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Snakebites and Stardust: The Birth of a Genius Loci

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"I'm going to go," Stiles says, "and you aren't going to stop me because you want me gone as much as I want to leave."

The sheriff flinches but doesn't argue, simply steps to the side and asks, "You have a plan?"

"Ten," Stiles says. "I'll let you know in August if I'm coming back."

//

He cleans out his college fund and heads north. Two days out of Beacon Hills, Stiles pushes the Jeep off a cliff along 101 and doesn't regret it. He walks along the rocks, hitchhikes when the blisters on his feet start popping and weeping blood. One night, somewhere near the Oregon-Washington border, he rents a small cabin; he doesn't last the night, turning away from the fathomless void of a moonless ocean when the panic nearly sends what's left of his mind spiralling onto the rocks of insanity.

He buys a beat-up old clunker for six hundred bucks in Boise after too many sleepless hours on Greyhound buses and it's not hope, exactly, that has him trading out license plates in every city he drives through and staying away from CCTV as much as he can and never spending more than a few days in any place he stops, except that it is, a little. He doesn't expect his dad to change his mind anytime soon but Stiles thinks that, at some point, someone is going to ask him about his kid and it'll knock something loose, that maybe his dad will email him or try to track him down. He doesn't want to be found but sometimes he likes the idea of people missing him, wanting him. Most of the time, the thought terrifies him.

Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas -- beautiful but too open, too much sky. Lightning crackles in his fingers and he sends too much around him spinning, trying to fill the emptiness. He pays for a good fake ID in Minneapolis, eats cheap food when he can afford it and goes hungry when he can't. It's not a hardship. Most food tastes like ash in his mouth anyway.

He creeps through the Midwest, drives through the Alleghanies, spends a week camping in the back of his car in the quiet stillness of the Appalachians, and goes south when he hits the water. Stiles speeds through the Carolinas and the old Atlantic cities; there are moments in Charleston and Savannah and St. Augustine when he isn't sure if he's going mad or if there are just that many spirits, peering out of windows and clogging up streets with the dead from a decade of centuries.

I-10 through Texas, a couple weeks in the desert mountains, winding up through the Rockies and back over through Oklahoma's pastures and Arkansas' Ozarks. Stiles turns right when he hits the Mississippi and doesn't stop until the road runs out. Then he turns around, gets lost in the bayous and backwaters and decides that if he can't find himself here, no one else will be able to either.

He spends long, lazy hours at the ends of dirt roads, nestles to read in piles of Spanish moss and oak leaves, wakes from impromptu naps with cardinal flowers and Chinese tallow blossoms in his hair. He can breathe, here, easier than anywhere else; this part of the country feels safe, more safe than every other city and highway and side of the road Stiles has passed. What's inside of Stiles is large but Louisiana is old enough that his power's nothing new, empty enough that no one sees his eyes turn star-bright gold or his hands flicker with lightning, closed-in enough with oaks and cypress and kudzu to keep him from panicking at the sight of an endless sky meeting a too-distant horizon. The people here live hand-in-hand with ghosts, real and imagined, and side-by-side with superstition, and Stiles is nothing new, in the face of their history. He feels ignored here, and forgotten, and nearly invisible. He loves it.

He trades his car for a pirogue, a fishing rod and net, and a small, ramshackle cabin too close to the Gulf for anyone with a lick of sense and hurricane season fast approaching.

When he comes out of the Houma Walmart with a few supplies shoved into a new duffel, he finds an alpha 'wolf waiting for him along with a welcoming party nearly a dozen strong. They're suspicious -- and rightly so -- but he doesn't lie to them and he doesn't flinch when most of the 'wolves flash blue eyes.

"I like blue," he says. His heart doesn't skip a beat. "Blue's pretty."

//

He's a week into his stay when the mated 'wolves at the dock finally speak to him. Usually when he paddles by, he waves and they wave back and that's enough interaction for all involved. But this morning, the woman leans forward in her chair, asks, "Plannin' on stayin' a while, then?"

"Might," Stiles says. "At least the summer."

The man nods and she says, "Catch anythin' you can't eat, we'll buy it from you. Or trade, if'n we got somethin' you need. M'names Marie."

Stiles studies them both, for a long enough amount of time that the man starts to straighten up, lets his eyes go blue and his claws come out. Stiles' heart doesn't change rhythm; his scent doesn't curdle with fear or suspicion. It takes more than a pair of blue eyes to throw him off balance these days, much more or much less. His response makes the man raise an eyebrow, makes Marie frown a little.

"Thanks," Stiles says.

--

When he brings a 'gator carcass back to them six hours later, Marie gives him a smile and her mate grins so wide the cattail stalk he's been chewing falls out of his mouth and into the water.

"You got a name, boyo?" she asks.

One side of Stiles' mouth cocks up. "Trying to find one, I think," he says.

Marie's eyes narrow like Stiles just said something interesting. "What's your mama call you?"

"Nothing," Stiles says. "She's dead. Died a long time ago. She --" and he stops, feels a sudden flare of fire sear his throat from the inside. "She used to call me Mischief."

"Michel, then," Marie says. "Not kin but kind, and good 'nough to fit in 'round these parts. Just Cajun 'nough to be gettin' along with. That suit 'til you find what you're lookin' for?"

Stiles dips his head, says, "Michel," and takes home two introductory French books, a slew of canned goods, a new skillet, and a name.

//

He adjusts to the pace of bayou life easily. He rises before the sun, spends the day on the water or traipsing through the swamp and marsh, learning the forests and canals and creeks and lakes. He naps in the afternoon when it's the hottest and goes to bed when the sun does. He learns French and Creole and eats like a Cajun; he teaches himself how to knit and compost; he weaves kudzu and Spanish moss and cypress and makes a pet of a pretty little cottonmouth who wraps around his wrist and goes everywhere he does. He doesn't know what the 'wolves say about him, doesn't know if they know what he is, some chimera of human and magic and kitsune that shouldn't exist, but they invite him on runs and wave when they pass him in the bayou and leave fresh eggs and frog legs at his doorstep.

Sometimes he spends hours on the dock with Marie and her mate, all three of them with their feet in the water and barely talking. It becomes a habit, something to do once a week or so, sharing a breakfast of sweet bread and crispy bacon still hot and dripping grease. Stiles brings fish and berries, refusing every invitation to stay for lunch and getting back in his pirogue when the sun nears its zenith.

Marie tells him to be careful. Stiles laughs; he might smell like prey at first whiff but up close his scent's all thunder and stardust. Even the alligators swim away from him, rather than toward. "Always," he says.

"Lie," Marie says, eyes going gold. The sun breaks through the clouds, wind stirs up the brackish sea-salt water, and Stiles climbs in his pirogue, takes the cooler when Marie's mate hands it over and gets it stowed before picking up his paddle. The grizzled old man with weathered skin and callused hands offers Stiles a beer.

"I'm very obviously not legal," Stiles says, shaking his head but smiling in thanks. The expression doesn't hit his eyes. Very little does, these days, with the misery and grief too thick to cut through.

"Age ain't but a number," Marie's mate says. "'Specially on the bayou."

The man's eyes are a warm brown. Stiles still doesn't know his name.

--

Louisiana in late June's a special kind of hell, but he's heard that July's worse and that it's not worth doing anything in August except praying for death. He's not sure what to believe because it's already hot out on the water, with the air too thick to breathe unless there's a breeze. The sun beats down relentlessly and Stiles wears long sleeves so he doesn't burn; by nine, his shirt's soaked through with sweat. The air smells of turtles and alligators, reptilian flesh and hard shells, and Stiles drops fishing line baited with his own hair to catch perch.

He leans back, closes his eyes, feels the sun sink into his cheeks and bake his skin red. Usually he brings books but this morning he opened one and the words ran into each other, letters turned and dripping into incomprehensible symbols, glimmering in his vision like heat-haze curling up from asphalt.

He left the books at home. Instead, he sleeps. When he wakes, sunburnt and heat-dazed, his fishing line's heavy with perch and there are three turtles swimming in lazy circles around his boat.

//

In August, Stiles hitches a ride with Marie's mate into Montegut. He emails his father, says he's not coming back, and signs up for his GED.

He passes, of course.

He doesn't hear back from his dad. He tells himself it doesn't hurt. He tells himself that a lot of things don't hurt, these days: the silence from his father, from Scott, from the hole that Allison's death left in his gut.

He tries not to think about the pack but he can't help it, especially at night when the moon hangs low and heavy and ripe, light streaming through the trees, when his bones ache with thunder and his head pounds with all the tears he hasn't let himself shed. He doesn't deserve to cry, he thinks, when he remembers Scott sobbing over Allison's body, dead and starting to cool in his arms, when the pattern of Lydia's hitching breath echoes in his ears, when Ethan's mourning howl and the memory of Chris' bitter tears throb in his marrow. He wonders how they're all coping, if they're coping.

He thinks of Erica's laugh and Boyd's wry humour and he wonders if Derek stayed in Beacon Hills or fled before the city killed him, too. He hopes Derek had the sense to leave, Derek and Peter both, but doubts it. Peter's tied to Lydia and the land and Derek's too comfortable with death to run from it when the nemeton offers it so sweetly.

The bayou has no nemeton. The magic here is more diffuse, less possessive, contained in every tree and hidden under every glinting wave. It lurks between strands of kudzu and winds through every branch of pine, it's buried in the squelching mud and carried on the wind. The magic is everywhere and belongs to everyone and the power inside of Stiles reflects it, magnifies it, calms in it. The nemeton was greedy and possessive but here, Stiles lets his magic go, sometimes, when it storms, and the land plays with it and then gives it back.

Stiles wishes it wouldn't, sometimes. Sometimes he thinks about going back and letting the nemeton drain him dry and kill him. Sometimes he considers it so seriously that the only thing keeping him here is the fact that he has no car. On those days, during those nights, his snake buries fangs in him and Stiles goes out on the water and howls like there's a wolf in him instead of a fox.

When he comes back, there's always something sweet waiting on his porch, wrapped in foil and resting on a new book or skein of yarn.

//

The alpha takes him to Houma halfway through October. Stiles' email is filled with junk but there's a message from Lydia who asks him if he's okay and two sentences from Scott, who says I can't believe you left but we're fine without you. Don't come back. Stiles isn't sure if that's supposed to be reverse psychology or if Scott means it, and, if so, if he's angry or relieved that Stiles left without a word of warning to anyone.

There's nothing from his dad.

//

The pack invites him over for Thanksgiving. Stiles spends the day in his cabin while rain fills the air with noise, droplets pattering off of his tin roof and plunking into the water. It's quiet and calm and peaceful. Stiles slits his wrists and watches the skin heal back together quick like a 'wolf. His blood glimmers like fire. His pet snake licks it off, tongue tickling, then bites him in the throat and hangs on for half an hour.

He goes to bed, numb. He wakes up in the morning with spiders nesting in his hair and a baby canebrake rattler coiled around his other wrist.

//

The day of the winter solstice, the pack's emissary comes to the cabin. Stiles is sitting outside in an oversized, lumpy sweater -- December is a damp cold, the kind that sinks in instead of cutting through -- and fighting his way through Le Petit Prince. The air smells of oncoming rain but the sun's out for now, a struggling warmth that feels good on his face.

The emissary stands there, studies him as he studies her. She reeks of sweet rot and goofer dust, something ancient about her, like grave dirt from a cemetery that's centuries old.

"I have fresh sun tea," he says, "if you'd like some. It's not very sweet but it turned out okay."

"That'd be nice," she says, and follows Stiles inside when he gestures.

He wonders what she sees as she looks around, what she thinks of the narrow bed, the stacks of books, the mismatched and decrepit armchairs. He doesn't have a lot of stuff, doesn't have electricity, even, but the fire's roaring and his afghans are hand-knitted, if a bit lopsided and uneven, and the cobwebs filling up the corners and draped on the walls are art enough and beautiful in their own ways.

Stiles pours tea, offers her a glass, and she takes it with a nod of thanks, curls up in an armchair when Stiles offers silently.

"You have spiders in your hair," she says, "and venomous snakes wrapped around your wrists."

"They came to me," he says. "They seem set on staying. I like the company." She smiles, inclines her head. "Did the pack send you?" Stiles asks.

She shrugs one shoulder. "They're worried about you," she says, "but I was curious. I can feel your magic out there, y'know, in the land and on the water. You give it so freely; this territory," she says, nodding at the snakes and spiders, "loves you for it. I love you for it and I should've come sooner to tell you that."

Stiles blinks, says, "Why now?"

"I want the company," she says, "and you smell like cold dark and shrieking flame. We're compatible enough that we could teach each other, I think, if your curiosity ever grows larger than your fear. What are you scared of?"

"Myself," he replies. The cottonmouth chides Stiles, scrapes fangs down Stiles' life line. "A nemeton in California."

She looks at him, eyes narrowed. "We don't hold much truck with the wider world but we hear stories," she says. "Are you the person I'm thinking you are?"

Stiles laughs, a caustic sound that sends the flames in his fireplace stretching high. "I used to be," he says. "But he died long before I ended up here."

"When you figure out who you are now, come find me," she says.

She finishes her tea, stands up, is halfway across the room when Stiles asks, "And if I never do?"

She pauses, looks over her shoulder, says, "You will," and leaves.

Stiles sits in front of the fire until it dies down. Then he goes to bed.

//

He wakes up in mid-February with a water moccasin curled up and sleeping on his breastbone. Stiles lights a fire and opens a window, inhaling deep, as water heats in the fireplace. The air smells of rain and ozone; the sky he can see through the tree canopy is tinged green. Stiles reads the morning away, drinks chicory with a snake on each wrist and one around his throat, spiders in his hair and clinging to his earlobes.

The storm starts in the early afternoon, slowly grows violent, turns vicious around sunset. The air's moving too fast, rumbling too much, and Stiles stands outside on his porch and watches spinners move across the land, over the water.

"Survived hurricane season without so much as a tropical storm," he tells the water moccasin, "but we get tornadoes in February. Sure. Why not."

The wind blows his roof off. An hour later, the trees spread to take its place, kudzu and holly weaving the twigs and branches into something impenetrable and smelling of fresh life, new growth.

//

Stiles likes knitting; it keeps his hands busy while his mind wanders now that he's good enough to count stitches unconsciously. He finishes a new afghan in April, thick, soft wool the color of the bayou at sunset, a shimmering deep blue. He wraps it up and goes with the alpha to Galliano, mails it off to Melissa with a note.

A year away feels like nothing, he writes, on a ripped-out page of notebook paper he wraps around an amulet made of cypress bark, blood, dried swamp moss, and dead spider legs. Bury this outside your house. It won't do much more than keep your nightmares away, but I find that's important these days. I hope everyone's okay. I'll get there someday, I think.

The alpha pays for the package; Stiles would protest but he's too taken-aback at first. By the time they're walking out of the post office, it's too late to say anything but "Thank you."

"You've done more for a territory that ain't yours than anyone could ever ask," the alpha says. "This ain't nothing, in the grand scheme of things."

"What have I done?" Stiles asks, bitter and full of venom. "Thinned the 'gator population down, hoarded Marie's books, scorned your invitations to pack dinners and full moon runs and --"

"And given your magic to the land," the alpha tells him, interrupting gently. "Given Marie a new shine in her eyes. Accepted us, provided for us, cared for us." In the face of Stiles' silent disbelief, the alpha adds, "You let us in and let the land care for you when you felt too worthless to come to us." He gestures at the snakes Stiles wears like jewellery, the spiders in his hair like decorations, the dried mud around his ankles like tattoos. "This is my territory," he says. "I'm tied to it. You think I love you any less than it does, when we're a part of each other?"

"Oh," Stiles says. "I'm --"

The alpha pulls Stiles in for a hug, disregards the threat of snake and spider to nuzzle his face in the curve of Stiles' neck, holds Stiles up when Stiles practically goes boneless in the face of such a feast to his touch-starved senses. "Don't 'pologise," the alpha murmurs. "Not for this."

Stiles laughs, tears springing up in his eyes. "Okay," he says. "Okay."

They part reluctantly, keep touching as much as they can as the alpha drives to the library and Stiles checks his email. Lydia's sent him a link to view a photo album. Stiles deletes the message without clicking on it.

There's nothing from his dad.

--

Not much changes, after that. Stiles still lives alone in his ramshackle one-room cabin. He still fishes and hunts and forages for his food, still weaves and knits and reads, still turns down invitations to pack events.

His ties to the land, though, deepen. He can sense more, feels more, gives up more and more of his magic -- himself -- and gets more and more back. His body becomes a thin shell of skin covering a morass of power, sometimes so much that he thinks anyone from Beacon Hills would call him an abomination. The land disagrees. The bayou sends him snakes when he's lonely, enough that he sleeps in a pile of them. The swamp sends him spiders and magic amplifies the noise of their skittering and weaving to fill his ears with music. The marsh gives him food and the forest offers him a home and Stiles accepts everything because this is what he's wanted for so long: something that loves him, unconditionally and absolutely, fiercely and protectively, the way he loves and has always been punished for.

//

The morning of July 4th is humid, the air too muggy to breathe with any ease. The snakes blanketing him are cool and dry and their movement tickles. They fall apart like breaking waves when he gets out of bed, pile of green and black and yellow and red and ten shades of brown curling up in the space he leaves behind, drinking in the remnants of his warmth.

It's too hot for a fire so Stiles drinks his chicory cold, sits on the front porch and lets the sluggish breeze dance over his face and legs and belly. Minks and muskrats and possums wander by, brush their fur across Stiles' toes as they come and go, and a pair of small armadillos claw their way up onto his lap and wheeze-beg for pets. He sits there all morning, grills fish for lunch, then packs up his pirogue and heads for the alpha's.

--

The alpha lives on a sprawling piece of land on the south end of Dulac but it looks tiny, as covered by people as it is; the entire pack's assembled for the holiday. They turn to watch him when he pulls his pirogue onto land, a path opening up between Stiles and the alpha, who comes striding through his pack, wide smile on his face.

"Didn't 'xpect to see you," the alpha says. His eyes drop to the pirogue and widen. "Didn't 'xpect you to be bringin' such a bounty, neither."

"I loaded it up," Stiles says. "Your pack can unload it."

The alpha gestures over his shoulder and half a dozen 'wolves come, crowd around the boat, take out the bucket of frogs and two dead alligator snapping turtles, haul out a net of crawdads and another with three dozen perch. The alpha pulls in the raft Stiles made of cypress and floated behind him on his trek across the water; it's loaded down with seven nutria and should never have been able to float.

Marie and her mate are there when Stiles turns around. "Michel," she says. "You good for a hug?"

"Better not," Stiles says, gesturing at the snakes around his wrists and throat, then up to his head, covered more in spiders and webs than actual hair. "But thanks for the offer."

"Anytime, doudou," she says. Her mate nods, offers a cattail stalk.

Stiles takes it, puts it behind his ear, gazes around him at the way people are watching, eyes flicking back and forth between Stiles and the 'wolves carrying off his gifts. He shifts, feels discomfort cover him like sticky mud, takes a step back toward his pirogue.

"Don't think so," the emissary says and, mindful of the rattler, grabs Stiles around his forearm. "Stay. Eat with us. There's gonna be fireworks later."

"I should -- this is for pack," Stiles murmurs. He can feel lightning under his fingernails, feels the ache of dying stars in his wrists. "I'm not pack."

"Are if you ever accept the bond," the alpha says, standing in front of Stiles. "You accept that I love you, that she does, that the land does, right?" Stiles frowns but nods; they wouldn't lie about that, no matter what Stiles thinks of their sanity in welcoming someone like him. "The pack does, too."

It makes sense. The land loves him; that feeds over into the bond the land has with the alpha and his emissary, which, in turn, would feed over into their bonds to the pack. It makes sense but it's an overwhelming kind of sense, too much to handle.

"I'm not ready," Stiles says. "I'm not -- I can't. Not yet." He pulls out of the emissary's hold, takes one step backwards, then a second. The water moccasin around his neck opens its mouth wide, shows off fangs, when the alpha moves to follow him. "I'm sorry," he says, and leaves.

--

He spends the next couple days on the bayou, lost in the canals and lakes and creeks between Dularge and Cocodrie. When he gets home, there are presents waiting for him: new yarn and needles; a dozen hard-boiled eggs; a pan of brownies; a child's crayon-drawn picture of him with his snakes as coloured blobs around his limbs, a spider rising from his hair, his eyes bright yellow and the blue-grey of lightning zig-zagging out of his shoulders. He uses a 'gator tooth to tack the drawing onto the ceiling above his bed and spiders weave their webs around its corners so the paper doesn't curl in the humidity.

A month later, he goes out for the day, comes back to find a polished turtle shell holding pecan brittle, nutria jerky reeking of pepper, and a strip of braided leather long enough to go around his ankle three times: the land, the pack, Stiles.

Stiles strokes the leather and wraps it around his left ankle.

//

He's out in the middle of the bayou when a howl breaks free of the trees. Stiles runs a hand over the 'gator swimming next to him, keeping pace with his pirogue; the 'gator bites the water, turns the other way and disappears beneath the surface.

Stiles paddles in the direction of the howl, toward the east side of Catfish Lake. He sends up a blinding spark of lightning on his way, then another when he hits land. By the time he's pulled the pirogue out of the water, there's a 'wolf waiting for him.

"Y'got a visitor," she tells him, herding him up to an SUV parked up on Dursette, hazards flashing. "Showed up in Larose. Asked after a man with moles and amber eyes at the library. Alpha's waiting for us there; he sent me down to pick you up. Figured it'd be faster to drive from here than have you paddle all the way up through the canal."

"I owe the pack something special for that," Stiles says. "Any details on the visitor?"

The 'wolf shakes her head. "I was at work," she says. "Alpha told me to git, I got gittin'. Ain't no time for questions."

There's no more talk as they speed north.

--

They cross Lafourche and pull into the park near the baseball diamonds. The emissary's waiting, opens Stiles' door for him and gives him a nod. "Beta," she says. "Blue eyes. Says he's from your old pack."

Stiles jumps out of the SUV, steadies himself. The grass under his bare feet tickles him, brushes against his ankles, and the land gives, just a little, sending mud up between Stiles' toes. He breathes, in and out, then follows the emissary toward the field. As he walks, the cottonmouth digs fangs into Stiles' arm and the rattler shivers. The spiders in his hair move; a brown recluse wanders down to grip the curve of Stiles' left ear and a baby tarantula hangs from the lobe of his right.

Blue eyes means Hale, he thinks, unless things have radically changed -- except then the alpha turns to greet him and Stiles sees through the wall of the Terrebonne Parish Pack.

His heart skips a beat.

The alpha doesn't scent Stiles, not with the spiders and snakes all over him, with the way his skin's beginning to sweat poison. Instead, he says, "We got this if you don't wanna."

Stiles gives the alpha a smile, reaches out and runs fingers down the alpha's throat, steps to his side. Stiles lets his eyes feast on the man before him, alone and showing blue eyes, older than he remembers.

"Noah," he says. His father flinches. Stiles tilts his head, says, "Things have changed back in Beacon Hills. How long have you been a 'wolf?"

"Three months after you left," Noah says. "You -- are you all right?"

He wonders what his father sees when he looks at Stiles, if he sees the boy from Beacon Hills who was responsible for more death than anyone else in that town or if he sees the golden eyes too deep to be a beta's but too bright to be human, sees the way that snakebites have scarred into runes and spiderwebs have sunk in and tattooed black lines over his skin, sees the lightning under his nails and the venom in his smile, sees the way the land clings to him and claims him through its avatars -- reptiles and arachnids and mud and reeds and kudzu.

He wonders if Noah sees his son or a stranger.

"I've been better," he says, "but I'm getting there. It's a slow process. The pack here helps."

Noah looks hurt. "We could've -- if you'd stayed, we would've helped."

Stiles shakes his head. "I doubt it," he says.

"Stiles," Noah breathes.

Stiles shakes his head. "Not my name," he says. The alpha and emissary's eyes narrow on him. Marie grins, showing teeth as her eyes glint yellow. "I left Stiles behind a long time ago." Left you, he means. Left the pack and found another. Left everything you'd recognise about me and rebuilt myself from the nothing I was when I left. "Here they call me Michel."

Noah nods, eyes glancing over the others before returning to Stiles. "And what do you call yourself?" he asks.

He can feel the land draw a breath, feels the alpha, next to him, go still in anticipation. "Mieszko." He looks at Marie, says, quietly, "Not kin but kind, I think, and good enough to fit in around these parts," and when she nods, smiles, Stiles grins back at her. The land exhales and so does the alpha. So does Stiles.

"Will you come home?" Noah asks. "Will you come back with me, Stiles? Mieszko."

"This is my home," Stiles says, "and there's nothing for me to go back to."

The alpha lets out a rumbling growl of pleasure, one echoed at a slightly higher pitch by Marie, by a pleased hum from the emissary, from the cawing of a flock of gulls above and the hiss of a dozen snakes in the grass.

Stiles turns his back, starts walking back towards the SUV, hears the alpha say, "You should leave."

"And not come back," Marie adds.

The emissary laughs, says, "There's nothing for you here, beta. Take our Mieszko's answer back to your pack, to California, and tell them that death waits for you here."

"Derek's looking for you," Noah calls out. Stiles pauses. "Derek and Cora both -- he went down to Argentina to ask for her help. Peter left Beacon Hills as well but he disappeared somewhere in the Dakotas; we think he's probably dead. Should I tell them to leave you alone as well? Tell your Hales to stop looking?"

"You don't get to speak of them like that," Stiles says. "And I have no doubt that even if you tell them to stop, they won't listen. Tell your pack that if their scents touch this parish, they're dead." He pauses, bends down to pick up a coral snake, and adds, "That goes for you, too, Noah. Once you leave, don't come back."

"This would break your mother's heart," Noah says.

Stiles strokes the snake in his hands, shakes his head. "You already did," he says, "when you let me go."

He starts walking again, gets in the SUV, lets the 'wolf take him back down to his pirogue. Stiles waits until she leaves before he heads for his boat and lets the snakes and spiders climb off of him and into it. He takes off his shorts, runs a hand through his hair, and climbs onto the giant 'gator sunning itself. The 'gator takes him out to the middle of Deep Lake, rolls, and Stiles sinks to the bottom of the water.

He doesn't come back up for two months.

//

The alpha picks up Stiles for Thanksgiving and, on their way through Houma, Stiles spend five minutes on a computer at the hospital. He deletes the message from Lydia without opening it, blocks her email address for good measure, and then takes thirty seconds to decide whether or not to open the email from an unfamiliar address with the subject line Stiles -- please read, don't delete, PLEASE. He does, eventually, and even sends one of his own back.

Not yet. I'm not saying not ever, just -- not yet.

The alpha doesn't comment on his mood when Stiles gets back in the truck, just reaches over, holds Stiles' hand, weaves their fingers together and doesn't let go until they get back to the house and the feast waiting for them: turtle soup and étouffée; remoulade and catfish; jambalaya and gumbo; tasso and boudine; fried 'gator and grilled sac-a-lait; towers of cornbread and buckets of rice; bowls of grits and mounds of red beans.

It's warm enough that the pack eats outside, piled onto long benches at homemade picnic tables, blankets on the ground, swingsets and old tires and raggedy cushions. Stiles sits on the outer edges of the group with Marie and her mate on one side, the water on the other; he's spent too much time alone now to feel comfortable in the middle of the crowd. He left his spiders and snakes at home, all of them except for the cottonmouth, his pretty little girl that's been with him the longest. Her fangs are buried deep in the fleshy Venus mount of his palm and they stay there, safely tucked away from anyone else because most of the pack are 'wolves but some aren't. Apart from the cottonmouth, he's only wearing shorts and a piece of leather wrapped around his left ankle, so thick with mud and twined up with cordgrass and salvinia that the pattern of the braid is almost invisible. Stiles feels, if not safe, then at least not remarkably out of place, not when everyone else is wearing about as little as he is.

He's picking caramel out of his teeth when the alpha collapses down next to him, groans a little with one hand on his belly.

"Stay," the alpha asks.

"Okay," Stiles says.

Across the property, on the other side of the pack, the emissary starts to laugh. The noise rings out clear and true and full of joy. The alpha howls to echo it. Heat lightning flicks across the sky and a dozen otters, a handful of minks, two or three raccoons, careen through the pack and make the children giggle in delight as they try to chase the animals down.

//

Stiles knits through the winter. By the time spring rolls around, he's given the alpha enough blankets and scarves and gloves and sweaters for almost everyone in the pack. He's also learned to crochet, thanks to the emissary, who's made a habit of coming by twice a week, bringing food and fresh yarn and knowledge. They talk, sometimes, but only about magic and power and 'wolves and the land; they spend most of their time in silence, drinking hot chicory with their feet near the fire.

She brings a cake with her, one day -- a six-layered Doberge cake that smells of chocolate and lemon -- and tells him, "Happy birthday." Stiles blinks, accepts the cake on autopilot when she drops it in his arms and brushes past him to go inside. "We weren't sure what you wanted so I brought food for now, and I can bring presents with me next time."

"I don't need anything," he says, following her inside and setting the cake down on the counter. A chipmunk sniffs at it, makes an inquisitive chirping noise before leaping from the counter onto Stiles's shoulder.

"Presents aren't what you need," she says. "They're what you want. What do you want, Mieszko?"

Stiles thinks as he cuts the cake, gives the emissary a piece and then takes one for himself. He sleeps well, the land provides for him, the emissary brings him books to keep his mind busy and yarn to keep his hands occupied. He never lacks for warmth, he's still overwhelmed when he spends time with the pack as a whole. He thinks of everything he left behind -- the pack, his dad, the internet -- and doesn't regret the loss of any of it.

Sometimes he misses music, though the bayou's never quiet and the noise of it has settled into his blood. Sometimes he misses the challenge of unsolved cases and mysteries, very occasionally he misses television and hot showers and fast food, and sometimes, at night, when the moon's full and shining through his woven roof, he yearns for his first pack: Derek and Erica and Boyd, even Isaac and Jackson. They're dead or gone, though.

"I don't know," he finally says. "I don't really -- I don't really want anything. Nothing tangible," he clarifies, seeing her about to start arguing. "I guess -- nachos with chorizo and queso Oaxaca, the way Melissa makes them. She always puts pickled jalapeños on hers. Couldn't feel my tongue for hours after eating them." He laughs, shakes his head. "I dunno. Something interesting to read."

"Melissa," the emissary says. "She's the one you mailed that blanket to." Stiles looks at her, puzzled at how she knows that, but she grins at him, says, "It's the one time you sent anything out into the world, Mieszko. You think we wouldn't remember that name? Who was she to you?"

Stiles looks at down at his hands, picks at a loose thread on his sweater sleeve. "A second mom once mine died. My best friend's mother. Our pack nurse. She never -- she didn't have an easy life but she never ran out of love. I tried to kill her when I was possessed but after, she gave me a hug that I thought would break my ribs. She's fierce as hell."

"And your mother?" the emissary asks. "Was she like that?"

"In her own way," Stiles says. "Melissa's love was like -- was like an ocean. Deep, endless, occasionally violent but always more than enough to match whatever force it came up against. Mom's -- mom's felt like -- the human body is sixty percent water, right, and we never think about it but it's always there. When it goes away, we dry up into husks. Mom's love was like that. I took it for granted until it slowly started dying, and then we all started dying right along with it." He looks at the emissary, at the way she's watching him, eyes shining with tears. "She died when I was eight," he says. "I suppose that's the first time I died. She called me Mischief; no one has since. After that I was Stiles, then I was nameless, then I was Michel."

"And now you're Mieszko," she says. "You have the gift of reinvention."

Stiles shakes his head. "I've used it all up," he says. "I don't have another new beginning left in me."

The emissary leans forward, rests her hand on Stiles' knee. "You're ours. Ours and the land's. You won't need a new beginning."

"And you're not angry?" Stiles asks. "That I came in here and bonded with your land, your alpha, your pack? Forced my way into your space?"

"Never," the emissary says. "Honestly, it's a relief to share it. I could hold the parish by myself -- I did, for years before you came. But it was -- heavy. Lonely. I worried when I felt your lightning carried by the wind but when you got here, when you crossed my wards and the alpha's territory bounds, when I was able to inhale the full scent of you, I -- relaxed. For the first time in a decade, I was able to breathe. Nothing about that has changed. We talked about presents," she says. "You were a present. Your willingness to settle here and blend in with our ways, to accept our pack and rhythm and our lives, it was a gift that I could never have been found worthy of. But you've become less of a want and more of a need. If you left --"

She stops there. Stiles covers her hand with his, squeezes gently. "I won't," he says. "There's nothing for me out there, not anymore."

"Nachos," the emissary says. "There's nachos and Melissa. There's the Hales your -- Noah mentioned."

"Melissa's the mother of the alpha," Stiles tells her. "My best friend, the true alpha, who told me not to come back. So no, there's not Melissa, not when I told Noah to warn Scott I'd see him dead if he came here. The Hales --" and he trails off, stops, at the thought of it. "I wouldn't leave for them."

The emissary says, thoughtfully, "But you wouldn't keep them from coming here."

"Someday," Stiles says. "But not yet."

"When?" she asks.

Stiles has no answer for her, just like he's had no answer to the same question, emailed, the last three times he's checked his account.

//

The spring is wet, the summer is as well, full of thunderstorms that rattle Stiles' cabin and his bones in equal measure. The lightning inside of him yearns to be outside; when the storms are at their peak, Stiles wades into the swamp outside of his home and lets his feet sink in the mud. He lifts his arms, lets lightning connect with his fingers, sends out his own to dance in the sky.

The storms pass and Stiles goes back inside. The snakes lick him dry and bobcats sleep next to the bed; their purrs tumble him into sleep and keep him there.

When he wakes, everything is green, even the duckweed. Hyacinths caught on alligator weed bloom wide and bright and fragrant, covering the bayou with colour. Stiles sits outside with his feet in the water, drinks cold chicory brewed with rainwater and snacks on sweet gale berries and pecans as woodcocks dart around and ringtails stretch out next to him, tails soft and warm as they drape over his legs.

//

The first Friday of December, there's a parade in Houma, Stiles writes. Starts at 7; they light the tree, there's floats and caroling and hot chocolate. The pack goes every year. They say it's pretty nice. If you're around -- you and Cora and Peter, any or all -- you could come. I'm gonna go this year. Don't know how long I'll last, but -- if you wanna.

He reads the email a half-dozen times, thinks about saving it to his drafts but strokes the curve of the water moccasin's scales, and clicks 'send.' He logs off, gets up, leaves the library and meets the alpha, waiting outside on a bench. They survived hurricane season this year by the luck of the draw: a Cat 3 curved across the Gulf and hit Houston two weeks before a Cat 5 hit the Florida panhandle and nearly levelled Pensacola. The sky, now, in late October, is clear and blue with strands of wisping clouds almost too thin and high to see.

"Think they'll come?" the alpha asks.

Stiles nods, says, "They'd come tomorrow if I told them. You sure it's --"

The alpha cuts Stiles off with a gentle touch to Stiles' thigh, careful of the snakes and spiders. "For you, Mieszko, of course it is. You don't ask much of us -- don't ask for anything. We'll be glad to meet your family."

Stiles nods again, lets out his breath from between his teeth as he tilts his head back, closes his eyes. "Do they turn off CCTV when I go inside?" he asks, changing the subject. The alpha sighs but doesn't turn the conversation back, used to Stiles. "Can't be normal to see people like me inside libraries."

"You'd be surprised what passes for normal 'round here," the alpha says, pauses, adds, "Maybe not. But there's stranger things than a barefoot, half-naked man wearing snakes likes bracelets and torcs and spiders like hairpins." Stiles makes an inquiring noise. The alpha laughs, a little. "Cubs don't always have the best control. Hell, adults sometimes don't have the best control. We've had some accidents before. At least you're wearing shorts."

Stiles snorts, can't help it. When the alpha stands, offers a hand, Stiles takes it. He lets out a breath, looks at the doors, thinks about going to see if he's gotten a response already but doesn't. Instead, he walks with the alpha to the truck, lets the alpha open the door for him, close it once Stiles is inside. There are snacks for their drive back -- pralines and lace cookies and whiskey balls -- and no guarantee Derek's seen his email yet.

//

Almost the entire pack's in Houma. The cubs and kids are running around half-dressed; the adults aren't much better, already tipsy if they've been spiking the hot cocoa, laughing even if they haven't, drunk on Christmas revelry either way. Stiles has a cup of hot chocolate in his hands, is on the periphery of the crowd watching the last of the floats stream by. His nerves are on edge and the alpha's eyes are red, glittering, fixed on Stiles from where he's standing, across the street, even though the emissary's sticking close to Stiles' side -- as close as she can, with the way his snakes are scenting the air as a response to Stiles' fidgeting and the black widows are circling a crown on Stiles' head, with the way that his skin reeks of poison and lightning's crackling through his bones.

Stiles has just taken a sip of cocoa when he feels the weight of a gaze on him that's so achingly familiar it immediately brings tears to his eyes. He turns, searches blindly, inhales deep when he sees a pair of red eyes staring back at him, pair of blue eyes on either side.

"Alpha," he breathes. "Derek, when -- oh my god."

He moves, then, not a run but almost, a pack of hissing cats keeping the emissary behind him as he covers the distance to the Hales. The ground ripples to firmness beneath his feet, urging him on, and Stiles careens to a halt on a patch of mud three steps in front of Derek.

"Stiles," Derek says. He hasn't blinked. His mouth is open, the slightest bit, and his breath smells of chocolate and beignet. "Are -- can I -- how --"

"We'd like to hug you," Cora says, elbowing Derek. "That's what he's trying to say. But you don't -- is it safe? Can we?"

Stiles pulls the venom back inside his body, waits for the spiders to climb onto the water moccasin and then crouches, lets the snakes carry the spiders off of him and into the grass. He rises, then, stands there as the 'wolves look at him, take him in: the bright gold glow of his eyes; the rune-bites and web-tattoos; the tan lines where his snakes usually coil; the braided leather anklet symbolising his attachment to the Terrebonne Parish Pack.

"Yeah," he says. "It's safe. And you can."

Just like that, he has three 'wolves clinging to him. Derek's got his face pressed to the left side of Stiles' throat, Peter to the right, and Cora's hugging him from behind, nose rubbing against the nape of Stiles' neck. Stiles feels a little overwhelmed as hands wrap around him, settle on his waist, dig into his back, but he breathes out and lets the Hales hold him up when his knees start to shake.

"Missed you," Peter murmurs. "Tried to find you; been looking and then your dad --"

"Noah," Cora snarls, a few drops of spittle hitting Stiles' bare skin. "Not his dad, not when he just let Stiles go, not family."

"He wouldn't tell us," Derek says.

Stiles tilts his head to one side, rubs his cheek over Derek, tilts to the other and scent-marks Peter, puts his hands over Cora's and laces their fingers together. "You found me anyway," he says. "Came all the way to Louisiana to find me."

Peter snorts, finally lets go only to look at Stiles with more fondness than Stiles has ever seen from Peter before. "We figured your pack would notice if we were in Houma," he says, "but we've been in Baton Rouge since three days after you sent your email."

"Didn't wanna miss our chance," Cora says. She separates from Stiles as well, moves back around to face him, curling into Peter. Peter swings an arm around her shoulders, rubs his cheek against her hair.

This gives Derek more room to cling and he does, holding tight, one hand sliding up Stiles' back to cup the curve of Stiles' skull, fingers gliding through Stiles' hair like water and then yanking in tight. A breath punches its way out of Stiles' mouth, a whine follows a moment later, and Stiles bends, buries his face in Derek's neck, scrapes teeth down the delicate skin and sucks a mark over the pulsepoint.

"Please don't make me leave," Derek murmurs, just loud enough for Stiles to hear. "Please don't -- let me stay. Let us stay. We'll do -- please, Stiles."

"My name's Mieszko," Stiles says. "I'm not -- you may not like what I am, now. You may not like who I've become or how I live or --"

"I will," Derek says. "We will. We'll learn. Please, St -- Mieszko, god, it suits you, it's so much better, it's -- please don't turn us away."

A cough, behind them, and Derek springs up, snarling through fangs, pushing Stiles behind him and into the safety that Peter and Cora offer.

"You must be Derek," the alpha says. He waits for Derek to straighten up, put claws away and bite the fangs back, waits for Derek to see how calm Stiles is and feed off it. "Welcome to Terrebonne Parish Pack territory."

"I'm sorry," Derek says. "I --"

The alpha laughs. Peter and Cora let Stiles go; Stiles presses himself to Derek's back, rests his chin on Derek's shoulder.

"Mieszko already negotiated entry for your pack," the alpha says. "You're welcome here, Alpha Hale, and your pack, for as long as you'd like to stay."

"That's -- generous of you," Derek says.

The alpha shrugs, says, "My pack is large and loyal; the land is the same. But we love Mieszko, so we're inclined to love what he does." He turns, gestures at the large crowd of people watching them, not the tree lighting. "We're all excited to meet you, as you can see." The emissary moves to stand next to the alpha, inclines her head in greeting. "Mieszko," the alpha says. Stiles blinks, straightens. Derek pulls him forward, close, takes Stiles' hand and holds on tight, almost scared. "Are you taking them home or would you like a house here?"

"Home," Cora says.

Stiles looks at her, sees the stubborn cant to her shoulders, sees the wary hope in Peter's eyes. He looks at Derek, who waits for Stiles to make a decision.

"The bed's not -- I don't even have a roof," Stiles says. "No power, no bathroom, nothing that --"

"We're 'wolves, Mieszko," Derek reminds him. "We don't need any of that." But we want you, his eyes seem to say. We need you.

Stiles smiles, can't help it, and lets his free hand rise of its own accord, fingertips stroking the curve of Derek's cheekbone. Home, Stiles is about to say, but then he watches Peter and Cora step back, away from him. He looks down, sees the black widows crawling a path up his right leg, feels his water moccasin and rattler and cottonmouth slide over his feet. He watches and then, a moment later, he feels: Derek steps back, flinching, as the brown recluse that had been climbing up Stiles' back reaches his neck, legs kissing the thin skin over Stiles' throat.

"A house here," Stiles says, feeling the web of tattoos over his shoulder shifting with the sting of rejection. The water moccasin hisses in the Hales' general direction as Stiles bends, lets his snakes wind their way back onto him, as the rest of the spiders skitter towards his hair, as the emissary comes closer and the alpha bares his teeth in a rumbling growl.

"I -- I have to --" and Stiles steps back, dragonfly landing on his cheek to drink up the tears gathering in his eyes. "Sorry," he says. "I've -- I --"

"Go," Marie says. Derek snarls; Stiles looks at him, takes in the red eyes and the fear written in them. "We'll explain things to your family."

Cora says, "Sti -- fuck, Mieszko, please, wait," but he goes. With the Hales watching him, with the weight of the Terrebonne Parish Pack's displeasure beating at his back, Stiles leaves.

He gets in his pirogue, paddles out to the bayous and keeps going until he hits Timbalier Island. He drags his boat onto the island, sits in the sand and looks out to the darkness of the Gulf, lets his eyes skim over the twinkling lights of oil rigs, the slow and steady movements of freighters and tankers, leans back and watches the flight of satellites and feels the pull of the stars that he's distant kin to.

Stiles waits until sunrise, then howls. His despair goes unanswered, fades into the water. Stiles closes his eyes, curls into himself, sleeps.

//

The last week of January, Stiles tilts his head back and inhales. There's snow in the air, snow and ice, unexpected but on the way. They won't get much, down here in the bayou, but it'll be enough. He knits a cashmere cardigan, small and tight stitches, in a soft slate blue with buttons made of bull shark teeth. When that's done, he pulls out a skein of black yarn that, in the right light, looks crimson, glimmering like dried blood as he knits a cowl-neck tunic. He sends them both off with the emissary, who's come to keep Stiles company three days a week and hasn't said a word in all the hours those days make up.

She comes back bearing plain white wool, says, "They've listened. I think they've learned."

"You think," Stiles says. He pulls berries from the muscadine plant growing around the posts holding up his porch roof, crushes them and drops the yarn in their juice, adds swamp rosemallow petals and aloe juice and his blood. "What did you tell them?"

"That you aren't human," she says. "That you aren't the boy they knew; that you've become a man and then something more than that. That you've taken the heartbreak that you came here with and gifted it to the land, that the land loves you."

Stiles moves the wool around to make sure every thread soaks up the spell, turns away from the basin and looks at the emissary. "What else?" he asks.

She pulls the afghan tight around her, tucks her feet close to the fire. "That you're starlight made flesh," she says. "That you carry lightning in your veins and grief in your marrow. That you cry like a wolf even though the animal inside you is fox. That you're ours, and we're yours, because you're the heart of the parish and the spirit of the pack. That if they hurt you again, we'll kill them."

"It's not their fault," Stiles says. He thinks back to Timbalier Island, to the long, slow trek he made back to his cabin a week later, that every time he stopped on the water, the land sent schools of fish to dance for him, sent alligators and turtles to tempt him into playing, sent otters to swim with. He would've sunk to the bottom of the bay if it wasn't for his snakes and spiders, might've stayed under the water longer than the last time he lost himself to anguish. "They didn't know that I -- they had no idea what to expect. I didn't warn them and they -- I can't blame them."

"We do," the emissary says. "We have. But they're better now."

Stiles nods, doesn't say anything.

--

Three days later, when the emissary's getting ready to leave, Stiles presses a scarf into her hands. The wool's a plum purple; magic leaks off the fringe, thick with protection and love. "For Derek," he says. "Tell him -- tell him he can come visit, if he wants."

"He wants," the emissary says. "I'll bring him with me the day after tomorrow."

//

"When you said you had no roof," Derek says, "I don't know what I expected. But I don't think it was this."

Stiles ducks his head at the clear awe in Derek's voice, at the way his eyes, wide with wonder and soft with fondness, scan over Stiles' cabin and then Stiles himself. Stiles stands up from the rocking chair, lets the blanket fall off his legs and onto the ground, where a family of raccoons play-fights over the fabric, settling in like they're planning on never leaving. A squirrel runs down one of the posts, gets tangled in Queen Anne's Lace and ivy, as a pair of courting minks fall out of one spider lily bush and play peek-a-boo around the trumpet vines hanging from the porch roof.

"I get to call you Snow White, right?" Derek asks, grinning, though the expression fades a little when he sees -- or smells -- how stung Stiles feels. The water moccasin opens its jaws wide, head swaying in rhythm to the rattler's shaking. "I didn't mean to -- it's just a joke, St -- Mieszko. I'm sorry if it offended you."

Stiles turns to go inside, says, over his shoulder, "It's fine."

"It's not," Derek says. "I haven't -- I can't open my mouth around you without fucking up, can I. Shit. I'm -- I've just -- I miss you. We miss you. We've been looking so long and when we -- you aren't -- you're so much more than you were, Mieszko. We've never been -- you've always been so much better than us and now everyone knows it and we -- what can we offer you? You already have a pack, one that understands you, one that knows you. We're just --"

"Family," Stiles says. Sometime during Derek's plea, he turned back around, lightning crackling through his hands, up his neck, echoing through his skull. He rests his gaze on the scarf Derek's wearing for a long moment, then lifts his eyes, meets Derek's. "You're family. Would -- would you like to come inside?"

Derek steps forward, asks, "Are you -- into your den?"

Stiles feels heat rise to his cheeks -- even in the cold damp -- at the look Derek gives him. "Yeah," he says, voice rough. "Into my den."

"I would," Derek says. An eagle's cry echoes out over the water. "I'd -- yes, I'd like that very much."

The cottonmouth unhinges her jaw, clamps tight around Stiles' wrist, and Stiles offers that hand up to Derek in invitation.

Without hesitation, Derek takes it.