Derek stumbled across the man at dusk.
It was honestly a miracle he was even out that far. Erica and Isaac had come into the pack house, breathless, and told him they were short one sheep, and they and Derek had spent the afternoon trying to find it before dusk settled in. It was nearly impossible to track the sheep by scent, given how many sheep they had at the ranch, so they had to do things the old-fashioned way.
Which was why Derek was out near the ranch's western border, just inside the tree line, straining his eyes to spot a fluffy white animal among all the fluffy white snow in the rapidly fading daylight.
He'd just slid down the side of a ravine when his foot caught under a snow-covered root and he nearly went sprawling. His hands smacked into the muddy wall of the ravine to keep himself upright, and that was when Derek saw it wasn't a root he'd stumbled over.
It was somebody's leg.
He took a long, slow breath in and out in a vain effort to calm his heartbeat. He should've smelled something, sure as hell should have smelled a body even under the layer of snow and ice and mud filling the winter air.
Then, so faintly he thought he was imagining it, he heard the sound of another rapid heartbeat.
"Shit," he said.
He crouched next to the body—no, not a body, a person—and brushed away the snow and mud and dead leaves covering them. Well, covering him, Derek saw. It was a man nestled under the gnarled roots of a tree, and now that Derek was closer, he could smell the blood, cold and clotting.
Really, "shit" was the only word to describe the situation.
Derek moved cautiously, but with purpose, like he did around injured sheep. Even in the rapidly fading light, he could see that the man's skin was pale and his lips were blue, and his breath came in shallow gasps so quiet they were nearly inaudible. Melted snow and mud plastered his dark hair to his forehead, and when Derek gently probed the back of his head, his fingers came away bloody.
The man had probably fallen and cracked his head on a rock. But what the hell was he doing all the way out here, on the outskirts of the ranch? Nobody was around for miles, and sure as hell not in weather like this.
Derek shook his head. It didn't matter what he was doing here. The man was still alive, but given the color of his lips and the sound of his heart, that wouldn't last long.
Derek raised his head and howled. It wasn't the best form of communication, but it was the only way for him to get help all the way out here.
The howl echoed across the snow, and a moment later, Derek heard Erica and Isaac howl in response. Good.
Now he just had to make sure the man didn't freeze to death before they got here.
He pulled off his hat, heavy and woolen and warm, and gently lifted the man's head until he could get the hat underneath it and press it against the wound there. Thankfully it wasn't bleeding as badly as it likely had been, but it probably still needed pressure to heal.
He shrugged off his heavy overcoat and tucked it around the man. The air nipped at him, but Derek was already warm from his exertion in getting all the way out here. He could tolerate a little cold, and besides, he could always shift fully if it got to be unbearable.
He settled next to the man and searched him for any other obvious wounds. No bones appeared to be broken, which was good, though the man was clearly not dressed for the weather. No coat, gloves, or hat, which was all strange as well.
"What kind of idiot goes out in the middle of winter without a stitch of decent clothing on?" Derek murmured. He tugged off one of his thick woolly gloves and wrapped his fingers around the man's, which felt like holding a bundle of icicles.
He heard a soft gasp, and Derek snapped his head around to see that the man's eyes were open, glassy and unseeing.
Oh hell. Derek gripped his hand tighter and turned so he could better see. "Whoa, whoa," he said, keeping his voice as gentle as he could. "It's okay. You're safe."
The man stared at him, breathing more sharply, and then his eyes rolled back and he was out again.
Derek thought for half a second the man was dead, but no, he was still breathing, heart beating stubbornly, if shallowly.
Two howls sounded—Erica and Isaac questioning where he was—and Derek howled back. Moments later, two curly heads poked out over the top of the ravine.
"There's a man here, badly hurt and nearly frozen," Derek said, before either of them could ask. "Erica, get back to the house and tell Boyd to get some water going, and bring the sledge back out here so we can move him. Isaac, get down here and help me get him out of the ravine."
Erica gave him a half-salute and vanished back toward the pack house, already howling the urgency of the request. Isaac slid down the ravine, skipping over a few rocks and buried tree roots, and landed next to Derek. "There's an easier way up about a hundred feet north of here. Not so steep."
"Good." Derek stood. "Help me get him out of here."
Isaac got on the other side of the man, and together they carefully moved him out from the tangle of tree roots. It wasn't that the man was heavy—with their strength, that wasn't a problem—but moving him without hurting him further was going to be a trial.
Derek and Isaac carried the man down the ravine until they reached an area where the steep incline turned to more of a slope. Derek backed up the slope, keeping his eyes on the muddy snow and what it hid, and keeping his ears tuned to the man's heartbeat. He strained his arms to keep from jostling him too much as they climbed, and judging from the curses Isaac was whispering, he was doing much the same.
By the time they'd maneuvered out of the ravine, Erica was riding up on their mare, Veronica, pulling the sledge behind her. To his relief, Derek saw she'd thrown a few extra blankets in the back.
Erica hopped back into the sledge and helped Derek and Isaac ease the man into the blanket nest. "Boyd's got the water on," she said. "He'll probably be off getting Doctor Deaton by the time we get back."
Good. The sooner they got a doctor out here, the better.
"What's he doing out here, anyway?" Erica asked.
Derek settled onto the floorboards of the sledge and leveled her with a flat look. "I'll be sure to ask him when he wakes."
Erica rolled her eyes, but she climbed back onto Veronica and snapped the reins, and they took off back toward the pack house.
Every instinct in Derek's body screamed for them to go faster, to just get off and run, but he held it in check. This was the only way for them to get the man back to the house safely, and Erica would get them there, he knew.
He took the man's hand in his once again, those fingers still so cold it was a wonder they weren't frostbitten, and drew off the pain as they rode.
As Erica had predicted, Boyd was gone by the time they reached the pack house, but Lottie was there, meticulously setting out clean cloths by the mattress that had been dragged in front of the main fireplace. She snapped her head up as soon as they entered and bounded across the front room. "Daddy! Boyd said you found a man in the ravine. Where'd you find him? How bad is he hurt? Who is he?"
"Lottie," Derek said sternly.
Lottie pouted, but she moved so Derek and Isaac could carry the man over to the mattress. Now that they were inside, they needed to get the man's wounds cleaned and bound, and get him out of the wet, muddy clothes that had to be freezing by now.
Derek extended his claws and went to work cutting away the man's shirt. "Erica, bring the water."
Erica nodded once and cupped Lottie's shoulder. "Come on, pup, give me a hand."
Isaac unsheathed his own claws and cut away at the man's pants, and soon they had the dirty clothes in a pile at the foot of the mattress.
Erica came back with a pail of steaming water and whisked away the dirty clothes. Derek grabbed the stack of cloths and tossed half to Isaac. "Clean him off. I'll take care of the head wound."
The man was tall enough that he nearly hung off the mattress, meaning he was close to Derek's height. His limbs were long and pale, dusted with dark hair and intermittently bruised, more so than what he'd have gotten stumbling through the woods.
Derek ran his fingers along the bruising on the man's chest, pressing lightly to see if any ribs were broken. It didn't feel like it. Thank God.
"Someone beat him," Isaac said softly. "Beat him and left him out there to die."
"Possibly," Derek said, because it was a likely assessment, given what they knew. "Clean him up and get a blanket over him. I don't like his color."
The man's color was actually better than it had been in the ravine, but the words got Isaac to focus. Right now, keeping the man alive was their priority. They could figure out who'd done this later.
Derek took a cup of warm water and poured it over the man's head, massaging gently to work the mud and blood out of his hair. The gash on his head had (mostly) stopped bleeding. Dr. Deaton would probably be able to stitch it up, though Derek could do it himself if need be.
He worked at the man's head until it was as clean as he could get it, and then tied a clean cloth around the wound and went to work washing the man's face.
There were bruises and scrapes there as well, which Derek did not find surprising. But even they didn't hide how young the man looked as Derek wiped the blood and grim from his face. Hell, if Derek hadn't seen his body, he'd swear the man was fifteen at most.
"He's young," Isaac said, sounding surprised.
Derek rubbed his forehead and cursed. "We need to figure out who the hell this kid is."
He took another few blankets off the couch and tucked them around the man—the boy—whoever he was—and gestured to Isaac to put another log on the fire. It might get uncomfortably warm for them, but Derek could tolerate it if it meant no one died from exposure.
He walked into the kitchen, where Erica and Lottie were scrubbing the discarded clothes on the washboard. Before Derek could even ask the question, Erica shook her head. "I searched his pockets and the tags. No name, no identification of any kind."
Derek sighed. "I knew it was too much to hope for."
Lottie looked up at him, her pale eyes shining. "Is he going to be okay, Daddy?"
Derek tugged lightly on her black braid. "I hope so."
"He's not a wolf, is he?" Lottie asked.
Derek shook his head. "He'd be healing faster if he were."
"Can I help?"
"You can help Erica finish cleaning and mending the clothes. If we can save them, we should," Derek said. "If not, we can scrounge up some spare clothes."
"Optimistic," Erica said, softly enough Derek knew he'd be the only one to hear it.
He just shrugged. "We'll know more when Deaton gets here."
Deaton arrived with Boyd nearly an hour later. He examined their mystery man quietly and intently, pausing only to ask Derek questions regarding how he'd been found, which Derek answered tersely.
Finally, Deaton stitched up the cut on the man's head and packed up his black medical bag. "Well, there's little else I can do."
Derek's entire body tensed at those words. "What do you mean?"
Deaton's serious face softened just a fraction. "He's no broken bones to set, and the only thing to do for the head wound is to clean and mend it. The last thing is the exposure, and you've done what I would. He's warming nicely."
Derek's shoulders relaxed, but only just. "So now we have to wait and see?"
Deaton tugged his knit cap over his bald head and nodded. "Just keep him warm and keep the bandage clean."
"Have you ever seen him before?" Derek asked.
Deaton's eyes tracked back to the boy, and he shook his head. "No, he's not familiar. I've never seen him in town."
If Deaton had never seen him, that mean only one thing. "Then he's not from Beacon Hills."
Behind them, Boyd spoke up. "If he's not from here, what the hell's he doing in the woods on our ranch?"
Deaton shrugged. "That is the question, isn't it?" He turned back to Derek. "Would you like me to turn in his description to the deputy's office?"
Derek almost said yes, before he remembered Isaac's theory. "We'll wait until he wakes. Too much doesn't make sense about this. And maybe by then, he'll be able to tell us who to send word to."
Deaton hefted his bag. "Fair enough. Send for me if you need anything else."
"Of course. Thanks for coming." Derek gestured to Isaac, who sat on the couch, looking worried. "Isaac, would you see the good doctor home?"
Isaac's face changed from worried to torn, but he stood and grabbed his coat and hat.
Good. Right now Derek wanted Isaac out of the house and focusing on something other than the battered boy in front of their hearth. The trip to Deaton's and back would help.
With another farewell, Dr. Deaton and Isaac were out the door and back into the snow. Derek scowled at the tiny white flakes swirling against the night sky; why couldn't the weather stay clear for one day?
"So what's your plan?" Boyd asked.
Derek sank into a chair and rested his elbows on the heavy wood table. "Keep the bandage clean, keep him warm, wait for him to wake up." And hope everything makes more sense when he does.
Erica slid into the chair next to him. "Do you think Isaac's right?"
Derek pressed a thumb to the bridge of his nose. "I don't know."
"If he is, there's a chance whoever hurt him might come looking for him again," Boyd said softly.
Derek glared. "I'm not throwing him out."
"Wasn't what I said." Boyd's voice was easy. "Just that we might need to take some precautions in case anyone comes sniffing around."
All right. That wasn't a bad idea. And if someone actually wanted this kid dead, they might well come hunting around to finish the job. Derek nodded. "You two know what to do, then."
Boyd smiled wide and slid plates in front of both of them. "Supper first."
Derek couldn't help but keep checking on the boy intermittently as he finished up his chores for the evening, bathing Lottie and tucking her into bed.
She curled up around her doll and looked up at him with wide eyes after he'd finished reading her a bedtime story. "Daddy, is the man going to wake up?"
Most parents might have lied to spare a child's feelings, but Lottie had spent the entirety of her seven years of life on a sheep ranch. Derek knew she understood that life didn't always make it. "I don't know, pup." He smoothed back her long black hair. "He was hurt pretty bad and left out for a long time."
"He didn't look hurt," Lottie argued. "Just his head."
"Head wounds are dangerous, you know that." Derek tweaked her nose. "And you also know you aren't supposed to be running around the forest in the winter without a coat on."
Lottie nodded. "That's a silly thing to do."
Derek's heart gave a heavy thump. He was fairly sure the man hadn't been out in the cold without a coat because he was foolish.
He kissed Lottie's forehead and levered himself up from beside the bed. "All right, you need to get some sleep."
Lottie burrowed under the covers, but poked her head back out. "Daddy, is there anything I can do to help the man get better?"
She wouldn't have asked if she didn't have a plan. Derek paused at the top of the stairs. "What are you thinking you want to do?"
She sat up straight, and her bright smile cut through the dim room. "I can read to him, like you read to me when I'm sick!"
Derek considered pointing out that the man was asleep and unlikely to hear anything Lottie said, but her voice was so hopeful he couldn't find it in himself to discourage her. "That's a great idea. You can read to him after your lessons tomorrow."
Lottie groaned and flopped back against her bed. "But I hate lessons."
"You hate arithmetic," Derek corrected her. "But you're going to need it when you get big."
"Not if I'm a pirate" came the grumbled reply.
Derek rolled his eyes and ducked his head to hide his smile. Lottie didn't need to know how amusing he found that response. Ever.
He went back downstairs to finish putting the house in order for the night. Erica and Boyd had already gone to bed, and Isaac was in one of the old chairs near the fire, poring over a newspaper he'd probably acquired from Dr. Deaton.
"There's nothing in here about a missing boy," Isaac said as soon as Derek's foot hit the first floor. "Or a missing man."
Derek held back a sigh. "Paper's three days old and came from Hill Valley, Isaac. He may not have been missing that long."
Isaac set the paper aside, but Derek caught the angry, determined glint in his eyes. "I'm going to head out to the forest tomorrow, see if I can find anything."
Derek rubbed the back of his neck. Telling Isaac not to go would be pointless, so he went with the next best thing. "After the sheep are seen to, you're free to do as you wish. But don't be stupid."
Isaac opened his mouth with a whine of protest, but Derek glared at him and sat on the couch. "I mean it. Assuming you're right and someone had him, we know nothing about them. They could be other wolves, or worse, they could be hunters, and we have no idea how many there are. I don't want you taking on anyone by yourself and find yourself in a fight of ten against one. Okay?"
Isaac nodded, but he still looked mutinous.
Derek took a deep breath. "We need you here. We've got enough work for the winter and now we've got to take care of an injured boy on top of that. I can't have anything happening to you, do you understand? Besides," he sat back against the couch, "you do find who did this, you're going to have to let me have a shot at them as well."
The mutinous look faded entirely, and Isaac gave a dark chuckle. "You've got it." He stood and stretched. "I'm going to head on up, then. Need to get my chores finished early tomorrow."
Derek bid him good night, and listened to Isaac's light footfalls as he crept up the stairs so as not to wake anyone else. Once he was sure Isaac was out of range, Derek finally turned his eyes back to the boy, who hadn't moved an inch since they'd set him down.
His breathing was steadier, deeper, more like he was sleeping and less like he was fighting for each inhale, and his heartbeat was stronger as well, much less worrying than it had been out in the ravine. Derek crouched next to him to feel his skin, taking one long-fingered hand in his own. It was much warmer, though still a little cool to the touch, even though Derek and Isaac had wrapped the boy in five blankets.
By instinct, Derek drew off the pain, winced at the sting and the black lines traveling up his veins as he did so. He wished he could pass some of his own healing abilities to the boy, to help him warm, help him wake, but this was all he could do: take the pain and perhaps make his rest a little more comfortable.
Well, there was one other thing.
Before he could think too hard about it, Derek stood and shed his clothes, folding them all neatly and setting them on the chair Isaac had vacated. Then he shifted fully and dropped to all fours.
His sense of smell was above average in human form, but it was even stronger now, and the boy's scent slapped him so hard upside the muzzle Derek shook his head and suppressed a sneeze. There was the salty, tangy scent of pain, and still a bit of mud and cold and the coppery stench of blood, but it was easier now to pick out the boy himself: warm and spicy and thick, like rich homemade soup or—
Derek shook himself out of it. He had more control than this.
He paced around the mattress until he found a good place to settle. He curled his huge, furry body around the boy, close enough that his natural body warmth would help but keeping his full weight off the boy's body and bruises.
If it had been any of his pack exposed for so long, he would have done this immediately. Hell, they all would have, shifting to full wolves and curling around each other to keep their hurt pack member warm. Derek shouldn't treat this boy any different, and sharing his body warmth could only help.
He rested his head next to the boy's and closed his eyes, telling himself everything would be fine.
Even so, it was a long time before Derek was able to fall asleep.
Derek woke in the morning because of an unexpectedly heavy weight on his back. He lifted his head and looked behind him just enough to see that Lottie had apparently crawled onto him at some point and was now snoring softly into his fur.
His heart twisted at the sight. She didn't sleep on him much anymore, though his back had been her favorite place to nap as a toddler. And she was almost too big to keep sleeping there, anyway.
Derek enjoyed it for two more minutes before he stuck his cold nose on her forehead and licked sloppily over her face.
Instead of shrieking, Lottie just grumbled and wiped her face with her doll's dress. "That's very disgusting, Daddy."
Derek hoped his glare came across on his wolf face, but Lottie's only response was to splay across his back and nestle into his fur. Soon, she was breathing deeply, the thud of her heartbeat slowing down against his back as she slipped back into sleep.
Derek laid his head back on the boy's chest, and resigned himself to being pillow for one and blanket for another.
The boy slept on throughout the next day. He didn't stir when Erica, Isaac, and Boyd came tromping down the stairs to head out to the sheep, he didn't stir when Derek finally stepped off him and shifted back to human, he didn't stir as they made and ate their meals, he didn't stir when Derek changed the bandage around his head, and he didn't stir as Lottie read to him out of her favorite book of fairy tales all afternoon.
Derek sat at his desk, making his way through the unholy and terrifying stack of paperwork that had been accumulating there. But he couldn't stop from looking over his shoulder periodically, where Lottie sat perched on the couch, reading out of the massive book of fairy tales spread over her lap, and at the sleeping young man on the mattress in front of the fire.
Boyd elbowed him lightly when he dropped a plate on Derek's desk. Derek scowled and slid the plate out of his way. "What was that for?"
Boyd just gave him a flat look. "You don't even know his name."
Derek sputtered. "I'm not—that isn't—"
He didn't know why he bothered. Boyd clearly didn't believe him.
"He's much too young," Derek finished gruffly. "I'm just worried. He should have woken up by now."
Boyd didn't roll his eyes, but the arch of his eyebrows and his continued flat look said that he desperately wanted to. "You want me to send Isaac for the doctor?"
"No." Derek swallowed the harshness in his voice and forced out a more measured tone. "You heard him last night. There's nothing he can do."
Boyd dropped his voice. "Are you thinking the bite?"
Derek closed his eyes. It was tempting, but he had no way of knowing how this young man would react to it. "Not without his consent. It has a better chance of killing him, right now."
Boyd just patted Derek's shoulder and left him to his meal.
Isaac returned at dusk, shaking snow out of his hair, a scowl twisting his otherwise-cherubic features.
Derek had a feeling he knew the answer to the question before he even asked it. "Did you find anything?"
Isaac's scowl deepened, and he shook his head. "No scent, no tracks, nothing. It looks like he was stumbling through the creek in the ravine for a while before he hid under the tree. I can look more tomorrow."
"I'll come with you," Boyd said from the kitchen, before he turned to Derek. "If it's all right with you."
Derek nodded. Isaac was an excellent tracker and a fierce fighter, but Boyd was less reckless and more calculating. It made them a good pair for situations like this.
Erica batted her eyelashes at him from where she and Lottie were mending clothes on the couch. "Does that mean you'll be handling the meals tomorrow?"
"I don't know." Derek shrugged. "I've got a sudden hankering for cornbread."
Erica stuck her tongue out at him, and he laughed, along with Boyd and Isaac.
"But Aunt Erica makes the best cornbread," Lottie said, face furrowed in confusion.
"Thank you, Lottie," Erica said gracefully. "You'll get twice as much next time I make it."
Boyd walked over and kissed the top of Erica's head. "You know we love you. You also know I didn't marry you for your cooking skills."
Erica tilted her head up and grinned wickedly. "No, that's why I married you."
Boyd chuckled and kissed her again, this time on the lips.
Lottie wrinkled her nose. "Ew."
It was in the middle of the night when the boy woke up. Derek was dozing on the couch because he'd been loath to leave the boy unattended, and heard a sudden intake of breath so quiet that for a moment Derek was convinced he'd imagined it.
Then he heard it again, and woke fully.
The boy's eyes were open, a little dazed but still more focused than they'd been in the woods. They darted around the room, and his breathing went harsh and rapid. The blanket shifted a little, and he made the faintest whimper of pain.
Derek was off the couch and crouching beside him in an instant. "It's okay," he said softly, keeping his voice low so as not to wake anyone else and not to panic the boy. "My name's Derek. You took a tumble down a ravine and hit your head pretty badly. We brought you to our ranch to heal. It's Triskele Ranch, out by Beacon Hills. Do you know where that is?"
The boy bit his trembling lips, all of him still shaking like he was scared and trying desperately not to show it. He didn't give any indication he'd even understood what Derek was saying.
"What's your name?" Derek asked.
Still no response.
It was possible the kid didn't speak English, but even then, he might have said something to give an indication that he didn't understand. Derek racked his brain, trying to think of what he would want if he'd woken up in a stranger's house. "Are you thirsty?"
For a moment, he thought it was another bust, and then the boy nodded imperceptibly.
All right. That, Derek could do.
He went to the kitchen and filled a cup with water, hurrying back as quickly as he could. The boy struggled to sit up, his heart thudding rapidly and his face twisted in pain.
Derek knelt once more and slipped his arm around the boy's shoulders, partly to brace him and partly to draw off some of the pain. He held out the cup, which the boy tried to grasp with shaking fingers.
That wouldn't work. "Here," Derek said, and held the cup to the boy's lips.
That got him a sharp glare, but the boy drank, touching Derek's wrist to change the angle of the cup as he needed to.
Once it was empty, Derek set the cup aside. "Better?"
"Clothes," the boy rasped out.
Derek could have kicked himself. He'd completely forgotten that they hadn't dressed the boy after they'd gotten his dirty clothes off; they'd just tucked him in blankets. "Your clothes were nearly frozen. We had to cut them off you," Derek said. "I'll get you some of mine in the morning. And Isaac may have some you can borrow."
The boy seemed to draw in on himself, a line of tension peaking in his shoulders, and his eyes kept darting around the room, from Derek to the window in the kitchen to the front door.
"What's your name?" Derek asked again.
The boy shuddered and said, "Stiles."
"Stiles," Derek said. "What were you doing out in those woods?"
"I wasn't in any woods," Stiles said testily, his voice deeper and more gravelly than Derek had expected. "I don't know what you're talking about. I don't remember..." He trailed off, and his heartbeat spiked. "I don't remember."
Derek wanted to ask what he didn't remember, but Stiles's breath was coming in short, sharp gasps and his heart was beating faster than sounded healthy. His scent bled with the tang of anxiety.
Hell. Derek didn't have a clue how to deal with this. He patted Stiles's shoulder clumsily. "It's okay. Doctor said your memory might be a little off when you woke up. You'll be fine in a few days."
Deaton had said no such thing, but maybe it would keep Stiles from worrying right now.
"I can't—" Stiles gave an aborted shake of his head. "I have to hide, I have to get back, I have to—"
Derek shushed him and rocked him a little, like he did Lottie when she had nightmares, though it was more difficult to do when the person was nearly his size and sitting to the side of him. "It's okay. You're safe here. I swear on my life and the life of my daughter, nothing will hurt you in this house."
Stiles shuddered, and leaned a little more fully into Derek. "I don't remember," he said again, his voice so vulnerable it made Derek ache.
He bit back the urge to say "it's okay" again, because it wasn't. "You still thirsty?" he asked instead.
Stiles shook his head minutely.
"Okay. You should lay down, then. Get some more rest."
Derek helped him settle back under the blankets, tucking Stiles in tight. "Are you cold?"
Stiles's eyelids drooped, but he managed another small shake of his head.
Derek couldn't stop the urge to run his fingers over Stiles's forehead, tracing the edge of the bandage there and drawing off a few threads of pain. "I'll be on the couch, if you need anything."
He had no idea if Stiles heard him, because his breathing had gone deep and even, more so than it had been the previous day.
Good. Sleep was good for him. It would help him heal.
Derek crawled back into his nest on the couch and burrowed under the blanket. He didn't know much about head injuries, but he hoped Stiles's memory would return with the sun.
Otherwise he had an injured boy on his floor with no idea who he was, where he'd come from, why he'd been in the woods, or who he was so scared of he felt the need to hide even when he couldn't remember anything else.
It was past lunchtime when Stiles woke the next day. Boyd and Isaac had already gone to the ranch borders to look for more clues, and Erica was back out in the barn with the animals. Derek was still washing dishes from lunch when he heard Lottie say brightly, "Hi!"
He whipped his head around. Stiles was sitting up on the mattress, wincing a bit, and Derek nearly dropped everything to run to him. Instead, he made himself finish with the dishes he had, drying them fully and putting them away.
"Who are you?" Stiles asked.
"I'm Charlotte Mary Hale," Lottie said, and Derek glanced over to see she'd slipped off the couch to curtsy. "But everyone calls me Lottie. I'm only Charlotte when I'm in trouble. Who are you?"
Derek frowned. Was the hesitation because he was making it up, or because he wasn't sure of his memory?
"That's a funny name," Lottie said. "Stiles Stilinski?"
"What do you mean, that's funny?" Stiles said defensively. "You go by Lottie."
"It's better than Stiles. That's not even a name."
Derek poured a cup of water and walked back to the main room before Stiles and Lottie could get into an actual argument. "Lottie, what's the proper way to greet someone?"
She whirled around to glare at him. "But Daddy, Stiles isn't a name. It isn't."
Lottie heaved a huge sigh and turned back to Stiles with another curtsy. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Stilinski."
Stiles looked like he was suppressing a chuckle. "Likewise, Miss Hale."
Lottie beamed like Stiles had just given her the moon. "Did you hear that, Daddy? He called me Miss Hale like a big girl!"
"I did," Derek said. "Now go finish your lessons for the day, okay?"
Lottie stuck out her lower lip. "But—"
Derek leveled a look at her, and Lottie pouted, but she curtsied again and darted upstairs. Unsurprisingly, she made certain to stomp extra-hard on the squeaky steps.
Derek resisted the urge to roll his eyes and held out the water cup to Stiles. "So that was my daughter."
"I see the resemblance." Stiles accepted the cup with a smile and steadier hands than the night before. "But then, I haven't had the pleasure of meeting her mother."
"She's not around," Derek said quickly, perhaps too quickly, given the strange look Stiles gave him. "She passed when Lottie was a baby," he added. "She doesn't remember. Obviously."
Stiles took a sip of water and regarded him steadily. "You don't sound too upset about it."
"Her mother wasn't a good person," Derek said, before he could stop himself.
He didn't think of Jennifer much now, and when he did, there was less hurt and more relief that she hadn't stayed around to hurt Lottie. Thank God Lottie had been too young to remember any of it.
He cleared his throat to change the subject. "I've got some pants for you, and some warm shirts. We can change your bandage and then you can get dressed."
Something growled between them, and Stiles blushed fiercely and put his hands over his stomach. "Sorry! Sorry."
Oh, of course. How could Derek have forgotten? Stiles probably hadn't had a decent meal in days. "And we'll get you some food."
He started to stand to grab one of the pancakes he'd made for breakfast, when Stiles asked, "Why are you helping me?"
Derek paused. "What do you mean?"
"You don't know me. You could've taken me to the doctor or something," Stiles said. "Why keep me here? You said last night that you run a ranch, how do you even have time to—"
"It's the right thing to do." Derek cut him off. "You were hurt on my land. Besides, doctor was too far. You'd have frozen before we could get there."
Stiles frowned, his amber eyes going knife-sharp, like he still didn't believe a word Derek had said. "So who's taking care of your ranch while you're taking care of me?"
"Erica," Derek said. "You'll meet her later. Boyd and Isaac also help, but they're out at the western border, tracking the way you came."
Stiles tensed visibly, his whole body drawing up tight. "What? Why?"
Derek took a deep breath and nodded his head at the bruise on Stiles's ribs, dark and purpling, now more clearly the size of a fist. "Because we're pretty sure you didn't get that walking in the woods."
Stiles's eyes widened, and he spread his hand over the bruise. "Oh my Go—gosh."
He shoved and kicked the blankets off him, and Derek stood up and averted his eyes. It was one thing to see a man nearly naked when you were administering medical care; it was something else entirely when he was up and around and moving on his own. Stiles didn't need to be...ogled.
"Nine," Stiles finally said, voice shaking. "Nine...but..."
"Don't suppose you remember how you got them?" Derek asked.
"Of course I don't," Stiles snapped. "The last thing I remember...the last thing I remember is..."
His voice cut off, and his heartbeat started galloping as it had the night before. He hugged himself, hands spasming on his arms. Each breath he took sounded like a wheeze, like he was drinking the air but couldn't get any.
Derek grabbed one of the blankets and wrapped it around Stiles's shoulders. "It's okay, Stiles," Derek said, hoping he sounded calmer than he felt. "Dr. Deaton had to put a lot of stitches in your head. You're going to be okay, it just may take another couple of days for your brain to unscramble itself."
"Hug me," Stiles said through clenched teeth.
Derek's heart skipped. Surely he'd misheard. "What?"
"Like last night," Stiles forced out.
Derek didn't waste another second; he scooted onto the mattress next to Stiles and pulled him into a hug. To his surprise, Stiles made a small noise and tucked his head under Derek's chin. At a loss for anything else, Derek held him and rocked him side-to-side, as he'd done before.
It felt strange to be doing this to someone who wasn't Lottie, because his daughter was the only one who allowed him to rock her now. But when Isaac had first joined the pack, he'd had terrible nightmares. To this day Derek didn't know exactly what they had been, but the only thing that would calm Isaac down after was being surrounded by pack. Derek had spent several nights holding Isaac just like this, with Erica or Boyd or both cuddled on his other side and Lottie curled up near the foot of the bed, sleeping on Isaac's legs.
He knew, he knew it was a bad idea to think like that, to think of Stiles as pack when he'd barely known the boy a full hour, but something in him wouldn't let go of the idea. No matter how much Derek reminded himself that Stiles probably already had a family, one that was likely very worried about him.
Slowly, Stiles's heartbeat slowed and his breathing evened out, becoming less harsh and gasping. Reluctantly, Derek started to ease away, but Stiles kept a death grip on his shirt, making it impossible for to move.
"Thank you," Stiles said roughly.
Derek nodded and tried very hard not to think about the brush of Stiles's hair against his beard, or the way his scent had warmed as he'd calmed. Which, of course, meant he couldn't stop thinking about it.
"Your bandage," Derek said, to remind himself of what they had to do. "We should change your bandage. And get you dressed."
"Okay," Stiles said softly.
"And I've got some newspapers on my desk," Derek said. "If you want to read them. They might help."
"I...yes. Yeah, I'd like that." Stiles smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Hale."
Derek shook his head and stood. "Just call me Derek."
Changing the bandage was a little easier with Stiles holding himself upright. He didn't say much, just frowned at the corner of the room, like he was searching for something in his own mind. Derek took the opportunity to check the wound, which didn't look any worse than it had been when Deaton had stitched it, and to draw off some more pain while Stiles paid him no mind.
As soon as the bandage was changed, Derek carried over a stack of clothes and a stack of newspapers to go right along with it.
Stiles eyed the pile in his arms with some trepidation. "While I appreciate the clothes, I'm afraid actually getting them on might be a bit beyond my abilities at the moment, which seem to be limited to sitting upright."
Derek wanted to smack himself. He had only the faintest idea of how to care for someone who didn't heal instantaneously. The only human he spent any significant time around was Lottie, and luckily all her injuries had thus far amounted to a collection of scrapes and bruises, which didn't require any special care, and the sniffles in the winter, which required a lot of soup and a handy handkerchief.
None of that had prepared him for taking care of someone who had spent the better part of the past two days unconscious because of a head wound.
He set aside the papers and the pants, but kept his shirt. "Hold up your hands."
Stiles gave him another strange look, but obediently held his hands up over his head. As gently as he could, Derek tugged the shirt over his arms and head, trying not to disturb the bandage he'd just changed.
The shirt was clean, but it was older, so the threads still held Derek's own scent. As soon as the shirt was on, the combined smell of him and Stiles hit his nose, and Derek skittered back like he'd touched a hot stove.
No, no, he wasn't thinking about that, he wasn't.
"There," he said. "Should help keep you warmer. You can put the pants on when you feel a little stronger. I'll get you some pancakes."
He settled Stiles on the couch with pancakes, water, and the newspapers, and then went back to his desk and his own small mountain of paperwork, resolving not to look up until Stiles needed something.
Despite his best intentions, he couldn't help but sneak a glance every now and then, watching as Stiles pored over the papers. His brow furrowed in concentration and he chewed a little on his lower lip, scrubbing a hand through his messy brown hair as he read. If there was something in there that helped his memories, Derek saw no sign of it.
The third time Derek looked up, he spotted Lottie on the couch beside Stiles, her slate on her lap and the book of fairy tales open on her other side, her dark head bent over her lap. Her chalk scraped softly on the slate as she copied sentences.
"What's this word?" she whispered.
Derek put his papers aside to go stand, but then he heard Stiles say, "Suitable."
"Oh!" Lottie said, and went back to copying sentences.
Oh. Derek sat there, watching them, frozen in his seat. He thought he should feel upset, perhaps, that he had been replaced as the one to help Lottie with her words. But he wasn't upset. Far from it. His heart warmed in a way he scarcely recognized.
He turned back to his desk papers before he could examine it too closely.
Erica sauntered in with Boyd and Isaac later that evening, as Derek was nearly finished with the stew for supper. Outside, it had been dark for half an hour, and he bit his lip to hold back the tongue-lashing that was his initial reaction.
Boyd, however, apparently caught the look on his face. "Erica joined us to search after the sheep were seen to," he said. "Better to have three people looking than two."
Derek took a deep breath. "You should have told me," he said to Erica.
She didn't look particularly put out about the reprimand. "I will, next time." She swung herself into one of the chairs at the table. "Don't think my presence made much difference, though."
Isaac dropped into the chair beside her and grumbled. "We followed the ravine two miles back, followed the creek, and nothing. Far as we can tell, the kid dropped out of the sky to land under that tree."
"That would explain this headache," Stiles muttered from the couch.
Another time, Derek might have warned Erica and Isaac that their houseguest had woken up. As it was, he took a perverse pleasure in the way they both cursed and snarled, jumping out of their seats to whirl on the couch.
"This is Stiles!" Lottie said. "He woke up today and he's been helping me with my letters while Daddy did chores. He knows all kinds of words."
Boyd covered his laugh with an unconvincing cough. Derek covered his by testing the stew on the stove.
"Derek." There was no mistaking the threat in Erica's voice. "You might have told us Mr. Stiles was awake."
"Forgive me for expecting you to notice an extra person sitting on the couch," Derek said.
"And it's just Stiles," Stiles said.
Erica strode over and held out her hand. "Erica Reyes, since Derek isn't civilized enough to handle introductions. That tall, dark, and handsome gentleman at the door is my husband, Vernon Boyd, but just call him Boyd."
"What if I want him to call me Vernon?" Boyd said from where he was hanging up coats and hats to dry.
"Don't be ridiculous, love, you haven't wanted anyone to call you Vernon in the seven years I've known you. The only time Derek did you threatened to put out his eye." Erica tossed her blond curls over her shoulder and turned back to Stiles. "And the other gentleman you scared the life out of is Isaac Lahey. I promise, we're not normally so excitable."
Stiles cautiously extended his hand to shake Erica's. "Um, pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Reyes?"
Oh Lord. Erica had that gleam in her eye. "Just Erica will do. It's nice to see you up and around, Stiles. How's your head?"
Stiles reached up and ran his fingers along the bandage. "Feels like I bashed it against a rock. Which, by all accounts, is what I did."
Erica frowned. "You don't remember?"
"Erica!" Derek raised his voice. "Come get the cornbread started so we can have dinner."
To his immense relief, Erica didn't try to continue questioning Stiles; she just smiled and came into the kitchen and wash up her hands. She also arched a knowing brow at Derek. Derek studiously ignored it.
"I can't help but notice that's your shirt he's wearing," Erica said, low enough that only the wolves could hear it.
Derek growled. "Just make the damn cornbread."
And so it went. Life on the ranch was already routine, and adding Stiles to it really wasn't that difficult. Each morning Derek changed his bandage and checked on the wound, and drained some of the pain away. Then he went about his own chores, whether in the pack house or out in the barn with the others, while Stiles and Lottie sat on the couch, Lottie working at her lessons and Stiles sorting the newspapers.
After the second day, Stiles had asked for help putting on the pants, and by the third day, he was walking around the living room and joining them at the table for meals. Derek tried studiously not to think about how easily he fit at the table, how it wasn't even overcrowded to move the chairs around to include him.
Of course, it wasn't just him. On more than one occasion, Derek walked into the house to see one of his other pack members sitting on the couch by Stiles, reading the newspaper articles aloud or chatting with him while they worked on a pile of mending. He even insisted on helping Erica and Boyd on laundry day, and Derek walked in to the site of Stiles with his sleeves pushed up past his elbows, dragging a wet pair of trousers up and down the washboard as he laughed at something Erica had said.
Derek had immediately walked back outside, where the cold could clear his head.
As his head hurt less, Stiles became more animated, using his hands to punctuate whatever he was saying and laughing with his whole body when he found something funny. He also read with Lottie out of the book of fairy tales, grinned widely as she took over the stories and twisted the ones where the wolves were the villains to make them the heroes.
"Wolves aren't always bad," Lottie had said. "Sometimes they can be very helpful and kind."
Stiles had nodded solemnly. "I agree wholeheartedly, Miss Hale."
Lottie had beamed with glee, and later informed Derek how pleased she was that Stiles treated her like a grown up by calling her Miss Hale.
"Can Stiles stay forever?" she asked.
Derek's heart twisted, because hell. His daughter was getting attached, and so was the rest of the pack. So was he. He tugged on her braid and shook his head. "I'm sure Stiles has family somewhere that's worried about him. When he feels better, he needs to go see them again."
Lottie pouted, but at least she'd dropped the subject. Derek also knew that would only last so long. They needed to see about getting Stiles home, but every time Derek asked what he remembered, Stiles's bright face slowly shuttered, and he'd drop his gaze to his hands.
That wasn't to say he didn't remember anything. He did, bits and pieces, which he told Derek late at night when no one else was around. His first name was Przemyslaw, after his maternal grandfather, and he'd started using Stiles as his nickname in school when no one else could pronounce it. He was twenty years old, at least, because he remembered dancing with a lovely redhead named Lydia that day. His mother had died when he was eight, and remembering that had spurred another attack that hadn't gone away until Derek had hugged and rocked him again. He'd finished school, he was sure of it, but he had no idea what he did by way of a profession.
So he remembered, but sadly, it wasn't enough to figure out where to look for his family. Derek supposed he could go to town and ask the deputy if there were any missing Przemyslaw Stilinskis, because surely that was an uncommon name, but the chance of them getting word of that way out in Beacon Hills was slim. It might be weeks before they heard back.
It wasn't until Stiles remembered that his father was a sheriff, nearly two weeks after they'd found him, that Derek finally felt they had something to go on.
"Sheriff Stilinski?" Derek asked.
Stiles perked up immediately. "Do you know him?"
"No," Derek said, and had to deal with Stiles's face falling at the news. "But there can't be many Sheriff Stilinskis around. I'll be able to find him fast, I'm sure."
Stiles's face lit up, and then it looked like he was struggling to keep the happiness from showing too much. "I'm sorry, I mean, I appreciate everything you've done for me—"
"It's okay," Derek cut in. "You want to get back to your family. I understand."
Stiles smiled again, this time so small it seemed to be hidden in the shadows of the room, lit only by the fire in the hearth. "When you do think you'll be able to go look?"
Derek considered. "Tomorrow morning. If I leave early enough, I should be able to get back here before dusk." Before he could stop himself, he dropped a hand to Stiles's knee and squeezed. "I'll find him, I promise. I'll get you home."
To his surprise, Stiles set his long fingers over Derek's. "I know you will. Thank you."
Derek wanted to turn his hand over, wanted to thread his fingers through Stiles's, wanted to lean in close to better breathe in the warmth of his scent. He wanted to sink into him without ever having to come up for air.
Instead, he made himself stand. "You're welcome," he said gruffly, because he could at least be polite. "Now get some sleep, and think over any message you want me to send to your father."
Of course, Derek's determination to leave early the following morning meant he didn't ride out until well after lunch. First Lottie, who was normally fairly well-behaved, fought him on everything, from braiding her hair that morning to what dress to wear to starting her schoolwork. No sooner had he finally gotten her settled than Erica came bursting in, letting him know at least two of the sheep were sick and had been quarantined, but he still needed to come out with them in order to sniff the rest of the flock and make sure no other sheep had been contaminated.
As it was, it was far later in the day than Derek would have liked when he finally saddled his black gelding, Mars, and took off for Beacon Hills, with Stiles's message tucked in one pocket and Boyd's list for the general store in another.
No part of the day had contributed to putting him in a good mood, not even Stiles's smile as he'd given Derek the message. It was just a reminder that Derek was riding out to help Stiles leave them, when every instinct he had screamed that Stiles belonged with their pack.
No, he scolded himself as he rode. You've known him two weeks and you know he has a family. How would you feel if another family kept Isaac? Or Erica? Or Lottie?
It would kill him not to know what had happened to a member of his pack, and that reminder kept him riding on.
He finally reached the main street of Beacon Hills, a sleepy little town with a mere handful of buildings: the blacksmith, the inn, the general store, the saloon, the post office, and the jail. Of course, Derek used the term "jail" loosely; it had all of one cell and really was just more of a small building that the local deputy, Harris, used to keep the occasional drunk quiet for the night. There was a school, but it was a little further out from the town's main square, since so many children lived on the farms and ranches scattered around Beacon Hills.
Derek stopped by the general store first, to pick up a newspaper and to purchase the things Boyd had requested. It was not because he was putting off asking about Sheriff Stilinski, and to prove it, he asked Mr. Finstock at the general store if he knew of a Sheriff Stilinski.
"Stilinski, Stilinski...never heard of it." Finstock packed up Derek's purchases and shoved the packages across the counter. "Sheriff over in Hill Valley's Bilinski, I think, but there's not a Stilinski around these parts."
Derek took the packages and thanked Finstock, and decided it would be best if he stopped by the post office and the jail as well. Jail first, because he had a feeling the deputy would know who the sheriff was, at the very least. Not that Derek was looking forward to talking to Deputy Harris; the man was the most condescending asshole Derek had ever met. Not to mention, he hated the way the man smelled.
The sun was already dipping perilously close to the western horizon where Derek knocked on the door of the jail. "Deputy Harris?"
No response, and through the windows he could see not even a lantern had been lit in the jail.
Strange. Far as he knew, the deputy lived at the jail; why wasn't he here?
Derek made a quick stop by the saloon and the inn to make sure Harris wasn't there, but neither place was terribly busy just yet, and he couldn't spot the deputy. He returned to the jail and knocked again, but there was still no answer.
He tried the door, and to Derek's surprise, it swung open as soon as he touched the latch. Why the hell had Harris left the door to the jail unlocked?
Still, Derek stepped inside. At the very least, perhaps he could find a list of sheriffs for the counties of northern California, and that would give him a place to start.
The deputy's office was cold and dark, which Derek had expected, and it looked like someone had left in a hurry, which he had not expected. He let his eyes bleed red to make it a little easier to see. The cell door was hanging open, papers were scattered across the desk, and the drawers had haphazardly been yanked open. He had no idea if the deputy had done it, or if someone had come by and searched everything.
It made him nervous.
He decided to head back to the general store and see if Finstock would let him use the phone to call Hill Valley, and was about to leave when one of the papers on the desk caught his eye. It looked like a sketch of some kind.
Derek pulled it out from under the other papers. It was a stunningly accurate sketch of Stiles, with the word MISSING across the top in bold letters.
He scanned the rest of the poster, the words "Deputy Stiles Stilinski" and "six feet tall, brown hair, brown eyes" and "contact Sheriff John Stilinski, Hill Valley."
Derek was out the door of the jail and halfway to the general store when he caught another phrase on the poster: "suspected kidnapping."
"Finstock!" Derek yelled. "I need to use the telephone!"
"I need to use the telephone" turned out to be "I need you to connect the damn thing to the sheriff's department in Hill Valley," because Derek had used the general store's telephone all of once in his life, and was not terribly keen to repeat the experience. He hated hearing a voice and being unable to hear the person's heartbeat, smell their scent, see their face. It made him feel like he'd lost half his senses.
After only minimal complaining of the dinner he was missing at the saloon, Mr. Finstock got the cursed telephone working and shoved the earpiece at Derek. The next thing Derek knew, a pleasant voice was saying into his ear, "Hill Valley Sheriff."
"Hello, um." Derek bent over to get closer to the part he was pretty sure he was actually supposed to speak into. "I need to speak to Sheriff Stilinski. I'm calling about Stiles."
Something clattered on the other end of the line, and then the person shouted, "One moment please!"
Despite the crackling connection, Derek could hear a lot of commotion coming through the telephone. He growled and wished the damn thing could show him what was going on.
Then a new voice said, "I'm Sheriff Stilinski. Who are you, and where is my son?"
"I'm Derek Hale," Derek said. "I own Triskele Ranch out north of Beacon Hills. I found Stiles out in the woods near the border of my property a couple of weeks back."
"How is he? Is he—" The sheriff's sentence cut out, though Derek couldn't be sure if that was the man's voice or the telephone connection.
"He's alive," Derek said. "But he was hurt, hit his head. His memory's...spotty. He's been getting better."
He couldn't be sure, but it sounded like the sheriff let out a heavy sigh. "How spotty is spotty?"
"He remembers things in patches," Derek said. "Bits and pieces. It's just taking time. I'm sure he'd remember you if he saw you." He winced at how awkward he sounded.
"I can be there by tomorrow," the sheriff said. "Just tell me how to get to your ranch."
Derek opened his mouth to answer, when a howl rent the air, far enough off that he half-thought it was his imagination. Then he heard another one, long and loud and urgent. Boyd and Isaac.
Something was wrong.
"Mr. Hale?" the sheriff was saying in his ear, but it sounded even further away than a telephone call normally did.
"I have to go," Derek said, but he was already dropping the telephone earpiece, running out of the general store to where he had Mars tied up on the street.
He heard Finstock yell "Where are you going?", but Derek ignored him. Another howl sounded, this one entirely unfamiliar to his ears. It sent a chill down his spine.
Derek jumped on his horse and spurred him north. His pack was in trouble.
The distance between town and the ranch had never felt so far. It gnawed at him, the knowledge that he needed to be there mixed with the knowledge that he couldn't get there any faster than Mars could gallop.
Icy wind bit at his face, cutting through his coat, but Derek shook off the discomfort. High above, the moon shone impossibly bright, white against the black sky, pulling at his blood. How could he not even have remembered tonight was the full moon?
It didn't matter. The only thing that mattered now was getting home to his pack. To Lottie. To Stiles.
His throat burned with each breath of cold air and itched with the urge to howl, to let them know he was coming, but Derek held it in check. Right now, he might still have the element of surprise against any attackers.
A mile out from the ranch, Derek finally pulled Mars to a stop and dismounted. He shed his clothes and tied them in a bundle on Mars's back, then whispered "Home" and slapped his horse on the rump to send Mars to the barn. From here, Derek could hear the sounds of fighting, the sheep bleating in confusion and panic.
He growled and gave into the pull of the moon, shifting fully, and then dropped to all fours. His senses seemed to double in strength with the shift, but none of them were as strong as the instinct that his pack was in danger and he needed to be there, now.
Derek bolted out of the woods, clawed hands and feet tearing at the ground and flinging dirt and snow behind him. He smelled Boyd first, closest, and a second later saw him, locked in combat with another werewolf in beta shift that Derek didn't recognize.
With a furious howl, Derek launched himself at the intruder, landing claws-first against his back. They went tumbling through the snow, the other wolf snarling and struggling against Derek's grip. He was stronger than anticipated, and ripped himself away as soon as they'd come to a stop.
Derek shook himself and rolled to his feet to face the other werewolf. His skin was dark grey, like he'd been rubbed in the ashes of a fire, his face ridged and angry, and his eyes were huge and red and empty as glass.
Hell. Derek didn't think he'd ever seen an Alpha go as wrong as this one.
That was all the time he had to contemplate it before the other Alpha howled and launched at him again. Derek took the brunt of the attack head-on and rolled backward with the momentum, burying his clawed feet in the other Alpha's stomach and shoving as hard as he could. The Alpha went flying, and landed with a sickening crunch on a snow-covered rock.
He didn't get back up.
Derek swung his head around to Boyd, who was hunched over, one hand on his knees and the other arm wrapped around his stomach. His breath misted in the cold air.
"Good timing." Boyd gulped and winced, but he started staggering back toward the house. "The others are back there."
He didn't specify if "others" meant the rest of their pack or the others who'd attacked, but then Derek could hear the sound of fighting on the other side of the house.
The crack of a gunshot sounded in the night, and Derek whipped his head up to the second floor of the pack house.
He was running again, heart pounding so loud he couldn't hear anything else, nearly tore the door to the house off its hinges. Derek bounded up the stairs and froze.
Lottie cowered in the doorway of a room, Stiles standing in front of her with a rifle raised, the smell of gunpowder and wolfsbane mixing sharp in the air. Isaac sagged against one wall, bleeding, and another unfamiliar werewolf lay on the wood floor, a slowly growing puddle of blood under him.
Suddenly, Stiles swung the rifle around to point at him. For one heart-stopping moment, Derek was sure he'd pull the trigger.
Then he heard "Daddy!" and split-second later Lottie attacked him, wrapped her arms around his neck and burying her face in his fur with a sob. Derek hugged her close, careful not to squeeze too tight, and breathed deep to see if she was hurt. There were almost too many scents in the air, but Lottie just smelled like herself, if more frightened than usual.
Derek shifted back to human, if only so he could actually speak. "Are you okay?" He pulled back to better see Lottie's face, and wiped tears off her cheeks. "You're not hurt?"
She shook her head, and Derek finally let himself feel the full weight of relief. He rubbed his hand over her hair and kissed her forehead, before picking her up and standing. "Isaac?"
Isaac was already standing up straighter, pulling up his shirt to show where five gouges were knitting back together. "Give me another hour, I'll be good as new."
Stiles had lowered the rifle to the ground and was gaping at Derek with eyes as wide as dinner plates. Two pink spots bloomed on his cheeks. "I...um...you..."
Derek took a step forward. "Are you okay? Did they hurt you?"
Stiles quickly averted his eyes. "No! I'm fine! I—"
Derek looked down, and felt the heat rise on his own face. He'd forgotten that he was naked. "Um."
Isaac laughed and then grimaced. "Oh. Oh God. Don't be funny. It hurts."
Something soft smacked him in the back of the legs, and Derek looked to see a pair of pants on the ground beside him. Boyd and Erica were standing on the stairs, supporting each other, with twin smirks on their faces.
Derek scowled and set Lottie down long enough to pull on the pants, and then picked her back up. "How many were there?" he asked gruffly. "Are there any others?"
"We counted six, five werewolves and Deputy Harris." Boyd nodded at the body on the floor. "He should be the last one."
"Where are the others?" Derek asked.
"Outside." Erica grinned, but Derek could see the blood along her forehead. "Don't worry, boss. We took care of them."
He took a deep breath and nodded. "Okay. Let's get this guy out of here. And make sure the others aren't going to cause us any trouble."
Isaac was the one who ended up dragging the dead werewolf outside, and set the body off to one side of the house. Derek and Boyd walked the perimeter of the ranch house and found the others, moving them all to the same place, and Derek took stock: the Alpha he'd killed, the wolf Stiles had shot, a female werewolf, a pair of twins, and Deputy Harris.
Well, that would certainly explain why Derek hadn't seen him at the jail.
He and Boyd trudged back to the pack house. "Any idea what they were doing here?" Derek asked.
"Said they were looking for Deputy Stilinski," Boyd said. "They got angry when we said he wasn't here. Thought we'd be weak without our Alpha around."
Pride bloomed in his chest, and Derek clapped Boyd on the shoulder. "Their mistake."
Inside, Erica and Isaac had dragged two extra mattresses down to the first floor, adjusting them around the fireplace in the main room. "Don't know about you, but I'm not sleeping alone tonight," Erica said.
Boyd walked over and hugged her from behind. "You never sleep alone."
Erica tugged his hand up to kiss his fingers. "You know what I mean."
Derek couldn't argue. After a night like this, he didn't particularly want to let any one of his pack out of his sight.
He spotted Stiles sitting at the table, newspapers piled in front of him and a stricken expression on his face. Derek started to go over to him and ask what was wrong, but Lottie came down the stairs with a blanket in one arm and her doll in the other and walked straight into Derek's legs.
"Story," she demanded.
Derek hefted her up, and she immediately laid her head on his shoulder. "Okay, pup. Bedtime story."
It took two bedtime stories and nearly every song Derek knew, but finally Lottie curled up against Isaac and fell asleep. Boyd and Erica were wound together on the next mattress, also asleep, and Derek let himself have one brief moment of fear, of how close he'd come to losing them. He thanked God that he hadn't.
Stiles was still at the table with the newspapers, his hands trembling like the last leaves of autumn. Soundlessly, Derek made his way across the room to take a seat beside him. "You should get some rest."
"No," Stiles bit out. "I can't."
"I'll be sleeping on the couch. Anything that wants to get at you will have to go through me first."
Stiles's face darkened, and he clenched his fists. "That's not it." He rubbed the bandage around his head. "I can't. I...those people came here for me, and now I have all these memory scraps all jumbled and I watched your friends nearly get killed protecting me. Not to mention you're all some kind of half-human, half-wolf thing and I just shot a guy with glowing red eyes and fangs. And then I nearly shot you. So no, I can't sleep."
"Werewolves," Derek said.
Stiles jerked his head up to gape at Derek. "What?"
"Werewolves," he repeated. "That's what we are. We're particularly strong on the full moon. Probably why the others attacked tonight."
Stiles stared at him, eyes wide. Derek held his breath, felt like he was standing on a precipice with this conversation, some part of him terrified that Stiles would turn away from him now.
"Oh," Stiles finally said. "Well, that makes sense. Just to be clear, you were a six-foot-tall wolf at one point tonight?"
Derek let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding, and nodded.
Stiles glanced back at the sleeping pile of people in front of the fireplace. "Can the others change like that?"
Derek shook his head. "I'm the Alpha."
"And the others are?"
"Betas. Lottie's human, though."
Stiles bounced his knee up and down, brow furrowed, but this time it looked like he was thinking, mulling over what Derek had said. "How does an Alpha werewolf have a human daughter?"
"Her mother was human," Derek said. "It doesn't always—it's not a guarantee."
"Do you only change fully?" Stiles asked. "Or can you just..."
Derek let the change come over him, felt his fangs lengthen and his brow protrude and his eyes burn red. It wasn't beautiful, far from it, but Stiles let out a little gasp and looked at him in quiet awe.
He lifted a hand, as though to touch Derek's face, and then paused. "Can I?"
Derek nodded and leaned forward, and then Stiles's long fingers were brushing over his face. He closed his eyes so he could focus on the sensation, and failed utterly at holding back a soft rumble of pleasure.
"Wow," Stiles whispered.
Derek opened one eye. "Scared?"
Stiles's face went impossibly soft. "I don't think I could be scared of you."
Derek's heart flipped and beat harder, and he'd never been so grateful that Stiles couldn't hear it. He grasped Stiles's wrists and gently drew them down, away from his face. "I spoke to your father."
Stiles's eyes lit up with hope, and his scent spiked with the same. "You did? You found him?"
Derek started to pull his hands away, but instead Stiles clasped them tight. "What did he say?" Stiles asked.
"I didn't get a chance to talk to him long," Derek admitted. "I told him where you were, and he sounded relieved to know you were alive. But then I heard the howls, and..."
"And you came back for us," Stiles finished. "For them, I mean."
Derek raised his eyes from their joined hands to meet Stiles's gaze. "For you, too."
Stiles didn't look away from him, and his scrutiny was a physical thing, the weight of it heavy on Derek's shoulders. His tongue darted out, wetting his lips, and Derek couldn't keep his eyes away from the movement.
"Thank you," Stiles finally said, and squeezed Derek's hands. "For everything."
And then he leaned forward and kissed Derek on the cheek.
Derek froze completely, blood roaring in his ears, the smell of Stiles in each breath he took. He didn't want to move, for fear this was actually a dream, and moving would wake him up and leave him alone.
But he couldn't resist the impulse to turn his head, just enough so that he could run the tip of his nose over Stiles's cheek, brushing it across the moles that dotted his jawline. Stiles didn't back away; if anything, his grip on Derek's hands tightened, as if he were afraid Derek was the one who would leave.
I couldn't walk away from you when I hadn't a hope of you wanting me, he wanted to say. What makes you think I could do it now that I know you do?
Instead, Derek murmured, "Think you can sleep now?"
Stiles's soft laugh ghosted against his cheek. "I think I'd sleep better if I wasn't alone."
"Well. The couch is big enough for two, you know."
"Mmm." Stiles pulled back enough so Derek could see the mischievous glint in his amber eyes. "That sounds perfect."
Derek woke up the next morning with one arm draped around Stiles, who was cuddled up so tight against him Derek felt his chest press into Stiles's back with each breath he took. The rest of his pack was still sprawled on the mattresses on the floor, though Lottie had managed to stretch herself out so that her feet were tucked under Erica while her face was smushed into Isaac's back.
Sunlight streamed through the windows, reminding Derek that it was later than they normally woke, but he couldn't bring himself to care, not after the night they'd had. Besides, it had been a long time since he'd felt quite so settled, like everything in his life had slotted itself into place.
Of course, that was when someone knocked on the door.
Derek grumbled and burrowed his face in Stiles's hair. He was warm and content and sleepy and he didn't want to deal with whatever was waiting outside.
However, that didn't actually make the person outside go away, and the knocking persisted. "Mr. Hale!" an unfamiliar voice yelled, muffled through the wood.
Derek reluctantly pushed himself off the couch, moving as slowly as he could so as not to disturb Stiles, but Stiles still whined and grabbed at him. "No, pillow, come back."
"Hush." Derek chuckled and squeezed Stiles's arm. "I'll be right back, okay?"
Stiles frowned into the couch and made another disgruntled sound, but he let go.
Derek ran his hands through his hair in what was probably a vain effort to tame it, and grabbed one of the shirts drying by the fireplace to pull on before he finally answered the door.
An older man with sandy hair and sharp blue eyes stood on his porch, flanked on one side by a young man and on the other side by a young woman, all dressed far more smartly than Derek was for this time of day.
"You Derek Hale?" the older man asked.
Derek started to answer when he spotted the matching badges the three wore on their left breasts, and then his mind finally woke up and put the pieces together. His mouth felt suddenly dry. "Sheriff Stilinski?"
The sheriff nodded sharply, and Derek heard a rustling noise from the couch behind him and "Dad?"
Derek turned to see Stiles sitting up and looking over the side of the couch, hair sticking up every which way over the bandage still wrapped around his head, eyes wide and hopeful.
He prudently stepped aside from the door, and that was all it took for Sheriff Stilinski to stride in. If Derek had any doubts about who the man was, they were erased the moment Stiles jumped over the back of the couch and landed on his father with a hug.
Derek swallowed the very sudden and painful lump in his throat, and turned away so he wouldn't eavesdrop.
The female deputy, a pretty brunette, cleared her throat. "So. You're Mr. Hale?"
Derek realized they were still standing awkwardly by the front door, and silently cursed his bad manners. "Yeah. Yes, ma'am. Deputy. Ma'am."
The deputy stuck out her hand. "Nice to meet you. I'm Deputy Argent." She gestured to the man beside her. "This is Deputy Parrish."
Derek shook her hand and waved toward the kitchen table. "Please, have a seat. We'll get some breakfast started shortly."
Deputy Argent smiled brightly, and followed him to the kitchen table. "Oh, we don't want to be any trouble."
"It's no trouble," Derek said. Anything that kept Stiles here just a little longer wouldn't be any trouble at all.
Deputy Parrish swaggered up to the table and leaned against it. "So, Mr. Hale. Couldn't help but notice the mighty large pile of bodies outside your house."
Derek froze. "Um. I can explain."
Across the room, Erica sat up and stretched with a loud groan. "Oh, it's time for coffee."
Derek hurried to get the water started. Yes, it was definitely time for coffee.
With a little work, they managed to squeeze everybody around the table, with Lottie in Derek's lap and still half-asleep against his shoulder. She only opened her eyes to glare at the sheriff and the deputies, before curling back up against him and drooling on his shirt.
Even with people he knew, Stiles's memory still hadn't returned fully. He recognized them all, but Derek could see the way his eyes didn't quite light up right when Parrish or Argent mentioned certain incidents.
Boyd dished up breakfast, and he, Isaac, Erica, and Boyd filled the sheriff in on what had happened during the attack. Deputy Argent took copious notes in a small book, occasionally pausing to ask for clarification.
Derek shifted Lottie to his other side so he could better talk to the sheriff. "I'll understand if you need to arrest me."
Sheriff Stilinski just stared at him, and then snorted. "Mr. Hale, I can assure you, there's no need to arrest you. It's clear those people came onto your property with the intent to harm or kill you and yours. No judge or jury would convict on that. Besides," and he lowered his voice a little further, "we've been trying to track that group down for the past three years. Deucalion and his cronies are some of the worst opium smugglers we've ever dealt with. I don't even know how long they'd had Harris working with them. Stiles had been leading the investigation for the past six months."
A lot of things suddenly made sense. "They took him to keep you from pursuing the investigation."
Sheriff Stilinski nodded, mouth tight. "He'd been missing for five days when you found him. I hadn't heard anything until you called."
Derek tried to think about how he'd feel if Lottie had been missing for three weeks, if he had no idea if she was alive or dead or hurt, and immediately shut down that line of thought. The sheriff was far more composed than he would be in the same situation.
Sheriff Stilinski's mouth twisted into a small smile. "I don't think I can thank you enough for taking care of my son. Knowing he was somewhere safe...'thank you' just seems too small for it. You ever need anything, you let me know. I mean it."
Derek tried to keep his gaze from sliding to Stiles. "I just did what any decent person would do."
Sheriff Stilinski just raised his eyebrow at Lottie's sleeping form. "Take a look at her, and tell me you wouldn't feel beholden to the people who kept her alive and safe."
Derek held Lottie a little tighter. "You're welcome, sir."
Sheriff Stilinski smiled a genuine smile then. "Glad we're on the same page, Mr. Hale."
After breakfast, Derek and his pack went out to take care of the sheep and the horses while the sheriff and the deputies made plans for what to do with the pile of bodies. Derek was fine with throwing himself into the work, because the more time he spent working the less time he spent thinking about how Stiles would be leaving soon.
Even after Erica, Boyd, and Isaac headed back inside for lunch, Derek kept working. He was just making up for all the time he'd spent inside with Stiles these past two weeks, that was all. That was the good and bad thing about a ranch: The work was never done.
He'd well and truly lost track of time when he heard someone clear their throat at the door of the barn.
Derek dropped the pitchfork he held and turned, somehow knowing it would be Stiles standing there.
Sure enough, Stiles stepped into the barn, a small, teasing smile on his face. "I can't believe I've been here two weeks and never got a tour of the place."
Derek picked the pitchfork back up, careful not to look up again. "Not much to see. It's a barn."
"It's your barn," Stiles said softly.
God. The quiet openness in those three words had Derek finally setting aside the pitchfork to look at Stiles. He wished it didn't break his heart to do so. "You're leaving."
Stiles nodded. "I have to. You understand that, right?"
The hell of it was, he did. If their positions were reversed, Derek would be doing the same thing. It didn't make it hurt any less. "I do." He took a deep breath. "House'll be quiet without you."
"Oh, I don't know," Stiles said lightly. "I'm sure Lottie will find a way to take up the slack."
Derek snorted. "She weasel a promise out of you to write?"
"Oh please. I weaseled the promise out of her." Stiles took another step closer to Derek. "Was hoping to do the same with her dad."
"I don't write," Derek said, his voice rougher than it should've been.
Stiles bounced a little on the balls of his feet. "Don't suppose you'd consider making an exception?"
No, Derek should've said. Why do you want that? he should've asked. Where do you see this going, you being in Hill Valley with your life and me being here with mine?
Instead, his voice operated of its own accord. "Maybe."
Stiles's face lit up like the damn sun, and Derek's heart felt like it was breaking all over again. "I've never met a 'maybe' I couldn't turn into a 'yes.'"
"I'm sure," Derek said dryly.
"I'll miss you."
The words hung in the air between them, weighty in the cold air of the barn. Derek could only stare at Stiles, at the cautious, earnest hope in his amber eyes, feeling the something between them he'd been struggling against for days and still hadn't been able to completely resist.
It was a terrible idea, he knew. No matter what happened here, Stiles would still leave.
Oh, fuck it all, Derek thought, and strode over to crowd Stiles against the barn wall. He took one moment to let his eyes trail over Stiles's face, the way his pretty pink lips parted in surprise, and then he kissed him.
It was delicious and terrifying, the way Stiles opened for him, letting Derek into his mouth with a sound halfway between a groan and a sigh. Hands skated up Derek's sides and fisted in his shirt, pulling him closer. Derek went with it, letting Stiles reel him in, feeling the way the kiss changed as he did. It was still heated, but it slowed, cracking Derek open and laying him bare. All the words he'd felt bottled inside him seemed to pour out through their kiss.
Just two weeks and I don't think I can live without you.
I'm going to miss you so much.
I think I'm falling in love with you, and I can't stop even though I know you won't stay.
I don't want to say goodbye, so this is as close as I can get.
He wasn't sure how long he stayed there, drowning in Stiles's scent and taste, but it felt like forever when he finally drew back, the reminder of the outside world stabbing at the back of his mind.
Stiles's eyes were wide, his lips swollen from their kisses. "I should..."
Derek nodded and stepped back, even though every instinct in him screamed not to. "You should," he agreed. "Travel safe."
Stiles stumbled back to the door, paused long enough to throw another brilliant smile Derek's way. "You'd better write."
Derek felt the edge of his lip twitch. "Goodbye, Stiles."
Six months later...
Derek waited with the cart outside the school, wiping sweat from his forehead. The summer sun beat down on him relentlessly, and he was pretty sure Veronica was taking a nap standing up. Damn lucky horse.
The school door burst open and kids came flying out. It didn't take long for Lottie to emerge, and she made a beeline for Derek and practically jumped into the cart. "Can we go to the post office?"
Derek tugged on her braid. "Hello, Lottie. How was school today?"
Lottie rolled her eyes. "Hello, Daddy. School was fine. Can we go to the post office please?"
He sighed and pulled her into a one-armed hug. "Yes, we can."
It had been part of their daily routine for nearly six months now: He picked Lottie up from school, they rode into town, and Lottie collected the mail from the post office. Then, if there was a letter from Stiles, Lottie ripped it open and read the entire thing to Derek on their way home. Usually twice.
He hadn't expected Stiles to keep his promise to write, but at least twice a month, letters had arrived, for Lottie (addressed to Miss Hale, which never failed to make Lottie squeal in glee), for Erica and Boyd, for Isaac, and for Derek. Fortunately, Lottie only read aloud the ones for her, which were filled with funny stories about Stiles's life in Hill Valley, his friends Scott and Lydia, and his work with Deputy Argent (whose first name was Allison).
The letters he sent to Derek were far more private, and each one closed with "I still miss you, and eagerly await your reply."
Derek saved all the letters in a box under his bed, and didn't let himself think about how much he missed Stiles in return. It was ridiculous; they'd only known each other two weeks, and yet no matter what he did, Derek hadn't been able to get Stiles out of his mind for the past six months.
They rode into town, Lottie practically vibrating in excitement beside him. "Do you think there will be a letter from Stiles?"
Derek sighed. "You just mailed your letter last week."
This simple statement of fact did not dampen her enthusiasm in the least. "But there might be!"
"Don't get your hopes up too high," he cautioned, even though he knew it was fruitless to do so.
He pulled the cart up in front of the general store and tied Veronica to the hitching post outside before helping Lottie out of the cart. "I've got a lot to pick up here, so I want you to go straight to the post office and come right back, do you understand?"
Lottie nodded, pale eyes serious. "Yes, sir. I promise. Can I go now, please?"
"May I," Derek corrected. "And yes."
Lottie scampered off across the dusty road and disappeared into the post office, almost as if she were afraid Derek would change his mind if she stayed still for too long.
He shook his head and went into the general store. It was fairly crowded, as he'd expected, and Finstock was busy yelling at his assistant, Greenberg, but Derek still managed to collect everything on Boyd's list in good time.
He and Greenberg were loading the cart when he heard Lottie shriek, "Stiles!"
Derek turned, expecting to see Lottie tearing across the street and waving a fistful of letters, but instead she was darting away from him, toward the jail.
Where Stiles was standing on the porch.
Derek dropped a 50-pound sack on his foot.
"Are you okay, Mr. Hale?" Greenberg asked frantically.
Derek looked down. He hadn't even noticed the pain, and his foot was already knitting itself back together. He picked up the sack and quickly tossed it in the cart. "Fine. Can you finish loading this?"
He didn't even wait for Greenberg to nod before he was striding across the street, to where Lottie had flung herself around Stiles's legs and was babbling in glee. Stiles pried her off his legs, but it was just to swing her up into a hug.
He looked good, Derek thought. Gone was the white bandage around his head, and he held himself taller, straighter, like it didn't pain him to move around or lift Lottie up. Instead of Derek's slightly baggy loaned clothes, he was wearing a deputy's uniform that fit him well, boots gleaming black and badge shining in the afternoon sun.
Derek had to swallow a few times before he could get his voice to work. "Deputy Stilinski. Good to see you again."
Stiles grinned at him, so bright it was like looking at the sun. "Likewise, Mr. Hale."
"Daddy missed you," Lottie announced.
Derek felt his face heat up, and it had nothing to do with the weather. Stiles raised an eyebrow and turned his full attention to Lottie. "Is that so?"
"He missed you lots," she said, as if it hadn't been clear what she meant the first time.
Derek was going to have to make sure she spent less time around Erica.
"Can I tell you a secret?" Stiles asked, and when Lottie nodded, he whispered loud enough for Derek to hear, "I missed him too."
Well, if he'd thought his face had been hot before, it was nothing compared to now. Derek cleared his throat and looked away, but he still heard Stiles's quiet laugh. "What brings you back to Beacon Hills?" he asked. "In your last letter—"
Derek cut himself off. In his last letters, Stiles hadn't given any indication that he might be coming back at all.
Stiles set Lottie down, but she resolutely refused to let go of his hand. "I didn't want to say anything," Stiles said. "Just in case."
Derek's heart beat harder, and he stepped up onto the porch of the jail, closer to Stiles. "What do you mean?"
Stiles rubbed his free hand through his dark hair, ruffling it. "Well, since Harris turned out to be a traitorous a—jerk," he amended, with a glance at Lottie, "Dad's been looking for someone to take over the jail here. For some reason, he thought I would do better in a small town like this. Anyway, he made it all official last week, so," he waved his hand at the jail, "here I am."
Derek couldn't believe his ears. "You're staying here. In Beacon Hills."
Stiles nodded, his grin spreading across his face once more, and he smelled utterly joyful. "Yup. Dad said it was a good promotion. Might be here awhile."
"You know, there's not much by way of a kitchen in there." Derek jerked his chin at the jail. "You ought to come out to the ranch. Boyd'll make sure you get some good meals."
Stiles's grin shrank, changed into something smaller and more private, something shared just between them. "Is that so? You going to make sure I'm not wasting away in the jail all by my lonesome?"
Derek wanted to close the distance between them and pull Stiles into his arms. Instead, he closed a respectable distance, close enough that he could better filter out the smells of the town and concentrate on Stiles's instead. "It just seems like I have an overpowering need to make sure you're all right."
"And you can help me with my reading again!" Lottie piped up.
Stiles laughed, and it made Derek ache and feel like he could fly at the same time.
"You know you're always welcome at the ranch. Anytime. I lo—we—we like having you there," Derek finished lamely.
By the smile on Stiles's face, he'd heard the unsaid words anyway. "I'll be honest, I was wondering what I'd do for supper tonight."
"Come with us!" Lottie shouted. "Boyd's making beans and ham and Erica's making cornbread!"
Everything in Derek felt warm and happy and content, like he had the morning after he and Stiles had slept together. "Yeah, you should come home. And if you need to stay the night, well...the couch is mighty comfortable."
Stiles reached out and took Derek's hand, and for the first time in six months, Derek didn't feel like a part of him was missing. "With an invitation like that, how could I say no?"
Derek resisted the urge to pull him closer, and instead just squeezed his hand. "I also have it on good authority that the couch is just big enough for two."
Stiles's echoing laugh was the best thing he'd heard in months.