Derek says. He looks tired and sleep-rumpled, his hair sticking up like it had recently been mashed into a pillow. “Everyone okay with coffee?’

He barely waits for their affirmations before escaping into the kitchen. As he passes Stiles and Kira, he pauses, exchanging the quickest of glances with Laura.

“There are two more guest bedrooms upstairs,” he says quietly. “Third and fourth doors to your left. You can put your stuff in there, if you like.”

“That’s very kind,” Kira says, beaming at him. “And in case Lydia doesn’t ever get around to saying it, thank you for taking care of Stiles for us. We really appreciate it.”

Derek turns his gaze to Stiles for a long moment, and then ducks his head, smiling softly.

“It wasn’t a hardship,” he murmurs, and then slides past them into the kitchen, his shoulder brushing Stiles’ ever-so-gently as he passes.

“Wo-o-ow,” Kira says, her brown eyes wide as she looks after Derek’s retreating back. “Congratulations, Stiles.”

“Shut up,” he says, face flaming. “Just, hush.”

He and Scott helps Kira bring the bags upstairs, dumping them into one of the guest rooms. Scott introduces himself to Kira shyly, looking like he’s just won the lottery when she graces him with a smile.

Stiles is thrilled to discover that one of the duffel bags is filled with his own clothes, while another is stuffed with his small, but extensive collection of esoteric books. He changes out of his borrowed pajamas and into a fresh pair of navy chinos and his favorite vintage batman tee, grateful to be able to throw out the clothes he’d nearly been kidnapped in. No matter how hard he’d tried, he hadn’t been able to get the bloodstains out.

When he gets back downstairs, he finds Laura and Lydia deep in conversation.

"I only brought spring clothes with me," Lydia is saying casually. "It’s much colder in New York than it is here. It would be nice to have some company while I shop for more weather appropriate items, and you can tell me all about life here in Beacon Hills."

"Sure," Laura says, looking dazed. 

"She can't be bought," Stiles insists, a little hopelessly. Lydia is using her most effective dimples. 

"Don't listen to him," Lydia says, hooking her arm through Laura's and unleashing a dazzling smile. "He was dropped on his head a lot as a child."

"I'd picked up on that," Laura says, leaning a little into Lydia's space. The expression on her face pretty much screams Buy me!

"Unbelievable," Stiles mutters, turning on his heel and marching out of living room to go find Derek. He finds him sitting on one of the of the bar stools next to an un-plunged French press, head lolling forward onto his chest. His sleeping face is like that of a Botticelli angel, soft lips parted, dark hair falling across his forehead in inky whorls. Stiles would normally hate to wake him, but he refuses to suffer this nonsense alone. 

"Our lives just morphed into a Jane Austen novel," he says, loud enough that Derek startles and nearly slips off the stool. 

"Whuh," the werewolf mutters, turning to blink blearily in Stiles' direction. It's adorable. 

"I think our sisters are gonna bone." Stiles snags the French press off the counter and depresses the plunger. The heavenly smell of hot coffee wafts up into his face, and he takes a big breath, savoring the nutty aroma.

"Is...is this a nightmare?" Derek mumbles, still blinking sleep from his eyes. 

"No such luck, buddy. No such luck.”

 

 18.

Laura and Scott had taken off after a slightly awkward cup of coffee, promising to get in touch later. Derek had accepted a hug from his sister by the front door, some of the tension leaking out of him as she’d clasped a hand to the nape of his neck, scenting him. He doesn’t know why the intrusion of Lydia and Kira is making him feel so edgy, when he’s been perfectly fine– happy, even– to have Stiles in the house.

Over eggs and toast, Stiles had explained why there was currently no countertop on the kitchen island. Lydia’s whole face had lit up with curiosity, and then nothing would do but that she should have a demonstration. While Derek had gone upstairs to shower and change, the two women and Stiles had wandered outside to investigate the former oak slab, still flourishing under the slowly rising sun.

“Okay,” Lydia says an hour later, once they’ve all been ensconced in Derek’s studio. She presses her fingertip to the small rune that she’d chalked onto the base of a half-finished bookend. “Let's see what we can see”

Her mark glows with a blink-and-you’d-miss-it flash of light. With curious frown, Derek realizes that she hasn't had to invoke any tattoos to access her magic. He wonders if this means she's more powerful than Stiles, and whether or not that should worry him. He appreciates Lydia’s obvious intelligence and her dry wit, but he wouldn’t go so far as to say that he trusts her. Lydia sits back, tossing her cascade of strawberry blonde hair over her shoulders, and all four of them stare at the bookend as the rune takes effect.

It happens so subtly that Derek almost misses it– in fact, he supposes that that's probably the point. One moment the wooden stag is sitting there, caught in motion on its thick maple base, and the next minute it just…fades into the background. It's not so much that it vanishes, more so that he finds himself feeling incredibly unmotivated to notice it.

“Fascinating,” he says, impressed.

“Pretty standard, actually,” Lydia says dismissively. She picks up the bookend, which makes Derek feel like he's looking at one of the old stereogram books from his childhood, the garishly colored ones where you have to cross your eyes to find the hidden picture. It feels wrong for her to be touching it, makes his brain hurt. With deft movements, she draws a collection of lines through the rune, and just like that it's a normal carving again. She tosses the bookend to Stiles. “Now you, hotshot.”

Stiles fumbles with the wood, almost dropping it to the ground before he manages to get a hold of it. He glares at his sister as he licks his thumb and drags it through the chalk markings she’d left behind. Lydia dimples at him, innocent as a spring morning.

With a quick glance at Derek, Stiles fishes the blue chalk out of his back pocket and painstakingly scribbles a copy of the rune Lydia had just used. When he’s finished, he lifts up the hem of his T-shirt and presses two fingers to a small matching mark on his abdomen. Derek glances away from the dark curls of his happy trail, stark against the pale, lean muscles of his stomach. Not the time.

“Here goes nothing,” Stiles says, smiling weakly. He presses a fingertip to the mark on the base of the carved stag.

It disappears.

Derek stares at the space where it had sat, mouth falling open in utter amazement.

“Where did it go?”

“Are you kidding?” Stiles frowns at him, brandishing thin air. “Dude, it’s right here.”

“No.” Derek shake his head very slowly, disbelieving. “Stiles, I can't even smell it anymore.”

“Now that is fascinating,” Lydia murmurs, leaning forward. Her eyes are sharp and inquisitive as she investigates the empty air in Stiles’ hands. “Stiles, remind me again of the first principles.”

“Oh. Um.” Stiles blinks at her, worrying his lower lip as he gathers his thoughts. “Visualization. Intention. Will.”

“Indeed,” Lydia says, like a teacher praising a particularly adept student. “Most modern magic could be described with the pithy, ‘if there’s a will, there's a way,’ no?”

“Sure.”

“Well, brother mine, from what I can tell, something about Derek’s natural magic is, for the lack of a better word, distilling your will. It’s taking away all of the noise people usually have in their minds that gets in the way of the purpose of the spells, and amplifying the essence of the intent.”

“I'm not magic,” Derek protests.

“You sprout fur during the full moon,” Lydia shoots back, glossed lips quirking sardonically. “You might not cast spells, but magic is still etched into your DNA.”

Kira is giving Derek a considering look, tugging thoughtfully on a silky lock of hair. When he raises an eyebrow at her, she opens her mouth as if to speak, only to hesitate. She darts a quick glance in Stiles’ direction, then mouths, Later.

They test the veracity of Lydia’s hypothesis on several of the half-finished projects on Derek’s shelves, before Stiles finally calls it quits.

“I feel like a side show at a carnival,” he complains, tossing the latest of the test subjects into Lydia’s hands. “And I’m hungry.”

“You’re always hungry,” she huffs, setting the unvarnished jewelry box delicately onto the workbench. The water they’d poured onto it sits in a pool on the floor, the surface of the box as dry as a desert.

“I could eat,” Kira says, looking up from her phone. “Scott’s grilling burgers, if anyone’s interested.”

“You have Scott’s number?” Derek asks, surprised. When had that happened?

“He’s very sweet,” Kira says, grinning down at her phone as she types in a response.

They all convene at the McCall’s house, Laura arriving with the twins shortly after they do. Lydia introduces herself formally to the children, and if she’s surprised by the appearance of two nine-year-olds, she barely shows it. She shakes Caleb’s hand very solemnly and compliments Fiona on her Bill Nye the Science Guy t-shirt. Fiona gazes up at Lydia, brown eyes huge as she takes in everything from her firm handshake to her improbably chic shoes, obviously in awe.

He notices, throughout the course of the meal, that Lydia and Laura seem to be taking part in some kind of strange dance, half antagonism and half flirtation. Lydia is abrasively intelligent, eager to dive into debates on anything from GMOs to magical realism, and Laura keeps pace with her, opinion for opinion, hardly letting anyone else get a word in edgewise.

Told you, Stiles mouths at Derek from across the table, and then accidentally inhales lemonade up his nose when Derek crosses his eyes and mimes dry-heaving in response.

“Fine, I’m fine,” he splutters as Scott pats him on the back. He glares at Derek through watering eyes, and Derek gazes back with an expression of perfectly innocent concern.

The rest of the pack shows up in time for them all to pile into the McCall’s living room, Isaac queuing up Sandlot on Scott’s Netflix. By some sly machinations on Laura’s part, Derek ends up being shuffled onto the couch next to Stiles, bodies pressed together from shoulder to hip as Erica closes the curtains and the opening credits roll.

“I love this movie,” Stiles whispers, his breath ghosting over Derek’s ear and sending a shiver down his spine.

“It’s not as good as A League of Their Own,” Derek replies, partly just so Stiles will whisper in his ear again.

They keep up a running commentary for most of the film, exchanging weird trivia and pointing out their favorite parts. By the time the end credits roll, Stiles is almost as sleepy-eyed as Fiona, who Derek carries out to Laura’s car. Erica offers to take the kids back so that Laura can show Kira and Lydia around town, and so he and Stiles head back to the house alone.

“I’m sorry about all this,” Stiles says through a yawn as they make their way up the front porch. “I know you didn’t sign up for housing three strangers. If it helps, I promise that neither Lydia or Kira would never do anything to hurt the pack.”

“That does help, actually,” Derek admits, pushing the front door open and leading the way inside. “And you’re not a stranger, Stiles. They’re welcome here for as long as you want to stay.”

He’s not sure what to do with the look Stiles gives him, tender and warm. Stiles brushes his fingers down Derek’s arm, like he wants to get his full attention. As if he ever needed to try.

“Thank you,” he says quietly. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome,” Derek replies, every instinct screaming for him to close the gap between them. Instead, they part ways at the staircase, Derek going out to weed the garden while Stiles heads upstairs to dive back into his research, now aided by his own books.

That night, he climbs into bed still wearing the shirt that smells like Stiles, the sound of his heartbeat down the hall lulling Derek into a deep, unbroken sleep.

 

 19.

It starts like a dream he’s had a thousand times before. It’s the early hours of the morning, and Stiles is standing on a desolate subway platform, waiting for the G train to arrive. A thin stream of dirty water trickles down from the grates in the ceiling that lead up to the street, a steady drip-drip that echoes through the cavernous station.

Stiles knows how this dream goes. He’ll wait on the platform, and eventually the train will pull up, and he’ll get into the middle car. The entire train will be devoid of people, and he’ll make his way to the front, passing precariously between the cars as the train hurtles through the dark underground tunnels. Eventually, he’ll get to the very first car, and he’ll walk to the conductor’s booth, ignoring the graffiti and the sticky floors and the subway maps that all look just a little wrong. When he finally makes his way to the door, he’ll open it, and he’ll wake up.

Tonight, things don’t go according to plan.

The train pulls up, and Stiles gets onto his customary car, holding onto the pole as it lurches away from the station. For a split second, he thinks he sees Derek standing behind him in the reflection of the window, but when he turns back the car is empty. He starts his customary trek towards the front, barely noticing that the maps on the walls aren’t MTA maps at all, but rather the Google Maps coordinates he’d sent Lydia from Derek’s phone.

Two cars away from the front of the train, the whole thing comes to a squealing, shuddering halt. Stiles has to brace himself against the handrails to keep from sprawling onto the grimy floor, looking around in alarm.

The train is stalled. The train never stalls.

Mr. Stilinski,” says a voice, unspooling like silk in the confined air of the train car. “I’ve been looking for you for some time.”

The lights flicker. Stiles whirls, searching desperately for the source of the voice, fear bubbling up in his chest. His heart pounds. No, he thinks. This isn’t how the dream goes.

He makes a break for the first car, sprinting with everything he has, but with the curious physics of dreams, his arms and legs have become impossibly heavy. When he glances back over his shoulder, he sees the silhouette of a man in the darkened train car behind him, his features hidden by a deep, hooded cowl.

You have something I want, Mr. Stilinski. And whether it’s now or later, you will give it to me.”

Stiles’ breath comes out on a sob as he forces his body to move, to run, to reach the front of the train. He can hear the thud of heavy footsteps just behind him, the swish of coarse fabric, can smell something sour and rotten in the air.

No, no, no, no.

With one final burst of exertion, Stiles reaches out and grips the handle of the door leading to the conductor’s booth. His exulting cry of relief morphs into a scream as a cold, sickly pale hand lands on his shoulder.

Stiles opens the door.

By the time he’s managed to calm his breathing, sitting up in Derek’s guest bed with his shirt sticking to the cold sweat on his back, the dream is already slipping away.

 

 

20.

"Hey."

Derek turns to see Kira padding lightly down the stairs on socked feet. She gives him a sunny smile. 

"Morning," he says. He gestures with his mug to the coffee pot. "Help yourself."

"Thanks."

They lapse into easy silence as Kira doctors her coffee with a heaping spoonful of sugar. Once she's done, she comes to observe as Derek takes the measurements of the kitchen island.

"I wanted to talk to you," she says carefully, "about Stiles."

"Oh?" Derek throws her a quick glance, then goes back to jotting down dimensions on a pad of notepaper. "I kind of picked up on that, yesterday."

"It seemed best to speak to you alone," she says. "It's not the kind of thing you talk about with a ton of people around."

"Okay." Derek raises an eyebrow curiously. "What's up?"

Kira takes a deep breath. "What do you know about mates?"

Derek drops the tape measure on his foot. 

"Oh, gosh, are you okay?" Kira looks dismayed as Derek mutters a curse, bending to pick up the offending tool.

"Fine," he grunts. The pain is already fading. "Sorry, I thought you said 'mates'."

"I did," Kira says. "Uh, sorry."

Derek turns to face her, an expression of utter disbelief crossing his face. Of all the topics he might have expected Kira to approach him about, this hadn’t even rated the list.

"What does a thunder kitsune know about ‘wolf mates?" Derek asks. "I mean, no offense, but you can't be a day over twenty-five."

"Looks can be deceiving," Kira says with a grin. "I was born the year Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated."

Derek stares at her. "You're one-hundred-and-sixteen years old?"

"Yeah, that wasn't really my point." Kira sighs apologetically. "It's rare, but it does happen. I knew two mated werewolves who lived on Staten Island in the 'fifties. They were nice."

"Then consider yourself lucky." Derek shakes his head. "It's more than rare, it's basically unheard of. Most ‘wolves think it's a myth."

"Most humans think werewolves are a myth," Kira teases. “It all depends on your perspective, I guess.”

“So, what,” Derek says, his face heating. “You think Stiles and I– that we–,”

“I’m saying it’s a possibility,” Kira says soothingly. “I’m not going to tell Stiles or Lydia, don’t worry. It’s just something to think about. It could be why your magic is so compatible.” She gives him an encouraging pat on the shoulder, and then slides her cell phone out of the pocket of her jeans. "Is it cool if I call my mom? I have to give her an update on what's been happening."

"Please," Derek says absently, his head spinning. "I think I have to go for a run, anyway."

"Good idea. Clear your mind." Kira dimples at him approvingly before wandering out into the living room to make her phone call. 

Derek strips out of his shirt at he makes his way outside, folding it and laying it out on the grass by the porch steps. His pants and underwear follow suit, stacking up into a neat pile. He stands in the tepid morning light, enjoying the feeling of the air on his skin for a moment.

Derek's mother had told him about mates, when he was still small enough to curl up comfortably in her lap. The story went that there was one person on earth who was a perfect complement to a werewolf’s nature, who called out to their soul. That person would challenge the 'wolf, love and support them, make them the best version of themselves that they could be, and vice versa. She’d explained that the odds were astronomical of a werewolf ever finding his or her mate, what with the world being so big, and with the global population growing every day.

“You don’t need a mate to be happy,” she’d said, rocking him slowly in her lap, running her fingers through his hair. “But if you ever find yours, don’t let them go.”

Derek’s thoughts are a clamoring mess, too much going through his mind at once. He lets the shift take him, falling to all fours and then taking off at a run, breaking through the tree line in seconds. Things are always a bit simpler in his shifted form. He sprints through the preserve until his thoughts quiet, until only one remains, an insistent call that he can’t out run.

Stiles. Stiles. Stiles.

With a huff, Derek changes the direction of his course, heading back to towards the house and the sweet scents of honey and lavender.

 

 21.

"Here's what I've got," Lydia says, pulling out her laptop and setting it down on the foot of Stiles' bed. "There's a group of thirteen men of various ages and ethnicities that have been making waves in certain esoteric circles for the last three months. They call themselves the Brotherhood of the Ascension, heavens know why."

"One of them kept bringing up god," Stiles muses, settling beside her on the mattress and flipping through his pages of notes. "Or, that was what I assumed he was talking about. He never mentioned any specific deity, though. Nothing about this feels like organized religion to me."

"Not necessarily," Lydia agrees, "but I'm not willing to rule it out." She taps a shellacked fingernail onto one of the printouts that Stiles has taped up on the wall. "This same name keeps popping up. Brother Viduus. He always speaks through a proxy, seems to enjoy passing himself off as a collector. No one ever sees his face."

"So, twelve acolytes, one leader?" Stiles blows out a tight breath, drums his hands on his knees. "You know, they all had this geometric symbol carved into the flesh of their mouths. I thought it might be something Euclidean, but the closest thing I could find was the Seal of Mercury."

"You don't seriously think they're an astrology cult," Lydia says blandly, turning back to the computer in order to pull the image up on Google. "Astrology cults are almost always passive, and generally pretty stoned."

"Well, no," Stiles admits. "I was thinking it had more to do with the god himself. Mercury, as a permutation of Hermes. You know, the celestial messenger. He brought the word to and from the gods."

"Hmm." Lydia runs her hands through her hair, gathering it up on top of her head in a massive strawberry blonde topknot. "I can see that. Let's say these monks, as you called them, are operating under the misapprehension that they, and they alone, are capable of communing with the divine. But on the whole, Gods tend not to fuck around with humans anymore." She cuts a dry smile in Stiles' direction. "Barring a few exceptions."

"So, they get it into their heads that they need to create a direct line to a deity?" Stiles picks up the thread, studiously avoiding her gaze. "That doesn't explain why they need me. I'm a good warder, an okay healer, and a subpar clairvoyant. I can't help them talk to gods."

"We both know that's not all you are," Lydia says quietly. She reaches out and taps him on the chest, right above his heart. "I know this is hard for you to talk about, but we can't rule out the possibility that this could have something to do with your mom."

Stiles stiffens. 

"Lydia, you are the last remaining person on earth who knows about that," he says hollowly. "Even Deaton didn't know all of it. So, unless you've been airing my dirty laundry to your Tinder dates, there's no way in hell that this has anything to do with her."

"Okay," Lydia says, dropping it easily. He's positive that she isn't discounting the theory, that she'll still continue to research that avenue of investigation, but she knows when not to push him and this is why he loves her. "Well, maybe they'll give up now that we're out of New York. Find some other poor schmuck to use as a divine bullhorn."

"I don't like that idea," Stiles mutters, plucking nervously at a loose thread on his t-shirt.

"The world is a big and awful place, brother mine." Lydia goes back to the computer, clacking away on the keyboard. "I'm too preoccupied with making sure you stay in it to worry about anyone else." 

Stiles sighs and stands up, leaning over to place a kiss on the crown of her head. She would never come out and say it, but Stiles can imagine the horror she must have felt, coming home to an empty, ransacked apartment, his blood on the pavement outside. 

"I love you too, Lydia," he says, and leaves her to her work. 

When he gets downstairs, he sees Kira in the living room, speaking into her cellphone in rapid Japanese. Deciding not to bother her, Stiles pours himself a cup of coffee and meanders out to the back porch, wondering if Derek is still out weeding the garden. The yard is empty, but Stiles walks down the porch steps and onto the grass anyway, enjoying the feeling of the earth under his feet. It’s a still, calm morning, and the garden is bright with color and the buzzing of bees.

The massive black wolf that comes bounding through the tree line is a bit of a surprise.

“Holy shit!” Stiles stumbles back, spilling his coffee everywhere. He trips over a neatly folded pile of clothes and lands hard on his butt, wheezing with pain as his abused ribcage complains at the sudden shock. "Holy shit."

The wolf slows, but doesn’t stop, trotting over to nose at his stomach. Big, soft-looking ears lay flat against its head, and it whines softly, looking up at Stiles with concerned, familiar eyes. 

"Derek?"

Stiles reaches out, and then hesitates, unsure of the etiquette. Derek makes the decision for him, pushing his head into Stiles' palm, squirming happily when Stiles digs his fingers into the thick ruff of fur behind his ears. 

"This is so surreal, dude," Stiles says, fascinated.

Derek as a wolf stands as high as Stiles’ waist, and his fur is dark and incredibly dense. He seems perfectly happy to flop onto the ground next to Stiles, leaning his full weight against Stiles’ side, nosing his way under Stiles’ elbow until he gives up and tosses his arm around Derek’s neck.

“Wolf-Derek is tactile as hell. Good to know,” Stiles muses, scratching absently down the length of Derek’s spine, grinning when the werewolf huffs out a pleased breath.

They stay like that for a long time, Stiles carrying on a one-sided conversation, telling Derek about what Lydia had learned about the Brotherhood of the Ascension. Derek remains a comforting weight against his side the whole time, pressing his cold nose into Stiles’ palm when he mentions his fear that some other innocent person might be used as a replacement for whatever purpose the Brotherhood had intended for him. By the time Lydia comes to find them, Stiles is feeling a lot lighter about the whole thing.

“Laura is on the phone for you,” she says, holding out her cell. She raises an eyebrow at the huge wolf sitting halfway across his lap. “She wants to talk to you, too.”

Stiles pushes himself out from underneath a grumbling Derek, standing to take the phone from Lydia. She swaps it for his empty coffee mug, turning to wander back into the kitchen.

“Hey, Laura, what’s up,” Stiles asks, putting the phone to ear.

“Hey, kid, I have a favor to ask,” Laura says, her voice sounding tinny as it comes down the line.

“Shoot.”

“Do you have any way of warding against night terrors?”

Stiles shivers unexpectedly, a fragmented memory of the previous night’s nightmare flashing through his mind.

“Sure,” he says, “are you having trouble sleeping?”

“Not me.” Laura sighs. “The twins. They– well, they had a bad childhood, and sometimes the bad comes back in the night.”

“Oh.” Stiles’ forehead wrinkles. Caleb and Fiona seem like such bright, happy kids. He keeps forgetting that they’ve only been living with the Hales for a couple of years. “Yeah, that’s no problem at all. Do you have chamomile tea at your house?”

“I think so,” Laura says. “Put Derek on the phone, I want to talk to him about dinner.”

“Oh, um, he’s–,” Stiles turns back to where Derek the wolf had been lounging in the grass, and his words cut off on a strangled yelp. “Oh, my god.”

A very human Derek Hale finishes pulling up his pants, raising an eyebrow as he holds an expectant hand out for the phone. Stiles tosses it to him and then turns back towards the house, his whole body flushing a violent red. Muscles, he thinks despairingly. So many muscles. And chest hair, oh my god.

He’s never going to be able to un-see that. The image of Derek’s half naked body is going to be burnt onto his retinas for the rest of his life, causing him to pop awkward boners every time he closes his eyes. Stiles gives an involuntary whimper.

It’s one thing for Derek to be kind, and generous, and smart. It’s completely unfair for him to also look like an underwear model.

“Hey, Laura wants me to drop you off at her place,” Derek says. When Stiles turns around, he has his shirt back on, and he looks like he’s doing his very best not to laugh. “Are you good to head out?”

“Yep,” Stiles forces out, his voice strangled. “Yes. Sure thing. Just gotta find my shoes.”

“I’ll meet you by the car,” Derek says, hopping up the porch steps, brushing past Stiles as he walks back into the kitchen. He smells like the woods and freshly cut grass. Stiles wants to cry.

He’s calmed down somewhat by the time they pull into Laura’s driveway, although his heart still kicks into overdrive every time Derek so much as smiles at him. She meets them at the front door again, ushering them through with a wave of her hand.

“Do you have everything you need?” Laura asks. “Ingredients-wise, I mean.”

“Yeah, Lydia brought me my kit,” Stiles says, hoisting up his dad’s old, beaten-up tackle box. “I have everything in here.”

“Great,” Laura says, and picks up her own car keys. “Erica’s with the kids out back, she can show you their room. Derek, let’s head out.”

“You’re leaving?” Stiles feels a pang as Derek turns to follow his sister outside.

“Laura wants to make dinner for everyone tonight, kind of a welcome to the neighborhood type of thing.” Derek leans in conspiratorially, and Stiles’ stupid pulse kicks up a notch. “She’s a terrible cook, though. She needs all the help she can get.”

“I can hear you, baby brother,” Laura calls from the driveway. “Stop flirting and let’s go.”

Stiles is actually glad to see Derek’s cheeks turn pink.

“Flirting, huh?” He grins and waggles his eyebrows.

“See you later, Stiles,” Derek says, turning on his heel and marching over to Laura’s car. Stiles waves them away and then goes to find Erica and the twins, closing the door behind him.

“Oooh, bunk beds! That’s so cool,” Stiles says, as Erica leads him into the kids’ bedroom, trailed by a very curious Fiona and Caleb. “I wish Lydia and I had bunk beds growing up.”

“They are very cool,” Fiona agrees, skipping over and flopping onto the bottom bunk, next to friendly-looking plushy axolotl. Caleb trails after her more sedately.

“What are you gonna do?” he asks, tracking Stiles’ movements as he deposits his kit onto the surface of their writing desk.

“It’s kind of like when people burn sage to cleanse a space,” Stiles says, flipping back the lid of the tackle box and extending the trays, revealing all of the little compartments inlaid into the dividers. “Except for the fact that unless you know what you’re doing, all burning sage does is make your house smell nice. This works.”

He pulls out two square pieces of white cotton, and then the special marker he uses when he’s making a gris-gris bag that will be used in close proximity to people. It’s felt tipped and non-toxic, and the ink itself is a bright cheerful blue. Erica leans over his shoulder as he sketches out the rune Hagalaz, the base of any protective rune, and then overlays it with the angular Laguz, imbedded with the strength of the lunar pull– always good for clearing away bad dreams. After a moment’s hesitation, he adds Dagaz, figuring that the twins might need all the help they can get when it comes to banishing grief.

Caleb and Fiona come over to his other side, their curiosity getting the better of them.

“So, now what?” Erica asks, and Stiles holds up a finger like a he’s about to perform a party trick.

From his back pocket, he pulls out the packet of chamomile tea that he’d swiped from Laura’s pantry. He tears open the wrapper and deposits it into the trash bin, and then uses his fingernail to tug out the stitch that kept the tea bag closed. He divides the contents of the bag into two piles, and then halves one of the piles and deposits those halves on top of each drawn rune. Then, with a flourish, he pulls out several other vials and a polished marble plate, scooping up the remaining chamomile and settling it into a little pile on the center of the dish. From the vials, he portions out measurements of lavender, lemon verbena, and rosemary.

“This is the exciting bit,” he says, rooting around in the kit for a matchbook. He finds one from a bar called Enid’s not far from his and Lydia’s apartment, and strikes the match with a showman’s flair. The herbs sizzle and pop as they burn, filling the room with the smell of incense.

When the last of the flames has gone out and the herbs have all been reduced to ash, Stiles pulls out a small brown bottle full of kanna extract. He drips four drops of the oil onto the ashes, using his thumb to mix the ash and the oil into a paste. With the tip of his pointer finger, he uses the paste to draw a circle around the each of the runes and the piles of chamomile, and then closes his eyes, using just the slightest bit of his spark to infuse the circles. Fiona gasps as the ash glows a bright, clean white when the magic takes.

“Now we just have to put these under your pillows,” Stiles says, gathering together the corners of each fabric square and tying them tightly with pieces of twine, “and you shouldn’t have to worry about nightmares for a while.”

“Wow,” Fiona breathes, taking the gris-gris bags and dashing over to the bed. Even Caleb looks impressed. Erica claps him on the shoulder, and when he turns to face her, she has a genuine smile on her face.

“This means a lot,” she says. “Thank you.”

“Hey, you guys have done so much for me this last week,” Stiles says, shrugging away the praise. “It’s literally the least I can do to pay you back.”

He’s surprised when Fiona grabs his hand, tugging him towards the door.

“I have a garden with herbs,” she says. “You should come see! Derek helped me plant it. It’s good for butterflies and bees, and that means it’s good for everybody.”

“I’d love that,” Stiles says, touched.

He leaves his kit in the twins’ room, figuring that he’ll have time to clean up before Derek and Laura return from the supermarket. Fiona leads them all downstairs, and then out through the mudroom into Laura’s back yard, which is equally if not more opulent than Derek’s own garden.

“This is bee balm, and this is coneflower, and this is salvia,” Fiona says, in a pretty passable imitation of Derek’s patient teaching voice. She continues to hold onto Stiles’ hand as she leads him around the butterfly garden, naming all of the different blooming flowers. “Here’s the asters, and the lavender, which smells like you!”

This is a weed,” Caleb says, kicking at a spiky green plant that’s creeping out of the ground between the lavender and a crop of fuzzy sage. “If you’re not careful, they’ll just take over.”

“That’s what my teachers used to say about me,” Stiles says cheerfully.

Caleb rolls his eyes, possibly because of how uncool Stiles is, but most likely because Stiles isn’t taking this seriously enough. Inside the house, the landline starts ringing.

“That’s probably Laura,” Erica calls from her perch on the porch. She tosses down her book and stands, stretching her back in a decidedly feline fashion. “You guys okay out here for a minute?”

“Take your time,” Stiles says, waving her away as she disappears into the house.

He turns back to the butterfly garden and the sunny smile on Fiona’s face. It’s the last thing he sees before something heavy collides with his skull, and the world goes dark amidst a roar of pain.

 

 22.

Derek and Laura browse the produce section of the supermarket, debating whether or not it’s worth getting corn out of season and if the weather is going to hold out enough to warrant sitting outside.

“You and Stiles seem like you’re getting along,” Laura teases, dumping an armful of ears into the shopping cart and effectively ending the argument. Her eyebrows go up when, instead of rolling his eyes and giving her lip, Derek goes quiet.

He isn’t sure if he should tell Laura yet, not when his own emotions have yet to settle. Spending time with Stiles in his shifted form had cemented the idea that he might be Derek’s mate. Everything about him had called out to Derek’s keen senses, had made him want to rub Stiles’ scent into his fur, listen to the melody of his voice all day. Even more compelling had been the almost physical tug he’d felt to be close to Stiles, something deep and primal that reached from just beneath his breastbone to every point of contact the two shared and lit up like a firecracker. It had been similar to the pack bond, but even pack bonds can be broken with enough effort. This had felt like forever. Even now, Derek thinks that if he concentrates hard enough, he might be able to hear Stiles’ heartbeat.

“Well, spit it out, you’re making me nervous,” Laura says, checking the sell-by date on a bin of mixed greens. Derek hesitates for another moment, and then shakes away his indecision. He and Laura don’t keep things from each other. They never have before, and this is not the time to start.

“I think–,” he begins, but is cut off by the ringing of Laura’s cell.

“Hold that thought,” she says, fishing the phone out of her purse and accepting the call. “Hey, Erica, what’s–”

Derek stiffens as Erica’s voice bleeds through the line, tight with barely controlled panic, words jumbling over themselves.

“Laura, they’re gone. I turned my back for a second, and they just vanished, oh, god, what do I do?”

Laura breaks several state traffic laws on their drive back to the house, shopping cart abandoned along with their easygoing, joking manner. Derek is the first one through the front door, immediately seeking out any trace of the kids with his senses, and finding only Erica waiting for them in the living room, her face blotchy with tears.

“I’m sorry,” she sobs, “I should have been watching them, but the phone rang and I thought it was you, and I– god, they were out there with Stiles.”

Derek pulls her into a hug, letting her bury her tears into his shirt. When he turns to his sister, he finds that she’s slipped into her beta shift, her eyes a deep, vicious red. She tosses her phone to Derek.

“Call Lydia,” she says, the Alpha power in her voice making it a command. “Tell her that we need help searching the town, and then meet me outside.”

Derek doesn’t have to be told twice.

 

 

23. 

Stiles dreams about his mother. She sits on a throne of marble, back straight, garbed in a simple cotton chiton. Her dark hair twines around her face, like it has a mind of its own. 

"Αγόρι μου," she says, reaching for him. Her familiar brown eyes, so like his own, are filled with tears. 

"Mom," he says, and goes to her, lays his head in her lap the way he'd used to as a child. 

They stay like that for a while, her fingers carding through his hair. It's been years since he's dreamed of her like this, every detail bright and realistic. He can even smell her perfume. 

"You're in danger," Claudia says. Her voice sounds like it's coming from the other end of a long hallway, but it's still so good to hear that Stiles almost weeps, “and I've been dead for too long. I can't protect you."

"I protect myself, mom," Stiles says, but that doesn't feel quite right. There's something he's missing, someone he should be remembering. He has it on the tip of his tongue, but then his mother is speaking again, and the thought slips away. 

"You are not one of the Kindly Ones, aγόρι μου." Her voice is gentle, a cool hand on a feverish brow. "You are more your father's son than mine, no matter how I loved you both. This power shouldn't have come to you."

"It's not your fault, mom," Stiles insists. He pulls away to look her in the eye. "I got a raw deal. None of this is on you."

She smiles sadly, and for a moment he sees her as he’d known her, not this ethereal statuesque being with the swirling hair, but a smallish woman with a shock of dark curls, eyes bright and warm, wearing a dusty old pair of Levi's and his dad's police academy sweatshirt.

"I love you, kiddo," she says. 

"Love you, too, mom."

Stiles wakes up in an unfamiliar basement. He groans, trying to shake the darkness from the edge of his vision and wincing when the movement sends shooting pain through his skull. Strong, slippery rope binds his wrists to the arms of an uncomfortable metal chair, so tightly that any movement pinches and tears at his skin. His ankles are similarly trussed, and he struggles feebly against the bonds until a flash of movement catches his eye.

There are men lining the featureless walls of the dark, cold room. Stiles recognizes their monkish, roughly woven robes and feels like screaming.

The Brotherhood of the Ascension stands silently, faces hidden in the depths of their cowls, heads bowed as if in prayer. He struggles harder against his bonds, panic abstracting his thoughts. He notices that they’ve used that nigh-unbreakable braided nylon rope, the kind mountain climbers use, and the idiosyncrasy almost makes a hysterical laugh bubble up his throat. Shouldn’t a creepy cult use twine, or better yet, hemp? He could work with natural fibers.

“Mr. Stilinski,” says one of the men, in a voice so velvet smooth and soft that it almost surprises him out of his panic. It’s a familiar voice, something about it resonating with a half-remembered dream. “It is so good to finally meet you.”

The man takes an odd, jerking step forward, and the others fall to their knees, heads still bowed, still silent. A whisper runs through the room, low and sycophantic, like a prayer. They’re acolytes, Stiles thinks. Whatever’s going on here, he’s the one in charge.

“You–,” Stiles tries to say, but his throat is dry and he has to cough before the words will come out properly. “You have me at a disadvantage.”

“Yes,” the man says, almost apologetically. As he lurches closer, Stiles becomes aware of a stench that permeates the room, thick and putrid, like rotting meat. “Yes, I do.”

“Brother Viduus, right?” It’s a shot in the dark, but Stiles wants to knock some of that insidious confidence off balance. He tries to breathe through his mouth to keep the stench out of his nose, but it doesn’t do much good. “How did you find me?”

“Oh, Mr. Stilinski, you shine like a beacon in a dark world,” the man says coming to a stop just a few feet away. “And yes, you may call me Brother Viduus.”

“What the hell do you want?” Stiles can barely get the words out. The odor of rot is like a physical presence in the room.

“What do I want?” Brother Viduus asks. He reaches up and tosses back the hood of his cloak, and this time Stiles can’t help crying out, head rearing back in revulsion. “Why, Mr. Stilinski, I want to ascend.”

Even in the darkness of whatever cellar they have him in, Stiles can tell that there’s something very, very wrong with the man in front of him. Livid discolorations mar his skin, interrupted here and there by yellowing, blistering pustules. His eyes, bulging slightly in his bloated face, are a glassy, watery grey, the sclera shot through with deep red veins. Stiles is reminded of a documentary he and Lydia had once watched about the body farm at Texas State University, where forensic biologists would study the rates of decomposition in people who had donated their cadavers to science.

This is a dead man walking.

“Did you know,” says the corpse of Brother Viduus, like he and Stiles are two neighbors having a pleasant conversation, “that there was a sect of Ancient Egyptian priests who believed that you could bind a man’s Ba to his body? It didn’t take much. The right herbs in the moments before and after death, the right words, the right…incentive.”

Stiles stays silent, not trusting himself to speak. There is something obscene about hearing that rich, melodious voice coming out of lips stained black with purge fluid.

“If the Ka could be sustained, then the Ba would remain. Cause and effect, you see? The, shall we say, spark of life keeping the soul anchored to the body. If the Ka was sufficiently replenished, could a man not live forever?”

“No,” Stiles chokes out, willing himself not to be sick. “No, it would be sacrilege. A curse. The spirit would never be able to rejoin the divine. It would be trapped inside a body that would fall apart around it.”

As he says the words, the reality of what the man has done to himself truly hits home, and the sheer mind-numbing horror of it steals his breath away. Brother Viduus gives him a smile that would have come across as indulgent if it were to grace any other face.

“Do you know,” he asks, leaning into Stiles’ space and lifting a pale, swollen hand to his cheek– an intimate gesture, like that of a lover, “what it is that makes you so very special?”

His breath is fetid and damp against Stiles’ face, and Stiles fights back the urge to gag. At this distance, the smell of necrotic flesh is almost overwhelming. The man reeks of decay, of putrescence, like his skin is rotting off his bones.

“You have been blessed,” the man coos, grasping Stiles firmly by the chin. His hand is clammy and cold. Dead, Stiles thinks, but the dead rarely have such a firm grip. “All of that power roiling away inside of you, life itself at home in your veins. And yet,” his fingers dig into Stiles’ flesh, bruising, “you choose to waste your gift.”

“It’s not a gift,” Stiles manages to croak. His throat feels like sandpaper. “It’s not a blessing, or a reward, it just is what it is. You don’t want it.”

Almost thoughtlessly, the man backhands him so hard that his chair tips to the side, and a wave of agony blacks out his vision as his head cracks against the cold concrete floor. Through the ringing in his ears, he can hear muffled sobbing. Two small voices. Oh god, he thinks, the twins. They took the twins.

“It’s okay,” he murmurs, but his words are slurring and he knows they must be able to hear the blip in his heartbeat. “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”

“I’ll have your spark, Mr. Stilinski,” says Brother Viduus, once again the friendly neighbor.

Rough hands yank Stiles’ chair upright and then back, dragging him into a claustrophobic cell where he catches a glimpse of the twins cowering in a corner. Before he can send them a reassuring smile, he’s set down and wrenched around to face his tormentor. The man waves away the two acolytes who had lugged him into the cell, and then steps once more into Stiles’ personal space. Watery grey eyes bore into Stiles’ own, and he licks his cracking lips with a pale, wormlike tongue.

“I will cut it right out of you,” he purrs, his incongruously honeyed voice deepening with promise. “Since the moment I first saw you, I knew that you were made for me. You are instrumental in my ascent to godhood. Your spark is unlike any other I’ve ever seen. It will restore me, make me whole and more perfect than I ever was in life. Once I have it, Death itself will bow unto me, and is that not the definition of divinity?”

He pauses, as if waiting to see what Stiles will say in response to this, but Stiles keeps his mouth shut. For the first time, he begins to understand that his captors are more than just insane in the traditional sense. The man’s eyes broadcast the certainty of the zealot, an utter conviction that what he is doing is the good and right thing to do. It sends a spike of cold dread coursing down Stiles’ spine.

Stiles knows that there are gods in the world. Hell, he has the first-hand experience to prove it. Still, he’s never, not once, really believed in them. Discounting the trust in his own will and his unerring certainty that Lydia would always have his back, belief has never been a necessity for his work.

Now, looking at the fanaticism burning in Brother Viduus’s rotting face, he sees the nature of the man’s inverted faith, and is sickened by it. It’s perverse, corrupt, and unshakable.

“I’ll see you again tonight, Mr. Stilinski,” the man says, but Stiles can see through that genial tone now. He’s witnessed the face of the monster underneath. “You should be grateful. It’s not every day that a man fulfils his purpose.”

He turns and shambles out, his limbs creaking and juddering with the strain of supporting him. As he passes through the entrance to the cell, an acolyte steps forward to close the thick iron door behind him. It leaves the tiny room in near darkness, only a sliver of dirty gray light leaking from a small, barred window near the ceiling. The bars are new and depressingly strong-looking, planted firmly in fresh concrete. Stiles takes a deep breath and then addressed the kids.

“You guys okay?” he croaks. Christ, his voice sounds like it went through Derek’s coffee grinder. He clears his throat and tries again, tasting blood. “Caleb? Fiona? Talk to me, guys.”

“We’re okay.” It’s Fiona, putting on a brave face. She’s obviously still crying. He wishes he could turn and see her, but the acolytes had made sure to set him down with his back to them.

“They chained us up,” Caleb says hollowly, “but they didn’t hit us much.”

“Okay,” Stiles says. That ‘much’ brings a fresh waves of anger and despair flooding through him. “Okay, that’s good. Can you– can you move around at all?”

“A little,” Fiona says. He hears the clanking of iron manacles. She sounds very small when she next speaks. “Do you think Laura and Derek will save us?”

“I think they’re probably looking everywhere for you,” Stiles assures her, blinking away the hot burn of sudden tears. He remembers what Laura had say, about the twins having a bad childhood.  “I think they would do anything to get you back, but I– I don’t know how much time we have. Do you think you can reach me?” he asks, trying to sound calm and encouraging, and probably failing.

“I think I can grab the chair,” Caleb says. “Fiona, help me.” A rustle and more clanking as the twins get to their feet.

“Okay, drag me closer,” Stiles says. “Try to get me close enough that you’ll be able to reach my chest, okay?”

Stiles stares up at the tiny window as the chair begins to inch backward, focusing on his breathing. He remembers the bite of the needle as Lydia gave him his first tattoo, over a decade ago now. They’d been thirteen years old and already more acquainted with death than most adults. He thinks about his mother, and sacrifice, and the nature of binding.

“You’ll be okay,” he says. “You’re going to be okay.”

Behind him, Caleb and Fiona hear the truth in the steadiness of his heartbeat and take a second to exchange hopeful smiles. They don’t think to wonder why he hasn’t included himself in the statement.

 

 

 24.

Derek slams through Laura’s front door, his heart pounding in his throat. Again, Erica is waiting for him in the living room, her face ashen.

“Where are they?” he snarls. He feels like he’s losing his mind. Erica points a shaking finger towards the kitchen.

“In there,” she says, her voice trembling. “I was waiting in the yard in case they came back that way, and suddenly they were just there, like they’d never been gone.”

He enters the kitchen at a dead run, skidding to a halt when he sees the two small bodies curled up at Laura’s side. He can smell tears and blood, but Fiona lifts her head and gives him a tremulous smile, and it's all Derek can do to keep upright. His heart, which had been doing triple time since Laura got that first phone call, begins to calm.

“They’re not hurt,” Laura says, but he has to rush forward and check for himself. The twins let him scent them, each of them hugging him back just a bit too tightly.

“What happened?” he whispers. He’s worried that if he speaks at full volume, the words might turn into sobs.

“Well, kidnapping, for a start,” Laura says, her voice grim. “They were out in the yard with Stiles, and a group of men grabbed them. They made no noise and had no scent, and they waited until Erica was in the house to make their move. The twins don't know where they were taken.”

Derek’s heart sinks. He can hear the engine of Lydia’s rental car as it pulls into Laura’s driveway. When he meets Laura’s eyes, he sees bad news in their green depths.

“Where’s Stiles?” he asks. Nausea sets his stomach rolling, all that panic flooding back after the temporary reprieve. Laura shakes her head slowly.

“He sent us back,” Fiona says in a very small voice. Her face is smudged with tears and blood. “He made Caleb cut up a mark on his chest, and then the chains were gone and we were back in the yard.”

“You have to find him,” Caleb says. The sleeve of his button-down is soaked through with blood. “He saved us. We have to save him back.

“Well, if my idiot brother has done what I think he has,” Lydia says, striding into the kitchen with Kira on her heels, “then that isn’t going to be so simple.”

 

 

25.

Stiles tries to breathe, the slow, deep breaths of the meditations Deaton had drilled into him as a kid. It doesn't help. His whole body feels like one big live wire, like a power station after a lightning strike. His senses are completely overwhelmed. Everything is at once too bright, too loud. He can hear the earthworms moving in the dirt beneath the concrete floor. He can taste the residual rot of the walking corpse who would steal his spark. He can feel the entire history of the metal chair he’s been bound to, from the mining of the ore to the smelting of the iron, the heat of the blast furnace.

“Remember,” he says, and the word carries power like he’s never felt before. The steel begins to bubble, glowing a bright, hot white as it boils. It burns right through the restraints on Stiles’ wrists and ankles, and he stands easily as what remains of the chair melts into a thick, molten puddle. He checks the flesh of his wrists, absently surprised to find no trace of contact burns. When he prods at the part of his chest that had once held the tattoo of Lydia’s bind rune, he finds that flesh unmarred as well, despite being recently ruined by Caleb’s claws.

Stiles stretches languorously, his spine popping after so much time spent sedentary. His magic churns hungrily in his chest, demanding to be used. He imagines that is what it feels like to hold a nuclear reactor in your hands.

He doesn't have much time. He knows, in a distant kind of way, that a human body just isn't meant to carry this kind of power. He’ll be eaten inside out before too long.

He cracks his neck, gazing up at the ceiling. There are twelve lives up there, sitting vigil as the man who would be a god rests his ruined body. Twelve men, and something worse than a man.

Stiles grins a fey little grin, squaring off against the heavy iron door. He has work to do.

 

 

26.

“His mother was a Fury,” Lydia says leadenly. She’s gone very, very pale, and there’s a darkness in her hazel eyes that shakes Derek to his core. “His biological mother, anyway. He inherited her power when she died.”

“A what?” Scott murmurs, looking to Kira for an explanation.

“A fury,” Lydia grits out, glaring viciously in Scott’s direction. “An Erinyes, a daughter of Nyx. Vengeance incarnate. Learn your mythology, whelp.”

“Steady,” Laura murmurs, warning in her voice. “Don't take this out on him, just tell us how we can find Stiles.”

“Oh, I can find him.” Lydia clenches her fists tightly, but it does nothing to hide how badly her hands are shaking. “The problem is not whether I can find him. The problem is whether there'll be anything left to take home with us.”

“I don't understand,” Laura says. She's pacing around the kitchen, running her fingers through her hair in frustration. “So, what, the kids messed up one of his tattoos. He asked them to do it. It must hurt like hell, but the worst it'll do is power him down until we can find him."

"No, you don't understand," Lydia snarls. Kira crosses the kitchen to stand beside her, and Lydia sags into her side, digging manicured nails into her arm until Kira winces. "Those tattoos– they don't amplify Stiles' spark."

She looks straight at Derek for the first time, and he feels his own dread reflected in her eyes.

"They contain it."

 

 

 27.

The first two monks go silently, slumping in their seats as Stiles passes quietly by their guard posts. He presses his hands to their chests and lets their hearts just…stop. They don't get back up.

Somewhere deep in the caverns of his mind, he can hear himself screaming, pleading for this nightmare to end. Part of him wants to leave these evil men to their evil deeds. He wants to flee, find his sister, find Derek and the pack and just run until they run out of earth.

No, Stiles thinks, pushing that part of himself aside. A bottom line had been crossed when the Brotherhood had hurt the twins, and that wrong needed to be set right.

He’ll take the price out of their hides.

 

 

28.

“He needs an anchor,” Lydia says. “Something to drag him back from the edge, and it can't be me. I'm– I have my own baggage. The only thing I can do is help bind the power.”

“An anchor,” Derek echoes.

Everyone turns to him, but he barely sees them. Instead, he’s remembering that first day, when Stiles had touched him and it had felt like every good thing in the world rolled into one. He’s thinking about the way that he’d taken one look at Stiles, standing bedraggled and waterlogged on the roadside, and somewhere deep down had thought, Mine. He’s thinking of the pull he’s been fighting tooth and nail to ignore, the need to be close to Stiles, to keep him safe and laughing.

“Actually,” he says, “I think I can help with that.”

 

 

29.

There are four men in the living room of the ramshackle house, sitting around a water-stained wooden table amidst peeling wallpaper and black mold. One of them catches sight of Stiles as he drifts through the doorway, and he leaps to his feet, yelling something unintelligible. There’s the crackle of electricity, and a shallow cut slices open across Stiles’ collar bone, fresh blood spilling onto his shirt, adding to the gory mess made by Caleb’s trembling claws.

“Tedious.” Stiles sighs, and reaches out. With a twist of his wrist, he pulls the air from their lungs, leaving them choking for breath.

He sidles up to the table, pulling one of the acolytes’ head back by the hair. The man clutches at his throat, gasping like a fish out of water, his lips turning blue. There’s an animal fear in his eyes, the primal terror of a rabbit in the path of a predator.

“Say hello to God for me, when you see him,” Stiles says. He smiles pleasantly, brushing the dying man’s hair out of his face. He doesn't stick around to watch the light drain from his eyes.

The screaming in his mind is fainter now.

 

 

30.

“Here,” Lydia says, pointing to an area of remote woodland on the California State Atlas that she’d commandeered from Derek’s car. She’d wrung a drop of Stiles’ blood from the sleeve of Caleb’s button down, murmuring a soft, rhythmic phrase in archaic Latin as it stained the page of the map. When the incantation had come to an end, the blotchy red blob had stopped spreading, retracting itself into a pinpoint and moving across the page to land just outside of the town limits.

“You’re sure?” Laura asks. She’s still staring Derek, a bit wild-eyed after his revelation, like she can’t quite believe her own ears. He ignores her.

“I’m always sure,” Lydia replies grimly. She gathers the atlas in her hands and turns to Derek. “Let’s go. You drive.”

 

 

 31.

Stiles steps lightly over the convulsing body of the last of the acolytes and opens the door to the corpse man’s bedroom. Almost instantly, the smell of rot floods into the hallway, nearly overwhelming his blown-out senses. He wrinkles his nose in distaste.

“Rise and shine,” he says softly.

The man lying prostrate on the camp bed next to the window flies upright, bloated torso shuddering and popping as his stiffening muscles strain with effort. For a moment, they simply stare at each other.

How?”

The word is almost a wail. Brother Viduus scrabbles back against the wall, screaming for his acolytes, that deep, rich voice now abrasively high-pitched with outrage. When he gets no response, he speaks a word like the crack of a whip. The sheets leap from the base of the camp bed, slithering across the floor and winding, snake-like, up Stiles’ body. Stiles stares down at the bedclothes as they tighten like pythons around his limbs, pinning his arms to his sides.

“Enough,” he says.

The fabric unspools, disintegrating into a pile of loose thread at his feet. He kicks the tangled mess away, and steps forward into the room.

“Stay back!”

Stiles is pleased to see that the man’s face is still mobile enough to show fear. Good. This abomination should be afraid. The cauldron of power at Stiles’ core is boiling hot enough to hurt now, and he knows he doesn't have much time.

“My mother,” he says conversationally, “could stop a man’s heart with a glance. Only a minor setback in your case, I admit. Did you know that?”

“Liar,” spits the corpse of Brother Viduus, his bloodshot eyes narrowing into hate-filled slits. “Your mother flat-lined in a hospital bed at Sloan Kettering. She was nothing. A footnote.”

Stiles takes a moment to steady himself. The sudden swell of rage simmers in his veins, adding fuel to the inferno in his chest, and he can’t afford to burn out just yet.

“My mother,” he repeats, each word leaving his mouth like a burning brand, “could have liquefied your intestines with a word. You didn't do your research, pal.”

“No,” the man sputters, but it’s a weak protest at best. Stiles can see doubt creeping in.

“You ever stop to think about why I have all this power?” Stiles is feet from the bed now, close enough to see the effluvia and embalming fluid staining the mattress. He doesn't wait for an answer. “No, you didn't. You thought you had it all figured out, but you're like a child who sees something shiny and can't help but take it. You don't have faith, you just have greed.”

He sits on the edge of the bed, his voice taking on an almost companionable tone.

“My mother was one of the Erinyes. A Fury. She spent thousands of years raining swift vengeance down on men just like you. Evil, venal men, too consumed with themselves to care to see the pain they unleashed upon the people around them.” He pauses. “Boy, my dad must have come as a shock. He was a cop, you know. A detective at the 94th precinct, probably could have made Captain, eventually. And he was a good cop, not like these bastards you see in the news today. Fair, just, and kind. You might say they were a match made in heaven.”

With a sudden and surprising fluidity, Brother Viduus lashes out, the glint of a blade in his hand. He must have been hiding it under the mattress.

No,” Stiles snaps. The knife tears itself out of the man’s hand, hurtling across the room to embed itself in the doorframe. Brother Viduus’ limbs lock into place, bound by the sheer magnitude of Stiles’ will.  “No. You will listen.”

He waits, eyebrow raised, as if the man could possibly have done more than choke on his own coagulating spittle.

“The problem, of course, is that she was a Fury, and she had fallen in love with an idealistic twenty-seven-year-old Polish beat cop. Things like that, they just don’t happen without consequences. Not in real life.” Stiles stares down at his hands, hears the rushing of his blood, feels the vibration of his atoms. There's the faintest tracery of light spreading through his veins, like hairline fractures just under the skin.  “She had to pay a price to be with him. To be with us. The cost was her life, but she had no regrets, in the end. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”

He turns to the corpse man, and for the first time, he really looks at him, with all of his senses wide open. What he sees is no more than a hunk of decaying meat, at the heart of which flutters a small, fading light. Like a moth trapped in roadkill.

“I suppose that brings us to the question of what to do with you,” he muses. Suddenly, inspiration dawns. Stiles smiles a perfect, beatific smile.

“Hey,” he says. “If it's eternity you want, I know just the place.”

 

 

32.

“If you're wrong,” Lydia says, her voice clipped with fear. “If you're bullshitting yourself, or projecting some ridiculous infatuation onto him, it could be a death sentence.”

“I understand the risk.”

Derek stares out through the windshield of the Camaro, across the weed-choked gravel drive to the derelict house that they've parked in front of. The property is smack dab in the center of the little pool of blood on Derek’s atlas.

“It's not too late to turn back,” Lydia insists. Her hands flex, crumpling the map between her fingers. “I'm his sister. It's my responsibility.”

“No.” Derek opens the driver’s side door and steps out, trying not to be disconcerted by how loud the crunch of gravel is in the heavy silence. He can only hear one heartbeat inside the house. “I have to do this. He’s your brother, but he’s my mate.”

The first floor of the house is littered with the bodies of robed men, their faces purpling in death, tongues lolling. Derek looks past them, focusing instead on the heartbeat upstairs. He doesn’t linger over any of the other fallen men, other than to make the cursory check to confirm that none of them are Stiles.

In his heart, he knows he won’t find Stiles among the bodies. Aside from a pervasive smell of decay, the rooms of the house reek of ozone. The rich, earthy odor hangs in the air so thickly that it feels like a physical presence. What had once been only a base note has now almost completely eradicated the scents of lavender and honey.

Derek finds Stiles sitting on the hardwood floor of a room that stinks of death, his back to the wall and his face turned towards the window. Even with the sound of Stiles’ unsteady heartbeat in his ears, Derek has to fight back a wave of fear when he sees the mess of blood down the front of his shirt. There's an empty camp bed pushed up against the opposite wall, and even from this distance, the smell the foul rot on the mattress is nauseating.

“Stiles,” Derek says gently, kneeling down so their faces are on a level. Without realizing it, he slips into the tone he uses when one of the kids is having a nightmare. “Stiles, can you hear me?”

Slowly, so slowly, Stiles turns his head to face him. His eyes are alight, no longer the familiar amber that Derek loves, but deep pools of electric white. Blood is trickling sluggishly from his nostrils.

“Derek?”

The name is a whisper, spoken like a prayer. It makes Derek’s heart twist in his chest.

“It’s me,” he says. He takes Stiles’ hand and brings it to his face, unsure if the other man can see. The skin of his palm is almost burning hot.

“Should go, Derek,” Stiles murmurs. He trails the tips of his fingers across Derek’s furrowed brow, the corners of his lips curling into a sad smile. “’M gonna blow soon.”

“Not without you,” Derek says gruffly. He gathers Stiles in his arms, settling the other man’s feverish brow against his chest.

Stiles shakes his head, pushing ineffectually at Derek’s hands. His breath has gone reedy, his chest rising and falling rapidly. His nose is bleeding freely, now, coating the lower half of his face with bright sticky red. He’s glowing all over, like the skin of a kid’s palm held over the bulb of a flashlight. He smiles weakly up into Derek’s face.

“Always an equal ‘n opposite reaction,” he slurs. There’s blood on his teeth. “Always. Like physics.”

“Not always,” Derek says, and kisses him. The kiss is tender, almost chaste, and soured by the salty tang of blood, not at all what Derek had expected from their first time. Stiles’ lips are chapped against his, his scorching hands wound tightly in the fabric of Derek’s shirt.

Derek wants to howl with the rightness of it.

“Wow,” Stiles mumbles when they break apart, luminescent eyes widening. “Not a bad way to die, all things considered.”

“You’re not going to die. Stay with me, Stiles. Just stay with me.”

Derek kisses Stiles again, just the barest brush of his mouth. Then, with the tip of one extended claw, he carves Lydia’s bind rune into the unmarred flesh above Stiles’ heart.

 

 

 33.

For the third time within a week, Stiles wakes up in an unfamiliar place. He groans as he sits up, soft flannel covers falling to his waist. Everything hurts. It's the kind of ache that goes bone deep, a weariness that would take a week of twelve hour nights to chip away. 

"Boy," says a familiar voice, "you really do have bad timing. Laura just sent Derek downstairs to get something to eat."

Stiles cracks open his crusty eyes, peering across the room to where Erica is sitting at a writing desk, feet tucked up underneath her butt. An open magazine is spread out in front of her. 

"Five-letter word for excruciating pain," Stiles rasps. He can hear footsteps pounding up the stairs and down the hallway.

“You’ll recover,” Erica says. She grins. “I hear you’re a demigod.”

Lydia is the first one through the door. She looks almost as exhausted as Stiles feels, deep bruised circles under her eyes, her skin paper white. She tackles him back onto the mattress in an uncharacteristic display of indignity, ignoring his muffled yelp as a fresh wave of pain threatens to drag him back into unconsciousness. 

"I'm not dead," he says, through a mouthful of strawberry blonde hair. The shocking truth of this is only now starting to take root in his mind. "I should be dead. Why am I not dead?"

"Stop complaining," Lydia grumbles, tightening her grip on him. 

"You don't have my hangover."

A pressure of a hand around his ankle, followed by a rush of cool, blessed numbness. Stiles' groan is distinctly more pleased this time. He peers around Lydia's head to see Derek standing at the foot of the bed, one hand wrapped loosely around his exposed ankle. The werewolf looks as disheveled as Stiles has ever seen him, unshaven and a little wild-eyed, his hair in a state of total disarray. He's still the most wonderful thing Stiles has ever seen.

"Oh, right," Lydia says, relinquishing her death grip on Stiles' torso. She gives him a sly, knowing grin, already back to her normal self. "Now that you’re back in the land of the living, you two should probably have a talk."

It's just after sunset, and Laura’s back yard is lit with a dreamy twilight gloom. Stiles sits with Derek on the porch, staring down at his hands. 

"Twelve men," he murmurs. Twelves lives, extinguished. He'd done that. He tilts his arms back and forth, letting the porch light catch the silvery lines of scar tissue marring his pale flesh. His tattoos are gone, strictly speaking, but their images have been seared into his skin, like brands. It's more permanent than the tattoos had ever been, he supposes. He drops his hands back into his lap. "I'm not really sure how I feel about that."

"Lydia said there should have been thirteen," Derek says softly. "Did one of them escape, or...?"

"No," Stiles says. He stares out into the yard. "No, I gave him what he wanted. Just not exactly how he wanted it."

Derek waits for him to continue, a patient wall of warmth at his side. He keeps brushing his fingers across Stiles' back, maintaining the level of his pain. 

"When I came here, that first night," Stiles finally explains, "I traveled through some kind of void. I don't know exactly what it was, some kind of background dimension, maybe. The space between seconds. It went on forever and ever."

"You sent him there," Derek murmurs, putting the pieces together.

"He wanted to see eternity," Stiles says, feeling miserable. "He was small and selfish and he wanted to live forever, so I sent him to the one place where death would come as a blessing. It was vengeance, plain and simple."

His mother had always wanted him to be better than this. It had taken her millennia to understand the difference between vengeance and justice, and she had never wanted him to go down this path. He wants to cry a little, knowing that he’s committed this one last act of disappointment.

Derek is silent for a long, long moment. When he speaks again, it sounds like he's coming from far away.

"A few years ago, Laura and I heard rumors about a group of hunters that were traveling up the state, baiting werewolves out into the open and slaughtering them. No trials, no code, just murder." He sends his fingers ghosting across Stiles' shoulders again, black veins of pain creeping up his forearm. "The twins were the bait."

"What?" Stiles stares at him, a shudder working its way down his spine

"They were in a cage when Laura and I found them, like a dog kennel. Almost starved. They'd been beaten so badly and for so long that the wounds weren't healing." Derek’s eyes flash beta yellow, just for a second, and Stiles realizes that he's trembling with anger. "Caleb said the chains you got them out of were just like the ones the hunters used to use."

Another beat of silence. 

"Okay," Stiles says. "I feel less guilty now."

"None of us has clean hands, Stiles," Derek says wearily. "The best any of us can do is try to be better."

"I guess." Stiles turns to face him, catching the hand that had been trailing along his shoulder blade, tangling their fingers together. "So. Mates, huh?"

Derek's entire face turns brick red. For the first time since he'd woken up, Stiles feels like smiling. 

"It doesn't have to mean anything to you," Derek says, not meeting his eyes. "It's incredibly rare. Most wolves don't even bother looking for their mates."

"It means something," Stiles says. "I don't know exactly what, but it's got to have something to do with the way my magic acts around you."

He touches the livid scar above his heart, the intersecting lines of the bind rune that Derek had carved into the flesh. He can feel his spark, but the magic is muted again, no longer the raw, visceral torrent of power he'd felt in the ramshackle house. 

"Lydia thinks it's why the spell worked," Derek admits. He reaches across the space between them, covering Stiles' hand with his. "She says it wouldn't have worked if she did it, but because the connection was already there, the binding held."

"You could have died," Stiles whispers. He clutches at Derek's fingers. "I was going nuclear. If you'd been just a minute later, I probably would have taken out you and everything else in a half mile diameter around us. It's insane that you even tried."

"You're my mate," Derek says, like that explains everything. And maybe it does. 

"I think I'd like you to kiss me now," Stiles whispers. There are tears prickling at his eyes, and he isn't entirely sure why. Derek slides his hand from Stiles' chest to the bolt of his jaw, cradling his face in a broad, warm palm. He leans forward, eyes fluttering shut, and Stiles meets him halfway, melting into the sensation of Derek's lips against his, the solidity of his body. 

He has a feeling he'll be meeting Derek Hale halfway for the rest of his life.