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taste your beating heart

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He got the call from Isaac of all people.

It wasn’t that they weren’t friends. It was just that they weren’t…not friends. They were nothing to each other, really. Mutual acquaintances that went through some crazy supernatural shit together once upon a time and shared a broship with the one and only Scott McCall. But it was a little different, the relationship between childhood best friends versus the relationship between an Alpha and his beta.

A little more different too, when Stiles added in all the lingering touches and heated stares that Isaac and Scott and Allison all shared with each other when they thought no one was looking. And Stiles wasn’t—looking, that is. He wasn’t judging and it was none of his business, but it was hard to miss when he went from feeling like an equal part in a conversation of all single people, to suddenly being heavily aware of the fact that he was the awkward out-of-place fourth wheel on a carefully constructed tricycle. There was no room for him and so he stepped aside more often than not, gave them all a little space to try and figure their shit out without feeling like their every move was being watched.

So, he was home alone, not unusual these days, half-heartedly playing a computer game that he had stopped being interested in two weeks before but hadn’t found the time to replace it with something new yet. It was almost a welcome distraction when his phone vibrated beside him.

There was a moment of hesitation when he saw that it was Isaac’s name on the screen. Not because he didn’t want to talk to the guy or because he was holding any animosity against him, but because he knew well enough that the only time Isaac called him was when some bad shit was going down. The last time they’d texted was the night of the ice baths and the storm and the wreck that caused more than a little damage to his Jeep (but at least he no longer had to lie to his dad about how the damage came to be which made getting it fixed so much easier). It was a night they normally didn’t talk about.

Or at least, Stiles didn’t talk about it with them. That didn’t mean that they didn’t talk about it with each other. That didn’t mean Lydia didn’t talk about it with Aiden. It was just Stiles who chose to be silent on the whole ordeal, preferring to keep everything closer to his chest than he ever had before.

But his phone was ringing and it was incessant, so clearly it wasn’t the type of call where Isaac was willing to give up after the third ring went unanswered. Which meant that it was Important with a capital “I”. So, he paused his game and took a deep breath before tapping the screen and bringing it up to his ear.

“Yo, Isaac, my wolfy man. What can I do for you this fine February afternoon?”

“He’s back.”

It was like all the air rushed out of him in that moment.

It was no surprise. Stiles had been waiting for this call for over a year. Since the moment he’d heard that Derek and Cora had locked up the loft and driven away from Beacon Hills. Scott had been a little more skeptical, a little more naïve, talking about how he hoped they’d find peace elsewhere and maybe make a life for themselves in a town that wasn’t so filled with deep rooted pain.

But Stiles and Derek were two sides of the same coin, they were cut from the same cloth, they were every other cliché out there for two people who made the same mistakes over and over and over again no matter how many times they fucked up.

Derek would come back, because it’s what Stiles would’ve done. After the initial rush of getting out of Beacon Hills had slipped away, after the months of telling himself “it was all for the best” had grown tired, he would have turned around and headed back. Because…because Beacon Hills was broken but it was home. It was tragic but it was where happiness had once overflowed. Because it was the only place in the world he could ground himself in the memories that were beginning to fade with the physicality of the town around him.

Stiles was always hit with the same three sensations when he walked into the local grocery store: the rush of cold air from the overused air conditioning, the crackling sound of the aging PA system that played the most current pop hits, and the ghost of his mother’s hand on the back of his head as she guided him into the store to gather the weekly groceries.

He wasn’t willing to give that up, no matter what happened in this town. Werewolves could come and hunters could follow and kanimas could turn and druids could sacrifice and all the while, he would stay. Round and round the bend he’d go, unable and unwilling to get off the ride before he was ready. And he didn’t think he’d ever be ready.

Derek was like that. He could run and he could drive and he could walk and he could hide, but he would always come back home.

“Stiles?”

He fumbled to turn down the sound, startled by the sheer volume of Isaac’s voice.

“Yeah, I’m here,” he said. “Where are you guys? Want me to come meet you?”

There was a pause, some muffled voices in the background and he was suddenly acutely aware of the fact that somewhere in town all of his friends had gathered together and he wasn’t with them. It cut him, reminded him of the awkwardness that had set itself in the foundation of all of his relationships these days: he didn’t quite fit in anymore. There was a brief window of time when he and Lydia were connected in their utter humanity. No super strength, no generations of hunting, no blazing eyes or magic hands or lizard skin. It was…nice. There was a real sense of solidarity in being the only two normal humans in a group full of supernatural badasses.

But then Ms. Blake (he could never quite get the hang of calling her anything else) started sacrificing people and Lydia started finding dead bodies and then it all came to a screeching halt with a single word: Banshee. Now she was a supernatural creature in her own right, with an ex-lizard now-werewolf ex-boyfriend and a currently former Alpha werewolf boyfriend. It got a little ridiculous whenever he laid it all out like that, but it was the truth. They were friends now, bonded together for life most likely, but that didn’t mean they’d taken to eating lunch together every day and braiding each other’s hair. At most they waved across the hall, occasionally discussing the math homework from the night before, until Aiden came up and dragged Lydia’s attention away and Stiles returned to his notebook, not bothered enough to try and pull her back.

Because here’s the thing about being in a werewolf pack: everyone doesn’t suddenly become best friends.

That didn’t mean it hurt any less.

He sighed, “Isaac? You still there?”

The voices stopped, and he heard some shuffling and he knew the phone was being passed off to someone else. He held his breath when a new voice came over the speaker, “Stiles?”

The relief was instant.

“Oh,” he said. “Scott, hey buddy. I was just asking Isaac—whaddya need me to do?”

“Nothing. Well—,” Scott said. “Something, obviously, but nothing that requires you to physically do something. Just, Derek’s back.”

He stared at the computer screen in front of him that had been dim for the past few minutes. He knew if he didn’t slide the cursor soon his computer was going to fade to black, but he didn’t move to do anything. He liked to wait until the last possible second. Test himself to see how good his timing was.

“Yeah, Isaac said. I told you he would. You owe me a slurpee. I’m thinking Blue Shock.”

He heard Scott chuckle on the other end of the line and it was like he’d reached through the phone to grip Stiles’ heart in his hand. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d made Scott laugh, but that didn’t make any sense. Things were better now.

“Sure, Stiles,” he said, in the same tone he used when Stiles crooned lovingly to his Jeep. He smiled at the sound, leaning back in his computer chair as Scott went on. “But first—we need a favor.”

And it was the emphasis on the “we” that sent him reeling again. That feeling of exclusion that he knew was crazy. He knew, logically, that Scott wasn’t trying to say anything more about the “we” other than the people he was with. There was no distinction between pack and not with Stiles and Scott. They were brothers. Best friends. Packmates. But somewhere in the darkest recesses of his mind, Stiles felt the needy desperation clambering to climb out of his stomach.

His throat was tight when he spoke, “Yeah? Lay it on me, dude.”

“Derek doesn’t have a place to stay, and we—” there it was again. The “we” that sent a chill running down his spine. “—were hoping you could convince your dad to let Derek stay with you guys? I’d have him stay with me, but my mom has enough trouble feeding me and Isaac I don’t think she could handle a third—”

Scott cut himself off before Stiles could say anything and there was a clamor of noise. A high-pitched keen filled the air and then a softer voice.

“Hey, hey, Isaac, that’s not what I meant,” Scott whispered from somewhere across town but the words were deafening in Stiles’ room. “You’re not a burden, you’re wanted, okay? My mom loves having you with us. I love having you with us. You’re…”

The words faded as Scott’s voice got softer, and he continued to watch the screen in front of him. It was still only dim. There was still time.

The phone was picked up again. “Sorry, sorry. Stiles, you still there?”

“Yeah, man, I’m here.”

“Anyway, like I was saying. Two teens in my house is more than enough, and obviously, the Argent’s place is out of the question because of the history Derek has with them.”

He heard a snort come from somewhere behind Scott and he silently checked off the confirmation that Allison had been there the whole time.

“And we’d ask Lydia, because her house is so big, but her mom doesn’t really know anything about all of this and plus Lydia has her own history with the Hale family…”

Which was what caused him to sit up and ask, “Speaking of—not that I’m saying no or anything but, what about Peter? Why can’t Derek stay with him? And is it just Derek or is Cora with him?”

His curiosity always got the better of him.

“Just Derek. I haven’t spoken to Peter since everything went down. Derek said he tried to get in touch but Peter’s phone is out of service. None of us can scent him out and Derek gave up his loft ages ago so that’s out of the question. Really, it’s just, you know, you.”

“Or a hotel,” Stiles said.

There was another snort, this one a little louder and clearly more masculine. His heart tripped as he realized that Derek had probably been listening in on the whole conversation. Judging Stiles even though they hadn’t spoken since the night in the hospital.

There was some jostling again, and this time it was Allison’s voice on the phone.

“Right,” she said. “Because it won’t look totally weird for a bunch of high schoolers to show up and visit the grown man who looks like he belongs in a motorcycle gang. Everyone will think he’s a drug dealer.”

“He’s still got that leather jacket, then?”

“What do you think?”

He hesitated, ready to spout whatever colorful excuse he could think of but not quite able to make himself say the words. He just wanted to be alone, to figure his shit out, and not have to be Stiles Stilinski all the time. But Scott needed him. And if Derek was back, it must be for something important.

“Fine,” he said, sighing in his usual over dramatic flair. “Send him my way. It’s not like he doesn’t know where I live.”

He hung up and went to move the cursor only to watch the screen switch to black.

Late again.

***

He didn’t know why he was surprised when he heard the doorbell ring. It wasn’t like Derek was a fugitive anymore. He didn’t have to go sneaking through bedroom windows when the cops weren’t out for his blood. Nobody thought he was dead. Dad even knew the truth about werewolves. There was nothing to hide from. Derek got to be just as normal and courteous as any other person intruding on Stiles’ space for an indefinite period of time.

It didn’t take long for him to get downstairs, but it did take him a while to open the door. He knew, obviously, that Derek was on the other side of the piece of wood, and that he could probably hear Stiles’ heart and hear his breathing and that he knew he had been coming to let him in the moment Stiles got out of his computer chair. But.

He just needed a second to gather his courage and prepare himself.

It wasn’t like he and Derek were ever friends, but they had saved each other from death more than once. That bonded people. Made them care. At least enough to feel the sting when finding out the other person had left town without even saying goodbye or checking to make sure you were okay.

“Stiles, open the door.”

He sounded the same, unsurprisingly.

It had only been a year, so what had he expected? For Derek to return sounding decidedly less growly? Unlikely.

“Welcome to my lovely abode,” he said, swinging the door open, forcing a smile. “Feel free to make yourself at home, since apparently, this will be your home until…when exactly?”

Derek didn’t answer, choosing to brush past Stiles with his usual sense of grace and gentleness.

“Ah yes,” he muttered. “There’s the Derek we all know and love. Broody and silent and oh so familiar.”

He closed the door and locked it; his fingers so much more used to the act than they ever were in the pre-werewolf years of his life. Back when he left the front door unlocked so Scott could run right in if he wanted and his dad would yell at him whenever he would get home.

When he turned around Derek was looking at him.

“So,” he said, lamely. “How’ve you been?”

“Fine,” Derek said.

He waited for Derek to say anything else, but the werewolf was silent.

“Right, okay,” he said, the words rolling off his tongue slowly. “There wasn’t much time between me agreeing to do this and you showing up for me to ask my dad if it was okay. Though to be fair, I probably wouldn’t have asked him yet anyway. I’ll wait ‘til he gets home and you’re already all settled in. It works better that way.”

Derek parted his lips, almost as if he wanted to say something, and Stiles’ chest felt tight with impatience. But Derek closed his mouth and looked away without a single word.

So, it was up to him to do all the work.

“Scott didn’t give me too much information so—where is Cora?” He was tentative. A little afraid to ask the question because with Derek, who knew what the answer could be?

Derek seemed to sense Stiles’ hesitation and answered, his voice rough from underuse, “She’s fine. I left her back in New York. Last we spoke she was considering heading down to Argentina.”

“Last you spoke?” He repeated. “Is this a new development or are you telling me you left her back in New York a while ago and not just for this trip?”

The set of Derek’s eyebrows seemed to say it all.

“Shit,” Stiles groaned. “I thought you were off bonding with your rediscovered kid sister and now you’re telling me—what? You two parted ways months ago? Be honest, Derek, how long after you both ditched here did you ditch each other?”

“It wasn’t like that,” Derek growled.

“No?” Stiles said, his jaw decidedly tense. “Is this a pattern of the Hales, big guy? Tell me something, Derek—is Cora going to come after you only to find your body in pieces? Why are you here?”

He heard the crack of his shoulder hitting the wall before he felt it behind his back and realized that Derek was holding him there.

Well, at least this was familiar.

“I don’t think you have any right to talk about my family and bodies in pieces,” Derek said, his voice pitched low and his eyebrows drawn tight together. He could see the hint of a fang peeking out against Derek’s bottom lip. “Or did you conveniently forget how you dug up my sister and had me arrested for her murder?”

Fuck.

There were a lot of things that Stiles liked to pretend had never happened. Dad not being at the hospital when Mom died was one of them. The time he’d seen Mrs. McCall putting on makeup to cover a bruise on her cheek was another. But the time he had convinced Scott it was a brilliant idea to go looking for half a body, and then to dig it up like it was their next big adventure, was at the top of the list.

There were nights when Stiles couldn’t sleep, because all he could see was Laura’s dead eyes staring up at him. Her cut-in-half body that had been carefully wrapped in tarp with the hair brushed out of her eyes and the burial site circled in wolfsbane. That alone should have been enough to make him feel like shit, but there was more.

More, like the knowledge of Derek driving into town after not having heard from his only surviving relative for days. There was this image in his head of Derek running through the woods, confused and terrified by the fact that Laura’s scent—her blood—seemed to be all over the place, until he’d found her body in pieces. But it’s what came next that breaks Stiles: the understanding that Derek must have gathered Laura’s severed body in his arms and dug her grave, probably with his own claws, to bury her with a tenderness no one thought Derek Hale capable of.

Some nights all Stiles could think of was Derek, alone, with burnt hands wrapped in wolfsbane, holding back unshed tears as he gave his sister and Alpha the burial and respect she deserved.

Only to have a couple of teenagers dig her up like she was nothing.

I’m sorry, he wanted to say. I’m sorry for what I did and how I took your loss and twisted it into a puzzle to piece together. I was wrong. I fucked up. You deserved better. Instead he said this:

“I think I can say whatever the fuck I want when you’re staying in my house and endangering me and my dad.”

He pushed Derek away from him, both surprised and not to find how little force Derek had actually put into his threatening stance. He straightened his shoulders and stepped towards the middle of the room.

“So, how about you answer my question and tell me why you’re back in town?”

He doesn’t know what he expected, but Derek pushing past him to march up the stairs fit pretty well within the carefully constructed version of Derek he still had in his head.

When he heard a door slam shut from somewhere upstairs, he shook his head to himself.

“Guess he figured out where the guest room was.”

***

He was working on his chemistry homework—the new teacher was almost as much of a hardass as Mr. Harris, except he hated Stiles a little less—when Derek opened his bedroom door and leaned against the frame.

“What?” he asked and turned his attention back to the problem in front of him. “I’m working, leave me alone.”

He could almost feel Derek shrug from across the room.

“Fine,” Derek said. “I just thought you might want to know your dad just pulled up in the driveway.”

He heard his dad opening the front door almost immediately after Derek had spoken.

“You couldn’t have given me more of a heads up?” he hissed, jumping up and frantically pushing against Derek’s chest to shove him into the hallway.

Derek glared. “I was taking a nap.”

“You take naps?”

Derek looked ready to respond, when his dad called up the stairs, “Stiles? What’s for dinner, buddy?”

He didn’t know what to say and Derek was hardly making it any easier as he gesticulated angrily. His eyebrows seemed to be demanding Stiles to say something, but since he was a real human boy and not a wolf, he chose not to respond to Derek.

“Son?” Dad said again, his voice a little shaky. “Dinner?”

He tried to ignore the knot in his stomach as he tripped over himself to calm his dad’s fears. “Derek Hale!”

There was a moment of silence.

Derek looked ready to maul him and he could feel his cheeks heating up with embarrassment. Stiles pushed his way out of his bedroom with Derek close behind.

Dad was coming up the stairs, talking, “Was Silence of the Lambs on last night? Because otherwise I don’t quite understand.”

He stopped when he reached the top of the stairs and stared at Derek and Stiles standing in front of him.

“Surprise,” Stiles said. He raised his hands in a pitiful attempt at jazz fingers before his arms fell back to his side loosely. “We’re having Derek Hale for dinner. And for a little while after that. He’s basically staying with us for the foreseeable future.”

Dad had the same look on his face that he’d worn when Stiles had brought home a dead raccoon when he was six and asked if he could keep it.

He’d thought it was a puppy, okay? It wasn’t his fault.

The silence seemed to be never ending until Derek finally stepped forward, holding his hand out as he said, “Good evening, sir. Thank you for letting me stay here when I had nowhere else to go. I, uh,” Derek dropped his gaze to the floor, his shoulders folding in on themselves as he dragged his sock-clad foot across the carpet. “I don’t really know where my uncle is.”

Way to lay it on thick, dude.

Dad glanced at Stiles over Derek’s shoulder before he turned back to the man and shook his hand. “Of course you can stay with us. C’mon, let’s round up some grub. Stiles—how about we order in tonight?”

“Only if you promise to order a salad for your side and eat it all first before you touch anything else.”

“You take all the fun out of ordering in, kiddo,” he said, reaching over to ruffle Stiles’ hair. “What about you, Derek? How do you feel about pizza?”

“Veggie pizza!” Stiles said loudly, already in the process of pulling out his phone to search for the number to Antonio’s.

He watched as Derek glanced between the two of them, and he could tell the exact moment that Derek figured out whose side he needed to be on to make things smoothest for himself.

“I kind of prefer meat lovers myself, sir,” Derek said slowly.

His dad shrugged, a smile pulling at his lips, “Well, you are our guest, so, Stiles. How about we forgo the veggies tonight to accommodate your furry friend here?”

There was nothing he could do except glare at Derek as the other man smirked at him.

“You’re still getting a salad,” he muttered, turning away to dial the phone number. He waited until he heard the two of them heading down the stairs.

***

Stiles spent the whole evening waiting for his dad to drop the charade and ask all the questions that must have been skating just beneath his skin. He had to be curious. Stiles sure as hell was, but Derek alluded to nothing, and his dad seemed content to talk about work and the upcoming March Madness. When Derek tried to clear the dishes, Dad gestured for him to sit back down and relax, while motioning for Stiles to help him instead.

He’d just put the dishes in the sink when his dad grabbed his shoulder. “Alright, tell me what’s going on.”

There was no point in lying. There was nothing to lie about.

“He won’t tell me and neither will Scott or anyone else. He needs a place to stay where they can come talk to him and plot things that I’m out of the loop on. Peter’s MIA and Cora’s back in New York. That’s it. That’s all I know.” He tried to keep his voice steady, the words rushing out of him anyway, as he tried not to think about the fact that Derek was probably listening to every word he said, every tick of his heart beat, waiting for the moment he had to come defend himself.

He turned back to the sink, turning the water on, when Dad asked, “Out of the loop?”

“Yeah, I dunno,” he said, shrugging his shoulder. He kept his eyes staring straight ahead as he poured copious amounts of dish soap onto the sponge. “Leave it alone, Dad. He’ll tell us or he won’t. It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me if you’re putting yourself in danger again,” Dad said, his hand still clasping Stiles’ shoulder.

“It doesn’t—” he promised. He could feel his heart, the feel of fire roasting the organ as he tried to forget the darkness that held it in its’ grasp. His breathing felt shallow, but sounded completely fine. “It doesn’t involve me at all.”

His dad hesitated, his hand slipping off Stiles’ shoulder gently.

“Alright…” he said. “But you’ll tell me if anything changes?”

He nodded without saying anything, scrubbing off the pizza grease from the plate. A few seconds passed before he felt his dad’s hand clasping his shoulder once more before he walked out of the kitchen.

He let out a sigh of relief, and ignored the tension in his shoulders.

***

That night he was plagued by nightmares of Derek’s bleeding hands as he wrapped the wolfsbane around his sister’s body as gently as he could, with tear tracks cleaning away the dirt on his face.

Stiles didn’t cry; hadn’t since the night he thought he’d lost his dad for good. But he didn’t sleep either.

Chapter Text

“Well?”

Stiles closed his locker and turned around, finding himself surrounded by more people at once than he had in months. Scott, Allison, Isaac, Lydia, and the twins were all staring at him expectantly.

Hitching his bag higher up on his back, he asked, “Well, what?”

Aiden rolled his eyes. “Don’t be dense, Stilinski. What’s Hale doing back in Beacon Hills?”

Lydia jabbed him in the stomach with her elbow, her glare fierce before she whipped back around to catch Stiles’ gaze.

He shrugged, “How should I know?”

“Because you’ve spent the most amount of time with him in the past twenty-four hours, obviously?” Lydia had no time in her life to deal with other people’s issues, that was clearly still true.

But neither did he, and so he turned to Scott and asked point blank, “Was I supposed to be extracting information from Derek Hale? Is that why he’s staying at my place right now?”

He didn’t bother mentioning how Laura had been brought up. He didn’t tell them that Derek had spent most of the night talking to Dad, and that when Stiles had woken up in the morning to go to school they were both already gone, two plates and two coffee mugs sitting in the sink waiting to be washed.

He wasn’t even sure where Derek could have gone, since basically everyone he knew in town was a high school student and had class.

“It’s not like that,” Allison said, her expression hopelessly sincere. “It’s just—well. C’mon, Stiles, you’re a naturally curious person. We just assumed you’d pester him with questions until he gave you an answer. Or at least gave away enough information for you to figure it out anyway.”

A part of him understood why they assumed that. It wasn’t like it wasn’t the truth. Yet there was still another part of him that wanted to push back against their words.

Still staring at Scott, he said, his voice hard, “It’s kind of hard to ask the right questions if I don’t know that there are even any questions I’m supposed to be asking. And it’s also impossible to get Derek Hale to feel obligated to answer any of them no matter how annoying you think I might be.”

He pushed his way through them, and jogged ahead to catch up with a familiar face, “Heeeey Danny. How goes life?”

“Stiles,” Danny said, something that sounded almost fond in his voice. “What were you and my boyfriend talking about?”

“Actually,” he said. “Your boyfriend said nothing so I had nothing to say to him. It was the annoying straight twin who decided to pull his best Jackson impression. Hey, is he your new best friend yet?”

The other boy snorted, the sound decidedly more pleasant coming from his nose than from anyone else’s—but that was the thing about Danny. He made everything more attractive.

“I tend to stick by best friends who die and come back to life,” he said. “Isn’t that enough angst for one high school career?

If only you knew, buddy.

“Yeah,” Stiles said, looking over at Danny. “You’re right. Stick by your man and all that shit, even if he is all the way in jolly ol’ London. What’s a little distance between bros, am I right?”

The look Danny gave him was one he’d grown accustomed to over the years. One part confusion, one part amusement, and one part annoyance: a perfect recipe for any reaction to a conversation with Stiles.

“They’re gone, you know,” he said.

Stiles glanced around the hallway, “What?”

“Scott and Ethan and everyone. They went to class. So, whatever conversation you were trying to avoid with them, consider your mission successful.”

He smiled ruefully and said, “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Danny said, already walking away from Stiles and towards his next class.

Stiles should do the same. Walk down the hall and turn into his English class, slide into his seat next to Greenberg where he could spend the next hour doodling in the margins of whatever book they were supposed to be reading. He could sit there and pretend like months earlier Ms. Blake hadn’t played an impressive game of cat and mouse with all of them, hadn’t murdered Heather in cold blood and attempted to do the same with Lydia. Only he could never quite be convincing enough: no matter how hard he tried, he could never forget the sight of his father keeled over with a knife sticking out of his chest before the darach whisked him away in that very classroom. It was impossible.

There had been panic attacks when they first went back to school. A lot of them. Scott had been there to steady his heartbeat, and then Lydia—though she had never tried to kiss him again—and even Isaac at times. Sometimes it felt like he could depend on them, but other times it felt like he was nothing more than a burden. A waste of space that took up precious, valuable time that could be spent doing better things than making sure he wasn’t going to suffocate to death due to his own weaknesses.

He couldn’t handle that. Not today.

So, he turned around. He walked out the school. He got into his Jeep, stuck the key in the ignition, and got the Hell out of Dodge.

He’d only been driving around for about twenty minutes when he spotted Derek walking along the side of the road. Maybe he could keep driving, pretend like he hadn’t seen the lone werewolf slinking along the dirt path by himself. That was a viable plan, right?

Or it was, until his unsteady heartbeat gave him away, causing Derek’s head to snap up and take in his surroundings. When his eyes fell on the distinctive blue Jeep across the street, there was a clear snarl on Derek’s face. Stiles gave the man a weak wave while silently cursing to himself and coming to a full stop.

Lowering his window as Derek walked towards him; he called out, “Heeeey Derek. What are you doing all by your lonesome? Come around here often?”

“Stiles,” he growled.

“You know, when you say my name all deadly and threatening like that, it sends my heart a-flutter.”

“Shut up.”

He gave an over-dramatic gasp, pressing his hand to his chest as he stared at Derek. “You wound me, Derek. Really.” When he didn’t get a laugh, he let his shoulders droop a little. “All right, all right, I’ll stop. But what are you doing walking down the road? You know, Scott tells me there’s this really useful thing about being a werewolf—what was it again? Oh right. Speed. Agility. The ability to run in the woods on all fours at an unbelievable pace. Admittedly while it’s not exactly the most attractive running form, it does get you where you need to go much quicker than what you’re doing right now. So. Wanna explain why you’re doing what you’re doing?”

There was a pause, a moment where they met each other’s gaze straight on, and seemed to be in the middle of a heated staring contest. If he weren’t genuinely curious about Derek’s answer, he might have pointed the hilarity of the situation out.

“Not really, no.”

With that, he started walking again.

“Wha—?” Fumbling with the keys, he turned on the ignition and started up the car, barely creeping down the road under five miles. “Derek! C’mon. Are you heading back to my house? I can drive you there.”

He kept his eyes on the road but found it hard not to keep glancing over at Derek. He could see the tension in his jaw, the way his hands flexed every now and again while he stared determinedly straight ahead as he walked.

“Let me give you a lift. I can update you on my life.”

He was met with silence, but he was nothing if not persistent.

“C’mon. You know you want to. It’s kind of chilly out there; I doubt your leather jacket does much other than look pretty. Except—do werewolves run higher temperatures? When Scott was first bitten, I remember finding some forums that said that, but I don’t know if that information was legit or if it came from somebody perusing Twilight. Tell me, did Stephenie Meyer actually get something right about the supernatural?” He glanced over at Derek, watching as he clenched and unclenched his jaw. “Are vampires real? And if they are, do they sparkle? How old are you, because in Twilight Jacob and the other werewolves’ kind of get stuck at twenty-five or something, so is that what it’s like for you? Are you going to look twenty-five when I’m like, forty, because dude, if we still know each other I’ll suffer from even more inferiority complexes then I do right now.”

He could almost see the exact moment Derek’s resolve broke.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” Derek asked, his voice stern and demanding.

He smiled and said, “Nope. I have a free period.”

“You know, I can tell when you’re lying.”

Stiles arched an eyebrow. “Can you, though?”

He watched as Derek opened his mouth, a second away from tossing out whatever angry retort was on the tip of his tongue, when it slipped away into nothingness. His eyes met Derek’s as he once again rolled to a gentle stop.

“How about that ride?”

***

They were in his room, Derek sitting upright in the computer chair, while Stiles was spread out on his bed with his arms behind his head. He stared at the few glow-in-the-dark stars that still clung to his ceiling, remnants of his childhood when Mom tried to teach him about the constellations by recreating them in his bedroom. He’d torn a lot of them down right after she died, too consumed with grief to even handle going to sleep at night with the physical memory of her sticking them up suffocating him. Now though he was grateful that there had been a few he couldn’t reach back then. He liked looking at them.

He could put new ones up, but it wasn’t the same.

“I don’t understand,” Derek said, confusion etched into his every word.

Stiles sighed, boredom draping over him as the conversation circled back to the beginning for the third time. Using his elbows, he propped himself up before rolling his eyes.

“What don’t you get? I’ve explained this in every way I know how. I don’t think there’s any way I could have been clearer, actually,” he said.

It was almost endearing to watch the crinkle appear in Derek’s forehead. He stared, enjoying the way his thick eyebrows knitted together.

Licking his lips, feeling the sting of the dry, cracked flesh, he prompted, “C’mon. Tell me what you do know and maybe then we’ll figure out where you keep getting lost.”

Derek didn’t move a muscle, once again highlighting how different he and Stiles were. If Stiles were in Derek’s position right now, he knew he would be cracking his joints and running his fingers through his hair and tapping his foot. But Derek kept perfectly still, his shoulders a tense line and his hands gripped tightly with his elbows resting on his knees.

“You’ve been taking lessons with Deaton,” he started off slowly. The confusion was still evident, which Stiles tried not to be so insulted by, until his tone turned incredulous. “And you haven’t told anyone?”

He hadn’t, actually, other than Dad. Until Stiles had felt the inexplicable urge to tell Derek of all people. There was no reason for him to have confided in Derek, to have chosen him to be the one to open to about all of this. It was a betrayal of Scott and the pack and everyone who mattered, but the decision burrowed deep into his heart, a comforting weight in his chest, so he didn’t second-guess it.

He fidgeted on his bed, his teeth digging into his bottom lip as he gnawed on it in worry. Letting himself fall back onto his bed, he went back to staring at the ceiling.

“Stop making it sound so terrible,” he said. “Deaton said it was best that I keep this on the D.L. You know. Down low.” He licked his lips again. “Besides, it’s not like anybody would care.”

He expected Derek to say something to that, but instead he just carried on, “And Deaton is teaching you about…being a spark.”

It wasn’t quite a question, but the disbelief was there all the same.

“No, I already am a spark apparently, so he can’t really teach me about being one. It’s more…” he paused, trying to search for the right words.

It shouldn’t have surprised him that Derek couldn’t wrap his brain around the idea of Stiles being useful. There was a reason he hadn’t bothered to tell anyone else about these sessions with Deaton—and it wasn’t just because he’d suggested they keep things quiet. That wasn’t even what Deaton had meant when he’d said that. He’d just been giving the same usual bullshit warning about not talking about supernatural stuff in public, but Stiles had taken it to be the rule he needed it to be. Because he wasn’t ready to have this conversation with Scott and Allison and Lydia and all the people who mattered. Derek was the trial run and it was going terribly.

If Derek, who Stiles had personally saved from near death on a number of occasions, couldn’t even begin to comprehend a valuable Stiles, how was anyone else supposed to?

“He says I have the potential to be an emissary,” he finished, so softly that he was sure if Derek weren’t a werewolf he wouldn’t have been able to hear the words in the first place.

“Scott’s?”

Even though Derek probably couldn’t see, he shrugged. “Who else’s? It’s not like you’re Alpha-ing it up anymore. Not to suggest that, were you still an Alpha, you would have even considered having me as your emissary. You and Scott would probably just share Deaton while I waxed on and waxed off.”

He paused for a moment before sitting up again. “That’s a reference to a great 80s movie called The Karate Kid. Just to clarify I’m not talking about jerking off.”

If looks could kill, Stiles would have been dead months ago.

“I’m not an idiot, Stiles. I’ve seen the movie.”

“Sure, you have, big guy.”

The growl that erupted from Derek’s throat quickly reminded Stiles that he was in an enclosed space with a werewolf.

Sometimes he forgot around Scott. Not often, because so much of his life these days was dependent wholly on the knowledge of the supernatural. But every now and then, when things were completely okay and nobody mentioned werewolves or hunters or kanimas, he could almost forget that Scott wasn’t just a normal human boy. That was the basis of Scott’s entire person: human. He had spent sixteen years of his life being a puny mortal after all.

Derek was different though. Spending time with Derek was different. He was born a werewolf—something other. He had never fallen off his bike as a kid and watched a scratch get infected and turn into his first scar. He had never been forced to only express his anger with slamming doors and raised voices; he and his family had had growls and claws and bright, shining eyes as a way to show their displeasure.

A shudder ran down his spine, hyper aware of the threat that sat in a computer chair at the foot of his bed.

“All right, all right. You’ve seen the movie, I believe you,” he said. “No reason to rip my throat out with your teeth.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Derek bared his fangs, his eyes flashing blue.

Stiles’ mouth spread into a smile. “Was that…dude, were you being funny there? Oh, my God, you have comedic timing! This is just—this is amazing! Where’d you learn that, huh? Some basement comedy club when you were in New York with Cora?”

He didn’t really expect a response, and when he didn’t get one—other than a judgmental look—he moved on, “Anyway. Yeah. Deaton is teaching me about the ways of the emissaries. What a life, huh? You ditch Beacon Hills only to return and find me—me!—studying to be a mini-Deaton. Cool, huh?”

If he hadn’t have been sitting up, staring right at Derek, he might not have believed the next words would have ever left his mouth.

“You’ll be a better emissary than Deaton.”

His eyebrows raised in response, his mouth falling open in the process. He brought a hand up to scratch the back of his ear.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry but I think you just complimented me and clearly that must have been a mistake. You meant to insult me, right? Threaten me with your claws? It’s okay, no worries, I’ll give you a do-over. Finish the sentence: what you meant to say was…”

Derek didn’t speak.

“Dude,” Stiles said, groaning in frustration. “Can’t you ever do more than glare?”

He was waiting for an answer when he heard the front door open and slam shut. He glanced over at Derek only to see him staring towards the bedroom door.

“Your dad’s home.”

“What?” Stiles hissed. “He’s not supposed to be home for a few hours!”

Derek shrugged in response, his face still in profile. His shoulders were tense, his hands gripping the armrests of the chair.

Stiles asked, "Well? Is he coming upstairs?"

Before Derek got the chance to answer, Dad's voice broke through the silence.

"Stiles! You get your ass down here!"

Oh shit.

The tone was unmistakable as anything other than upset—Stiles glanced over at Derek only to see the older man already standing up and moving towards the door. He scrambled to follow behind him.

"Stiles!" Dad shouted, his voice rough like sandpaper, like his name was the perfect summation of disappointment and anger all wrapped into one word.

He let Derek go ahead of him as they walked down the stairs to find Dad standing there, still in his uniform. His sidearm was missing, probably already put away for safe keeping the second he walked through the front door just like he did every day.

Raising his hand, he wiggled his fingers in a weak wave. "Hey, Dad."

Derek gave a stiff nod, "Sheriff."

Frustration evident on his face, Dad ran his fingers through his hair, the ever-present wedding ring shining under the light. "Let me know if I'm mistaken, but isn't it only just past noon? So why, would you mind telling me, are you at home and not at school? Were classes cancelled? Was there a sudden flash flood that came through Beacon Hills and only destroyed the high school?"

“See, that’s funny, because if any of those things had happened, you as Sheriff and parent of a high school student, probably would have been made aware of the fact.”    

Somewhere to his left he could sense Derek rolling his eyes in exasperation.

“Stiles,” Dad said. “This isn’t funny. Get your ass in the cruiser, I’m driving you back to school. And you—” he turned, pointing to Derek who stood up straighter. “You are a guest in this house, and if you get in the way of my son’s education again I will show you the door.”

“Yes sir,” Derek said, not bothering to point out that Stiles had already left the school grounds by the time they’d run into each other.

It was so like him not to defend himself.

“Dad,” he started. “Derek didn’t do anything—”

“I don’t want to hear it, Stiles. Go out to the cruiser.”

Stiles jaw shut before he grabbed his bag from the floor. He glanced over his shoulder at Derek, who was standing at the bottom of the stairs, his expression stony and his hands held stiffly by his sides.

“See you,” he muttered as he walked out the door. He didn’t wait to hear if Derek would say anything back.

***

They were about halfway to campus when Dad suddenly pulled over to the side of the road and parked. For a moment he didn’t say anything, just stared at his fingers, clenched tightly around the wheel. After a few moments, he seemed to force himself to loosen his grip and he turned to look at Stiles.

“What’s going on with you, Stiles? Why the sudden urge to skip school?” His tone was gentle, like he was trying to coax a frightened woodland creature out of its hiding place.

Stiles shrugged. “Nothing’s going on with me. I just didn’t feel like going to class, that’s all. Is that a crime?”

“Kiddo,” Dad said. “If you don’t want Derek to stay with us, just tell me. I’ll turn this car around and tell him to find somewhere else to stay. I only agreed to it because I thought this is what you wanted. I want to support you in this pack business, but if it’s more than you can handle, that’s okay. Even if you just don’t want to deal with this—I’m always on your side first.”

Stiles shifted in his seat, uncomfortable with where the conversation was headed. “That’s not fair to Derek. He has nowhere else to go!”

Dad placed his hand on his shoulder, “He’s a grown man, son. I’m more concerned about you. Tell me what you need.”

He shrugged his shoulder so Dad’s hand slid off and said, “I’m fine. I don’t need anything.”

It was clear that despite his efforts, Dad was annoyed. “Are you honestly telling me that Derek staying with us has nothing to do with you skipping? We haven’t had any problems with your attendance these past few months, but suddenly he’s here and you’re conveniently missing Chemistry.”

He scoffed, “It’s not like the new teacher’s any better than Harris, to be honest. Also, I was skipping English, not Chemistry.”

Dad said, “Be serious.”

“Aren’t you serious enough for the both of us?”

“Stiles,” Dad said. Just his name, but given just the right inflection that let him know if the next words out of his mouth weren’t the truth, he’d be grounded for a month.

He reached up to scratch high on his jawline as he turned his head to avoid eye contact. “I mean, no, okay, I can’t say he has nothing to do with it, but I’d argue it’s more of a correlation than an actual causation.”

He didn’t want to think about Derek, left alone in their empty house, thinking of Dad’s threat to show him the door. Didn’t want to imagine the expression on the werewolf’s face as another person lay blame at his feet that he didn’t deserve.

“I’m just...I’m stressed, obviously,” he started. “It’s my senior year, I’m waiting to hear back from colleges, I’ve officially given up on the ten-year-woo-Lydia-Martin plan, and yeah, okay, Derek’s back and nobody knows why but apparently, everybody is expecting me to figure it out for them because that’s my so-called role in the pack.”  

He let himself catch a breath before glancing up at Dad.

“Even if Derek wasn’t staying with us, I’d still be stressed. I still wouldn’t have had the answers the pack needed. So, it’s not fair to make him leave. It’s not like he made me skip. I was already in the midst of the skipping when we ran into each other.” He looked up at Dad, “I mean, we have the space, right? So, let him stay.”

There was a moment, where they held each other’s eye contact. Dad seemed to be testing the veracity of his statements, weighing the truth versus the lie. He said, “If it gets to be too much though…”

“It won’t,” Stiles promised. “Let him stay. Who knows where he’ll end up without our guest bad? He might find some seedier apartment than his last, missing two walls instead of just one. Better to give him a place to sleep with at least a fundamental architectural structure.”

“You’re a good kid, Stiles,” Dad smiled, turning the key in the ignition and taking the cruiser out of park. He reached across to ruffle Stiles’ hair, before pulling the cruiser back onto the street. “Let’s get you back to school.”

***

It was late, and if there were any windows in the room Stiles was currently working in, he was sure there would be no sunlight filtering through the glass. Instead, he was crouched in the dark storage room at the veterinarian’s office, the soothing noises of snoring dogs and purring cats from the other room filling his senses as he concentrated on the diagrams in the ancient book before him.

A hand settled on his shoulder, almost appearing to have come from nowhere. He cursed silently under his breath for not having paid better attention.

“Okay, you win,” he said. “How long ago did you pass through my wards?”

“Three minutes and twenty-four seconds ago,” Deaton answered, stepping forward and settling himself in the empty chair beside Stiles.

It was an ongoing lesson for Stiles; one that he’d failed every single time. After Deaton had taught him how to create the wards in the first place, he’d gone a step further and taught him how to evade them. The wards were great at alerting him to someone who didn’t know the wards were up, but the trick was using them to catch other magic users who knew how to slip through them. Every training session, Stiles threw up the wards around his small study room, and tried to sense when Deaton came in. He didn’t pass through the wards every session, and sometimes he wouldn’t even reveal himself when he did, choosing instead to wait until Stiles was leaving the office confident that he had done well this time around.

And every now and then he did this, gently prodding Stiles out of his intense focus and trying to figure out where things went wrong. At least today he had the excuse of being distracted by the rest of his messy life.

He shook his head, “Fuck, sorry.”

Deaton folded his hands in his lap, carefully considering Stiles, before he said simply, “You’ll do better next time. I think today’s session is at its end. How far did you get in studying the magical properties of herbs outlined in the book I gave you?”

He shook his head, “Not very far—I kept getting distracted. I think I re-read the same passage at least twenty times. But hey! You want to ask me about mandrake, I’m your man. I recognize that plant from Harry Potter like every good fan should.”

“And what,” Deaton asked. “Has you so distracted today?”

Stiles closed the book and stood up to put it away with the rest of Deaton’s collection. He slipped the Veterinary Immunology dust jacket on the book before slipping it on the shelf. It wasn’t exactly the safest practice for protecting dangerous magical texts, but Deaton didn’t seem to mind so Stiles kept his mouth shut.

He leaned his back against the wall, matching Deaton’s gaze as he said, “C’mon. You know exactly why I’m distracted.”

“Suspecting something is not the same as knowing,” the vet replied, his tone all-knowing and sarcastic. “That’s something of import to keep in mind throughout your training, Stiles.”

God, he was the worst sometimes.

Stiles rolled his eyes, “Fine. Let me confirm what you already suspect then: Derek is back in Beacon Hills, nobody knows why, and now he’s staying with me and my dad.”

He tried to keep his voice light, kept his hands in his pockets to stop himself from fidgeting too much, and did his best not to make direct eye contact with the man. He already felt thrown off enough after the conversation with Dad in the cruiser that afternoon without Deaton trying to add to his unease.

“Why is he staying with you?”

“Uh, because Scott asked? And he’s my Alpha?” Stiles said, like the answer should be obvious. “As his future emissary, it seems like a smart idea to do what he needs of me.”

There was this moment of quiet—Deaton’s gaze was directed right at Stiles as he seemed to be contemplating what had just been said.

And then, because he was a cryptic asshole, he said, “Emissaries are like weapons; some are blunt, others are sharp, and there are those who are something else entirely. But not every weapon fits every hand and every situation. Sometimes the obvious choice is the wrong one.”

Stiles didn’t even know how to start unraveling that, so he didn’t bother.

Deaton smiled up at him and asked, “So, I’ll see you again in two days for our next session?”

Chapter Text

“Are we all here, then?” Stiles asked, looking up from where he sat on the floor by the coffee table, his back flush with the couch.

“No,” Ethan said mutinously. “Danny’s not here.”

Allison rolled her eyes, “Don’t start with this again.”

He glared at her, “With what exactly again? He’s my boyfriend. His best friend was a kanima and is now a werewolf. He hangs out daily with a banshee and werewolves and plays lacrosse with a spark. He should be in the pack.”

“Barely a spark,” Stiles corrected, still not ready to tell the others about his training with Deaton. There was a pause before he said, “Dude! Are you implying Danny and I are only teammates? I’ll have you know we’re friend-adjacent these days.”

Isaac interrupted from where he was reclining next to Allison, his arm stretched out behind her, “You can’t really be part of a pack if you don’t know about the supernatural.”

He leaned forward and whispered something in Allison’s ear that she smiled at. Scott was sitting next to Isaac, and rather than interject to the conversation at hand, he was gazing at the two of them.

“And what I’m saying is that he should know about what’s going on,” Ethan said. “As in, we should tell him. Aiden—back me up on this. You know I’m right.”

Aiden was sitting in the sheriff’s recliner, Lydia perched on the armrest. His hand was running up and down her back soothingly, but Lydia didn’t seem to take any notice. Before he could say anything, Lydia said, “Your twin brother isn’t exactly an impartial judge of the situation. For what it’s worth, I say we leave Danny out of it, and I’ve known him longer than anyone else in this room.”

Scott looked up, “Uh, I think Stiles and I have known Danny just as long as you have.”

Lydia scoffed, “Fine, let me correct myself: I’ve been friends with him longer than anyone else in this room. Eating paste with him in kindergarten or sitting next to each other in third grade, doesn’t really count as a friendship, Scott.”

“Why am I here again?” Derek asked from behind the couch.

“I think that’s the million-dollar question, right?” Stiles asked, tilting his head back against Scott’s thigh to catch Derek’s gaze. “Why have you graced Beacon Hills with your foreboding presence once again?”

The room seemed to come to a standstill. Ethan, who had looked like he wanted to say more about Danny, leaned back in his seat. Allison, who had just been whispering something to Scott, fell silent, while Aiden’s hand stilled where it rested on Lydia’s back. Stiles didn’t have to look, but he could feel Isaac’s penetrating gaze on the back of his head. He kept his own gaze locked on Derek.

Like a predator, never breaking eye contact, Derek inched his way from behind the couch until he was standing with his back to the television, facing the pack head on. Stiles arched an eyebrow.

“Well?” he asked.

Derek met his gaze head on, his face impassive as always, “I know this might be hard for you to accept, but not everything is your business.”

Before Stiles could shoot back a reply, Scott dropped his hand to Stiles’ shoulder.

“We’re not trying to pry, but it’s a worthwhile question. The last time we spoke after…” Scott fell silent for a moment, unsure whether or not to press on. “After Jennifer and the Alpha pack, you seemed done with Beacon Hills. I didn’t think we’d ever see you again.”

Stiles watched Derek. While everyone else was watching Derek’s face, Stiles was staring at his clenched fists tucked behind his back. There might have even been a claw or two. It was an impressive show of restraint for the man who apparently had no hesitation slamming Stiles’ head into a steering wheel.

Maybe Scott could scent something Stiles could only guess at, because he immediately said, “Not that we’re not glad to see you—we are! But…we’re just wondering why now? Did something happen with Cora?”

“Cora’s fine,” said Derek.

There was a beat as everyone waited for him to say more. When that didn’t come, Stiles threw his hands in the air, “Whoa now, Derek, don’t overwhelm us with such a flood of information, I don’t think we can keep up! Give everyone some space to take notes—does anyone have a pen and paper I could borrow? I think I need to write this down for posterity.”

He knew Allison was going to smack him on head before he even felt it.

Lydia, still perched on the armrest of the chair Aiden was sitting in, rested her hands primly on her knee as she said, “Nobody is trying to make you uncomfortable or force you to reveal any personal information. We respect your privacy. However, what I’m sure Scott and Stiles meant to express, is that we just want to make sure that our pack isn’t in danger.”

Her pointed gaze, which Stiles had been on the receiving end of on more than one occasion, met Derek’s. He raised his chin, almost in defiance, before he finally said, “Unless you’re not telling me things, as far as I know, your pack has nothing to worry about.”

Stiles wasn’t a werewolf, obviously, but he could practically hear the sigh of relief throughout the room. Obviously, Derek had told the truth and eased everyone’s nerves—everyone, that is, other than Stiles himself.

Maybe it was because, despite all their arguments, they were too alike; but Stiles could hear what Derek wasn’t saying while everyone only focused on the steady beat of his heart. Because he was the king of misdirection, always quick to tell half-truths to get out of telling an outright lie. He’d made misdirection his little bitch and everyone else was none-the-wiser. Adding qualifiers when none were asked for, framing his answer to questions that weren’t exactly asked, his whole life was skirting by without having to admit what he was really thinking. And that’s what Derek was doing here: avoiding the truth but not exactly telling a lie.

As though he knew what was running through Stiles’ mind, Derek turned his attention to Stiles. They stared at each other, Derek almost daring him to call him out. When Stiles said nothing, Derek gave a shark-like grin before turning his attention to Scott.

He asked, “Have you heard anything from Peter lately?”

Lydia stiffened where she was sitting, and Aiden made a plaintive whine as he reached up to run his fingers through her hair. Stiles watched as her expression turned dark for a split second and she inched forward on the armrest. Then, just like that, her expression cleared again and she looked almost bored.

Behind him, Scott seemed to shrug. “I haven’t seen Peter since the night everything went down with the Alpha Pack. When he told you and Cora to run.”

Isaac said, “We assume he left town the same as you two.”

“Why anyone would care where Peter could be is beyond me,” Lydia sniffed, flicking her hair over her shoulder.

Derek gave a curt nod. He glanced up at Lydia and said, “Despite everything he’s done, he is my uncle.”

Stiles let out a whistle, “Not to mention you have that whole tight bond what with you having slashed his throat and then Peter using your powers to raise himself from the dead. Thanksgiving’s must have been really fun at your abandoned train station.”

“Don’t talk about things you don’t understand,” Isaac said, leaning forward and pressing his claws to Stiles’ neck. Not enough to puncture the skin—just enough to threaten. “You didn’t spend any time there, but we did.”

Another uncomfortable silence settled over the room. For the second time that week, Stiles felt his throat tighten at the word “we”. The image of bouncing blonde curls and the clatter of ice rink keys flashed through his mind unbidden. A second later, another image: two terrified sets of eyes staring down at him from where they were chained up, the blooming pain in his cheek from a flurry of fists, and the muffled shouts of pain while electricity coursed through their bodies. Guilt bubbled inside him, the words if only, if only threatening to spill out of his lips.

Just as quickly, Isaac’s claws were no longer pressed against his flesh. Stiles turned around and saw Scott’s hand wrapped around Isaac’s wrist, the two teenage boys staring at each other. To the right of Isaac, Allison had her fingers carefully pressed against his shoulder, her entire attention focused on the two boys, her lips moving but the words so quiet that Stiles couldn’t pick them up. A quick glance around the room told him that only Lydia was left out of whatever Allison was saying and Stiles was sure Aiden would fill her in when they left.

Though he would deny it, Stiles felt a pit of loneliness in his gut. It was selfish and awful of him—Isaac was still struggling with the loss of his pack and Allison and Scott were only trying to be there for him. Derek had lost a pack, built a new one, and lost it again along with his Alpha powers. He didn’t consider himself part of the McCall pack and didn’t even want to be there; wouldn’t, either, if not for Scott’s machinations that kept him at the Stilinski’s house. If Scott weren’t an Alpha, and Derek weren’t an unaffiliated Beta—Omega?—on another pack’s territory, he probably would have gone anywhere other than Stiles’ guest bedroom.

He didn’t want to think about any of that.

Instead, Stiles slipped his phone out of his pocket and opened his contacts. “Does anyone want to order Chinese?”

“If by Chinese you mean Thai or sushi, then yes. Otherwise I’m going home,” Lydia said. “We have an essay due for AP English on Monday, and I’m going to be valedictorian no matter what.”

Ethan said, “I’m fine with whatever, but I’m leaving if Aiden does.”

Stiles bit the inside of his cheek, resolutely refusing to look up at the people around him. Why did he have to open his fucking mouth and make that crack at Derek? Why did everything have to be so difficult? He fiddled with his phone, flipping through the contacts to find the Thai place he and Dad rarely ordered from.

Before he could say anything else, Scott nudged him with his leg. “Actually, dude, I think Isaac and I are going to head home. Mom had the morning shift at the hospital, so she told us to be home for a family dinner.”

Allison spoke up, “Dad said he wanted to look over my financial scholarship applications, so I should head home too.”

But first she would probably stop off at the McCall’s and have dinner first, Stiles thought. He nodded, put his phone on the coffee table, and said, “Sounds like I get to save my allowance this week, so kudos to that.”

Everyone was standing up and moving towards the front door as Stiles scrambled off the floor. A question about everyone’s weekend plans was on the tip of his tongue, when Scott was the last one left (other than Derek who was still standing by the television).

“Sorry Stiles,” Scott said with an apologetic shrug. “See you on Monday?”

The question settled in the back of Stiles’ throat before he choked it down. So much for hanging out over the weekend.

Stiles forced a smile, “Yeah, of course. Let me know if you need any help with your homework.”

With a big grin, Scott nodded and closed the door behind him. Stiles stared at the door and felt his shoulders slump forward.

“So,” Derek said from behind him, his tone uncertain. “Do you still want Chinese?”

Stiles looked over his shoulder and saw Derek, his arm outstretched with Stiles’ phone in the palm of his hand.

***

“Stiles, if you try to take another one of my spring rolls, I will stab you with my chopsticks.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? We ordered four servings of spring rolls, they’re not all yours. Also, congratulations on leveling down your bodily threats from tearing my throat out to stabbing me. It’s a nice change of pace. Keeps me on my toes.”

They glared at each other from over the coffee table, Stiles’ wrist caught in Derek’s death grip as his chopsticks hovered over the hoard of spring rolls. Behind Derek’s head, the basketball game they’d finally agreed upon played on mute. Derek had refused to give Bob’s Burgers a chance, because as he so claimed, “It’s a cartoon show, Stiles, I’m not a child.” What an asshole.

Derek tightened his grip slightly, “Technically, I paid for the food so you could keep your allowance, so all of the spring rolls are mine. I already gave you two.”

“And kept six for yourself! What kind of monster are you?”

In the flash of a second, Derek shifted to his Beta form and snapped his fangs in Stiles’ direction. Stiles’ jaw dropped and could feel his cheeks flush.

He wrenched his wrist out of Derek’s grip and stared down at his Chicken Lo Mein shamefaced. “I can’t believe I set you up for that so perfectly, oh my God.”

Derek gave a huff that could almost be mistaken for a chuckle, if not for the fact that Stiles knew Derek probably hadn’t laughed in the past ten years.

His gaze flitted back up to Derek’s face, “Can I ask you something since we’re bonding over cheap take-out?”

“We’re not bonding,” he said, his chopsticks swooping down to grab the spring roll Stiles had been reaching for. “We’re eating.”

Stiles arched an eyebrow, “Isn’t that bonding for werewolves?”

“No,” Derek said. He made direct eye contact with Stiles and bit the spring roll in half.

He rolled his eyes. “Okay, fine. We’re not bonding. Can I still ask you a question?”

This is what Scott wanted of him. This is what the pack and everyone expected: for Stiles to be the obnoxious, pestering kid who refused to leave people alone. Maybe Stiles was playing into the trope, but he saw his chance and he took it.

“Are you going to stop trying to steal my spring rolls?” Derek asked.

Stiles narrowed his eyes, his gaze flickering between Derek’s face and the last three spring rolls. “Are you going to stop being a fat ass and give me at least one more?”

“Are you wasting your one question on asking for an extra spring roll?”

“What? No!”

Derek flashed a sharp grin with a hint of his fangs, “Then no, you can’t have a spring roll but you can ask one question.”

Stiles let out a put-upon sigh, even though he'd suspected he'd never convince the werewolf to give up any of his food. He reached over and grabbed the broccoli and beef stir fry and started eating directly from the box.

“Why are you really in town?”

There was a beat, then Derek put down his chopsticks and picked up a napkin to wipe his mouth. “I already answered this.”

“Um, actually dude? You didn't. Like at all.” Stiles gestured at Derek with his chopsticks. “First you refused to explain, then you said it was none of my business, and then you promised that the pack wasn't in danger. And everyone was so distracted by that, they didn't notice you evaded the question. Or the fact that you said we’re safe ‘to the best of your knowledge’—AKA it's totally still possible that the pack isn't safe. Don't try to trip up a liar, dude. You'll get caught.”

Derek pinched the bridge of his nose. It was so similar to something Dad would do, that Stiles had to glance around the room to make sure he wasn't around.

“Stiles,” Derek said, a growl touching the edge of the name. “Can you just—please. Can you just let this be? For now.”

Stiles stared up at Derek’s face, at his intense eyes and his beard that was a bit longer than Derek used to wear it. He knew that if Derek were anyone else—if he weren’t a werewolf, that is—there would be dark circles under those eyes. He wondered when Derek last bothered to shave.

Look, Stiles needed to know. Maybe Scott thought Stiles was just asking for the good of the pack, maybe Derek thought he was just nosy, it didn’t matter. What mattered was that Stiles sacrificed his life for this godforsaken town—he’d gone into that ice bath to save his dad, but also to center the Nemeton. To fix what was wrong with the world. And when Derek left, it had hurt, but it had also affirmed that they had done the right thing. If Derek felt healthy enough to leave Beacon Hills, then maybe everything was okay.

Which meant: if Derek felt the need to come back, things might be in danger. And Stiles couldn’t deny that sometimes he felt this tightness in his chest, one that had never been there before. He couldn’t deny that it scared him.

Before Stiles could give his answer, he heard a car pull up in the driveway. He shot a look at Derek, before he stated the obvious, “Dad’s home.”

Without saying anything, Derek stood up and walked into the kitchen. Stiles pushed his chopsticks through his food, casting a glance over to the empty kitchen doorway before focusing his attention on the front door.

Dad walked in and saw Stiles sitting on the floor, surrounded by enough Chinese food to feed an army. He was probably confused—it wasn’t often Stiles let him eat cheap take-out, and this would be the second time in one week. Stiles opened his mouth to explain, when another voice interrupted him from behind.

“I brought you a plate, sir. Also, a fork and knife, in case you want them,” Derek said. “Stiles ordered you grilled salmon in a ginger sauce, and I saved a couple spring rolls for you.”

Dad smiled, stepping forward to grab the plate and utensils from the werewolf. “Thank you, son.”

Stiles gave Derek a look of betrayal, “You’ll give my father the spring rolls but not me? I’m not the person at risk of a heart attack in this room!”

“I gave you two spring rolls,” Derek said, as though that were the most important accusation to respond to. “And your dad’s heart sounds perfectly healthy to me.”

Dad let out a shout, “Aha! Did you hear that? Maybe you can ease up on the heart healthy rabbit’s food and give me a bite of that Szechuan beef?”

He held out his fork as though he expected Stiles to hand over the box.

“Hold on a second. You—” he pointed at Derek with his chopsticks, “are not a doctor, no matter what your werewolf senses are telling you. And you,” he stared at Dad. “Are already getting disgustingly artery-clogging crispy spring rolls, so no you cannot have any of the Szechuan. Derek will stab you with his chopsticks if I ask him too.”

“No, I won’t,” Derek said, sitting back on the couch and handing the last three spring rolls to Dad.

Dad settled into his recliner and took the proffered food, a grin settling on his face. “You know, Derek, I wasn’t too sure about you being our guest, but I have to admit, I’m glad you’re here.”

Stiles made a showing of fake-outrage, “You two are not allowed to gang up on me, okay? That’s cruel. I can’t defend myself against a sheriff and a werewolf.”

Dad laughed, “How about you put away the food so I’m not tempted to eat more of it?”

He gestured to the food spread across the coffee table—they had ordered more than enough to feed a grown man, a werewolf, and a teenage boy—and Stiles stuck his tongue out at him. “I’ll only do the clean-up for the good of your health, old man.”

“I’m not complaining,” Dad said. “Derek, how about we unmute the game?”  

Derek glanced over at Stiles, something unreadable in his expression, “Of course, sir.”

While Stiles gathered up the boxes of take-out, Dad and Derek watched the game together, not quite silently but not too excitedly either. Derek’s back was straight where he sat on the couch, his fingers curled into fists, nodding his head every now and then when Dad made a comment about the game. Stiles walked into the kitchen, and cast one final glance back at the two of them, started suddenly at the sight of these two men sitting only a foot apart from each other. Not for the first time, Stiles felt warmth in the pit of his gut that came from Dad knowing the truth.

***

Stiles was sitting at the kitchen table, his chemistry textbook open in front of him with one highlighter behind his ear and another held between his teeth. He’d put away all the food, carefully labeling what Dad could and couldn’t eat, and washed the dishes. Since he’d finished, he’d outlined the essay Lydia had mentioned, done his history reading, and solved his math homework. He was so concentrated on the Chemistry text in front of him, that when he leaned back to stretch his arms and saw Derek leaning against the kitchen doorway, he let out a yelp, dropping the highlighter on the table.

“Dude!” he said. “Make a noise next time, God.”

Derek tilted his head, as though acknowledging the remark but not actually agreeing to anything. Stiles sighed and focused his attention back on his homework.

“Can’t that wait?” Derek asked.

Stiles made a face. “Wait for what? It’s not like I have any other remarkable plans for my Friday evening. I might as well finish up my assignments now. Lydia might be valedictorian, but I’m gunning for salutatorian.”

“I think your dad thought you were going to come watch the game with him when you were done,” Derek said in lieu of an actual response.

He shrugged, highlighting an entire paragraph about Compton scattering. “Isn’t the game already over? I’ve been in here for a while.”

“Yes. But there are other things to watch.”

That caused Stiles to pause. He put down his highlighter and lifted his chin to meet Derek’s eye contact. The werewolf was still standing by the door, his arms folded across his chest, but his shoulders seemed hunched in on themselves. It almost looked like the tips of his ears were burning red.

Stiles asked, “Did my dad say he wanted me to come watch TV with him?”

“I’m a werewolf,” Derek said, almost exasperated. “I know when someone wants something.”

“Well, that wasn’t creepy and ominous at all,” Stiles said. “Wait—does that mean you can smell boners? Scott’s never answered that question. Because that’s an invasion of privacy and honestly you should keep in mind that that doesn’t mean anything—”

“Stiles.”

He closed his mouth, and met Derek’s eyes. They were both silent, Stiles waiting for Derek to say more, and Derek probably waiting for Stiles to interrupt him. But the interruption never came, and finally Derek said, “Will you just leave your homework and come watch TV with us?”

“Um,” Stiles began. He looked down at the textbook, the page half-filled with neon pink highlighter. He glanced at the doorway, where he could see some of the living room. He could hear the sound from the TV filtering into the kitchen, the words almost impossible to make out but the music still recognizable. He thought of Dad sitting in his recliner, apparently wanting Stiles to come hang out but not wanting to pressure him to spend time with Derek.

He closed his textbook.

“Sure, big guy, I can do that,” said Stiles.

Derek smiled at him—an honest to God smile—and said, “Good.”

They both walked into the living room, Derek quickly taking the spot on the far end of the couch, vacating the corner closest to Dad where he had been sitting earlier. Stiles slipped into the cushions, still warm from Derek’s body heat, and glanced over at Dad. He was smiling at Stiles, and he held out the remote for him to take.

Stiles’ gaze flitted over to Derek, before he grabbed the remote. “Well, if it’s up to me we’re definitely finding any Bob’s Burgers reruns.”

The two men groaned loudly, but even so: neither got up to leave. They stayed, which is all Stiles had wanted.

Chapter Text

“So, this might be a couple lesson plans ahead of what you’ve got set up for today but, if I wanted to hide my scent from a werewolf,” Stiles asked. “How would I go about doing that?”

He was standing in the doorway of Deaton’s examination room and hadn’t even put down his backpack. From where he stood beside the dog on the table, Deaton gave a weary sigh.

He said, “Good afternoon, Stiles. I see you’re early today.”

“Right, yes, niceties. Hi. Now onto my question: disguising my scent from a werewolf. How would I do that?”

He stepped into the room and walked right up to where the Husky lay calmly. With a grin, Stiles ran his fingers through the dog’s fur, cooing softly to him. He avoided Deaton’s gaze as the veterinarian looked down at him.

Deaton said, “It may not have been in my lesson plan for the day, but you should already know the answer to this question. Or have you not been paying attention to the text I’ve had you study?”

“The book on the magical properties of herbs? I’ve totally been paying attention,” Stiles said, his tone affronted. Deaton made no move to speak, his expression blank. There was a pause before he continued, sounding slightly less insulted. “I mean, I’ll admit it’s a little hard to follow along sometimes but that’s because I’ve been distracted. I definitely would remember if an herb could disguise my smell though.”

The vet shook his head, “Don’t be so obtuse. You can’t expect every situation you meet to match with a specific spell or herb. You’re a spark. It will be your duty as an emissary to find the right solution for the problems your pack faces.”

That made sense, logically, but was completely unhelpful in that specific moment.

Stiles groaned. “I’m not looking for emissary training right now. I’m looking for a very specific answer to a very specific question.”

He crouched down, not wanting to meet Deaton’s eyes. The older man would no doubt want Stiles to admit why he wanted to hide his scent from a werewolf, even though it was obvious that Deaton already knew the answer. He was just the type of man who would want to trap Stiles into admitting something shameful. Maybe if he didn’t make eye contact, and instead stared into the Husky’s gaze, he could get out of here without capitulating to Deaton’s demands.

“And which werewolf are you planning on hiding from?”

No such luck, apparently. “It’s not that I’m trying to hide from one specifically. More that I want to follow one without them knowing. I can stay far enough away to avert their werewolf-y sight and hearing. But smell—that I need to be careful of.”

He risked a glance up at Deaton, as he continued to pet the Husky. The vet nodded thoughtfully, his fingers deftly stitching a gash on the dog’s leg. He said, “And yet, that doesn’t answer the question as to which werewolf you wish to evade.”

“All right,” Stiles said. “You caught me. It’s Derek, okay? Are you happy?”

Deaton asked, his tone all-knowing, “Now what reason could you have to try and follow the werewolf that is currently living in your family’s guest bedroom?”

He let out a grumble as he kept his attention focused on the dog, otherwise he might honest-to-God snap at the other man. Stiles said, “I don’t know why you’re being difficult! I’m just trying to do exactly what you’re training me to do: help my pack, anticipate my Alpha’s needs, do what needs to get done even if no one else is willing to act. Scott needs to know why Derek is in town, I’m going to find out.”

“I spoke to Scott during his last shift,” Deaton said, picking up the surgical scissors and cutting the suture thread. “He told me that Derek had said his visit was private, and that he was satisfied it had nothing to do with the pack.”

Stiles let out an actual groan, and threw his hands into the air. The Husky on the table let out a pitiful whine that had Stiles quickly dropping his hands back into the dog’s fur, scratching behind his ears.

He rolled his eyes at Deaton, “Scott is too gullible for his own good. Derek told us next to nothing. And since—as you pointed out—he’s staying under my dad’s roof, I think I’m more than entitled to know why he’s back in town. The pack needs to stay on top of stuff like this. Which we can’t, if our Alpha accepts any declaration of privacy as an actual excuse for crossing into our territory.”

“Beacon Hills is Derek’s home,” Deaton said, in lieu of an actual response. He was carefully wrapping the Husky’s leg in a bandage. “And I thought you said Scott didn’t know where the territory ended or began?”

He looked at the man, exasperation gnawing at the back of his throat. He tried to keep his tone even as he spoke, “Because you refuse to teach Scott! I don’t even know why; you’re so hands on with my emissary training but with Scott you’re just completely hands off. As though just because he’s a True Alpha, he suddenly knows everything about being a werewolf.”

It had been bugging Stiles for a while, but he had kept the concerns to himself. At first, he thought that maybe Scott was being resistant to any attempts at training from Deaton. But then when he asked Scott if Deaton ever tried to give him advice about pack business, the other teen made clear that they very rarely talked about the supernatural at all. Oh sure, he assured Stiles, they checked in every now and then, but overall Deaton didn’t seem to care that much, and Scott said he was fine with that.

Well, Stiles wasn’t fine with that.

“So, no,” Stiles continued, “Scott doesn’t know where the territory boundaries are, but he should, and Derek crossed them. Whether Beacon Hills was his home or not, it’s not his territory anymore. He ceded control of it completely to Scott when he gave up his Alpha-hood to save Cora. And rather than stick around to work out whether he was in Scott’s pack or not, he left. So, he’s definitely not a pack member, and if Scott’s going to let him be here, then someone needs to know what he’s up to.”

The Husky had been staring at Stiles, unblinking, its bright blue eyes tracking his face. Stiles dragged his gaze away from the dog and finally met Deaton’s eyes.

“So, c’mon, doc. Help me out. Which herbs do I need to hide my scent from a werewolf?”

***

It had taken over half an hour, with a short break so Deaton could explain to the Husky’s owner how long Lady Godiva would have to wear her protective cone, before Stiles was able to leave with what he needed. A small glass jar of grey and yellow powder, a perfect mix of three herbs: Devil’s Dung, Mountain Ash, and Wolfsbane.

Devil’s Dung was a terrible name for the herb, but at least Stiles had an easier time trying to pronounce it than the actual name: Asafoetida. It came from a yellow plant native to the mountains of Afghanistan. Once Deaton had actually pulled the jar out from his hidden collection, Stiles recognized it from the book he’d been studying.

Devil’s Dung was known for its protective properties and its ability to banish negativity. The name apparently came from the truly atrocious odor it gave off when used, so Stiles was clearly looking forward to opening the jar. The Mountain Ash created a barrier between the wearer and the supernatural, and the Wolfsbane ensured that this would help specifically with werewolves. There wasn’t a lot of Wolfsbane in the mix: just a pinch to ensure this worked the way Stiles needed.

Sitting in his Jeep, parked in front of the clinic, he slipped the tiny vial of White Birch oil out of his backpack and into the cup holder, unscrewing the top and squeezing the pipette in preparation of his next steps. Then, ever so carefully, Stiles opened the jar of powder and tipped some into the palm of his left hand. He held the jar between his knees beneath the steering wheel. The stench of the Devil’s Dung was strong in Roscoe, and for a moment Stiles wondered if maybe he should’ve done this somewhere else. But he was already halfway there and he knew he had to concentrate while he did this. He had to imbue his will into his actions, no distractions. So, he focused his belief, grabbed the pipette, and released ten drops of the oil into the powder. With his middle finger, he carefully mixed the powder and oil, focusing all of his thoughts on his desire. He added another drop of the oil to make the mixture smoother.

When he was done, he had a sickly greenish-grey paste in the palm of his hand.

He dropped the pipette back into the vial, leaving it in the cup holder. Deliberately, Stiles ran his middle finger through the mixture and proceeded to drag the paste along his pulse points. At the base of his neck, underneath both of his ears, and on his wrists. He proceeded to go over the spots with more of the paste, until his palm was bare.

The strong stench of the Devil’s Dung had rapidly dissipated the more Stiles added the paste to his body, until finally he noticed that he couldn’t smell the mixture at all. He’d had lacrosse practice that chilly afternoon, and had skipped the shower in favor of going to Deaton’s, yet Stiles couldn’t detect any hint of his body odor.

It had worked.

A smile tugged at Stiles’ lips, as he quickly closed all the jars and shoved them back into his backpack. He pulled out his car and opened the app on his phone to pinpoint Derek’s location. Thank God Derek apparently didn’t pay attention to the apps uploaded to his phone. Once he saw where the werewolf was, he turned on the car and pulled out of the parking lot.

Now to figure out why Derek was back.

***

Stiles drove around the Preserve’s perimeters once to find a good secluded spot to park his Jeep. He didn’t need his phone out for this part: he had recognized the coordinates when he’d first seen them. Derek was at the Nemeton.

If Stiles had a notebook in his hands, he would have put a little tally under the “Totally Suspicious” column.

He moved cautiously through the forest just to be on the safe side, aware that without the scent of “human” wafting through the air, Derek would be more likely to attribute any noises he heard to the wildlife in the Preserve. He triple-checked to make sure his phone was completely on silent, with no threat of loud ringtones or vibrations to give away his existence.

Stiles could see the clearing for the Nemeton ahead of him, so he slowed down. He couldn’t walk into the clearing for fear of being seen, so he kept to the edges and tried to stay out of sight behind trees. He spotted Derek by the large tree stump, the werewolf kneeling beside the roots, his fingers touching something out of view. Frustrated, Stiles moved deliberately to the other side of the edge of the clearing, so that he could see what Derek was touching.

When he thought he was in the right spot, he turned his attention back to Derek only to freeze where he was standing.

Derek was touching a dead deer. What the fuck. There was a dead deer at the base of the Nemeton. Specifically, a buck. It looked big and powerful, and it hadn’t yet shed its antlers in preparation of regrowing a new set for Spring. The buck’s throat appeared freshly slashed. The blood still looked wet from where he was standing, but when he focused his attention on Derek’s clothing, he didn’t see any blood splatter. It seemed unlikely that Derek would have been able to cut an animal’s throat without getting a drop of blood on himself.

Stiles watched as Derek ran his fingers through the buck’s short coat, so achingly similar to the way Stiles had pet the Husky earlier that afternoon, before slowly bringing his hand down to close the buck’s eyes. He watched as Derek bent his head, his lips moving as he whispered something over the dead buck.

The silence seemed to stretch on throughout the Preserve, as all the creatures seemed to come to a pause and Stiles held his breath.

When Derek raised his head again it was like the Preserve had come back to life.

It was already nearing dusk. If the need to know why Derek was in town weren’t so urgent, Stiles would have waited for the weekend. By the time it took for school and lacrosse to end, not to mention talking to Deaton and finding Derek, it was already almost 5PM. Stiles wasn’t sure if he could stay in the Preserve, watching Derek, once the sun set in approximately half an hour. Why couldn’t Derek have come back to Beacon Hills later in the year? There wasn’t enough daytime in the month of February to satisfy Stiles’ needs.

Derek seemed to have the same concern though. Or, at the very least, he’d come to an end with whatever had called him to the Nemeton in the first place. He stepped up and brushed the dirt off his knees. Stiles tried to step forward to get a better look at the buck, now that Derek wasn’t kneeling in front of it, but managed to snap a stick underneath his foot. Stiles moved back behind the tree but not before he saw as Derek turned his head in his direction clearly trying to scent the clearing. He was sure he was busted, yet nothing came. After a moment, Stiles peeked back around the tree trunk. All he could see was Derek’s back retreating in the distance.

Stiles waited in the Preserve for another ten minutes, giving Derek some time to get to wherever he was headed next. Stiles used that time to get a closer look at the dead buck, but couldn’t find anything useful to himself. Whatever information there was to be found here, he couldn’t sense it as a human.

As he made his way back to his Jeep, he slipped his phone out of his pocket and pulled up the app again. Once again, like Derek was personally taunting him, he recognized the destination immediately.

***

Stiles hadn’t been to the local cemetery since Mom’s birthday three months before. There was a time, right after she died, when he and Dad had found every excuse to visit her gravesite. The anniversary of the last time they went to Disneyland, the anniversary of the last time they ate dinner together as a family, the anniversary of the last time she remembered who they were...each one deserved some commemoration in their minds. That first Christmas without her, they’d set up a blanket next to her headstone and hadn’t left until the caretaker had told them it was time to close the cemetery. It was desperate and miserable, and it had done nothing to ease their grief.

They were in a healthier place now. They both still missed her, a constant ache in their hearts that only she could soothe, but they didn’t live their lives at the cemetery. The caretaker still recognized Stiles on sight though, and when he asked how long he had until the gates closed, the man told Stiles he could stay as long as he wanted. He’d make sure to stick around and open the gates to let Stiles out whenever he was ready.

Stiles thanked the man, and left to find Derek among the headstones.

It didn’t take long: not many people felt it was necessary to go to the graveyard after dark. The werewolf was standing, staring down at two headstones side-by-side. Stiles didn’t need to get too close. He recognized the plots, remembered how his heart had stuttered to a stop when he’d walked up to Boyd’s funeral and realized he was being buried next to Erica. Stiles still didn’t know how that happened; he had assumed that Boyd would be buried next to the sister he’d spoken of only once while under the influence of Wolfsbane. Instead he’d been buried next to his packmate, his only friend, the girl he’d loved and lost and found again in death.

Stiles had to think about it that way. It was the only way he could manage without buckling under the weight of just how wrong it was to live in a world where Erica and Boyd were dead and buried. That wasn’t supposed to be how everything unfolded. They were supposed to be pack. Erica was supposed to forever be his Catwoman, and he was supposed to be fighting to earn Boyd’s approval. Derek was supposed to have their support and he was supposed to guide them through life as werewolves, helping them grow and being a part of their family.

Instead he watched as their former Alpha stared at their graves.

He watched as Derek stepped forward, placing a hand on each headstone. Stiles wanted to step out from behind the angel sculpture and place his own hand on Derek’s shoulder, the same way he had done when Boyd had died. Derek didn’t deserve to be alone with this.

If the only reason Derek had returned to Beacon Hills was to pay his respects to his fallen betas, Stiles would understand.

When the werewolf stepped away from the gravestones, Stiles thought maybe he was going to leave. Stars were beginning to shine in the night sky, the only light pooling on the cemetery was coming from the first quarter moon. But Derek didn’t turn to leave, rather, he moved further into the cemetery, his steps determined as though he knew exactly where he was headed.

Stiles waited before following him, keeping his hood up and trying to stay out of Derek’s line of sight. He found another memorial to kneel behind and watched as Derek came to a stop. Stiles couldn’t make out the name on the headstone, until he looked up at the sculpture beside him and realized it looked familiar. A flash of a memory passed through his thoughts, an image of where Derek was standing surrounded by cameramen and journalists, a grieving Allison being led away by her parents. Stiles remembered kneeling in the same spot, whispering angrily at Scott trying to figure out why they were there. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out whose grave Derek was standing in front of.

Kate Argent’s.

Not for the first time in his life, Stiles wished he could read Derek’s mind. What was he thinking, staring down at the headstone of the woman who murdered his family and gotten away with it for ten years? Was he there to remind himself that she was dead? That she could no longer do any damage?

Or was it something else?

Stiles suspected that Derek and Kate had been together at some point before the fire. He still didn’t know how it happened, or how long it lasted. He didn’t know if Kate sincerely felt anything for Derek, or how much Derek even felt for her. He didn’t even know if there could be any real feelings there; Derek had been so young at the time, Stiles balked at the thought of their age difference. Stiles wasn’t even entirely sure how he’d made the connection; one minute Dad was telling him a young woman had organized the fire, the next, Peter was throwing blame on Derek. Stiles’ mind did what it does best and connected the dots.

He’d thrown it in Derek’s face at the hospital. Called Jennifer his “second psychotic, mass-murdering girlfriend,” and Derek hadn’t defended himself. He hadn’t called Stiles out for being wrong or misinformed. He’d taken it, shouldered the blame for the situation as readily as he shouldered the blame for everything else.

Standing in front of Kate’s grave, Stiles had to wonder again if Derek didn’t carry the weight of the fire with him.

Derek didn’t stay in front of her grave for long. He didn’t touch her headstone the way he touched Erica and Boyd’s. Again, Stiles watched, expecting Derek to leave, only for Derek to walk further into the cemetery.

This time he didn’t follow. Whoever else Derek had to visit—his family, Paige, someone unknown to Stiles—it wasn’t any of his business. He’d done enough sleuthing for the night.

On his way out of the cemetery, Stiles stopped by Mom’s grave. He sat on the cold, hard ground, and whispered to her headstone, hoping that maybe if he believed hard enough, she might be able to hear him.

“I miss you, Mom.”

He had a hard time falling asleep that night.

***

It was lunchtime the next day, and Stiles was sitting in the library with Lydia and Danny. All three had their math textbooks open, studying for the test they had that afternoon. Stiles let out a large yawn as he rubbed at his eyes.

“Jesus, Stilinski,” Danny said. “You look like death warmed over.”

Stiles waved him off, and grabbed the soda he’d bought from the cafeteria. If only they sold coffee, he thought to himself.

Lydia tapped his notebook with her pencil, “Danny’s right. You look terrible. What were you doing last night? I thought you said you didn’t study.”

Stiles looked at Lydia, his gaze flitting over to Danny pointedly. He said, “Ix-nay on-yay e-thay erek-day alk-tay.”

Lydia rolled her eyes, and Danny barked out a laugh.

“Pig Latin, Stiles? I’m pretty sure I’m the one who taught you how to speak that in the second grade. She didn’t even mention anyone named Derek. Which, by the way—who’s Derek?”

Stiles glared at Lydia, “This is why I told you to learn Polish.”

“I don’t have time to study Polish if I want to be valedictorian, Stiles,” Lydia replied.

Danny slipped his hand into the space between their faces and waved. “Again,” he asked. “Who’s Derek?”

“You don’t know him,” Lydia answered at the same moment Stiles said, “Miguel.”

They glared at each other, Lydia’s earlier words about leaving Danny out of the supernatural world ringing in Stiles’ memory, before he said, “What? He asked!”

Danny cocked his head to the side, slipping his pencil behind his ear, “Your cousin Miguel? And you’re calling him Derek now, because…?”

There was just enough disbelief in his tone that Stiles knew the other teen wasn’t going to buy the lie twice. Better to go with a half-truth then. “Well, he’s not actually named Miguel. And he’s not exactly my cousin. See, when you met him he was actually on the run from the law thanks to an error in judgement Scott and I made our sophomore year—”

Lydia interrupted Stiles, as she was wont to do, and explained, “Scott and Stiles accused Derek of murdering his sister after they stumbled across her body. Stiles realized the mistake and helped Derek hide from the police while they solved her murder. That’s all been sorted, and now Derek is staying with Stiles and his dad in their guest bedroom. I think Stiles has a crush.”

“Wow.”

“I do not have a crush!”

Danny and Lydia exchanged knowing glances before turning their attention back to Stiles. He held up hand and began to count off his fingers, “Okay one, I genuinely thought Derek was capable of murder so he’s clearly not the safest person to be interested in. Two, he’s like, a thousand years old so even though I’m eighteen now that’s still gross. Three, I’m pretty sure he’s up to something kind of suspicious after what I saw yesterday. Four, it would be stupid to have a crush on someone like Derek when I am clearly made up entirely of pale skin and sarcasm.”

There was also the fact that Stiles had dug up Laura’s body and blamed him for things Kate and Jennifer had done. God, Stiles was such a fucking asshole.

Danny stared at Stiles. “Those all sound like made up problems. Except for maybe the first point. You probably should avoid people who you think are capable of murder.”

“Wait, five!” Stiles said, throwing his hand up into the air wiggled his five fingers. “I have a ten-year plan to woo Lydia.”

“Don’t even bother,” Lydia said. “You gave up on that plan as soon as you saw Jackson and I together after we found out he was still alive, and you know it. Even if you refused to admit it to anyone else, you knew the truth.”

That was pretty much true, but there was no point in admitting that to her.

Stiles pointed at her. “Shouldn’t you be using some example with your current boyfriend, and not your ex- who abandoned everyone to move to London?”

Danny pushed Stiles, “You can’t blame Jackson because his dad got a job at a law firm in London.”

“And I would use an example with Aiden,” Lydia sniffed. There was an edge to her voice as she said the other werewolf’s name. “If it had been relevant to the conversation. But it was Jackson that made you give up on me not Aiden, so your point is moot.”

Stiles said, “Fine, whatever. Can we please focus? I think he’s up to something suspicious. Also, Danny, I thought you said I wasn’t attractive to gay guys? Oh! Six—I’m like ninety-nine percent sure that Derek is straight.”

“You asked me that back in tenth grade,” Danny said. “And ninety-nine percent isn’t one hundred percent.”

Lydia waved her hand at Danny to be quiet. “Why do you think he’s up to something suspicious now?”

“I followed him yesterday,” Stiles admitted with a shrug. He rushed onward to defend himself before they could say anything, “He went to the Preserve to—”

He came to a grinding halt as he realized he couldn’t provide more detail with Danny standing there. Stricken, he tried to cover his mistake while still telling Lydia what she needed to hear, “To wander aimlessly. I saw him staring at a dead deer by a tree stump.”

Danny shrugged, “So he wandered through the woods and looked at a dead animal. I’ve done that. Stiles, you’ve definitely done that before. You stared at a dead body before—his sister’s body, even—you don’t get to judge.”

Stiles made eye contact with Lydia, his gaze intense, as her own widened. Her voice turned serious, “Well, you need to follow up on this. Immediately. Also, you should let Scott know that there are dead deer in the Preserve. I’m sure he’d want to know. Because he works at the veterinarian’s. It’s relevant.”

He nodded seriously while Danny looked between the two of them, “Man, you two are weird.”

Lydia glanced at Danny, and then reiterated, “It might not mean anything about Derek, but you should definitely tell Scott. Okay? Sooner rather than later.”

“Wait, Danny, hold up—am I attractive to gay guys now?”

Chapter Text

It took a few days to get Scott by himself. Every time Stiles went to talk to him, Allison or Isaac (or, most often, both) appeared around the corner. It wasn’t as though they couldn’t be trusted to hear what Stiles had found out; rather, after a couple days to stew it over, he’d come to realize how embarrassing it was that he’d gone out of his way to stalk Derek. It was one thing to pester the werewolf with questions, it was another to surreptitiously follow him around town. Yet Stiles had done it, quite successfully. He’d thanked Deacon for the Devil’s Dung mixture and White Birch oil, then hid the jars in his room where he hoped no one would find them.

Finally, after three days, Stiles managed to pull Scott back before lacrosse practice. Isaac had changed quicker than the others and gone out to the field—Coach had given him laps during class when he realized Isaac was paying more attention to the notes he was passing back and forth with Scott than to the lecture. If Isaac wanted to have time to actually practice and, more likely, flirt with Scott, he wanted to get those laps done quickly.

Which meant Scott was finally alone, and Stiles was definitely the kind of person to take advantage of that.

“Hold up a sec,” Stiles said, his hand wrapped loosely around Scott’s bicep. “I need to talk to you about something.”

Scott glanced over his shoulder at the locker room door, which moments ago had been filled with the backs of their teammates. He glanced back at Stiles and gave a genuine, bright smile, “Sure, man. But make it quick? Coach seems to be in a mood today.”

Stiles gave a shaky laugh, “Yeah, anytime he decides to punish someone other than Greenberg, you have to ask what’s upsetting the balance in his universe.”

Scott laughed with him, hitching his lacrosse stick higher up his shoulder. “What’s up?” he asked.

Stiles took a deep breath, and took a moment to pull on his gloves rather than meet Scott’s eyes. When he heard the other werewolf let out a small sigh, he knew he had to suck it up. “Okay,” he said. “Look I did something stupid, but it wasn’t completely useless. I mean, I think it might be helpful. To know, that is.”

“Oh my God, dude,” Scott said, bouncing up and down on his heels. “Did you ask Lydia out again? Did you ask Derek out? Do I need to protect you from anyone?”

“Wait, what? No!” Stiles said, holding his gloved hands up in front of him. “I didn’t ask anyone out! Why does everyone keep accusing me of liking Derek? And how would me asking either of them out be helpful for you to know?”

Scott shrugged, “I mean, if anyone was going to hurt you in retaliation for an inappropriate crush, I think that’d be useful to know as your best friend.”

He made a face at the werewolf, scrunching up his nose and shaking his head.

“That still doesn’t answer the question about why you think I’d ask out Derek. Lydia, maybe. Derek? Never.”

“Disgustingly attractive and unattainable is kind of your type, dude,” Scott said.

Stiles let his jaw drop, and placed a hand over his heart in mock outrage. “Totally not fair, dude! And, excuse me, but your type must be ridiculously gorgeous teenagers with dimples.”

With the ability to kill anyone in their path, but Stiles didn’t mention that.

Scott had the decency to blush at the accusation, dropping his chin to his chest and running his fingers through his hair. The tips of his ears were bright red, and Stiles could see the way he’d caught his bottom lip between his teeth, gnawing at the flesh in an almost nervous habit. It was endearing to see that hadn’t changed.

He shook his head in frustration, “Whatever, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. I have something actually serious to discuss that I think you should know.”

“Am I too obvious with Allison?” Scott asked, instead of listening to what Stiles was saying.

He rolled his eyes, “With just Allison or Isaac too? You’re pretty bad with both. Anyway! Stop distracting me!”

“Okay, but if I had to ask one of them out, you would recommend who?” Scott asked, grinning.

“What? Scott!” Stiles threw his hands into the air, exasperated. “Stop getting distracted; ask them both out for all I care. Just pay attention, asshole.”

“Alright, alright,” said Scott. “Tell me what you need to tell me...and then we’ll talk more about my situation.”

“I followed Derek the other day.”

A silence hung in the air, the locker room dead quiet other than the rattle of the janky, old air conditioning unit squeezed into the small window above the lockers. Stiles was suddenly aware of how gross the locker room smelled, curious for the first time how Scott and Isaac put up with it. The stench of sweaty, hormonal teenage boys and their overcompensation of cologne and spray deodorant was barely tolerable to Stiles’ human nose.

Scott gaped, “You did what?”

Stiles gritted his teeth, aware that there was no way for him to really defend his actions. “Look, I just wanted to know what he was up to. Okay? Despite how you felt, he didn’t give us any real answers at the last pack meeting, and I thought it would be useful to find out what he got up to while he thought he was alone.”

“Stiles!” Scott said “Why would you do that? I told him we respected his privacy!”

“I mean, technically,” Stiles said. “Lydia told him we respected his privacy? And she’s not the pack Alpha, so…”

“So you thought it was okay to follow Derek?”

“Look, I realize it was ill-advised now, okay? But can we please appreciate the information I found out?” Stiles said. “Derek went out to the Nemeton. By himself. We don’t even go out there and we’re literally spiritually life-and-death connected to the fucking thing!”

Stiles wondered sometimes if Scott and Allison remembered that fact or not. They didn’t act like it. They never spoke about it. Some days, Stiles felt like he was alone in a fog, his heart racing as though he’d been running for miles, trying to find his way home but so confused about where he was. There were nights when he woke up in the darkness of his bedroom, and for a split second he could swear he was laying on a bed of dead leaves, with the night air filling his lungs. There were times when if he blinked too rapidly, he’d suddenly feel like he was trapped beneath the ground, looking up at the sky through dead, rotting roots, unable to unleash his power on the world. It felt like he was clawing his way through the never-ending wet dirt, his fingernails ripping off in the struggle, and all he could do was gasp for air that never came.

Sometimes it sounded like someone was whispering help from the corner of a mind that wasn’t his, and he couldn’t do anything, couldn’t stop it, could only try to pretend like it wasn’t there.

Allison and Scott never seemed to have that problem. Or if they did, they never came to Stiles with it.

Scott shook his head. “Derek’s family used to live in the Preserve. He can go wherever he wants, it’s none of our business.”

Scott tried to turn to leave, but Stiles’ gloved hand shot out and grabbed his arm. “There was a dead deer. At the Nemeton.”

“I’m sure there are plenty of dead deer in the Preserve, Stiles. That’s not exactly weird.”

Scott tried to leave again, and again, Stiles stopped him.

“Most of them probably don’t have their throats slit and their bodies left beside an impossibly powerful magical tree, dude. Imagine the words ‘Ritual Sacrifice’ in skywriting above it. This was not normal,” said Stiles.

Scott turned to consider him. He was a good Alpha and it was clear that this piqued his curiosity. He asked, “So, you think Derek killed the deer? To what end?”

“Well, okay, I don’t actually think Derek killed the deer?” he said. “There was no blood on his hands or clothes, and it would probably have been hard to come away completely spotless after slicing a deer’s throat open, even if he was in his beta form at the time. And it was definitely a fresh kill. But still, I don’t know to what end anyone would kill the deer! Or why Derek would be studying the body like a high school biology student. But probably not a good one!”

The werewolf dragged his hand across his face, disinterest quickly clouding his features, and said, “Let me get this straight. You saw Derek looking at a dead deer, that you don’t think he killed, next to a tree that three of us are connected to and would probably sense if something was up with it?”

“I mean, when you put it that way it sounds less concerning, but yes,” Stiles said.

Scott asked, “Have you felt anything wrong with the tree? Have you sensed anything? When you followed him there, was everything okay?”

Nothing had felt right to Stiles in over a year. That was the problem. He couldn’t differentiate between the terrifyingly dark status quo and a sinister new threat.

Stiles sighed, the sound of defeat so familiar to his ears. “Okay, no, I haven’t felt anything. But it definitely felt weird in the Preserve because, again, dead deer! At the bottom of the Nemeton! In a ritualistic type manner!”

“It’s not enough, dude,” Scott said. He gave a shrug and sounded genuinely apologetic. “You know I’d be the first person to admit if there was something to be concerned about, but I haven’t noticed anything and neither has Allison, and despite what you saw, neither have you. You’re just letting your ideas get ahead of you. Derek said he was here for private reasons and that the pack was okay. Where else did you follow him? Anything to back that up other than your theories?”

Stiles pressed his lips into a thin line. Scott would be the last person to admit there was something to be concerned about, actually. He liked to go through life pretending everything was okay, like dating the daughter of a hunter wasn’t dangerous or that Matt Daehler put off completely normal vibes.

Fuck. That was a shitty thing to think about his best friend.

He said, “I mean, he went to the cemetery to visit Erica and Boyd’s graves. His family’s too, I think.”

He didn’t say anything about the visit to Kate’s grave. For some reason, Stiles knew that was private. He knew it wasn’t something he would ever tell anyone.

Scott gave Stiles a hard look. “Visiting the graves of his former pack sounds like a pretty private and decent reason to be back in Beacon Hills. And it definitely sounds like something that has nothing to do with us.”

“But Scott—”

“Don’t follow Derek again,” Scott said. “I trust him and so should you. C’mon. Let’s get to practice.”

He reached out to pat Stiles’ shoulder before walking out of the locker room, leaving Stiles to stand alone. Despite Scott’s assurances, he didn’t feel better.

It wasn’t Scott’s fault, but it felt like they were separated by six-feet of dank, rotten earth, dragging Stiles further down than he could survive. Almost as though he’d never break free and taste the fresh air again.

He shook his head and followed Scott out to the field.

***

Dad had told Stiles that morning that he was going to have to work a double shift that night. Stiles knew from prior experience that meant Dad would think he could chip in on whatever disgustingly greasy take-out the other deputies ordered. Which meant Stiles had to take it upon himself to feed his father properly.

Hence why he was walking into the Sheriff’s station an hour after lacrosse practice, carrying a bag of food and large bottles of water. He gave a smile to the somewhat-new deputy sitting at the front desk, a guy named Parrish who was always willing to confide in Stiles when Dad broke his diet.

All the deputies felt somewhat-new to Stiles, as most of them had been hired after the deadly night with Matt and Gerard back in his sophomore year. Before that, most of the deputies had known Stiles since he was a kid. Tara had been a deputy at the station since Stiles was in third grade, offering up her tutoring services whenever Dad mentioned how Stiles’ grades had taken a bit of a dip. She used to bribe him with Hershey’s Kisses to get him to concentrate on his homework. It was hard to reconcile those memories with the image of her dead body, bloody and torn open by the Kanima’s claws, in the same spot that Parrish was searching for his dropped pen.

He tried not to think about it.

Stiles walked into Dad’s office and held up his offerings. “I bring you non-artery clogging food.”

Dad rolled his eyes, but couldn’t fight the smile off his face. “Thanks, son. What’d you bring me tonight?”

He stood in front of Dad’s desk and put the bag down. He pulled out each item, one by one, and answered, “I brought you some water, a salad from that Mexican place you like but I got you chicken instead of steak, and some baby carrots. If you play your cards right, I’ll give you an orange for your dessert.”

“This is a form of punishment for something,” Dad said, reaching out to pull the salad towards him.

“If by punishment you mean ‘desire to see you live a long healthy life’ then yes, that’s what this is,” Stiles said. He dropped down into the chair opposite Dad and brought his feet up to the desk. They only rested there for a second before Dad was already pushing them down.

Stiles said, “Besides, I could have brought you a salad from the grocery store, but I specifically went to the Mexican restaurant you like. That has to count for something.”

“It counts for some quality father-son time while I take my dinner break,” Dad said. “Want to hang out for a bit, or do you need to head home?”

Stiles tilted his head back in the chair to stare up at the familiar dropped ceiling. He could hear typing coming from the bullpen, could hear the ringing of someone’s desk phone ringing. It was the familiar sounds of his childhood, as comforting to him as the smell of Dad’s aftershave.

He shrugged. “I’ve got nothing to do tonight. I got my homework done during free period, so I can hang out with you for a bit.”

“What’s Derek up to tonight?” asked Dad.

Stiles grimaced. “Nothing, as far as I know. Why?”

“Because I’m not blind.” Dad’s tone was sharp enough to drag Stiles’ attention back down to the room. The man met Stiles’ gaze with a stern look, and he said, “I know you’ve been asking him why he’s in town, and I know the other night you came home much later than normal. Are you helping him with something werewolf-related? Is he getting you and Scott into any supernatural trouble?”

“What?” Stiles asked, confounded as to where this was coming from. “No! I don’t even know why Derek’s in town, I told you this already. He won’t tell anyone anything.”

Dad made a disbelieving face. “Where were you the other night?”

“C’mon Dad, don’t you trust me?” asked Stiles.

“Where?”

Stiles let out a huge sigh, leaning forward to hide his face in his hands. He had already gone through the awkwardness of having to tell Scott. He didn’t really want to tell Dad. And yet, he answered, “I was kind of, sort of, maybe following Derek around town.”

“Jesus Christ, Stiles,” Dad said, putting down his fork onto his desk. “Am I going to have to arrest my own son for stalking?”

Stiles forced a grin on his face. “I’m pretty sure it has to be repeated instances of stalking to qualify under the California Civil Stalking Law. I only followed him the one night. Just saying.”

If looks could kill, Stiles would already be dead.

“Stiles.”

He started talking fast, knowing there was no other way he’d be able to get his defense in. “I’m just trying to be a good packmate, y’know? And I did see some shady stuff, which Lydia thought was concerning but Scott brushed off as no big deal. Admittedly, I don’t think Derek did any of the shady stuff himself, he just seemed more familiar with it than I would be comfortable with. Anyway, I wanted to run it by you and see if that big Sheriff brain could tell me what to do?”

Stiles was ready to keep going, when Dad reached out and touched Stiles hand where he was drumming his fingers against the desk.

“Son,” he said. “How about we start over and you tell me—slowly—what happened.”

Twenty minutes later, Dad leaned back in his chair, and let out a heavy sigh. He pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut.

Stiles wrung his hands together and said, “So? Any thoughts?”

“I have a lot of thoughts, Stiles,” Dad said.

Everything about his tone told Stiles to be wary of what Dad was about to say. He stepped himself, and asked, “Okay? Can you share them with me, please?”

“No,” Dad said firmly. “I’m not the person you should be speaking to about this.”

He rolled his eyes and said, “Scott already blew me off once, Dad, I don't think I can get him to listen to me even if I promise to let him win Call of Duty.”

Dad sat up straighter and placed his hands flat on his desk. He matched Stiles’ eyes and said, “Not Scott. Derek. You need to talk to him.”

“What! You want me to admit to a werewolf that I've been stalking him?”

Dad gave a crooked grin. “I thought you said it didn't count as stalking?”

“Uh, I don't know if you've ever met Derek Hale before, but he's not exactly open to my usual brand of sarcasm and half-truths,” he said.

Dad shook his head. “Then I suppose you'll have to tell him the whole truth.”

“Dad! I am your only child! Where is your protective streak? Why are you trying to hand me over like a lamb to the slaughter—don't you love me?”

There was a moment where Stiles thought Dad was going to keep going with this line of humor. But instead, he watched as Dad pressed his lips into a thin line, his gaze serious. There was no hint of amusement on his face.

He said, “I know I haven't known about werewolves as long as you have. I know you had to go through a lot of terrifying things with Derek when he first came to town, and I'm sorry I wasn't there for you when that was going on.”

“What?” Stiles asked. “Wait, Dad, no—”

He held up a hand to stop Stiles from talking. When he was sure Stiles was quiet, Dad pressed on, “I understand that you have reasons to distrust Derek, and that I may never know what all of those reasons are, but I think you're not giving him enough credit. I know he's intimidating, but I also know that he believed you when you told him that Jennifer had abducted me. Even though he had no reason to. Even though it would have been easier for him to think you were lying.”

“But—”

Dad continued, “I may not have been Derek’s biggest fan. I know I arrested him for Laura’s murder. But you have to remember: I was there the day of the fire. I know firsthand what Derek went through. I thought that made him capable of murder, but I was wrong. You didn't see him in the interrogation room but Derek was...broken. Guilt-ridden by his own inaction. He blamed himself for not coming to Beacon Hills with Laura when she left New York. That was years ago now, but I see the same man in our guest bedroom, son. He’s a good man who has done everything in his power to help you and your friends. The fact that you don't see that concerns me.”

Stiles jaw dropped. “Um, he also definitely said we should kill Lydia when he thought she was the kanima.”

“I'm not saying he's perfect. But you told me he's saved your life more times than you can count. So, he's earned my trust until he does something truly unforgivable,” Dad said. “And until that happens, I think you need to have a conversation with him. A real one. Don't interrogate him, talk to him. I think you both need that right now.”

The problem was, he knew Dad was giving him honestly helpful advice. It just wasn’t what Stiles wanted to hear.

***

This is stupid. It was the only thought running through Stiles’ mind as he paced his bedroom. This was such a stupid idea, and he was going to end up with a gut full of werewolf claws. What else could he possibly expect?

He heard the front door open from his bedroom.

For a moment, Stiles thought that maybe Derek would come barging through his bedroom door. He had the flash of an image in his mind, of a concerned and nerve-wracked Derek, demanding to know why Stiles’ heartbeat was racing. He imagined the werewolf crossing the threshold of his bedroom, stepping close into Stiles’ personal space and wrapping a strong hand around his bicep, worry etched into Derek’s face. He thought of stepping closer, pressing his forehead into the crook of Derek’s neck, and confessing everything; letting the words pour out from his lips with no hesitation. Maybe Derek would understand. Maybe he’d be so grateful to know that Stiles was okay, that he would overlook the wrongness of Stiles’ actions.

That didn’t happen, obviously. He was still pacing in his bedroom as he listened to Derek’s steps climbing the stairs followed by the guest bedroom door closing.

So, there was only one way forward: courage.

Stiles inhaled sharply and steeled himself for what was to come. Before he could second guess himself, Stiles was out of his room and across the hall at Derek’s door.

“Derek!” he said. “Open up!”

As though he’d been standing right beside the door, it opened a moment later. The scowl on Derek’s face was so familiar. He snapped, “What do you want, Stiles?”

“I have some questions for you,” he said. He didn’t even stop himself as he reached up and planted his hand on Derek’s chest, pushing the werewolf into the room so Stiles could get passed him.

Derek barely tried to resist.

He asked, incredulous, “Like what?”

“Why were you at the Nemeton the other day?”

He doesn’t remember it, but when Stiles was four years old, and first attending his summer swim classes, the instructor always wanted the kids to start off on the steps leading into the shallow end. But Stiles never wanted that. Without fail, he always managed to duck out of sight of the instructor, just long enough to jump feet first into the water. Mom used to tell him, her lips wide with a big laugh, that he had no patience for easing into things. Stiles wanted it all at once, and nobody—not a swimming instructor, or a parent, or a werewolf—could get in his way.

“Well?” he said. “Don’t try to lie to me, I know you were there. The Nemeton has nothing to do with you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Derek said.

If Stiles hadn’t seen Derek with his own two eyes kneeling beside that dead deer at the Nemeton, he might have believed Derek. His expression was the perfect mixture of bewilderment and insulted.

He pointed at Derek. “Wow, don’t even, dude. I know you were there Monday evening. I know, okay?”

Derek frowned and took a step forward. They were basically the same height, and yet when Derek stood this close to Stiles, he seemed to tower over him. Derek asked, “How do you know, Stiles?”

He’d prepared his answer once he realized he’d have to confront Derek, but standing there in the bedroom Dad had willingly given Derek, the words didn’t seem to come.

The bed was made, but rumpled, as though Derek had pulled up the comforter haphazardly after waking up that morning. On the floor by the dresser, he could see a duffel bag, half opened and a number of dark colored t-shirts peeking out. His leather jacket was on the back of the armchair in the corner, and Derek was standing in just his socks, his heavy boots kicked off next to the bed.

He was...comfortable here. In Stiles’ home, where he said Derek could stay for as long as he needed.

Derek was looking at him expectantly, so he said, wavering ever so slightly, “I have a connection to the Nemeton, remember?”

Derek smirked, “Have you forgotten that I’m a werewolf? I can hear when you’re lying.”

“I mean, obviously, I didn’t forget,” Stiles said. “And besides, I’m not lying. You know about my connection to the Nemeton—I could sense that you were out there. The tree didn’t like it.”

Derek stepped forward again, lifting a finger to tap Stiles’ sternum. He bared his teeth—in a threat or a grin, Stiles wasn’t sure—and said, “I remember that Scott and Allison have a connection too. So why are you confronting me by yourself? Where’s your Alpha, Stiles.”

The last bit wasn’t a question: it was a statement. A challenge, and Stiles couldn’t meet it.

He tilted his chin up to meet Derek’s gaze defiantly, and admitted, “Fine. I didn’t sense it through the connection. I followed you there. I saw the deer.”

Their faces were so close together, their harsh breath intermingled in the space between their lips. If it were anyone else, Stiles might have ducked forward to meet their lips.

Instead, Derek’s eyebrows nudged upwards just so and he took a step back.

“How? I didn’t sense you,” he asked, a lilt of awe in his voice.

Stiles flashed a grin at the older man and waggled his fingers, “Magic, Hale.”

When that didn’t seem to be enough of an answer, Stiles sighed, “It’s not that impressive, dude, I got Deaton to help me mask my scent, okay? You mistook my heartbeat for that of a tiny woodland creature or a nearby hiker and I tried to stay out of your line of sight. Can we get back to my question? Why were you there?”

“That’s not an entirely useless skill to have,” Derek said in lieu of actually stating outright that he was impressed. Typical. “As for why I was there, it’s none of your—”

“Business, I know,” Stiles said, rolling his eyes. “Let’s move past that and get to the part where I say that I know you didn’t kill that deer, but it’s still sketchy that you were there in the first place. Scott thinks you’re clean, and my dad thinks that we need to have an honest conversation. So why don’t you just tell me why you were there, and then I can get out of your infuriatingly gorgeous hair?”

Derek reached his hand up in apparent confusion, but stopped himself before he touched his hair. He dropped his arm to his side and clenched his fist. His lips moved but no words came, and then he sat on the edge of the bed and put his face in his hands.

That was not what Stiles expected him to do.

“Um,” he said, before stepping closer to Derek. He almost patted his shoulder, before deciding that would probably be a bad idea. “You okay there, big guy?”

Derek rested his chin in the palm of his hand and glanced up at Stiles. There were still shadows under his eyes, which told Stiles that no matter how much that bed looked slept in, Derek wasn’t getting any rest.

“You asked why I was back in Beacon Hills,” Derek said.

“No, I asked why you were at the Nemeton.”

Derek shook his head. “Before that. When I first arrived. At the pack meeting. You wanted to know why I was back in town. It’s the same answer.”

Stiles didn’t want to speak, for fear that it might make Derek change his mind. He gestured for Derek to continue.

“I was doing fine on my own,” he said. “I was traveling the country, I was seeing all the places Laura always promised me we would go together. I was in New Orleans when I felt this...discomfort in the pit of my stomach.”

Stiles cracked a smile and joked, lamely, “Did the beignets not agree with your werewolf sensibilities?”

Derek didn’t even bother with a response to that. “I felt unsettled. I thought maybe I had crossed into another pack’s territory in the city unwittingly, so I got out of there. But the feeling followed me everywhere I went, for months. It took me until I was in Yosemite to realize I’d felt this before: in New York, when Laura died and Scott was first bitten. I knew it had something to do with Beacon Hills. I thought something had happened to Scott, so I came as fast as I could. But when I got here he was fine.”

Stiles felt his heart rate pick up with every word out of Derek’s mouth. His entire life was unsettled. He didn’t know anyone else felt that way.

“I thought if I stayed, things would settle down. I thought maybe I’d been alone too long and that I needed to be near pack. But it’s only gotten stronger since I got here, so I went to the Nemeton out of curiosity. I didn’t expect to find anything,” Derek said, his gaze suddenly piercing into Stiles’. He reached out and wrapped his fingers tenuously around Stiles’ wrist, and tugged gently as he continued, his words firm and unforgiving, “I don’t know where that deer came from. But it’s not a good sign, Stiles. Something’s wrong in Beacon Hills.”

There was nothing Stiles could say in response to that. The implication was too big, too scary. The last time things had been wrong in Beacon Hills, there had been an Alpha Pack and a Darach in town. Stiles had literally sold his soul to the devil to fix things last time. He wasn’t prepared to do it again—he couldn’t.

There was nothing he could do, but lower himself onto the bed next to Derek, their thighs pressed together, as they both stared straight ahead. Neither of them spoke another word.

***

It was the next morning, and Stiles was about to head to school. The dishes in the sink told him that Dad had already left for the station, but from the closed door, Derek was still asleep upstairs. He’d almost knocked on the door to ask if Derek wanted any coffee before he’d stopped himself. Their conversation hadn’t progressed much after Derek’s admission: they’d sat together until Derek said the cruiser was pulling into the driveway, and then Stiles had left the room. When Dad had poked his head into his bedroom to check on Stiles, he’d pretended to be asleep. He hadn’t felt like talking anymore.

He didn’t feel like going to school, either, but if he wanted to be Salutatorian and keep Dad happy he would have to suck it up.

Stiles held a piece of toast between his teeth as he rummaged through his backpack for his keys and pushed open the front door. When he glanced up, his heart jumped to his throat and the piece of toast fell out of his mouth.

“Good morning,” Peter said from where he stood on the porch, a sunny smile spread across his face. “Long time no see, Stiles.”

Chapter Text

Dad would forgive Stiles if he didn’t go to school that day. He had a worthwhile excuse for once: the appearance of a homicidal zombie werewolf at the front door would probably keep most people from leaving the house.

“Derek!” Stiles called up the stairs while never taking his eyes off Peter’s face. The older werewolf just grinned lazily, like the cat that ate the canary. When he didn’t hear anything from upstairs, he tried again, this time with more urgency. “Derek—get down here! Now!

The silence seemed to stretch on, but Peter perked up, his attention suddenly pulled to the stairs. Stiles watched the werewolf warily, distrust settled in the pit of his stomach. He assumed that Derek must be making some sort of noise that only Peter’s senses could pick up, but that didn’t ease his nerves. He turned his head slightly, so that the stairs were in his periphery while never removing his gaze from Peter. He stood stiffly, his back a rigid line of muscle, like prey in front of a predator, not wanting to attract any more of Peter’s attention. Peter’s focus was locked on Derek upstairs, and that was just fine with Stiles.

Moments later, Derek came fast down the stairs, still tugging on a maroon Henley. He was a blur of dark movement in Stiles’ peripheral vision, until he was standing by his side, staring at Peter on the porch.

“What,” Derek said, his tone clipped, “are you doing here?”

Peter held his hands up with his palms out. “I only just found out that you were back in town, nephew. Am I not allowed to welcome my family home?”

Derek’s jaw was set, his lips pressed into a thin line. Stiles wanted to say something, to step in between the two of them and try to figure out the situation, but in that moment, he realized that Derek had already placed himself in between Stiles and Peter. Almost as though he was unconsciously protecting Stiles from an outside threat.

He didn’t know when he became someone Derek instinctively thought to protect. He didn’t ask.

“You’ve welcomed me back. Now leave.” There was no argument in Derek’s voice, only a hint of a growl at the back of his throat, and then he was quickly moving to close the door when Peter’s hand shot out to stop him.

“Don’t be that way, nephew,” Peter said. “I thought maybe you’d like to talk about what’s been happening in Beacon Hills. That is, with someone who knows what they’re doing, and not a child.”

Stiles made a face. “Hey! I’m eighteen now. Who are you calling a child?”

Maybe it was stupid, but before he spoke, Stiles had actually managed to convince himself that Peter had forgotten he was standing there. All of his attention had been focused so surely on Derek, that Stiles had considered himself an afterthought. But with those few words, he watched as Peter’s fingers seemed to dig into the door. If his claws had been out, he surely would have damaged the wood. Peter turned so that he was staring directly into Stiles’ eyes, seemingly completely oblivious to Derek’s movement as he stepped further in between them.

“In this specific instance, I was referring to your Alpha,” Peter said, his voice almost breathless. “You, however, seemed to have aged quite well since we last saw each other, Stiles.”

A shiver ran down the back of his neck. “Yeah, well, you look the same as ever. Half-dead instead of fully-dead like I’d prefer.”

“Now that isn’t polite,” Peter said. “Why don’t you make it up to me by inviting me inside?”

“I didn’t know there was such a thing as vampire-werewolves. Does that make me Stiles Stackhouse?” Stiles quipped. When nobody reacted to his True Blood reference, he pushed forward. “Whatever—because I’d rather my dad not find my mutilated corpse in the living room when he gets home from work.”

Peter grinned, and Stiles saw that he’d allowed his fangs to drop. Peter reached his hand up to run his thumb along the point of his wolfish incisor. “If that’s what you’re so worried about, I could make it so you were never found.”

It could have come across as a joke, but to Stiles’ ears it rang true as a threat. He took an involuntary step backwards, his own hand reaching out to press against the line of Derek’s back, almost as though he were seeking out comfort. He needed to remind himself that Derek stood between them, a solid presence of werewolf strength, willing and able to fight Peter if it came down to that.

Derek didn’t temper his roar this time. He reached his arm back and brushed his fingers along Stiles’ forearm and growled, “You are not welcome here. Leave.”

“I do need to talk to you,” Peter said, ignoring Derek’s threats. He glanced down at his fingernails, that looked manicured from Stiles’ vantage, running his thumb over the tips of his fingers. “And I’m sure Stiles doesn’t want his neighbors to start gossiping about me. I could make quite the scene...or you could invite me in.”

Stiles couldn’t see Derek’s face, but he imagined his expression was thunderous. Whatever it was, Peter held his hands up once more. “I promise not to maim anyone, if that helps. It would be counterproductive to my needs for today.”

Ridiculous as it may sound, that promise did help. There weren’t many truths that Stiles could count on when it came to Peter Hale, but his self-serving nature was one of them. Killing Derek and Stiles in the Sheriff’s house would only cause more trouble for Peter than it was worth.

Stiles tugged on Derek’s long sleeve and whispered, “Just let him in.”

Derek turned to glare at him, disbelief etched into his features. Yet Stiles stared him down and nodded resolutely.

“I mean it. Let him in,” he said.

Peter stepped forward through the doorway, casually wrapping his palm around Derek’s bicep and pushing him aside. “Why, thank you, Stiles. I can always count on you to be the rational one.”

“Shut up,” said Stiles, reaching past the two Hales’ to push the door shut. “I’m just trying to avoid my nosy neighbor calling my dad. Let’s get some ground rules down first. You’re not allowed to go any further into my house than this five foot radius. Do not scent anything in my home, nobody wants your zombie stink hanging around. You have ten minutes to get out whatever you wanted to talk about, and then you better be gone. Or Derek will rip your throat open again. With his teeth.”

Peter cocked his head to the side. “That would cause quite a mess on your father’s carpet.”

Stiles shrugged. “Like I care. I can clean, and after all this time running with werewolves, you can bet I can get blood out of anything. My dad wouldn’t even have to know.”

Derek stood between them, his gaze flitting back and forth between Stiles and his uncle. At Stiles’ casual threat, he raised a single bushy eyebrow in his direction. Stiles didn’t let a single doubt cross his face, but reminded himself in the future not to be quite so quick to use the threat of Derek as a weapon.

Peter didn’t acknowledge Derek’s obvious discontent, choosing instead to inspect his nails. For a second, Stiles thought he might whip out his claws and a nail file. Instead, he gave a pitiful little sigh and raised his gaze to meet Stiles’. Placing a hand over where his heart should have been, he said, “I promise to abide by your ridiculous little house rules.”

Derek bared his teeth, but Stiles shrugged again. “Then we’re good. What do you know about what’s going on in Beacon Hills?”

“Keep it brief,” Derek said, glaring at Peter.

“Don’t you want to call your little Alpha so he can hear this all for himself?”

Stiles perched on the armrest of the sofa, his arms folded across his chest. Almost like he knew what the fuck he was doing, instead of just winging it. “Why should I bother my Alpha with your petty bullshit? If it’s important, I’ll relay the information to him. Until then, you can tell me and Derek.”

“What,” Peter asked. “No words of defense for my slight against your Alpha?”

Stiles glanced over at Derek, who was standing beside him, almost hoping that the werewolf would take it upon himself to answer. But he stayed silent, his gaze never leaving Peter. Which was when Stiles was reminded that Derek—despite living in the Stilinski home and having been the first werewolf Stiles ever met—wasn’t pack. His presence was convenient and nothing more. He had no reason to try and defend Scott from Peter’s attacks.

“Call him little if you want,” Stiles said. “It doesn’t bother me. You seem a little threatened though. The lady doth protest too much, I think.”

A sneer crossed Peter’s face, his lips curling back to reveal the whites of his teeth. His eyes flashed blue, and Stiles was reminded of the fact that Peter was the one who told him what those blue eyes meant. A shudder ran down his spine.

Peter said, “Scott may be a True Alpha. But I made him, and I know what he’s worth.”

“You bit him,” Stiles corrected. “While on a mindless, homicidal rampage. And then we killed you. I don’t think you know much of anything.”

“I know that your Alpha has never been willing to make the hard choices,” he said. “He’d rather believe in happy endings, and wait until circumstances force him to act. Not like you, Stiles.”

Like a wolf, Stiles bared his teeth. “Scott doesn’t need to make the hard choices. That’s why he has me. And if you don’t start telling us what you know, I’ll make the easy choice to hurt you.”

As if on cue, Derek flashed his own blue eyes.

“All right,” Peter said, his tone dismissive. “I’m sure you’ve noticed, but I haven’t been in Beacon Hills for quite some time. I had no plans to return and then things changed a few months ago. I felt a call.”

Stiles could sense Derek stiffen beside him. Peter’s eyes brightened.

“I see you already know what I mean.” Derek nodded, silent. “I was down in New Mexico for reasons that are none of your concern, when I started to feel the urge to return. More than a feeling—a drive. I couldn’t have ignored it even if I’d tried. My wolf needed to be in Beacon Hills.”

“That’s what Derek said,” Stiles confirmed, glancing at the werewolf beside him. He didn’t know why he was speaking for Derek when the man was perfectly capable of explaining himself. Almost as though he wanted to protect him.

Peter made to step closer to the two of them, but Derek let out a warning growl. The older man held his hands up, a sign of acquiescence. He said, “I can’t be sure, this is obviously only a hypothesis, but I believe it’s because we used to be Alpha’s of this territory. We may no longer hold the power, but our wolves will never forget. There is a piece of us that will always feel ownership over this land. There was a time when we were responsible for the territory, and our wolves still feel duty bound by that. Some might call it a paternal instinct.”

“More like paternalistic,” Stiles said, his 790 SAT verbal score coming in use. “Also you were a terrible Alpha who was responsible for nothing good, so shut the fuck up.”

Cutting him off, Derek asked, “Why do you think it’s related to us having been Alpha?”

“Do you see Cora with us? Or Jackson? No one else has felt the call. Once I realized you too had reappeared in town, it became obvious. The drive to protect our territory, our pack, from danger was too strong for our wolves to resist.”

Stiles let out a bark of laughter. “Pack? You don’t have a pack, Peter, you have a former grave. I’d love to reacquaint you with it.”

“You can keep quipping at me all you like, Stiles,” Peter said. “But the fact remains: our instincts, our base natures, will always be unknowable to you. You could never comprehend how our wolves see this world. See Beacon Hills.”

He waited for Derek to correct Peter, but the correction never came. When he turned to look at Derek, he found the other man staring down at the floor, refusing to make eye contact with either of them.

Stiles rubbed his hand across his face, frustration causing him to dig his fingers into the flesh of his cheek. “Fine, you two used to be Alpha’s, there’s something supposedly wrong—why doesn’t Scott, the actual Alpha of Beacon Hills, sense anything?”

“Maybe he has, but he hasn’t told you. Or maybe he just can’t understand what he’s feeling,” Peter said. “You wouldn’t know, because your little Alpha likes to pretend he’s a human, but his wolf is a part of him. He can pretend that it’s not, try to deny its existence, ignore its warnings, but the wolf is connected to this territory. If Scott doesn’t sense that something is wrong, it’s because he doesn’t want to. Things are not safe in Beacon Hills.”

“So, your spidey senses tingled a little bit. That doesn’t tell us what type of danger Beacon Hills is actually in. Derek and I already knew something was wrong, so what the hell can you add to our understanding of what’s going on?”

Peter bent his neck from one side to the other, cracking the bones with a careless ease. In that moment, he looked like every cliché movie villain Stiles had grown up being taught to avoid. The older werewolf spoke, his voice pitched low but deathly calm, “There have been a rash of Alpha murders across the west coast in the past year.”

Stiles felt his stomach drop at the words.

“Who?” Derek barked, stepping forward, his hands shooting out to curl into the lapels of Peter’s jacket. “How have I not heard about this?”

Peter gave a merciless laugh. “Can you honestly say you’ve been paying attention to pack politics this past year? You were off traipsing across the country with Cora, you had no reason to care what happened to your mother’s former allies. But in answer to your question: Alpha Walter, of the Kessler Pack in La Pine, Oregon. Alpha Delphine, of the Angus Pack in Metaline, Washington. Alpha Santiago, of the Rosario Pack in Los Osos, down in southern California. I can keep going. I know of at least a half dozen more.”

“We should have heard about this, shouldn’t we?” Stiles asked, feeling frantic. All those names. At least a half dozen more. How could this have been going on around them without any of them noticing?

Peter shrugged, the movement effortless. “Your pack is new, and small, and has no allies. It’s unsurprising that you weren’t aware of what was going on.”

“And the packs?” Derek asked. “How have they fallen apart?”

“They haven’t,” Peter said. “The Alpha power has been passed down to the next of kin. I’m not sure why. From what I’ve been told, everything about the murders points towards another werewolf as the culprit. A Beta, even. But if that were the case, the Alpha power should be stolen. Yet, the power is continuing on as it should. Which means, whoever is doing the killing, they aren’t a werewolf.”

“How is this relevant to what’s going on in Beacon Hills?” asked Derek, his voice tight.

“I can’t be sure,” Peter mused, speaking slowly, his every word calculated. “But it can’t be a coincidence that Alpha’s are dying and suddenly Beacon Hills is calling back her former Alpha’s. If I had to make an educated guess, I would assume the territory recognizes a power vacuum.”

Derek made a noise that Stiles couldn’t entirely interpret: was it dismissive? Agreeing? He turned to Peter, his gaze flickering between the two Hale’s. “I don’t understand. How could there be a power vacuum? Beacon Hills has an Alpha.”

“Beacon Hills has a teenager,” Peter corrected. He sneered at Stiles, as though he were talking to a moron. “This territory is older than you or I can ever begin to comprehend. It has always been held by powerful packs lead by Alpha’s with years of experience under their belt. The McCall Pack is a hodgepodge of humans and bitten werewolves, lead by a teenager who, though a True Alpha, spends most of his time pretending he’s still human himself.”

When Stiles tried to interrupt, Peter stopped him. “I am not trying to insult your Alpha and my former beta; I’m explaining my hypothesis. Scott might have the power, but he doesn’t know how to use it or what he’s doing, and the territory can sense that. I don’t know if it’s connected to the murdered Alpha’s or not, but the territory is unstable.”

“It can’t be unstable,” Stiles argued. “Beacon Hills is a literal beacon, and we have a Nemeton. I think we would notice if the town were unsettled and volatile. We would be seeing more fall out if that were the case.”

“Like strangers making blood sacrifices to the Nemeton? Or am I to believe that neither of you found the dead buck at the Nemeton this week?”

Stiles was struck silent at the accusation, his mind leaping to the memory of Derek hunched over the bloody deer only days earlier. He glanced up, unbidden, and found Derek staring at him; the other man just as shocked.

Peter smirked. “You two may be twiddling your thumbs at the signs, but I’m being active. I’ve stopped at least three other supernatural creatures trying to cross into the territory unsanctioned. I’m doing my best to find whatever...thing...killed that deer.”

“Out of what, the goodness of your blackened heart? What’s your motivation here, Peter?” Stiles asked. “You’re not one for altruism, so I don’t understand what your game is. How does protecting Beacon Hills benefit you?”

Before Peter could answer, Derek spoke for him. “It’s like he said. The drive to protect this territory is still ingrained in us. We used to be Alpha’s...we can’t deny it even if we tried.”

“Maybe you couldn’t,” he said, harshly. “But Peter? Peter killed his niece—his Alpha! He caused mayhem and terror in Beacon Hills while he was the Alpha. I don’t think he’d have any trouble denying this urge if he wanted.”

Peter said, “You may not like me, Stiles, but the only reason you can sleep soundly at night is because I’m taking care of what the McCall Pack isn’t. Be sure to tell your Alpha that.”

He turned to Derek, and something in his expression almost softened. As though he were looking through time into the past and remembering what it was like to care for someone. Stiles didn’t trust it: this was Peter. He didn’t care for anyone.

“I just wanted to say hello to my favorite nephew, but now that I have, I’d best be on my way,” Peter said, bowing his head ever so slightly. Before either of them could say goodbye, he’d turned and walked out the door.

For a moment there was silence, and then:

“Your fucking uncle, man. He’s the goddamn worst,” Stiles said, storming over to the couch and throwing himself onto the cushions. He folded his arms across his chest and let out a frustrated puff of air.

Derek walked over to the couch, his movements more controlled than Stiles’. He lowered himself onto the edge of the couch cushion, and buried his face in his hands.

Stiles wanted to say something—anything—to try and comfort Derek, but what was there to say? Sorry you’re related to that piece of shit? Sorry I called him the worst? It would not only be a lie, and since Derek was an honest-to-god lie detector, it would be an exercise in futility. Instead he sat back up and tentatively reached out, his hand coming down gently on Derek’s shoulder. He rubbed small circles into the fabric of the Henley as soothingly as possible.

“Do you believe him?” Derek asked, his voice muffled in the palm of his hands.

It wasn’t the question Stiles was expecting, but it was one he could easily answer nonetheless.

“Fuck no,” Stiles said. “Your uncle is a pathological liar and a murderer. I say we verify every single thing he told us before we put an ounce of faith in anything he said. For all we know, the Kessler Pack Alpha is alive and well and nobody’s been murdered there in fifty years. La Pine isn’t exactly the murder capital of the west coast.”

Derek was nodding along with what Stiles said. He rubbed his hands vigorously across his face before leaning back against the couch, his head tilted back so he could stare at the ceiling.

He said, “We know he was telling at least some of the truth. The deer. My wolf being called back to Beacon Hills.”

“That’s two true things. Out of all the lies Peter has told over the years, that doesn’t bolster my confidence very much,” Stiles said.

Stiles waited for Derek to agree readily with him, but it didn’t come. Instead, the werewolf was silent, still staring blankly at the ceiling. Stiles watched him expectantly, waiting.

Derek finally said, “He’s always been a liar, even before the fire. But...there used to be a purpose to his lies. To pull a prank on me, or convince my mother that he hadn’t done anything wrong, or get out of doing the household chores. We used to spend a lot of time together back then. He was like an older brother to me, instead of an uncle. I can’t figure out why he’d be lying now.”

There was a beat of silence, and Stiles wanted, desperately, to remind Derek that Peter had lied about Paige. They’d never talked about it—Stiles had always planned to ask Derek about the whole story, never entirely trusting Peter’s rendition of the events. But so much happened between Peter telling Stiles and Cora about Paige and Derek leaving town. There was no time to sit down with the werewolf, to ask him about his first love, and Peter’s part in her death.

Stiles wasn’t even sure if Derek blamed Peter for what happened to her—he should. It was clear that Peter had manipulated the situation out of some twisted curiosity to see what would happen, but it was also clear that Derek liked to shoulder the blame of others. Like Kate.

“Who knows what Peter’s motivations are for anything,” Stiles answered. “But we can’t trust him on blind faith.”

Derek didn’t acknowledge Stiles’ words. Instead, he said, “I think I could have forgiven him for what he did as the Alpha. I understand the need to kill Kate and everyone else who helped set the fire. I even understand biting Scott and Lydia. The drive to create a pack is so strong in wolves, especially Alpha’s. And he was half out of his mind after those six years.”

Stiles turned to gawp at Derek, indignation rising in him. Turning Scott? Mauling Lydia? Neither of those things were forgivable offenses. He was ready to put Derek in his place, when the other man continued speaking.

His voice sounded small, barely above a whisper. He didn’t meet Stiles’ eyes as he spoke, his words measured but tight, as though there was so much more Derek wasn’t saying.

“I could forgive him for everything except for Laura. I’ll never understand how he could do that. How he could...kill his own flesh and blood. When we were kids, she loved him so much. He was her favorite, she hung on his every word, and he just...he murdered her. For power.”

His voice got smaller, more wounded, as he repeated, “I can’t forgive that.”

There was nothing to say to that. There were no words to soothe that ache. Stiles didn’t try.

***

Stiles didn’t go to school that day. He got Lydia to drop off their assignments in the evening, and when she tried to come in the house to catch up, he shook his head and lead her back out. Things had been quiet after the conversation in the living room. Derek had disappeared to his room and hadn’t come back out, not even when Stiles knocked on his door and offered him the spaghetti meatballs he’d thrown together.

(It was actually meatballs with carrot and zucchini hidden in the sauce, because Stiles had learned long ago that if Dad couldn’t see the vegetables, he was much more likely to enjoy the meal. Like an adorable toddler.)

So, Stiles had kept quiet with Derek. He spent the whole day listening to music with his headphones on, doing his best to keep the sound to a minimum. He’d texted his dad at some point, explained the skip day, and given him a heads up regarding Derek’s current mood. When the door had opened, and Dad had walked into the house, Stiles was ready to greet him with a bowl of spaghetti and the biography about Babe Ruth that he was reading. Dad had given Stiles a knowing look and gone into his study to eat and read without making any ruckus.

They weren’t unfamiliar with this type of thing. There were some nights when Stiles came home and found Dad sitting at the kitchen table, an unopened bottle of Jack in front of him and their old family photo albums splayed out. Stiles knew to entertain himself on those evenings, to leave Dad alone, venturing only as far as to wrap his arms around the man for a brief moment before disappearing into his room.

And then there were the nights where Dad came home and found Stiles in his bedroom, three hours deep into a research binge that had nothing to do with anything except for the fact that it gave him the perfect distraction. Kept him from thinking about the Argent basement and two terrified sets of eyes staring at him. Dad knew to keep quiet on those nights, to bring Stiles a sandwich or something else non-perishable that he could eat whenever he got around to noticing the plate was on his desk.

So, this was nothing new, just slightly different. They weren’t familiar with Derek’s needs yet. Stiles wasn’t even sure if they’d have to learn anything: he still wasn’t sure how long Derek was planning on staying in Beacon Hills, let alone in the Stilinski home. Yet Stiles was willing to try.

Stiles was in his bedroom working on his Economics homework and finishing his second bowl of spaghetti when he heard some mumbling. He pulled out earbuds, curiosity and confusion getting the better of him as he strained to hear where the mumbling was coming from.

“...m fine, Cora. I just wanted to hear your voice...yeah, things are good here. I’m good here.”

Derek’s voice was still muffled, but Stiles could hear it through their shared bedroom wall. He smiled to himself, putting his earbud back in. He didn’t want to eavesdrop.

He turned up the volume on his music, and kept working.

Chapter Text

Stiles spun around on the stool he was sitting on. His pen raised, he stared into the emptiness of the room, ready to call out Deaton’s name. Yet the man wasn’t there. Stiles frowned, a niggling sense of doubt crawling into the back of his brain. He’d been so sure that he’d felt something pass through the wards, but there was nothing to be found. He turned back to the book and sighed, throwing his pen on the table in exasperation.

“That was an improvement on your other attempts,” a voice said.

Stiles made a startled noise, spinning the stool around. Deaton was standing in front of him, exactly where Stiles had been staring only moments before. His jaw dropped. “Wait—what? How are you there?”

Deaton made a noncommittal sound, as though acknowledging he’d heard Stiles’ questions despite no intention to answer them. He took a seat on the other stool close to the wall and clasped his hands in his lap.

He asked, “What did the wards feel like when you felt me pass through them?”

“You are an unhelpful person,” Stiles said fondly, closing the book and twirling in his stool a few more times just for the hell of it. He only stopped when he heard Deaton clear his throat from the other side of the room. “How do you know I felt it? Maybe I was just reacting to a sound coming from that menagerie you keep back there.”

A smile graced Deaton’s lips as he shook his head. “I don’t think you can call my kennel of house pets a menagerie.”

Anything can be a menagerie.”

Stiles wasn’t sure what made Deaton decide to train him. It couldn’t have been only because of his potential—there were sure to be plenty of people alive with the potential for magical talent. There were probably even people around Beacon Hills. The librarian who scolded Stiles yesterday for talking too loud could have magical potential, or the barista who had laughed and given him a refill when he’d accidentally dropped his coffee moments after she gave it to him could have potential. With the way Stiles harassed Deaton with his shenanigans (because that’s what Deaton said they were) the effort to train Stiles had to be more trouble than it was worth.

Yet here they were. Months later and Deaton was still putting up with him. Day in and day out, as though silently reminding Stiles that he could count on Deaton even if he couldn’t count on anyone else. No matter how much he tested the premise.

It was comforting, actually.

It was also why Stiles didn’t want to be a total asshole and waste Deaton’s time. So, he straightened up and considered the question seriously, before he said, “I don’t know if I can put it into words, but it felt...wrong, almost? The same way it would if I were home alone and somebody came in through the back door. I could just sense that I wasn’t alone anymore, y’know? I almost shuddered when I realized it. But then I turned around to catch you and you weren’t there, which means you definitely need to teach me how you hid yourself. Do you have an invisibility cloak hidden somewhere in the office, Harry Potter?”

“That’s for another day,” said Deaton.

“Okay, sure, but how about you change your mind and tell me today?”

Stiles knew other people thought Lydia was the champion of the side-eye, but that was only because they’d never seen Deaton’s. The veterinarian never failed to make Stiles second-guess his own existence with just a glance.

Deaton leaned forward on the stool and rested his elbows on his knees, curling his fingers beneath his chin, and stared at Stiles. He fidgeted in his seat beneath the heat of the stare, unsure what to make of the scrutiny.

Deaton said, “We’re almost at the end of today’s lesson. I thought perhaps you might like to talk over some things with me.”

“What things?” Stiles asked, tilting his head to the side.

Deaton raised an eyebrow.

He grimaced, ducking his head down and scratching at his chin. From the corner of his eye, he could see his backpack. He wondered if Deaton knew about the extra jars of Wolfsbane he’d taken to carrying around with him since Peter had shown up.

He asked, “What do you know about Peter?”

“I know plenty about Peter Hale. I’ve known him for all of his life, after all,” Deaton replied.

Stiles rolled his eyes. Right, Deaton preferred when he was precise. Always get right down to the brass tacks, never sugarcoat a situation. He pulled himself up, met Deaton’s gaze, and asked, “Is Peter a concern?”

Deaton looked ready to answer but Stiles stopped him, still rambling, “He turned up to talk to Derek. Told us about a spree of Alpha killings going on across the West Coast. I didn’t know if we should trust him at first, but everything he said turned out to be true. He told us a lot of other things too, but I don’t know what to make of him or even what his pack status is. Is he an Omega?”

That gave Deaton a moment’s pause. Stiles could tell from the way the older man didn’t move—nothing to give away what he could possibly be thinking.

Finally, Deaton said slowly as though testing out the words as he spoke them, “He should be. Derek was his Alpha until he sacrificed the power for Cora. As far as I know, Peter hasn’t found himself a new pack.”

The answer spurred Stiles on. “Is Cora an Omega? Is Derek?”

It had been the question that had bothered Stiles most since Derek’s return. Everything he knew about werewolves was that they couldn’t survive without an Alpha or a pack. Omega’s went feral. So, how could Derek have spent the previous night talking amicably with Dad about his shift that day? How was Derek not frothing at the mouth and attacking every human that he came into contact with?

“I don’t know, Stiles,” Deaton sighed. “I’ve never known another Alpha who was able to sacrifice their power the way Derek did. I don’t understand how that affects the pack bond, or how the pack survives without an Alpha afterwards. Are they still a pack? I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

“Hey,” he said. “Why are you saying sorry? Beacon Hills is ridiculous, with all our Kanima’s and True Alpha’s and Banshee’s. Nobody understands anything around here; you fit right in.”

Deaton chuckled, a smile pulling at his lips. The softness didn’t last. It took only a moment before his expression grew grim again, his lips settling into a firm line.

“You asked what I knew about Peter and if he was a concern,” Deaton said, standing up and heading to the door. He glanced back at Stiles, his hand on the doorknob. “I know just enough to know the answer should always be yes. It doesn’t matter what he says to you—after those six years and being killed then resurrected…he’ll never be sane. He will always be a concern. Never let him through your defenses, because he will take advantage and he will harm you and anyone else you care about.”

Stiles nodded solemnly as he watched Deaton shut the door behind him, but internally he wasn’t sure. Peter had done plenty of genuinely evil things over the years. Stiles regretted nothing about helping to kill him; he could still feel the heat of the flames from Peter after throwing the Molotov Cocktails with Jackson. He had deserved that—he’d murdered Laura and attacked Lydia and threatened Stiles.

But it was hard to forget the driving factor behind every single one of Peter’s moves: the original house fire. Sometimes Stiles tried to imagine what Peter must have been like before that day. Everything he’d heard told him the man would have still been just as crafty and manipulative. Would he have been malicious though? Or would he have used his skills to help the Hale Pack, to aid his sister in protecting their territory. Nobody would ever know. Kate took that future away from Peter, and Derek, and the rest of them.

Stiles shuddered at the reminder that Peter had survived at all, at the memory of Peter’s half burnt face. Peter had burned alive in the basement of his home, surrounded by his family as he watched them burn to death. It had to have changed him, no matter what anyone said he was like before. For a brief, hot second, Stiles’ imagination conjured an image of Dad burning, screaming, dying. It hurt just to picture.

Peter deserved so much that had happened to him and more, but never that.

***

Stiles walked out the front door, his book bag held close to his body as he dug for his car keys lost somewhere towards the bottom with all the other wayward debris. The night sky was dark and Deaton’s parking lot only had one working street lamp which made it difficult to look through his bag. Stiles made a note to mention it to Dad later—there had to be someone on the city council the sheriff would know who could take care of this. He blindly shoved his hand around until he felt the familiar cool metal of his key ring and pulled it out triumphantly.

He looked up to find his jeep and saw Derek leaning against Roscoe.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, after finally pulling his jaw off the floor.

Derek looked up, his dark hair sticking up from the back of his head like he had only just woken up from a nap moments ago. Stiles wondered if maybe that’s exactly what Derek had been doing: sleeping in the guest bed in the middle of the day because he felt safe in the guest room.

His hands were in his pockets, pulling the leather jacket closer to his body to block out the late Winter chill. He scuffed the toe of his boots against the loose gravel in Deaton’s parking lot before he finally spoke.

There were few things that could still surprise Stiles. What Derek said next was one of them.

“I thought we could go pick up dinner for your dad and take it to the Sheriff’s station.”

“Uh,” Stiles stammered. His heart beat against the inside of his chest. “What?”

“Your dad said he had another late shift and I just thought…” Derek broke off before finishing his sentence, turning abruptly away from Stiles. “Whatever, never mind. I’ll see you back at h—your house.”

Before Derek could storm off, Stiles stepped forward, closing the distance between them. He reached out and put his hand on Derek’s arm.

“Wait.”

He watched Derek stare down at his hand. A part of him thought he should remove his hand and stop touching the werewolf, but the other part, the louder one, made him hold his ground.

He waited until Derek raised his head so that they were looking at each other. He flashed Derek a weak smile, and said, “So long as it’s a salad, I’m okay with that idea.”

“A salad and a grilled chicken sandwich,” Derek countered immediately.

A warmth blossomed in the pit of Stiles’ stomach as he smiled at Derek. Someone else was thinking of Dad. It was so unexpected, so unabashedly welcome, that he didn’t even bother trying to argue against the sandwich. Instead, he let go and wrapped his arm around Derek’s shoulders, and led them both towards his jeep. “Sounds like a plan.”

***

Stiles gave Derek the bag of food to hold in his lap as they climbed back in the jeep. He started up the engine and was just turning onto the main road, when Derek spoke.

“What does Beacon Hills feel like to you?”

Stiles glanced over at Derek and arched an eyebrow. “That’s not a weird and ominous question, at all.”

They were stopped at a red light, and he watched as Derek glowered at his own hands gripping the bag that held their dinner. He shrugged, his movements stiff, as though it was a struggle for Derek to react properly under Stiles’ gaze. So, Stiles turned away and focused on the road, pressing down on the gas once the light had turned green and waited for Derek to explain.

“Last week, you said you had a connection to the Nemeton,” Derek said gruffly in lieu of explanation.

Stiles shrugged. “You also said that as a werewolf you could sense that I was lying.”

“I meant, that you were lying about how you knew I’d been in the Preserve, not about the connection,” Derek said. He was quiet for a moment, his grip tightening on the folded edge of the brown paper bag. He asked, “Does the town feel different to you?”

Yes.

The fact was, Beacon Hills did feel different to Stiles. Had for months now. He had tried, fruitlessly, to talk about it with Scott and Allison. They had sacrificed themselves to the Nemeton too, so it made sense to assume that they felt the same uneasiness that he did. Yet, every time he broached the subject, they looked at him with confusion.

They had all gone through the same thing together, and yet, it was as though that were the last time they had been in the same place together. Ever since, Stiles had felt himself drifting further and further away from his friends and their sense of belonging.

Reaching out, he flipped on his blinker and moved into the right lane. He sighed, and said, “It’s hard to put it into words. Things haven’t felt right since the night of the ice baths.”

That was putting it mildly. Beacon Hills reminded him of the dank, suffocating stench of the soil, of his father’s hands scrambling to wrap around him as the roots of the Nemeton shook. The feeling of suffocation was so starkly familiar for him; he didn’t know how to tell Derek that Beacon Hills was the same. Like Stiles was choking around clumps of dirt that someone was forcing down his throat.

He didn’t know how to say the words, and so he didn’t. Instead, he kept his gaze locked on the empty road in front of him and said, “A while ago, toward the end of last school year, a Wendigo crossed into the territory. I don’t know who told Scott about it first—Allison’s dad or Deaton, someone who could recognize the signs. But…before then. Before we knew anything was wrong, I could feel it.”

The jeep rolled to a stop at a red light. He took a deep breath and shifted his body slightly, so that he could glance at Derek from beneath his lashes. Derek was staring at him, his chest barely moving as though he was holding his breath. Stiles met his gaze and felt his own breath catch.

“It didn’t matter if I was in class or at home in bed or practicing lacrosse: I knew the Nemeton was getting stronger, I could feel it everywhere I went. Like it was feeding.”

He kept talking, the light green but his foot still on the brake.

He remembered sitting in class, fully aware that he hadn’t eaten since his early dinner with Dad the night before, and yet he felt completely sated. He had to force himself to eat at every meal, his stomach overstuffed and aching with every gluttonous bite. He didn’t understand at the time: rationally, Stiles knew that he had eaten very little, but unbeknownst to him, the Nemeton was gorging itself on something powerful—something dangerous.

It took a week before Stiles (or rather, the Nemeton) felt satiated. As though the Nemeton was grateful to have something so supernaturally powerful within its territory. Then everything made an abrupt shift. Instead of feeling pleasantly full, he felt on edge. It was like the kanima was roaming around again: hyper vigilance dictated his every action. He didn’t know what was causing it, didn’t understand what had happened.

And then Scott had called for a pack meeting. Explained that there was a Wendigo in the territory, attacking people. They thought it was living in the Preserve.

Stiles immediately thought of the Nemeton. Of the week he’d spent uncomfortably full. Of the goosebumps that covered his skin no matter how comfortable he tried to make himself.

He waited for Allison or Scott to describe the same sensations, but the moment never came. If they’d felt it, they never said anything, and if they didn’t…Stiles didn’t want to ask.

A car horn blared, pulling Stiles out of the memory as he turned and saw a small sedan speed around them. He shook his head, and pressed down on the gas. The jeep slowly began to move again, the wheels turning as Stiles continued.

“We worked together with my dad and the sheriff’s station to track down the thing. Dad knew the truth, obviously, but everyone else thought it was some delirious lost hiker. People who glimpsed it kept describing it as a human,” he grimaced. “Covered in blood. We got lucky, nobody died before we managed to kill it but still. It was so close. That was the first time I realized how strong the connection was.”

He pulled into the Sheriff’s station parking lot and parked. Neither of them made a move to get out of the jeep.

He asked, “What does Beacon Hills feel like to you?”

Derek shrugged. “It feels…unsettled. I don’t know if I still feel it because of what Peter said—being a former Alpha. Maybe it’s because we’re Hales…our family had had a connection to this territory for so long. It felt a little like this when Laura died, and I was only a Beta.”

His voice got smaller, the same way it always did whenever he spoke about Laura. Like it still pained him to think of her, let alone talk about her.

Stiles thought of blood on her temple and the way her hair had been carefully brushed away from her face.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Scott and I…we should never have done what we did. We should have left her grave alone.”

Derek made a noise, turning away from Stiles. He said, his tone curt, “There’s nothing to be sorry for.”

Maybe another person would have let it go at that. They might have comforted themselves that they had made the effort, finally made the apology, and just accepted Derek’s dismissal.

That had never been Stiles’ way.

He reached across the center console and grabbed Derek’s wrist. Derek looked down at his hand and then up at Stiles’ face. He tightened his grip slightly, and said, putting as much emphasis on his words that he could, “There is something to say sorry for. Scott should too.”

“Stiles—”

He cut him off with, “Derek. I am so, so sorry.”

He could have elaborated. A part of him almost wanted to, but Derek was looking at him with an unreadable expression, half his face in shadow. He didn’t know how long they sat there like that, staring at each other openly. Finally, someone walked out of the station—it looked like Parrish—waving back at someone inside, calling out goodbye. It must have been the end of his shift.

Stiles let go of Derek’s wrist and moved to pull his key out of the ignition. Derek was gathering the bag of food in his arms when Stiles made a noise. He turned to look at him.

Stiles asked, the question that had been on his mind since he’d first learned that Derek and Cora had left Beacon Hills and had no plans to return. “Are you in a pack?”

Derek hesitated. Then, “I don’t know.”

Stiles put his hand on the door handle. He looked at Derek and said, quickly like it was a secret, “I don’t know if I’m in one either.”

Before Derek could react, Stiles was already out the jeep and half way towards the station doors.

***

Dad came to greet them after Laurie, the receptionist, let him know they were there. He walked out smiling, with a bemused expression on his face to see the both of them standing there. He hugged Stiles and then reached out to clap Derek on the back.

“What are you two doing here? Do you need anything?”

Stiles gestured to the bag in Derek’s hand, “Nah, Pops. We decided to bring you dinner. Well, actually Der—”

Derek interrupted him before he could continue. “Stiles thought you might like a grilled chicken sandwich since you’re working the late shift. There’s also a salad in there, but maybe you can save that for lunch tomorrow.”

Stiles smacked his arm. “Don’t encourage my dad to eat only carbs and skip out on his veggies.” He turned to Dad, “If anything you should split it evenly. Half the sandwich and half the salad for dinner tonight, and then the rest for lunch tomorrow.”

“And what did you two bring for dinner for yourselves to torture me?” He glanced at Derek and gave a small smile, amused by their antics.

Derek made a surprised sound. “Oh no, sir, we weren’t planning on intruding. We’ll just head back h—to the house and eat there. You can get back to work.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Dad said and took the bag of food from Derek’s hands. “I’d rather take my break with the two of you now than wait until I’m half asleep and by myself at three in the morning.”

He turned and walked back to his office, taking all of their dinners with him. Stiles glanced over at Derek and shrugged, before following Dad. He didn’t have to turn around to know Derek was following them.

Inside the Sheriff’s office, Dad was already unpacking all of their meals. He began to unwrap his sandwich when Derek said, “Why don’t you start with your salad?”

“That,” Stiles said, “is an awesome idea, thank you, Derek. Yeah, Dad. Why don’t you start with the salad? We got your favorite: mixed greens and plenty of veggies with light dressing. Yum!”

Dad groaned. “You two will be the death of me.”

“I think it’s the opposite, sir. If anything, Stiles and I will extend your life by several years.”

Stiles grinned at Derek and raised his hand for a high five. The werewolf rolled his eyes but dutifully leaned forward to give him a high five. Stiles pumped his fist excitedly and said, softly and mostly to himself, “Success!”

Dad handed both of them their sandwiches and chips. He looked at Derek and said, “You shouldn’t encourage him, son. Now he’ll never let you be when he deems something worthy of a high five.”

“Don’t listen to my father,” Stiles said, in between chewing his dinner. “He thinks he’s above it all but he’s not. I’ve seen him high fiving the deputies, and Melissa, and our neighbors. Basically, anyone who isn’t me, because he likes to deprive his child and he’s evil.”

“You’ve figured me out. I high five everyone but you on purpose,” Dad said, rolling his eyes at Derek fondly.

Stiles narrowed his eyes but before he could say anything, Derek interrupted, “You shouldn’t give away your plans. You never know what Stiles will do with that information.”

“You’re right,” Dad said.

“Want one of my chips?” Derek asked, holding the bag out to him as an offering.

Dad smiled, plucked a chip out of the bag and into his mouth. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, he held his hand up for a high five, that Derek gleefully returned.

Stiles palmed his face and groaned.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “You guys aren’t even funny, you’re the worst. Derek, stop giving my dad chips. Dad, stop high fiving people, especially when they’re not me. What is wrong with both of you!”  

Neither of them answered. Instead, Derek pressed his fist against his mouth and tried to stifle his laughter. On the other side of the desk, Dad had no shame: he laughed loudly, tipping back in his office chair to clutch at his belly. Behind him, Stiles could see the wall covered in notes and city maps, the case files propped up on his bookshelf, and the familiar handful of family photos that Mom had forced him to put up so many years ago. One of the photos was a candid shot of Mom at a holiday party, her eyes squinting at the flash from the camera with her lips spread wide, the shot catching her mid-laugh.

Stiles tried to hold onto his faux anger, but their laughter was so contagious, it didn’t take long before he joined them. It was hard to remember that there was anything worth worrying about when he was sitting between the two of them, their happiness ringing in his ears.

They stayed in that office for the rest of the hour, chatting and laughing and teasing, until Dad finally had to kick them out so he could get back to work. Stiles and Derek left together, still smiling, both of them turning back to wave at Dad as he watched them go.

Chapter Text

Stiles was running. He couldn’t see two feet in front of him, but it must have been cold because the only thing he could see was his breath misting in front of him and then quickly dissipating into the darkness. He couldn’t feel the chill though; he could only feel an overwhelming sense of fear. A knowing that someone—something—was right behind him, was going to get him, going to drag him down into the mud and the roots and the void where he would never be able to dig his way out. Forever trapped. He tried to run faster, tried to force his legs to pump harder, but nothing was fast enough. His throat seized up, his eyes bulged, he opened his mouth to try and scream but felt the claws closing around his neck, his blood raising to the surface—

“Get up.”

Someone shoved Stiles roughly. He jolted awake, his heart racing a mile a minute as he tried to take in the situation. The bright red numbers of his digital clock read two-thirty-eight AM, which didn’t immediately make any sense to Stiles. He’d gone to bed a little after twelve o’clock and it felt like he’d only just closed his eyes. Had it really been two hours already?

Someone shoved him again. He turned, ready to fight, the blankets falling to his waist as he sat up with his arms thrust out in front of him, only to find a fully dressed Derek standing over the bed. It felt as though he’d just competed in a marathon and lost.

“Stiles,” Derek growled. “Get the fuck up. There’s howling coming from the Preserve.”

Still sleep-addled, the only thing Stiles could think to do was pull his blankets up to cover his bare chest. Disoriented, he gaped at Derek and said, “Wait, what?”

Derek leaned down, grabbed a dirty t-shirt from the floor, and threw it at Stiles. “Get dressed and meet me downstairs.”

They hadn’t been alone together since that night a week ago after dinner at the Sheriff’s Station. Stiles had thought it had just been a coincidence, but now he wondered if Derek hadn’t gone out of his way to design it like that.

He struggled to pull the shirt over his head, Stiles’ arms getting caught in the sleeves, as he asked, “Do you really want me to go with you?”

“What, you have no problem stalking me in the Preserve but you’re not willing to go there with me?” Derek asked, arching an eyebrow.

Stiles opened his mouth to reply and promptly shut it. He had a point.

Derek said, “That’s what I thought. Be ready in two minutes or I’m leaving you behind.”

He didn’t wait for a response. He turned, his movements stiff, and walked out of Stiles’ bedroom without turning back to check and see if Stiles was getting out of bed. He wasn’t sure if that meant Derek trusted him to follow, or if he simply didn’t care. Stiles tried not to think too much about it and hoped for the best.

He tried not to think too much about whatever he’d been dreaming about before, either. It couldn’t have been anything good.

Stiles got out of bed and started to quickly get dressed.

***

The longer Stiles was awake, the more dread he began to feel. Derek was sitting beside him in the passenger seat, the roads were empty, and the weather app on his phone told him it was below freezing. He wanted to ask a thousand questions, but none of them could reach the tip of his tongue. It was like there was a blockage barricading the words inside of him. Not figuratively: literally. Like a preternatural force was not only behind the barrier, but was the barrier.  

How do you know it’s not Scott and the rest of the pack, he wanted to ask. Not because he thought it could be Scott or the others, but because it felt like a question that should be asked. As though he shouldn’t already know the answer. But as he drove down the empty road, the route to the Preserve as familiar to Stiles as the shortcut to Scott’s house, he kept getting flashes of dirt blocking his vision.

It made no sense, but he could have sworn that someone was trying to bury him.

Stiles shook his head, cleared his vision of whatever sleep induced hallucination that was, and focused on Derek’s voice instead.

“I didn’t recognize the howl,” Derek said, unprompted. “I don’t think it’s a werewolf. But I don’t think it’s natural to the Preserve either.”

Stiles blew past a stop sign, rolled down his window, and sucked in deep mouthfuls of fresh air. He let his eyelids flutter shut for a moment, opened them again, and felt clear headed for the first time since he’d woken up. He looked to his side and said, “I haven’t sensed any intruders passing through the territory the last week or so.”

“Sensed?”

He shrugged and pressed his foot on the gas as they rounded a corner, as he tried to explain, “It’s something Deaton’s been training me. I’m pretty good with knowing when someone supernatural comes into Beacon Hills uninvited. It’s when they’re trying to cover their tracks that I’m not 100% on. But I’ve been getting better and I haven’t felt anything this past week.”

Derek dipped his chin to his chest and took a deep breath. When he lifted his head, he replied, his words slow as he seemed to speak his thoughts out loud, “Then either they’ve been in town longer than that, or you missed them. Either way, they’re in the Preserve now.”

“Maybe they’re gone?” Stiles offered. He glanced at Derek hopefully, “I mean, I haven’t heard anything since we’ve been on the road. I know I don’t have werewolf hearing but still. You’d think I’d hear something.”

Derek shook his head resolutely. But Stiles wasn’t sure how much to believe him: there was an uneasy air about Derek. A moment where he caught his bottom lip between his teeth and seemed to almost doubt himself. Or maybe it was just the overall effect of having been woken by Derek in the middle of the night. He must have gotten just as hastily dressed as Stiles had—his henley looked rumped, and well-worn like he’d been sleeping it. There were thumb holes at the end of the sleeves that made Stiles wonder if this wasn’t Derek’s go-to sleep shirt. The dark jeans he’d pulled on had a stain on the left pocket and, glancing upwards, he suspected that Derek had run his fingers through his hair more than once to try and force it from simply laying flat on his forehead.

He just looked so young.  

“Maybe,” Derek said, rolling down his own window and looking out at the thicket of trees. A quick glance at the dashboard told Stiles that it was just past three in the morning. The last full moon had been two weeks earlier, and the next one was just as far away. There was no moon to shine any additional light on the dark, deserted roads they sped down. Yet they were out, in the middle of the night, getting ready to trek down something howling in the Preserve. “Not likely, though.”

Stiles tightened his grip on the steering wheel and said nothing.

They drove in silence for another few minutes, before Derek directed Stiles to the side of the road. He said, “Let’s start here.”

Stiles pulled off to the side of the road and then, after a moment of hesitation, proceeded to step on the gas and drive off the pavement and towards the trees. He couldn’t pull the Jeep too far forward as the forest was too dense, but hopefully it was enough to camouflage the car from any curious civilians driving by. He turned the motor off and threw on the emergency break just to be safe.

To his right, Derek moved to open the passenger side door. Stiles threw out an arm across Derek’s chest, “Wait.”

The werewolf looked at him with a mix of apprehension and frustration. He asked, “What? Why?”

Stiles didn’t reply, choosing instead to unbuckle his seat belt and twist around to start digging in the backseat. He ignored Derek’s murmurs of confusion, and chose to focus all of his attention on dragging his hand along the bottom of the Jeep floor until his fingers brushed against the straps of his backpack that he’d thought to bring with them. He wrapped the strap around his hand and hauled it up towards the front seat. Settling back in his seat, he propped the bag in his lap and began to open all of the zippers, digging through the pockets.

“I don’t know how long that thing will stay,” Derek said. “Forget about your bag and let’s get out there.”

Stiles grunted his acknowledgement and kept searching through his bag, faster than before. He pleaded, “Just wait.”

He wasn’t facing him but Stiles could feel the heavy stare that Derek was directing at him. He chose to ignore it in favor of what was more important.  He pulled out his textbooks and dumped them in the backseat before hefting it up and turning the bag upside down so that the contents all spilled into his lap. Derek made a noise of distress that Stiles ignored. He felt around the pile until he grabbed what he’d been looking for.

“Success,” Stiles said, a triumphant grin spreading across his lips as he held his open palm out towards Derek, revealing two little glass vials that would help them in their search.

***

Derek was moving up ahead of him when another howl penetrated the night sky. Stiles spun around, wildly searching for the source of the sound but saw nothing but the deep, impenetrable darkness of the Preserve. He jogged a little to catch up.

“It’s weird not being able to smell you,” Derek said, unprompted, as he turned to look at Stiles. Then, just as quickly, he turned away and looked out towards the trees. “I think that was coming from over there.”

“But useful.” Stiles glanced around them and wished once more that Derek would let him pull out his phone to use the flashlight. “If Deaton would teach me how, I could hide us better but apparently I’m not ready for that yet. So, we’ll have to make due with covering our scents and trying to be as quiet and careful as possible.”

Which, clearly, Stiles wasn’t doing too well at following through on.

Derek cut him a glance and Stiles mimed zipping his mouth shut and throwing away the key. Points for cheesiness aside, he forced himself to stay silent as they walked deeper into the Preserve. As the forest grew denser, Stiles could see less and less, until he found himself reaching out to curl his fingers into Derek’s henley.

They kept walking until they finally came to a clearing the woods: specifically, the clearing that lead directly to the burnt remains of the Hale house. Stiles wasn’t sure if Derek had realized where the howling was leading them, but he felt when the werewolf seemed to stumble for a brief moment. His fingers uncurled quickly and pressed flat against Derek’s back, in a way he hoped would show Derek his support and give him the strength to move forward.

“C’mon,” Stiles whispered, moving ahead of Derek. He gripped Derek’s wrist and pulled him along towards the house. “We’ll check it out and then move on our way.”

They crept up to the decrepit porch. There wasn’t much Stiles could contribute to this investigation, but he moved in tandem with Derek nonetheless. Once again, Derek came to a stop at the top of the stairs. Only a few years ago he had been living in the burnt out shell of this house, but so much had changed since then. The Derek who had lived in this reminder of all that had gone wrong wasn’t the person who slept in Stiles’ guest bedroom and made turkey bacon and eggs for Dad in the morning. If Derek couldn’t cross the last few steps, Stiles could do it for him.

So he moved forward, pushed the front door open, and lead Derek into the front foyer. Everything looked the same, just with an extra layer of dust and fallen leaves. The exposed elements of the house still stood, though everything had the heavy scent of damp rot. He supposed that must have been from the rain and the wet wood.

He kicked at a support beam that had fallen to the ground at some point. “This has to be a safety hazard to any dumb teenagers wandering out in the woods.”

He glanced up at Derek and saw the exasperated expression on his face. He grinned sheepishly, “I mean, dumb teenagers other than me, obviously.”

Derek ignored him and scented the house, then paused. He took a few steps further into the house and scented it again. He said, “I think someone has been sleeping here.”

“What?” Stiles asked, looking around at the dirt.

The earlier hesitation now gone, Derek moved freely throughout the house. He walked over to the corner of what must have been the living room, where a thicker pile of leaves were spread out. Derek crouched down and reached out to touch them. “They’re gone now.”

Stiles waited for Derek to say more, but the werewolf kept quiet. “Well?” he asked. “Are they coming back?”

“I don’t know,” Derek said. “I don’t think they’ve been here in a few days. Wherever the howling was coming from tonight, it wasn’t around here.”

Derek got up and kept investigating. He uncovered the remains of some rabbits that had clearly been somebody’s dinner. He disappeared from Stiles’ line of sight for a few minutes, leaving Stiles to fend for himself as he stared at the bed of leaves and wondered just what type of creature had been living there.

When Derek rounded the corner and walked back in the room, Stiles asked the question that had been on his mind all night. “Do you think it’s Peter?”

He shook his head, “I don’t think so. It doesn’t smell like him in here. It smells...rotten.”

“I thought that was just, y’know, the house,” Stiles said.

Derek looked over at him, his eyebrows furrowed as he tried to put his thoughts into words. Finally, he simply said, “No. It smells like decay in here.”

With that harrowing explanation, Stiles had no trouble leaving the place when Derek signaled they should. Standing out in front of the house, where Stiles remembered throwing Molotov cocktails at Peter and watching Derek slash his throat, he asked, “What direction should we head in next?”

Derek said, “I think we both know where we have to go next.”

Stiles sighed, nodded his head, and without prompting, wrapped his fingers around Derek’s wrist as they started walking again.

It didn’t take them long to find their way to the Nemeton, even in the dark. With Derek’s werewolf senses, and Stiles’ connection, it was as if they were guided there on the quickest route possible. As though a trail of breadcrumbs had illuminated the path along the forest floor. They barely made it a few steps into the clearing before they came to a dead stop.

“That can’t be good,” Stiles whispered, horror clutching at his throat, his hand tightening around Derek’s wrist who stood dead quiet beside him.

In front of them, at the base of the Nemeton, lay three dead bucks, their throats freshly slashed and the wet, slick blood soaking into the dirt beneath them all.

***

They stayed in the woods searching for at least another hour before they finally gave up and went back home. The ride back was silent, neither of them willing or able to force a conversation. He parked his Jeep next to Dad’s cruiser and followed Derek into the house and up the stairs. They both came to a stop at the top landing, less than a foot apart from each other and away from their bedrooms.

Derek shoved his hands into his jean pockets, the stain for whatever reason standing out prominently in the darkened hallway. He shrugged his broad shoulders, let them settle back into a slump, and said, “Get some sleep.”

Stiles gnawed on his bottom lip, his fingers clenching and unclenching as he watched Derek move to walk away. He asked, his voice barely above a whisper for fear of waking up Dad, “Are you scared?”

Derek paused and looked up. He caught Stiles’ gaze, and for a ridiculous minute Stiles remembered the night in tenth grade when he and Derek were stuck in that pool for hours. Afterwards, when he had resigned himself to drowning from exhaustion, and Scott had shown up and saved them like the hero he was, they had all stood outside of the gym. Derek and Scott and Stiles and Erica, her blonde hair a stark contrast to the inky blackness of the night and the terror that they had faced. Derek had looked at him the same way he was looking at him now. Like Stiles had spoken a truth that Derek didn’t think anyone would ever voice.

Kanima’s were an abomination, werewolves were not, and he wanted to know if Derek was scared because Stiles didn’t want to feel so alone in his own fear.

Derek nodded.

He stopped worrying his bottom lip with this teeth and ran his tongue over the bruised flesh. He took a shuddering breath and asked, not entirely sure where the courage came from, “Could you...I mean, would you mind...sleeping in my room? Just for tonight.”

Rather than respond, Derek turned away and walked into his own room, closing the door behind him. Stiles had a moment to feel let down before the door was opening again, and Derek was walking out with his arms full of pillows and a blanket. If he had taken any time at all to hesitate or question Stiles’ request in that room, Stiles didn’t know. What mattered was that he didn’t hesitate now as he led them both through Stiles’ bedroom door and began setting up a makeshift sleeping bag on the floor.

They got ready for bed in silence; Stiles turned away to face the window as he slipped out of his clothes and pulled on the pajamas he’d been asleep in only hours earlier. He shuffled into his bed and saw that Derek was already on the floor with the blankets pulled up. He saw the henley and wondered if Derek had bothered to change out of his jeans. He wish he had.

They stared at each other in the dark, and Derek said, “It’s okay. I’ll be here in the morning.” And Stiles believed him.

Stiles closed his eyes and rubbed his face against his favorite pillow. He settled into an uneasy sleep, slipping between awake and dreaming so seamlessly he didn’t even notice. He didn’t wake up to tell Derek that he could still feel a pull tugging at his chest leading all the back to that bloody clearing. He didn’t mention that with his eyes closed all he could see was the roots of the Nemeton growing denser, tightening their hold on his limbs.

He sensed that something was so very wrong, and that the Nemeton was displeased. Those bucks had enraged it, made it angry. Deep in the pit of his stomach, in the dead of his sleep, Stiles knew that if he returned to the Nemeton that night, the Nemeton would ask for something that Stiles couldn’t give.

He rolled over in his bed, dreaming of the roots, and wished that there were arms wrapped around him instead.

***

“So, why are we here?” Isaac asked from the floor where he was sprawled out on his back. Allison sat cross legged beside him, her fingers running softly through his curls. Scott watched them with a soft expression on his face from where he stood. “I thought we weren’t having another pack meeting until next week.”

Lydia had settled herself into the corner of the couch. She’d slipped her high heels off and delicately curled her legs underneath her. Ethan and Aiden were sitting beside her, both bleary eyed. She added, “It’s barely 7AM and you don’t have a latte for me. What couldn’t wait for coffee?”

Stiles glanced to his side where Derek was standing. When they’d woken up that morning, it had been clear to them that it was time to bring everything to the pack—even if neither of them were clear of their own standing within it.

“It’s like this,” Stiles began. And that’s how it went: the next fifteen or so minutes were spent with everyone listening as Stiles and Derek traded off explaining what had been happening. Derek feeling the urge to return, the dead buck at the base of the Nemeton, and Peter and all the stories of murdered Alphas. They even explained going to Deaton for research, though Stiles had asked Derek to keep the trainings unmentioned.  As they neared the end of their recap, they finally talked about what had happened last night. For Stiles, the rotting scent of the Hale house still hung in the air, as did the image of the blood soaked earth.

By the end of the story, Derek was no longer standing. At some point he had leaned against the wall and slid down to the floor. His back ramrod straight, he stared up at the ceiling fan instead of making eye contact with anyone in the room. Stiles wondered what he was thinking, when Derek said, “We don’t know what was in the Preserve last night, but something’s been living out there.”

There was silence, and then from across the room with his arms folded across his chest, Scott asked, “Why am I just hearing about this now?”

Stiles’ jaw dropped. “You’re not. I told you all about the buck and the Nemeton a few weeks ago.”

“Not about Peter,” Scott said, his hands falling to his side. He looked between Stiles and Derek, before glancing to Allison and Isaac for support. “Or about the murders! That’s serious. Have you told your dad?”

Derek answered for him, “Of course we’ve told the Sheriff. Stiles doesn’t keep secrets from his dad.”

From where she sat, Allison asked, “Has he mentioned any animal attacks, or reasons to be concerned? My dad and I have heard rumblings about the killings, but there hasn’t been any reason to suggest that whoever is doing it would come to Beacon Hills.”

Scott turned to her, shocked. “You knew about the murders?”

“We’re hunters,” she said matter-of-factly, not bothering to coddle anybody in the room. Stiles was impressed with her frankness. “We’ve been keeping track and the closest this whole situation has come to us was La Pine. There haven’t even been any killings in the past three months. I think Peter’s intel is a little out of date.”

Instead of letting Scott react further, Stiles said, “My dad hasn’t heard anything either. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to worry. Especially after what happened last night.”

“What happened last night?” Aiden asked, looking up from where he’d been playing with his phone.

Derek dropped his head back and let it hit the wall. He said, his voice weary and every hour of missed sleep from the night before obvious in the roughness of his words, “The dead bucks at the Nemeton, and the scent at my old house. Pay attention.”

Aiden put down his phone and glared at Derek. They would never get along, which Stiles would never fault Derek for. Aiden and Ethan had restrained him, forced his claws out, and aided Kali in murdering Boyd. How Derek didn’t rip them limb from limb the moment they were in the same room together never failed to surprise him.

“I am paying attention,” Aiden said, a sneer pulling at his lips. “You found some dead deer. You heard a little howling. Your burnt house smelled bad. None of these are cause for concern. There are fucked up humans around the world who like to hunt animals for sport, and there are plenty of werewolves in this town who like to howl. And your house sucks.”

Ethan shrugged, “He’s got a point.”

Stiles dropped his hand to Derek’s shoulder. He looked at Aiden before directing his attention towards Scott. “It’s more than that and you know it. You and Allison both should. Or are you telling me you haven’t felt anything from the Nemeton this past month?”

His gaze flickered between the two of them, waiting for some flutter of acknowledgement to flash across their faces. Only nothing happened. They both stared back at him, confused.

“No, Stiles,” Allison said slowly, as though approaching a startled fawn. Isaac stared up at her from where he lay. “I haven’t felt anything. Are you saying you have?”

He tore his gaze away from them and stared down at his sock clad feet. He hadn’t bothered to put on shoes after they’d invited everyone over. He was still staring at the ground when he felt a hand curl around his calf, and glanced to his side to see Derek looking up at him.

It would be impossible to explain to anyone else, but Stiles knew in that moment that this was a waste. Of time, of energy, of emotions. They’d shared what they needed to and that was what mattered. If the other’s didn’t believe them, who cared. Derek and Stiles had been the only ones out searching the Preserve the night before, they could do it again.

He raised his chin and gazed out over the pack. He lied, “No, I haven’t.”

After that it didn’t take long for everyone to convince themselves that Derek and Stiles had overreacted over nothing. Allison promised to update Chris and keep everyone informed if the Argent clan heard anything worth mentioning. Aiden and Ethan left quickly, both grumbling that they were headed back to bed—Aiden didn’t even wait to say goodbye to Lydia, choosing instead to swiftly drop a kiss to her cheek before fleeing out the back door. Isaac stood up, stretched, scratched his belly, and wondered aloud what he was going to have for breakfast.

Scott still looked dubious. He crossed the room to stand beside Stiles and said, “Dude, you can tell me anything. You know that, right?”

Stiles forced a smile on his face and wrapped his arm around Scott’s shoulders. “Of course, bro.”

“The next time you hear howling in the Preserve, you call me, okay?” Scott said. “I’ll go with you no matter what. You don’t have to go alone with Derek.”

The sentiment was there and it was clear that Scott was earnest; for a moment all Stiles wanted was to break down and tell him everything. Every last dream and nightmare and vision, but something held him back. A dark voice in the back of his head that didn’t belong to him, that whispered that Scott couldn’t understand, not if he wasn’t feeling the unease like Stiles was. So he kept silent, held his fist out, and fist bumped his best friend instead of sharing his secrets.

When everyone had finally left, Stiles turned back to look at Derek. Stiles shrugged his shoulders, unsure how else to react to what had just happened.

“In the future,” a clear voice rang out in the silence that hung between them. “I want to be included in your plans.”

Stiles spun around and found Lydia. Still primly poised on the corner of the couch, her expression bright. She pressed her lips together, and added, “Also, remember to provide a latte. Or a cappuccino. I’m honestly not picky.”

“Um,” Stiles said. He glanced at Derek who looked just as surprised. “Okay?”

She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and smiled. “Good. Now, tell me the whole story again, and this time include everything.”

Chapter Text

The problem with how everything had unfolded at the last minute pack meeting was this: Scott wasn’t a part of the solution. And Stiles didn’t know how to feel about that.

Derek and Lydia believed him and understood that there was cause for concern in Beacon Hills. Lydia had listened to them recap everything that had happened—everything—and at the end of it all declared that she would immediately begin researching the murders of the other Alphas along the west coast. She made lists and assigned duties and sent daily, sometimes hourly, updates to both Stiles and Derek to make sure that everyone was sticking to their tasks.

Which they were. Diligently, actually. Derek had started patrolling the territory as much as possible, waking up in the middle of night to go out and check the boundaries. Stiles had taken to visiting the Nemeton every other day, in the hopes that he might glean more information from the tree stump (and yet, at the same time, he didn’t deny that he felt immense relief every time he came home with nothing new to add).

It wasn’t perfect; three weeks had gone by and still, none of them knew exactly what they were looking for, but it was better than ignoring what was going on. And if Allison and the others weren’t willing to contribute, that was on them. Stiles had tried his hardest to make them understand.

But Scott was different—Scott was his best friend. They had been through everything together, stuck by each other’s side since kindergarten, and Stiles felt awful. Like he was betraying Scott somehow by working with Derek and confiding in him and leaning on him when he needed support. That was supposed to be Scott’s job, and Stiles felt like he was almost...denying him that opportunity.

Which is what he was thinking about the next day at school, in between Economics and History, when he caught up to Scott in the hallway.

“Hey man,” he said, reaching out to wrap his arm around Scott’s broad shoulders. He grinned at his friend and fell into step with him, their legs moving in tandem as they walked towards their next class. “What are you up to after school?”

The question was a little unfair: Stiles already knew the answer after begging Deaton profusely to do him a favor. 

Scott glanced up at him, his brown eyes wide like a startled fawn, before a smile split across his lips. “Dude! I don’t have any plans, actually. Deaton texted earlier to say it was a slow day and that he’d swapped my shift for later in the week when he’d need me more. So I’m totally free! Why?”

“How about some one-on-one Call of Duty? At your place, since Derek is at mine.”

The look of excitement that spread across Scott’s face was genuine. He looked every bit the eager puppy Stiles always teased him about being. “Heck yeah!”

Relief swept over Stiles at Scott’s answer. They hadn’t had any time together in ages—there was always something or someone else in the way. It wasn’t Isaac’s fault but once he’d moved in with the McCall’s, it was hard to get Scott alone. Stiles did his best never to resent Isaac’s presence but he failed more often than not. Which was genuinely shitty of him, all around. He knew that. He did.

Sometimes, it was just hard to know about himself.

Just to be sure, he double checked, letting a little bit of the truth slip out, “Just us, right? I need some Scott-and-Stiles time, dude, it’s been a while.”

“Yeah, of course,” Scott answered breezily. He hitched his backpack higher up his shoulder and shrugged, “Isaac has tutoring with Coach for Econ, so I’m all yours.”

Any other time, an answer like that might have made Stiles feel like second choice. But not today—today he was a grown up, so he took it with a smile and forced the feelings of inadequacies down and ignored them. The healthy way.

He clapped his hand on Scott’s back and said, “Awesome. It’s a date.”

*** 

Melissa was headed out the door, her purse strap dangling precariously from her shoulder with her arms full of everything she would need for the day, as Stiles threw the Jeep into park. He leaned out the open window and gave an exaggerated wave. He gave her a goofy grin and for a split moment it felt like nothing had changed. Like he had been showing up at their house every afternoon for the past year like clockwork, instead of the truth. Which was that Stiles couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually seen Melissa. A month ago? Two?

“Stiles!” she called out, her expression overjoyed for a brief second before she lost hold of everything she’d been juggling. Her brown bagged lunch and travel mug went tumbling down atop her purse and all the files she’d been carrying. The only thing she was left holding was the lanyard to her hospital ID badge. Melissa dropped down to try and gather it all up. “Crap!”

He scrambled out of his car and raced up the driveway to crouch beside her. “Here,” he said. “Let me help you.”

She flashed him a brittle smile as she tried to scoop up all the papers into one messy pile. After a moment she settled back on her heels and sighed, dragging her hand down her face. “God, I’m a mess. Running late as per usual. I bet you’ve missed this, huh?”

“Oh, if you even knew,” he said. Stiles ignored the ache and instead let out a small laugh. He picked up what he could and then reached out to touch her elbow and guided her to stand. He walked with her to her beat up old car and deposited everything into the passenger seat.

He waited for her to get buckled in. She rolled down the window and gave him a fond smile, a softness to her features he’d grown up memorizing. “Next time I don’t have the evening shift, stay for dinner. I would love to hear about all of your college plans and I’m sure Scott and Isaac wouldn’t mind another boy at the table. I’m officially outnumbered!”

“Course,” he promised, as he tried to disguise his own surprise at the realization that she didn’t know his plans already. He tried not to lean into it when she reached out to pat his hand before pulling out of the driveway. It was hard—he hadn’t grasped how much he’d missed her or that it had even been long enough to miss her in the first place.

He was still struggling to wrap his brain around it as he walked up to the front door and hesitated for a moment, unsure if he could just walk through the door without knocking like he used to.

God, had it really been so long? There used to be a time when this house felt like a second home to him. But whose fault was it really that he now felt like a stranger?

Thankfully, he didn’t have to think too hard on it. Scott rescued him, like he always had, swinging open the door and pulling him in. “I saw you helping my mom—c’mon, let’s play!”

It didn’t take long before all of his concerns seemed to float out the window. What was the point? Spread out on floor pillows next to his best friend, Stiles couldn’t remember why he’d felt nervous about making these plans. There was an ease to spending time with Scott—a familiarity that Stiles didn’t have with anyone else in the world. When Scott went to get himself a soda, he came back with three cans instead of one: because Stiles always drank his twice as fast and needed a second before Scott was barely halfway through his first. They pressed their shoulders together, faux-wrestled to force the other player to fuck up in the game, and laughed loudly, freely, when either of them succeeded.

Just like old times.

They’d been at it for half an hour when someone finally broached a topic other than the game at hand. Surprisingly, it was Scott who made the first move.

“How’s it going with Derek staying at your place?” he asked.

The question surprises him for a moment, and then it doesn’t. They hadn’t really talked about Derek staying at Stiles’ in weeks. Scott had asked for the favor and Stiles had acquiesced like everyone knew he would. He shrugged, and said, “It’s not bad actually.”

“What does that mean?” Scott asked, turning away from the game to stare at Stiles’ face.

Sitles pressed his lips together and tried to keep his smile at bay. He said, “I dunno, we’re...friends, sort of. Sharing a bathroom will do that, I guess.”

“Not entirely true,” replied Scott quickly, returning to the game and shooting at something. “Or all those reality tv shows where strangers are forced to be roommates would be nothing but sunshine and happiness.”

Stiles dipped his head back and barked out a laugh. “Okay, you got me. But we’re getting along, honest. I think he and my dad are even friends—despite the fact that Derek has taken up my crusade of making sure Dad eats better. Though Derek is definitely a little more lenient than me when it comes to cheat foods.”

He smirked thinking back on earlier that morning when Stiles had run into the kitchen to grab some cinnamon Pop-Tarts only to find Derek and Dad sitting at the kitchen table eating egg white mushroom and spinach omelettes with a side of turkey bacon. When Stiles had come to a sudden stop at the doorway, shock etched across his face, Derek had pointed towards the stove top where a third plate was waiting to be filled. Just for him.

“Just be careful, okay?” Scott said, interrupting his thoughts.

“Be careful?” he asked, flummoxed. He didn’t mean to, but he dropped the controller into his lap and glanced at his best friend. “Of what? Healthy food?”

Scott’s face flushed and he looked a little sheepish as he explained, “I know you have a habit of crushing on the emotionally unavailable, beautiful people. I just don’t want you to get hurt, okay?” 

Warmth blossomed in his chest as he stared, wide-eyed, at his best friend. From anyone else a comment like that might have come across like an insult, but from Scott it was different. It made Stiles feel so fucking appreciated in that moment. Like he was truly known and cared for. For a moment his vision blurred because of honest to God tears that he quickly wiped away.  

“Yeah,” he said, his voice strangled. He cleared his throat and turned back to the game, picking up the controller again. “Yeah, I’ll be careful, man. Promise.”

***

An hour later, they’d stopped playing video games and had ordered two pizzas. Scott was sitting on the couch, his legs crossed under him as he ate two huge slices at once, while Stiles was spread out on the floor still holding his half eaten fifth slice. The room was filled with their comfortable laughter and conversation. Two best friends shooting the shit and stuffing their faces just like normal high school kids who didn’t have to worry about sacrificed deer and murdered Alphas and magical trees.

“What are your plans after graduation?” Stiles asked, having wondered what the answer to that question was for months. They hadn’t talked about any of their plans for the summer.

Scott swallowed the bite he’d been chewing and shrugged. “No plans. Probably pick up some more shifts at Deaton’s. What about you?”

Hopefully not too many shifts, Stiles thought. He still needed Deaton to have some privacy to carry on his lessons, after all.

“Honestly, I was thinking of maybe taking a road trip?” Stiles answered, the inflection of his voice raising with each word. “Maybe like, to the Grand Canyon or New Orleans or whatever. You know, see something different. Be free for a while.”

There was a lull after he spoke, but for the first time in so long Stiles didn’t feel uneased by it.

“Dude.” Scott leaned forward, all serious, before revealing a wide grin. “That. Sounds. Awesome. Let’s do it!”

His own lips widened into a smile, his chest warm, he asked, “Yeah? You’d share the driving with me?”

“Of course!” Scott said. “Let’s plan it. Maybe we should try and go through Las Vegas?”

Stiles let out a laugh and sat up, pulling out his phone from his pocket to start searching for some road trip recommendations, when they both heard the front door open. He lifted his head to follow the sound and saw Isaac dropping his backpack to the floor before crossing over to the couch and collapsing beside Scott.

“Remind me to never take Economics in college,” Isaac mumbled, leaning across Scott to grab a slice of pizza.

Scott chuckled at Isaac’s words and reached out to ruffle his hair. He flashed Stiles a look that almost seemed regretful. As though he’d been having fun with just the two of them, and Isaac had ruined that but there was nothing he could do.

Stiles understood. He appreciated the sentiment all the same.

In that same vein, he did his best not to appear disappointed at the intrusion. It wasn’t really an intrusion, after all—this was Isaac’s home, and Stiles was just a visitor. But maybe now was the time to try and change things: the three of them together could pave a new path forward.

“You want to play me in Call of Duty?” Stiles offered, holding out the controller. “I’ve already creamed Scotty and honestly, I’d like some real competition.”

“Hey!” Scott exclaimed, affronted. 

Isaac laughed around the mouthful of pizza, but shook his head politely. “No thanks, I’m not really a fan.”

“Oh,” Stiles said simply, trying to cover for his letdown.

Scott looked between the two of them, and eagerly tried to fix the problem, “We could play something else? Isaac likes Mario Kart and we can take turns. Maybe next time you can bring your controller and all three of us can play?”

Isaac beamed up at Scott, affection obvious on his face. And Scott looked back at him and it, fuck, it almost hurt to see. It was so clear that they cared about each other. And it was also clear to Stiles that Scott was making a genuine effort to act as the mediator. He flashed his friend a smile and nodded. “Sure man. Get out the game and let’s play.”

That’s how the rest of the afternoon went: Scott doing his best to divide his attentions between the two of them equally, but often getting distracted by Isaac. Which was fair: Scott was a man with a crush and Isaac was (one of) the object(s) of his affection. 

“Do you mind if Isaac tries again?” Scott asked, glancing over his shoulder at Stiles where he had been sitting on the couch for the past twenty minutes watching the two of them play against each other. “I know we said loser forfeits to the next player but he got screwed over by that banana peel.”

Isaac looked startled. He glanced back at Stiles for a split second before focusing on Scott. “No, Scott, that’s dumb. It’s Stiles’ turn.”

“No, no,” Scott said earnestly. “Look, you go again and Stiles can take my turn.”

It was obvious that it would continue like this forever if Stiles didn’t do something to stop them. He pretended to open a text on his phone and stood up. He said, “Looks like there are no next turns for me. My dad just texted and he wants me to go home for dinner.”

“But you just had pizza?” Scott asked, gesturing towards the remnants of the pizza boxes.

Stiles forced a laugh. “As if this will be the first time I’ve ever had a second dinner. You should know by now that I’m practically a Hobbit.”

“Can’t you stay for a little while longer?” Isaac asked, glancing between the two of them from where he sat on the floor. Stiles welcomed the effort.

He shook his head, and started heading towards the door. “Nah. My dad is waiting for me at home and if I don’t get there he might make himself a Reuben or some other disgustingly unhealthy meal.”

“I thought you said Derek was helping with that?” Scott asked.  

Quick on his feet, Stiles replied, “I don’t think Derek’s home. Anyway. This was fun. I’ll see you two at school tomorrow.”

He slipped out the front door before either of them could try and stop him again.

The drive home was weird.

He couldn’t explain it but he felt...muddled. The afternoon had gone so great—better than he could have hoped when he first asked if Scott had wanted to hang out. He had thought, at best, he’d be forced to sit around and listen to Scott and Isaac talking about Allison for several hours. At best, maybe Melissa would have been home to distract him with questions about colleges. But he’d gotten lucky; nobody was home but the two of them and it had felt so completely normal. He couldn’t remember the last time he and Scott had hung out alone, without any supernatural business getting in the way.

And then Isaac came home and suddenly it was like everything went downhill from there. Only that wasn’t fair, was it? How was it anyone else’s problem that Stiles felt hurt by the turn of events? Didn’t that make him a jerk? Or too needy? It wasn’t fair of him to expect Scott to focus all of his attention on Stiles. It was stupid, really, and mean-spirited.

Which only made Stiles feel worse, which circled back to the fact that he shouldn’t feel bad at all after such a good afternoon. It was illogical. It was senseless. Yet knowing and feeling something was entirely different, and knowing didn’t stop him from feeling so completely isolated.

He kept thinking about it in circles until he finally got home. The driveway was empty, since Dad was pulling a double shift that evening. As he was walking through the front door he bumped into Derek on his way out to do his usual evening patrol. They exchanged pleasantries, and then Stiles was alone.

As per usual.

***

The next day at school, Stiles couldn’t find it in him to eat lunch with the pack. Things had been strained enough as it was after that last pack meeting, and then the weirdness of last night left him feeling off kilter. He stood at the front of the cafeteria with his tray of public school food, wondering where he was going to sit. A year or so ago he might have sat with Boyd. The thought made his heart clench.  

He could see Allison out of the corner of his eye trying to get his attention, but he purposefully pretended not to see her.

Finally, his gaze settled on Danny, sitting alone and away from the lacrosse team, and he wandered over to his table. “Mind if I sit here?”

Danny looked up at him and gave an easy smile before biting into his apple. He shrugged and gestured towards the open seats.

They’d been sitting together talking about nothing of importance for a few minutes, when suddenly another tray settled beside Stiles’. He looked to his right and found Lydia settling onto the stool beside him. Hovering behind her were Aiden and Ethan, swooping in to give Danny a kiss on the cheek.

When Aiden made a move to put down his tray, Lydia waved him off. She didn’t even bother to glance at him as she said, “Don’t bother, we’re going to be talking about advanced trigonometry and you’ll get bored.”

“But—” Aiden tried to retort.

“Seriously. I don’t want to spend the next half hour dealing with your sighs of boredom and answering stupid questions. Go sit with everyone else, we’ll entertain ourselves.”

Aiden stared at her, dumbfounded, but Lydia made no move to apologize. Instead, she leaned forward and started sharing a trig theory she’d been researching in her spare time. After a moment, Aiden finally gave a huff of derision and left to head towards where the pack was sitting. Ethan flashed Danny an apologetic look and quickly followed after his twin.

Lydia stopped talking about math shortly after they'd stepped away and instead asked Danny, “Have you talked to Jackson lately? Last we spoke he said you two were having a hard time matching up your schedules.”

Stiles and Danny shared a bewildered look, before Danny replied, “Oh yeah, we figured it out. He’s started staying up later than normal so we can talk after I get home from lacrosse practice.”

“That time difference must be a bitch,” Stiles said. “What is it? Seven hours?”

“Eight,” Lydia and Danny corrected simultaneously.

They laughed, and then Danny asked, “When was the last time you talked to him?”

“Oh, a few days ago. I had to give him an update on what’s going on in Beacon Hills, obviously. And he wanted to tell me about how his plans for spring break are going. It sounds like his parents are taking him skiing in Austria.” Lydia used her fork to push at the pile of steamed vegetables on her tray, not making eye contact with either of them.

Jackson hadn’t been back to Beacon Hills since his parents had moved their whole family across the globe. From what Stiles understood, Jackson hadn’t been allowed to visit because of their fears; which was fair: it wasn’t often your teenage son died in front of you on a lacrosse field only to pull a Lazarus and rise from the dead a few hours later. In the morgue, which had to be even worse.

Picking up on something Lydia had said, Stiles asked, “Did you update him on all of it? Derek and the deer and y’know. All of it?”

She raised her chin and met his gaze evenly. “Obviously. I tell Jackson everything.”

They were still staring at each other when Danny finally asked, “Am I missing something here?”

Stiles turned to Danny and raised his eyebrows, trying to stumble over a response that didn’t sound obviously untrue. “No, nothing big, just y’know, me crushing on Derek which Lydia knows—”

“If you come over to Stiles’ house after school, I promise to tell you,” Lydia said instead, biting a green bean in half delicately.

Danny thought for a moment, and then shrugged nonchalantly. “Okay, sounds good.”

“Wait, what?” Stiles reacted, whipping around to gawk at Lydia.

***

“Does Danny even remember where I live?” Stiles wondered out loud as he played with the reclining feature of Dad’s chair.

Lydia looked up from his class notes that she was comparing against her own. “I sent him a text with the address about ten minutes ago. He should be here soon.”

A few minutes later, they heard the door knob turning. Both of them looked towards the entryway only to see Derek walk through the door. He stopped when he caught sight of Lydia on the couch, his eyes quickly scanning the room before they landed on Stiles in the recliner. He closed the door behind him and nodded to them both. “Afternoon.”

Stiles gave Derek a small smile before he asked, “Should we tell Scott what we’re doing?”

“I don’t see why we should,” Lydia said, closing the notebook and slipping it into her purse. He almost asked for his notes back but thought better of it. She’d probably get more use out of them than he would these days. “We never came to an agreement not to tell Danny about werewolves, so it shouldn’t bother him if we take that next step without him.”

Stiles looked over Lydia’s strawberry blonde head to Derek for a response but found the older werewolf staring at him instead. He turned back to Lydia. “That doesn’t seem exactly fair. You were the one who said we should leave him out of it, and I think Scott trusted you on that. What made you change your mind?”

She held her hand out in front of her to check her manicure and replied efficiently, “Scott isn’t taking the threats against Beacon Hills and the pack seriously enough. We need all the help we can get if we’re the only ones who are going to be doing anything about it.”

She gestured to the three of them, and then pulled out a nail file.

“Scott has a lot on his plate with work and college applications and everything. If Allison and her dad are keeping him up to date and he thinks that’s enough, and we’re looking into it, that should be enough,” Stiles defended, thinking back on the afternoon they’d shared the day before. “It’s not like this type of thing has ever been Scott’s strong suit.”

Lydia didn’t even need to respond. Derek did it for her. “You don’t really believe that.”

“Look,” Lydia said. “If you want to tell Scott what we’re doing, we can. But it’s up to you. I think Derek and I are both in agreement that it would be a waste of time and energy.”

She glanced at Derek and he nodded in response.

Stiles thought about it. He looked down at the phone in his hand and imagined pulling up Scott’s contact information, making the call, and telling him that they were about to tell Danny the truth. He imagined Scott saying he wanted to be there with them when it happened, and then imagined him showing up with Allison and Isaac in tow, maybe with Aiden and Ethan not far behind. He could picture Danny walking into the house to a room full of people he wasn’t expecting, could see how it would get out of hand fast if Danny didn’t believe them or if Ethan got upset at them for moving forward without him.

And then he pictured Lydia and him trying to explain what else was happening: the danger that they believed was facing everyone; and he knew, instantly, that Allison and Scott and everyone would dismiss their concerns again. Knock it to the side and tell Danny they were over-exaggerating and there was nothing to be worried about. He knew Danny would want to hear them out, that he would want to listen, but Stiles also knew how charming Scott could be. How Ethan would claim that they weren’t werewolves and didn’t have the same senses. That anything Derek said was suspect because he was damaged.

It would only take a few seconds before Derek would lash out, before he would accuse them of murdering Erica and Boyd, which would make Aiden and Ethan defensive. Then maybe Isaac would get pulled in, and Scott would have to pick a side. Allison might call her dad, until everything had spiraled out of control so fast and so violently that there was nothing Stiles or Lydia could do to stop it.

He shook his head. “No, you’re right. Let’s go ahead as planned.”

As if on cue, Danny walked through the door.

He saw Derek first, since he was seated closest to the door. Surprised, Danny said, “Oh, woah. Hey. You’re Not-Miguel-Derek.”

“Just Derek is fine,” he said, as he stood up and held out a hand for Danny to shake.

Danny shook it and afterwards walked past Derek to join Lydia on the couch. When his back was towards Derek, he looked to Stiles and mouthed the words, Oh my God. Stiles covered his mouth to hold back a giggle.

He settled into his spot next to Lydia and said nothing when Derek sat down on the other side of him. After a moment or two of silence, Danny finally asked, “So, what did you two want to tell me?”

Unsure of how to start, Stiles did what he did best.

He rambled.

“You know the story of Little Red Riding Hood where there’s a big bad wolf and a woodsman rescues her? What if the wolf isn’t always bad? And what if the woodsman isn’t always the hero?” Stiles said, not entirely sure where his words were going to take him. “Just an FYI, the Grimm’s brothers version of this story is very fucked up. But my point is, that story is a little biased, you get me? Statistically the number of wolf attacks in the United States compared to the number of wolves in the country is astronomically small. In the past quarter-century, dogs have killed over three hundred people. Do you know how many wolves have killed? C’mon, guess.”

Danny glanced around the room, confused. He shrugged his shoulders and offered, “I don’t know. Fifty?”

Stiles made a sound like that of a game show buzzer. “Wrong—the correct answer is two. So, the fact of the matter is, wolves aren’t always bad. Did you ever read The True Story of the Three Little Pigs as a kid? I used to love that book. It’s about how the wolf just wanted to borrow sugar to bake a cake for Granny, but because of all the prejudicial bias against wolves, the pigs were terrified of him and he was thrown in jail for crimes he never committed. That’s what we’re talking about here, okay, the system is rigged—”

Lydia interrupted, “Werewolves are real.” 

Immediately, everyone fell deathly quiet. When Stiles looked over at Derek, he saw the other man was literally holding his breath. He looked posed to bolt if need be.

Just as suddenly, Danny burst out with a dozen excited questions. “Are you two werewolves? Is Derek? He looks like a werewolf, if I’m being honest. Wait, is Scott a werewolf? Is that how he suddenly became so good at lacrosse in sophomore year? What about Jackson? Is that why he died or why he lived? Or both? I mean, I knew some of it because Beacon Hills is a literal hellhole, but basically everyone in this town knows some of it. I want to know everything. What do you all know?”

He looked ready to ask another hundred questions at a mile a minute, but Lydia held up her hand to stop him.

“We promise to answer all of your questions, if you do us a favor,” she explained. Pulling up her phone she swiped open a contact and held the screen out for everyone to see. A familiar face cooly gazed out from behind the backlit glass. “We want you to track Peter Hale’s phone—specifically to backtrack what you can and tell us where he’s been for the past few months. While you do that, we’ll answer anything you want.”

Stiles, who hadn’t realized this was what Lydia wanted, spoke up, “To give you a start, yes, Derek is a werewolf. So is his uncle. But they’re born werewolves, while Jackson and Scott were bitten in tenth grade.”  

Danny gawked at them. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, he pulled out his laptop from his backpack and flipped it open.

“Give me that phone number and start telling me more.”

They all settled in for the long haul, ready to finally let Danny in on everything he’d missed out on in the past few years.

***

“...so yeah, that’s why Ms. Blake up and disappeared.”

“Damn,” Danny muttered under his breath as he kept typing, until finally, hours after this had started, his fingers seemed to slow down. “Okay, I think I have what you wanted to know.”

Lydia and Stiles leaned forward, while Derek kept his distance.

Danny started rattling off coordinates while Stiles, on his own laptop, started inputting them into a map to see what turned up.

“Wait,” he said, staring at the screen in front of him. “That can’t be right. How far back are you going? We wanted some data from the past year.”

Danny shrugged. “I can’t help you there. From what I can tell his phone was turned off until about five months ago. And even then, he seems to turn it off for days and weeks at a time; or at the very least, he falls off the grid and I can’t track him. But when it’s on and I can, these are the places he goes.”

“Why doesn’t it seem right?” Derek asked, finally intrigued enough to get pulled into the technical conversation.

Stiles looked up to stare at Derek, baffled. “All of these coordinates are in Beacon Hills. But I thought he said he’d been called back to town around the same time as you?”

Lydia pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. “Well, now we have a new question to answer: what has Peter been doing in town all this time without any of us noticing?”

***

Thirty minutes later, Stiles and Derek were standing at the front door waving goodbye to Danny and Lydia. It was pitch black outside, at some point the day having fallen quietly into night without any of them noticing. Utterly exhausted, Stiles stumbled over to the couch and let himself fall gracelessly face first onto the couch cushions.

From somewhere above him, Derek asked, “Do you think Scott will be angry?”

“I don’t know what Scott will think,” Stiles admitted more easily than he would have if he weren’t so drained. It was supposed to be his job to know Scott—to understand him. How was he supposed to be a good emissary if he couldn’t predict his reactions?

There was silence, and then a few seconds later he felt hands on his calves as they easily lifted his legs, before settling them down onto a lap. Derek let his fingers stay where they were, curled around his jeans-encased legs. Stiles shivered where he lay.

If you were to ask him where the next question came from, Stiles would blame the exhaustion and claim delirium. But in the moment, he didn’t stop himself.

“Are you an Omega?”

He kept his eyes forced shut, his face buried in the cushions. He could feel, rather than see, Derek’s hands clenching and unclenching around his calves. Stiles brought his arms up to curl protectively around his head, not entirely certain how Derek would react.

Instead of violence or anger, Derek spoke slowly, his words carefully measured, “After Cora and I split ways, I started feeling...detached. Like everything that had once tethered me to my pack and this world was gone. I did a good job of ignoring it, forcing myself to stay human, and avoiding shifting, but I was...isolated. Talking to Cora on the phone helped, reminded me that I had a connection to her. But it wasn’t constant. That’s why I was so spooked when I felt unsettled in New Orleans. I told you I thought I’d crossed into a pack’s territory but the truth was I had no idea what it was. Because I hadn’t felt any sort of connection to anything in so long.”

Stiles forced himself to stay quiet, unsure that Derek would keep talking if he spoke up.

“Since coming back to Beacon Hills…” Derek trailed off. The silence stretched on, and in the quiet he ran his hand slowly up and down Stiles’ leg. Stiles tried to remain relaxed, to allow the werewolf to gather comfort and strength from him. After a moment, he continued, “I don’t feel like that anymore. I feel like I’m whole again. Almost. I don’t know, it’s hard to put into words.”

Testing the boundaries, Stiles asked, his voice hoarse, “Is Scott your Alpha?” 

“I don’t know who my Alpha is,” Derek admitted. He sounded far away, like he was lost in contemplation. “Maybe this is how Scott felt when he was first bit and we didn’t know about Peter.”

“But you feel a connection now,” Stiles proffered. “To who?”

The silence stretched on longer this time. But just like the afternoon he spent with Scott, this silence was comfortable. Comforting, even. As the lull stretched on, Stiles pulled a pillow under his head, kept his eyes closed, and felt his breathing even out. He was almost on the verge of sleep when Derek spoke.

“I guess, if you’re asking about Scott’s pack specifically, I feel something with Lydia. I don’t know if you can call it a bond, but it is there. Whatever it is, it’s not there for the others. Or Peter.”

Another lull, his fingers trailing up and down the back of Stiles’ calf. Then, he spoke.

“I feel a bond to Cora,” he whispered, like it was a closely guarded secret. “I feel one with your dad...and with you.”

Warmth flooded through Stiles’ chest unbidden.

“What does a pack bond feel like for you?” Stiles asked, his arms curled around the pillow he was holding. It was the safest question he could ask, unsure how he felt about Derek’s confession.

“Like something real,” Derek said softly. “Something I can count on.”

Chapter Text

Stiles rushed into the back and dropped his bag on the exam table. The room was empty. But he was sure Deaton was somewhere to be found—probably petting a kitten or making notes in a patient’s file. Stiles tugged off his plaid overshirt and walked over to the fridge by the door which he didn’t hesitate to open. He shoved some items aside before finding his stash of hidden sodas; grabbing one, he popped it open and took a long swig, his head still tilted back when he noticed Deaton walking into the room.

The vet sighed and dropped his clipboard on the table beside Stiles’ bag. “Good afternoon. I see you’ve made yourself comfortable.”

“That’s a good thing, right?” Stiles asked. “I spend enough time here, it would probably be concerning if I wasn’t comfortable in your presence. After all, this is a place of learning.”

“Learning being the operative word. Not your bedroom, so please remove your belongings from my exam table.”

Stiles rolled his eyes in mock-annoyance before swooping forward and swiping his bag and shirt onto the floor. Leaning forward across the exam table, he tucked his fist beneath his chin and gazed up at Deaton.

He grinned. “What’s on today’s lesson plan, Doc?”

If Deaton were any other man, he might react to Stiles’ antics. Instead, the druid kept his features schooled as he met Stiles’ gaze.

“I thought today we might have one of our discussion classes,” Deaton said, which immediately caused Stiles to stand upright. “Unless you’d rather study more herbs?”

“No,” Stiles replied quickly, putting his soda can on the table. “No, no, discussion class sounds way better.”

They didn’t do it often: usually Deaton was a strict, rigid teacher. Stiles could be a bit of a handful—something he willingly admitted to—and Deaton had learned quickly that it was best to have a carefully laid out lesson plan ready to keep him from going off on a tangent.

(He did have actual lesson plans—they were even color coded. Deaton had denied it when Stiles asked, but Stiles knew what he’d seen in the vet’s notes.)

The last time they’d had a discussion lesson, Stiles had asked about knots. Specifically, whether or not werewolves had them. Deaton had looked appropriately horrified, but Stiles continued to press him until they delved into every aspect of the werewolf anatomy. Which then lead into a discussion regarding how Deaton knew that much about werewolf anatomy. Had people conducted autopsies? If they had, who conducted them? An actual doctor who respected the person on his table, or perhaps a pack’s emissary, or had it been some bigoted hunter? And if it had been a hunter, how trustworthy were the conclusions the hunter made? What were the ethics behind Deaton disseminating that information to Stiles, who might one day be put in a situation where he would have to pass that information onto someone else or rely on it to save a werewolf’s life? How could Stiles ever trust any of the information out there about werewolves that didn’t come directly from a pack and how could Stiles learn to make those distinctions as an emissary?

That lesson lasted seven hours. And the answer to Stiles’ original question was: no, werewolves do not have knots.

(But could Stiles trust that answer? He should ask Scott. Or Derek.)

Just the memory of that lesson had Stiles buzzing with excitement, he was so ready for the lesson. He eyed Deaton warily and asked, “Are you sure you want to give me free reign to ask whatever I want? Don’t taunt me.”

“Anything and everything,” said Deaton.

Stiles didn’t wait to let him change his mind. He pounced, and asked the question that had been on his mind ever since he and Derek had talked about pack dynamics the week before. “If there can be a pack of Alphas, and True Alphas exist, and Omegas are real...can there be a pack with no Alpha?"

“That’s a worthwhile question to consider,” Deaton answered, his hand coming up to stroke his goatee. Stiles did his utmost to hold his tongue and let the older man think: there was no point in trying to rush Deaton. That’s not how he operated.

Finally, Deaton spoke. “While I’ve never heard of such a thing—a pack with no Alpha, that is—that doesn’t mean it’s not impossible. Just highly improbable.”

Which was as useless an answer as any in regards to Stiles’ current situation with Scott and Derek.

“How improbable?” Stiles pressed, not entirely ready to give up. “You’ve never heard anything like that before? No pack that’s ever survived without their Alpha or operated on their own?”

“You need to remember: there’s a pack hierarchy for a reason,” Deaton said, his gaze seeking out Stiles’. “Werewolves tend to be highly confrontational and competitive. If there’s no Alpha, it usually creates a power vacuum. Please understand, Beacon Hills is very much out of the norm. The fact that Scott was able to resist joining a pack for as long as he did without going insane can only be chalked up to the fact that he was destined to become a True Alpha.”

Stiles bit his lip.  “But what about the Nemeton? Could it be the existence of the Nemeton that helped Scott hold onto his sanity? He said he came across the tree trunk the night Peter bit him, right?”

Deaton made a noise that told him the man was considering it. But just as quickly, Deaton shook his head. “It’s an interesting theory to consider, but until you and the others sacrificed yourself, the Nemeton was too weak.”

“But what about now?” Stiles asked, taking a final sip from his soda and draining the can completely. “Could the Nemeton be providing that support now?”

“There are no Alpha-less packs in Beacon Hills right now,” Deaton answered with no hesitation. “And from what you’ve described, what with the bucks and Derek’s patrols, the Nemeton is hardly settled at the moment.”

Not an entirely unfair thing to point out. Derek had found a dead doe at the foot of the Nemeton the night before and Stiles had spent most of the morning trying to research what the difference between killing a buck and a doe could signify. Nothing good. Mostly it all seemed to have to do with fertility and rebirth. His head throbbed for most of the day, almost as though he could feel the Nemeton’s displeasure all the way from the Preserve while sitting in class at Beacon Hills High School.

“Okay, let’s put a pin in that topic for the minute,” Stiles said. He spread his hands flat in front of him on the exam table, his mind racing as he tried to think of what he needed to ask. An echo of an idea came to him, and he raised his head to meet Deaton’s cool gaze. “How does a werewolf become an Alpha? Are the only paths the ones I know about: being next in line, killing another Alpha, or becoming a True Alpha? Or is there another way? Because those seem a little limited.”

“Well—”

Stiles interrupted him. “And how is the next in line chosen? Was Laura always supposed to be heir to Talia, or was that only because everyone else was dead? Why wasn’t Peter next in line, when he was Talia’s brother and closer in age? Laura was practically a teenager when she became Alpha.”

“Alpha heirs are not always the most obvious choice,” said Deaton. “Laura was the oldest child of the Alpha, but that’s not always the case. The heir doesn’t even have to be blood related to the Alpha, so long as they’re in the same pack. Nobody really knows how it works.”

Deaton tilted his head back to look at the ceiling and said, speaking almost to himself, “I’m not even sure how one would go about researching the phenomenon.”

“Maybe that’ll be my senior thesis,” joked Stiles. “If I make it to college alive, that is.”

Deaton ignored his quip, and instead walked over to his bookshelf. He perused the titles while silently contemplating something. He ran his fingers across the spines of all the books, muttering to himself before he finally plucked a small, leather bound journal off the shelf and turned back to Stiles.

Dropping the book on the exam table, he started flipping through pages as he continued to speak. “My own hypothesis, is that at least some part of it has to do with the belief held by the current Alpha regarding who they think will carry on their legacy best.”

“Their belief?”

“Yes,” he said. “Similar to the way you managed to stretch that mountain ash when I hadn’t given you near enough to complete your circle. Did you even measure the distance before you kept walking? Or did you simply believe, with all of your might, that you had what you needed even if you didn’t know the specifications?”

Stiles shrugged, the memory of the Mountain Ash slipping between his fingers, the desperate fear that it wouldn’t be enough, the desperate need for it to do the job despite his concerns, then: the elation once he realized it had worked.

“Well, Alphas are the same,” Deaton explained, flipping the pages of the journal, his finger running down the small handwritten notes. “No one can know with certainty what their packs will need once they’re gone. But the most successful, the most long lasting packs, are the ones where the Alpha power passes naturally from one Alpha to their heir and so on. Because of the power of the Alpha’s personal belief, I think.”

Stiles leaned forward, wanting to make sure he caught every word that fell from Deaton’s lips.

“You mentioned Talia?” Deaton asked. “You’re right, Peter would have made more sense from a logical standpoint. But even from a young age, we all knew Laura would be the next Alpha. You’ve met Peter—even before the fire, he wasn’t what one would call leadership material. Too isolated and confrontational. I don’t know how Laura would have done as an Alpha to a large pack, but I trust it would have gone well. She did her best with Derek and I’m not sure anyone else in the Hale pack could have survived as Alpha after the fire. But Laura could. She did.”

A softness seemed to pass over Deaton’s features. The man who so often held his emotions at arms length seemed to openly mourn the girl that Stiles had never met. The memory of her corpse flashed across his mind, the unease in his stomach that always came when he remembered how carelessly they’d dug her up.

Laura had been loved, and they’d treated her like a treasure hunt.

“What was she like?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

But Deaton didn’t hear him. He’d already returned to the journal in front of him. He tapped the page open before him and slid the book across the table towards Stiles. “This section. You should take it home and study it when you get the chance. It’s the journal of an emissary from a pack in Connecticut. She was pack emissary for almost 60 years, and aided 3 different Alphas during her time. She talks about the Alpha heirs: what they had in common, what made them stand out as children, how the Alpha treated them. It might help you.”

Stiles could have asked again about Laura, but the moment had passed. His courage was already long gone. Pulling the book towards him, he asked a new question, Derek still on his mind. “If it’s possible for a werewolf to give up their Alpha powers, can they get it back? The same way, on their own. Without killing anyone or becoming an heir or...being Scott?”

Deaton looked to Stiles and answered, his tone light, “Anything is possible if you just believe.”

“Who are you, Jiminy Cricket?” he scoffed. Then, more seriously, he asked, “What if the former Alpha doesn’t believe in himself?”

“When Derek gave up his Alpha powers—because we are talking about Derek, so why bother pretending otherwise?” Deaton smiled. “When he gave up his powers, he made a sacrifice to save his beloved sister. Derek truly believed that the cause was just and worthy, and the innate magic of nature agreed with him. He wouldn’t have been able to sacrifice his powers if the town, the magic, had found his cause unjust. Derek might not believe that the cause of regaining his Alpha powers is worthy, and the innate magic of the earth might agree with him. If he doesn’t believe in himself, why would anything else?”

Before Stiles could say anything, defend Derek in any way, his phone rang. He glared at Deaton, held up a finger, and said, “Hold that thought, I have more to say about this.”

He slid his finger across the screen to accept the call, brought the phone to his ear, and didn’t have the time to prepare himself before the world fell out from beneath his feet.

***

Stiles broke just about every traffic law known to man. The entire drive over he had his phone out, desperately pressing Derek’s contact page over and over, frustration mounting as the call kept getting redirected to the werewolf’s default voicemail. Your call has been forwarded to an automated voice message system…. It was just like Derek to have never bothered to change the stupid message.

It should have taken 25 minutes to get to the hospital from Deaton’s—it took him 10.

“Derek!” Stiles shouted, spotting him across the waiting room as soon as he ran in.

He was sitting in one of the chairs pressed up against the wall, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. His jacket was draped across his lap and the sleeves of his gray henley pushed up his forearms haphazardly. There were unmistakable bloodstains soaked through the front of his shirt; he looked unbearably tense and his hair was sticking up in every which way. Stiles could only imagine what it must have looked like before Derek had run his hands through it.

At the sound of his name, he lifted his head and met Stiles’ gaze from across the room. A flicker of blue flashed before he stood up instantly, his leather jacket falling from his lap to the floor without him noticing. Derek stepped forward, concern painted across his face, and responded in kind by calling out his name, “Stiles!”

They met in the middle of the room, and instinctively reached out to clasp each other’s arms.

“Fuck, what happened? Why didn’t you call? Is Dad all right? Can I see him? Did you come in with him, or—”

The questions came tumbling out of Stiles’ mouth faster than Derek could begin to answer. He stared wide eyed at the bloodstained shirt, his fingers flexing around Derek’s forearms as he fought the urge to reach out and touch it. Was it still wet to the touch? Still warm? How long had Dad bled on Derek before they were able to get help?  

“Stiles, breathe,” said Derek, tightening his grip on Stiles’ biceps. He guided Stiles over to one of the chairs and made them both sit down. “Your dad got hurt at work, but he’s okay. He broke his arm, that’s all. Honest.”

Stiles let out the breath he had been holding the entire drive over. A broken arm? He could handle that. Between the two of them, Dad and Stiles had dealt with a number of broken bones over the years. They were a well oiled machine when it came to dealing with showers and casts. Then, his mind seemed to catch up with what else Derek had said. He asked, “Why were you with him if he was at work?”

“A little while ago your dad asked if I was planning on staying around town. When I told him I was considering it, he said I should think about applying to be a deputy.”

It was so far off from what Stiles was expecting, he couldn’t think of any way to respond other than letting his jaw fall open. Derek? A deputy? What the fuck, Dad.

When had that conversation taken place? At what point had the two of them sat down together, without Stiles’ knowledge, to discuss Derek’s future in Beacon Hills? When had Dad decided this was something he wanted to offer, and why hadn’t he told Stiles? When had Derek decided to stay in Beacon Hills?

None of that mattered now. Stiles took a deep breath, and his hands came up to grab Derek’s forearms. He looked at him dead on and asked, his voice high and tight, “What happened to my dad? How did he break his arm?”

Derek swallowed. “Your dad invited me to spend some time shadowing him at work. Get a sense of the job and decide if I had any interest. I didn’t tell you because—fuck, there just wasn’t anything to tell. I’ve only been shadowing John for a week, I haven’t made up my mind about anything. It wasn’t relevant to us.”

Us. Like there was an us. Stiles didn’t know what to make of that, and so he didn’t try. Instead, he urged Derek to continue.

“There was a domestic disturbance call today. Routine. Your dad never would have brought me if he thought it was anything serious. Just noise complaints from a neighbor. But we got there and it turned out the guy had a gun—”

Stiles’ heart stopped. His grip tightened around Derek’s forearms, but before he could say anything, Derek pulled his arm out of the grasp and wrapped his own hand around the back of Stiles’ neck. He tightened his grip, his fingers brushing through the hair at the base of his skull.

“Your dad’s fine,” Derek said, his voice commanding. So Alpha-like, Stiles almost felt transported back to the Sheriff’s Department, scared shitless that Isaac was going to rip him to shreds, before Derek saved the day. That I’m–the–Alpha confidence that seemed so rarely like Derek. Yet it existed then, and here it was again: your dad’s fine.

“He had a gun and your dad was talking him down. Honestly, your dad was great. Calm, collected, in control of the situation. But the guy didn’t have the safety on and the gun went off when he tried to put it down. Your dad—John, he fell. Or I pushed him. I don’t know. I thought—God, I thought he’d been shot. I got the suspect to the ground and I checked on your dad and he’s fine. Honest. He landed on his arm wrong when he dropped to the ground and broke his wrist. That’s it. A broken arm.”

“But—but the blood?” Stiles stammered, gesturing at the stains on Derek’s shirt, confused.

He looked sheepish for a moment, shrugged, and then explained, “The guy with the gun. When I tackled him I think I broke his nose. He’s somewhere in here getting checked out too.”

“God,” Stiles said, more to himself than anyone else, his hand fluttering up to his chest against his racing heart. He let out a shaky laugh, the relief almost overwhelming. Dad was fine. This was something he could tease him about in the future. Everything was going to be okay.

He gazed up at Derek, saw how the werewolf was staring at him with concern. His henley was stained with blood and Stiles wanted to offer to wash it. He’d gotten good with getting blood out of clothes over the past few years.

Derek’s fingers were still playing with the hair at the back of his neck.

Instead, he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Derek’s shoulders and buried his face against his arm. He heard Derek gasp, felt his hands drop tentatively to his shoulders before slipping down to his back. They sat there, wrapped up in each other, Stiles’ heart slowing to a steady beat.

He turned his face to rub his nose against the henley and whispered, wetly, “Thank you for being there.”

Derek said nothing, just ran his hands up and down Stiles’ back in a soothing fashion.

***

Forty minutes later they were sitting side by side and resolutely refusing to acknowledge the hug. Derek had grabbed them both some coffee from the cafeteria, and they were quietly talking about his future in Beacon Hills.

“So, Deputy Hale?” Stiles asked, arching an eyebrow.

Derek flushed and shrugged. “Not yet. Maybe not ever. I haven’t decided.”

“It’s not a terrible idea,” he said, taking a sip of the tepid black coffee. “It would probably benefit everyone in this godforsaken town if someone from the supernatural community was on the force.”

Before Derek could respond, Stiles spotted Melissa rushing into the waiting room, her bright scrubs a welcome sight in the otherwise drab hospital. He watched her search the faces of the people waiting before their eyes met from across the room. She rushed over, her hands reaching out for his as he stood up to meet her.

They held hands for the briefest of moments, before she reached up to rest her palm against her cheek. “Oh Stiles,” she said. “I came down as soon as I heard. How are you holding up?”

Stiles nuzzled his cheek into her hand and laughed, “I’m okay. I’ll be better when I can go back and see my dad, but it’s a broken arm. You know how us Stilinskis are. We’re experts at maneuvering around a cast.”

She laughed with him, her eyes bright. He thought maybe she was blinking back tears, but decided against it. He glanced down at Derek who was watching them with a soft expression on his face. But it was gone just as quickly as he seemed to turn his attention away from Stiles.

He wasn’t sure what caused Derek to react like that until he looked up and realized that Melissa had just noticed him beside them. Stiles took a step back, felt Melissa’s hand dropped from his cheek, and felt his leg press against Derek’s thigh.

“Sorry,” said Stiles, as he gestured between the two. “Mrs. McCall, you remember Derek?”

She didn’t seem to know what to say for a moment as she stared at the two of them. Then she shook her head quickly and pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Right, of course. Derek, hi. I didn’t realize you were back in town?”

Derek glanced between both of them as he slowly replied, almost testing his words as he said them, “It’s good to see you, Mrs. McCall.”

“Derek’s been back in town for almost two months now,” Stiles said, almost startled by the timeline. It felt like days ago that Derek had been ringing his doorbell at the end of January, and now it was already mid-March. When had that happened? “He’s been staying with me and my dad since he got here. Scott suggested it, actually.”

He was still watching Melissa but he noticed in the periphery of his vision how Derek seemed to hunch over at that statement.

Melissa glanced between the two of them, her eyes wide. “Really? He didn’t think to mention that to me.”

“Yeah. Uh, Peter too, actually. Not sure if you knew that,” Stiles said lamely, unsure how to reveal that information in a kinder fashion. He watched as the color seemed to drain from her face at the mention of the man who she had once gone on a date with before Scott had revealed everything to her. Stiles remembers crashing his Jeep into the back of their car, ruining Peter’s plans—it had been worth the damage to his paint job.

Her voice tight, Melissa said, “Thank you for telling me that, Stiles.”

There was a pause, a moment where none of them spoke, and Stiles had to wonder what Melissa and Derek were thinking. He opened his mouth to say something when Melissa interrupted him.

“Listen hon, have you already called Scott? Do you want me to tell him to head over?”

He opened his mouth to say yes on instinct, but then stopped himself. It hadn’t occurred to Stiles until this moment, but he hadn’t thought of Scott at all since he’d gotten the call from the hospital. Two years ago, he would have called Scott the moment after he’d hung up the phone. But today, now, it hadn’t crossed his mind. He’d tried Derek half a dozen times from the car, and then he found him in the waiting room and that was that. Stiles hadn’t felt like he needed anyone else. Derek was enough. More than, even.

Stiles dropped his gaze to stare at Derek, his breath caught in his throat for a moment. When had Derek become so important to him?

If Scott came, he’d take care of Stiles. He’d be there for him, get the coffee, be a shoulder to lean on, wait for hours until Stiles could be with Dad. Scott would do everything right and Stiles would love every single minute of it. He’d have his best friend’s undivided attention.

But he didn’t need it. Not right now. He had Derek, and Melissa, and he knew that Dad was going to be just fine. Scott would just be...extra. Welcome, but unnecessary. He already knew how much Scott cared.

“Uh, nah, don’t worry about it, Mrs. M,” he said, glancing back over at her. It had been a few years, but Stiles still wasn’t entirely used to the fact that he was taller than her these days. He gazed down at her and smiled, softly, to let her know that he was okay. “I’m doing just fine.”

Melissa smiled back at him, her gaze warm and loving. She reached up again to stroke his cheek, and nodded, her voice gentle, “Yes, you are.”

***

Stiles and Derek were alone again, having said goodbye to Melissa when she finally had to excuse herself back to her shift. They’d fallen into a comfortable silence, content in the knowledge that Dad was somewhere safe in the hospital being tended to. Stiles almost felt like he was going to fall asleep, his head tilted back in the chair and his eyes closed, when he heard Derek speak.

“So,” he began. “It’s been almost two months.”

Stiles hummed to signal that he was listening and kept his eyes closed. A nap could be good. It had been ages since Stiles had last allowed himself a nap.

Derek cleared his throat. “It’s clear I’m not a concern to Scott’s pack anymore. And I’m sure your dad probably wants his guest bedroom back.”

He blinked, his eyes flying open as he turned to stare at the werewolf. “Wait, what? Take a step back and repeat.”

“I just meant, maybe it’s time I find someplace new to stay,” Derek mumbled, folding his arms across his chest and resolutely refusing to meet Stiles’ gaze. “Especially if I'm thinking of staying in town. There are some apartments on Main Street that I could look at. Or I could contact my old property manager for the loft.” 

“What are you talking about?” Stiles demanded. “Why would you even suggest that?”

Derek said, a flush high on his cheeks, “I’ve gotten too comfortable at your place. It’s not—it’s not okay.”

“How is that not okay?” Stiles asked, turning towards Derek and leaning forward, their knees pressed together. He wanted to reach out, wrap his fingers around Derek’s, but resisted the urge.

He was quiet for a moment, his gaze still locked on the floor. When he spoke his words came out in a quiet rush, and Stile had to strain to hear him. “I’m starting to think of it as my den and I shouldn’t.”

A rush of warmth blossomed in his chest and he tried to hold back a smile. Instead, he leaned further forward and tentatively pressed his hand to Derek’s thigh. “I like that you think of it as home. I—honestly, I forgot why you were staying with us until Melissa showed up.”

“I’ve overstayed my welcome.”

“You can’t’ve. We still want you there,” Stiles rushed to explain. He wanted to say more but he didn’t know how. How to to explain that it was a house meant for three people, and it had been suffering for years with only two and the ghost of a memory of a woman who couldn’t be replaced. But they could make room for someone new: they already had. Stiles didn’t know when it had happened, but he’d stopped thinking of the guest bedroom as anything other than Derek’s.

Before Derek could say anything in response, Stiles glanced up and saw Dad walking through the doors, his arm in a cast and a sling. He threw a glance at Derek before he stood up to wrap his old man in a hug.

Dad chuckled, wrapped his good arm around Stiles’ back and pressed his lips to the top of Stiles’ head. “Ready to go home, kiddo?”

Instead, Stiles stepped back and said, “Dad, Derek was talking about moving out and I told him he couldn’t.”

Derek stood awkwardly to the side, his hands stuffed into his pockets. There were still a couple other people in the waiting room around them. Derek shrugged and tried to explain, “I just meant, you’d probably want your home back.”

Without hesitation Dad spoke, his voice firm and sure, “You’re family, son. You’ve got to stay.”

Dad always knew what to say: he was succinct in a way Stiles was unsure he’d ever figure out how to be. Stiles turned to stare at Derek, watched as the werewolf’s eyes grew wide, the way his shoulders tensed and his cheeks burned. He looked overwhelmed in all the best ways.

It took a moment, but then Derek was stepping forward and crowding Dad’s uninjured side. He wrapped his arms around the older man and pressed his face into the crook of Dad’s neck. Stiles watched as he rubbed his nose ever so slightly against the skin, and was shocked to realize Derek was scenting him.

Stiles wrapped his arms around them both and hid his smile in the crease of Derek’s jacket. He felt Dad’s uninjured hand in his hair and heard him laugh.

“Let’s go home,” said Dad.

Stiles tightened his grip on both of them and said, “Just for today, you’re getting steak.”

Chapter Text

Stiles was exhausted, his eyelids heavy from another restless night of sleep. Visions of the Nemeton and the dead bucks had plagued his dreams and kept him tossing and turning all hours of the night. Derek hadn’t had any news to share about his patrol of the preserve; just the same dank, rotting stench permeating the forest that had been hanging in the air for weeks.

He didn’t know what the nightmares meant.

Until he could figure it out, there wasn’t much Stiles could do but push the memories of the nightmares deep into the recesses of his mind and go about his daily life. Which is why he was at school, pulling his textbooks from his locker meticulously as he considered his classes for the day. Stiles would have prefered to have stayed home with Dad, tending to his broken arm, but that morning Derek had promised they had it covered and pushed Stiles out the front door.

“Hey man,” Scott said, hurrying over to the lockers and planting himself at Stiles’ side. His expression was open, his eyes wide, as he rushed to ask, “How are you? How’s your dad? My mom told me about what happened. Are you guys okay?”

Stiles tossed a smile at his best friend as he added his math textbook to the pile in his arms. He said, “We’re all good. Just a broken arm, so nothing too bad. Us Stilinskis have definitely dealt with worse.”

Scott reached out to lay a hand on Stiles’ shoulder. He locked eyes with Stiles and asked, dropping his voice and using his serious tone, “But are you okay? I know how much your dad means to you.”

Warmth rushed through chest. It was good to know Scott cared—that Stiles mattered to him. He tapped the back of his knuckles to Scott’s chest and felt his smile broaden. He said, “I’m one hundred percent a-okay. Derek’s at home taking care of Dad as we speak, so it’s all solid.”

At that response, something flashed across Scott’s face that Stiles couldn’t really decipher. It had been a while since Stiles could catalogue every flex and flitter of Scott’s expressions. The minutiae of Scott’s every grimace was a fading skill of his—months ago, that realization might have broken him. Now it only made him ache softly for a time when they were all each other had. Back when Allison and Derek had no place in their lives, when Isaac and Lydia were just faces in the hallways of Beacon Hills High.

Stiles couldn’t find it in himself to want to go backwards. Not anymore.

Scott dropped his hand from Stiles’ shoulder and shrugged to himself, seemingly annoyed, as he said, “It’s been two months now. Maybe it’s time Derek gets his own place.”

The suggestion should have bothered Stiles. It was clear that Scott wasn’t suggesting this out of some altruistic concern that Stiles and his dad were suffering from Derek’s presence. Rather, it seemed clear that it was Scott who didn’t like Derek’s presence in Stiles’ home. Even though he was the one who had made the suggestion in the first place. In the past he might have accused Scott of being hypocritical.

Instead, Stiles felt almost flattered by the reaction—it was nice to know that he wasn’t the only one in this friendship that got jealous at times. It was nice to see the evidence of Scott’s affection for him and their friendship.

“Dad, Derek, and I have already talked it out,” Stiles explained, flashing a grin at his best friend. He closed his locker and leaned against the door. “We’re thinking we might make it into a permanent thing.”

Stiles didn’t get the chance to see Scott’s reaction; the bell began to ring and Stiles, distracted, glanced at their classmates that began to walk by. He nodded in the direction of their next class and said, “C’mon. Let’s get going or else we’ll be late.”

“Why don’t we skip?” offered Scott, his expression particularly puppy-ish. He reached out to take hold of Stiles’ textbooks and pulled them into his own arms. “Yeah, c’mon, I feel like you and I haven’t gotten the chance to hang out in ages. We could just hang out and talk some more.”

He raised his eyebrows and shook his head before even really considering the idea. He tried tugging his books back stiffly. “No way, dude, I’m trying to be a better student—I promised my dad no more skipping.”

But Scott didn’t let go of his books as easily as Stiles expected. He held on firm and asked, his tone just as stern, “Why’d you and Lydia tell Danny everything?”

It wasn’t at all what Stiles thought Scott was going to ask.

He gaped at his friend. He knew this conversation was going to happen eventually but not now, next to his locker in the middle of the school day when everyone else was headed to class. He tried to think of the right words to explain his rationale.

“Lydia wanted to,” Stiles started, as though that explained it all.

Scott scowled. “She was the one who told us to leave him alone.”

He shrugged, letting his grip drop from his textbooks. “What can I say? She changed her mind. Danny was able to help us with some Peter stuff. We wanted to know where he’d been lately and Danny knows how to track phones, and we thought we might as well tell him why we needed the favor.”

“You should have come to me. I’m the Alpha, Stiles, it was my decision to make.”

It never sounded quite right when Scott said that; not that there was anything wrong with the idea in the abstract. But in the face of it: when Stiles had to stand there and listen to the words and see his best friend saying them, it never felt real. Not like that day in the sheriff’s station, when Derek had stopped Isaac and saved him. The echo of the words I’m the Alpha still ringing in Stiles’ ears for hours after he’d made it out of there.

Stiles took a step back and held his hands up and said, “I didn’t think you wanted to be that kind of Alpha; the one who demands we run all our moves past you. Besides—you didn’t seem to be against the idea when the pack first brought it up.”

He watched as his friend’s shoulders slumped, the hands holding his books falling down to his waist. Scott gazed at him, his eyes wide and imploring.

“I feel like I’m losing my connection to you,” Scott said, his voice soft. He held the textbooks out for Stiles to take back. “Ever since Derek got into town, it’s like you’re drifting away.”

Stiles swallowed thickly, unsure of what to say. Scott wasn’t wrong. Their connection had been weakening over the past two months—but now Stiles realized that it had never been strong to begin with. Not their pack bond, at least. If it had ever been there at all.

But this wasn’t the time or place he wanted to have that conversation. He wasn’t ready. Didn’t have the words.

Instead, he said, reaching out to take the textbooks, “We’ve spent more time together since Derek’s been here than the last six months combined.”

Hurt flashed over Scott’s features. It wasn’t what Stiles wanted either.

“It’s not a big deal,” Stiles rushed to explain, staring down at the books in his hands. “I get that Isaac and Allison are a priority for you now, just like my dad’s a priority for me.” And Derek, he thought, but didn’t voice.

“You’re a priority to me too,” Scott said, his tone earnest.

Stiles wondered. Thought back to the conversations he’d had with Deaton and Derek, thought about the pack bond that he’d never really felt with Scott and everyone else. He remembered Derek and Peter talking about their tie to Beacon Hills, felt the tug of the Nemeton even now, and he wondered.

He looked up and caught Scott’s gaze. He bit his lip and worried the flesh between his teeth, until the words poured out of him. “What does the pack bond feel like to you? With me, I mean. You know, as a werewolf.”

Scott furrowed his brows, confusion evident on his face, and asked, “What are you talking about?”

Stiles stared at Scott and heard Derek’s words echoing somewhere in the depths of his soul: something real...something I can count on.

“Nevermind,” he laughed brusquely. “It’s not a big deal. Let’s get to class, okay? I think we can convince the teacher that there’s a valid reason for us to be late. Maybe we were fighting off a mugger?”

Scott shook his head fondly, “We don’t have any muggers roaming the school hallways, dude.”

“Well, you think of something better than!” Stiles laughed, throwing an arm around his best friend and subtly directed them towards the class.

They kept talking, their conversation lighter and moving farther away from the earlier confrontation. But Stiles couldn’t help but ask himself: if Derek felt a pack bond with Stiles, and Scott didn’t, what did that mean? How did that change things?

He promised himself he’d figure it out no matter what.

***

Another day, another training session with Deaton.

It had been well over a year since he’d started his training with Deaton. Those first few months after Derek and Cora had left, Stiles had floundered trying to find his place in the pack. Despite all of their issues, Stiles had gotten used to making suggestions and being listened to. Derek might have pushed back against him, but he believed him. Always.

Like that night with Ms. Blake.

The same couldn’t be said about Scott. It wasn’t malicious—just the nature of their friendship. He’d heard all the nonsense that Stiles could think of over their years of friendship. More often than not, Scott would brush him off and assume Stiles was being facetious or overdramatic.

And it’s not like Scott was wrong. Those first few months when Stiles was still trying to get used to the connection with the Nemeton, everything felt like a threat. He was constantly worried, barely sleeping. It reached the point that he was convinced that Deputy Parrish was somehow nefarious and couldn’t be trusted when he first got hired. Scott wasn’t wrong to brush off Stiles’ concerns.

But he didn’t know how to handle it. All that dread building up inside of him, night after night, until eventually, that first December, he found himself on Deaton’s doorsteps convinced that they were on the brink of another attack from somewhere. Unsure of where else to go, he’d gone to Deaton because he was the pack emissary. And if Stiles couldn’t make Scott listen, surely Deaton could.

There was no attack that time. Just a family of selkies that were passing through town, staying at the local motel with the big swimming pool. They’d crossed through the territory unaware that an Alpha held the land, and the Nemeton had been needling at Stiles to do something about it. Deaton had helped him decipher the dreams, tracked the selkies down, and convinced them to ask for Scott’s permission to stay for another week.

No blood had been shed. No werewolves were harmed. Just some new friends who’d been willing to answer all of Stiles’ somewhat annoying questions about what they did if they forgot where they’d hid their skins. It turned out it had happened at least once, in this family at least, which was enough to send Stiles into a gale of laughter. They’d invited him to go swimming with them and when the time came for the family to leave, they’d hugged him hard and whispered a secret. If he needed them again, he need only shed seven tears into the sea (though the motel pool would work just as well if the need was great enough) and they’d be by his side as quick as can be.

It was maybe the first time Stiles had had a solely positive experience with the supernatural.

A week later, Deaton had called him back to his office. Stiles had been hesitant to turn up, concerned that it could only be bad news. Instead, Deaton had explained that he felt it was time: Stiles was a spark and, one day, he’d be an emissary like Deaton. He needed to be trained in order to be prepared. So they began that day. And almost every other day after that, Stiles made his way back to the veterinarian's office to continue his studies.

Fifteen months later and he was still here. Learning. Training. Asking questions.

“Should I be able to feel the pack bonds?”

Deaton looked up from where he was studying the test results of some sickly house pet (who hopefully wasn’t very sick). He was seated at his desk, the files spread out in front of him, an x-ray backlit by the film viewer on the wall. Tucked behind his ear was a pen that he’d shoved up there some hours ago and failed to notice that he’d accidentally drawn a wayward line on his skin. He looked comfortable, ready to spend the evening doing his work while Stiles was supposed to be studying the emissary’s diary that was open in his lap where he sat on the floor propped against the wall.

He slid the diary out of his lap and onto the floor before he threaded his fingers through his hair. He said, “I guess I just always assumed that I wasn’t supposed to? Like, I’m a human, right. And pack bonds are supernatural. So, why should I ever be aware of them?”

Deaton quietly closed the file in front of him, and spun around in his swivel chair so that he could face Stiles. His gaze intense, he reached up to stroke his chin thoughtfully. Finally, he said, “As a human, you might not feel them strongly, maybe not even at all. But you’re an innate spark, so it wouldn’t be out of the question to sense something. And since you’ve started your training to be an emissary, the pack bonds should have become more apparent.”

“What are they supposed to feel like?” he asked, his voice open and plaintive.

Deaton said, “It’s different for everyone, but generally speaking, it should feel like a tangible thread that you could touch if you wanted. Something real.”

There it was again, that word: real.

He thought back to the conversation with Scott in the hallways the day before, of the confusion etched into the arch of his very brows. He asked softly, “What does it mean if Scott doesn’t feel a pack bond with me?”

Deaton turned back to the desk, flipping the file open and lifting a new x-ray to the film viewer. He said without a hint of concern, his tone even and sure, “Then you might not be in Scott’s pack.”

It was the same thing Stiles had been wondering to himself, but hearing Deaton put it into words was like a punch to the gut. He hadn’t been expecting it, not from Deaton, and it hurt all the more for the shock that came with it.

“Scott says I’m pack, so doesn’t that count? He’s the Alpha, after all.”

Deaton sighed and turned back to Stiles. His gaze was intent, his hands settling on his knees firmly, as he answered, “A pack is not a club, Stiles. It’s not a clique or a team. It is a supernatural connection with distinct hierarchies between werewolves and the individuals connected to the Alpha. This isn’t school, and Scott isn’t just inviting people to his birthday party. This matters. Just because Scott says one thing, doesn’t mean his wolf recognizes it.”

Stiles’s chest tightened, as though a hand had reached out to grasp his heart firmly. He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry, before he asked his next question:

“Then what does it mean if Derek says he feels a pack bond with me and my dad?”

A small smile graced Deaton’s lips. He nodded his head sagely. “The two of you have spent a lot of time together in close proximity over the past few months. Before this, my understanding from what you’ve told me is that Derek was alone, correct? He and Cora parted ways during their travels?”

Stiles didn’t say anything but he gave a stiff nod, never removing his gaze from Deaton’s face.

“It’s a great sign of trust, for Derek to admit that he feels a pack bond to you,” Deaton explained, his hand reaching up to brush against his chest, almost as though he were trying to touch his own heart. “And you should know, a pack bond can’t go one way. If Derek feels the bond, then on some level, you and your father reciprocate it.”

His breath was shallow. His stomach lurched. His palms were sweaty. If anyone else had heard these symptoms, they might have discerned he felt panic, but they’d be wrong. This was joy. Tightly contained, but there all the same.

Deaton kept talking. “Think of it like...Scott and Peter, when he was first bitten. The pack bond was mutual, calling to Scott even when he actively resisted it. It was instinctive for him as a Beta to feel a pack bond to his sire. This isn’t a comment on Scott, or his morality. It’s a fact of nature. The pack bond existed. They both felt it. Peter had to be killed for that bond to be severed.”

Stiles thought back to the way that Derek had brought up the same comparison all those weeks ago, when he’d first admitted to feeling the pack bond.

“But,” Stiles started. “What does it mean if Derek has no Alpha, and Scott, apparently, isn’t mine? How does that work?”

Deaton appraised him for a moment, his gaze searching. Eventually, he said, “I understand the source of your questions from the other day. All that talk about Alpha-less packs and whether I knew of any, I see now.”

Stiles flushed at the comment, and diverted his gaze away from the druid.

“Well,” Deaton said. “I stand by my previous statements. I haven’t heard of any Alpha-less packs. But then, before Derek I’d never heard of an Alpha willingly giving up his power to save a Beta. He was only able to do that because the innate magic of the earth agreed with his actions. As for an Alpha-less pack, sooner or later nature will right the course. Stability will be found again.”

It didn’t make any sense to Stiles, but nothing Deaton said ever made sense.

Maybe now that Stiles understood the pack bonds better, he’d be able to strengthen his tie with Scott. If he could do that, if the bond could grow stronger now that he knew it was missing, maybe that would fix everything. If Derek felt a pack bond with Stiles, and Stiles built a pack bond with Scott, they could fix this. They could be a pack again.

Or, rather, for the very first time.

He lifted his chin to look upon Deaton, another question forming in his brain. He asked, “If I don’t have an Alpha, and I’ve never had a pack tie with Scott, why did you decide to train me to be an emissary?”

Deaton smirked and turned back to his x-rays. His back to Stiles, he started making notes in the file. The room was silent a moment, and Stiles wasn’t sure if Deaton was ever going to answer him. Then:

“You have the potential and the talent, Stiles. It would be a waste not to to nurture it.”

***

Training with Deaton was always cryptic, and these days the sessions had gotten progressively longer. Back when they’d first started, the sessions usually lasted only an hour, maybe ninety minutes. These days it was customary for Stiles to spend most of his evening at the vet’s office, pouring over texts and talking to Deaton.

It was almost eight o’clock when Stiles pulled up to the house. He’d sent a text to Derek when he left the office to let him know he was on his way home. In his backpack was all his school work that he hadn’t started along with the emissary’s diary that Deaton wanted him to read. He already felt exhausted at the thought of the work he needed to get through.

He sighed, parked Roscoe, and slung his backpack over his shoulder. When he walked into the house, he was prepared to grab whatever leftovers were in the fridge and trudge up to his bedroom to get started. Instead, Stiles found the dining room table set with Dad and Derek sitting and waiting for him. His jaw dropped, along with his backpack.

“What?” he managed to stammer out, shutting the front door behind him as he stepped closer to the table. “I told you to eat without me.”

Dad smiled, his arm in the cast resting on a pillow on the table. “Derek decided to cook dinner for the both of us. We know you don’t get home ‘til late, so he didn’t get started with cooking until an hour or so ago.”

Derek flushed at Dad’s words and leaned over to grab Dad’s plate so he could load it up with food.

Stiles wasn’t sure that he could close his mouth. He gazed down at the table and stared, shocked, at the giant bowl of salad, the plate of green beans, and lemon chicken. There was fresh loaf of whole wheat sunflower bread. A heart healthy meal that Dad was actually likely to eat. And then, as though he hadn’t been shocked enough as it was, Stiles watched as Derek put down Dad’s plate and proceeded to cut up the food.

Providing for his pack. Feeding them. Caring for them.

Stiles stared, speechless, completely unable to grasp the image playing out in front of him. But it didn’t matter, because somewhere in the depths of his heart, he felt a tug. Not to the Nemeton. Not to anything dark or nefarious or horrifying. Only buoyant and light and full of love. He dropped his gaze as though he should have been able to see a string tied firmly to his ribcage leading out across the space to be tied directly to Dad’s...and Derek’s.

It was as though all he’d needed was to have that conversation with Deaton. Stiles couldn’t understand how he hadn’t noticed this bond before. It was so strong. Like he could have wrapped his hands around that string and pulled as hard as possible, and brought Derek’s chest to his in one fell swoop.

They were a pack. The three of them, together, caring for each other no matter what happened next.

Stiles couldn’t entirely wrap his mind around it, but he allowed himself to sit down at the table and hand his plate to Derek. He watched as the werewolf loaded up his plate with meat and greens and cut off a hunk of the bread before passing the plate back to him.

“Uh,” he started, unsure exactly what to say. He shook his head stubbornly. “What’s going on with that perp from the other day? Charges going to stick?”

“Looking like it,” Dad said, tentatively lifting a bite of chicken to his mouth with his left hand. “Parrish filed all the paperwork since I’m a little out of commission when it comes to writing. Domestic battery is only a misdemeanor that carries a threat of one year in the county lockup. But shooting at me constitutes battery against a peace officer, which can be filed as a felony and carry up to three years in state. So we’ll see. Parrish is doing good work holding down the fort despite being a rookie.”

Stiles glanced over at Derek and asked pointedly, “And when are you going to be the new rookie around the Sheriff’s department, huh?”

Dad laughed and took another bite of his dinner. He said, “I’m curious as to that question, too. Derek hasn’t given me an answer yet.”

He didn’t say anything immediately, but eventually Derek looked up at Dad. A flush still burned on his cheeks as he muttered, clearly embarrassed by their teasing, “I was going to tell you when you felt better, sir. I’d like to accept your offer.”

“First things first, Derek, remember: please call me John. But otherwise,” he grinned at the two of them. “This calls for a celebration. Why don’t I grab us some beers?”

Derek shook his head and laughed, before he stood up and wandered into the kitchen. Not bothered by where he went, Stiles rolled his eyes and gestured at Dad with his fork before he said, “Well, I can think of a couple reasons why that’s not a viable option. One, you shouldn’t drink on your pain medication. Two, Derek is a werewolf and can’t get drunk. And three, I’m your underage son and you’re the Sheriff of this town.”

"Obviously, you wouldn't get any, Stiles," Dad laughed, winking at Stiles as he took another bite of his dinner.

Derek stepped back into the dining room and held up a six-pack. He smiled at the two of them, his grin open and trusting, and said, “Actually, I bought some non-alcoholic beer that your d—John could drink on his medication. I’ll even let you have one if you ask nicely.”

Stiles looked up at him, and like the Grinch he felt his heart triple in size. His jaw had dropped ever so slightly, and he stared at Derek, at the man before him looking so vulnerable in front of his pack—his newfound family. His eyes were bright and full of mirth, and Stiles’ mouth went dry as his heart beat fast in his chest.

This wasn’t just friendship. Not just pack. Not even close. There was only one word to describe it, and Stiles wasn’t entirely sure if he could manage to form the word, even to himself. Instead he only stared; watched as Derek approached the table and talked animatedly with his dad, opening the beers and knocking cans with Dad’s, a laugh ripping from his lips from something Dad said. Stiles didn’t want Derek to ever leave. Not when it felt so good to have him here.

***

Stiles lay in bed, his eyes shut tight and the duvet pulled up to his chin. He was well on his way to sleep having turned the lights off over an hour ago, with the only visible luminosity left coming from the sliver of moonlight peeking through the bedroom curtains. Somewhere in the house he could hear Dad fumbling around, probably trying to get changed without the use of his dominant hand. Derek was already gone, off patrolling the preserve and not set to return for another few hours. Stiles’ homework was done, tucked away in his backpack, while the emissary’s diary lay open on his bedside table.

As he slipped into his dreams, he felt a sense of dread crawling up and over the length of his body. Starting at his feet, like roots wrapping around his ankles and tugging violently until it felt like he was suffocating under a mountain of dirt, he felt the Nemeton calling to him, lowly, her voice not even exactly a voice as it filled him with need and desperation and fear. Come to me, Stiles. Come forth.

It beckoned, whispered for him to leave the comfort of his bed and drag his bare feet out into the preserve until he found himself on his hands and knees digging through the moist dirt. Searching for something. Needed.

He rolled over, buried his face into his pillow, and unconsciously tried to block himself from the Nemeton. Instead, as he slid into his dreams silently, he saw only Derek, laughing, and felt the warmth of the pack bond in place of the cold, cloying touch of the Nemeton’s bark.

But somewhere in the depths of his dream, he knew the Nemeton was still out there. Beckoning him forth. Waiting to claim him and show him what new darkness was lurking in the forest waiting to attack.

Chapter Text

They were all in Stiles’ bedroom, talking over one another loudly; they’d been at it for well over an hour by then, trying and failing to make sense of what was happening. On his wall were maps, photos, news articles—all connected with red and blue string, with colored post-it notes sticking out from the pieces of evidence Stiles thought were particularly noteworthy. Everything the four of them had found over the past month, laid bare on the wall in front of him. Sometimes he wasn’t surprised that he couldn’t sleep.

“There haven’t been any new dead bucks,” Derek said, leaning back against the closet door, his arms crossed in front of him. He stood removed from the others, a certain distance away from all of them that he’d deemed acceptable, but every now and then his gaze flickered across the room to meet Stiles’ eyes. “But two nights ago I found a dead pregnant doe at the base of the Nemeton.”

Lydia clicked her tongue in disgust, scribbling furiously on the notepad in front of her. She tucked a stray strand of red hair behind her ear and glanced up at Derek. She asked, hesitant, “Was the fetus disturbed?”

The room was silent for a moment as everyone took the question in, horrified.

Derek shook his head quickly. “No. Nothing like that. It’s just—frustrating. We’re always one step behind.”

From his seat in Stiles’ computer chair where he’d been scrolling through the database for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Danny asked, “Does it matter that the doe was pregnant? There’s power in fertility, right? There has to be.”

“Probably,” Stiles answered, offhandedly and over his shoulder, while adding another post-it note to the wall of evidence beside his bed. “I’ll ask Deaton. But I can’t think of what someone would be trying to accomplish that a pregnant doe and a buck could initiate. Not to mention, I would think the dead does would come before the bucks, not after.”

Fertility does have power, Stiles thought idly, twirling the pen between his fingers. Life, creation, birth, new beginnings. All powerful in their own right. But what power did that share with the bucks? Virility, maybe. He wrote the words on the post-it in red Sharpie. It was the last one he had.

From her spot in the middle of his bed, her notes spread out across his duvet cover, Lydia said, “So, Danny and I have been trying to re-examine the Alpha deaths as best we could. They’ve all been ruled animal attacks, unsurprisingly. Stiles—I gave you the articles, right?”

He tapped the newspaper clippings taped up in front of him as confirmation.

“But we weren’t sure—why was a werewolf ruled out so quickly?” Lydia asked, turning to look at Derek.

Before he could answer, Stiles said, “The Alpha powers passed naturally in the packs to the proper heirs. That wouldn’t have happened if an outside werewolf had murdered them. I mean, potentially, maybe it makes sense if all the heirs coincidentally killed their Alphas around the same time, but it seems highly unlikely.”

Danny scratched the side of his head. His black hair stood in every which direction, a little disheveled, a little all over the place. It looked good. Objectively, that is.

“But couldn’t the killer be another Alpha? Maybe the Alpha power is passing on naturally because the murderer already has the power,” Danny asked, confusion evident in his question.

Derek shook his head. “That’s not possible. Even if the killer was an Alpha, they’d still take their victim’s power.”

“Like the Alpha pack,” Stiles explained. “You gain the power of the were you kill. When Deucalion crushed Ennis’ skull, he absorbed his Alpha power.”

Danny made a face, his nose crinkled and eyebrows furrowed together. It was clear what he thought of that answer.

“It still doesn’t make sense to assume the killer is a human,” Lydia said, her legs crossed primly beneath her, her plaid skirt spread out across her thighs. She pulled the Bestiary into her lap and flipped through the pages until she found the entry she was looking for. “There were clear claw marks on all of the bodies. Obviously they’re not being mauled by bears after hunters kill them, so it has to be something supernatural. A kitsune maybe?”

Derek scoffed, knocking the back of his head against the closet door before he said, “Did you even read their entry? Kitsune don’t have claws. These Alphas weren’t burnt by foxfire.”

She glared at him, her perfectly done eyebrows drawn together. “Fine, what about a werecoyote? Or a werejaguar? The Bestiary doesn’t make them sound very common, but still…”

“The power logic would be the same,” Stiles said. “They would absorb the Alpha’s powers if another were was the one who killed them. As for the marks, it’s possible there are human weapons that could make them. I don’t know, we only know how they’ve been described.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, Stiles,” Lydia snapped, her lips set in a firm line.

He felt a flash of a memory, back before they were entangled in each other’s lives. When she didn’t care to know him and, if her gaze wasn’t passing over him with utter disinterest, it was just like now: glare from across a classroom when he got the answer right before her, or a disdainful look when he was too loud in the hallways. He hadn’t missed this feeling.

She gestured at the Bestiary and said, “Without any more information about the murders, I can’t give any more accurate guesses. There are too many t—things listed in here! Maybe Mr. Argent would know more? He’s more familiar with the Bestiary than any of us.”

“No Argents,” Derek grumbled.

Before anyone could respond to that declaration, Danny glanced up from the database he was scrolling through. “I could hack into the local law enforcement, see if there’s been any movement on the cases. Some information we missed? We’ve mostly just been going off of newspaper articles and what Peter said, right?”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Stiles said. He lit up, his brain making the connections as he stared at the wall in front of him. “Look for the autopsy reports if they bothered to conduct them. Try to find photos of the marks if possible. Pay close attention to witness statements. Maybe there will be some similarities between the cases. A noticeable stranger in town around the time of the murders.”

Danny nodded, his grin sharp. He said, “That’ll definitely help with my data management skills. How do you think I can reflect all this skill building on my resume? Hobbies or independent research project?”

If anyone answered him, Stiles wasn’t sure. Instead, he thought of his top three suspects, the three individuals he’d kept close to his chest, unable to really let go of them even though the evidence didn’t exactly fit.

But what mattered to him was this: Beacon Hills was important to all of them. Whoever was doing the killings, they’d stayed here the longest without killing anyone, almost completely undetected. They’d played with powers greater than their own: the Nemeton, ritual sacrifice, probably more. And they were killing innocents. Again. It sounded exactly like Deucalion, Gerard, and Peter.

It didn’t make sense, the way he held their names so close to his chest. Peter, at the very least, was definitely a werewolf and clearly wasn’t an Alpha. He didn’t appear any stronger now than the last time he’d been in town, two years ago. But that didn’t explain the convenience of his phone records, how they showed he’d been around much longer than he claimed.

Similarly, Deucalion was also a werewolf. Not to mention Stiles hadn’t heard anything of the so-called Demon Wolf since Derek and Scott had let him go. It wasn’t a choice Stiles could find within himself to agree with. Deucalion had proven that he had no problem working with magic before, that he was greedy for power. Who could say what he was up to these days? He stayed on Stiles’ list.

As for Gerard, Stiles couldn’t rule him out. They’d never found a body. He shuddered at the thought, remembered the hail of fists raining down on his limp form. He could still picture Erica and Boyd hanging from their wrists, electricity coursing through their bodies. The last anyone had seen of Gerard, he’d left behind a trail of black sludge that seemed to disappear into the Preserve never to be seen again. But he’d been a hunter all his life. It wasn’t impossible to imagine if he’d managed to survive, that he’d find some way to continue killing the beasts he’d cravenly hunted.

Derek said, interrupting Stiles’ thoughts, “I’ll continue to patrol the Preserve. Maybe spread it out wider into the city to see if I can track the scent. Find the source.”

Stiles nodded, but he didn’t know where they could go from here. They kept running in circles, round and round they went, the four of them bouncing back between the same handful of unfinished ideas and plans. They didn’t have enough information. They were lacking the data to adequately assess the situation. He felt like he was tackling an SAT question, only this one had life and death consequences.

Stiles glared at the messy wall in front of him until he sensed someone beside him. He turned to his left, ready to tell Derek to take a giant step back, when he realized it was Danny standing beside him. The other boy was staring at the map before them, his bottom lip caught between his teeth, worrying at the flesh.

“Beacon Hills feels like an outlier,” he said, his finger tracing the string Stiles had tied between the eight confirmed locations where Alphas had been found slaughtered. “Two murders in Washington, two in Oregon, one in Nevada, and the rest in southern California. It’s like whoever’s doing this has purposefully been avoiding northern Cali.”

Stiles stepped closer to Danny, his own hand reaching out to touch the map. “It’s not like there are a lot of packs up here. The closest is, what, Pack Zhang in Redding?”

He glanced over his shoulder and found Derek nodding at the question.

“Well, they would have made more sense as a target compared to us,” Danny said. His finger found Redding on the map: smack dab in the middle of the string’s path. Beacon Hills was farther west and significantly off route for whoever was leaving behind this wake of destruction.

Stiles stared, a little surprised. He hadn’t considered why they were being targeted. A dumb oversight, but he had just assumed that whoever this was they were looking for Alphas, and Beacon Hills had one. A True one, at that. He would have thought that was enough.

“Maybe we’re unconnected from what’s been happening with everyone else,” Danny suggested. “There haven’t been any murders in over six months. Maybe whoever killed the Alphas gave up or died.”

From across the room, Derek snorted. He asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “And when have we ever gotten so lucky?”

“Never,” Lydia whispered.

Stiles spun around. She’d been quiet for so long, he’d assumed she was enthralled in the Bestiary. Instead Lydia sat cross-legged on his bed, the book closed. She wasn’t looking at any of her notes. She lifted her gaze to meet his, her eyes an empty void of never-ending terror. His throat closed in sympathy, but he didn’t know why.

She took a shuddery breath, her hands trembling as she ran her fingers through her hair. A strand got caught on her earring, but she didn’t seem to notice. She dragged her fingers down her face until they rested at the base of her neck.

“I feel on the verge of screaming all the time,” she breathed. “Everywhere I go.”

Well, fuck. Stiles dropped down on the bed beside her, blindly reaching out to grasp her hand in his. Their fingers found each other, slid home in the empty spaces and squeezed tight. Almost as though they were both trying to ground the other in a better reality. A safer one.

He didn’t look at Lydia, but he couldn’t stop himself from finding Derek in the room. He swiped his tongue across his bottom lip and swallowed, his throat dry and tight and said the words he’d been keeping to himself for almost two years:

“I keep feeling the Nemeton calling out to me. I don’t know what it wants.”

This was a time for secrets, apparently.

He was still staring at Derek when he saw the werewolf take his own deep breath. Derek closed his eyes briefly, before he seemed to determine that it was worth speaking aloud. He seemed to be searching for the words even as he said them, “I wake up and feel hyper-alert. It feels like...the town needs me to be ready. The same way it needed me to be here.”

They were all silent. Lydia still squeezed his hand. Stiles wanted to reach out and pull Derek onto the bed but he still stood so far away, his back pressed against the closet door like it was a safety blanket shielding him from something. Like he couldn’t bear to show his back to them for fear they might stab it.

Danny gave an uncomfortable laugh. Three sets of eyes sought him out in the room. He looked wide-eyed, so naive and unfamiliar with their experiences that he wasn’t sure what to say. He shrugged, a quirk of a smile pulling at his lips and flashing his dimples at the room. “I’m really worried about my English final.”

There was a beat, and then:

Laughter. The tension broke and the four of them laughed, loudly, freely, brightly. Lydia’s fingers squeezed his one last time before they pulled free of his grasp, and he turned to watch as she curled them around the curve of her stomach. It looked painful to laugh that hard, but that only made Stiles laugh louder. Derek had his face in both his hands, his shoulders shaking as he tried to stifle the noise. Danny flushed, pleased with the reaction he’d gotten from his chance at levity.

It felt good to laugh. And it felt right to laugh with them. The four of them together. He wondered what it all smelled like to Derek. Probably like Heaven. Pack.

After they’ve calmed down, the laughs drifting into a gentler chuckle, Lydia and Danny start packing up their school bags. At some point, she promised Danny to help him with studying for English. It was late in the evening, and while spring was just beginning to spread, it was still early enough in the season that the sun set around 7PM. They were well past that time and the night was dark once again.

Before they could even finish zipping up their bags, Stiles asked, somewhat nervously, “Would you guys maybe want to stay for dinner?”

He held his breath. He felt like he’d been here before. There was a brief moment, a flash of fear as Stiles wondered if he shouldn’t have offered. He considered retracting the invitation but didn’t get the chance to even open his mouth.

“Well, what type of food are we talking?” Danny asked, dropping his book bag on the floor and settling back into the computer chair.

Lydia pursed her lips, “I vote for sushi.”

“No way,” Danny said, shaking his head. “I’m thinking pizza.”

“That’s so pedestrian,” Lydia scoffed.

Danny, affronted, gaped at her. “It’s pizza.

Before Lydia could begin listing out the particular failures of that logic, Stiles suggested, “I was thinking Thai?”

“Oh,” they both said. Danny and Lydia looked at each other from across the room, some unsaid conversation happening between the two of them. Then Lydia nodded, her red hair slipping down her shoulder. “Thai sounds perfect. I’m craving some Tom Yum Goong.”

It wasn’t planned, but the three of them turned at the same time to look at Derek, as though they were waiting for his approval. Almost as if he was in charge and got the final say. Like he was their Alpha, even if he wasn’t the Alpha.

Derek looked flustered. He took a questioning step closer to the bed, away from the closet. For a moment Stiles thought of the packs Derek had been in before, what his place had been in them, how he would have operated amongst everyone else. His family, where he was one of the younger wolves, protected by the rest, and certain that Laura would one day be Alpha. His two person (three person? Did Peter count?) pack with Laura, the two of them grieving and struggling to survive in an urban landscape like New York City. Then: Erica, Boyd, and Isaac, the makeshift pack of broken things all leaning on each other for support with Derek as the Alpha who didn’t know what he was doing. It wasn’t entirely different to now, except that Derek seemed more careful with his actions now, more gentle in how he dealt with people. Stiles watched, amused, as Derek shrugged his shoulders, puzzled over where to put his hands when his arms weren’t folded across his chest.

“Thai sounds good,” he said, his tone unsure.

“Perfect!” Stiles said, jumping off the bed. He bounded over to his bedroom door, swinging it open, thoughts of drunken noodles and Thai curry filling his head. “We’ve got some menus in the kitchen.”

He glanced over his shoulder and caught Derek’s gaze. They smiled at each other, like they held a secret. Stiles wondered if Derek could feel the pack bond pulsing, so strong after an afternoon spent in the same room together. Probably. Stiles glanced down at his chest, once again surprised that he didn’t see rope threading out from his chest. Today he imagined there were three strings slipping out from between his rib cage, tied tightly to everyone in that room.

As he moved to rush down the stairs he heard Derek ask, his voice quiet and getting quieter the further away Stiles got, “Is Jackson doing okay in London?”

He didn’t hear Lydia and Danny’s answer. It didn’t matter. He didn’t feel like he was missing out on anything; they’d let him in on the conversation when he got back. There was nothing but warmth bathed around his heart, happiness, the utter feeling of appreciation.

Was this what pack always felt like? Or just Derek’s pack?

***

Three days later, Stiles was driving down the back roads by the Preserve. His windows were rolled up tight, the A/C off, as he tried to avoid the stench of the forest. He wondered if it smelled this bad to the rest of the town, or if there was something magical about the rotting smell something that only those touched by the supernatural could sense.

Stiles had decided to run a quick errand after lacrosse practice and had skipped the shower in favor of making it to the store before it closed for the evening. He was still wearing his uniform, the sweat drying against his skin uncomfortably. In the seat behind him were a couple of nondescript white plastic bags, filled with more string, thumb tacks, and post-it notes. He was trying to hurry home, an unease souring in his stomach as he stared at the road before him. It felt like the few times Stiles was able to pinpoint when Deaton passed through his wards.

He was about two-thirds of the way home when his car began to slow down. Confused, Stiles pressed his foot down harder on the gas pedal, but the car continued its sluggish descent until he finally rolled to a stop. His foot still pressed down, the Jeep went nowhere.

Bewildered, Stiles checked his fuel gauge. Empty.

It didn’t make any sense; he’d filled his tank just that weekend. There was no possible way that Stiles had driven enough to deplete the tank that quickly.

He threw his hazards on and placed the Jeep in park. Thankfully the road out by the Preserve was usually pretty deserted, so Stiles wasn’t too worried about disrupting traffic. He moved to unbuckle his seatbelt when something knocked on his window.

Flailing, Stiles whirled around with nothing more to protect him than the set of his keys he clutched in his right hand. Before he could say anything, his brain finally registered who he was seeing.

Peter was standing beside his car.

His jaw dropped, ever so slightly, forcing his lips to part as he stared at the werewolf. His hands, still clutching his keys, dropped into his lap in surprise. Peter’s lips lifted into a small smile—but it felt like a mockery of one. Like he hated having to smile at Stiles, let alone look upon his face.

Stiles set his jaw. The pit of his stomach roiled with discomfort, but he refused to reveal that to Peter. It was too much of a coincidence, his car running out of gas at the same time the werewolf appeared by his side. Still, he reached out and rolled down his window—not far. Just enough that they could meet each other’s eyes without any glass in the way; but Stiles knew it would be difficult for Peter to try and reach an arm through the crack in the window. Not unless he wanted to shatter the glass.

He wouldn’t put it past him.

“What do you want, Peter?” he asked.

Peter tilted his head to the left, studying the window between them. His hands clasped behind his back, he rocked forward on his toes and asked, “Run out of gas, Stiles?”

When Stiles glared at him rather than respond, Peter explained, “I’ve been calling Derek. He hasn’t been answering.”

Stiles frowned. “Why didn’t you just come by the house if you needed him?”

“I didn’t think I’d be welcome,” Peter said. He arched an eyebrow as he stared at Stiles. “The last time I was there, you did express a talent for getting blood out of carpets. Mine, specifically.”

Stiles looked at Peter askance, considering him. It wasn’t an entirely inaccurate assumption to make. He sighed. “That was...surprisingly decent of you.”

The werewolf pursed his lips but said nothing. Only nodded his head slightly, as though acknowledging what Stiles had said.

“What do you want with Derek?” he asked.

Peter replied, “I wanted to talk to him about the old property. It appears as though someone has been squatting there.”

“Well,” Stiles said. He flexed his fingers around his keys. “We already knew that, so it looks as though you’re a little behind.”

“Then I assume that you agree it must be connected to Beacon Hills unbalance?”

Stiles made a face. “Obviously. You going to do anything about it? Or are you just planning on being your usual creeper self?”

Peter pulled his right hand from behind his back and examined his nails, almost bored. Stiles couldn’t be sure, but they looked longer than normal. Almost as though Peter was just barely allowing his claws to poke through. He said, his tone uninterested, “There’s not much I can do, Stiles. After all, I’m not the one with a connection to the Nemeton in this town.”

Stiles paled. He hadn’t realized Peter was aware of the sacrifice Stiles and the rest had made. He had left town so quickly after the Alpha pack was killed, Stiles had assumed that Peter was lacking in some information. Apparently not.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Stiles lied.

Instead of responding, Peter glanced up from his nails. He held Stiles’ gaze and asked, his voice dripping with insincere curiosity, “Why have you been spending so much time with our dearly beloved veterinarian?”

Stiles’ stomach twisted. He sucked in a breath at the implication. Did Peter already know the answer? He forced himself to stay calm and tried to project an air of superiority. “Why, Peter. Have you been following me?”

“Not at all,” the werewolf said, his tone light and his mouth curved into a smile. Like a shark. Or a werewolf. “I stopped by to ask him a question about the dead deer and spotted your Jeep.”

Stiles stared at the wolf, studying his expression. It wasn’t impossible. Roscoe was an undeniably recognizable car. There was nothing nondescript about it. And Deaton’s was the first place Stiles and Derek had turned to for answers about the dead deer. Why shouldn’t it be the same with Peter?

The problem, of course, was that even if Stiles doubted Peter, he couldn’t call him out on the fact. Not here. Not out on a deserted road as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon and casting the sky in a brilliant blaze of orange. It would be dark soon, and there was nothing in between the two of them other than a car door. Fuck, why hadn’t Deaton taught him more defensive magic? Just to be safe.

Before he could say anything, Peter inclined his head and asked, his voice pitched low above the sounds of the woods, “Does your esteemed Alpha know what you’ve been up to?”

Stiles clenched his jaw and resolutely refused to answer.

In response, Peter’s smile sharpened. He asked, a certain melodic quality to his words, “Why, Stiles, are you going to be the new emissary of this territory?”

He didn’t know why Peter was asking, didn’t know how they’d gone from talking about Derek and the squatter in the Preserve to questions about his training and whether or not he’d be the future emissary. Either way, it set him on edge. The hairs on his forearms seemed to stand up on their own, his every nerve on fire by this line of questioning, by the look on Peter’s face, by the sound of his voice, a threat etched into his every word.

He tried to catalogue the few makeshift weapons he might be able to find in his car. There weren’t many. The large Sheriff’s department flashlight in his glove compartment might be heavy enough to hit Peter in the face if he could get to it. There was a baseball bat in the trunk of the Jeep, but Stiles couldn’t reach it from the driver’s seat. He made a note to move it up to the back seat for moments just like this.

Forcing his voice to remain steady, he tried to imbue his own words with power. “Fuck off, Peter. I wouldn’t have any problem leaving you dead in a ditch beside this road.”

Peter’s eyes seemed to brighten with Stiles’ every word. He seemed amused by his threat. He chuckled to himself mostly, and said, “Please remind Derek to pick up my calls. I’d rather not meet like this again in the future. So inconvenient.”

Then, without a second glance back at Stiles, Peter shifted into his beta form and departed into the Preserve. Stiles only caught a brief glimpse of the bright blue eyes and the razor-sharp teeth before they were gone. A memory of a dream already distorted by the hours of restless sleep in between.

Stiles released the breath he’d been holding and groaned, tipping his head back to rest against the seat. He rolled up the window as quickly as he could. His heartbeat, which had been steady during the entire confrontation, finally began to race. His hands shook as he reached for his phone and swiped the screen until he found his contacts. He called Dad, waiting as the ringtone filled the car, and tried to calm himself. The unease still gripped his stomach tightly, refusing to let up. He didn’t know why.

When Dad answered, Stiles let out another shaky breath. He said, “Hey Dad. You busy? I need some help with my car.”

***

It was twilight as Stiles pulled up to the house, the sky a diffused purple haze. It was that brief period of time between daylight and darkness, when the world was still illuminated by the echo of the rapidly vanishing sun. But Stiles couldn’t admire the color of the sky just then. Instead he stared, confused, by the sight of Derek and Scott standing in the driveway. Neither looked happy.

He parked the Jeep and unbuckled his belt swiftly, jumping out of the car. Stiles’ gaze danced between the two and asked, “What’s going on?”

Scott’s crooked jaw was clenched, a fierceness to his countenance as his Alpha red eyes kept flashing. Derek stood a few feet across from him, annoyance evident on his face. He was wearing a henley and his sweatpants, his feet clad only in a pair of well-worn socks. Neither moved to answer first until Stiles prompted them again.

Finally, Scott said, his voice firm, “I was asking Derek when he was going to find his own place.”

“And I told him I wasn’t,” Derek said, his tone clipped, still glaring at the other werewolf.

Stiles deflated. This wasn’t what he’d wanted to come home to after his earlier confrontation with Peter. He ran his hand over his face, rubbing his eyes. He could see that Scott was trying to be a good friend. He just didn’t know where this hostility was coming from.

“Scott,” he said, exhaustion evident in his voice and the slump of his shoulders. “Derek isn’t bothering us. I already told you. We asked him to stay.”

Derek’s gaze flitted to Stiles’ as he said, “That’s what I told him.”

Still, he looked pleased to hear Stiles confirm the truth. Especially in front of Scott.

Stiles was so tired. He stepped up to Scott and placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. He said, “Maybe you should leave. We both probably have homework we should be working on.”

Not that he’d be getting any done. All Stiles wanted was to go inside and collapse on his bed to try and sleep for a year if possible. But he didn’t want to leave the two of them outside, alone, facing each other in the middle of the driveway. It didn’t seem wise. Derek was still glowering at Scott, his arms folded across his chest.

Scott knocked Stiles’ hand off his shoulder and scowled. “Right. Homework. Like I believe that’s what you’re planning on doing.”

Stiles winced at his words, hurt by the implication. He pressed his lips together and said, “You don’t have to know everything in my life, Scott. Some things are private.”

He didn’t know why he said that. All he was planning on doing was sleeping. It was unnecessarily antagonistic, and Scott rose to the bait. His red eyes flashed again.

“Like what you and Deaton get up to at the clinic? Or did you think I didn’t know?”

Stiles’ jaw went slack. He didn’t know what to say, and instead only moved his lips wordlessly. He couldn’t find his voice.

Scott seemed bolstered by his stunned silence. He took a step closer to Stiles, his hand coming up to shove Stiles’ slightly. Not hard enough to hurt or even cause him to lose his balance. Just enough to be felt. Scott said, “Last October, I left my backpack at the clinic so I dropped by to pick it up. I thought no one would be there. But your Jeep was. And you.”

Apprehensive, Stiles asked, “What did you hear?”

He wasn’t sure how he wanted Scott to respond. It would be easier, wouldn’t it, if Scott already knew everything? If Stiles didn’t have to shape the words, didn’t have to explain why he’d kept this secret for so long. Or would it be harder? To hear the truth that Stiles had kept secret for over a year coming out of Scott’s mouth. If Scott already knew, then what had been the point of keeping it a secret? Had there ever been one?

Derek watched them both warily.

“Nothing,” Scott said. Stiles felt a rush of relief mixed with disappointment. “You clearly didn’t want me to know. But I know you’ve been going back there. Are you finally going to tell me what you two have been doing?”

On instinct, Stiles’ gaze flickered to Derek. His packmate. Stiles needed his strength to get through this next conversation.

Scott misinterpreted the look. He seemed to calm a little, his expression softening. His tone was gentle as he cupped his hand around Stiles’ upper arm. “We can talk in private if you don’t want Derek to hear.”

And in that moment, Stiles knew there was nothing he could do. He’d waited too long. He’d made the wrong call. The next words out of his mouth were going to hurt Scott, his best friend, and he couldn’t soften the blow. Couldn’t take them back, because they were the truth, and Scott deserved nothing less than Stiles’ honesty.

He shrugged, dropping his gaze to the concrete driveway. “Derek already knows.”

Stiles rushed forward to explain the rest. About Deaton telling him about his spark. About the offer to train him. About his potential to be an emissary. About how he had magic—actual, real magic that lit up his every nerve and set his world on fire. This wasn’t how Stiles had imagined the conversation going down. Up until recently, Stiles had always assumed he was going to be Scott’s emissary. That the conversation would have been tied up inextricably with their future, together. Alpha and emissary. Pack. But that had changed and now there was only this:

A friend whose heart was breaking, and Stiles was the one who’d caused it.

Scott looked gutted. Of everything Stiles confessed, there seemed to be only one thing Scott had taken away from it. He asked, “Why would you tell Derek and not me?”

Stiles forced himself to meet Scott’s gaze. He desperately wanted to reach out to his best friend but didn’t know how. He’d never not known how. He shrugged again, even though the gesture felt hollow even to him. “I don’t know.”

Scott swept his arm across the space between the three of them. His eyes bright with unshed tears, he said, “Maybe you would tell me these things if Derek wasn’t around all the time.”

It would hurt less if Scott was angry instead of in pain.

Stiles could do nothing but shake his head. “You know that’s not fair. It was my choice not to tell you. Deaton’s been training me for over a year. Derek only came back to town three months ago.”

The sky was dark by then; the only light in the driveway pooled around the three of them came from the side of the house and the streetlamp up above. Stiles blinked back tears.

“I’m your Alpha,” Scott exclaimed. There was a desperate quality to his voice. An edge that cut Stiles, because he knew his next words would cut even worse.

“No,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “You’re not.”

Scott looked startled, which was quickly replaced by hurt. A few steps away from them, Derek had dropped his arms to his side, his expression shamefaced as he stared at the ground. He looked uncomfortable.

Stiles sniffled, and wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. He forced himself to look at Scott and, wildly, unsure of how else to explain, asked, “What does the pack bond feel like to you?”

Scott choked out a laugh. “It doesn’t matter.”

Derek didn’t look at either of them, directing his gaze up to the stars that were beginning to light up the night sky. He said, “It does, Scott. The pack bond...it’s what ties you together. It grounds you. When he’s hurt, you should know. When you need him, he should be able to tell. You walk this world together when you have a bond like that. You’re never alone.”

Scott’s cheeks were wet. He was crying. It hurt Stiles but he forced himself not to look away. Scott wept, “But you’re my best friend.”

“But I’m not your packmate,” Stiles said.

“You could be.”

Stiles’ cheeks felt hot with his own tears. He shook his head. “I don’t think I can.”

He didn’t mean to, but he couldn’t stop his gaze from flickering to Derek. He looked startled by the implication of Stiles’ glance.

Scott watched them both, betrayed. He reached up and used his jacket sleeve to wipe away the tears and snot, his face flushed when he pulled his arm back. He turned away from them and got on the back of his bike. He didn’t turn around to look at Stiles before he shoved on his helmet, and turned the ignition key. Stiles tried to call out to him, but his name was lost over the roar of the bike coming to life, of the squeal of his tires as he pulled out of the driveway and disappeared into the dark.

Stiles stared after him, unsure of how things had gone so wrong.

***

He was still standing there, staring out into the dark street when he felt a hand tentatively rest on his shoulder. From behind him, Derek said, “I’m sorry he took that badly.”

Stiles shrugged away from him. He wiped at his own face again and turned back to the werewolf. His tone sullen, he explained, “Scott had every right to be upset. I was deluding myself that I’d have the chance to sit him down to talk about it.”

His chest flared with anger and he shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. “He deserved better than a confrontation in the driveway.”

Derek gave a long suffering sigh. “It’s not your fault. Scott’s always making the wrong call.”

Stiles glared at him, skipping back a few steps when Derek tried to pat his arm again. He felt himself growing defensive as he glowered. “Shut up. He’s right to be mad at me. I should have talked to him months ago. A year, even.”

“He’s a werewolf, Stiles,” Derek said, exasperated. “An Alpha! He should have realized what was happening to your pack bond the instant anything changed about it.”

“You’re being unfair,” said Stiles.

Derek shook his head. He hunched his shoulders inwards and his gaze shuttered, growing distant. When he spoke, his voice was rough. “Losing a pack bond...it’s almost unbearable. I don’t understand how Scott didn’t do anything for so long.”

Stiles stared across the driveway at him. He dragged his tongue across his bottom lip, wetting it, as recognition flashed across him. He stammered, trying to be gentle, “It’s not the same. Your family...Erica, Boyd...they were taken from you. The bond was ripped apart.”

Derek’s eyes flashed bright blue as he turned back to meet Stiles’ gaze. Derek stared at his face, studying his features, and waved his hand to where Scott had been standing. He said, “But Isaac. And Jackson. It hurt so much to lose them—it still hurts. If Scott were a better Alpha, he would have done something earlier. He would have come to you. Why act like he cares now, yelling at you in the driveway?”

“That’s just it,” Stiles said, shaking his head. “I don’t think we ever had a pack bond. Not really. There was nothing there to lose.”

The werewolf scowled. Apparently, Stiles had said the wrong thing.

“Then he should have realized when he started to develop one with Isaac what you two were missing,” he sounded angry. “He should have worked harder at it—at keeping you!”

Stiles’ expression grew thunderous. He took a step towards Derek into his space. Derek took a step towards him as well. His teeth clenched together, he hissed, “You make it sound so easy! So simple. As if he wasn’t just some asthamtic kid who got dragged into the woods by his best friend and got turned into a fucking fairy tale monster by your deranged uncle!”

Stiles’ breath was ragged, his eyes wide, as he stared at Derek. Their faces were inches from each other, and he watched as Derek’s expression changed at that word. Monster. He regretted it instantly, watching as the hurt flooded Derek’s face.

“That’s not fair,” he said.

Stiles, shamed, bit his lip and looked away. He took a step back.

“Sorry,” he said, gruffly. There was still an edge of him that was defensive though. Of him. Of Scott. Of the choices they’d made all those years ago when everything went to shit and they were just useless teenagers. “But—you’re the one who was always telling him he was just a dumb kid who was going to get himself killed. Why would you expect him to understand this?”

Derek shook his head. He turned away from Stiles and faced the house instead, his shoulders folding inwards again. It always surprised him how small Derek could make himself look.

He said, “You don’t know what having that power is like. He’s the Alpha, Stiles, the True Alpha. He should know who’s in his pack and who isn’t. He should have complete control over his senses.”

Stiles snorted, derisively. “Like you did? Like Peter?”

Derek glanced back at him from over his shoulder. It was obvious he was insulted, and Stiles felt just as hurt. He didn’t want to fight. Not with both of them. How had this day turned so wrong? He needed to explain.

“He’s my best friend. My brother. I know you don’t get along.” Derek scoffed at the mention; his arms folded across his chest. Stiles pushed on, staring at Derek’s back. “I know he’s betrayed you before. I know he turned his back on you. But he’s my family. And I need you to understand that he always will be.”

“I get it, “ Derek said, his voice curt and his back stiff. He didn’t look at Stiles.

I don’t think you do, Stiles thought. He needed Derek to understand because of what was happening. The pack bond. It meant so much. It filled him to the brim with the heady feeling of togetherness and kin and family. But Scott was family too.

Even if he wasn’t pack.

Stiles’ words quivered, a dampness at the corner of his eyes that he wiped away furiously. He begged, a bitter resentment curdling in his stomach, “Don’t make me choose.”

You both matter to me, he thought hysterically, desperately trying to tamp down on his emotions. It’s not that I can’t choose—it’s that I don’t want to know who I’d pick. He wouldn’t even entertain the idea in the abstract. Either felt wrong. Like a betrayal. I need you both. I love you both.

When he lifted his gaze he found Derek had turned back to face him, staring at him, an indiscernible expression on the werewolf’s face. But it wasn’t hurt, or angry, just...soft. Gentle. Stiles didn’t know what it meant.

“I get it,” he said. When Stiles looked at him, doubting, Derek repeated, “I do. Or I will. Just...give me time.”

Derek stepped closer to him, his hand reaching out to cup Stiles’ cheek. His thumb swept across the arch of Stiles’ cheek bone. When he spoke, his voice was soft. “I know he’s important to you. I just.” He seemed to struggle to find the right words. “You were so alone when I first got here, Stiles. I could scent it on you and I don’t want that to happen to you again. You deserve better.”

Stiles pressed his cheek deeper into the curve of Derek’s palm. He let his eyelids flutter shut and tried to live in this moment. He whispered, his lips brushing against the heel of Derek’s palm, “It’s not Scott’s fault I was lonely. I didn’t ask for help when I needed it. That’s on me.”

There was a beat, and then, Derek’s voice again. Softer.

“He should have noticed.”

Stiles opened his eyes. It was dark outside. The temperature was cool. April had just begun and spring was well underway. He lifted his gaze to meet Derek’s.

“Maybe he should have,” he admitted. “But we could drown in maybes if we never stopped, Derek.”

The werewolf was gazing down at him, his hazel eyes dark but tender. It gave Stiles the strength to push on.

“It’s not going to help any of us. The what ifs. What matters is this: he’s my family and I hurt him.” He shook his head and stepped back, Derek’s hand dropping in the space between them. “There’s no excuse for that.”

Stiles hoped Scott had turned to someone who could help him. To Allison or Isaac, or both preferably. He hoped he wasn’t just alone at home hurting, but that he was being supported and cared for. He wished he could be the shoulder Scott could lean on, but that wasn’t feasible. Not tonight. So instead, Stiles hoped that Scott had turned to his pack—his real one.

The corner of Derek’s mouth lifted. He nodded his head. Stiles wasn’t sure what Derek was thinking. When he spoke, he was staring at the night sky again. “Give him some time to calm down. You two are best friends. You’ll work this out.”

Stiles shrugged. “Scott doesn’t understand the difference between pack and not. I don’t know how to make him see that he’s still important to me.”

“But you will,” Derek said, dropping his gaze to meet Stiles’ again. His gaze was intense. “And if you need help, I’ll be there.”

***

They were still outside an hour later. Stiles hadn’t been ready to go inside after everything that had happened and at some point they’d sat on the front steps of the porch. They were still talking, their voices soft, when Derek leaned close to Stiles’ neck and gave a delicate sniff.

“Why do you smell like that?” he asked. Stiles quirked an eyebrow, confused. “Like the Preserve,” explained Derek.

Recognition dawned for Stiles. God, today has been so long. He turned to Derek and explained the encounter with Peter on the deserted, curving road by the Preserve when he’d run out of gas.

Derek stared at Stiles before he pulled up his phone. As he swiped through the screens, he said, “Peter hasn’t called me in a while. Not in weeks.”

“Huh,” Stiles said, unsure of what to make of that. “Did you change your number?”

“No,” Derek said. Again, he leaned forward and scented Stiles. He scrunched his nose and pulled away. “You don’t smell like Peter.”

Stiles glanced at him. “I mean, obviously it was him. I’m pretty sure he drained my Jeep of gas so he could corner me. Maybe you’ve forgotten his scent?”

Derek gave Stiles an exasperated look. “You think I’ve forgotten my Uncle’s scent?”

“I mean, is it possible?” Stiles asked. He wasn’t sure. It wasn’t something he’d ever considered before, but it was worth asking.

Derek didn’t respond immediately. Instead, the werewolf leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he held his chin in his hand. Eventually, he said, “I couldn’t recognize Peter’s smell when Scott was first bitten.”

Stiles furrowed his brows. “That’s not entirely a fair comparison. Peter was an Alpha then.” He kept thinking, before he finally theorized, “Maybe his scent has changed because he was dead and now he isn’t? The longer he lives, the farther from his original self he gets.”

It wasn’t the worst idea, but Derek shook his head. “I think I would have noticed when he came by your house last time.”

Stiles shrugged. “Well, then, what do I smell like?”

“The Preserve, mainly,” Derek said.

“Not Scott? Or my dad? You?” Stiles offered. Derek took another scent and then shook his head. “That’s noteworthy. I’ll add it to my wall: the scent hanging around the Preserve is strong enough to cover everything else. Even werewolves and family.”

They were still sitting there, quietly, when Stiles thought back to the original reason Scott stopped by. He nudged Derek with this shoulder causing the werewolf to look up to meet his gaze. “We want you here. You know that, right?”

A soft smile tugged at his lips. He nodded his head. He continued to stare at Stiles and whispered, “I know.”

They stayed on those front steps, sitting beside each other, their hips touching and sides pressed together talking until the hours passed and the moon rose into the night sky, shining down on the two of them, the pack bond thrumming strongly in the narrow space between them.

Chapter Text

It had been three weeks since that night in the driveway. 

Stiles had done his best to keep his distance from Scott and the rest of his pack. They, in turn, had been doing the same. Beacon Hills High wasn’t big enough to explain how he’d managed to not cross paths with any of them in the intervening weeks unless they’d been actively going out of their way to avoid him. Until today, apparently. It was Friday morning and Scott and his pack were cloistered around his locker while the Alpha sorted through his belongings clearly looking for something. None of them glanced in Stiles’ direction. 

A constant ache settled deep in his chest buried beneath his ribcage. There had been months when Stiles had felt as though he’d lost Scott—when he’d sat alone in his bedroom and wallowed in his isolation, envious of Allison and Isaac, allowing the darkness to swell up around him like waves crashing in the ocean. And yet, now that the real thing was here, now that there was a vast chasm between them, Stiles found the pain wasn’t quite so all encompassing. 

It still hurt—of course it did, Scott was his best friend, his brother—but Stiles wasn’t so alone. All his fears about losing Scott were always wrapped up in the belief that if it ever happened, Stiles would have no one. But here they were: the greatest fight of their lifelong friendship and Stiles had other people to support him. 

Danny and Lydia had taken to eating lunch with him every day in the cafeteria, even when Ethan and Aiden begged them to sit with everyone else. Dad made sure to check in with him regularly and sent pictures every four to six hours to prove that he was taking his requisite painkillers. Deaton was still training him and had asked no questions about the situation with Scott. 

As for Stiles, he spent every spare moment of his time helping Derek prepare for the sheriff deputy’s exam. Or: the Peace Officer Standards and Training Entry-Level Law Enforcement Test Battery. Derek could never remember the full name, which Stiles found endlessly entertaining. Preparing for the test was actually interesting for Stiles: he got to make flash cards about legal codes and police procedures which he was already unsurprisingly familiar with. Derek, in turn, forced Stiles to join him on his daily runs under the guise of preparing for the Physical Ability Test. Not that it was necessary, seeing as how he was a fucking werewolf, but Derek wouldn’t take no for an answer. 

They were all doing their best to distract him from the situation with Scott. His pack. While Stiles was eternally grateful for their efforts, it wasn’t something that could last. He had to make things right.

Which is why he was standing there, his shoulders squared, and his gaze locked in on the back of Scott’s head. Allison laughed at something that was said. Aiden and Ethan stood stoically to the side, listening. Isaac was leaning against the locker next to Scott, chattering away. They briefly made eye contact. Stiles worried his bottom lip between his teeth and took the tentative few steps across the school hallway. 

“Scott,” he said, his voice soft. Maybe someone else wouldn’t have heard him, but Scott was a teenage werewolf. His voice carried and Scott stiffened immediately, refusing to turn around. 

Stiles tried again. “Scott, please.” 

Instead of acknowledging him, Scott slammed his locker shut. He slung the strap of his backpack over his shoulder and stalked off in the opposite direction of where Stiles knew his first class was located. Isaac hurried after him while shrugging and tossing a fretful glance back at Stiles.

Ethan and Aiden scowled at him, their twin rage at the outsider who’d upset their Alpha in lock step with each other. Stiles held his hands up in the universal sign for surrender and quickly took several steps back. He watched as Danny meandered over to the twins and slid his hand into Ethan’s. Aiden seemed to look for Lydia in the hallway, his senses zeroing in on her as she swept by with her nose buried in a book. She didn’t notice any of them. Aiden’s gaze followed her down and out the hall but he made no move to follow. 

Stiles tipped his head back and rested the crown of his head against the lockers behind him. A sigh escaped his parted lips and he almost closed his eyes, before he noticed a familiar figure approach him. 

Allison. 

She looked apologetic and gave him a gentle smile. She was good at those. Intimate gestures of compassion. She came to a stop next to him, her arms wrapped around her textbooks in front of her stomach. 

“How are you doing, Stiles?” 

He was touched by her concern for him, and studied her face as she gazed upon him. It was just like Allison to ask how he was doing in a time like this, when he was the one who had hurt Scott. The person she probably cared most for in the world other than her dad and Isaac. He couldn’t imagine she’d heard anything good about him in the past few weeks from Scott’s lips. Yet here she stood. Concerned for him and his well being, like the patron saint of sugar, spice, and all things nice he always knew her to be. 

Stiles shrugged and asked, “Did Scott tell you all what happened?” 

“Of course,” she answered simply. She reached up to tuck a strand of dark hair behind her ear and met his gaze steadily. “He showed up at my house that night and climbed through my bedroom window. I called Isaac over so we could be there for him.” 

A smile tugged at his lips. “I’m sure your dad must have loved that.” 

She beamed. “They snuck out before he woke up.” 

He let out a laugh and shook his head. His gaze flickered across the hall where Ethan and Aiden were still standing with Danny. With a subtle nod in their direction, he asked, “What about them? They look royally pissed at me.” 

“Scott is their Alpha,” she explained with an apologetic look on her face. “They’re protective. And, to be honest Stiles, they’ve never been your biggest fans.” 

Boyd flashed across his mind’s eye. A frown settled on his features, and he said, “The feeling is mutual.” 

Silence settled between them for a moment; he wondered if she was thinking of the same thing. Allison and Scott hadn’t been there that night in the loft. They hadn’t felt the inches of water soaking into the soles of their shoes. Hadn’t smelt the coppery tang of Boyd’s blood. Hadn’t seen Derek, tears tracking down his cheeks, his hands shaking over the lifeless body of their friend. 

Maybe that was why they were okay with the twins in their pack. 

He shook his head and tried to clear the image from his thoughts. He glanced over at Allison and, trying to reroute the conversation back to Scott, said, “I’m glad you and Isaac were there for him.”

She smiled at him. “Is anyone there for you?” 

“I’m fine,” he shrugged. He cast his memory back to that night all those weeks ago. While Scott was climbing through Allison’s bedroom window, Stiles had spent the hours after their fight talking to Derek. They hadn’t gone to bed until well after midnight. “I’ve had longer to get used to the fact that I’m not pack. Scott had it sprung on him in the heat of the moment. I didn’t want it to go down like that, but I get why he needs time.” 

Hurt filled her brown eyes as she gazed up at him. It was almost uncanny how she and Scott both had those same devastating doe expressions. She asked, her lips trembling around the words, “How long have you been feeling this way? About us? The pack?”

He clenched his jaw. “It doesn’t really matter.”

“Stiles.”

Stiles sighed and reached up to scratch at his jaw. He looked anywhere but at her as he said, “Would it be wrong to say since the beginning?” 

Three years ago it had been Scott and Stiles against the world. Then he’d dragged Scott into the Preserve in the middle of the night to go on a misadventure to find a dead body and ever since it had felt like Stiles was desperately clinging onto Scott’s sweater, trying not to get left behind. Allison and Isaac’s connection with Scott had just made it more obvious to Stiles how hard he had to fight to fit in. Like he was always second best and forgotten. 

But these past few months had been different. It wasn’t like that with Derek; and with time, Stiles came to realize it didn’t need to be that hard. Pack. 

When there was a thread tying you together, heart to heart, you always fit. No rearrangements necessary. 

“I wish you’d said something,” Allison murmured. 

Stiles’ lips curled into a sad grin. “Me too. But I think...I don’t think there was any way to change it. I don’t think Scott and I are meant to be pack.”

He glanced over at her, and studied her features. The question came to him unbidden. “Can you feel the pack bond?”

She shook her head and said, “No, I can’t. But Isaac and Scott have described it to me.” She glanced over her shoulder at Ethan and Aiden who were deep into a conversation with Danny. Allison dropped her voice and carried on, “After this whole thing with you two, the twins confirmed that they could feel it too. Though, between you and me, the bond sounds a little shaky.” 

Neither of them said anything about Lydia.

For a moment she hesitated. Her lips parted, she stared into his face and seemed to be calculating her next words. When she spoke, he leaned forward to listen closely. 

“Sometimes...God, sometimes when we’re alone? Me and Scott and Isaac. I swear I can feel it. Like an echo of another heartbeat underneath my own.” Her gaze locked onto his, and then she let out a nervous laugh. Tried to wave away what she had just said like it was nothing. “Mostly I think I’m just imagining it. But—is that what it feels like with you and Derek?” 

He lifted a shoulder and let it drop. “It feels like there’s this...string? That ties us together all of the time. Even now, I can sense where he is. I know he’s okay.” 

Derek and his dad were both at the Sheriff’s station. He knew it the same way he knew he was leaning against a row of lockers. Their presence was solid and real and unquestioning. He glanced at Allison, and knew his next words might hurt her, but said them anyway. Because they were the truth.  

“It was never like that with Scott. Or the rest of you.” 

She gave him a sad but knowing smile and asked, “How do you want things to go from now on? I would have thought that you wanted to fix things, figure out how to join the pack. But that’s not what it sounds like?” 

“I don’t know what I want,” he admitted. “I thought the same as you before...but now? I don’t know. Pack or not, I just want Scott to know that we’re brothers.” 

“I’ll tell him,” she promised, her voice earnest as she took a step closer to him and reached out to rest a hand on his arm. “I’ll keep telling him until he listens.” 

“You’re a good packmate,” he said, smiling. 

“You’re a good friend,” she replied. Her smile matched his. “A good brother.” 

They stared at each other and knew the reality of their new situation. Scott was hurting, and it must be strange and scary for him to think about his future now. Stiles had been by Scott’s side throughout the entire werewolf thing: it was hard for either of them to imagine what Scott’s pack would look like without Stiles in it, now that they all knew the truth. They all needed time. Needed to give Scott space to deal with the new shape of their lives. But Stiles and Allison were already most of the way there, bonded by their love for the same boy even if they didn’t share a pack bond. 

The warning bell rang, signifying that morning classes were about to begin. Allison patted his arm one last time, smiling, before she headed down the hall towards her first class. Stiles shoved away from the wall of lockers and moved to follow her. 

***

At lunch, Danny and Lydia joined him at their usual table. When Aiden and Ethan tried to motion for them to join them with Scott, Danny waved them off. Lydia, who didn’t pay any attention to the twin werewolves, watched Stiles and asked, “What happened this morning?” 

“You were going to talk to Scott, right?” Danny asked, as he took a bite of his square cafeteria cheese pizza. “I saw you by his locker.” 

Stiles made a face. “I tried but he didn’t even look at me. I talked with Allison for a while instead.” 

Danny scowled at the answer. Somehow, it made his dimples more prominent. “It’s been three weeks! You two have to make up: you’re Scott and Stiles! I don’t know how much longer I can take this. You’ve been best friends for as long as I can remember.” 

He laughed, endeared by Danny’s concern on behalf of his and Scott’s friendship. He said, “I think it’s going to be okay. Scott just needs some more time to work everything out. I can give that to him. No problem.” 

Six months ago Stiles would have been devastated by these turn of events, but he also would have been eating lunch by himself in the cafeteria or locked in a bathroom stall. Things changed. 

Lydia seemed unsurprised and said, as she parceled out her homemade chicken and rice lunch, “Of course Scott needs time. I told you to wait until he was ready to approach you on his own. Maybe next time you’ll listen to me. ” 

“And of course, you were right,” Stiles said, rolling his eyes in soft affection as he took a sip from his water bottle. “As per usual.” 

Danny laughed at the two of them before he pointed out, “At least Allison talked to you. That’s a nice change of pace after the past few weeks.” 

“Yeah well.” He shrugged. “The rest of their pack is ignoring me right now so it’s better than nothing.” 

Lydia arched an eyebrow at him. “So long as Scott doesn’t go around flashing his Alpha red eyes at you, I think we can safely assume it’s just his feelings that are hurt.” 

Stiles let out a breathless chuckle. Even in the midst of all this, he couldn’t imagine Scott raising a hand to him. 

Danny, on the other hand, gaped at the two of them. “Scott has red eyes? Really?” 

“Sometimes I forget that we only just let you in on the werewolf secret,” Lydia responded airily. She brushed her hair out of her face and over her shoulder. She explained, “Alphas have red eyes and Betas have yellow eyes. Right?” 

Stiles shook his head and said, “No, Omegas can have yellow eyes too.” 

Lydia, who liked to think she was an authority on all things related to the bestiary, looked confused and demanded a further explanation. Danny watched the two of them go back and forth on the subject as he silently ate his pizza. He still looked suitably impressed at the revelation about Scott. 

He glanced at Stiles and asked, “What color are Derek’s eyes?”

For a moment, Stiles hesitated. Then he said simply, “Blue.” 

“And what does blue mean?” Danny asked. 

Stiles glanced across the cafeteria towards where Scott and his pack sat. His gaze settled on the twin Alphas. Instead of answering Danny’s question, he shrugged and said, “It’s Derek’s story to tell.” 

***

School came to an end when it always did, but that day had felt exceptionally long to Stiles. He was ready to be done with the week and hurried out the school building to the parking lot. As he exited the double doors, he could see Scott getting on his dirt bike. 

Stiles longed to cross the cement sidewalk and try to talk to him again. Maybe this time it would go differently. Maybe Scott just needed to be alone when Stiles approached him, instead of being surrounded by his pack. The pack he must have felt like Stiles had turned his back on—abandoned. 

Yet Stiles didn’t move to close the distance between them. He heard Lydia’s words echoing in the back of his mind. Let Scott come to me when he’s ready, he thought. 

As if Scott could sense his thoughts, he glanced up as he was slipping his helmet over his dark hair. They locked eyes. Stiles’ lips tried, and failed, to curl into a smile. A flash of hurt crossed Scott’s face before his lips settled into a frown. He tore his gaze away and hurried to start his bike and get out of there. 

More time. That’s all Stiles could give him. 

He dug his keys out of his backpack as he walked over to Roscoe, ready to put week three behind him and spend the weekend studying California penal codes with Derek. When he glanced up, he found Lydia and Danny leaned against the Jeep waiting for him. 

He frowned. “What’s up, guys?” 

“We think you need a break from all this werewolf bullshit,” Danny said, stepping forward to wrap an arm around Stiles’ shoulders. “We’ve decided that we should have a human night to ourselves.”

Stiles eyed them warily. He gestured between Lydia and himself, “You know we’re technically not fully human, right? Lydia’s a banshee and I’m a spark.” 

“Stop getting tripped up on the technicalities, Stiles,” Lydia intoned. She smiled coyly at him and slipped her arm into his. “Please be ready by 9PM. We’ll be by to pick you up. And lie to the Sheriff if you have to—we’re going to have a late night. When was the last time you went to the Jungle? ” 

Stiles grinned at the both of them. He didn’t answer her question because it was irrelevant—Lydia had commanded it so they were going to the Jungle, no questions asked. 

“Oh, and Stiles?” she said. “If I hate your outfit, I’m going to forcibly make you change.” 

Danny nodded alongside her in solidarity. “I promise to bring along some clothes I think Stiles could fit into to make things easier for us.” 

They slipped their arms from him. They were already walking off in the direction of their cars, their heads bent together as they mused about what outfit to put him in, before Stiles even had the chance to agree to their plans. He stared after them, baffled, as Danny glanced back towards him with a grin. 

He called out to Stiles, laughing, “Remember: be ready by nine sharp!” 

***

It was a quarter past eight and clothes were spread across every available square inch of Stiles’ bedroom. He was standing there, his hands on his hips, in nothing but a punny t-shirt and boxer briefs when the door opened and Derek slipped inside.

“Wait—!” Stiles cried out, as he flailed to cover his legs with the first available item within his grasp. Which is how he found himself standing with his favorite pillow fisted in front of his crotch. Derek laughed at the sight, causing Stiles to scowl as he tried to cover up his blush. He lobbed the pillow at the werewolf, pretending not to be self conscious as it left him uncovered, and said, “Remember to knock next time!” 

Derek dodged the pillow and made a disbelieving face at him. “Like you do? I think the only time you’ve ever knocked on my door was to admit you were stalking me.” 

Even though he was clearly teasing, Stiles noticed that Derek didn’t let his gaze drop anywhere near Stiles’ waistline or lower. 

Stiles scrunched up his nose at the comment. He flushed as the memory of that chilly February day in the Preserve filled his thoughts. He said, “Fair point. But at least you’ve been fully dressed whenever I barge into your room.” 

Derek conceded the point with a simple nod as he looked around the bedroom for a place to sit. He reached down and grabbed a pair of brown corduroy pants off of Stiles’ bed and eyed them distastefully. “What are you even doing?” 

“What does it look like I’m doing?” Stiles asked, gesturing at his current state of undress and all the clothes strewn around him. “I’m getting ready to go out with Lydia and Danny and apparently my clothing is suboptimal.” 

Derek dropped the offending pair of pants back onto the bed and glanced around the bedroom. Stiles watched as his gaze settled on the open hair products in front of the mirror behind his desk. His gaze flickered between the products and Stiles’ hair, before he asked, “Were you practicing magic? On your hair?” 

Stiles grimaced and instinctively reached up to run his hand through his hair before he forced himself to stop. Defensive, he said, “Lydia wants to go to a club and she instructed I look my best. Demanded, even.” 

“Are you even old enough to get into a club?” Derek asked, his gaze askance as if he didn’t want to meet Stiles’ eyes. 

He said, “As I’ve pointed out to you repeatedly, I am 18 now. I can get into clubs even if I can’t drink in them.” 

As he spoke, he let his gaze drift over Derek. Even though it was getting late on a Friday evening and Derek had no plans to see anyone other than Stiles and his dad, he still looked put together. Stiles’ eyes lit up and he leaned across the bed, planting his hands flat on the mattress. “Oh man, Derek—you can help me put together an outfit!” 

“What.” 

“Yeah, c’mon,” he said excitedly, bounding around the bed until he was standing beside Derek. He waved his hands across the sea of abandoned clothing. “You always pull off that hot-but-intimidating vibe that works great in a club setting. Share the wealth, dude.” 

Derek cut a glare at him and said immediately, “Don’t call me dude.”

Yet even as he sounded ready to protest, his hands were already combing through the clothing. He brushed past Stiles and dug through his options. Stiles watched, no longer bothered by the lack of clothes he was wearing. Instead, he let his gaze settle on Derek’s form, humming quietly to himself as the older werewolf sorted through the shirts and pants. He wondered what it was like for him: to be enveloped by Stiles’ scent so completely. He wished he could do the same. 

Maybe Deaton knew of a spell that could enhance his sense of smell. He’d have to remember to ask the man at their next training session. 

“Here,” Derek said as he thrust a pair of Stiles’ dark red skinny jeans and a black tee that was at least two sizes too small into his hands. “Wear shoes you’ll feel comfortable standing and dancing in for a couple hours at least. And leave your hair alone. Don’t over gel it like you normally do.” 

Flabbergasted, Stiles’ hand flew up to his hair. Forcing a laugh out, he asked, “What’s wrong with how I normally style it?”

“Nothing,” Derek said gruffly. If Stiles’ didn’t know the werewolf better, he would almost swear the man was blushing. “It just looks better when you leave it softer.” 

Stiles’ bit his bottom lip and tried not to smile. 

Derek scratched his cheek beneath his dark beard and asked, “Do you need me to cover with your dad?” 

“No,” he said. He moved to step into the jeans and noticed how Derek turned his face away. “We’re tight now. No more lies between the Stilinski men. He already knows I’m going out to the Jungle, so as long as I’m responsible it’ll be fine.” 

He hurried to zip up the pants and swap his comfortable shirt for the tighter one, until he was standing before Derek dressed and ready to head out. He held his arms apart, palms facing out, and asked, “Well? How do I look?” 

Derek turned back to face him. His eyes looked dark as they flickered up and down Stiles’ body before settling on his face. His expression was guarded as he said, “You always look good.” 

His throat grew tight as he swallowed and nodded. For a moment they stared at each other, neither saying anything. A moment passed, then another, and all Stiles knew was that in that instant all he wanted was for Derek to ask him not to go. Tell me to stay, he thought, desperate, as he watched the older man stare at him. His gaze flickered to the flash cards still visible beneath a forgotten tank top on his desk. 

But Derek didn’t say anything of the sort. Instead, he nodded once to himself and then again to Stiles, before he said, “All right. Have fun with Danny and Lydia. Tell them I say hi.” 

He moved to sweep past Stiles, his hand reaching out to clasp him on the shoulder. In an instant the door was opened and closed, and Derek was gone. Stiles stood there, alone, and tried to make sense of why he felt so fucking confused. 

***

“Honestly Stiles, if you can dress this well tonight, what’s holding you back during the rest of the school year?” Lydia asked, her pale hands tugging on his tight black t-shirt, the pads of her fingers skimming the expanse of his abdomen. Three years ago, Stiles would have done anything to have her so casually touch his body. To feel her claim him through her touch. Now it barely registered with him; just a good friend going out of her way to compliment his appearance. 

He flashed her a grin and tried not to think of Derek standing three feet away from him as he pulled the shirt over his head. He tried not to wonder if Derek had peaked a glance at his bare chest when the shirt was covering his face. 

Danny was dressed similarly to him, in a pair of skinny jeans and a white v-neck, while Lydia had traded her usual circle skirt and blouse for a purple bodycon dress. Briefly, Stiles wondered how much time he’d spent in Lydia’s presence to know the difference between a circle skirt and a bodycon dress in the first place. 

Instead of answering her, he glanced at Danny and asked, “Since this is a humans-only night, what are your boyfriends up to without the two of you on this lovely Friday night?” 

It was supposed to be a lowball. A question that could be answered without hesitation, one that Stiles only had to waste a few seconds pretending to care about. Instead, he watched as Danny and Lydia sought each other’s gaze first before Danny said, “Since it’s a humans-only night we didn’t bother to ask what they were up to. Didn’t want to make them jealous of our wild plans.” 

Stiles, who could sense something off about that answer, didn’t get a single moment to ask any follow up questions. Lydia cut in, leaning between the two of them as her tresses brushed against his arm, and said, “Danny is being polite. I’m planning on breaking up with Aiden.” 

“Wait, what?” Stiles exclaimed, flailing as he turned to stare at her through wide eyes.

“Don’t act surprised,” she said, glaring. “And anyway, I don’t want to talk about it.” 

Before Stiles could say anything to dispute that—though would he? She was right, he had noticed her less than enthusiastic interest in her former Alpha boyfriend as of late—the bouncer gestured for the three of them to approach. 

Lydia and Danny were clearly familiar to the bouncer. He waved them through quickly, stamping the back of their hands without even looking at their licenses. Stiles stepped up to the bouncer with his license gripped tightly in his hand. He was prepared for the man to inspect the ID with extra scrutiny since they’d never met before. He was surprised when, instead, the bouncer gave the card a cursory glance over before pulling Stiles’ hand towards him to mark it with the “under 21” stamp. He gave Stiles a gentle shove towards the entrance of the club and he didn’t even have time to study the stamp before another hand was grabbing at his. 

In one swift motion, Lydia swept a wet makeup wipe across the still fresh ink. At the same time, Stiles watched as Danny grabbed the arm of a random man and licked the back of his hand and pressed it to the back of Stiles’. In the blink of an eye Stiles was pulling his hand out of Danny’s grasp and found himself staring at an “over 21” stamp. 

“What anything to drink?” Lydia asked, as both she and Danny flashed their own “over 21” stamps at him. 

He gaped at the pair. “You two are devious.” 

Gilmore Girls taught me that trick,” Danny said, winking. 

“Okay, and you also have good taste in pop culture. Color me impressed!” 

The three of them laughed, loudly, the days prior troubles washing away. Stiles let go of the earlier confusion he’d felt in his bedroom after Derek had bid him good night. He brushed aside his curiosity about Lydia and her plans to end things with Aiden. And he let all thoughts of Scott filter to the back of his mind, to be worried over on another day. The ache was still there, but distant now, lost beneath the thrum of the crowd and the pulse of the bass. And the threat facing Beacon Hills: the murdered Alphas, the dead deer, the Nemeton calling to him, whispering, begging—it didn’t matter that night. He pushed it all aside and let himself be led towards the bar by his two friends without question. 

*** 

Three hours later and Stile was pleasantly buzzed but slightly frustrated. Danny was dancing with the guy from the beginning of the evening, who had clearly enjoyed the sensation of the teenager’s tongue against his skin. Though it was clear from the distance Danny kept between the two that he wasn’t interested in anything other than a night of dancing. Lydia was dancing with probably the only guy in the club who’d score a zero on the Kinsey scale. Unlike Danny, she’d left no space between their bodies as they were crushed together on the dance floor. 

Stiles, for his part, had spent the past few hours talking to his favorite drag queens. Phoenix had screamed when she’d caught sight of him from across the bar, her hands dragging across his chest and pinching his cheeks without abandon. She’d slid her arm into his and possessively kept him by her side throughout the night. She introduced him to everyone as her protege, and swore to whoever asked that she’d have Stiles in a pair of heels eventually. 

Eventually though the conversation had turned towards people that Phoenix and her friends knew that Stiles did not. The conversation moved away from one that he could gamely join in on and became the type of insider talk that left him a little bored even though he did his best to follow along. 

As he finished the dregs of his drink, he gestured to the bartender that he was ready to close out his tab. It was after midnight and he was tired and, despite wearing his most comfortable shoes like Derek advised, his feet ached. All he wanted to do, right then, was crash on the couch between Dad and Derek while watching Bob’s Burgers reruns. 

He signed the bill and added the requisite 20% tip before bidding his farewell to Phoenix and her friends. He kissed each of them on both cheeks and promised he’d stop by at their next drag night to see them all perform, a smile tugging at his lips as they all proclaimed him their new favorite and Phoenix reminded them she’d found him first. He laughed, their words washing over him like summer waves. 

Danny and Lydia were both lost in the music and their dance partners respectively. Stiles considered interrupting to let them know he was going to leave, but decided against it. He’d text them both on his way out. 

This wasn’t how he imagined the night going. He’d thought he might dance with some dark and mysterious stranger. Or that he and Lydia and Danny would trade horror stories about Jackson and take shots whenever someone called him a douchebag. Or maybe they’d get lost in the music, dancing alone, no partners to be found. 

And then there’d been the one insidious fantasy that couldn’t escape his brain. That kept Stiles glancing at the club entrance every few minutes all night, hoping beyond all hope to spot a familiar head of dark hair and sharp hazel eyes. 

It was ridiculous and yet the image felt so real to him. He could picture how it would go down so easily, it was hard to believe it hadn’t happened. 

He’d be facing away from the door when someone would tap on his shoulder. Stiles would turn, prepared to send some stranger on their way, when he’d find himself staring at Derek. He’d ask what he was doing there, and Derek would shrug, a man of few words, he’d explain that the house was empty and he thought he’d come hang out with Stiles. 

Stiles would be flattered—who wouldn’t be?—and would laughingly ask if Derek wanted a drink while showing off the “over 21” stamp on the back of his hand. Derek, in turn, would laugh and explain that he’d been hoping for a dance instead. 

He could imagine how surprised he’d be at the suggestion, and how he’d listen with eager ears as Derek explained how he and Laura used to go out dancing in New York City. He’d explain that it was a great way to burn off extra energy in the city with no woods to run through. And then, without asking again, Derek would lead him out onto the dance floor. His heart would be racing and he’d wonder if Derek could hear his heart beat over the throbbing of the music.

They’d start dancing together, at first close but not touching. Then slowly...slowly...they’d drift closer to each other. Derek’s hand would brush Stiles’ hip, while Stiles’ fingers would trail down Derek’s arm, their heads bent towards one another as the music swelled around them. Stiles could imagine how his cheeks would burn, how he’d try to turn around and hide his blush only for Derek to pull Stiles into him so that his back was pressed up against Derek’s chest. He’d relish in the sensation, get lost in the touch of Derek’s fingers trailing down his ribcage as they sent butterflies up his stomach. 

He could imagine how Lydia and Danny would spot them, forcing Stiles to turn back towards Derek. Their faces would be close then, a hair’s breadth apart, and Stiles would feel Derek’s breath on his parted lips. He would try to figure out what to do next—how to maneuver out of the situation without making his feelings known—when Derek would lean forward and capture his lips in a kiss. 

It would have been perfect. 

But it was nothing more than a fantasy. A daydream of something that would never be. Any version of Derek that would enjoy dancing in a crowd of strangers at the club wasn’t a Derek who Stiles was interested in. He wanted the real Derek. The werewolf who liked to pad around the house in well worn sweatpants with mussed up bed hair. Who remembered to always save the sports section for Dad on days when he left for his morning shift before he got the chance to read the paper. Who teased Stiles for his meticulous color coded flash card system while thanking him profusely for taking the time to help him. As though Stiles would do anything else. 

Who needed the Derek from the fantasy? Stiles would rather go home. To the real Derek. 

Chapter Text

He should have ordered an Uber. Should have waited for Lydia and Danny to come out of the club and asked for Danny’s keys. He’d sobered up not long after parting ways with Phoenix and her friends, it wouldn’t have been impossible for him to drive them all home. That would have been the smarter choice. Yet something had compelled Stiles not to, and for whatever reason, he found himself walking back home alone in the dark after texting Lydia and Danny to have fun and that he’d see them later.

It wasn’t the worst walk he could have had to make. Not like the one Scott must have made the night he’d been bit, after Stiles had abandoned him in the Preserve, convinced that he was really saving him from the deputies. As wet, hot blood dripped from the bite on his side, soaking through his shirt. How his legs must have ached as he forced them to keep moving forward, the walk a good six miles long. And all because Stiles had dragged him out into the Preserve to look for a dead body. “You're the one always bitching that nothing ever happens in this town," he’d snarked.

Now he’d abandoned Scott again; left him in a pack on his own without Stiles by his side. The very notion betrayed their lifelong promises—Scott and Stiles against the world. 

Fuck, he was a shitty friend. 

The walk home from the Jungle was only a couple miles at most, nothing more than he’d run during track practice with Coach. But tonight Stiles was dragging. His feet hurt from standing all night, and he felt weighed down by the past few weeks of desperately wanting to fix everything.

It was exhausting to want that much. 

The few blocks of downtown Beacon Hills had given way to the surrounding suburbia a while back. The route Stiles found himself on led him nearer to the Preserve than he’d originally assumed and the trees loomed over him, the moon casting dark, narrow shadows crawling across the streets. Occasionally he could hear the sound of a wild animal skitter through the forest, the twigs snapping beneath their weight. The dank, heavy, rotting smell rolled off the trees and wrapped around him, a physical presence pressed against his skin. He dug his hands deep within his pockets and hunched forward. Goosebumps rose across his forearms. There was a nip in the air that made it obvious it was still early spring, regret filling him for having decided against a jacket earlier that evening. 

There was a week left of April, and then it would be May, then June. Classes would come to an end, exams taken, yearbooks signed, and then: graduation. High school would be over. They’d survived. Not in the quippy, sarcastic sort of way that teenagers in raunchy comedies signed yearbooks—but earnestly. 

High school had been a life or death experience for Stiles and his friends. Graduation was almost upon them, and there would be literal empty seats where some of his friends should have sat. Erica. Boyd. Heather. 

Allison’s family had been culled in half since she’d moved to Beacon Hills. If she had gone anywhere else, maybe her graduation day would be filled with Chris and Victoria and Kate and Gerard all seated together in a row, cheering at the sound of her name. They were monsters, the real kind who hurt kids and killed with impunity, but Allison had loved them. Had laughed with them and grown under their watchful eyes and filled their blackened hearts with joy. When she graduated in two months, Chris would be the only family member in the crowd for her. Just like Dad would be the only family member there for Stiles. 

Though maybe not the only person anymore. 

His mind’s eye flashed to the thought of Derek. Would he ask for a graduation ticket? Sit beside Dad in a poorly knotted tie and applaud when Stiles walked across the stage, diploma in hand? Stiles could almost picture them, these two men in his life that he worried about constantly, walking up to him after the ceremony was over and wrapping him in their arms. Maybe he could convince someone to take a picture of the three of them together, Stiles in his cap and gown between the two of them in their suits. Did Derek even own a suit? 

Stiles still didn’t know what he was going to do about his feelings for Derek. Ignore them, potentially. Or maybe Stiles would draft up another ridiculous ten year plan. The thought of confessing to them filled him with dread and excitement all twisted up together in the pit of his stomach. 

For now, it was well after one o’clock in the morning, and Stiles would rather imagine what graduation might look like. So he let himself get lost in the daydream as he walked, the palpable threat of the Preserve a distant thought in the back of his mind. He put one foot in front of the other and let his legs carry him all the way home until finally Stiles was standing at the edge of the driveway staring up at his house. 

The cruiser was parked behind Roscoe, and all the lights were off in the house. Stiles dug his keys out of his pocket and slipped through the front door. For a moment, he imagined he’d find Derek seated on the couch waiting for him, but he was nowhere to be found. In the darkness of the front entry, Stiles toed off his shoes and slunk off towards the kitchen. With the light from the moon pooling through the window above the sink, Stiles scrubbed at the “over 21” stamp, shocked that Lydia had pressed it to the back of his hand only a couple of hours ago. When there was only the faintest hint of the stamp, he poured himself a glass of ice water and hurried upstairs. 

In front of Derek’s bedroom door, he paused. A part of him wanted to knock and almost instinctively he found his fist poised in front of the wood. Yet something held him back. Tentatively, he stepped forward and pressed his ear against the door, straining for any hint of sound to indicate that Derek was awake in there. Anything to give him courage to press onward. After a minute of silence, he sighed and took a step back. If Derek was asleep, Stiles didn’t want to bother him. The werewolf already did so much: studying for his deputy exams and patrolling the Preserve must have been tiring. 

As quietly as he could be, Stiles made it down the hall and into his bedroom. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Stiles cursed himself. Clothes were strewn everywhere. He’d forgotten about the state he’d left his room in until that very moment. Maybe on another night, if he was feeling up for it, Stiles might have tried to put everything away, or at the very least create some organization out of the chaos. 

That night, instead, Stiles took a deep gulp of his water and placed the glass on the bedside table before he gathered up all the clothes on his bed and shoved them unceremoniously to the floor. Just as quickly he stripped off the clothes Derek had picked out for him that now reeked of stale smoke and spilled alcohol. 

He flopped on the bed without getting under the covers, clad in nothing but his boxers. He blinked once, twice, three times, and fell fast asleep. 

***

The moon was bright and Stiles’ blood was thrumming through his veins. He stumbled, his fingers catching in the damp, cool dirt. It felt like his head was exploding, the constant, overwhelming, crushing knowledge that something terrible was about to happen. A panic attack gripped him; he tried to gasp for breath but couldn’t part his lips. His mouth tasted like dirt and rot and death. A soft whine came from his side, and Stiles’ gaze sought wildly for the source. 

Scott. 

He was standing in front of the Nemeton in a torn, bloody t-shirt. A bite mark on his hip stood proudly beneath the moonlight as blood dripped freely from the wound. Stiles and Scott locked eyes, and he watched, horrified, as blood seeped out from between Scott’s lips. The werewolf stared back at him, wide eyed and terrified. He tried to speak, but no sound escaped his lips except for a high pitched whimper, like a dog who’d been kicked. Scott took a tentative step forward, and Stiles watched as his knees buckled out from under him. Stiles scrambled to his feet and ran towards his best friend—but as his fingers moved to wrap around Scott’s shoulder, the boy disappeared into thin air. 

Before Stiles could react, a gunshot rang out through the night air. He spun around in terror. Across the clearing, his dad stood stock still, his hand pressed to his chest. His features contorted in shock and pain as blood spilled from between his fingers. He staggered, and just like before Stiles tried to run to him: to hold him up, to save him, to touch him one last time. But just like before, he vanished just as Stiles’ arm tried to wrap around his waist. 

From there, it was chaos. Lydia was screaming as she dragged her fingers down the sides of her cheeks, the skin splitting beneath her nails. Allison held a hand to a gaping wound in her stomach, but Stiles didn’t know where it had come from. Isaac cried, half his face swollen beyond recognition. Boyd and Erica’s bodies lay crumpled at the base of the Nemeton, pale and silent and already dead. From somewhere in the trees, Peter laughed. 

Then coughing. 

Stiles froze. Derek stood in front of him, coughing up water, clutching at his throat like he couldn’t breathe. The dark henley and pants clung to his frame, completely soaked through. His hair lay flat against his forehead as he raised his gaze to meet Stiles’. 

“Why didn’t you save me?” he croaked, more water spilling from his lips. 

A sob broke from his lips and Stiles, who hadn’t realized up until this moment that he’d been silent, cried, “I did. I did save you. You didn’t drown, I saved you, I promise.” 

It was as though Derek couldn’t hear him. Betrayal shone from behind his gaze. He kept coughing, his fingers digging into the side of his neck, and asked, “Did you hate me so much you wanted me dead?” 

More tears sprung to his eyes as Stiles shook his head in denial. He tried to step forward to press up against Derek, but the roots of the Nemeton were wrapped firmly around his ankles. He reached his arm out as far as it could go, his fingers a mere hair’s breadth away from Derek’s chest. 

“I love you,” he whispered through the overwhelming sensation of dirt filling up his throat. He gasped for breath as it slipped away from him. “I love you, you’re alive. Stay with me.” 

Derek coughed, a new wave of water poured out of him, and a werewolf’s roar rose from behind him. Dread filled him as he tried to call out Derek’s name and then—

Hands gripped his shoulders, shaking him. 

“Stiles!” a voice called. “Stiles, it’s just a nightmare!” 

His eyes flew open. Derek was leaning over him, concern etched into his features, as his hands were curled around his shoulders delicately. Like he’d been hesitant to touch him at all. 

The sheets beneath him were soaked with his sweat still glistening across his skin. His heartbeat raced beneath his ribcage. Mortification crashed over him like a wave, and Stiles dragged a hand down his face. His cheeks felt wet with tear tracks. 

“Are you okay?” Derek asked, still bent over Stiles in his bed. 

Shame coursed through him, body and soul. He lashed out and shoved at Derek’s shoulder, pushing the older werewolf out of his space. 

“Get out,” he said, his throat raw. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to ignore the tears. Everything was confusing, but all he knew was that he didn’t want Derek to see him like this. So weak and vulnerable. 

He listened for the sound of Derek’s footsteps leaving his room, but they never came. Instead, he heard the shuffling of feet, and felt his bed shift ever so slightly as Derek moved around. Stiles blinked and turned to stare. Derek was sitting on the floor facing the window with his back to Stiles.

“That sounded like a pretty bad nightmare,” Derek said. His voice was soft and gentle. Barely a whisper but it slipped over Stiles like the most comforting blanket. “You want to talk about it?” 

He kept quiet and continued to stare at the back of Derek’s head. His fingers itched to reach out and run through the dark strands. 

“It’s probably still too fresh,” Derek said. “I get that. You don’t have to say anything, we can just sit here until you fall back asleep. If you want.” 

They stayed like that, quiet, the only sound coming from the wind rustling through the trees outside and Stiles’ evening breath. Stiles’ eyelids began to droop. Just as he was on the verge of falling asleep, Derek started talking again. 

He tipped his head back to rest against the mattress and said, “I used to dream about my family. About being trapped outside of the house while it caught on fire. I could see them all—through the windows, at the door frame. Mom and Dad, David and Luke. Peter and Sarah...all of them. Back before I knew Cora was alive, I used to dream about her too.” 

A beat. Stiles watched as Derek reached up to rub at his eyes before he continued. 

“She was always so little. In those dreams, I kept trying to run into the fire to save them; all of them, any of them, just one. But I could never make it. The fire wouldn’t let me in. Or sometimes it would—but then I’d be trapped with them, burning alive.” 

His fingers curled around his knees, tracing the fabric pattern of his sweatpants. He took a deep, shuddering breath. 

He said, his fingers tightening their grip, “Later I dreamed about Laura. Then Erica and Boyd. It was always the same, y’know? Watching them die. Trying to save them. Sometimes failing and sometimes dying with them. I never knew which was worse.” 

Then, Derek rolled his head to the right, and leaned back so that he could meet Stiles’ gaze. They stared at each other in the dark, neither blinking. Stiles could hear the roar of his blood pumping through his veins. His fingers curled around the blankets that he wasn’t under, and he shivered from a chill. Whether it was from the spring breeze blowing through his open window, or the sensation of Derek’s eyes on him, he didn’t know. 

“Lately—” Derek started, his gaze never wavering before he started again. “Lately my nightmares have been about you and your dad. But I haven’t lost you...yet. So there’s something more terrifying about those nightmares. Something unknowable. It’s like...I have something—someone—to hold onto now, which just reminds me that I have people to lose again.” 

Stiles ached to tell him that it was okay, that Derek wouldn’t lose them. But Stiles didn’t know how to put any of it into words, and he didn’t know how to ignore the constant threat of the Nemeton’s whispers in the back of his brain. So he kept silent and continued to stare. 

When he didn’t give any response, Derek sighed and turned back to the window. Stiles felt braver without his gaze on him, and so quietly he slipped off the bed and onto the floor beside the werewolf. 

He sidled up beside Derek, their legs pressed together, and stared out the window. Derek didn’t turn to acknowledge his presence. It was propped open, the spring air cool but pleasant. A gentle breeze passed through the tree outside his bedroom. The sky was clear, and from their vantage on the floor, Stiles could see the waxing gibbous moon. 

Instead of addressing Derek’s words, he asked, “Are you ready for the full moon tomorrow? Do you have any plans?” 

“No,” Derek said as he barely lifted his shoulder and dropped it just as quickly. “But I’ll figure something out. Maybe I’ll go down to the old subway station or the Preserve. I have to patrol it anyway.” 

Stiles made a noise that sounded almost like a scoff. He and Derek were so different when it came to plans—as in, Stiles made them, and Derek didn’t. 

As if Derek knew exactly what he was thinking, he glanced at Stiles and arched an eyebrow. He explained, “It’s not the same for me like it is for Scott or the other new wolves. I could stay home and sleep all night if I wanted. I’d be restless, but it’d be fine.” 

A small smile tugged at Stiles’ lips as warmth spread through his belly. He liked the sound of the word home on Derek’s lips. 

His gaze still set on the moon outside, Stiles listened to the wind rustling through the leaves before he asked, curious, “Did you know that April is known as the Seed Moon?”

Derek shook his head. He asked, “Why’s it called that?” 

“Well, to be fair, it’s not always known as the Seed Moon. Sometimes it’s known as the Wind Moon,” he said, gesturing towards the window when a particularly strong gust of wind blew through the tree. “Or the Pink Moon, because of those wild phlox flowers that bloom earliest in spring. Then there are some other names, ones I couldn’t really tell you where they came from: Full Sprouting Grass Moon, Egg Moon, and so on.  Celtric tree tradition called it Saille or Willow. Some call it the Hare Moon because the hare was sacred in Roman legends, and was usually associated with springtime and fertility.” 

Derek smiled softly at him and asked archly, “And now you’re going to tell me about it?” 

“Shut up,” Stiles laughed. “If you want to get down to brass tacks, the Seed Moon basically signifies that it's time to plant what you want to grow. Literally, that just means crops and such, right? But magically...that has some different connotations.” 

Stiles paused, unsure how much Derek wanted to hear about this. Derek, with his head resting against the mattress as he studied Stiles’ features, gestured for him to continue. 

“Basically, April is a month of...pending rebirth, almost. It’s the time when you stop talking about what you want and just make it happen. It’s a time for creating and restoring balance. All the books I’ve read agree: April is the time to work any magic for change, especially to yourself. Like, if you want to usher in new beginnings, this is the month. It’s best to plan an actual ritual, try to literally plant your seeds of desire in the ground for Mother Earth to sense.” 

As he spoke, his hands gesticulated wildly in the space in front of his face. With every expression of excitement, his hands acted as an additional punctuation to his words. 

He continued, his hands just as animated as before, “There’s energy in creating and producing, see? In the very act of creation. And sometimes you’re working in tandem with the Earth’s energies, and sometimes you’re fighting it. In April, under the Seed Moon, that’s when you can release your past issues and create something new, and it’s—it’s there, supporting your efforts. There’s power in the act of planting—the beginning of a new life from a single seed. That alone is a ritual, an act of magic. You plant a seed in the soil, cultivate it, watch it sprout until it finally blooms...you’re watching magic happen. Spells are the same.” 

“That sounds nice,” Derek said softly. “Soothing, almost.” 

“Creation is hard work,” Stiles countered, his face open with joy from the conversation. He loved talking about stuff like this, and he didn’t get to do it often. After all, up until very recently, Deaton had been his only outlet. “But it can be soothing too, I guess. I found a healing prayer for the Seed Moon once. I can’t remember all of it, but the part I remember goes like this: ‘I let go of the pain and I bury the trauma to heal my soul. I call upon the light of the Seed Moon to make me whole. I embrace change and growth, and so it is.’” 

Derek hummed. “What tome did you find that in?” 

Stiles smirked. “Pinterest.” 

Their voices were hushed, their bodies flush together in the dark. At some point in his explanations, as he was whispering about the power of the moon, Stiles had turned away from the window and was no longer looking at the moon but directly at Derek’s face. Derek met his gaze steadily, and for a moment, dropped it to stare at Stiles’ lips. He let out a shuddery breath as the werewolf started talking. 

“I’m always so impressed with everything that you know,” he confessed, his tone awed. He reached up with his hand and gently pushed back the hair that rested against Stiles’ forehead. “Sometimes I wish I could see inside your mind and understand how it works. Figure out what fascinates you.” 

His breath caught in Stiles’ throat and unraveled into a sigh. He pushed forward ever so slightly, their faces separated by the thinnest sliver of air, and whispered, “You fascinate me.” 

There was a moment—just a second—where Stiles knew that they were going to kiss. There was something glorious in that knowing. The moment before he got the very thing he’d been aching for had finally arrived, and Stiles wanted to savor the feeling. It didn’t happen often enough in life: the act of getting what one wants. 

One of them—both of them?—surged forward and captured the other’s mouth with his own. It was sweet and tender, but most of all, it was real. Their lips slotted together perfectly, as though they were always meant to find each other. Tentatively, Stiles raised his hand and folded his fingers into the threads of Derek’s hair, unable to deny the all consuming need to touch every part of him. Derek must have felt the same because his hands curled around the curve of Stiles’ hips and held Stiles in place pressed up against Derek’s side. 

And—oh. Stubble! It scraped over Stiles’ chin delicately. How could Stiles have forgotten about its existence? This was so much better than the fantasy, and it did wonders at driving back the ghost of the nightmare. Derek’s mouth tasted of mint and devotion, and the memory of dirt was long fading into the recesses of Stiles’ mind. 

Stiles, who was clad only in the boxers he’d fallen asleep in, pressed forward, deepening the kiss. It grew heated and more intense. He pushed his hands up underneath Derek’s henley, his fingers brushing along the werewolf’s stomach. Derek bucked up into the caress, and Stiles pulled away to gasp, his nerves on fire and everything just on the side of too much, his throat bared to Derek. The werewolf slipped forward to press a kiss to his pulse point, his blood rushing through his veins. He gazed down at Derek through heavy-lidded eyes, and smirked as the werewolf’s eyes bled bright blue. Stiles ducked down to kiss Derek again and, caught in the heat of the moment, pressed his hand against Derek’s shoulder as though to direct him down onto his back.

A moment’s hesitation, and then Derek pulled away. His hands held Stiles’ hips still as he whispered, “I don’t want to rush this—you.” 

“You aren’t,” promised Stiles. He pressed a hand to the expanse of Derek’s chest. His breath was labored as his gaze bore into Derek’s. “I’m eighteen. I want this—have for months.” 

“I know,” Derek said softly, his lips curled up into a tender smile as he brushed the back of his fingers down Stiles’ side. “But maybe we should slow down.” 

Stiles caught his bottom lip between his teeth and rolled his eyes fondly. He said, “You don’t have to protect me. It’s not the same, y’know.” 

He tried to press forward to capture Derek’s lips again, but Derek pulled further away. His dark eyebrows were furrowed together as he asked, incredulous, “What do you mean?” 

Still swept up in the moment, Stiles waved his hand in the air and ducked forward to kiss Derek’s neck. “Y’know. Kate. Paige. It’s not the same—we’re not the same.”

Derek, whose expression had been so soft only moments before, looked stunned. His hands dropped from Stiles’ hips as though his skin had burned him. He asked, his voice coolly detached, “What do you know about Paige?” 

He stilled. Suddenly, Stiles recognized his mistake. They’d never talked about Paige. While Kate had come up once or twice, and he had made it clear to Derek that he’d figured it out, the same couldn’t be said about Paige. She had been a secret. One that Derek had held close to his chest for years until Peter had spilled the story to Stiles and Cora. He’d always intended to talk to Derek about it, but then Ms. Blake had kidnapped his dad, and Cora had gotten sick, and then they’d left...there’d never been any time. 

He leaned back, his gaze searching out Derek’s face for some sign as to his true feelings. When he found none, he knew he had to just bite the bullet and be honest. 

He explained, “Peter told me about her during the Alpha Pack business. I was going to talk to you about it—I swear. It just—it was never the right time. I didn’t want to spring it on you.” 

He tried to reach out to lay a hand on Derek’s arm, but the werewolf pulled away from the gesture. Firmly, he said, “It was none of your business. You should have left as soon as Peter started talking.” 

“I couldn’t,” Stiles countered, his voice carefully even. He tried to approach the conversation as calmly and rationally as possible. He desperately wanted to make Derek understand. “It was relevant—we were fighting for our lives against the Alpha Pack, and Peter had information about Ennis. We needed all the research we could get.” 

Again, Stiles had somehow blundered his way into the wrong words. 

Derek ripped away from Stiles and stood up. He took several steps back until he was pressed up against the closet door. Stiles, who was sitting on the floor in nothing but his boxers, felt a chill crawl up his spine. 

“My life isn’t research!” Derek cried, a flash of blue flittering across his gaze before it disappeared. 

Shame flared through him, and Stiles tried not to think of other times he’d treated Derek’s life like research. Like it was just another terrifyingly, exhilarating Wikipedia binge for Stiles to stay up all night devouring. There was Laura, obviously, and the eager way he’d dragged Scott through the woods to dig up the top half of a dead girl’s body because he thought it was exciting. But there was also the time he’d researched the Hale fire when Scott had first been bitten. How he’d told himself it was strictly for research altruism, even though he knew he found it fascinating. Like it wasn’t someone’s life. Someone’s family. 

But Paige was different. He stood by that. And so he scrambled to his feet just as quickly, and used the bed as leverage to lift himself off the floor. He argued, “Sorry but—I’m never going to turn away information that could help us. Even if it hurts someone’s feelings.” 

Instead of responding to that comment, Derek held up his hands and shook his head. “Fine. Whatever, it’s fine.” 

“Derek, c’mon,” Stiles said, a feeble smile trying to play on his lips. “I swear I wasn’t hiding this from you. Peter thought it would help us fight the Alpha pack. He told me and Cora because he thought it would explain things.” 

Derek’s eyes widened. “Cora knows too?” 

Stiles made a face. “Ah—yeah. Peter told the story to both of us. I’m sorry.” 

At those words, Derek stiffened. His lips settled into a firm line. Again, he said, his tone curt, “It’s fine. I think I’m going to head back to bed.”

He moved as though he was going to head for the door, but Stiles stepped in the way. “Derek, c’mon, let’s talk about this. I don’t—this isn’t what I wanted.” 

“I said it was fine, Stiles.”  

Stiles didn’t believe him. Everything about Derek’s body seemed to scream that he wasn’t fine, not in the slightest. “I just...it was vital information. Maybe you would never have told me the story, maybe you didn’t want me to know, but if Peter was willing to share, I wasn’t about to turn down information that could help us.”

Derek scoffed. “You could have come to me if you were so curious.” 

“I didn’t know there was anything to be curious about until Peter talked to us. We weren’t even friends back then!” Stiles yelled followed by a bitter laugh. “You could barely stand to be in the same room as me!” 

Stiles regretted the words as soon as they’d left his lips. He didn’t know how things had gone so wrong, or how he’d managed to put his foot in his mouth with every word he said. It was true, back then, Derek seemed to hate Stiles just a little bit more with every word that fell out of his mouth. They weren’t friends; they were merely crisis adjacent, only turning to each other when the situation around them became dire enough. But Stiles had wanted them to get along—he’d longed for it. 

The pack bond pulled taut between them. Across the room, he watched as Derek’s face contorted with something like regret, or reproach, or barely flickering rage. Carved under his ribs, Stiles could feel Derek’s pain mirroring his own. 

He tried a softer approach, and whispered, “But I’m grateful that Peter told us about Paige. I understand you better, I know what you’ve gone through—what you’ve lost.” 

Derek curled his lips and bared his teeth. “What matters is that I’m not grateful. We’re friends now and you said nothing.” 

Hurt filled Stiles’ eyes and the same feeling swelled in his chest. He tried to step forward, to wrap his fingers around Derek’s wrist, but Derek pulled his arm out of reach and held it close to his chest.

He didn’t know how this had happened: moments ago they’d been kissing. How had it ended up here?

“You don’t know anything.” 

Derek could be angry: he had the right. And clearly there was some anger buried deep within him, but mostly, he just sounded despondent. Fragile, even. It pained Stiles and made him feel like the worst kind of person. 

“Just because you heard some story; you think you know me?” Derek asked, his voice quivering with unshed tears. “You think you know what I went through, what it was like? What have you been through this past year that I’ve been gone? What are your nightmares about? You think if—fuck, if Aiden told me about what I’d missed, I’d understand what you went through?” 

Put like that, Derek’s words cut deeper than Stiles could have imagined. Panic rising like bile in his throat, he whined, “Derek—”

Derek squeezed his eyes shut, as if to block out his own words, and said, his voice weak and his words strangled, “You don’t know what it’s like to hold a girl...the first person you’ve ever loved. Hold her while she’s dying. You don’t know what it’s like to know you killed her...then killed your family.” 

Heather flashed across his mind’s eye, unbidden. 

“You didn’t,” Stiles said. His voice was plaintive as he begged Derek to believe him. “You were a kid, Peter manipulated you, Kate manipulated you. You were just as much a victim as Paige and your family.” 

Derek’s voice, in contrast, was firm. His body was a straight line, his shoulders pulled back. 

“They’re dead and I’m alive.” 

He didn’t have to say anything else for Stiles to understand that he couldn’t change Derek’s mind. Yet even so, he tried again. “Derek—”

As if he were a car shifting gears, Derek pushed away from the closet door and his features settled into cool disinterest. His voice distant, almost robotic, he asked Stiles without looking at him, “Are you okay to go back to sleep now?” 

Stiles wanted so desperately to make things right, to fix what he’d fucked up. He tried to press into Derek’s space, but Derek took a deliberate step out of reach, refusing to be touched. 

A sigh escaped his lips, and Stiles reached out to brush his fingers against Derek’s hand hanging loosely by his side. He asked, hopeful, “Would you stay here tonight?” 

Derek, looking pained, stepped away from Stiles’ touch again. He moved closer to the door, and answered, “No, I don’t think so.” 

Then he turned and walked out of the room without looking back, closing the door softly behind him. The sound of the latch bolt sliding into place reverberated throughout the empty room. Stiles sunk back onto the floor and leaned his head back against the mattress to stare out at the moon. So much for change and new beginnings. 

He leaned forward, covered his face with his hands, and tried to remember how to breathe. 

Chapter Text

Stiles blinked slowly. Sunlight flooded through the still open window and bathed his face in its warm glow. He took a moment to orient himself, cataloguing his senses. From somewhere outside, birds chirped. The smell of bacon frying in grease fat drifted up the stairs, and his dry mouth watered. His head throbbed, a splitting headache making itself known first thing, while he took note of his ravenous hunger. 

Glancing around the room, he took in the disorganized chaos of his clothes still strewn across every available surface. His night with Lydia and Danny at the Jungle felt like it had happened weeks ago, but in reality it had been less than twelve hours. And all the rest that came afterwards rushed forward in that moment, then crashed over him and swept him up in the shame of it all. 

Stiles inhaled sharply, his mind turning back to the night before against his will: the nightmare, the kiss, the argument. The memory was razor-sharp and it cut him swiftly as he recalled every minute expression that had played across Derek’s face the night before. He could remember the dank taste of dirt on his tongue, the desperate desire to pull back his mention of Paige, the flicker of betrayal that shone from behind Derek’s gaze. 

It had all gone so fucking wrong. He loved Derek. Earnestly. And for a few moments last night, he’d been lucky enough to get a hint of what being loved by Derek in return might feel like. He had never imagined that Derek would ever, in any way, be interested in him. The thought of kissing Derek had been so far removed from reality, that when it had happened it had left Stiles gobsmacked. It had been so good. Like a dream. And then he’d ruined it all with his carelessness and his rambling, like so many other things in his life that he destroyed just by being himself. 

Which proves me right, he thought. Who could ever love me? Stiles cringed. He could sense that he would get lost in his own mortification and regret if he stayed in this bed and wallowed in his mistakes.  

The room smelled of stale smoke and spilled alcohol. He wondered if it had bothered Derek’s senses the night before, if it had made the whole confrontation that much worse for the werewolf. His headache pounded and his grief grew. Not wanting to spend another moment analyzing his missteps, Stiles stumbled out of bed and pulled on a wayward shirt and the first pair of sweatpants he spotted. He swiped his phone off the bedside table and clutched it in his hand. 

The scent of a greasy breakfast called to him from downstairs, but Stiles took his time on his way there. Last night’s events left him groggy, so he walked slowly down the hall. The door to Derek’s bedroom was propped open, and Stiles couldn’t resist peeking a glance inside as he walked by. There was no sign of Derek—his bed was made, the corners of the sheets pulled taut and tucked beneath the mattress. Stiles wasn’t sure how he felt at the realization that Derek wasn’t there: relieved? Disappointed? The only thing he was really sure of in that moment was the hunger that pulled him nearer to the kitchen. 

He stumbled downstairs and entered the kitchen—for half a second, he glanced around the room and thought maybe, just maybe, Derek would be cooking. Over the past few months, the werewolf had taken it upon himself to cook most of the meals while Stiles was out training with Deaton. 

Only Derek wasn’t standing behind the stovetop. Instead it was Dad, doing his best to turn the bacon with his one good hand while he pinched the handle of the pan between his hip and his cast. At the sound of Stiles’ footsteps, Dad glanced over his shoulder and cast a smirk in his direction. 

“I thought a greasy breakfast might do wonders at soaking up whatever alcohol you didn’t drink last night,” he quipped, turning back to the task at hand. “I know my underage son would never, but at least the food will be good.”

Stiles slipped into a chair at the kitchen table and said, “That better be turkey bacon.” 

“I said greasy, didn’t I?” asked Dad. “I feel like that should answer your question already.” 

He cast a glance around the kitchen, ignoring the comment, and asked in a tone that failed to hit nonchalance, “Where’s Derek?” 

Dad shrugged, as he carefully used a pair of tongs to transfer the bacon to a plate piece by piece. He said, “I don’t know. His bedroom was empty when I knocked on his door to offer him breakfast.” 

Stiles looked at him askance. “You knocked on Derek’s door but not mine?” 

Dad laughed. “Why bother? You sleep like the dead.” 

With his back turned away from him, Stiles pulled his phone towards him and thumbed at the home button. He quickly scrolled through his unread texts—most of which were from Danny and Lydia, first begging him to come back, then drunkenly telling him what he’d missed, until the last few from only an hour before as both of them complained about their hangovers and asked how he was feeling. None were from Derek (or Scott, he noted, but that was nothing new). 

A sigh escaped his lips and he placed the phone screen side down on the kitchen table. When he glanced up, he found Dad studying him from across the room. He held his arm with the cast close to his chest, delicately propped up by his other hand. 

“What’s wrong, kiddo?” 

There was a moment, a single moment, where Stiles considered his two options. He could lie to his dad, try to protect himself from whatever potential judgement or punishment that might come his way. Not saying anything might even, hopefully, extend the possibility of something happening with Derek, he couldn’t be sure how his dad would react to the truth. How often did father’s react calmly to the news that their teenage son had kissed a twenty-something year old man? 

Or he could go with the truth. 

And after everything they’d been through—all the lies, the secrets, the doubts—there was really no question. Things were better now, and they were better because of this: Stiles opted for the truth. Always. 

About forty minutes later, their plates scraped clean, Stiles wrapped up his telling of everything that had happened between him and Derek. Well, almost everything. Some things he kept to himself; the secrets that Derek had made clear belonged to him alone, like Kate, and Paige. Trying to explain what the previous night’s argument had been about without explaining the story of Paige was difficult, but Stiles made do. Dad sat across from him, his cast resting on the kitchen table, his features unreadable. Despite his silence, Stiles could tell that Dad was listening carefully, cataloguing every minute detail of his story. 

“You should have seen his face, Dad,” he whispered. “I hurt him so badly. I never should have listened to anything Peter had to say but I can’t take that back and now I don’t know what to do.” 

Stiles pushed his plate away and bared his palms to the ceiling. “I tried to talk to him last night but it was like he shut down...he wasn’t interested in hearing what I had to say. What if I fucked everything up?”

“First,” said Dad, “Mind your language. And second, son, sometimes you have the worst goddamn brain-to-mouth filter that I have ever encountered in all my years on this Earth.” 

He buried his face in his hands and groaned, “Dad, oh my God, do you want me to feel worse about myself?” 

Dad held his hands up and bared his one good palm to the room while the fingers on his broken hand wiggled to the best of their ability while restricted by the cast. He said, apologetic, “Sorry, sorry.” 

“I don’t know what to do, Dad,” he said, his voice wavering. He didn’t even know where to start. “I don’t know where he is or if he’d even talk to me if I did. I want to make things right but...how can I?” 

Dad considered him thoughtfully, his piercing blue eyes roving over Stiles’ face. Stiles sat stock still, allowed his father to study him, and wondered if he was found lacking. 

“You know, when your mother and I first got together, it took forever,” Dad mused. 

Stiles started at the words—they rarely talked about Mom. For them, talking about her was the same as talking about their loss. Her life was inextricably tangled together with her death. It wasn’t in any way near the healthiest coping method in the world, but it meant that whenever one of them spoke about her, the other knew it was important. They paid attention. 

He continued, “I kept asking your mom out on dates, and every. Single. Time. She invited her friends along with her. It got to the point that I was paying for five—six—sometimes seven people to go to the movies! Honest, I thought I was going to bankrupt myself.” 

Dad laughed at the story, his shoulders shaking as he dropped his gaze to the table. “Finally after the fourth or fifth time, I leaned over and told her point blank that I was trying to date her and asked why she kept dragging her friends along. And your mom? Looked me straight in the eyes and confessed that there was some night, months back, when I’d walked her home in the rain and stayed the whole night talking to her.” 

“Okay...?” Stiles said, not entirely sure where the story was going. 

“It was the two of us, alone, in her bedroom until six o’clock in the morning just talking. And according to your mom, she kept waiting for me to make a move, kiss her, something, and I just...didn’t do anything. After that, she was convinced I wasn’t interested in anything more than being friends,” Dad explained, glancing up to catch Stiles’ gaze. “That’s why she kept inviting other people on our dates.” 

At Stiles’ confused face, Dad waved his cast in the air. “I wish your mother could have told you that story—it was one of her favorites. She was always much better at telling it than me.” 

Reaching across the kitchen table, Dad wrapped his hand around Stiles’ wrist and squeezed. “What I’m trying to say—poorly—is that sometimes there are miscommunications that you don’t even realize are happening. And sometimes it’s your fault. Claudia didn’t know I was asking her out, because I didn’t make it clear that I was interested in her. Whatever you and Derek argued about last night...he thinks you’re judging him. Pitying, even. You say you’re not, but did you make that clear last night? Did you try?”

Stiles’ eyes prickled with tears as his lips trembled. The headache he’d been suffering from all morning continued to throb. 

He didn’t know how to explain everything. There was no way to make Dad understand unless he knew the details about Kate and Paige, but Stiles didn’t want to perpetuate the cycle that Peter had already started by spreading Derek’s story. 

Shaking his head, he tried to force his thoughts into words and said, “Knowing about Derek, about his past, it helped me understand him. Where he comes from, why he reacts the way he does sometimes. Scott was never really interested in learning that stuff or taking it into consideration when it came to Derek. And, maybe I didn’t care back then either. But now—”

He struggled to find the words. How could he explain what he had only just begun to comprehend? 

“I don’t know how to explain to Derek that I understand,” he tried, his voice soft and gentle. “That maybe I can never know exactly what happened to him, what he went through, but I have my own experiences with guilt. I remember Mom falling apart. I remember how she hated me—screamed at me, blamed me. I know she was sick but...it felt real to me.” 

If Stiles and his father rarely talked about his mother, they never talked about those last few months. It hurt too much to think of her at her worst, when she so very little resembled the woman they both loved. They hadn’t even talked about it when it was happening; both of them choosing to steadfastly ignore the issue as though that would make it go away. They had no experience putting to words the hateful things she had screeched at Stiles when he was still just a kid watching his mother die. And then she had died, and they had such trouble trying to deal with her loss that it almost wasn’t worth the effort to deal with what had come before. 

A therapist would have a field day with the two of them.  

So, to talk about it now was a meaningful step forward in their relationship. A painful one, but also necessary: despite the fact that it would hurt them both, he needed Dad to understand. 

It wasn’t just that Stiles understood Derek better, it was that he believed Derek could understand him

Dad let go of his wrist and reached up to cup Stiles’ cheek. Stiles nuzzled against the palm of his hand, fighting back tears. Recognition passed between the two of them, and he felt nothing but grateful for the man who had raised him. 

“I just think he could know me,” Stiles whispered, his eyes squeezed shut tight, the admission forcing its way out of the dark recesses of his innermost thoughts.  

Dad released a wet laugh, his voice strangled as he choked back tears of his own. “Anyone would be lucky to know you, kid.” 

Stiles let out his own laugh and nuzzled closer into Dad’s touch. 

“You don’t have to hang around with your old man today,” Dad said, smiling softly at Stiles. “It’s okay if you want to go find Derek to sort this out—you two just need to talk to each other. ”

He leaned away from Dad’s touch, wiped at his damp cheeks with the back of his hand, and tried to laugh. It came out forced. He asked, almost afraid at what answer he might get, “Are you okay with all of...this?” 

Leaning back in his chair, Dad chuckled and shook his head before explaining, “You’re an adult now. And Derek is a good man. Maybe a couple of months ago, I would have had a problem with this, but now...things are different.” 

He met Stiles’ gaze and said plainly, “I don’t want either of you getting hurt.” 

Affection soared through Stiles’ heart as the beginnings of a grin pulled at his lips. Somehow, like always, Dad knew exactly what to say. 

Putting his dirty dishes in the sink, Stiles moved as though to leave the kitchen, but Dad stopped him with his broken arm outstretched. He glanced down at his dad, still sitting at the kitchen table. Dad’s gaze was steady, still a little damp from the earlier tears that had been shed. His arm keeping Stiles’ in place, he said, “Son, I just wanted to say...thank you for telling me.” 

Stiles grinned. “Of course. No secrets between us. Not anymore.” 

***

An hour later he’d washed off the stink of the club and pulled on his most worn in jeans and plaid shirt. He was in his Jeep, driving aimlessly, as he tried to figure out where Derek might be. His headache continued to pound despite the Advil he’d taken and his stomach rumbled—maybe he should have had seconds at breakfast? Just as he was about to head in the direction of the abandoned subway station, his phone rang. 

Stiles fumbled to answer it as quickly as possible and pressed the speaker button without looking at the name on the screen as he kept his eyes on the road. He asked, “Derek?” 

A beat of silence, and then a voice replied, “...No? It’s Danny.” 

Stiles allowed himself a second to despair the response, and then let out a sigh. He lied, “Sorry, man, I’m driving so I can’t really look too closely at my phone. Saw the D at the beginning of your name and just assumed. What’s up?” 

If Danny had any reason to doubt Stiles’ words, he didn’t make it known. Instead, he forged straight ahead and said, “Well, I thought I’d give you a call because I got those police records from the Alpha cases. I thought you’d want to hear what I found.” 

“Oh fuck, yeah dude!” Stiles exclaimed. Between his headache, driving, and Danny’s revelation, Stiles felt his concentration being pulled in each direction and knew something had to give. He spotted an empty parking lot to the left and quickly pulled in to put his Jeep in park. He said, “All right, let’s hear it.” 

From across the phone, Stiles could hear Danny typing at his laptop at a furious pace. “Okay, so there are really only three things of note. First: in the weeks leading up to the murders, locals complained about two things that I’m sure you’ll recognize. One was an abnormally high number of dead large game animals in the local forests. The police noted that Federal Wildlife Officers checked it out and that all the deaths could be ascribed to another animal. And two, there was a rotting smell permeating the forests.” 

“Did everybody report the rotting smell?” Stiles asked, mentally cataloguing Danny’s responses.

Another flurry of typing, and then Danny said, “Good catch. It seems like the only people who made those reports to the police were members of the local pack. The police reports don’t state if they ever found a source for the smell, or if they ever investigated it. And it looks like it was something that was reported initially and then died down until it was brought back up after the murders—probably the packs realized it was something supernatural in nature when no civilians could smell it.” 

Same as Beacon Hills then, Stiles thought. He wondered what it meant that he could smell it—was the spark making him less human? Was he able to sense it as strongly as the werewolves? 

“What else?” 

“Well, I think you’ll find this interesting,” said Danny. “In almost all of the cases—though not Metaline—witnesses described seeing an unknown older Caucasian male around town. The police didn’t seem to think this was noteworthy, especially since all the deaths were determined to be caused by animal attacks, so there are no other details.” 

Stiles hummed. “So, no way to know if ‘older’ in this case means middle aged or geriatric?” 

“Right.” 

That wasn’t helpful to Stiles. It did nothing to narrow down his suspect pool, other than to officially confirm that whoever was murdering these Alphas was a man. Not a totally useless fact to know, but one Stiles had already suspected. 

There was another beat of silence while Stiles waited for Danny to say something. When he heard nothing but more typing, he asked, “You said there were three things of note. What’s the third?” 

He could hear the hesitation in Danny’s voice as the other boy started to speak. “Well, it’s not anything that’s officially in the police reports. Just something I noticed that I thought might be important.” 

“Okay,” Stiles said. “What is it?” 

“Just—in all these other cases, right?” Danny asked. “The sightings of the stranger, the rotting smell, the dead game...those things all lasted at most for about six weeks before the murders. And then they almost always immediately stopped right after.” 

Stiles could immediately see what Danny was getting at. He said, “But it’s been happening in Beacon Hills for almost four months now.” 

“Right,” Danny intoned. 

What could that mean? Why would Beacon Hills be different? Well—that wasn’t fair, Stiles thought to himself. Beacon Hills is always different. Still, the revelation left Stiles feeling cold. Whatever it meant, it couldn’t be anything good. 

Stiles sighed loudly, and massaged his temples where his headache throbbed mercilessly. Speaking into the silence of his Jeep, he said, “I’ll think about it and get back to you soon, okay? Maybe I’ll see if Lydia or...Derek has any ideas.” 

As soon as Danny said bye, Stiles hung up the call and tried to call Derek. 

***

Back on the road, he tried to call Derek for the fifth time, but once again the call was diverted to Derek’s automated voicemail. Just like the night Dad broke his arm, and Stiles had broken every speed limit in town. Frustrated, he wondered if Derek would ever change his voicemail.

What bothered Stiles most was that he didn’t think it would be this hard to find Derek. They shared a pack bond now. And he could feel it, dimly, tying the two of them together. But unlike other times when Stiles had known exactly where Derek was—like that day he’d talked to Allison and known, without a shadow of a doubt, that Derek was with Dad at the Sheriff’s Office—today he could only sense that Derek was still his pack member. But maybe that wasn’t a fair comparison: after all, the day Stiles had spoken to Allison, Dad had told him where he and Derek were headed that morning.

Maybe Stiles could only sense where his pack members were if he already had a general idea of their location? 

If only Stiles had more experience being in an actual pack—now that he knew the difference, knew what it was like to feel his pack members tied to him, his time with Scott’s pack didn’t seem to matter as much. It did nothing to help him in his quest now. 

Yet, as though he’d spoken his thoughts to the universe and the universe had returned the favor, Stiles turned a corner downtown and spotted Isaac walking down the sidewalk by himself. In that moment, Stiles made a split second decision to park his Jeep and throw himself out the driver’s side door. He didn’t know what drove him to go through with the wild speculation that had popped into his thoughts, and yet, he didn’t stop himself. 

“Isaac!” he called out, tripping over his own two feet as he slammed the car door behind him. “Wait up!” 

He watched as Isaac came to a stop and turned slowly, confusion etched across his face. He tilted his head to the side, his blonde curls shifting in the wind. Before he could open his mouth to say anything, Stiles interrupted him.

“Do you still have a connection with Derek?” 

Isaac stared at him, and said, slightly amused and slightly irritated, “...hello to you too, Stiles.” 

Stiles rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “C’mon man, just answer my question.” 

Maybe someone else would blow him off—someone like Jackson, who could look Stiles straight in the face and call him a moron without a single shred of compassion. But Isaac wasn’t like that. He was full of tenderness, and despite the life he’d gone through, he’d come out the other side kinder. Like Derek. 

“I don’t,” Isaac said, stuffing his hands into his front pockets. He scuffed his shoe against the concrete sidewalk, his head ducked so as not to make eye contact with Stiles. “The pack bond broke over a year ago, when Derek kicked me out of the loft during the whole Alpha pack debacle.” 

Stiles remembered hearing about that second hand from Scott; remembered how the other boy had raged at Derek’s cruelty. His blindspot for Derek’s pain had always been so large. At the time, Stiles was so overwhelmed trying to sort out the sacrifices and why Lydia kept turning up where bodies were being found that he hadn’t bothered to check on Isaac. He’d trusted that Scott could handle it himself—and he had. He’d welcomed Isaac into his home and pronounced him “family” without a second’s hesitation because that was the type of person Scott was. Thoughtful and good and so much better than Stiles could ever hope to be. 

He wet his lips and asked, his eyes wide, “What did the pack bond feel like with Derek?”

“Being in Dereks’s pack was like…” Isaac started to say before stopping himself. His lips moved soundlessly, and Stiles watched as he seemed to struggle to articulate his own thoughts. Finally, he shook his head, and said, “When I was a kid, like ten years old—back before Camden died and my dad became...y’know—there was this rainy Saturday where the three of us spent the whole day watching the Star Wars trilogy."

Unsure what this had to do with anything, Stiles could only think to ask, “The original trilogy, I hope?” 

Isaac gave a small laugh and nodded. He glanced up to meet Stiles’ gaze and said, “Being in Derek’s pack felt like that: like comfort and family and care. I hadn’t had that for so long. Erica and Boyd and Derek, they were my family. But Derek didn’t know what he was doing back then—so there was a lot of fear too. That I’d fuck up or ruin things or they’d realize I didn’t belong. Or that I’d get hurt and deserve it.” 

He gave another dark chuckle. “So, maybe it felt exactly like being in my family, I don’t know.” 

Stiles watched as Isaac tilted his head back to stare up at the sky above them. His eyes almost shone, and Stiles couldn’t be sure if they were wet with tears or just catching a ray of sun. 

“But it was—good, mostly. Even after all of that,” he said, a small smile playing on his lips. Stiles wondered who he was thinking of. “It felt like this...this tether from my heart to Derek’s and the rest. I could feel them with me all the time.” 

Pinching his brow to combat his headache, Stiles asked the question he’d been wondering for years, “What did it feel like when the bond broke?” 

Then almost immediately, his eyes grew wide with horror as he rushed to retract the question. “I mean, oh fuck, you do not have to talk about anything you don’t want to. Like if it’s too personal, don’t feel pressured. I shouldn’t have asked!”

Without taking a moment to breathe, Stiles rushed, his thoughts slipping from his lips without any consideration, “I mean, except for the fact that I actually want to know and it would be helpful if you could answer so, actually, would you mind? Describing what it felt like? Please?”

“Don’t worry about it, Stiles,” said Isaac as he shook his head. As he continued, he spoke in a low voice, “It felt...look, one moment I was whole and the next there was this gaping piece missing. I felt like there was a black pit of despair at the center of my soul, as though I could get lost in it if I didn’t spend every moment trying to keep myself afloat.”

Stiles held his breath as he listened to Isaac’s words. 

Isaac shrugged, as though trying to brush his own words off his back. “I was lucky—it didn’t last long. The bond with Scott slipped into place so easily, so readily, it was almost as though my wolf was telling me that Scott was my pack all along. The bond with Scott is different. I don’t know how to explain it exactly: it’s not a tether, but it’s always there. Like I can feel him in my blood. And with Derek...there was already so much pain there; Erica, Boyd. Even if he hadn’t tossed me out, I don’t think we would have lasted long.” 

“Right,” Stiles said lamely, unsure of how else to acknowledge Isaac’s words. “Thanks, I guess.” 

Isaac gave him a lopsided smile. “Anytime.” 

It had never felt like that for Stiles. Not even a little. The pain he’d felt after his argument with Scott had been wholly human—it had been wrapped up in his guilt and his regret, but nothing so completely life altering. He didn’t feel lost without Scott. He wanted him in his life, of course, but he didn’t need him. That’s what Stiles had learned over the past year and a half. The fall out from the sacrifice to the Nemeton had made clear to Stiles that he was stronger than he originally thought. He could withstand so much more than he had ever imagined. 

If there had been any room for doubt before, it was clear now that he had never been part of Scott’s pack in anything but name only. There had been no chasm deep in Stiles’ soul after he’d realized the lack of the bond; there had only been the quiet realization that everything he thought he’d known had been wrong. But like Isaac, Stiles felt almost as if Derek was the packmate he was always supposed to have. The bond had slid into place so quietly, so effortlessly, that Stiles wondered if it had always been there. 

Scott wasn’t ready to hear any of this, Stiles was sure. But thinking back on his phone call with Danny, Stiles knew there were other things that Scott needed to be made aware of. Isaac, it was clear, was ready to depart from this conversation, but Stiles had a message to pass on. 

Reaching out, he placed his hand on Isaac’s shoulder and said, “Me and Lydia are looking into those dead deer and the murdered Alphas. It’s really important that Scott stays safe, okay?” 

Isaac eyed him warily, and asked, “For the territory?” 

“For me,” Stiles corrected earnestly. He squeezed his hand once before letting it slip from Isaac’s shoulder. “Because he’s my brother. Just…look out for him.”

A peculiar expression crossed Isaac’s features before he promised, “I always look out for him.” 

For a moment, Stiles considered giving him the brother speech—threats of shovels and retribution for any hearts that may be broken. His lips parted, ready to say the words, but he stopped himself short. He thought the sentiment might not be appreciated. 

Instead, as Isaac turned to walk away, he asked, “Have you gotten Scott to watch Star Wars yet?” 

Isaac turned to him, a crooked smile on his lips, and answered, “We binged them all with Allison.” 

Six months ago Stiles would have been riddled with jealousy at that revelation. He would have wanted to know dates and times and he would have harbored dark thoughts about why he hadn’t been invited—that he wasn’t wanted, or worse, that he was actively hated. But so much time had passed; life and circumstances had changed. And Stiles could understand why there were certain things one was willing to do for the people they loved, even if they wouldn’t do it for others. 

What would he do for Derek, he wondered, if Derek were ever to ask? 

Instead of envy, Stiles felt nothing but joy at the revelation. He smiled broadly at Isaac, and nodded. “That’s good. I’ve always wanted him to watch them.” 

Isaac seemed to study his expression, as though he didn’t entirely trust Stiles’ words. Stiles didn’t deny him that disbelief—a few months ago Isaac would have been right to doubt him. He asked, “Have you left the pack for good, then?” 

“It wasn’t a conscious choice,” Stiles said thoughtfully. “You have to know I was never really pack to begin with. We never had that bond. But...I think it’s the right choice, nonetheless.” 

“Scott misses you.” 

“I miss him too.” 

At that, Isaac seemed to decide on something that Stiles hadn’t even realized he’d been contemplating. The werewolf stepped forward and held his hand out for Stiles to shake. When he took his hand, Isaac held on fast and said, “I’m going to do whatever I can to help you and Scott patch things up. Promise.” 

They said a few more words before parting ways and Stiles crossed the few feet before climbing back into his Jeep. He curled his fingers around the steering wheel and took a deep breath, his headache ever present. A moment passed, then another, and Stiles closed his eyes and focused on his heartbeat, the steady pound of it against his ribcage. And as he focused on the beating, he reached out with his mind and felt for the tether that connected him with his pack. Gently he held on while keeping perfectly still, his breathing completely even, until he began to feel the echo of another heart through the tether (and a third, somewhere off in the distance in the direction of his home) as though his heart were reverberating with another. He followed the tether as far as it went, until he opened his eyes. Right then, Stiles knew where Derek was. 

He reached out and turned the ignition on.

Chapter Text

The route to Derek’s old loft wasn’t a long one. As Stiles rolled to a stop outside the building, he could see Derek standing by a car while talking to a middle aged woman in a tailored pantsuit. His head throbbed but he did his best to ignore it as he cut the engine and without a moment’s hesitation, slipped out of the driver’s seat and leaned against the car door with his arms folded across his chest. 

He knew when Derek spotted him—could feel something like recognition reverberate across the bond as Derek’s gaze passed over him before returning to the woman before him. Despite noticing that Stiles was there, Derek didn’t seem to be in any rush to end his conversation.

But Stiles was familiar with the waiting game, and two could play at it. So he pulled out his phone and started fiddling with one of the dozens of obnoxious games he’d downloaded over the years to keep his fingers occupied. 

It didn’t take more than a few minutes for things to wrap up. Stiles struggled to pretend like he wasn’t paying attention, but he immediately clocked when the woman started digging through her purse for a set of keys and unlocked her car doors. He kept his head ducked and tried desperately to appear lost in his game, but Stiles soon lost out to his poor impulse control. He snuck a glance upwards and caught sight of Derek walking his way, his jaw clenching and unclenching, his shoulders tight. 

“What are you doing here, Stiles?” he asked with no amusement in his voice. 

“I could be asking you the same question,” said Stiles. He shoved his phone into his front pocket and tried to keep his fingers from fidgeting. “I thought you didn’t rent the loft anymore?” 

Derek’s dark eyebrows furrowed. He replied, “I own the building. I thought you knew that?” 

He blinked, owlishly, a little ashamed that he’d been found lacking information he supposedly should have had. Maybe he’d once known that fact, back before Derek and Cora had long disappeared from Beacon Hills. But clearly the knowledge had slipped from his consciousness like water through a sieve, pushed aside to make room for other more life-and-death factoids. He shrugged and asked, “So, then why were you talking to that woman?” 

Then it was Derek’s turn to look bashful. His eyes flickered away from Stiles’, studying the near empty street instead. He said, his voice purposefully casual, “I was talking to my property manager to see if there were any available lofts.” 

Dread filled his stomach, his very worst fears confirmed in that moment. Had he driven Derek away? Pushed too hard and too fast, like he was always wont to do? He caught his bottom lip between his teeth and gnawed at it, the only soothing behavior he knew that could stop himself from vomiting all of his thoughts onto Derek. 

The silence dragged on between them, until Stiles felt like he had to say something. The only vaguely neutral question that came to mind spilled from his lips. “Why’d you stay at our house then?” 

He regretted the words as soon as he said them. He couldn’t imagine an answer that wouldn’t hurt him and didn’t know what would be worse: something practical, like that Derek didn’t want to offend the territory’s Alpha when Scott had made the suggestion. Or worse, that Derek had been planning on leaving Beacon Hills so quickly that he didn’t think it’d matter. That he had never taken Stiles’ feelings into consideration, and that nothing had changed. 

“I—” Derek started, then stopped, his voice trailing off. His gaze skittered across Stiles’ face without stopping. “I don’t know.” 

That hurt too. 

Stiles gestured with one hand. “Then what are you doing here? When you still have a room at home?” 

“I think I’ve officially overstayed my welcome,” Derek said bitterly. 

It wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but Stiles glimpsed a flicker of hope. He held onto it fast and asked, in a rush, “Is this about what happened last night—the conversation? Or the kiss?” 

A moment passed, and then he asked, his voice wavering as though approaching a live wire, “Paige?” 

Derek looked away sharply, his lips settling into a frown. “It doesn’t.” 

“Because we don’t have to talk about it ever again,” Stiles hurried to explain, almost tripping over his own words. “Or—the kiss either, we can just ignore it. Pretend it didn’t happen. I don’t care. Just don’t leave?” 

Derek let out a short, mirthless laugh. “Right. Like you’ve ever ignored anything in your life.” 

Tears welled up in his eyes that he furiously wiped away. “I can—I have. For you, I could.” 

“I told you,” Derek said, his voice flat, as he brought his gaze back to Stiles’. His expression was carefully blank, but Stiles could feel something echoing across the bond. “It’s not about last night. I just think...whatever, you guys need your space, so do I. I’m sure your dad is sick of me.” 

Stiles swallowed, his throat suddenly tight and dry, and dared to venture closer to the danger. If only his head would stop pounding. He pleaded, “Dad loves having you there, you know he does. So do I. Don’t lie, Derek—I get why you’re mad, I do. But you haven’t given me a chance to explain.” 

“You could have followed me out of the room,” Derek pointed out. “You could have explained last night.” 

It felt like he couldn’t win. Nothing he did was right. 

And he didn’t know how that had happened. That used to be the old Derek and Stiles. Back when he was a sophomore and still figuring out all this supernatural bullshit. When he traded Derek’s good looks for intel from Danny, and Derek retaliated by slamming his face into a steering wheel. Back when they didn’t know how to communicate, and every word felt like a personal jab or a loaded threat. 

Stiles had gotten so comfortable with the affection they’d nurtured between each other. When Derek had first returned, Stiles had treated everything about him as suspicious. His every move had seemed suspect, to the point that Stiles had fucking stalked him. But slowly they’d grown closer together—they’d started to rely on each other until the beginnings of a bond had blossomed between them: this small, extraordinary connection that they’d both tended to until they were a pack. Until Stiles had realized he was in love with him. 

Only now, Stiles couldn’t seem to say the right thing. He couldn’t reach Derek across the vast void between them no matter how hard he tried. 

He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “I was giving you space.” 

Derek shook his head, tension evident in his jaw. He looked away from Stiles again, and seemed to blink furiously. “You’ve never had a problem barging into people’s rooms before.” 

“Yeah, well, maybe I needed space, okay?” Stiles asked, his pain pouring out of him. He wondered what Derek could scent off of him. “Maybe not all of us are as good as you at locking our feelings down the moment they happen to us, okay?” 

He saw how Derek’s jaw dropped and his lips parted ever so slightly, but Stiles barreled onwards. “Let’s be clear here: you and I had just kissed for the first time, and God, Derek, I’ve wanted that to happen for so long, you don’t even know. And it was so good, and perfect, and then I—”

He gave a shuddering breath. 

“I fucked it all up! I didn’t know how to make it better. I still don’t. I don’t want to make it worse, and I don’t even know how to begin figuring it all out, but—I have to try, don’t I?” His voice grew quiet as he dropped his gaze to the ground. The distance between them hadn’t felt so wide in months. “We’re worth that, at least.” 

When he glanced back up, he found Derek staring at him. There was a peculiar expression on his face, and suddenly Stiles was reminded of another conversation they’d once had years back, when Derek had first tried to explain what a kanima was to all of them and struggled to find the words. How “abomination” had slipped so easily off of Stiles’ tongue, the difference between it and werewolves so obvious to him. Derek had looked him then how he was looking at Stiles now. 

Awed and hopeful. Like maybe things weren’t entirely lost just yet. 

Hoping the look meant what he thought it did, Stiles took a step closer to Derek and pressed on. He felt hot all over from the way Derek was looking at him but he forced his hands into a fist to keep himself from reaching out to touch him. “I know I should have stopped Peter. I did think it would help us against the Alpha Pack, but I should have told him to shut up and sought you out instead. I know that.” 

He kept his gaze locked on Derek. “I just—I think I let him keep talking, because I hoped maybe you’d understand.” 

He took a deep breath and forced himself to speak. This was so much harder than talking to Dad. “When my mom was dying, she was—she was really sick. I mean, obvious, right? But. It got so bad, Derek, to the point that she didn’t know who I was. Not only that...she thought I was a danger to her. Like I was going to hurt her.” 

He looked at Derek imploringly. “I was nine, Derek. She was my mother. Do you know how much it scared me to hear the things she yelled at me? To have to watch my dad and the nurses restrain her to keep her from hurting me? To feel like I was killing her—she needed to rest, and she couldn’t do that around me because she had to be constantly vigilant. Like fucking Harry Potter.”

Derek’s expression was soft, and Stiles could feel his empathy pouring through the bond. It soothed his pounding headache. 

“I wanted to talk to you about Paige—about my mom too—but there was never any time. You and Cora left before I got the chance, and then...since you’ve been back things have been so good and I didn’t want to ruin things.” 

A bitter laugh escaped Stiles’ lips. “I guess, by not saying anything I ruined things anyway, huh? 

“I don’t know what you’ve gone through, Derek,” Stiles said with a small shrug. “Not really. I’ve read the police reports, and listened to Peter tell a story, and pieced together what I can from context clues. But your life isn’t made up of context clues, and I know that. I don’t want you to feel like you’re a case I’m trying to solve or a sad story I’m joyfully taking pity on. I care about you.” 

The next words out of his mouth were said in a rush, but he resisted the urge to squash them down. 

“I think I’m in love with you,” he confessed. “And I want to hear about your life from you, when you’re ready to tell me, and not a minute before. I’m sorry I didn’t say this last night or months before or two years ago, but it’s the truth. I want to be there for you, if you’ll let me.” 

Maybe it was all too much for Derek. The werewolf was staring at Stiles, his eyes wide, his expression dumbfounded. When Stiles had gone in search of him, he hadn’t imagined he’d confess everything. Dad had said for them to talk, and Stiles had, as per usual, gone barreling past the that recommendation without any hesitation. 

He watched as Derek seemed to forget how to blink, then licked his lips. He asked, his words unsteady and his voice gruff, “H—how did you find me?” 

It wasn’t the question Stiles was expecting, but it was one he was willing to answer so long as Derek was willing to engage him in a conversation. 

“I ran into Isaac,” he explained simply. “Asked him about what the pack bond with you felt like. Gave myself a moment to focus on it and nothing else, and followed the bond to you.”

Again, Derek looked stunned by the response. 

Stiles was quick to apologize, suddenly realizing that maybe Derek didn’t want to hear any of this—not about his feelings and not about the bond. “I’m—fuck, I’m sorry. Ignore me. I know you wanted to ignore this, and it doesn’t mean that we’re pack, okay? I’m not, y’know, trying to force you into anything, but—”

Derek cut him off. “What are you talking about?” 

“The pack bond,” he replied, confused. “You haven’t mentioned it weeks. And now you’re talking about moving out—leaving.” 

Derek blinked at him. This time, when he spoke, his voice was steady and firm. “I didn’t talk about it, because I thought we both understood what this was. I didn’t think I had to.” 

Still confused, Stiles opened his mouth to ask a question when his phone rang, interrupting the conversation. They both looked annoyed, but Derek gestured for him to answer. 

He fumbled with the device before sliding the call open and putting the phone to his ear. “Hello?” 

“Stiles,” Deaton’s smooth voice carried over the line. Derek seemed to perk in recognition. “We need to talk.” 

His gaze flickered to meet Derek’s. “I’m a little busy, doc. Can this possibly wait?” 

“No,” Deaton said, his tone deadly serious. “And come alone.” 

Before Stiles could say anything in response, Deaton hung up on him. The sound of the dial tone filled up the line. Usually, Stiles would feel annoyed, but in that moment he was aware of nothing but apprehension. Deaton had always been a man of few words, but there had been something to the quality of his voice in that phone call that alarmed Stiles. Like frayed nerves, or actual fear. Stiles shoved his phone back into his pocket, unsure of what had occurred. He glanced over to Derek, an apology written on his face because he knew what he had to do. 

He thought for a moment that Derek looked upset, but just as quickly the expression seemed to wash away. Derek waved a hand through the air. 

“It’s okay,” he said. “Go on—Deaton’s waiting for you. We’ll talk about this later.” 

Stiles nodded, once, before he turned to get back into Roscoe. Then, he stopped. On impulse, he turned back to Derek and crossed the short distance between them. He reached out and slipped his hand into Derek’s, and squeezed. He tried to force all of his belief that they’d make things work into that touch. He looked into Derek’s eyes, momentarily dazzled by the flecks of green in his irises, and he said, seriously, “Don’t move out. I want you to stay.” 

Derek’s gaze never wavered, the two of them standing there silently. Behind them the afternoon sun was high in the sky and Stiles’ grip remained strong as he poured all of his belief into that moment, all of his hope. Derek’s expression was unreadable, but finally after what felt like an eternity, he nodded his head and let his hand drop from Stiles’. 

***

Whatever was going on, Stiles knew there was no time for pleasantries. He slipped into the back of the veterinarian’s office, spied Deaton across the exam room, and asked, worry etched into his words, “What’s wrong?” 

Deaton didn’t turn to face Stiles, his back bent over an ancient tome. He said, “There’s something wrong with the Preserve.” 

Confusion creased his brow. “There’s been something wrong out there for months. Derek and I are already on top of it. You know this.” 

He moved to pull out his phone, considering texting Derek. Maybe they could pick up where they’d left off. There was still so much more he had to say. 

“I’ve determined the root of the rot.” 

Stiles’ hands stilled and a muscle in his cheek flexed from the ever present headache. He gazed at the back of Deaton’s head and asked, “What?” 

Deaton turned the page of the book he was examining before he spoke. “I was out in the Preserve collecting herbs from my garden, and discovered that someone has been stealing from my plants. Recently, from what my skills tell me.”

“Anybody could be doing that,” Stiles mused, taking a tentative step closer to Deaton. “Bored teenagers. A housewife looking to improve her cooking. What makes you think it has anything to do with the rot?” 

Deaton hummed in response. “Because the herbs collected all had something to do with aiding the strength of a spell. That, in connection with the dead deer and murdered Alphas, tells me that whoever this is, they’re nearing their end goal.” 

Finally, Deaton turned in his swivel chair to face Stiles. Perched on his nose were a pair of half-moon glasses that Stiles had only seen Deaton pull out after long days when his eyes were tired and his glamors weak. Deaton gestured to the books splayed out on the exam table. “I want you to help me think through what type of spells the herbs could be used for.” 

Preparing to be there for the long haul, Stiles began unbuttoning his plaid sleeves and rolling them up to his elbows. He stepped closer to the table and asked, “Can I get a list of what was taken?” 

Deaton waved Stiles closer to where he was already sitting. Laid out in front of him were a dozen plus specimens with labels. 

“We’ll use this as a teachable moment,” Deaton said. “I’ll name the herb and you tell me what it’s used for.” 

Stiles suppressed a groan, but quipped, “Never one to miss out on a teaching opportunity.” 

Deaton cast a withering stare in his direction, before he began rattling off the herbs. “Carnation.” 

“Enhancing magical powers and achieving balance,” Stiles said. He gazed down at the cottage pink bud and joked, “Maybe this person just wants to impress a date.” 

The vet ignored him and continued, “Celery.” 

Again, Stiles answered, “Uh, celery can increase mental powers and fertility and male potency, among others. Also, it’s great in stews.” 

“Club moss.” 

“Also known as Wolf’s Claw,” Stiles said, his mind sorting through the months of studying herbs Deaton had forced on him. “It’s used for protection and power, right? Specifically in bath magic for purification. And some Mediums use it to open channels of communication with the dead.” 

Deaton nodded thoughtfully, and pointed towards the next specimen. Before he could say anything, Stiles spoke for him, “Witches Burr. It adds great power to spells and rituals. And it’s said to defeat any kind of evil purpose in spellwork.” 

At this point, it was clear to Stiles that there was nothing to be quippy about. The herbs that this person had been taking were powerful and could be dangerous in the wrong hands. 

They continued down the row: Balsam Fir for bringing about change and strength; Echinacea for strengthening spells; Frankincense Resin (or Stiles’ preferred name: Frankincense Tears), for successful ventures and purification, usually used in rituals associated with self-will or the ego. Dogwood for protection. Some myths say that if you place the sap of the dogwood onto a handkerchief on Midsummer’s Eve, any wish one makes will be granted as long as they carry it faithfully.

And last, Aconite—the ever familiar Wolfsbane—as protection from werewolves.

Eventually, they pulled out all of the texts that Deaton owned to go study the herbs. Stiles’ knowledge was good but not without gaps, and so the two of them read, calling out to each other when they found relevant bits of information or learned something of use. By the time they’d both concluded that they’d read everything available in Deaton’s library, Stiles couldn’t be sure how long he’d been there.

It was clear to Stiles that whoever was behind this wanted something desperately, a powerful wish they needed granted that could only come to pass through magic that had to do with changing their self. But it was frustrating, examining the herbs spread out before them. There was vital information missing from the herbs chosen. 

Stiles relayed all of the information that he and others had collected over the past few months to Deaton: the packs affected, what the autopsies had to say, how Derek and Peter had felt called to return to Beacon Hills. At the mention of Danny’s discoveries from earlier that day Deaton made hurried notes on the pad in front of him. 

Directing Stiles to read over his shoulder from the open tome, he said, “A vast majority of herbs have to do with only a few key concepts. Love, wealth, protection, healing, power, so on and so forth. Herbs with a purpose.”

“But these,” Deaton said scornfully, gesturing to the specimens before them. “These only aid the strength of the spell. They do not reveal the purpose of the spell itself.” 

Stiles’ gaze flickered across the open page, devouring the information available to him, as he said, “You must have some theory.”

For a moment, Deaton was silent. Stiles wondered if perhaps Deaton would choose to say nothing—it wouldn’t be the first time the druid had made such a decision. Instead, after a moment, Deaton gave a resolute nod and said, “It’s all about power. Attaining it. Whoever is causing this disturbance in the supernatural community in this region, they’re trying to take power from the Alphas and dead game.” 

Stiles couldn’t help but remember Gerard and how he had wrecked chaos in Beacon Hills through his desperation for power. 

Deaton spun away from the table and got up from his chair. He stroked his chin thoughtfully, his voice dropped down to a mumble as though he were talking only to himself. “But there’s no harmony in this—they’re trying to use the herbs and magic to create the balance but the magic seems to be rebelling.” 

“What do you mean?” Stiles asked, following after him. 

His next words came out easily, as though the answer should have been obvious to Stiles. “Whoever is doing this thinks that killing the Alphas or animals can be both the sacrifice for power and the source of the power. That’s not how any of this works.” 

One of the very first lessons Deaton had given Stiles had to do with balance. He could almost picture the sixteen-year-old version of himself in the room with them, bent over a notebook furiously writing down Deaton’s instructions. 

“Human, shifter, witch...whoever this is, they’ve created a deadly disturbance to the equilibrium of the territory,” Deaton said, his words steady. “That’s where the rot is coming from. The more they try to force the magic to recognize the offerings as both power and sacrifice, the more the magic drains from the user trying to find that balance, trying to force that sacrifice.”

Stiles was aghast. “It’s killing them?” 

Deaton was quick to correct him. “Not killing, no. But it’s corrupting their magic. You wouldn’t know it from looking at them but the stink. Scott or Derek could stand right in front of them and not scent anything on them other than the stench of rot.” 

“But they’d notice someone like that in town,” Stiles argued. “Derek’s been patrolling the Preserve every night! He’d track that person down, no question.” 

“He could try, but we have to assume they’re disguising their scent somehow,” Deaton said. “Like that clever little paste we made together when you decided to follow Derek into the Preserve.” 

Abashed at the memory, Stiles ignored the comment. He asked, “Who else in town could do magic that requires herbs like this?”

“No one but us,” Deaton was quick to respond. “My sister, potentially, but she left Beacon Hills after her attack at the hands of the Alpha Pack.” 

At the mention of Ms. Morrell, Stiles couldn’t help but think of his other suspect, and how she had once been his emissary. 

Deaton continued, “We need to be careful, Stiles. If there’s another magic user in town who’s throwing the Nemeton out of balance they must be powerful.” 

“The Nemeton?” Stiles asked, confused. 

“Yes,” Deaton replied. “That’s why whoever this is has stayed in Beacon Hills for so long. The other territories they attacked didn’t have a Nemeton. Ours is sacred and while it acts like a beacon, since you and the others tied yourself to it, it has taken on your concerns. It protects the territory. It’s struggled against this magic user, fought to keep the land in harmony. But it can’t last, and they must know this.” 

She, Stiles thought in an instant. His headache flared hard and hot. Not it, she. It took him a moment, but with growing horror, he realized the voice hadn’t been his own—but hers.

“If we assume that this person is covering their stench, we cannot rely on our resident werewolves to track this person down. Derek, Scott, the others, they’ve practically lost one of their senses. You must be especially careful in the coming days, Stiles,” Deaton instructed, his tone grave. 

Stiles nodded, and clutched at his stomach as it rumbled loudly.

“Go home,” Deaton said. “Eat. Take the Magical Properties of Herbs book. Study. Be prepared. We’ll meet again tomorrow and investigate this further.” 

Stiles picked up the book and clutched it to his chest as he moved towards the door before he hesitated. He glanced back at Deaton and asked, “Can I tell Derek what we talked about?” 

For a moment, the tension in the room lessened. Deaton smiled, knowingly, and said, “I assumed you were already planning on doing so.” 

“I felt the pack bond with Derek today,” he ventured, curious how his teacher would react. “I was able to track him down through it.” 

Deaton seemed unsurprised, but something about his expression told Stiles he was pleased. He asked, “And how do you feel about that?” 

Stiles licked his lips nervously. “Good, I think. It felt right. Real and tangible. I never had that with Scott—I know what a pack bond is now. But I still don’t understand, how can I be an emissary with no Alpha? How can Derek and I be in a pack with no hierarchy?” 

“It’s a worthwhile question to ask,” Deaton said. “And we can discuss it when we are not otherwise occupied by trying to suss out the threat in our territory.” 

Stiles flushed but nodded his head in agreement. He raised his hand in goodbye and opened the back door to leave. Deaton called out to him:

“Be careful, Stiles.” 

***

It was dark as Stiles was driving home. He and Deaton must have been researching the magical properties of the herbs for hours. His headlights were the only ones on the road as he passed the abandoned mall. On instinct, he pulled out his phone and did something he hadn’t done in weeks: he called Scott. 

The call was directly sent to voicemail. Whether that was because his phone was turned off, or because Scott had immediately diverted the call, Stiles couldn’t be sure. He waited until the phone beeped to alert him that he could leave his message. 

“Scott, hey,” he said, clearing his throat with a cough as it grew tight around his best friend’s name. “I just—I wanted to call you because I was meeting with Deaton and he agrees that there’s a threat in town.” 

He let a beat pass, gave the information a moment to sink into Scott’s eventual mind. “I can’t get into the specifics right now—I’m driving—but I want to meet you in the morning to talk it over. 8AM. Invite your pack—”

The words made Stiles cringe. Not so long ago, he had thought he was pack. So had Scott. He didn’t want to rub it in, but the fact had settled so neatly into Stiles’ consciousness he couldn’t avoid it without actively trying to censor his words. 

He forged on. “Just, be careful, okay? Tell the others the same. Whoever this is, they’re targeting Alphas.” 

Another beat. 

Choking up, he rushed to finish the message, “I need you safe, bro.” 

He hung up fast and shoved his phone into the cup holder. Then, after a moment’s consideration, he picked it up again. This time he hit speed dial and called Derek. Just like before, the call went to voicemail.

Stiles considered his words carefully. Then, his voice soft, he said, “I’m heading home...I hope you’re there too.” 

Already on a roll, he considered who else he could contact. As he came to a stop in front of a red light, he opened up his texts and sent one to Lydia and Danny in their group chat. Meet me at my house in the morning. We’re going to loop Scott into everything.

The light turned green and he pressed on the gas. Stiles was just considering calling his dad when he glanced to his left and realized that he was driving past the Preserve. Inspiration hit him: how could they be sure that Deaton had taken note of every herb that had been collected let alone the quantities? Maybe there was something they were missing: maybe this person took an herb that would provide more insight into their plans. He found the pull off on the side of the road and parked his Jeep, stuffing his phone in his pocket. Photos could help them in their investigation. 

As he stepped out of the car and moved deeper into the Preserve, satisfaction grew in the back of his mind. His stomach stopping rumbling. The headache he’d been suffering from all day slowly started to recede. 

Stiles tried to breathe shallowly as he trekked through the trees. To distract himself, he thought about the cork board he was planning to put up specifically about the herbs and how he would set it all up. Thank God Dad had bought him a flatbed scanner: he was going to be abusing the shit out of it by scanning all the entries in the book Deaton had leant him on the herbs stolen. Maybe on his next birthday he’d ask for a photo printer; Stiles was going to have to wait until the next day to get copies of the photos he was going to take. That would delay his cork board from being perfect for at least a day. 

When Stiles finally reached the garden, he was shocked to discover that it was within sight of the Nemeton. He had never noticed that before. Deaton had only brought him out to the plot twice before and it during the full bloom of summer when the trees were thick and lush. But now, at the beginning whispers of spring, the branches were still partially bare and the leaves lackluster. Between the gaps, Stiles could see the Nemeton directly in his line of sight. 

He didn’t hear her voice so much as feel it quake in his blood: croaking out his name and demanding his attention. 

Sstiless…

Anxious, Stiles rushed to take his photos as quickly as possible, cataloguing what he could as he went, when he suddenly realized he wasn’t using his flash. In an instant, he tilted his head back and stared up at the sky. High above him, the full moon brightly shone. The Seed Moon. Somehow, in all the mess with Derek, he’d forgotten it was near. 

As though he were caught back in the nightmare from the night before, his mouth tasted of dirt and his heart raced as he whipped around to leave. He was halfway to Roscoe when he realized that the Preserve was deathly still. It was the blush of spring, but no creatures lurked nearby and the breeze from earlier did not stir. The only sound that emanated throughout the forest came from the leaves crunching beneath his shoes as he began to run and his own heavy, labored breath.

Darkness crept into his chest and curled around his heart, stronger than ever before. Stiles felt like he was drowning in his own grave. It felt as though his airway filled with dirt, and his peripheral vision began to fade as he struggled to breathe. He stumbled as he tried to grab his phone to call Derek but his fingers were numb and as he fumbled to swipe up on the screen, he tripped and fell to the ground, landing on his back. His phone skittered away from him across the fallen leaves as he gripped his chest tight, his breath growing shallower, and groaned. 

From somewhere nearby, he could feel the Nemeton trying to warn him and call to him at the same time. Dimly, he was aware of the Nemeton sighing softly, if you come to me, I can protect you

Finally, finally, Stiles agreed. 

If he could just push himself off the ground, he’d run towards the Nemeton. Deaton was right: they were bound. Inextricably. The Nemeton had been struggling to protect Beacon Hills, and now it was trying to protect him. If only he’d listened. He forced himself to roll onto his stomach and dug his fingers into the moist forest floor, the earth getting caught beneath his fingernails. He tried to pull himself forward but found it near impossible as he could barely breathe. 

He tried to calm himself down. It’s just a panic attack, he thought, but at the same time he knew a panic attack had never felt like this. Stiles raised his hands in front of his face to count his fingers but his vision blurred. Then, from somewhere to his right, he heard footsteps approaching. 

Stiles forced himself to turn towards the noise. His gaze landed on the quickly nearing feet, then traveled up the legs of the body until it settled on Peter’s face. 

Relief washed over him. Thank fuck. Peter’s here.

At the same exact moment, he felt the Nemeton roar his name like a tremor throughout his body. 

Instead of helping him up, Peter crouched down beside Stiles and tilted his head to the side to study him. His expression like that of a child pouring salt on a slug, he let kept gaze locked on Stiles’ face. He reached out, his hand transforming instantaneously, before he dragged his claw down the side of Stiles’ cheek, shallowly slicing through the flesh. Blood seeped out of the cut. 

Peter examined Stiles calmly, the same way he had all those years ago when his face was still half-burned and he was standing hidden in the darkness of the hospital corridor. Stiles remembered the half-smile that he’d worn, how it had tugged at his twisted flesh, and how he had greeted him: “You must be Stiles.” 

Now, his lips numb and his tongue heavy in his mouth, he moaned the same words he’d said that night, “Oh my God, I’m going to die.” 

Peter grinned, flashing his bright blue eyes and fangs. They were pointed and sharp, and for a moment Stiles imagined them sinking into his side. Peter crooned, “I didn’t think it would be this easy to get you where I wanted.” 

With dawning horror, Stiles realized who they’d been searching for all along. He opened his mouth to scream; for help, for attention, anything. Before he could make a sound, Peter struck out like a viper and slammed his fist into Stiles’ face. First, colors flashed in front of his eyes and someone howled. 

Then the world went black.

Chapter Text

Stiles was not aware of the world around him. He was only certain of one thing: in that moment, he was buried in the deepest, most profound sleep of his life. It felt so...restful. Without dreams, or nightmares, or fears. He couldn’t recall the last time he had gotten the chance to sleep without worry gnawing at his consciousness. Yet here it made itself known, wrapped around his mind like the most comforting childhood blanket, offering nothing but warmth and darkness. He didn’t want to wake up; actively felt himself resisting as his senses started to catalogue the space around him.

He welcomed the darkness but for the first time, it eluded him. 

Something tugged tight around his chest while his back scraped against something rough. His mouth tasted of copper and his face throbbed. Stiles groaned, and tried to lift his hand up to his face but found his arm was caught. He blinked, confused, the world around him a blur as blackness obscured the edges of his vision. He blinked again, hurriedly, as though the flutter of his eyelashes might brush aside the obstruction. 

The moon still shined brightly above him, illuminating the Preserve. When his eyes were finally able to focus, he found himself staring down at rope tied around his midsection, catching his arms at his side. They weren’t completely trapped—the rope was pulled taut against his biceps, but he was still able to lift his forearms. So first he patted his pockets under the misguided hope that he might have his phone on him, but deflated when he remembered it skittering out of his grasp when he’d tripped while running away. Then, with a little struggle, he realized he could reach his face by ducking his head to meet his fingers, and startled when he felt something wet on his chin. 

He blinked and spread his fingers further across his face, gently testing the edges of the wetness. It was tacky and warm to the touch. Confusion wafted over him until his fingers nudged against his cheek. He hissed, pain radiating from the open wound as the beginnings of a bruise bloomed beneath his skin, and pulled his hand away instinctively. He thought his nose might be broken too. 

Just like that, he remembered. 

Peter. His heartbeat sped up as his hand fell to the ground, his knuckles dragging against the roots of what he now realized was the Nemeton. He searched for her voice in his head, but found that for the first time in months, she was finally subdued. Wildly, he turned his head either way to try and find the source of the threat. 

As though he’d been summoned—and maybe he had, Stiles thought madly, my heartbeat must be so loud—Peter appeared from around the Nemeton’s trunk. His hands were bloody and burnt, and Stiles realized dimly that the ropes must be doused in wolfsbane. He stared, unblinkingly, as Peter’s hands went through all the stages of healing; the skin stitched together superficially before blisters bubbled. Just as quickly, they flattened into hard, white scarred skin before smoothing out until they disappeared completely and the skin looked new again. Peter flexed his hands, his fingers spreading out slowly as though the new skin was too tight around the bones. 

Peter’s gaze cut to Stiles, and his lips twisted into a small, self-satisfied smile. “Back amongst the living, I see—good! I was worried I hit you too hard. That would have surely ruined my plans.”

“Plans?” Stiles asked. He could almost hear his heart racing in his voice, rough and uneven. He swallowed, blood slipping down the back of his throat, and tried not to choke. 

His eyes grew wide as Peter stepped closer to him, lowering himself to the ground with every step until he was crouching in front of Stiles. His gaze was fixed on Stiles’ face, the same insincere smile painted on his lips, as he said, “Stiles, you have to give me a chance to explain, but monologuing is so pointlessly tedious. Perhaps you should try seeing things from my perspective.” 

His smile spread even wider. His hand stretched out to cup Stiles’ wounded cheek then shifted behind to cradle his head gently, like a caress. Sweetly, his fingers slipped through the strands of his hair at the nape of his neck. 

He leaned forward and pressed his lips to Stiles’ ear, Peter’s breath hot on his skin. He whispered soothingly, “I do hope this works. I would hate to accidentally sever your spinal cord.” 

Before Stiles could react to Peter’s words, the werewolf pierced Stiles’ neck with his claws and Stiles disappeared into his memories. 

***

He was in the yard of the Hale house. The sun shone brilliantly as the red and orange leaves fell from the autumn trees. Across the grass, he stared as a teenager sparred with a grown woman. He blinked, dazed, before he understood that it was Talia and his mother practicing. 

“Good!” Mother called out, laughing from where Talia had knocked her to the ground. “Try that again, but this time I’m going to come at you from your right.” 

Talia nodded eagerly, flashing her gold eyes in response. His teeth felt on edge and he tightened his jaw. He could do better, if they’d only let him. He watched them both, sullenly, from his spot by the garden. Then a hand clapped on his shoulder, and he turned to find Father standing beside him, a knowing expression in his gaze. 

“Look at your sister,” he said. “Aren’t you proud of the Alpha she’ll make one day?” 

Envy curdled in his stomach, but he forced it down and painted a smile on his face. “Naturally.” 

Compassion graced Father’s face, as he patted his shoulder. “You’ll make a wonderful Second one day, Peter.” 

The smile strained at his lips, but Peter’s expression didn’t betray a single thought. They both turned their attention back to Talia and Mother, but quietly, he noted how Father didn’t seem to scent his sour resentment. 

Then the scene shifted, and he was standing at the top of the stairs. Down the hall, he watched as Derek’s back receded into his room, the door slamming behind him. Irritation clawed at him, as he scrubbed a hand across his face. Talia stood beside him, her lips pressed into a thin line as she, too, watched her son’s retreating form. The stench of lilacs hung in the air.

He turned to her and bit out, “Do you see what I mean? Something’s wrong.” 

“Derek is still coming to terms with that girl’s death, that’s all,” Talia said, her words firm but tender. There was no room for argument, but all the space for understanding. “We just need to give him the time and space to heal.” 

Gritting his teeth, he shook his head belligerently. He forced himself to remain calm and urged her to listen. “That’s not it—he’s being secretive. He’s out at all hours of the day. He doesn’t talk to us anymore. You’re not paying enough attention to your son. ” 

His Alpha bared her teeth as her red eyes flared. She hissed in the darkness of the hallway, “Don’t dare to tell me how to raise my child. You want to be a parent, Peter? Have a kid of your own, but leave mine alone. You’ve done enough damage to that boy.” 

“Fine,” he acquiesced, lifting his hands in defeat. “But don’t come crying to your Second when things go wrong.” 

She glared at him then spun away and marched to the opposite end of the hall where the master bedroom lay. He waited for her to turn back to him and apologize—they didn’t speak about his role in the business with that dead girl—but she made no move to. Instead, Talia slipped into her room quietly, and let the door fall shut. 

He stood there, his fists clasped as his claws pierced his palms and anger filled him. Blood dripped onto the carpet below. She was wrong, and he knew it. It was only a matter of time. 

It changed again, and suddenly everything was afire. 

Flames flicked at his face. He could scent his flesh roasting on his body, along with his family, as they all burned to death. A laugh bubbled in his throat, guttural and deadly, as he smelled something else on top of their rapidly decaying bodies. Lilacs. The same pungent stench that had been clinging to Derek for all those months filled his nostrils until he could scent nothing else: not his singed hair or the melting flesh of his father or the rapidly deteriorating house. He laughed, louder, the sound echoing throughout the burning dungeon they were trapped in. And as he watched his brother’s eyes disintegrate from the heat within their sockets, he laughed harder. 

Vindication had never tasted so sweet, knowing that he had been right and his Alpha wrong.

He kept laughing, even as the flames engulfed his body and licked into his mouth before he fell unconscious. Nothing had ever been so funny to him. 

The vignettes grew shorter, and came to life faster. 

Darkness was timeless. It held no edges or corners or walls; it expanded endlessly. The full moon came and went and he was unaware of change. All he knew, deep in his gut, was that he had been right. More right than anyone could have expected. And he knew that he could have prevented this all encompassing darkness if he had just been the Alpha—him, and no one else. 

Then: hot, wet blood filled his mouth as his teeth tore into young flesh. A heartbeat slowed until finally it stopped. His gaze flickered upwards and he stared, crazed, as Laura’s dead, unblinking gaze stared back him. A moment of regret swept through him, as he desperately wanted to unclench his jaw and take it back. The wish was half formed and unfinished when suddenly the Alpha power coursed through his body like a powerful typhoon crashing onto land and regret was already a long forgotten dream. 

More blood. His first Beta’s tasted particularly sweet, while the girl’s was bitter and vile, making him gag. He gripped one boy’s wrist in his hand, delicately, his fangs already out as he pressed forward and scented the overwhelming desire to be a part of something—pack . They could be pack, he was sure of it, he could sense something profound between them, but the boy wrenched his hand away. Before he could mourn the ache of it, his claws were ripping Kate Argent’s throat open, all of it while power was filling him, making him bigger, stronger, more powerful, better. The best Alpha the Hales had ever seen. He knew it, was sure of it, could never be convinced otherwise. 

Then he was burning again, the flames flicking at his lips, as rage filled him. He watched, horrified and frantic, as Derek clawed his throat open as well, felt the power slipping away from him. He already missed it, needed it back, desperately. Dying was nothing in comparison to the overwhelming loss of power; he didn’t even notice as he slid seamlessly from living to dead in one fell swoop. 

Faster, now. So much left to learn. 

Clawing out of a grave was easier than imaginable, but coming back as a Beta again was relentlessly disheartening. Bitterness chewed at him and resentment filled him as he watched his nephew throw away his potential. Hatred choked him as Scott McCall claimed the power of a True Alpha. A dark urge told him to rip that boy’s throat open, but he resisted. Not yet, a voice whispered. He watched, horrified, as Derek gave up his power to save Cora, then just as quickly felt that horror bloom into hope in his subconscious: 

If it could be given up freely, then maybe it could be reclaimed. Not just any Alpha power, but his: the Hale Alpha spark that had passed from one Hale to the next, all the way to Talia, then Laura, then finally it had been his and his alone until his useless nephew had stolen it from him only to waste it. 

He stood above Jennifer Blake—Julia Baccari, whatever her true name was—and watched her blood seep into the roots of the Nemeton. A former emissary, a Darach, an Alpha’s mate. A sacrifice worthy of reward, he was sure. Yet bitter disappointment filled him when the power did not rush forward as it had the last time he’d tasted a young woman’s life force draining from his Beta grasp. 

Then other, less familiar scenes. Flashes of highways, of state signs—Oregon, Washington, California—of dead bucks and of strangers with swiftly dimming red eyes and fatal wounds by his hands. And him: waiting for the flush of power to sweep over him only for nothing to happen. 

He was unable to scent anything around him but death and rot. The stench followed him everywhere. He stood in front of motel bathroom mirrors, an assortment of colognes and perfumes spread out in front of him. Clothes with the price tags still on hung in the closet as he tried to cover the stench with something new and artificial. 

Then a witch, her face round and cherubic and wet with tears as she begged for her life, handed him a jar with a sickly smelling dull green paste. She promised it would hide the rot, swore on her life it could protect him. He took it, grateful, then locked his jaw around the pulse point in her neck and tore through her flesh. She tasted electric. 

More sacrifices. Dead deer and mountain lions and dead Alphas. None of them worked, just served to enrage the Nemeton further, until one day he was running through the Preserve on a full moon run and scented something delicious. Power. He followed it, careful to be quiet, and found himself at the edge of a clearing where Stiles stood, alone. An open tome lay on a pile of rocks as his fingers moved like a conductor, filling the night air with the hum of magic. Drool filled his mouth as he slowly began to understand just who he needed to realize his goal. 

***

Stiles’ return to consciousness snapped into place like a long lost key finally finding itself home in its intended lock. He gasped for breath, coughing, choking on the hatred and greed and intense desperate need for power that repulsed him. He struggled to pull at his bindings, and kicked out his legs uselessly. 

“You seem to be doing well. I’m glad I didn’t paralyze you,” a voice said. Peter was still crouching in front of him, his claws sliding out of the vulnerable expanse of the back of Stiles’ neck. Then he asked, his voice a deep rumble, “Do you understand now? Can you see?” 

“You want to be an Alpha again?”

Stunned horror and dawning realization swept over him. The memories shocked him; they had somehow even managed to physically hurt him. He stretched his fingers and felt the echo of a memory of claws splitting through his flesh. His neck ached from the memory of it being slashed open. Stiles could barely comprehend how rotten of a core Peter truly had. 

“Don’t act so horrified,” Peter bemoaned, as he continued to perch in front of Stiles. “We all want to be Alpha at some point. Derek is no different from me. Why do you think he killed me all those years ago?” 

Stiles pressed forward as far as he was able, the ropes digging painfully into his chest and pinching the skin on his arms. He hissed, “Because you’re a psychotic fuck who murdered his sister? And nobody wanted sixteen year old lovesick Scott to be the Alpha?” 

Peter rolled his eyes. “And you think eighteen year old lovesick Scott is better at being Alpha now than he would have been then?” 

“Of course!” Stiles choked out, the cut on his cheek reopening from the force of his shout. Fresh blood spilled down his cheeks and slipped over his lips into his mouth. The taste of copper burst across his tongue. “Of course he’s better now than before. Either way, he’s better than you! He earned his power—you’re just trying to take it.” 

Peter laughed but Stiles ignored him. He seethed, blood spittle accidentally flicking across Peter’s face, “How many Alphas did you kill before you realized the power wouldn’t come back to you?”

“More than I probably should have bothered with,” Peter said, his tone almost bored. Stiles could almost imagine him inspecting his fingernails to ensure they were even. Instead, Peter’s manic gaze never left Stiles’ face as he continued, his voice almost reassuring, “But now I have you, Stiles.” 

A beat. Stiles still wasn’t sure what Peter needed him for, the memories of a life he never lived still twisting through him. He shook his head, petulantly, and tried to lean away from Peter’s touch as the werewolf traced a claw down Stiles’ uninjured cheek. 

“I did try to tell you what was happening,” Peter said. Stiles hated that his voice had a soothing edge to it. “I tried to warn you.” 

It was the exact same thing he’d said to Derek all those years ago during the fight in the hospital corridor, when they’d first realized Peter was the Alpha. Just as before, he couldn’t discern Peter’s meaning. 

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Stiles asked, a growl in his voice as he struggled further. “You didn’t tell me shit!” 

Peter cocked his head to the side and stared at Stiles. “I told you Beacon Hills was unbalanced.” 

“Because you’re making it unbalanced!” Stiles shouted as a dull, sort of helpless anger welled up inside of him. “You’re the one who’s been causing all the problems in town, in the region—you’ve been sacrificing animals, and murdering Alphas, and fucking with the Nemeton!” 

“Semantics,” Peter said, as he dismissed the accusation with a simple wave of his hand. 

He cried out in frustration, “I don’t know what you want from me.” 

“I told you,” Peter intoned. “Only someone connected to the Nemeton can make things right. That person is you, Stiles.” 

For a moment, Stiles stared at the pulse of Peter’s blood in his neck. An urge filled him, and he imagined leaning forward and digging his teeth into that very spot. He didn’t know whose urge it belonged to: his own, or Peter’s. He grit his teeth and said, “I don’t understand. You’re not making any sense.” 

“I’m trying,” said Peter. He pressed his hands to knees and pushed himself out of the crouch. He stood tall beneath the moonlight. “When Derek gave up his Alpha powers willingly, I hypothesized that I might be able to get it back. The Hale Alpha spark, specifically. I wondered, where did it go when Derek gave it up?

“You saw, of course, that first I tried to kill your lovely English teacher, Ms. Blake. When that didn’t work, I killed the deer, then the Alphas. All as sacrifices to the Nemeton, and yet, nothing,” he said. He swept his hand in the general direction of the trunk, his lips lifting into a sneer. “None of it worked.” 

Stiles stared at him, his gaze narrowed as he tracked Peter’s movements. “Maybe she doesn’t think you deserve it.” 

Peter ignored him. “I believe that because my darling, meddling nephew took the Alpha power from me by killing me, I can’t retrieve it in the same way. I lost the power when I died and it won’t return to me. Not naturally, at least.” 

Assured that Peter was lost in his own thoughts, Stiles searched his mind for any spells that Deaton might have taught him about escaping bondage but came up empty. How had this never come up in their lessons? He shifted his shoulders and felt the bark scratch against his skin. 

“I’m unable to kill something else to get what I want,” Peter muttered to himself as he stepped around Stiles. His steps avoiding the roots intuitively, as though he’d stalked this same spot hundreds of times before. Maybe he had. “I have to sacrifice something of my own, the Nemeton will not accept anything less. But I need someone with power to control the magic of the land to ensure my plans are followed through.” 

His gaze pinned Stiles. He sat, frozen, his attempts at struggling suddenly cut short. He asked, “What?” 

Peter’s eyes were focused and sharp as he answered, his words deadly serious. “I’m going to sacrifice my werewolf spark and in exchange, you are going to use your magic and belief to will me into being the Alpha again.” 

Stiles stared back at him. He’d never been more certain than that moment that Peter was insane. 

“It’ll be like a fresh start,” the werewolf exclaimed, clapping his hands together in excitement. A frenzied smile spread across his face. “I’ll be a new werewolf with new powers. The Nemeton can’t deny me then.” 

“I—it doesn’t work like that,” Stiles stammered, his every nerve on end. The only thought that raced through his mind: what will Peter do when this plan fails too?

“It will,” Peter said simply. “You’ll make it.” 

He turned so his back faced Stiles and reached into a bag that Stiles’ hadn’t noticed was there. He watched as the werewolf revealed a jar of what looked like sand, holding it up high like an offering.

“I brought all the herbs that you need,” Peter explained. He flipped open the top and tilted it so that Stiles could peer inside. “I dried the herbs according to your books and mixed them together. I hope you don’t mind—I borrowed some of your texts while you were at school. Here...grab some to make a protective circle around us.” 

Stiles shook his head. “It won’t work.” 

“And why not?” 

He struggled to think of an answer before inspiration struck him. “Derek is expecting me home soon—when I don’t show up he’ll come looking for me. He’ll stop you.” 

Peter let out a mirthless laugh. “It’s a full moon, Stiles. Derek will be distracted. Not to mention, knowing my dear nephew, he’ll go out of his way to avoid you to keep you safe. Derek would never let the vulnerable human around a werewolf when his control is at its weakest.” 

At his words, Stiles thought back on his conversation with Derek from the night before, how Derek had promised that the moon didn’t affect him the same way as it did for Scott. How he could sleep the night away in the room right next to Stiles’ if he so chose. He wondered why Peter seemed to expect differently. 

He set his lips in a defiant line and glared. “You can’t make me.” 

Peter bared his fangs at him, his bright blue eyes flashing in the moonlight. He asked, a touch of beguilement to his words, “Wouldn’t it be easier if you just tried things my way, Stiles?” 

He reached out and wrapped his fingers around Stiles’ wrist and forced it into the jar. Stiles closed his eyes and turned away from Peter’s fangs, which looked impossibly long from where he was sitting. He slipped his fingers into the cool powder and grabbed a fistful. Peter pulled the jar away which left Stiles with his fist outstretched and his eyes squeezed shut. Using his limited range of motion, he tossed the powder into the air. 

Please work, he begged. Please, oh God, oh fuck, please work. I don’t want to die. Work. 

Like a passenger unable to look away from a car crash, Stiles peeked out from beneath his eyelashes. He waited for the powder to blow back into his face. Instead, he watched dumbly as it settled into a wide circle around the three of them: Stiles, Peter, and the Nemeton. He couldn’t help but be surprised that he had succeeded.

Coldly alert, he realized that he felt more awake than he had all night, as though all of his senses were suddenly on edge. He could feel each individual rope strand as it dug into his chest; could hear the forest creatures nearby, the ones that tried to stay as silent as possible but couldn’t help to breathe. Each individual blade of grass beneath Peter’s feet stood sharp as he tasted the cold night air, electric with his spark. 

Like a shadow moving across the corner of his eye, Stiles was aware of the Nemeton’s presence again. She was quiet and didn’t do much, as though she was a computer that had recently been rebooted, just a gentle hum in the back of his mind reminding Stiles that he wasn’t alone. 

Still doubtful, he watched as Peter pointed to the night sky. “It’s the Seed Moon. You know about that, don’t you Stiles?”

His broken nose throbbed in sync with his heartbeat. He stammered, “It’s the best time for growth.”

“Correct!” Peter laughed, joy ringing out in the night sky. Stiles could sense how his words bounced against the inner edge of the circle and then trickled through the barrier. “The season most appropriate for planting seeds for what you hope will flourish in the coming season of growth and fertility: a particular moon all about new beginnings. Don’t you see, Stiles? The Alpha power will be my new beginning, and you’re going to plant it.” 

He found himself nodding along with Peter’s words. It was true; the deadness of winter had passed and the Seed Moon signified a new season of growth had come to pass. Whether or not the Hale Alpha spark was like a seed that could be planted in Peter was debatable, but the logic was there. 

Peter was still staring up at the full moon as he said, “We’ll do the ritual at midnight. There’s power in that hour, naturally.” 

“But I don’t even know what you want me to do,” Stiles cried in alarm. “Is there a chant? Do I need to recite something? A spell?”

“Just believe. The Nemeton will do the rest.” 

The old familiar frustration boiled in his blood. He asked, bitingly, “What will you even do when you’re Alpha again? Who’s going to want to be in your pack?” 

“You, of course,” Peter answered directly. He crouched down again so that Stiles could meet his gaze. 

He sat, frozen, and asked, “What about Derek? And Scott? His pack?” 

“I have no qualms with Derek,” Peter said airily, reaching up to tenderly brush back Stiles’ hair from his forehead. “I would love to have my nephew in my pack again. It wouldn’t feel right without him.” 

Stiles tried not to flinch under Peter’s touch. 

The werewolf continued, “I’ll admit, I originally thought I’d have more time to woo Derek to my pack. I didn’t know he’d sense the changes in the territory, but I suppose it makes sense that being a born Hale werewolf and a former Alpha of Beacon Hills would tie him to the land.” 

Confused, Stiles asked, “I thought you sensed the changes too?” 

“Confounding my tall tales with the truth, Stiles?” Peter asked. He arched an eyebrow, a mocking expression to his feature. “Of course I sensed the changes, but only because I was the one causing the discord.” 

Stiles flushed. He’d actually forgotten. How much of Peter’s words had been a lie? All of them? 

Peter waved his hand dismissively. “No matter. Derek will be easy to convince. He’s always been...highly suggestible. And with you in the pack,” he crooned as he cupped Stiles’ cheek in his hand, “it should be even easier to convince him. After all, you’ll make a powerful emissary with an Alpha to match. Scott could never be the right Alpha for you—he denied his wolf too much. You need someone stronger than that.”

A frown line appeared between Stiles’ eyebrows. “That’s not true.” 

Peter pretended not to hear him. He sounded vaguely apologetic at his next words, as though he knew it would inconvenience Stiles. “It doesn’t really matter. Scott will have to die, of course. I’m not one who’s willing to share his territory.” 

He stared at Peter with dark, horrified eyes. An image of Scott’s dead body flashed across his mind’s eye, and he bit back a sob. Not Scott, he thought desperately, not my brother. With vigor, he renewed his struggle against his restraints. 

Peter’s hand settled on Stiles’ shoulder and pressed down, hard, forcing him to fall still. He continued to talk, his words gentle like he was musing aloud. “I would love to invite the lovely Mrs. McCall to join the pack, but I’m not too sure she’d be willing to comply, what with me having to dispose of her son.” 

When he spotted Stiles’ confused expression, he explained, “I do intend to grow the pack, after all. It wouldn’t hurt to have a mate by my side, and our date was charming until you rear ended us that evening. I never did punish you for that, did I? I’ll correct that when this is all settled.”

“Leave her alone,” Stiles choked, horrified in the moonlit night. 

Again, Peter continued speaking as though he hadn’t heard him. “Perhaps darling Isaac will get to live. I think my nephew would enjoy being in a pack with him again. And maybe Allison, to ensure the pack continues to grow in the future, so long as I get to turn her. She’d be a strong wolf. But her father—Chris—he’d have to die, naturally.” 

Stiles couldn’t picture an Isaac or Allison without Scott, and the thought of Allison as a werewolf set his hair on end. It was so cruelly unnatural that his mind rebelled at the possibility. 

“Those abhorrent twins will have to die,” Peter mused. “They had their Alpha spark taken away from them and might still crave the power. I can’t abide by that in my pack.” 

His mouth pulled back into a dreadful look of horror. He wanted to scream but couldn’t. Instead, he asked, lurchingly, “What about Derek?” 

“I’m not too worried about my beloved nephew,” Peter said. He pet Stiles’ cheek lovingly, his claws catching on the open laceration without care. “There’s no reason to believe that Derek would ever want to be the Alpha again. He was so terrible at it, and then he went and sacrificed the spark willingly! A real Alpha could never do such a thing.”

Relief flushed through Stiles and he let out a sigh before Peter interrupted his thoughts and said, “Though I suppose if he ever proved me wrong, I’d have to put him down too. But let’s not think too hard on such dark thoughts.”

He shouldn’t have deigned to hope that Derek would be safe from danger. 

“I’ll have to work tirelessly to get Lydia to join the pack,” said Peter. “I have treated that girl so poorly in the past. But I imagine you’ll help in that regard—you two seem like such good friends these days.” 

Stiles hated the reminder that Peter had been somewhere in the background of his life, watching him, waiting these past few months. And then Stiles had gifted himself up on a silver platter by wandering into the Preserve like an asshole on the Seed Moon. 

Peter dragged his finger through Stiles’ blood. He raised his hand in front of his face, examining it under the moonlight, then brought it to his mouth and tasted Stiles as his eyes fluttered shut. He let out a soft moan as Stiles watched in disgust. He lifted his eyelashes, gazed at Stiles, and whispered, “I promise to turn your father. Wouldn’t that be better in the long run? No more worrying about his fragile heart or his unpredictable health. He can eat all the greasy foods he wants and be happy and healthy and strong.” 

Just like that, ice flooded through Stiles’ veins. In all his worries, all of his fears, Stiles hadn’t considered for one second that his father would be a target. Dad was wholly human, had always been human, and there had never been a single instance where Stiles had imagined that he could be anything other. His breath grew shallow as his eyes bulged. 

“Not to mention it will be good to have a Beta as Sheriff of Beacon Hills,” Peter said. “Helpful. He’ll be able to take care of any pesky problems we come across. And of course, while it’s better to turn Betas when they’re young, your father is strong. And your belief should keep him alive.” 

His mouth creaked open, as his whole body quaked with alarm. “Should?” 

Peter smirked. “Well, I can’t predict everything.” 

“And if I don’t believe? That you deserve to be Alpha?” Stiles asked, bolder than he felt. 

“That wouldn’t be wise,” Peter advised. 

“You can’t kill me,” Stiles said, bolstered by the lack of pain. He’d thought Peter would gouge his eyes out immediately at the threat. “Not if you want this. I’m the only one with a connection with the Nemeton, so even if it doesn’t work tonight, you’ll still need me if you ever want to try again.” 

Peter continued to pet Stiles’ cheek, and his rotten voice whispered, “That’s true, I suppose. But the others don’t have to survive, Stiles. Wouldn’t it be a shame to kill your father? And Derek? They would make such good Betas after all, but I really only need you. Just you.” 

Stiles shook his head, his face knotted up in denial. “You’re lying!” 

As if on cue, Peter stretched out his arm so that Stiles, with his limited range of motion, could feel his pulse. He said, “Now, I know you can’t hear my heartbeat, but you can certainly feel it. Let’s try again: I’ll kill everyone if I have to just to get you to comply. Do you still believe I’m lying?” 

With the power thrumming through Stiles since he had made the circle barrier, Stiles could hear the steady beat of Peter’s heart, but the even thrum of his pulse beneath Stiles’ fingers confirmed it. He knew there was no lie to be found in Peter’s threats. He shook his head, his mouth dry with dread. 

Before either of them could say anything, a muffled song rang out into the night sky. Delight filled Peter’s gaze, as he pulled out his phone from his pocket. No longer stifled, Stiles could suddenly recognize the thready bars of David Bowie’s Moonage Daydream blaring out of the miniscule speaker. 

“Dramatic flair,” Peter explained with a cheeky smile. “I’ve always loved this song.” 

He glanced up at the moon and said, “There are three minutes until midnight, so I imagine it’s best we get ready.” 

Stiles struggled with renewed urgency to get free, but Peter only laughed. 

Then, as though he were just remembering something important, Peter held up one finger. He said, “There’s only one more thing we need before we get started.” 

Stiles thrashed as best he could as Peter reached out and lifted the edge of Stiles’ shirt. Then, slowly, his other hand drifted downward and rested on his midsection. His finger dug into Stiles’ stomach, until the sharp claw punctured his flesh and dragged painstakingly slowly, splitting the skin clean in two. It felt like his stomach was ripping in half, a new sensation that Stiles had never imagined—could never have imagined until just then, in that moment, as he discovered how it burned and tore into him to have his stomach deliberately gouged open. 

Stiles couldn’t scream. He could barely even breathe. Tears slipped down his cheeks, the salt stinging the cut, but the sting was nothing but a blip in the overall pain radiating from his stomach. His lungs didn’t have enough air in them to manage a scream, let alone a cry for help. He could only let out the quietest of reedy moans. 

He blinked away tears and stared down at his midsection as Peter pulled his hand away. Bizarrely, all he could think about in that moment was how his mom had to have him by C-section. He wondered if that wasn’t what Peter wanted: for Stiles to birth his Alpha spark into existence with his own blood and sweat and magic.

Peter’s voice sounded contrite. “I know it must seem like a large cut, but I have to make sure the blood will seep into the ground. This way, enough should be sure to drip down. But, please do your best not to die. It would really put a damper on the celebrations later if I have to deal with your corpse.” 

He wondered if Peter intended to kill him, or if he just didn’t understand how truly fragile the human body could be. He tried to touch the wound, to hold in the organs he was so afraid were going to spill out, but couldn’t—the very brush of his fingers against the edge of the gape was enough to send him spiraling into blackness. 

“I—I thought you needed me alive,” Stiles choked out. The effort to get out the words seemed to seep the energy out of him along with everything else: his blood, his fear, his life. 

Peter furrowed his eyebrows. “Well, certainly for this part. But I suppose I could manage if you were to perish, so long as you’re successful. Though I would prefer to have you in my pack, so make an effort to stay alive, would you?” 

He let out a wheezy laugh, surprised that Peter could still drag amusement out of him. He watched blearily as Peter sliced his own palm open—deep, to counteract the healing—and then smeared his blood into Stiles’ open abdomen. Peter formed a fist and squeezed, letting the excess blood drip down onto the ground. 

Stiles felt clearer than he had in a long time. Unbelievably lucid. And in the distance, Stiles would hear shouting. Shocked, he lifted his gaze and watched as Dad and Derek ran into the clearing. Peter, on the other hand, didn’t turn and didn’t seem to care. 

Which told Stiles all he needed to know: they were too late. 

Dad tried to run towards him, but he watched as Derek held him back. He could see how Derek was trying to take in the scene while also protecting the Sheriff. His heart filled with something; love, affection, family, warmth...Stiles wasn’t sure. All he knew was that it dulled the sharp, pointed pain of the gaping wound that still wept blood. 

Across the barrier, he could feel the pack bond connecting the three of them. He could tell that it weakened ever so slightly as it passed through, but not enough to falter or break. It was strong. Dependable. Real. 

“I...love you,” Stiles croaked, struggling to get the words out. His eyes were wild, darting between the two of them. He didn’t know who to focus on; he loved them both so much and so differently and if this was the last time he ever got to speak to them, he needed them to know, desperately. They were his family. His pack. 

He watched Derek, as the man glanced at the Sheriff beside him as though he were unsure who the statement was meant for. Hysterically, Stiles struggled weakly against the bonds as a fresh flood of blood gushed out of him. He repeated himself, his voice strangled, “I love b—both of you.” 

At that moment, Peter reached up, his hand still slick with their blood as the wound in his palm tried to knit back together, and gripped Stiles’ chin. He smeared their mingled blood across his face, and forced Stiles to meet his gaze instead of Derek’s. Stiles hissed at the touch, his cheek and nose throbbing. 

“Believe, Mieczysław,” Peter ordered, his accent perfect, his eyes gleaming bright blue as the Seed Moon shone down on them. His voice raised into a roar. “Believe I’m the Alpha.” 

Stiles watched as Peter reached out with both hands to grasp the Nemeton. Similar as though he were trying to heal the tree trunk, but not quite, Stiles stared as bright white lines slithered up Peter’s arms and traveled up his neck and across his face. As though pure light were radiating from his veins. Stiles realized, dimly, that this is how Derek had described sacrificing his Alpha spark to save Cora—only he truly had been healing her, and the lines had been black as normal. Peter’s eyes blazed blue as he lifted his gaze to meet the night sky, his own body a brilliant beacon of energy as light poured out of him. Stiles’ breath grew shallower as his own gaze was locked on Peter’s face as it was obscured by the light. Time stretched on into infinity, as the world around them fell out of focus. Once again, silence reigned. The animals were hushed. Dad and Derek seemed to fade out of existence. There was only Stiles, and the Nemeton thrumming behind his back, and Peter, his body trembling as he gripped the tree trunk tightly, his arms framing Stiles’ body. They stayed like that, frozen, until he suddenly heard a gasp and everything went dark again. 

The blue bled out of Peter’s eyes, and Stiles stared as the werewolf pulled back his hand and revealed that the wound had stopped trying to heal. The light from before was nowhere to be found. Peter gave a sharp inhale as though he’d been punched in the gut. 

And like a tether had been cut, Stiles found that he could look away from Peter—and immediately his gaze sought out Derek. From across the clearing, the other werewolf stood stock still, surprise emanating off of him. His arm was still held out in front of Dad in a protective stance. 

No longer a roar, from somewhere beside him Peter let out a shaky breath and said again, “Believe.” 

But Stiles couldn’t. It wasn’t even that he didn’t think Peter deserved to be the Alpha. It was that he could think of nothing but Derek. Of Derek and Stiles, of Derek and Dad, of Lydia and Danny and their small, makeshift Alpha-less pack. Of his brother from another mother, Scott. Of Mom. Of Mom and Derek and what that meeting would have been like. 

There was only room for love in his heart at that moment, and Peter had no place there. 

He stared, his eyes huge and shocked, as Derek and Dad tried to push through the barrier, the various protection herbs keeping them out. He watched as Dad raised his gun with his one good hand but Derek stopped him. Dimly, Stiles could hear his muffled explanation that he might hit Stiles. 

As time passed, he could feel himself growing faint. Darkness spread across the edge of his vision, only this time Stiles knew it wasn’t the Nemeton. It was him and his blood loss. He leaned his head back, his eyes staring up at the Seed Moon unfocused, and thought tenderly of Derek’s lips on his. 

Peter shouted, his voice muted as though he were calling Stiles to dinner from across a house with too many rooms, “BELIEVE!” 

He blinked sluggishly, the moon blurring in the distance. He remembered Derek standing across the way in the Preserve, a scowl on his face as he tossed Scott’s inhaler at them and threatened that they were on private property. An image of Derek surrounded by Erica and Boyd and Isaac all wearing their matching leather jackets bloomed in his mind’s eye and he let out a reedy chuckle. He thought of the first time he’d seen Derek and Cora together, the realization that Derek wasn’t alone flooding him with warmth. 

Licking his lips he tasted blood, and thought of the fact that Derek was the type of Alpha willing to selflessly give up his power to save his packmate, his family. His blood trembled within his veins. He thought of the hospital corridor and how Derek had thrown himself in between Stiles and Peter when they could barely tolerate each other, when Derek had actively hated him and Stiles had returned the favor. He pictured Derek sitting beside him on the front step outside of the house, of Derek laughing at something Dad said at the dinner table. His hands spread out across the roots of the Nemeton, and Stiles pictured Derek’s fingers slipping between the open spaces. His fingers curled around the roots, finding purchase in the grooves of the bark. A tremor spread across his limbs. 

Derek kissing him, laughing, grinning, leaning forward. Some of these had happened and some had not—they felt real, but Derek looked older, Stiles calmer. As though he were peeking a glance into a future that might never come to pass. The hairs on his arms stood on end as the static in the air felt charged. 

Unsure of where it was coming from, Stiles could feel the power within him building, the same way it did when he practiced spells at Deaton’s, but this was more. Stronger and more powerful than anything Stiles had ever held within the palm of his hand, and this time it flowed through him swiftly, unstoppable in its strength. He was aware, dully, that Peter wanted him to direct this power at him, but all Stiles could think of was Derek. 

In the back of his mind, Stiles could hear the Nemeton roaring, louder and louder, as though she could feel his pain, as though he was drawing his power from her, from the Earth, from the night sky, from everywhere. 

This land was his as much as it was the Alpha’s or the Nemeton’s. He was bound to her; had sacrificed himself in an ice bath under the guise of a promise that he would find his only remaining family. And he had: but he had also found her, in the bright light of that vast, empty dream palace that Stiles had wandered with Scott and Allison. He didn’t know why she’d wrapped herself around him so tightly, but she had, her roots finding a home in the corners of his soul, and Stiles took from that now. He took, and he took, and he took until there was almost nothing left to give and he poured it all out into the one person who deserved it most. 

He dropped his gaze from the moon and locked eyes with Derek from across the clearing. In that moment, Stiles didn’t simply believe—he knew that Derek was the rightful Alpha of this land. The true Hale heir remaining. The only wolf who deserved the spark. 

Like a bomb blast, the power built up until there was nowhere for it to go but out. The barrier couldn’t hold it, though it shook as it tried. Then. It blew out, and Stiles watched as the three men around him were knocked off their feet. His ears rang out from the blast and he could hear nothing but the trilling of the magic. 

Electricity coursed through his blood and the air tasted metallic. 

He watched, mildly surprised but not much, as Derek’s eyes suddenly bled red. His gaze cut askance to Peter and observed as the other werewolf—no, not anymore, he thought drowsily, just a man—realized what exactly had happened. 

Satisfaction flooded him. Some was his own, but the rest was the Nemeton’s, as she recognized the new Alpha of the territory and accepted him readily without question because Stiles had deemed him worthy.

Stiles could see Peter’s lips form around the word, No, was sure he was screaming it, but he could hear nothing but the ringing still echoing in his ears. He watched, blearily, as Derek stared down at his own hands and seemed to realize his new found power, before his red eyed gaze flickered back to Stiles’. 

They were still staring at each other when Peter tried to attack Derek. But it was sluggish. He’d been bleeding. He was no longer a werewolf, and Peter had never known life without that power—could not even begin to reconcile what life as a human would be like, let alone how foolish it was to try and attack a new Alpha when his only defense was his two fists. 

From behind Derek, Dad raised his gun to fire, but there was no need: Derek picked Peter up by the throat. His lips moved, some exchange of words passing between uncle and nephew that Stiles could not hear, would never hear again, and then. 

Derek twisted his wrist where he gripped Peter’s neck. 

Peter crumpled to the ground silently. 

He was dead. 

Stiles’ vision was swimming in darkness, but he saw the instant Derek and Dad ran up to him, falling to their knees. They disregarded Peter’s body where it lay. Noise roared back into existence—all of it. The animals, the wind carving through the leaves, his family’s shouts of concern, his own reedy breath, and the hum of the magic that still clung to the air. He could feel their hands on him, untying the ropes. A laugh tried to leave his lips when Dad slapped Derek’s burning hands away, but only a thready moan escaped him. 

He could see their hands getting wet with his hot blood—was it still hot, Stiles wondered, crazed, I feel so cold—as both of them tried to hold the wound closed. Dad’s white cast was stained with his blood. Derek reached out to Stiles’ face, cupping it in both of his hands as he leaned forward to press kisses to his forehead, cheeks, eyes, lips. All of him. Every inch that Derek could reach. 

Stiles felt himself wade further out, almost as though he were drifting away in the murky ocean waves, as Dad’s broken hand slipped into his hair, the cast a comforting presence for Stiles to lean against, while the other held his jacket to Stiles’ stomach. He wasn’t even sure when Dad had taken the jacket off. Derek’s hands were still on his cheeks, his veins running black as he drained Stiles of his pain and it crept up his arms, disappearing beneath his sleeves. 

Dad looked on, horrified, his eyes bulging with terror, and Stiles reached out to touch his cheek and soothe him. He opened his mouth to say something—was still trying to think of what to say—when the world faded out of existence, and all Stiles was sure of was that he was loved. 

Chapter Text

“Oh God, kiddo, fuck, baby—”

“—old on, Stiles, stay with me!”

“Where are you taking hi—?”

“—bleeder, quickly—”

Stiles.” 

***

A machine beeped steadily. The constant blip of noise pulled him out of a sleep that was too deep for dreams. If the noise had stopped, Stiles might have been able to slip seamlessly back into the darkness, but the unflagging machine continued to sound. He blinked, slowly, and stared at the dropped ceiling above him. A small groan escaped his lips as he blinked again. 

He looked about and took in his surroundings. The room was lit with too bright fluorescent lights that gleamed harshly against the white walls and to his right were a line of windows, a set of plain, pale, mint green curtains drawn closed over them. Despite the intense light, Stiles didn’t know what time it was and that niggled at the back of his mind. To his left was another line of windows with blinds pulled down and a row of machines dimly lit with numbers and lines dancing across the monitors. And at the foot of the bed were two chairs and in them, uncomfortably bent and contorted to fit, were Dad and Derek. 

Stiles’ gaze sleepily tracked the gentle movements of their chests rising and falling with tranquil breaths. Dad let out a particularly loud snore, muttered to himself, and shifted in the chair. For some reason he felt surprised to note their clothes were clean. Why did he feel like they should be covered in blood? 

Derek looked surprisingly peaceful curled up in the too small chair. Stiles’ fingers itched to reach out to him as a longing struck him.

Groggily, he tried to reach out a hand to search for his phone but stopped, hissing, as the movement seemed to set his body aflame. Stiles didn’t know where the pain originated from, but it was sharp and hot and terrible. He gritted his teeth and bit back the scream caught in his throat, desperate not to wake Dad and Derek. Tears pricked at the corner of his eyes as he struggled to keep silent. 

Why did everything hurt?  

The door to the left of Dad pushed open and Melissa stepped through, her navy blue scrubs in stark contrast to the bright white of the rest of the room. Their eyes locked, and a smile graced her mouth as she pressed a finger to her lips before walking towards him. She picked up what looked like a clipboard and quickly started making notes, her attention pulled between the numbers on the monitors and his face. His gaze tracked her movement as she reached up to check the IV bag he hadn’t noticed before, until her fingers trailed down the tubing and her fingers were resting lightly on the back of his hand. He blinked, stupidly, at the medical tape holding the needle in place. 

Lips pressed to his forehead. His eyes flickered back to Melissa’s as she smiled serenely down at him and whispered, “You gave us all quite a scare, Stiles. Get some more rest sweetheart.” 

He smiled up at her drowsily as his eyelids grew heavy. Her fingers brushed his hair back, soothingly, and he wondered for a moment if she had given him something. The thought was still forming, his lips parted in a question, when he slipped back into that same dreamless sleep. 

***

Stiles awoke with a start and almost immediately rose. But first the pain stopped him, and then the tugging sensation at the back of his hand. His other hand immediately fluttered to his midsection where the pain throbbed and he felt heavy padding. He glanced down, not sure of what to expect, but saw only the thin piece of patterned fabric hanging loosely across his chest. Pressing down gently, he could feel the plush give of something cushy beneath the fabric, and then sharp pain from beneath it. He still didn’t know what time it was. 

He turned his head to search the room and found it empty, but along the left wall the blinds were pulled up on the windows and he realized they stared out into the hallway. Dad was there. So were two men in scrubs and white coats. 

A hospital, he realized sluggishly. Where’s Derek?

He reached up tentatively and touched his face. His fingers traced over the tape across the bridge of his nose, and the gauze that covered what felt like stitches in his cheek. The skin around his eye felt tender and swollen. He remembered now. Why he was there, what had happened. His gaze hovered over Dad’s cast that he could now see was stained a muddy reddish-brown. 

His blood.

The events from the night with Peter felt like an almost forgotten memory. Stiles allowed his mind to turn back to what had transpired that night: the fear, the blood, the ritual. Already it was blurred in his consciousness, like those first moments after a dangerous surgery, still lost under the haze of drugs administered by the kindly anesthesiologist. He could remember the metallic taste of magic on his tongue, the deep cut across his stomach—so deep it felt like his organs were going to spill out onto the damp forest floor as blood welled up to the surface and flowed freely. He could remember Peter’s gaze locked with his, and the bright shine of Derek’s red eyes under the moonlight as he begged Stiles to stay with him. But the quality of the memory was dim. Like a light on the fritz, just on the edge of burning out.

Just thinking of it exhausted him. 

He blinked, and watched as the two doctors parted ways with Dad. He struggled to keep awake, desperately wanting to ask all the questions that buzzed at the edges of his consciousness, but he could feel it was a losing battle. Maybe that was a good thing—the pain seemed to soften around the edges as he felt himself slipping; his lashes distorted his line of vision as darkness called out to him. A door creaked open as though someone were trying to keep as quiet as possible, and he glimpsed the edges of a pair of shoes as Dad’s voice called out, “Stiles? You awa—?”

Before he could even consider responding, sleep took hold of him. 

***

The room was brighter this time. He raised a hand to block the light, and batted his eyes furiously. As his gaze grew accustomed to the light, he realized that the curtains were pulled open and the sun was shining into the room. It was daytime. 

Like before, he catalogued what he could of his surroundings. Stiles felt clear-headed for what felt like the first time in days. The machines continued to beep, and now he understood that they were monitoring his vitals. The ache seemed duller now, less present. Whether that was because he was healing or because he was still drugged to all hell, Stiles couldn’t be sure. 

A hand was curled around his ankle. Stiles turned, ready to find Dad or Derek, and started when he found himself staring at a ducked head of thick brown hair. He glanced down and saw the thin rivulets of black crawl up the arm attached to the hand that was holding him. 

Scott. 

Well, he thought. That explains why I feel so much better.

Warmth flooded him. In that moment he ached, not because of any pain in his gut or spasm in his bones, but because he was so grateful. He had missed Scott, desperately, frantically. Here was his best friend for over a decade, his brother, the boy who had protected his sand castles from countless bullies and loved him fiercely. The past month Stiles had resisted every urge he had to approach Scott in the hallways and deleted every apology he’d almost texted. 

There was so much he wanted to tell him; so much that didn’t feel real until his best friend had expressed an opinion or an exclamation. He wanted to tell him about Derek and the kiss. About Lydia and Danny and their newfound friendship. Stiles craved Scott’s approval—he’d learned with time that he could live without it, but he wanted it all the same. 

“Dude,” he said, his voice cracking from the lack of us. Scott stilled instantly. “You don’t have to do that.” 

For a moment, Scott took his hand away, a shamed look on his face. Then, just as quickly, a petulant frown settled on his lips and he dropped his hand back to Stiles’ ankle. He glared at Stiles. 

“Um, yes I do,” he said, his tone curling around the words as though they were obvious. “The last time we spoke I was a fucking dick to you.” 

Stiles waved a hand in the air. “It’s no big deal. I’ve already forgotten.” 

“It is, though.” 

Stiles stared at his friend with wide eyes. He felt a little light-headed from the lack of pain in combination with the drugs that must be pumping through his veins. 

Scott plowed forward, his words a jumble. His gaze darted away from Stiles’ face and focused on his ankle as he said, his voice trembling, “I knew you were struggling with the Nemeton. I knew and I left you alone.” 

The words seemed to echo in the empty hospital room, the only other sound the constant beeping of the heart rate monitor. His gaze flickered up to Stiles’ again, and Stiles could see how his eyes were wide and sorrowful. That particular brand of Scott McCall puppy softness. 

“I just—you’re so strong, Stiles,” Scott said. “You always seem to manage. I’m always the one leaning on you, not the other way around. I could see that you were struggling, but you never asked for help and you told jokes and always smiled And I get it now, I do; that was you trying to protect me, to force yourself to handle it alone. But I fell for it! I’m sorry, Stiles. I thought that’s what you wanted. I thought you didn’t need me.” 

His voice cracked on the words need and me. Was he wrong, Stiles wondered? Had he not made it through on his own in the end, without Scott’s help? Would he have accepted it, if Scott had offered? 

Stiles was still wondering when Scott continued. As he spoke, his voice quivered and his eyes welled up with tears that spilled freely down his cheeks. “I spent all my time leaning on Allison and Isaac, and I turned my back on my best friend.” 

“It wasn’t like that,” Stiles promised. He reached out to lay a hand on Scott’s shoulder and shook him gently. His voice was soft, and he realized that months ago he might have been heated about this but now he was understanding. His next words were nothing but truth, and how could he be mad at that? “You’re right, I didn’t reach out to you. It used to be just you and me, and now it’s not. It’s not bad, it’s just different.” 

“I should have talked to you more,” Scott argued. “You needed me and I was just so fucking distracted by my own bullshit. There were days when I couldn’t tell what was real from what wasn’t.” 

Stiles furrowed his eyebrows. “What do you mean?” 

Scott looked hesitant, but explained, lurchingly, “I saw things. People. That shouldn’t be there—couldn’t, I mean. Erica, Boyd...Kate...and Gerard.” 

Stiles stared at Scott and saw something: understanding. He knew it was understanding because he was sure his expression shone with it as well. In all the time that Stiles had struggled, he too had overlooked something. He thought Scott was free from suffering. 

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you.” He swallowed, his throat dry, and said softly, “To me it was like...I was back underneath the Nemeton? Like her roots were swallowing me, and I’d never be found.” 

How many times had Stiles woken up, convinced he was trapped beneath those roots, screaming for help, only to wake up moments later in his bed, safely wrapped in his blankets? A dozen times? Maybe more? 

Scott tightened his grip around Stiles’ ankle and glared up at him wildly. “I would find you. Always. No matter what—I promise.” 

There was a beat, a moment of silence as Stiles took comfort in Scott’s words and smile gently at his friend. Then Scott smirked, a chuckle escaped his mouth, and he said, slyly, “And if for whatever reason I’m not there, we both know Derek will always be by your side.” 

Stiles flushed, his cheeks warm beneath the bandages. He smiled shyly at his best friend. For a moment, he thought the conversation was finished, that they were ready to move on. Instead, Scott’s expression turned serious again as he met Stiles’ gaze directly. 

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in my pack or not,” he said earnestly. “All that matters is that you’re in my life. You almost died, Stiles, and we were in a stupid argument because I was being a dick.”

“We’re good, buddy,” Stiles said, as he began to feel drowsy again. His words slurred a little. “Can we talk later when I’m not doped up on morphine and your pain suck-y thing?” 

Scott shook his head. “I can’t lose you, Stiles. You’re my best friend. My brother.” 

Stiles smiled. “And you’re mine. You’ve still got me, Scotty. I’m not going anywhere.” 

Finally, Scott seemed to accept that it was time to move on. He grinned, bashfully, and leaned forward carefully to wrap his arms around Stiles. His touch was feather light as though he was afraid he might break him. 

Stiles let out a small laugh and ducked his face into Scott’s neck, scenting him. They might not be pack, but they were family. Scott leaned back and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?”

He thought for a moment, swallowed, and was immediately reminded of his dry mouth. He asked, “Water?”

Scott’s eyes widened at the request, and he smacked his forehead. He scrambled away from the bed and tripped over himself. “Of course! Oh God, I should have offered before—fuck, sorry, hold on. Ice chips! Mom recommended ice chips!” 

Laughter bubbled out of Stiles. Sometimes Scott was the most inelegant werewolf imaginable. He waited until the other boy produced a cup of ice chips and held them out to Stiles like an offering. He accepted them with a little flourish of his hand as a gesture of thanks, and tilted the cup into his waiting mouth. The cool ice slid across his tongue and the cold burst like a shock to his senses. He welcomed it, happily, as the ice rapidly began to melt and the resulting water soothed his parched throat. 

They stayed like that for some time, Scott’s hand snugly clasped around Stiles’ ankle while Stiles happily devoured as much of the ice chips as possible. When his stomach began to revolt he laid the cup on the bedside table and settled further into the hospital blankets. There weren’t many lines gliding up Scott’s arms anymore and Stiles felt swathed in warmth and comfort. His eyelids began to grow heavy once again. This time he accepted it with open arms, his lips parting in a small yawn. 

He asked, sleepily, “Is it okay if I go back to bed?” 

His eyes were already closing as Scott answered, eagerly, “It’s fine. I’ll tell your dad and Derek that you were awake for a bit.” 

Sleep had almost claimed him when a voice washed over him, distant and indistinct, that carried him into his dreams. “I’ve got you, bro.” 

***

He blinked away slowly. The curtains were pulled back and it looked dark outside, but not pitch black. Lighter than that, a tinge of red and orange bursting through the dark blue sky. He glanced to his right and found Dad, a morning paper spread out in front of him. Half lay on top of Stiles’ legs as it was clear Dad couldn’t hold the other end with his hand in the cast. Stiles glanced around the room swiftly, but Derek was nowhere to be found.

Dad looked up and met Stiles’ gaze. A wide smile broke out across his face, and he let out a huge sigh of what sounded like relief. He closed the paper and pushed it further down the hospital bed before leaning forward to press a hand to Stiles’ unbandaged cheek. 

“Good morning sleepyhead,” he said. 

Stiles voice was still thick with sleep as he grumbled, “G’mornin’.” 

A chuckle burst forth from Dad, and he picked up a pitcher of water and offered it to Stiles with a straw. He leaned forward slowly and drank, greedily, thankfully, and watched Dad from beneath his eyelashes. Dad stroked his hair and said, “Glad to see you awake, son. We’ve missed you.”

Stiles leaned back, exhausted from the effort it took to drink. His body ached much more now that Scott wasn’t there to drain his pain. Trying to be economic with his words as he struggled against the urge to sleep again he asked, laconic, “How long?”

Dad seemed to take a minute to consider this before he answered, “It’s been about four days since you were admitted to the hospital.” 

He felt his eyebrows as they climbed up his forehead. Four? That didn’t sound right. 

Dad seemed to understand his expression and chortled. He nodded and said, “Yeah, I’m sure that’s strange for you. You’ve actually woken up a couple times over the past few days. Do you remember talking to me and Derek?” Stiles shook his head, his eyes wide. “It’s not surprising you don’t remember, I guess. The drugs do that apparently.” 

“What happened?” Stiles croaked, his throat still dry. Dad held up the cup of water again and Stiles took another long drink. “After?” 

Dad’s eyebrows knitted together before recognition flashed across his features. “After you passed out? I gave Derek to keys to the cruiser and gave him extra special Sheriff’s permission to break every goddamn traffic law in existence to get us to the ER. Got to use the sirens and everything.” 

A smile tugged at his lips. Derek would probably like that part in the future, but probably hadn’t that night. Then he grew confused and asked, “You?” 

“Me?” Dad repeated. His voice was choked on his next words. “Oh—I stayed in the back with you to keep the pressure on your abdomen. I radioed all the deputies and sent them to the scene and told Parrish to grab statements from me and Derek at the hospital.” 

Stiles’ bandaged cheek itched and he longed to scratch at it. He resisted the impulse and rubbed his temple, his fingers brushing against his hair. It felt oily from days of being unwashed. He cringed and pulled his hand away. Glancing at Dad, he asked, mumbling, “What’d you say?” 

Dad’s lips slanted to one side in a crooked half-smile. He touched the back of his head nervously, and explained, “We tried to keep as close to the truth as possible. Peter was delusional, he kidnapped you and...cut you open to kill you. Derek and I found you when you didn’t come home hours after that voicemail you left for Derek, and we drove around town until we spotted the Jeep by the Preserve. Told Parrish we thought maybe you’d hurt yourself so went to look for you ourselves before calling for help. We stumbled across the scene and a fight broke out.” 

“Pe’er?” Stiles asked, his tongue heavy. 

“We told Parrish his neck broke in the struggle. That neither of us knew it had happened—just that the three of us were in a fight and he had fallen wrong,” Dad said, his voice a deep rumble. Stiles wasn’t sure if he felt ashamed about what had happened, or if he was just worried about someone walking in. “I explained we didn’t stick around to figure it out because we had to focus on getting you to the hospital.” 

He gave him a listless smile and mumbled, “Thanks.” 

“No thanks needed, kiddo,” Dad said, a gentle expression on his face. He leaned forward and used his good hand to brush his fingers through Stiles’ hair. “You were lucky apparently. The cu—wound was deep but not fatal. The doctors took you into surgery to stitch up some things, but otherwise they’ve been keeping you pumped up on antibiotics when it became clear that Peter spilled some of his own blood into the wound.”

Stiles’ lips quirked back in revulsion. He’d forgotten about that: Peter’s palm sliced open, the blood red and slick as it dripped into Stiles’ open stomach. He shuddered. 

Dad waved his hand in the air as though to brush the bad memories aside and gestured to a bouquet of flowers and a Get Well Soon balloon covered in smiley faces eerily reminiscent to one he’d seen before. Dad said, “Lydia and Danny stopped by to visit. They went all out for you.”

His eyes bright, he stared at the gifts and pointed to himself, “Me?” 

Dad laughed. “Yeah, son, you. They talked to you for a bit, but you were still pretty loopy. Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember.” 

He asked, “They knew?” 

He watched as Dad’s eyebrows furrowed together in confusion for a moment, deciphering Stiles’ stilted, drugged language. Then his eyes lit with recognition and he explained, “Lydia and Danny actually showed up at the Preserve as the deputies were investigating the scene. They told Parrish that I’d asked them to retrieve your Jeep, but Danny told me that Lydia woke up screaming that night and felt compelled to go the clearing where we left Peter’s body. I confirmed their story to Parrish, so it’s fine.” 

He dropped his hand to the bed and Stiles slipped it into his. He held on fast and stared up at Dad, making the effort to force out the next words. The energy it took was immense, but he stumbled through. His tongue felt tied as he fumbled the word order and said, “Sorry that you lied—had to, I mean. You risked your job. Sorry.” 

Dad tightened his grip, and brought their clasped hands to his lips. He kissed each and every one of Stiles’ knuckles. “Don’t you ever apologize for something so stupid ever again. I’d lie a thousand times over for you.” 

He would, Stiles thought. That wasn’t a lie. He thought back to when werewolves were new and terrifying, and Stiles couldn’t trust anyone but Scott. When bodies kept showing up in town and Stiles and his friends were often the first people discovered at the scene. What had Dad thought? Had there ever been a moment—just a single instant—where he doubted Stiles’ lies and explanations? Would he have protected him, even then? Stiles was sure he would. No questions asked. 

Together they laughed quietly, as Dad peppered Stiles’ knuckles with another dozen kisses. 

Stiles grinned but he knew it didn’t quite meet his eyes as they darted to the window that peered out into the hallway. He cleared his throat, and desperate to know the answer, asked, “Derek?” 

“Ah,” Dad said with a rueful smile. “When Melissa isn’t on shift we have to abide by visiting hours. I could stay since I’m family, but Derek had to go home. For some reason the hospital staff refused to believe he was your cousin Miguel.” 

Stiles’ lips spread into an amused, thin smile. He gestured to his eyebrows with his free hand and said, “Famously Hale.” 

Dad smirked. His gaze insistent, he said, “Infamously, unfortunately. But don’t worry—he’ll back here at 10AM sharp as soon as visiting hours begin. He’s been here every waking moment he was able.” 

He flushed as his eyes lit up. Trying to nonchalance and failing, he asked, his voice rough, “Time?” 

“It’s almost five,” Dad explained. He held the cup of water out again and Stiles took another sip. “Tell you what—you go back to sleep and when you wake up, I promise Derek will be here.”

Stiles nodded and settled back against the hospital pillows. Recognition flared, and he glanced behind him to discover his favorite pillow nestled behind his back. He glanced at Dad and gave him a dopey smile. His voice small and childlike, he closed his eyes and murmured, “Love you, Daddy.” 

The fingers were back at his hair, stroking gently, as Dad mumbled back, “I love you too, son.” 

***

He felt clear-headed again. 

This time when Stiles opened his eyes, he knew what to expect. His heart beat a rhythm against his ribcage as he felt a hand carefully resting above his knee. He blinked away the sleep that still clung to him and smiled when he saw Derek beside him. 

Derek was not looking back at him. Instead, his gaze seemed locked on the place their bodies met, as the pain seeped up his arm and disappeared from Stiles’ sight. His gaze flickered away from Derek and spotted Dad across the room. Dad met his gaze evenly, folded up the paper he was holding again, and stood from his chair. 

“I think I’ll go grab some coffee and check in with Melissa,” he said, his tone purposefully casual to Stiles’ ears. Derek didn’t seem to notice. “You want anything?” 

“Nothing for me,” Derek said, and Stiles’ heart soared at the sound of his deep voice. He’d missed that sound. It seemed to travel down the length of his spine as a shiver rushed through him. Derek glanced over at Dad and raised a finger. “Make sure it’s decaf—Stiles would never forgive me for allowing you to drink so much caffeine.” 

Dad grinned and, when he was sure Derek wasn’t looking anymore, he winked at Stiles. “Special circumstances.” 

Stiles smiled back at him, and watched Dad’s back retreat out the door. As soon as he was sure Dad was gone, he placed his hand on top of Derek’s. His throat dry again, he croaked out, “Hello.” 

Derek startled—at his voice or his touch, Stiles wasn’t sure—and immediately met his gaze. He moved to push away from the bed, “You’re awake! Hold on—John just walked out of the room, let me go get him for you.” 

Stiles laughed, brightly, airily, and tightened his grip on Derek’s hand. When the werewolf turned back to look at him, Stiles shook his head and grinned. “Stay, please.” 

He gave a curt nod and settled back in the chair. His gaze examined Stiles’ face and he asked, seriously, “Is there anything I can get for you?” 

“Water, please.” 

Like Scott and Dad before him, he hurried to produce a cup and proffered it. Stiles took a long sip from the water, his gaze locked on Derek’s. He tried to ignore his heart as it raced. When he was done with the water, Derek moved to put it aside, and Stiles smiled. “Thank you, Alpha.” 

Immediately, Derek’s eyes flared red in acknowledgement. Then, he looked shamed and his cheeks glowed as he ducked his head. “Oh. You remember that.” 

His heart still raced but now for an entirely different reason. He shook his head, confused, and said, “Of course I do. W—why do you look upset?” 

Derek mumbled, his fingers tracing an old scar on Stiles’ leg from when he and Scott were kids, “This isn’t what I wanted.” 

With a sinking heart, Stiles felt an instant of mortification. And then shame crashed over him, and he pulled his hand away from Derek’s, who immediately pulled his gaze away from Stiles’ leg to stare at him in confusion. His heart felt like it was in throat. He hadn’t considered Derek at all that night when it happened. He shook his head. “I’m—oh fuck, Derek, I’m sorry. I’ll help you get rid of it, if you want. Deaton probably knows more than me. And if you got rid of it once before, it shouldn’t be difficult to do it again.” 

Now it was Derek’s turn to look bewildered. He reached out and tugged Stiles’ hand back into his, curling his fingers around Stiles’. He asked, “What are you talking about?” 

Stiles stared at him, dumbfounded. His eyes flickered between their joint hands and Derek’s face. He stammered, “I—I didn’t mean to force the Alpha spark on you if you didn’t want it. By the time it was happening, I couldn’t control where it was going or anything—”

“No,” Derek said with no room for argument. Derek slotted his fingers in between Stiles’ so that he was actively gripping Stiles’ hand. “I meant—I never wanted you to have to use your magic for me against your will. I always want you to be in control of your decisions.”

Stiles’ throat was in his throat, making it hard to breathe. He laughed, hard, and grinned. “I don’t regret any of this—this was the best possible outcome. You were the best, the only, option. If I’d known this was something I could do, I would have done it months ago. Sans bloodshed.” 

Derek was staring at him in disbelief. His gaze shimmered, almost as though his eyes were wet with tears.

Stiles tightened his fingers around Derek’s. “You’re a good Alpha.” 

Derek let out a watery laugh before his expression grew more serious, and he pulled Stiles’ hand closer to him. He said, “You don’t know how worried I was when you didn’t come home that night. It felt like I was waiting for hours on those front steps looking up the street for Roscoe.” 

Shaking his head, Stiles asked, “How did you know something was wrong?” 

Derek blushed for what seemed to Stiles like no reason at all.

“You told me you were coming home and that you hoped I was there. I wanted to prove to you I was,” he swallowed thickly, his blush deepening. “I wanted to finish our conversation from before.” 

The conversation from the parking lot. It felt like weeks had passed since they’d stood outside Derek’s old loft, but it had only been a few days.

Stiles tilted his head to the side, and asked, “Was there more to say?”

“You told me you loved me,” Derek said somberly. 

Stiles blanched. 

“And you thought I didn’t want to be in a pack with you.” 

He pulled his hand away again, this time defensively. His lips curled down into a frown. “You mentioned feeling something almost two months ago and then you never mentioned it again. What was I supposed to think?”

Derek stared at him. He asked, his tone amused, “Stiles. Could you feel the bond?”

He nodded. “Of course.”

“And you know, after Scott, that pack bonds can’t go one way, right?” 

“Yes.”

Derek watched him and waited. When Stiles said nothing, he prompted, “Then…?” 

“But—” Stiles started. His eyebrows drew together and he narrowed his gaze, pulling at the stitches and bandages covering his face. The bruise around his eye throbbed. His voice grew more frenzied as he kept talking. “Just because there’s a bond doesn’t mean anything! Scott and Peter had a pack bond when he was first bitten, but Scott resisted it until it broke. You could not want it—not want to be tied to me. You didn’t talk about it for ages, and then after our fight...you were going to leave.” 

Derek had the decency to look embarrassed. He shook his head, his eyes never leaving Stiles’ face. “I wouldn’t have. Not really. But I was angry and hurt when I made the appointment, and I wasn’t really thinking things through.” 

“So there were no lofts available?” Stiles asked. 

“No, there were,” said Derek. He shrugged and reached out tentatively to touch his fingers to Stiles’. “By the time we had the meeting, I made it out as though I was just checking on the property. I told Karen to keep up the good work of finding people to lease them.” 

That should have been enough, but something tugged at his throat and forced him to clarify. “But not you? Because you told me you were looking for yourself.” 

Derek blushed, again. “That wasn’t my best moment.”

“What d’you mean?” Stiles asked.

“I was still mad,” Derek explained. “I think—I just said it so that you’d realize how hurt I was.” 

Stiles frowned. “I already knew.” 

A smile quirked at Derek’s lips and he gazed down at their fingers which were slowly dancing together. “I figured that out when you launched into your apology tour.” 

The righteous anger Stiles had been feeling about Derek pretending to look for somewhere to live fizzled out completely. Suddenly he was struck with the memory of why they’d been in that situation to begin with. He rushed, “Yeah, well. About Paige—”

“No, Stiles, it’s fine,” said Derek. His hazel eyes were piercing. “You’ve already apologized more than enough. And what you said...that’s how I feel, too.” 

“What?” 

He studied Derek’s face as the werewolf seemed to struggle through the next words. His voice was calm but full of want as he spoke. “I want you to know about my life, all of it. I want to be able to tell you about Paige...and Kate.”

Stiles watched him, fascinated, with an odd mixture of apprehension, fondness, and concentration. 

“And I think,” Derek stuttered. “I think one day I will. You just have to give me some more time.” 

“Okay,” said Stiles, his heart in his throat again. 

“So?” Derek asked, somewhat hesitant. “We’re okay?” 

Again, something in him compelled Stiles to voice the concerns he would normally stifle. “I mean, of course, but that still...the pack bond. How do you feel about it?” 

Derek stared up at him with his eyes wide and unreadable. “You still don’t know?” 

When Stiles shook his head, Derek reached out and grabbed his hand again, lacing their fingers together. “I haven’t had a pack in so long. Cora and I...there’s something there, but it’s stretched thin across continents. I’ve been wandering, alone, for years. I’ve felt so many bonds be ripped away from me.” 

“So, maybe you would want to protect yourself,” Stiles rushed in, his voice high and pitchy as tears welled in his eyes in frustration, “and resist the bond—”

Derek held fast. “I would never. Not with you. Your dad. Hell, even Lydia and Danny. The bond has been growing since we first shared Chinese takeout with John and you kept trying to steal my spring rolls.” 

“You had like a hundred of them, dude!” Stiles cried out, choking around his laughter. “Did you not learn to share in preschool?” 

Derek laughed too. “Stiles.” 

He gave Derek a wry smile and gestured at him. “Right, right, go on.” 

“What I’m trying to say,” Derek explained with great sincerity, “is that you and your dad took me in when I had nowhere to stay, and you gave me a home...and a family. Do you know how happy I was when I realized I had a connection with you—both of you?” 

Almost thunderstruck, Stiles shook his head. “I—I didn’t, no.” 

“You’re so strong. And loving. And good,” Derek said earnestly. “I’ve always admired those things about you. When we first met, you were a kid struggling to keep your head above water while taking care of your best friend through impossible odds. And even then, you were always willing to help me. Even when you hated me.” 

Stiles scoffed, amused. “You hated me too.” 

That was the story he had told himself for so long. Derek and Stiles hated each other when they’d first met, because they didn’t understand each other. Derek had found him annoying, and Stiles had found him too secretive. They had endured, and an uneasy pact of goodwill had developed between them until this past January when Derek had suddenly been his house mate. 

Derek shook his head, and in one fell swoop dismissed that entire story. “I was scared of you.” 

 Stiles stared at him, surprised. 

“You made me feel like maybe the world wasn’t so bleak, and that didn’t feel fair because mine was,” he gave a mirthless laugh. “I didn’t hate you—I resented you. You made me feel so many things, and I wasn’t ready for any of them.” 

“Derek—”

But he cut him off, and said instead, his words coming out fast, “I hope Scott knows how lucky he is to have you as a best friend. I know you patched things up, but of all the boneheaded things Scott has done since I’ve known him, taking you for granted was the worst.” 

Again, Stiles tried. “But the bond—”

“I thought you were part of Scott’s pack,” he explained. Stiles watched as another line of black crept up Derek’s arm. Even in this conversation, he was using his powers for good. “And then I felt the bond start to grow, and nothing was there between me and Scott. And at first, it didn’t make sense to me, right? Because everything I know about bonds told me that’s not possible—that we could have bond independent of your Alpha. But then I realized you didn’t have one with Scott, and I thought, maybe, you were as lonely as I was.” 

Stiles winced at the description. He argued, weakly, “I think I was doing okay.” 

“You were surviving,” Derek corrected. “So was I. But Stiles: I would never turn my back on our bond, because I think, maybe, together, we could really thrive.” 

He let out a weak laugh. “That’s a lot of pressure to put on a dude.” 

Derek paled. “No pressure intended. Just—”

“Just what?”

“I want to be honest here. All cards on the table.” 

“Okay?” Stiles said, his eyebrows drawn together. 

“We keep talking about the pack bond,” Derek said. His words were slow, calculated, as though he were carefully considering each one before he let them fall from his lips. “But there’s more: you told me you loved me, and I was too shocked to say anything back, but Stiles...” 

Frozen, Stiles watched as Derek swallowed and his adam’s apple bobbed up and down. 

Derek took a deep breath and said, “What I want to say—what I would have said that day, if Deaton hadn’t called and if everything with Peter hadn’t happened—is that I love you too. So much. More than I thought was ever possible.” 

Clutching his hand and staring unbelieving at Derek, Stiles asked in a small voice, “Really?”

“Can’t you feel it?” Derek asked, forlorn. “Through our bond?” 

And Stiles, who had never considered all the potential of a pack bond—who had never felt one before these past few months, who was, in fact, a complete rube when it came to all things supernatural bonds—took a moment to seek out the bond with his mind. 

He could. 

Right there. Love. Reverberating across the bond, filling up the space between them, warming him from the inside out. As soon as he felt it, Stiles couldn’t understand how he’d ever missed it or doubted it. He felt like he could wrap his hands around it and slip it into his pocket and never be parted from it again. 

A smile gracing his lips, he peeked up at Derek from beneath his eyelashes. He felt almost shy as he asked, “Are you my Alpha now?” 

Again, Derek’s eyes flashed red in recognition. He gazed back at Stiles, his expression full of adoration, and said, “Of course.” 

Stiles leaned forward, and watched as Derek did the same. They were inches apart, their breath warm on each other’s faces when Derek’s gaze flickered from his lips to his eyes, and he asked, his voice hushed, “Will you be my Emissary?” 

It was almost like a proposal. They leaned closer, and closer, and somewhere from the depths of Stiles’ soul he felt something electric and powerful spark in approval. Their foreheads touched, and Stiles whispered, “Yes.” 

Derek pressed forward and captured Stiles’ lips with his own. 

***

It was hours later, and the two of them had maneuvered his wiring and tubing so that Derek could climb into bed with him. His hand was pressed lightly to Stiles’ bandages across his abdomen as he dozed lightly. Stiles, for the first time in days, felt wide awake. He had sent Dad off in search of edible food in place of the unrecognizable mush that the hospital had tried to feed him and he was scrolling through Derek’s phone since his was either locked up in police evidence or lost to the Preserve. His other hand was buried in Derek’s thick head of hair and he was enjoying the warmth of another (particular) body pressed up against him, when there was a knock.  

Before he could call out to invite them in, Deaton walked through the door. 

Derek was still asleep, but Stiles could feel how he grew tense as he scented Deaton. They had never truly overcome that first mistake, when Deaton had stayed quiet and hidden away while Peter was the Alpha and Derek needed help. He soothed the werewolf, shushing him softly, and stroking his hand across his cheek. Derek settled at the touch. 

Deaton took in the scene before him and made no comment on it. Instead, his gaze sought out Stiles and said, “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better.” 

“Well, there’s only so much better I’ll be feeling for a while after getting my stomach slashed open,” he quipped. Derek, in turn, made a plaintive sleepy whine and buried his face deeper into Stiles’ neck. 

Ignoring the whine, Deaton gave a small smile and pulled a jar and a vial from his bag. He explained, “I only wanted to bring you some wormroot balm to spread on your scar. It should help with the healing. I also brought a revitalizing tonic for you.” 

“What for?” Stiles asked. He tried to crinkle his nose, but flinched when he was suddenly reminded that it was broken. 

Deaton said, “I suspect that part of the reason you were unconscious for so many days is because you used too much of your spark in the Preserve. You’re lacking energy.” 

“So it’s basically magic Gatorade?” Stiles asked with a laugh. “Sparkade: boosts electrolytes and spell energy! You should market it.” 

Deaton arched an eyebrow at him, unamused as always, and held out the gifts for Stiles to take. Stiles, who was wrapped around Derek, shrugged. Deaton finally relented and gave a small smile as he placed the balm and tonic on the table with all the get well cards and flowers. Who knew that almost dying could make Stiles Stilinski popular? 

Deaton nodded and moved to leave the hospital room but Stiles stopped him. 

“Did you know this was possible?” he asked, staring at the back of Deaton’s neck. “That I could make Derek an Alpha again? That Peter was behind all the deaths?” 

Deaton turned back to him, his expression inscrutable. His hands were clasped in front of him as he said, “I didn’t know about Peter, but as for making Derek an Alpha...I’ve heard of it before.” 

“You have?” 

He nodded. “It’s alluded to in those journals I gave you. I suspected you didn’t have the right connection with Scott, and yet your spark was blooming anyway. That could happen if there was a werewolf nearby worthy of you as an emissary. It’s why I decided to take you on as a student.” 

Stiles considered it a moment, and then shook his head a little. He asked, “How did you know it was Derek?” 

“I didn’t,” Deaton said, simply. But he had the same knowing glint to his eyes that he always did, and Stiles suspected that he wasn’t being entirely truthful. And then Deaton surprised him by expanding on his answer. “I suspected. The more you talked about the pack bond, the more I was sure. I thought we’d have this conversation at a much later date though. Weeks, months even, perhaps even a year from now.” 

Derek was snoring quietly, occasionally letting out a little huff of noise as he scented Stiles in his sleep. Stiles watched him fondly before glancing back at Deaton with confusion etched across his face. He said, “I still don’t really understand how I did all of this. Peter didn’t explain much about the actual ritual—he just told me to believe—and then, obviously, I was dealing with some serious blood loss towards the end.” 

“Ah, of course. Allow me to try to explain,” Deaton started. He stepped forward and slid into the chair beside the hospital bed. “Emissaries can circumvent Alpha hierarchy and give the spark to another werewolf they believe is worthy, if needed. It very rarely ever is, of course, because when the spark is taken forcefully the emissary is usually killed alongside the Alpha—except in cases like my own, where my identity was kept hidden—or the heir to the spark has been tested in so many manners that there’s no doubt to their rightful inheritance.”

Stiles watched him uneasily and asked, “But it happens?” 

“Apparently,” Deaton said. He seemed to be searching his mind for examples. “Again, I’ve never seen it happen but my understanding is when an Alpha dies shortly after they initially gained the power, sometimes the identified heir isn’t ready—a child, a pack member who was working against the Alpha, and so on. And it’s not easy from my readings. The Earth’s innate magic needs to agree with the emissary.” 

Stiles quirked an eyebrow. “Like the Nemeton?” 

Deaton gave him a sage smile, “Yes. For you to give the Alpha spark to Derek, the Nemeton had to agree that he was worthy. Which he very clearly was.” 

Something sparked in Stiles’ mind and he asked, his gaze sharpening, “So then, there’s no way I could have made Peter the Alpha? Because I didn’t think he was worthy, and the Nemeton certainly wouldn’t have—he kept fucking with her balance.” 

“Exactly,” Deaton said. 

“But what if I’d believed in Peter hard enough—even if just to save my own life, or my dad’s—wouldn’t the Nemeton have trusted me?” He was studying Deaton now, the questions pulling forth from his brain like one of their lessons. “Like, if I truly believed the only way to save Dad’s life was by making Peter Alpha, wouldn’t that be enough for her? Because of our connection?” 

There was a moment as Deaton seemed to consider his response, but it wasn’t anywhere near as long as Stiles would have expected it to be. Instead, Deaton gave a small shake of his head and said, “Perhaps in another scenario, but never in the one that played out the other night. And that’s because Peter used Witches Burr in his herb concoction.” 

Stiles made a face and said, “Let’s pretend I’m still loopy from all the drugs and werewolf pain drain—remind me why Witches Burr would have that effect?” 

Deaton, as though he had expected his conversation to take place, opened his bag and pulled out a small, brown, spiked burr and held it out for Stiles to examine in the palm of hand. He explained, “Witches Burr adds great power to any spellcasting—but it is also said to defeat any kind of evil force.” 

He plucked the small seed from Deaton’s palm and held it out to the light. 

“Peter was an inherently evil force: he was trying to compel you to do his bidding. He had stripped away your agency,” Deaton continued, his voice soothing as Derek made a noise of displeasure. “He was attempting magic with blood unwillingly given—from the deer, the Alphas, and you. And, I suspect, the Witches Burr would have also rebelled because of his very nature.” 

“You mean because he was a dick?” Stiles asked. 

Deaton laughed softly. “No, no. I mean, Peter was a grotesque abuse of nature; he should have been long dead and yet he wasn’t. The Nemeton would never have agreed to give Peter that kind of power, and the Witches Burr would never have allowed the spell to succeed if he was the only potential candidate.” 

At Deaton’s words, Stiles felt something within him recognize the truth in his explanation. He considered how the land must have recognized that Peter was connected to it from when his blood had spilled across its dirt and Derek had buried him beneath its roots. Peter’s animation was an affront to the land; it had fed off of him until the moment he’d manipulated Lydia to free him from its grasp. Why then, would the land be willing to grant him anything, let alone the Alpha spark he craved, when he had denied her his decomposition?  

He was still thinking when Derek’s lips moved across his neck and he said, “Thank you for teaching Stiles and for explaining everything so clearly, Alan.”

“It’s what Talia would have wanted,” Deaton said with a nod. Stiles watched as the druid met Derek’s eyes and advised, “This is your second chance, Derek Hale. You have to be a better Alpha now.” 

“Shut up,” Stiles snarked, without heat or insult, just cold facts. “Derek is going to be a great Alpha, and with me as his emissary by his side, we’ll be unstoppable.” 

Deaton gave a knowing smile and said, “I don’t doubt it.” 

***

Dad had returned shortly after Deaton left with three bags from In-N-Out. Stiles had already scarfed down his Double-Double and was working his way through his fries, while Dad was halfway through the slightly healthier cheeseburger. Dad had gone out of his way to order Derek a Quad Quad from the secret menu. When Derek had stared at the four level tower of meat, stunned, Dad had shrugged and explained, lamely, “I thought since you were a werewolf and all…” 

Stiles pointed a fry at Dad and said, “You better not get used to this.”

“Just be grateful we’re not eating that hospital food,” Dad countered as he took a deliberate bite from his burger. 

Derek sighed from the chair beside the bed as he carefully tried to eat the monstrosity of a burger above the bedside table where he could spill freely. He groaned, “Can you two stop bickering?” 

Blatantly ignoring the request, Stiles took a sip of his chocolate shake. He felt much better after drinking the tonic that Deaton had dropped off and he looked at Dad and asked, “When can I get out of here?”

“Dr. Huang said another three days to round out the week and keep you monitored,” Dad said as he drank from his iced tea. “Then we’ll probably keep you home for another week or two, depending on how long your stitches take to heal.” 

Stiles’ eyes bulged. “Two weeks? That’s insane!” 

Derek hummed. “They don’t want to take a chance with your ripping them open.” 

“Like I’d do that!” he argued, insulted. Dad stared at him, his gaze heavy with judgement. He winced, and said, “All right, it’s not a completely out there concern.” 

With a nod Dad rounded the finish line and said, “In total, it should take about six to eight weeks before you’re fully healed. Bed rest, according to Dr. Huang and Melissa, is a must.” 

Stiles waved a hand that was holding four fries and said, “I’ll start using Deaton’s balm as soon as we get home and I bet I’ll be better in half that time.”

“I’ll be the deciding factor in that,” Dad intoned. 

He rolled his eyes at his overprotective father, then smiled softly at Derek—his boyfriend because Dad had asked for clarification when he came back to the two of them cuddled together—and asked, “What’s going on with the packs?” 

Derek put the burger back down and wiped his greasy hands on the napkin he had in his lap. He nodded, and explained, “I spoke to Lydia and Danny and invited them to join the pack. They both seemed open to the idea but Lydia wants to talk to you, obviously. And—”

He took a deep breath, and Stiles waited but nothing came. He stared at Derek. “And?” 

“Danny asked for the bite.” 

Stiles’s jaw dropped and before he could do little more than let out a croaking, confused uhhh, Dad had spoken out instead. “You’re not going to do it, are you? You’re a new pack, you just got your spark, and Stiles is still recovering.” 

“It’s a little fast,” Stiles agreed, doing his best to be a little more diplomatic than Dad. 

Derek smiled at both of them, and the smile lit his face. He nodded. “That’s what I said. I also told Danny I wanted him to talk to Scott and Deaton and Isaac about what becoming a werewolf would mean. And you, Stiles. Though I’m sure he’s planning to talk to Jackson about it, if he hasn’t already. If he still wants to after all of that, I told him it would be a few months at least.” 

Stiles felt pride well up inside of him at the logic his Alpha was displaying. Dad’s lips spread into a grin and he said, “That’s very smart of you, Derek.” 

Derek flushed, and said, his voice quiet, “I’m trying to do better this time.” 

“And Scott?” Dad asked, because he was braver than Stiles. Stiles was still a little nervous about what the answer might be, despite his conversation with Scott the day before. 

Derek shrugged easily, and picked his burger back up. He said, “We came to an agreement to share the territory for the time being, at least until everyone in the packs are done with college.” 

He hesitated then, and glanced up at Stiles warily. Stiles, taken aback, asked from around the shake straw he was chewing, “What?” 

“Ethan and Aiden left town,” Derek said quickly, as though if he said it fast maybe Stiles wouldn’t hear him. 

“Wait, what?” Stiles asked, sitting up further in the hospital bed. He hissed as it tugged on his sutures and Derek’s hand shot out to drain the pain. He slapped the hand away. “What happened?” 

He watched as Dad and Derek exchanged a glance from across the room. Derek drew in a breath and said, “They were unsettled by you and your spark. After everything with Jennifer...they’re not comfortable with humans with that much magical power. And with Lydia and Danny joining our pack, they said they didn’t feel safe in town.” 

“They told you all this?” he asked, shell-shocked. He had never been close to the twins—had treated them with suspicion from the beginning and resented their involvement in Erica and Boyd’s deaths. But he didn’t think he was dangerous, and he couldn’t fathom that anyone would be scared of him

Derek shook his head. “They told Scott since he was their Alpha, and he told me. It’s not about you, Stiles, it’s about their own experiences.” 

Stiles frowned and tried to bury the unexplainable pained part of him that made itself known. Even more so, he felt bad for Danny—Lydia had been looking to get out of her relationship, but Danny had been happy. 

As though Derek could read his mind—and maybe, through the bond, it was possible—he said, his voice quiet, “Danny doesn’t blame you.” 

The promise didn’t make him feel any better. He clenched his jaw and turned to his father and asked, “Can you turn on the TV? Please?”

Dad gave him a sad smile and nodded. When the screen came to life, Bob’s Burgers filled it. 

Stiles, who didn’t want to listen to them mock groan about it, asked, “What else is on?” 

“Well,” Dad said, as his gaze darted over to Derek before settling back on Stiles. “No, c’mon, you love this show and you’re in the hospital. We can watch what you want to watch.” 

He settled back into his pillows and shook his head. “I’m just trying to compromise and keep everyone happy. You and Derek don’t like this show.” 

From beside him, Derek kept his head ducked as he said, “It’s fine if you want to watch this.” 

“No, no,” Stiles said. “C’mon, I’m being generous. Dad, let’s see if the Mets are playing.” 

Dad made a face. “I think it’s fine if we just stay on this channel.” 

Stiles’ face lit up, his eyes bright with joy as he pointed at the two of them. “I knew it! You like Bob’s Burgers! Admit it!” 

“No—” Derek said. 

“Not at all,” denied Dad. 

 The two of them stumbled over each other to deny the accusation, so Stiles challenged them both with his gaze. He said, “Fine. Change the channel then.” 

A second passed. Then another. Until finally Dad tossed the remote onto the hospital bed and threw his hands up into the air. “Fine! You win, Stiles! It’s a wonderful show!” 

Merriment rang out in the hospital room as the three of them laughed together, until Stiles needed Derek to drain the pain away from his aching gut. 

***

It was a couple hours later, and the sky outside was dark. Dad had fallen asleep in the chair at the foot of the bed again, and the TV was turned on low, playing some late night local news that Stiles didn’t care about. His eyes watched, unfocused, as a blonde news anchor came on screen and said, her voice articulate, “More news on the story of a local teenager who was attacked in the Preserve by a forty-eight year old man. The teenager is said to be recovering well and is expected to be released from the Beacon Hills Memorial Hospital in a few days—”

The TV turned off mid-sentence. 

Stiles turned to his side and smiled, serenely, at the sight of Derek lowering the remote back to the bed. He was curled behind him, his front pressed against Stiles’ back, his hand pressed gently to Stiles’ waist. 

“Y’know,” Stiles said, his voice mellow as he shifted to get comfortable. Too many wires, he thought, as he rested his head in the bend of Derek’s arm beneath him. “We never did talk about that kiss.”

Derek pointedly ducked forward and kissed the back of Stiles’ neck. He asked, quietly, “Do we need to?” 

He hid his smile into the crook of Derek’s arm and shook his head. Then, he leaned back a little so that he could meet Derek’s gaze. They stared at each other, the room fluorescent bright and still except for the ever constant monitors. Stiles could feel Derek’s devotion stretch out across the bond, and he hoped Derek could feel his in return. 

“Do you know how wonderful you are?” Derek whispered. Stiles smiled sweetly in response. “I’m so grateful I came back to Beacon Hills. I thought I was done with this town, that there was nothing left for me. But you were here, and you gave me everything, Stiles. A family, a home, a pack. I love you.” 

Instead of responding with words, Stiles closed his eyes and leaned forward, pressing his lips to Derek, knowing that they would never be apart.

Chapter Text

It was mid-August and the temperature was cool in the best way northern California could be. Outside, a barbeque was being held. Dad was at the grill offering burgers and hot dogs to anyone who walked passed, while Melissa and Chris mocked his hosting skills. Nearby, Stiles stood beside Derek, his arm looped around the new deputy’s as they talked to Jordan who was happy to have a new partner. Lydia and Danny stood within reach in a heated discussion with Allison about travel plans and the best airlines. Scott and Isaac had their phones out, scrolling through the Beacon Hills Community College website where they were both set to enroll in two weeks time, as they explained to Cora what their class schedule would look like in the coming year. Deaton stood to the side, somewhat removed as usual, as he talked politely with some of the other deputies and nurses that Dad and Melissa had invited. 

Inside, the blue walls in Stiles’ room were bare, no trace left behind of his many investigative cork boards from over the years. The framed photo of Mom had been tucked away, already safe in Stiles’ half-packed duffle bag and ready to be hung up once he reached his dorm room. 

Orientation at Berkeley was set to start smack dab in the middle of the week. It had been a no brainer for Stiles to choose Berkeley over his other options: Stanford had accepted him, but offered little in terms of need or merit based scholarships. The same went for The George Washington University on the other side of the country, a school he’d applied to on a whim when researching internship opportunities at the FBI. Lydia had tried to convince him to change his enrollment in June and join her in Boston at MIT when she found out he’d also been accepted, but the offer had failed to tempt Stiles.

He wanted to stay close to home, where he would always be one relatively short drive away from Dad. Lydia had scoffed at the explanation and pointedly glared at Derek’s back at the pack meeting before whispering to Danny about boyfriends holding people back. They’d both bonded over the twins leaving Beacon Hills—it didn’t matter that Lydia had been planning on breaking up with Aiden. This was the second of her boyfriends to bail town before she could assert any agency over ending their relationship. Danny, in all of his newfound werewolf senses and pack mentality, sought out his wounded packmate for comfort and commiserated with her.

Stiles didn’t know what Danny would do without Lydia when she went to Boston while he stayed behind with Derek to train for a year before he could enroll at the University of Hawaii. 

Perhaps things would have been easier if Stiles were staying in California for Derek, but that wasn’t the case. Derek would have happily supported Stiles in any of his decisions—had even offered to help pay for GW or Stanford, swearing up and down that it was pack money to be spent on pack members. But Stiles demurred, repeated the line about Dad, and smiled when Derek nodded his head in acceptance. 

It was true that Stiles wanted to stay nearby. With a cop for a father, he could never be sure that the next phone call he received wouldn’t be the one telling him something terrible had happened. He felt better knowing that he could jump into a car and get home in the very same day without worrying about money or available tickets. 

But the other reason—the one he’d told no one but Deaton so far—was her. 

The Nemeton. Their connection had strengthened over the summer, ever since Stiles had spilled his own blood over her roots and used his bond with her to anoint the new Alpha of Beacon Hills. Nothing nefarious or worrying, as far as Deaton was concerned. Just a fact: Stiles was bound to the territory, as tightly as Derek—perhaps tighter. When Scott and Stiles had taken their road trip in July to the Grand Canyon as they’d discussed all those months ago, he‘d found himself uneasy the farther away he traveled. 

It wasn’t near enough to make them turn back, failed to even make him nauseous; there was just a persistent tightness at the base of his skull that grew in intensity. On the return trip home, he realized it dissipated the closer they got to town. Stiles was prepared for it to go away completely once he got home, only...that didn’t happen. 

Instead the tightness remained, ever so slightly noticeable all through the evening as he had dinner with Dad and Derek, watched TV with them, and sat on the porch step and told Derek all about his trip until he’d climbed into bed, unable to stay awake any longer. When he awoke, four hours later, Stiles was no longer in bed. He wasn’t even at home. He was standing in the clearing of the Preserve, the Nemeton before him, as his bare toes curled into the dirt floor. 

The tightness disappeared then. 

He’d sat with her for an hour under the waning moon, unbothered by the chill in the air despite the fact that he was only wearing a pair of boxers and his favorite Batman sleep shirt. Like Derek, she wanted to know about his travels, wanted to know where he’d been and why he’d ventured so far. Stiles still didn’t know how he understood her—unlike when she was trying to warn him about Peter, the Nemeton didn’t often resort to the crude language of humans. She communicated more in feelings and auras, and Stiles, like a unique radio that could only tune in to her station, could decipher her. 

Berkeley was an acceptable distance, so long as he promised her to return at least once every three months and greet her fondly like old friends. Which is what they were these days. They had saved each other that night—Peter would have destroyed her roots if she had failed him again, and he would have killed Stiles, accidentally or on purpose, for the very same reason. Together they worked in tandem to give the power to Derek, who in turn killed Peter, protecting them both. She was fond of Derek, in the way that fawning grandmothers loved their very young grandchildren—fiercely, but at a distance, too different in age and countenance to really know them. 

A year ago—six months even—Stiles might have been bothered by the limitations his bond with the Nemeton placed on him. But things had changed in that time; he had been packless back then, unaware of how adrift he felt. He had talked to Deaton about his theories, that the Nemeton had latched on to him because of his lack of supernatural connections. She tethered him to this territory, but no more than Derek did or Dad. There might not have been a tightness at the base of his skull from traveling apart from them, but his heart had ached nonetheless, like a piece of him was missing. He didn’t even think that could be attributed to the pack bond; though it had stretched thin to accommodate the distance, it had remained strong and unbreakable. 

No, that ache had been entirely human. Stiles had never been good about being away from his family. So long as Dad and Derek remained in Beacon Hills, it would be home for Stiles. He didn’t mind. 

And there was reason to hope, according to Deaton, that her leash on him would loosen over the years once she realized that he would stay true to her. She had been so alone for so long that she clung to him now, desperately, as they built their trust in each other. Until then, Stiles had to believe that one day she would learn to let him go and have faith that he would return. 

Derek’s arm curled around Stiles’ back, his fingers stroking the fabric on his waist. Stiles, in turn, placed a hand on Derek’s chest as he laughed at a joke Jordan made, the feel of Derek’s deputy uniform still new to his touch. When Stiles made a joke at Derek’s expense, the werewolf grumped before ducking down to catch Stiles’ lips with his own in a teasing kiss. From across the lawn, Dad seemed unbothered. 

The packs had settled after the twins had left. Scott, Allison, and Isaac had more formally brought Melissa and Chris into the fold, though neither had any interest in being turned. Allison and Chris were planning to travel back and forth to France over the next few months as she took a gap year to decompress following her stressful high school experience. Stiles didn’t blame her. It was strange to see a werewolf pack with only two wolves, and yet Stiles felt it was entirely appropriate for the type of Alpha Scott wanted to be. 

Derek had risen to the challenge of being an Alpha again, slipping the mantle over his shoulders with ease. Dad had happily joined the pack once he understood that he was already in it to begin with, as did Lydia and Danny. Cora had taken some convincing and coaxing from across the globe, until she had agreed to come for a visit to see if Beacon Hills had improved at all. When Stiles had spotted her at the airport, he’d felt the bond snap into place as though it had been waiting for her all along. 

Soon, the lot of them were in one big group talking about their plans for the next few weeks. Scott surprised them all when he announced that he wanted to transfer to UC Davis the following year. He met Stiles’ gaze and eagerly explained, “They won’t need to look at my high school grades once I have 30 credits under my belt. So, I have a lot of studying to do this year.” 

A grin spread across Stiles’ face as he pumped his fist. “Dude, Skype study dates! Let’s make a schedule ASAP!” 

The conversation continued to ebb and flow, until Derek glanced over at Cora. She nodded her head in acquiescence, and Stiles watched as Derek commanded the attention of the group by doing nothing more than clearing his throat. The group fell silent, and Derek announced, his voice chock full of emotion, “I wanted to let you all know that—I did it. I got the building permits to start working on rebuilding the old house in the Preserve.” 

“Derek!” Stiles exclaimed, his eyes wide and his lips stretched into a grin. He kissed him, laughter bubbling out of him. “Man, I am so proud of you!” 

“And,” Cora called out, interrupting the cheers. “I’m moving back to help...and to stay, eventually.” 

Isaac, who seemed to feel some sort of connection with Cora, the girl who had spent so much time with his former packmates, asked, “No more Argentina?” 

She shook her head and smiled at him, before her gaze drifted back to Derek, her eyes bright. Stiles wondered just how long she had been waiting for Derek to ask her to come home. 

The group was still celebrating when a hand tapped his shoulder. Stiles turned, confused as to who was not already in on the fun, and found Deaton smiling placidly at him. He tilted his head to the side and gestured for Stiles to follow. He nodded, and extracted himself from the group as quickly as he could before crossing the yard to the side of the house where Deaton had ducked behind the wall. 

“What’s up, Deaton?” Stiles asked. 

Deaton gestured to the box beside him on the ground. Inside, Stiles glimpsed a number of veterinary textbooks. Deston said, “I thought it was time you started building your own library.” 

“Of vet books?” Stiles asked. He eyed the box warily. “I don’t have any pets, Deaton, unless you’re trying to insult my pack members.” 

Deaton let out an amused chuckle, and shook his head. He bent down to pick up one of the books, and flipped back the book jacket, revealing one of the ancient tomes that Stiles had studied from. He shrugged, and explained, “Just a small joke between student and teacher, I thought.” 

Stiles couldn’t hold back the laugh that escaped him as he took the book from Deaton’s hands and studied it. He proclaimed, “Genius!” 

“You were one of my most talented and...memorable students, Stiles,” Deaton said, in a tone that made Stiles wonder if Deaton wasn’t being as tactful as possible. 

Ignoring the suspicion, he gave Deaton a sly smile. “I’m still your student. I’ll visit, after all. Hey! We can do Skype lessons just like me and Scott.” 

At that suggestion, however, Deaton shook his head. His voice somber, he said, “No, Stiles, I’m afraid it’s time for our lessons to come to an end. Consider these texts a gift as you move on from my teachings.” 

Stiles made a face, his lips spread thin in a doubting pout. He asked, “Is this my formal graduation then? Last time there were robes and cake.” 

“No,” Deaton was quick to reply. He sounded horrified at the very prospect. “Good God, no. You are nowhere near ready to be complete with your magical studies.” 

“Wow,” Stiles said, affronted. “You could act a little less appalled by the suggestion.” 

Deaton laughed in a way that Stiles had never heard him do before—loudly and without discretion. He wiped what looked like a tear away from the corner of his eye and explained, “No, Stiles, it’s time that you move on from my veterinary clinic, past what is comfortable and familiar. There are others who are better suited to train you. Like my friend at Berkeley who matches your learning style and power.” 

“How did you even find someone willing to teach me? How did the topic even come up?” he asked, studying Deaton’s features. Then, he gave a mock gasp. “Are you gossiping about me?” 

Deaton shook his head patiently. “After everything with Peter, we all agreed to let the other affected packs know that the culprit who had murdered their Alphas had been taken care of, remember?” 

“Okay?” Stiles asked, uncertain as to where this was going. 

“Well,” Deaton said. His words were airy, as though he weren’t shaping the next four years of Stiles’ life in one fell swoop. “Scott and Derek asked me to be the one to pass on that information while you were healing. I reached out to Daphne, the emissary of the Angus Pack in Washington to give her the news, and we started talking about what had happened and what role you played in it. I mentioned that you would be attending Berkeley, and Daphne shared that her daughter Calliope is a professor there. Calliope is a spark, just like you, and is set to inherit the emissary role from her mother when she is ready to step down, but until then she works and teaches, and occasionally takes on...special students when she can.” 

Stiles wasn’t sure how he felt about a new teacher, but at the same time he couldn’t deny the buzzing excitement that crawled up his spine. He had been disappointed at the idea of going the next few months without any steady spark lessons, and now Deaton was handing them to him on a platter. He tried not to look the gift horse in the mouth, but couldn’t resist the urge to say something. 

“You were a great teacher,” he said, earnestly.

“I was adequate,” Deaton countered. His words were even and truthful as he continued. “I was needed and I stepped up to the plate, but you have grown beyond me now and it is time for you to reach your full potential. There is only so much a druid can teach a spark, after all. From now on, you will have to do without me.”

A small smile quirked at his lips. He shrugged and scuffed his sneaker against the grass. He asked, “Will you find another student?” 

“No,” Deaton said simply, with no room for argument. “I have to focus on helping my own Alpha now.” 

His gaze was far off and not directed anywhere near Stiles. He turned to follow Deaton’s line of sight, and was unsurprised to find him watching Scott from across the yard. Scott had come so far since his first days as a werewolf, and his connection with Deaton had grown over the years from employer to mentor, and now emissary. 

Stiles smiled in understanding. As time had passed, he had come to understand why he didn’t fit as Scott’s emissary. Scott wanted an authority figure, someone he could rely on in times of trouble who had life experience to look back on. Almost a father figure, but not quite. He wanted someone he trusted, but who he could hold at arm’s length and consider rationally. 

Stiles wasn’t that type of emissary. 

His own gaze drifted across the yard to where Derek stood talking to Dad and Jordan. Derek wanted an emissary who was his partner, in everything. He wanted Stiles to be involved in all the decision making, to always have an equal say in the direction the pack was taking. He liked that Stiles was willing to tell him when he was being stupid, but still love him at the end of the day. And he wanted Stiles to feel comfortable taking control when he deemed it necessary, because sometimes Derek didn’t trust himself to recognize when he needed help. Though he may never voice it out loud, Derek also wanted an emissary who believed in him, passionately, because he didn’t always believe in himself—a problem that Scott had never encountered. 

And Stiles? He needed someone who needed him. He needed to know, every day, that he was helping his pack, that he was useful, that someone depended on him. Stiles needed a partner who was willing and able to accept Stiles’ intensity and who would listen to the results of his research binges and make the connections without Stiles having to always spell them out. 

He needed to be trusted and wanted—Derek granted him that, always. 

***

Hours later, when the sun had finally set and the barbeque had come to an end, Lydia was standing in his bedroom, staring at his blank walls while Danny was sprawled across the bed, his nose buried in Stiles’ neck. Cora sat on the floor, her back pressed up against the bed as she tilted her head back for Stiles to play with her hair. Derek sat in the computer chair, rather than standing by the wall, a smile playing on his lips as he stared at his pack. 

Dad walked by the open bedroom door and glanced inside. He shook his head at the sight that Danny and Stiles made, and said, “If you want any, there’s leftover supplies for s’mores.”

He raised his hand from where it wasn’t caught beneath Danny’s body and gave Dad a thumbs up. He called out, “Thanks!” 

“I’m headed to bed,” Dad said, glancing between the five of them. His gaze flickered between Stiles and Derek. “Don’t forget—we’ve got an early morning ahead of us! I want to get on the road by 8AM sharp.”

Derek nodded eagerly, while Lydia turned to glance at him from her shoulder, a prim smile on her face. “Thank you, Sheriff.” 

Danny repeated the thanks, his words lost in a muddle against Stiles’ neck. Dad laughed as he walked away, disappearing from Stiles’ line of sight. He was Sheriff to Lydia, Danny, and Cora, Dad to Stiles, and John—still sometimes sir—to Derek. Dad seemed at times both comfortable and confused by the pack dynamics, not entirely sure how to interact with Lydia and Danny—and even Cora these days—who he had come to see as part of his family. They were all still learning. Stiles knew that with time it would sort itself out, the same way that he was sure Jordan would one day find himself amongst this pack. 

“You should resist putting up any cork boards for the first semester,” Lydia said, her finger tracing a pen mark on the wall from an afternoon of investigating when Stiles had gotten overexcited. 

“What, you worried they’re gonna accuse me of trying to find Pepe Silvia?” he asked, glancing over at her. When she returned his question with a blank expression, he shook his head affectionately. “You should really watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” 

Danny mumbled, “I don’t think she’d like it.”

He shoved the new wolf, forcing Danny to dislodge from Stiles’ neck. He said, “Not with that attitude she won’t!” 

“She might,” Cora mused. “I fucking love it.”

“Maybe I’d watch it if you transferred to MIT next semester,” Lydia teased. The comment was made tongue-in-cheek—it had taken time, but she had finally accepted the fact that Stiles was going to stay in California. 

Derek leaned back in the computer chair, his gaze darting between the two of them. He asked, “Jackson’s not going to be that far from you, is he?” 

“He got offered a lacrosse scholarship at Penn State,” said Danny, sitting up. He held his hands out for Lydia to join them on the bed, opening and closing his fingers in a grabbing motion. 

She rolled her eyes but went along with it easily, stepping away from the wall and settling on the bed. She scooted back until her head was pillowed in Stiles’ laps, and opened her arms for Danny to cuddle beside her. Stroking his hair, she said, “State College is about the same distance from Boston as Berkeley is from here.” 

Danny rumbled happily as her fingers combed through his hair. He looked at Derek from across the room and asked, “Why so interested in Jackson, Alpha?” 

His eyes flared red at the name. “Just want to make sure he’s doing okay. I think I know the Alpha near there—maybe I’ll give her a call.” 

“C’mon,” Stiles said, patting the recently vacated spot beside him. “Pack pile for my last night in town.” 

Cora shrugged, readily accepting the request, and scrambled off the floor. She crawled onto the bed behind Stiles and slid a leg between his, plastering herself alongside his back. She pressed her face into his neck and scented him, happily. 

Derek stood up and groaned, exasperated, he said, “Stop calling them that.” 

“Are we a pack?” Stiles asked, his voice soaked in affection. “Isn’t this a pile?” 

Lydia nodded in agreement and pointed at their Alpha. She said, mockingly, “Stand corrected, Derek.” 

“He always stands corrected,” Cora muttered, snuffling closer to Stiles.

He climbed onto the bed, and leaned back against the pillows beside Stiles. Unsure of what to do with his legs, Derek almost draped them over the side of the bed when Danny grabbed them and hooked them over his own stomach, a smile settling on his face. 

Derek glanced around at them as Stiles pressed against him, his fingers curling over his chest. He said, “I will admit that, technically, it is an accurate description.” 

Danny trilled, “So, we’re pack piling, good. I like it.”

“That’s not what I said—I said it was an accurate description,” Derek countered, his eyebrows knitted together. “It’s a dumb name.”

Stiles pressed a finger to Derek’s lips and whispered, “Enjoy the pack pile, Alpha.” 

He would miss this in the months and years to come. Their bond was strong, and he could feel it now thrumming between them all, his room bright with their energies. The coming months and years would be a trial for each of them. Danny was still learning control over his shift and his urges, and unlike every other bitten werewolf in Beacon Hills, was being granted the time and space to figure things out. But Cora would be there; a new shoulder for him to lean on as she helped her brother and Alpha to rebuild the home they had lost. Lydia pretended to be above it all, as though she didn’t crave the connection as much as Stiles, but he knew the truth. And Derek had only just gotten them all, only to now have a quarter of them scatter across the wind. But Stiles had faith that they would all make it out the other end, together. They might have to pack pile intensely during winter breaks and summer holidays, and Skype endlessly throughout the school year, but he couldn’t see a future without them in it, and so he knew it was worth it. 

***

The next morning Stiles was finishing the last of his packing to leave Beacon Hills. As he folded a favorite henley of Derek’s that he’d stolen, Scott appeared in the open doorway of his bedroom. Stiles gazed up at him, confused but overjoyed, and asked, “What are you doing here? It’s crazy early!” 

Scott shrugged and crossed the few steps needed to reach the bed. He flopped onto the bedspread that Stiles was leaving behind in favor of the new one Dad had helped him pick out. Scott said, “I’m here to say goodbye.” 

“Technically we did that,” Stiles said, as he shoved the henley into his bag. “Last night, remember? There was a barbeque and everything.” 

The other werewolf made a gesture as though brushing that argument aside. He explained, “That was for the packs, this is for us.” 

Stiles smiled. “Couldn’t let your brother leave town without getting some one-on-one time, could you?” 

Scott ducked his head and grinned, his cheeks flushed. He glanced around the room, studying the newly exposed walls and crevices that he hadn’t seen in years. His gaze settled on a photo of the new Hale pack. Stiles had made multiple copies of that photo, and so already had one packed away for the dorm room. Without his gaze leaving the photo, Scott asked, “Do you ever think about what things would have been like if you were my emissary?” 

“Not anymore,” Stiles shrugged. He thought back on the day before, when he’d studied Deaton watching Scott. “It wouldn’t have worked.” 

Scott turned then, his gaze intense as it settled on Stiles’. He asked, his tone serious, “Are you happy in Derek’s pack?” 

He didn’t need to think about the answer, but Stiles paused all the same and allowed a beat to pass by, let Scott think he was considering the question in all its facets. Finally, he said, “I am. I’m sorry things didn’t work out the way we always thought, but...I think it’s better this way. For everyone.” 

Then Scott, as he was wont to do, surprised him. 

“Me too,” Scott said, his expression earnest. A wry smile tugged at his crooked lips, and he said, “It never felt right, being your Alpha. You’re supposed to be dragging me into trouble, not following my orders.” 

Stiles made a face. “To be fair, I never really followed your orders.”

Scott sighed. “Yes, Stiles. I’m clearly aware. Part of the problem, probably.” 

Their eyes met across the room and then they were laughing. Stiles never imagined that they would be able to sit in his room and talk openly about their lack of a pack bond while laughing. But he never should have doubted Scott and his love for Stiles. They were best friends, family, and would be for years to come. 

Stiles stepped closer and fake punched Scott on the shoulder. He said, “I promise to visit, so long as you promise to visit me in Berkeley.” 

“Um, duh,” Scott said in the faux-skater voice he had adopted when they were embarrassing thirteen year olds. “We can go out in Oakland and San Francisco. I expect you to show me all of the sights and find all of the bars that allow underage drinking so that we can party like real college students.” 

“You can’t get drunk,” said Stiles. 

“Are you a spark or not? Figure it out, bro,” Scott joked. “Twenty bucks says you can’t figure it out before Christmas.” 

Stiles’ eyebrows raised at the promise of an actual bet. He held out his hand for the werewolf to shake and declared, “Oh, you are so on! I’m gonna get all of you werewolves wasted come December.” 

They laughed again, easily, and joked for a few minutes more about the different concoctions that could get a werewolf drunk. When Stiles grew tired of the topic, he switched gears and asked, “So. What’s going on with Isaac and Allison?” 

Scott’s cheeks reddened at the question. He scratched at the skin behind his ear and shrugged. “We’re taking things slowly. Now that the pack is smaller, it’s...weirder.” 

That made sense to Stiles. Whenever they had all gotten together for pack meetings, the three of them had always been tangled together but easily distracted by the other people around them. Stiles could understand how the lack of those distractions made what was growing between the three of them more obvious to each other. 

“You should ask them both out,” Stiles said. “Start college with no regrets and give it a real chance.” 

Scott shook his head again. “It’s weird—this was never what I expected for myself.” 

“Well, I’ve been waiting for this to happen for months, so it’s not that unexpected,” Stiles teased. He wanted things to be easier for Scott, for him to have the support system he needed with Stiles leaving town. “Even if it’s weird now, you’ll figure it out. And I can’t wait until I get to taunt the three of you with stories about how oblivious you all were while flirting openly.” 

He made a note to research BHCC’s LGBTQ resources on campus, and send some emails to Scott with information on polyamorous relationships. It was doable. Not for Stiles and Derek, at all, but he could see how it would make sense for Scott and the others. 

Scott, bright red, playfully hit Stiles’ shoulder and mumbled a promise to ask them both out on a date before Allison’s first trip to France. 

They tossed some ideas about what to do on said date, until Scott started glancing at his phone and Stiles suspected that their time together was drawing to a close. There was one thing, though, that he wanted to make sure he said to Scott before he left—had been planning to do so the night before, but failed, and resigned himself to waiting until the next time he was in town. 

Now that they were face to face, he said, “I know your pack’s a little small right now. And I just—I wanted to say, since you’re staying in town for a while, you might consider making it bigger.” 

Scott glanced at him with wide eyes, confused. He asked, “With who?” 

“There’s that kid Liam who started on the lacrosse team last year—he looks like he could use a pack. And if you brought him in, you’d have to bring in his best friend Mason,” Stiles explained, the notes he’d kept in his head for months spilling out of his mouth. “They seem like a Scott and Stiles sort of duo. And there’s a girl—the daughter of the history teacher, Mr. Yukimura? She was in some of my AP classes. Anyway, I’m pretty sure she’s a kitsune.” 

Scott’s eyebrows knitted together. “Shouldn’t you be telling Derek this?” 

“Derek and I don’t have any plans to make the pack larger than it is right now,” Stiles explained breezily. He didn’t mention that they both suspected that Jordan wasn’t one hundred percent human. He figured that situation would handle itself however it was intended to, but that it wasn’t an immediate concern. “Unless Lydia, Danny, and Cora want to bring any people in. Or if Jackson returns, I guess.” 

“Wait,” Scott said, stunned. “You’d willingly be in a pack with Jackson Whittemore?” 

“For Lydia and Danny, I’ll suffer his company.” 

He wasn’t counting his luck that it wouldn’t happen. He figured Jackson was definitely in his near future. 

Scott nodded, accepting the explanations. Then he stood, and glanced around the room one last time. He shrugged. “I guess I better let you get out of here to beat the traffic.” 

He smiled, and nodded. Simultaneously they each stepped forward to hug, and when they pulled apart they knocked their fists together. 

“I promise to Skype you as soon as I’m settled in my dorm,” Stiles swore. 

“Not if I Skype you first!” 

The joke was dumb, and yet Stiles laughed anyway. 

***

Stiles stood in the driveway beside Derek as the two of them surveyed Dad who was currently stressing out at the sight of the U-Haul parked behind the Jeep. 

“Are you sure you have everything?” he asked, for what felt like the hundredth time. 

Stiles rolled his eyes again, and said, “I think so? But again, Dad, if I forgot anything you’ll either mail it to me or I’ll drive back and get it eventually.” 

Dad stared into the back of the U-Haul, his hands on either hip. He seemed to be running through a mental list in his head. He glanced back at Stiles, “Did you remember to pack your shower shoes? I don’t want you calling home in a month telling me the health center diagnosed you with some foot fungus because we forgot to pack your flip flops.” 

Derek glanced at Stiles and struggled to bite back a grin. He said, “I’m sure if we forgot the shower shoes, Stiles can buy another pair.”

“We were talking about getting you a mini fridge, weren’t we?” Dad asked, as he gazed at the boxes in the U-Haul truck “I can’t remember—why did we decide against that?” 

Derek, who had a mental list of his own regarding Stiles’ dorm room, answered, “Stiles’ roommate is going to be providing the mini fridge. Stiles is bringing the microwave.” 

Turning to both of them, his eyes narrowed, Dad asked, “And we’re sure that’s not a fire hazard?”

“Dad, you’re a cop not a fire marshall. Don’t stress so much,” he said. Then, as a joke, Stiles’ waggled his fingers and bantered, “I’m pretty sure my spark is more of a fire hazard than that brand new microwave you bought. I thought we agreed that was for the house?” 

Dad was unamused. He said, “First, don’t joke about setting magical fires, I can and will arrest you. And second, I am your father and if I say you get the fancy new microwave, you get the fancy new microwave.” 

Behind him, Derek leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “He didn’t understand the settings. I’m going to take him to get a more basic one next week.” 

Stiles turned his head to meet Derek’s eyeline, and smiled. He leaned forward to press a kiss to Derek’s lips and said, “You’re the best.” 

“You two are mocking me, and I do not appreciate this,” Dad called out. 

“You’re going to miss me when I’m gone,” Stiles laughed as he pulled away from Derek. 

Dad fell silent and the bond between them grew more somber. Dad stepped forward and reached out, his fingers curling around Stiles’ shoulder. The fingers on his recently healed hand didn’t grip as tightly as the others. He said, heartfelt, “I will. You know that, don’t you?” 

The cynic in him wanted to make another joke, but he stifled the urge. Instead, he argued weakly, “You’ll have Derek to keep you company.” 

“It’s not the same,” Dad said, trying to cover up his emotion with a joke.“I can’t lie to him about the treats I had at the station—for one thing, he works there now, so he always knows what was in the kitchen, and for another, the times we are on different shifts he can always smell it on me.” 

Derek shrugged with no shame. “The downfalls of living with a werewolf.” 

“You shouldn’t be sneaking treats anyway,” Stiles said, laughing. 

Dad stared at him, his blue eyes bright, and asked, “What am I going to do with you so far away, kid?” 

“I mean,” Stiles said, letting his shoulders rise and fall. “Be glad I didn’t go to MIT with Lydia like she wanted.” 

Clutching his heart, Dad begged, “Don’t joke about that—you’ve given me enough scares this summer as is.” 

Unconsciously, Stiles’ hand dropped to his stomach and traced the thick, white scar that lay hidden beneath his shirt. As though the air had been sucked out of his chest, he said, “Sorry, Pops.” 

Dad studied him closely, his gaze following Stiles’ hand where it touched his belly. Instead of saying anything, he reached out with both arms and dragged Stiles into a hug, one hand burying itself in Stiles’ hair while the other clutched at his back. 

From somewhere behind them, Derek asked, “Does your dad remember that he’s driving to Berkeley with us? John, we’ve got a hotel reservation and everything. We’re going to be there all night.” 

From where he was pressed against Dad’s side, Stiles called out, his voice muffled, “You promised to help me find all the best off-campus breakfast spots in the morning!” 

Ignoring them both, Dad reached out with the hand that was on Stiles’ back and dragged Derek into the hug as well. They stood tucked against each other as Dad groaned, “But this is the last time we’re all going to be here at the house together.” 

“Uh,” Stiles said. “Thanksgiving? Christmas?” 

Derek’s voice was small and strangled, a touch of hysteria on the edge that could have been mistaken for fear but across the bond Stiles could decipher as delight. He asked, “Is your dad going to kick me out?” 

Dad tutted at the both of them. His voice grew wetter as the words spilled out, and Stiles realized that Dad was quietly crying. “Cut it out, you guys. I just mean—Stiles, you’ll be living in a dorm and sharing a bathroom with thirty other guys this year. And Derek is going to be rebuilding his family’s house. How much longer will either of you call this home?” 

From where he was tucked beneath Dad’s jaw, Derek rubbed his face against his neck and murmured, “I mean, I’d love for you to move out to the Preserve with the rest of the pack, but I figured you’d want to stay here so I’m designing a guest room that’s only for you. So long as you don’t mind sharing the same safe when it comes to storing our sidearms.” 

Stiles felt tears well up in his own eyes. He asked, choked up, “Wait, you’re what?” 

“My boys,” Dad muttered softly to himself as he shook his head above them, and tightened his arms around their shoulders. He dipped his head down until he was near Stiles’ ear and he whispered, even though Derek could them, “Your mother would be so proud, and so am I.” 

***

An hour later, they were all finally on the road, with Stiles and Derek in Roscoe and Dad navigating traffic in the larger and more cumbersome U-Haul. 

Maybe it wasn’t the best time to start the conversation, but Stiles asked, “What’s going to happen now that I’m leaving?” 

“Berkeley isn’t that far away,” Derek said. 

“It’s like a six hour drive, Derek,” Stiles said, his tone in that comfortable place of every know-it-all. 

Derek glanced over at him from the passenger seat and asked, sarcastically, “Are you telling me you aren’t planning on driving up here to check on your dad’s diet as often as you can?” 

He shrugged, never removing his hands from the steering wheel. “I’m trusting you to do that for me.” 

“And I will,” Derek said, smiling. “Because I’ll be here, whenever you come back. And when you’re done with college, we’ll figure things out. You want to get a master’s? We’ll sort things out.” 

Stiles cut a glance to Derek. His only immediate plans were to double major in Sociology and Legal Studies, but he couldn’t deny that he'd done some research into Berkeley’s Master’s in Folklore. He narrowed his gaze and asked, “Have you been looking at my browser history?” 

Derek laughed and shook his head. “All I’m saying is, we’ll work it out, whatever it is. You want to move to DC, work for the FBI? Want to drop everything and go to Cabo? I’ll follow you.” 

“Anywhere?” Stiles asked, an idea percolating in the back of his head. 

“Of course,” Derek promised. 

Just like that, Stiles chose to test that promise. He made a last second detour just on the edge of town and doubled back until he’d reached the Preserve. 

He slipped out of the Jeep, and gestured for Derek to follow. “C’mon.” 

It didn’t take them long to trek through the lush green trees, the forest floor sprouting fresh grass. They could hear the birds chirping, and at one point, Derek pointed out a deer across the way. At some point in their walk, their hands had sought each other out, until they reached the clearing with their fingers interlocked. 

Stiles pulled Derek along as they stepped over to the Nemeton. 

It looked so...normal. Other than that one delirious night after the road trip that felt more like a dream than reality, this was the first time Stiles had been there since The Incident, which is how he’d taken to thinking of it. Just like that, capitalized and everything. He was surprised to realize that there were no blood stains on the bark, no sirens wailing in the distance. At most, he spotted a strip of decaying caution tape that hung loosely from around a branch across the clearing. 

He looked at the Nemeton, and could feel her reach out to him, a tendril in his mind. She was gentle now, coaxing. Nowhere near as insistent as she used to be, which Stiles realized was because she didn’t feel threatened as she had before, and she had no reason to fear for Stiles. She had both begged for Stiles’ help and begged to protect him at the same time, and it had bound them together. 

His grip tightened around Derek’s hand and he gestured somewhere in the direction of the right. “Y’know, this is near where we met for the first time all those years ago.” 

Derek shrugged, his body stiff. He said, “Not really. We met years before that.” 

Stiles turned to him, shocked, and asked, “What are you talking about?” 

There was a moment, as Derek studied Stiles’ face as though cataloguing his reaction and flipping through his own memory files. After a moment, he nodded, and said, “Right, you were probably too young to remember. I was...twelve? Maybe eleven? So you were around seven or so. My mom had to go to the sheriff’s station and she was taking care of me that day, so she had to take me with her. You were coloring on the back of police reports, I think. The deputies had me sit with you while she sorted some things out.”

Stiles was dumbstruck. How could he not remember this?

Derek eyed him warily, and said, “I hope you know you were a total brat.” 

“And proud of it!” Stiles laughed loudly. Then, just as quickly, he asked, “Wait—why did your mom have to go to the station in the first place?” 

He stared as Derek flinched, and muttered. “It’s not really important.”

“C’mon,” Stiles ribbed gently, his free hand rubbing up and down Derek’s arm. “How bad could it be? Had you been caught robbing Cora’s E-Z Bake Oven of baked goods without paying?” 

His voice carefully detached, Derek said, “Peter had been arrested.”

“Wait, what?” 

Derek turned away from Stiles but didn’t let go for his hand. His eyes shone with anger and pain. He said, “I don’t want to talk about this. Especially not here.” 

Taking a step forward, Stiles tried to keep his voice gentle as he said, “Derek…” 

Derek brushed away tears that Stiles couldn’t see. He reached out, his hand slipping out of Derek’s grip, and brought them both up to cup Derek’s cheeks. He leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to Derek’s lips. He whispered, his words sincere, “It’s not your fault.” 

“I know it’s not,” Derek said, as he tried to clear his throat. “But it’s not fair. You got hurt and my uncle was the one who hurt you.” 

“Nothing is fair, sourwolf,” Stiles sighed. 

Derek let out a derisive snort and pulled back to rest his forehead against Stiles’. He said, “Don’t call me that.” 

At the instruction, Stiles grinned. He tried other options: “Honeybunch. Babe. Sugarpuss. Darling dear. Lover boy.” 

“Oh my God,” Derek cried out, his laughter ripped from him, “stop!” 

When his laughter had died down, Stiles stroked a thumb across the crest of Derek’s cheekbone. He breathed out, not wanting to disturb the surrounding peace, “You can tell me anything, Alpha. Y’know I’ll always listen.” 

For a moment, he suspected that Derek was going to argue again, or pull away. But instead the werewolf sighed heavily, and let his eyelashes flutter shut as he said, “When I showed up in the Preserve that night...I thought I’d lost you. And instead I gained all this power? And you? But I lost him. And I know he was cruel, he murdered Laura, he hurt you...but he was my uncle. He was my last connection to my mom. Cora was too young to really remember her, but not Peter. We talked about her sometimes. After. And I don’t know how to be grateful for all that I gained that night, and be so angry at what he did...and still miss him.” 

Stiles nodded understandingly, his fingers stroking Derek’s cheek soothingly. 

His next words were almost silent, and Stiles had to strain to hear them, as Derek muttered, “I never expected I’d have to kill him twice.” 

His heart swelled with empathy as he pressed forward into Derek’s space and tilted his face to slot into Derek’s neck. His lips danced across Derek’s Adam’s apple, as he said, “You do it by being honest, and knowing that I’ll never judge you. That I’ll be here for you no matter what. And late at night, when you’re ashamed and troubled by nightmares and can’t sleep, you can whisper your secrets to me. Because I’ll always love you.” 

In the clearing that day, Derek began to unload some of those secrets. 

He said, his words tight with guilt,“He wasn’t really a good person when we were younger. But the fire twisted him. Burnt out all that remained of his humanity, until all that was left was the wolf. And our wolves are predators.” 

“You’re a predator, but you don’t have to be a killer,” Stiles corrected, his voice soft as he felt Derek’s heartbeat thrum beneath his lips. “What happened to Peter was unfair, Derek, but he made his choices. They were the wrong ones: easy. But you’re better than him—you’ve made the right choices even when they were difficult. It’s over now. Things will be better from now on.”

Derek made a noise in agreement. “Peter died in that fire. I just wish I’d realized that sooner.” 

“I get that,” Stiles said as he pictured his mother, sickly and deranged as she shouted that he was going to kill her. “But then, that doesn’t mean you don’t get to mourn him. So, tell me about before. Why’d he get arrested?” 

Derek let out a wet laugh. “Your dad caught him speeding, I think. Which normally wouldn’t be a big deal, except apparently Peter had a backlog of unpaid speeding tickets. So your dad arrested him right then and there on the side of the road and hauled him to the station until someone in our family would come pay the fines.”

Stiles could picture it happening and chuckled. “Oh God, my dad must have still been a deputy back then. And Peter a werewolf! He could have broken out of those handcuffs easily.” 

Derek nodded along eagerly, his eyes bright at the memory. A smile tugged at his lips. “My mom loved it—she had your dad mail her a copy of his mugshot. She even had it framed in the living room.” 

“Peter must have enjoyed that,” Stiles said, his tone fond. 

It was weird. That night, in this very clearing, Stiles had been so sure he was going to die by Peter’s hands. Instead, Derek had broken his neck and the world had moved on. Now, Peter was just a man in a series of stories, and sometimes Stiles could think of him fondly, could remember the times Peter made him laugh with his cutting sarcasm and biting wit. Dying a stupid, desperate human had undercut all of his terror. 

Derek nuzzled his cheek against Stiles’ hair and laughed. “He scowled, but I think he enjoyed being the center of attention.” 

Stiles tilted his head back to meet Derek’s gaze and said, “I like hearing about your family.” 

He took that for the invitation Stiles meant it to be, and he started telling Stiles about how he thought the rest of the Hales would react to him. 

“Dad would have found you hilarious,” he began, joy radiating off of him. “Mom would have thought you didn’t take me seriously, so she’d be overprotective at first. But as she got to know you, she’d begin to understand you. Until you were part of the family.”

When Stiles asked about Laura, Derek had made a face of contrition. “Laura would have hated your guts. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.” 

“I’d win her over eventually, the same way I did you,” Stiles teased. 

“David would have thought you were a riot,” Derek said, then went on to explain that David was only six years old before Stiles got too full of himself. “And Theresa would have used you as a jungle gym.”

They stayed like that, wrapped around each other, as Derek spoke of his cousins and his grandparents. He was animated and full of verve. He made Stiles laugh and he made him wipe away tears, until finally he pressed his own face into Stiles’ neck and whispered, “They’re not the only family I’ve lost.” 

Erica and Boyd. Stiles tightened his hold around Derek and pressed a kiss to the werewolf’s temple. When Derek asked what Stiles thought they would have been doing after high school, Stiles laughed. 

“Are you kidding me,” he asked. “Erica would have been so done with school, she’d find a job ASAP. And we’d probably think Boyd was doing the same, until like five years later when he’d reveal that he earned a double bachelor’s and master’s in aerospace engineering or something impressive like that.” 

Derek snickered at the image, and asked, “What about your family? I want to hear about them too.” 

“Next time I’m in town,” Stiles promised, his fingers threading through Derek’s dark hair. “I’ll introduce you to my mom. Dad and I visited her gravesite last weekend, but she’ll love you.” 

“I’ll introduce myself,” Derek said, pulling away from Stiles’ neck. His expression was earnest. “I’ll wear my best leather jacket so she gets a good impression of me.” 

Stiles smiled at Derek. He wasn’t much shorter than the werewolf, only an inch or two at most and it made it easier to do what he did next: he wrapped his arms around Derek’s neck and kissed his mouth gently. Derek returned the kiss, his touch lingering. A little over three months ago, Stiles was bleeding out on the forest floor, and now he was wrapped around Derek, their lips slotted together as their tongues danced. His mouth tasted of mint and possibility and future, an intoxicating combination that left Stiles lightheaded. He blinked slowly as their lips moved together and he studied Derek’s features close up from beneath his lashes. Up close everything looked foreign to Stiles, but when he shut his eyes again and let his fingers drift upwards to trace Derek’s face, he felt at home, like he could never get lost in the rises and valleys of Derek’s countenance. 

Warmth bubbled up inside of him, alongside joy, as he continued to taste Derek on his lips. He’d never felt any of these things before—not at the base of the Nemeton, where Stiles had spent so long convinced he’d disappear forever. 

When they finally stepped apart and moved to leave, Stiles noticed a flash of color from the corner of his eye. When he glanced back behind them, he spotted a cluster of fresh flowers—yellow daffodils, specifically, his mother’s favorite—blooming around the Nemeton’s roots. He glanced down at his hand and could feel the magic pouring out of him, and didn’t understand how he hadn’t noticed until just then. 

But it didn’t matter; as he examined the curves of his palm, Derek reached out and slipped his fingers into the empty spaces and gripped him tightly. They left the Preserve, and Stiles felt nothing but peace. 

***

They were back in Roscoe, and within a few hours they were on highway 101 headed south. The windows were rolled down because Stiles needed to get the AC fixed, but he didn’t care. Derek’s hand was warm on his thigh and the music was loud while they were quiet. 

Stiles flashed his blinker and pulled into the next lane, certain in that moment things would be okay. Believed it, deep in his bones. He could feel the magic coursing through him, like it had hours before at the Nemeton, like the night at the Preserve, as he pictured his future with Derek. 

Holidays in Beacon Hills at the new house, joint pack meets with Derek and Scott coordinating between themselves. He could see everyone getting older, could picture Allison, Isaac, and Scott coming together. Dad finally retiring, happily, while Cora started to look more and more like Talia with each passing day. Lydia, he was sure, would remain as remarkable as ever, her hair turning auburn as the years passed, while Danny would grow into his shift, a proud wolf. There were others too, their images less precise and more tenuous; some familiar like Jackson and Jordan and Liam and Kira. Others, strangers, whose faces Stiles didn’t recognize, but instinctively understood he would one day know intimately. 

He could see himself kissing Derek in front of Christmas trees and fireworks and wedding cakes and schools; in the morning, still half-asleep, as children shrieked and their pitter-patter of footsteps filled the halls of the house bursting with love.  

Stiles hummed and stretched out to turn the volume of the music a little louder, and focused on the horizon ahead of them. There was so much to look forward to, so much to live for. He reached down, entwined his fingers with Derek’s, and knew it would be an adventure.