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Derek’s first meeting with his new packmates could have gone better.

To be fair, though, it could have gone a lot worse, the kind of worse that would have ended in bloodshed, pain, and a brand new completely irreparable rift in his relationship with Laura. He saw all that when he walked in the door, saw that possible future unspool inevitably before him, just in the way that Laura lifted her head and scowled at him, furious and angry and hurt. He saw it in the way the other two — his new packmates, and he’d never even seen them before, didn’t recognize their faces, had Laura stopped at the grocery on the way home and casually offered the bite to the clerk and bagger, or what? — focused in on him too, their faces knife-sharp like they were looking at prey. He knew things were bad, much worse than he’d thought they were, when he walked into his own living room, his own home — even if the rebuilt version was just different enough from the original house that it didn’t always seem like home — and felt immediately like an intruder in some other pack’s territory. As if he’d somehow been absent even while he was there, an open wound that Laura had grown a new pack around.

Laura didn’t even bother to berate him, or else she was beyond it; her lips were peeled back in a snarl and her canines were out, her eyes sparking red like they’d caught fire. The other two, picking up on the hostility and even less in control, brand new to the bite and staring down the barrel of their first full moon coming on the next day, were already further along. Their ears were pointed and their faces twisted into new shapes; he hadn’t even a chance to get used to the old ones yet.

Derek was going to have to fight, and he was going to lose. The new betas, he could handle; he was older and more powerful and had a hell of a lot more practice than they did. It was a little crude but certainly not unheard of, for new pack members to fight with the old, to find out who was strongest, to get in one good skirmish to establish the pecking order before everybody could settle comfortably into their roles. But Laura was standing up like she intended to assert herself that way too, to remind Derek who was the Alpha here and who was not, and Derek had one long moment, as his own claws were arcing themselves out and his own fangs were shifting into place, to think about how badly everything was broken, how much this was going to hurt.

Then Stiles stepped around him, ducking under the arm Derek had stretched out to push him back toward the door, heedless of Derek’s claws and the growling betas and Laura’s face, fierce and sharp and thunderous. Stiles crossed into the living room like there was nothing at all going on, and he dropped himself into the middle seat on the sofa, right between the two betas, who had stopped showing off their teeth and were instead watching him with bewildered expressions.

“Pack meeting, sweet!” Stiles exclaimed. “Are there snacks? We should have brought snacks. We should have brought pizza. You guys seem cranky, like you haven’t eaten, maybe.”

Laura growled, “Derek,” at the same time that Derek yelped, “Stiles!” but Stiles himself didn’t actually pay either one of them any attention, squinting instead at the guy sitting next to him on the couch.

“Boyd? Is that you? I can’t really tell with all the, like, grrr you’ve got going on there.” Stiles said, waving a splayed-out hand in front of his own face. “How’ve you been, dude? I haven’t seen you since graduation.”

The guy — Boyd, apparently — shifted all the way back to human, like it was good manners kicking in for him to change so Stiles could recognize him more easily. “Hey, Stilinski,” he said, and he looked calm as hell, completely and utterly zen, like maybe he wasn’t going to rip Stiles’ face off after all.

“Hey, man,” Stiles said, smiling wide, clapping a hand companionably against Boyd’s shoulder. Boyd didn’t look thrilled to see him, but he didn’t look pissed either, mostly kind of bemused, like he was accustomed to Stiles’ own unique brand of heedless idiocy.

Derek wasn’t used to it, at all. He felt like his heart was going to hammer right out of his chest with the force of his sheer fucking panic.

“I don’t think we’ve met,” Stiles was saying to the other Beta, completely oblivious to Derek’s cardiac crisis. He had no way of knowing either how Derek’s heart tripped over itself anew when Stiles looked at the other Beta, really looked, at all of her. There was a lot to look at, with the perfect blond hair and the blood-red lips and the curves of her body that were pretty fucking evident even when she hadn’t so much as stood up yet. “You didn’t go to Beacon Hills High. I’m totally sure I’d have remembered you.”

The girl smiled sweetly at Stiles out of her human face, the expression all gleaming white teeth and narrowed eyes, and said, “My name’s Erica.” She practically purred the words, leaning in close to show off her cleavage and laying a solicitous hand on Stiles’ forearm. “We had at least one class together every single semester since sophomore year. I sat right behind you in history and English, senior year. I pretty much had a massive crush on you since like… seventh grade.”

Stiles’ eyes widened and his whole body went taut, which might have been from the realization or might have been from the way that Erica’s hand on his arm had sprouted claws and was threatening to draw blood. Derek probably should have said something, put a stop to it, because he might’ve been on the cusp of losing his standing in the pack altogether, but it wasn’t a good precedent to set, letting any of them put their hands on Stiles. On the other hand, Stiles kind of deserved it for a multitude of reasons. Maybe it would be a lesson to him.

“Oh, right, Erica,” Stiles said, practically squeaked. He winced against the pressure of Erica’s grip, but didn’t try to pull away. “Erica with the— uh.”

“Seizures,” Erica supplied, helpfully, and her grip went that much tighter, like she was planning to reach right through the flesh and crush the bone to a pulp.

“Right!” Stiles agreed, his shoulders tilting to try to alleviate some of the pain, although that clearly wasn’t going to work. “Well, you look great!”

Derek snorted, finally put away his own claws — he hadn’t even realized they were still out — and stepped all the way into the room; he still felt like an outsider, but that wasn’t going to change unless he invited himself to the conversation.

He opened with, “Take your hand off him or I’ll break it for you.” He felt like it was important to begin this new relationship by setting the right tone.

Erica narrowed her eyes at him, like she was assessing the actual likelihood of him following through on that threat. He stared her down long enough to let her know it was actually a promise. When she let go, she did so like it was her idea, leaning back into her corner of the couch and examining her manicure like she was worried she might’ve gotten Stiles’ blood beneath her nails.

“I was going to ask where you’ve been,” Laura said, and Derek didn’t need to look at her to know that she was frowning at him, “But I guess the answer to that should have been obvious.”

“Probably,” Derek agreed. He slipped in between the couch and coffee table, which put his back to Laura and left him in a slightly precarious position if one of the betas decided to spring, but he didn’t think they’d try it, now that the situation had calmed down a little. Now that Stiles had calmed it down.

Derek stretched out his hand, a request and an order, and for once Stiles had the good grace to cooperate. He gripped Derek’s offered hand with his own, cradling the other one to his chest and making an exaggerated wounded face like Erica had actually ripped the limb off. Derek ignored the obvious ploy for sympathy and tugged Stiles along after him, palms clasped warmly together, as he moved around the coffee table to the other side and sank into the only free armchair in the room. That was Derek’s usual seat anyway; he wasn’t sure whether they’d left it open in expectation of his attendance or to point out his absence.

There wasn’t space for the both of them, unless Stiles sat on his lap, which no — okay, not no, more of a maybe later when it’s just the two of us — but Stiles proved to be biddable enough when Derek urged him toward the floor. Stiles sat between Derek’s legs, his arm looping under Derek’s knee and fiddling almost absently with the outside hem of Derek’s jeans. Stiles’ body was warm and familiar and solid between Derek’s calves. Derek could make himself believe that everything was okay as long as Derek didn’t look at his sister at all and pretended he wasn’t aware of the severe expression on her face. As an added bonus, his avoidance could conceivably look like deference. Maybe.

“I expected you home hours ago,” Laura said. She sounded frustrated, which was how she always sounded when she talked to him.

“You didn’t actually tell me to come home,” Derek replied, trying to sound steady and even though he was anything but. He cut a meaningful look at the two betas: Boyd blinked back at him implacably, and Erica smiled like she thought he looked like dinner and dessert all rolled into one, which was not so much the seduction she wanted it to be as it was a stunning display of her poor judgment. “You don’t seem to be telling me much at all these days.”

“You’re not exactly around to be told,” Laura snapped back. She dropped herself into her own chair, and Derek finally risked a glance at her, to find that she was — she looked tired. She looked fed up, more than angry, but the anger was definitely there, too.

Stiles’ hand gave Derek’s leg a little squeeze, a warning or an apology, and then he said, “I can see the really intense not-communicating is, like, a family trait.”

The way that Derek and Laura both glared down at him through narrowed eyes probably proved his point, but it was a reflex and Derek couldn’t help himself. He could see what Stiles was doing, though, offering himself up for them both to be annoyed at, so they’d be able to have at least that in common.

“Not that it isn’t always a delight to see you,” Laura said. She stared at Stiles like Derek wasn’t even there, so the misdirection might’ve been a little too effective. “But you weren’t invited.”

Stiles scoffed. “So formal,” he said. “Do we have to stand on ceremony? We’re all family here. I mean, kind of. Wolf-family? Not that I’m a wolf, but I am banging your brother, so—”

“Oh my god, stop,” Derek interrupted. He clapped both hands down on Stiles’ shoulders as if by physically holding Stiles in place, he could also physically hold all ill-advised words in Stiles’ mouth. It was a losing strategy, but at least he already had a hold on Stiles in case he needed to push him to the floor and fight anybody over him.

“So,” Laura said, like she was charitably picking up the dangling end of Stiles’ sentence for him, “you’ve been taking up more than enough of his time as it is. And we have things to discuss, so you should go now.”

“I asked him to come,” Derek said, before Stiles could come up with something more insulting.

Stiles snorted, though, and if he hadn’t Derek probably would’ve missed his own double entendre, but Stiles also muttered, “Never needed to ask,” under his breath, which was more than loud enough for every freaking werewolf in the room to hear. Aside from Derek’s love life being his own business, this was all beside the point.

Derek tightened his hands on Stiles’ shoulders, let his claws curve out until their tips rested lightly against that flesh, soft as a perching bird but a hell of a lot more meaningful. Stiles stilled obligingly, tipped his head back almost into Derek’s lap, his neck bared and his face open and trusting, yielding to Derek, seeing the seriousness in Derek’s face and matching it with his own relaxed body and closed mouth.

“I asked him to come because he can help us,” Derek said. He looked up at Laura but his fingers, nothing but human now, drifted of their own accord to the long line of Stiles’ neck, his fingers covering that flesh as if to keep Stiles’ submission for himself.

Laura snorted this time, leaning back in her chair, hooking one leg over the arm and propping her chin up on her closed fist like the bored schoolgirl she used to be. “And how exactly are you going to do that?” she said to Stiles, narrowing her eyes at him and ignoring Derek completely.

Stiles smiled. It wasn’t any of the smiles Derek knew, that Derek had been quietly cataloging in his head. This one was sharp edges and teeth, the kind of pleased that Derek had only ever seen before on mouths already streaked with blood.

“I’ve got a few ideas,” Stiles said.

Laura, recognizing that smile too, leaned forward and listened.


That night, Derek pressed Stiles down against the sheets of Derek’s own bed, in the bedroom where Stiles had never so much as set foot before, and weighted Stiles’ body with his own like he thought he could keep Stiles from drifting away. It was stupid, and it was too late, anyway; Stiles touched back, opened his mouth and bared his body to Derek’s hands, but his attention was only half there to begin with, too preoccupied with his plans to win them their war.

Derek could live with that, if it meant they all would live. If it meant Derek would live long enough to tug Stiles into bed again and again, to perfect the art of getting Stiles’ attention.

So he caressed and petted and didn’t take it personally when Stiles sighed softly and let him do it, because the first night of the full moon would be tomorrow and it was probably going to be the longest, bloodiest full moon of their lives. And when he thought maybe Stiles should sleep, because Stiles’ day in particular was going to be taxing as hell, he looped his hand around Stiles’ half-hard cock and stroked, slow and easy and steady, while he mouthed against Stiles’ neck and whispered the filthiest things he’d ever even so much as thought, right into Stiles’ ear.

Stiles didn’t even try to touch him, looked too dazed to manage any sort of motor control when Derek straddled Stiles’ ribs and pulled himself off, quick and dirty, his come splashing across Stiles’ chest and throat. Stiles watched, his eyes dark and sharp and glittering in the half-light. And when Derek was finished, panting and pressing his forehead against Stiles’ and burning with the need to do something he couldn’t quite pinpoint, it was Stiles’ hands that rubbed the slick across Stiles’ chest, like he wanted all of Derek to seep into his skin.

“Don’t think I’m going to forget that you’re secretly kinky as fuck, holy shit,” Stiles whispered, against Derek’s cheekbone. “We’re going to do all those things you just talked dirty at me. All of them.”

“If we survive,” Derek whispered back.

“Oh, we’re definitely going to survive,” Stiles said, and Derek believed that he believed it, at least. “I’m very motivated by unfulfilled sexual desire. It’s basically how I finished top of my class in high school. Lydia totally could have had it but she got distracted by all that sex she was having.”

Derek laughed, and clutched Stiles to his chest while Stiles grumbled half-heartedly about being the little spoon — “We’ll trade tomorrow night,” Derek promised — and Derek had to remind himself not to hold on too tight, not to squeeze the breath from Stiles’ lungs, because all he wanted was to keep Stiles there, always, to keep him safe from the world and Derek’s problems and Stiles’ own reckless impulses.

He didn’t hold on tight enough, because when he woke up in the gray pre-dawn light, Stiles was already gone.


The thing was, as much as Derek believed in Stiles, with every fiber of his being, he didn’t honestly believe that things would turn out as well as Stiles seemed to think they would.

There was a back-up plan, of course, which everybody but Stiles was considering the actual plan. That plan was why Stiles had crept out so early, with Boyd and Erica in tow, and it was why the two betas arrived back home around lunchtime smelling of new blood and fresh ink.

“We have matching tattoos now,” Erica said, pulling up her sleeve to show off one part of what Derek knew was a more extensive set of body art. The tattoos looked like solid bands at first glance, a thin one around Erica’s wrist and a pair of thicker lines around her upper arm. They were dark red like spilled blood and looked pretty plain, considering what Derek knew first-hand of Stiles’ abilities, but when he leaned closer he could see the bands weren’t solid so much as they were built from some kind of archaic symbol-alphabet, with hoops of solid color on the top and bottom of each set of characters to tie them together. It wasn’t anything close to what Stiles had done for Derek, but there’d been a time crunch to consider, and Derek was sure that the magic behind them was as strong as it needed to be.

He could tell that for certain because tonight was the full moon, and Erica and Boyd were… fine. They weren’t tense or glowering or snapping at one another or trying to tear each other’s clothes off or exhibiting any of the legion of extreme emotional reactions that a bitten wolf’s first full moon always inspired. Erica was making jokes about how Boyd was now obligated to be her boyfriend, and Boyd was smiling in that way he had that managed to be both serene and smug at the same time, and they were both digging in to the pizzas Laura had brought home like they were just hungry, not like they were fantasizing about eviscerating something and eating its entrails.

So, apparently bitten wolves could learn control, laboriously and over a period of months and sometimes years, or they could get a few tattoos and call it a job well-done. Derek was beginning to feel like maybe everything he’d ever learned about what it meant to be a wolf was, if not a lie, then at least pointedly lacking in quality information about easier alternatives.

“Have you seen that thing Stiles does with his eyes?” Boyd asked, around a mouthful of pepperoni and cheese. “Freaky, man.”

“I think you mean hot,” Erica said.

Laura rolled her eyes, leaned her hip against the kitchen island and showed her claws when Derek made a move to take the last slice of the Supreme. He backed off wordlessly and decided he wanted pepperoni instead. “Please don’t tell me you two had sex with him, too. Is that like his post-tattoo ritual or what?”

Derek didn’t actually choke on his pizza, but only because he’d know if that had happened, he’d be able to smell Stiles all over the two betas, and his scent was clinging to them, sure, but not like that, not with the notes of sweat and desire and come that Derek knew the best.

“That’s only for special occasions,” Derek said, because if Laura thought he was going to squirm she had another thing coming. “Like my dick.” He gave himself a moment to savor the look on Laura’s face, then he scooped up another slice of pizza in his other hand and growled at the two new kids, “Grab your food and get outside. I can’t teach you to fight in an afternoon, but I can certainly try.”

They turned out to be not half bad. They weren’t half good either, but Boyd was patient and powerful and Erica was a devious little shit, and they both showed some serious promise, if he and Laura could keep them alive long enough to teach them something.


The Alphas turned up at nightfall, for two reasons. One was because that was clearly when they’d been planning to attack all along: they were expecting to find a pack in disarray, with a young and inexperienced Alpha, a beta with an attitude problem, and two freshly bitten wolves completely out of control on their first moon.

The second reason they appeared when they did was because Laura had sent them an actual invitation. She’d had a run-in with their leader a few days before, which was the whole reason she’d rushed into turning a couple of new betas in the first place. The guy’s name was Deucalion — well, that was what he said it was, anyway, but Derek suspected the guy had read too much Anne Rice; he’d probably been born to something more mundane like “Duke” or more descriptive like “Dick” — and he’d given Laura a business card while patronizingly urging her to give him a call, when she was ready to offer her submission. Laura hadn’t said, but from the look on her face when she’d recounted the story, Derek guessed it was implied that her “submission” was expected to be offered in the nude.

As Laura had predicted, a douchebag like that was completely incapable of passing up an opportunity not only to accept another Alpha’s submission, but also to gloat over his victory. He turned up, with his underlings in tow, just as the moon edged its way above the trees behind the house.

They were Alphas, all four of them, and Derek could practically feel the thrum of power coming from them as they melted out of the trees and into the moonlight, crossing the open ground outside the house like they’d stepped out of an action film. Deucalion, Derek surmised, had to be the slimy-looking guy in the lead, wearing leather pants that he was easily ten years too old for. The two behind him looked like actual twins, but they were young, maybe even younger than Stiles, Boyd, and Erica. The one in the back was a woman, barefoot, naked, and half-changed already; and if Derek had to place money on which of the Alphas would be the most deadly, he’d put it on her. Her movements were graceful and economical both, with the measured calm of a well-trained fighter behind an animal instinct so strong she was obviously only a step away from feral.

The Hale pack, by contrast, were lounging on the front porch. They’d expanded it beyond its original dimensions, when they’d rebuilt the house, and there was plenty of room up there now for a table and some chairs. Erica and Boyd were playing poker as an exercise in detecting deception in others and hiding the signs of it in themselves — they were both doing very poorly, but Derek couldn’t expect them to concentrate anyway, with painful death being a real possibility in their near futures. They were still completely in control of themselves, despite the full moonrise, and that was the important thing. Laura had been keeping an eye on them, trying to coach them through detecting a bluff by heartbeat, but now she was leaning against one of the beams supporting the porch roof, watching the approaching Alphas with a disinterested expression.

And Derek and Stiles were sitting on the stairs, faking a casual air but positioned as a first line of defense, their fingers laced together. They couldn’t say anything and keep it private, not with the Alphas close enough to hear, but they’d done a pretty good job of perfecting their wordless communication, particularly since Derek’s stamina often left Stiles breathless and unable to speak in bed.

Derek’s look said, Are you sure about this? and Stiles’ said, Please, I’ve got this. Probably, and then Laura stepped past them, down to the bottom of the stairs, standing between the invaders and her pack.

The way Duke smiled at her made Derek’s skin crawl, and there was a small part of him that hoped this would become a fight after all, so he’d have a fair chance to rip the guy’s face off. He could hear Erica and Boyd getting up from the table behind him, like they were thinking the same thoughts, but they didn’t come any further than the top of the stairs, deferring to Derek, waiting for him to make a move, willing to follow his lead.

“Are you ready to offer your submission to me?” Duke asked, and his voice was exactly the sort of slimy purr that Laura had described, with a skin-crawling shudder, during their strategy meeting last night.

“Oh, shit, no,” Laura said, in a falsely apologetic tone. “I think there’s been a miscommunication, sorry about that. I’m here to accept your submission. It’ll be super easy, no horrifying sex acts required. All you have to do is fuck off and never set foot in our territory or any of our allied territories ever again.”

Duke smiled, and it was all teeth. The twins cracked their knuckles in eerie unison. The woman, still in the back, shifted smoothly all the way into her Alpha form; her red eyes glowered from the darkness behind Duke’s head.

“Well, that’s fair enough,” Duke said, in a tone that wasn’t even trying at reasonable. “We’ve all got free will, after all. Sometimes, with young people, you have to let them make their own mistakes. You won’t learn from yours, because I’m going to kill you, and then I’m going to scatter the pieces of your pack across the county, but I don’t want you to feel like you don’t have choices.

That was when Stiles stood up, before the bloodshed could get started, and Derek — Derek stood too, but he stayed where he was meant to, so he couldn’t do anything except open his hand and let Stiles go.

“That’s fucked up, man,” Stiles said, stepping up shoulder to shoulder with Laura. The way Duke smirked implied he was reading the action as a human treading all over a weaker Alpha’s status, which only proved incontrovertibly that the guy lacked certain skills of perception. “You should think about anger management or something, you know? Get a leash on your temper. No means no, dude.”

“Oh, what a delight,” Duke said. He seriously sounded like a comic book villain; Derek wondered whether he practiced it in the mirror. “I haven’t met a pack stupid enough to admit humans to their ranks in ages.

Stiles shrugged, seeming completely unaffected by the insult. “It’s a smart move, actually. Diversification. Bringing in some outside expertise, loosening up on the traditional roles a little. I get that you’re not into that, though. You’ve got sort of a gothic vibe going. It’s kind of a classic, but things change fast these days, and you know how it is. He who doesn’t adapt, perishes. Those are your options right now, by the way. We don’t want you to feel like you don’t have choices. So which one’s it going to be? Adapt? Or perish?”

Then Stiles pushed up his sleeves like a cartoon character getting ready for some old-fashioned fisticuffs, and when he extended the soft pale underside of his forearm toward Laura, it occurred to Derek rather too late that Stiles had never specified exactly what sort of show of power he was planning to use, here.

Derek was already on his feet, but he still didn’t move fast enough.

Stiles said, “Give me a hand?” to Laura, like they were friends, and Laura looked at him like — fuck fuck fuck — like she knew exactly what he was asking for, like they’d talked this through beforehand, and she drew one sharp claw down along that vulnerable flesh, opening a seam in Stiles’ arm from elbow to wrist.

The wound bled, immediately and copiously, but when Derek reached him, Stiles only put out the other hand to stop him, and when he turned to give Derek a quelling look his eyes had gone inky black. Derek could still read his looks, though, without Stiles saying a word. He took a step back, and let Stiles do whatever completely insane thing it was that Stiles intended to do. It wasn’t like Derek could stop him, anyway.

Duke looked kind of unimpressed with the whole display, except that when Stiles’ blackened eyes turned his way he flinched, almost imperceptibly. The full-blown wolf behind him blinked her red eyes and clenched her claws into fists, and the twins actually took a step back, in unison again like they shared a brain or something.

Stiles let his hand drop to his side, blood crawling off of his fingertips, and he said, “I want to make sure you have all the information you need to make the smart decision.”

He certainly had the Alphas’ attention. They were looking at Stiles’ arm, and not with the sort of blood hunger Derek was expecting; instead it was revulsion and wariness and something like fear. Stiles’ tattoos were stirring again, the lines of them shifting, and although most of his art wasn’t even visible beneath his jeans and his long-sleeved shirt, the fox was making itself more than visible, padding down from Stiles’ upper arm. It stepped across the wound and then it left bloody footprints around one more circuit of Stiles’ forearm before it vanished into the cut like it was slipping all the way under Stiles’ skin.

Derek was almost used to that sort of thing by now, but the fox wasn’t even the weirdest part. There was something stranger happening with Stiles’ blood. It dripped from his fingers in a way that looked more or less normal, but that was where normal stopped cold; once the blood fell free of Stiles’ body it just… stopped obeying the laws of physics. It hung in mid-air, and twisted and turned and stretched, diffusing like ink dropped into water. It writhed as if caught by invisible currents, but it was taking a shape too, legs and body, head and ears and tail.

When it was finished making itself, the fox was bigger than any true fox had a right to be, and the fact that it wasn’t solid didn’t make it any less terrifying. The blood that composed its body swirled like smoke within the confines of its shape, and it glowed like the barely-banked embers of a fire waiting to blaze into something brighter, hoping for something to consume.

Stiles swiped a finger up his forearm, wrist to elbow, muttering to himself, and the open wound closed itself in the wake of that touch, like a zipper being drawn up. It left a vivid pink scar on his skin and there was still a horrifying amount of blood staining his arm, but he seemed steady on his feet even if his skin had gone so pale he was practically translucent. When he reached down and petted his little burning hell-pet on the head it flared bright under his touch but didn’t so much as scorch his hand.

“So,” Laura said, into the silence. Her voice didn’t exactly waver, but Derek could hear the stress in it, the edge of almost-fear; Stiles had planned this with her, obviously, but she still hadn’t quite been prepared. Derek could sympathize; he felt like somebody had dropped a bomb on him. “What’s it going to be?”

Duke looked kind of undecided, like he wanted to call what he thought was a bluff, but he was also looking at Stiles like he wasn’t quite sure what the human was capable of — what he could do, or what he was willing to do, either. The fact that Derek didn’t know the answer to that, either, meant Duke’s uncertainty was well-founded.

“We haven’t got all night,” Stiles said. The fox stirred beneath his hand, like a dying fire that had received a fresh infusion of oxygen; the shape of it seemed to swell and catch.

“Parlor tricks,” Duke finally said, and he tried on a smirk but it wasn’t entirely sure of itself.

It shouldn’t have been, either.

Stiles didn’t hesitate; he took his hand off the phantom fox like he was releasing a hunting hound, and it shot forward, right at Duke. It wasn’t quite solid, so when the Alpha snarled and crouched to meet it, his claws found nothing to sink into. The fox, on the other hand, barreled straight through Duke’s body, like a ghost; when it leapt against the werewolf’s torso it scattered like ash, drifted for a moment in a cloud around Duke’s body, then reshaped itself on the other side, as if it had passed right through him, throwing out a spray of embers and sparks.

Deucalion caught fire like he was made of tinder.

He flailed and howled with the force of that sudden conflagration, but nothing he did would put it out; the twins tackled him to the dirt, trying to smother the flames, and it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference. The female Alpha stepped forward like she planned to stop the fire by stopping Stiles — and Derek had to give her credit, that was probably the only way to do it — but the fox was already twining around her legs, doing an impression of an affectionate cat that was pretty explicitly threatening.

Stiles raised his scarred arm, gestured, and the fire went out in an instant, leaving the mighty Alpha of Alphas lying on the ground like a broken toy, his skin charred and smoldering.

“He’ll probably heal,” Laura said, into the quiet that came from the sudden absence of screams. “It might take awhile. A long while. I’d suggest you take that time to think about your life choices. If any of you ever violate this territory again, there will be literally nothing left of you. Now get out of my territory, and get your trash off my lawn.”

The female picked up Deucalion’s body gingerly, like he was only a child, and though she didn’t look at the Hale pack as she left, she strode off with a calm, steady grace. The twins weren’t as dignified, their postures hunched and submissive, their eyes wide and wild as they gave the fox the largest possible berth. They broke into a run before they even reached the treeline, apparently desperate to put Beacon Hills behind them.

Nobody said anything until they were gone, the werewolves standing tense with their ears pricked, waiting for the sounds of movement in the woods to fade away. And then Derek gripped Stiles by the arm, gave him a little frustrated shake, and hissed, “Are you crazy?”

He might have been, a little, because he didn’t flinch away from Derek’s too-rough touch, he just smiled like an idiot and swayed on his feet. He looked like hell, sallow and sickly, sticky with his own blood and stinking with a cold, unhealthy sweat. His whole body was trembling, and he didn’t even seem to notice it when his knees gave out entirely.

Derek was already there, of course, caught Stiles’ weight as Stiles sagged against him, and even the fox rushed toward them like it meant to support Stiles itself, but it disintegrated as it moved, fell apart like smoke on the wind without Stiles to hold it together, and then it was gone.

“Did you see that?” Stiles asked, but the words were a little slurred and his eyelids were drooping shut of their own accord. He blinked once, twice, and the blackness was gone from his eyes. “Holy shit, that was awesome. That was some fucking expecto patronum shit I just pulled, I am the greatest.

“You’re out of your mind,” Derek grumbled, and gathered Stiles to his chest, uncertain what he was supposed to do. A blood transfusion probably wouldn’t hurt, but Derek had a long and storied history with ‘things that cannot actually be explained to hospital staff or emergency responders,’ so he knew better. Knowing better and knowing what to do, however, were two entirely different things.

Thankfully, he wasn’t actually the one in charge.

“Erica, tail the Alphas, make sure they leave town,” Laura said, waving a hand toward the woods. “Call me every twenty. Boyd, run upstairs and start a warm bath, then see what you can find in the kitchen. Get together some orange juice, raisins, whatever you can find in the cupboards. Maybe a sandwich. Bring it up to Derek’s room. Derek, get him inside and get him cleaned up. I’ll find a few more blankets to put on your bed.”

The betas rushed off to their tasks gratefully, like they were happy to finally have something to do. Derek felt much the same way; he’d been expecting a fight, like the blood and guts and horrifying carnage kind, and standing and watching as Stiles did all the heavy lifting wasn’t how he’d pictured things going. It was almost worse than being gutted, having to hold still while Stiles had bled himself, had burned himself on the inside.

“We’re going to talk about this later, don’t think we aren’t,” Derek grumbled, as he hauled Stiles up the stairs. Stiles was still kind of awake, and kind of helping, so Derek wasn’t outright carrying him, but it was a bit like handling a sloppy drunk; Stiles’ weight and balance were more or less in Derek’s hands, and Derek had to keep his wits about him to prevent Stiles from doing a face-plant on the stairs.

The bathtub was already half-full by the time Derek got Stiles up the stairs, so he shut the taps off while he eased Stiles out of his clothes. They were stained with blood and sweat and they smelled kind of awful; Derek threw them into the corner and helped Stiles into the bath, one hand on the small of his back and the other wrapped around the nape of his neck. Stiles sighed into it, relaxing into the warmth of the water and not seeming to notice the way that his blood immediately tinted it pink.

Derek hadn’t closed the bathroom door, and Stiles’ privacy hadn’t occurred to him at all — it wasn’t something that Derek’s kind tended to worry about — so it wasn’t a surprise that Boyd brought the tray right into the bathroom, or that Laura ducked in to collect Stiles’ soiled clothes. (By the wrinkling of her nose, Derek expected they were going to end up in the trash.) Stiles didn’t seem to mind the intrusions either, but he was a still a little out of it. He was biddable enough when Derek offered him the juice and forced a little food down his throat, but he wasn’t going to hold out much longer. He was loopy with the blood loss, and the only move he made on his own was to absently pet Derek’s damp arm as Derek tried to scrub him clean.

“You’re mad,” Stiles murmured, blinking at Derek’s face like it was a foreign landscape he couldn’t quite orient himself to.

“Well, at least you’re thinking clearly enough to figure out things that are really obvious,” Derek said, and didn’t look up. He pulled the plug on the bath to drain out the dirtied water, then started the taps running again, hotter this time, to try to warm Stiles up a little. His flesh was clammy and cold even in the bath water, and he looked even worse than he had when the Alphas had retreated, if that was possible. There were dark circles beneath his eyes and Derek could see the veins beneath his skin. The new scar was vivid pink against his white skin, and it broke the lines of the inked pattern that had neatly looped the top of Stiles’ forearm.

“I’m mad too,” Stiles said, as if that ought to bring them together in solidarity. “Loved that tattoo. Best tattoo ever. That tattoo was a total bro.” He looked down at the space on his arm — the blank space, now — where the fox usually curled up to sleep.

Derek touched that empty skin with his fingertips, and the sound Stiles made was small and wounded. “It’s gone? For good?”

“Burnt out. Lived its life like a candle in the wind,” Stiles agreed, his head not so much nodding as it just rolled against the rim of the tub. “Always a price to pay. That kind of magic… uses you, more than you use it.”

Derek didn’t even remotely like the sound of that. He stilled for a moment, trying to get his anger under control; that rage had been a problem for years, but he’d never been so pissed at Stiles before. It only made him more angry that they ought to be having their first fight and Stiles wasn’t even conscious enough for them to talk about it, much less yell about it.

He waited until his voice would come out steady, and then he asked, “If you’d have had to burn them all, could you have done it?”

“Oh, fuck no,” Stiles said. He turned his face into Derek’s body, squirmed a little in the tub so he could press his mouth against Derek’s shoulder. “Would’ve died. Awful. Ugh.”

“Wait, what? Who would’ve died? Stiles?”

Stiles was rubbing his face against Derek’s arm like a freaking cat, which wasn’t fair because Derek’s heart was thundering in his chest and Stiles couldn’t even tell, wouldn’t have been able to tell even if he was in his right mind.

“The plan was that you’d conjure up an impressive illusion, and if that failed to scare them off we’d fight them. All of us.”

Stiles hummed against Derek’s skin, both encouragement and agreement. Or possibly delirium.

“You never said anything about the fire. What would’ve happened if you’d tried to kill them all that way?”

Stiles slumped back into the tub again, stared at the ceiling like he couldn’t bear to look Derek in the eye — which Derek took as a sign that Stiles knew damned well that withholding was wrong — and said, “I’d’ve burned, probably. From the inside. It’s not my kind of magic, can’t control it that well. Prob’ly would’ve eaten me.”

Derek didn’t say anything, after that. He didn’t think he needed to say anything, not with the way Stiles shrank back and turned away, like whatever look was on Derek’s face was unbearable even to see. So Derek reached down and pulled the drain plug again, then helped Stiles to stand on his shaking legs. He ran the towel over Stiles’ body gently, holding back the roughness that he wanted, the parts of him that wanted to dig claws into Stiles’ skin so he’d know how Derek felt. He handled Stiles with kid gloves instead, and somehow he knew that was more punishing than pain.

He was tucking Stiles’ naked body between the sheets of his bed — the ones that still smelled like Stiles, like Stiles-and-him, even with the musty scent of the extra blankets that Laura had taken from the hall cupboard — when Stiles murmured, “I’m sorry,” and ran his hand down Derek’s arm, shoulder to wrist, like he could leech hurt away the same way Derek could, with nothing more than contact.

Physical pain was one thing, but Derek knew better than anyone that you couldn’t just touch the other kind away.

Derek said, “I know you are,” and he did know, the same way he knew that Stiles wasn’t sorry enough that he’d never do something that stupid again. But Derek still took his clothes off, and climbed under the sheets, and gathered Stiles close against his body, like maybe he could protect him that way, even if the only thing Derek had to protect the idiot from was himself. It meant he would have to keep Stiles close to keep him safe, and that was alright with Derek, that was fine.

Stiles was still shivering, but he clasped Derek’s hands with his own, drew Derek’s arms tighter around himself like he was snuggling in to a favorite blanket. “You said I could be the big spoon,” he whined, petulantly, but he was already settled and half-asleep, his foot hooked around Derek’s ankle, his breath washing out across Derek’s wrist.

“Tomorrow,” Derek promised, and when Stiles sank into sleep, all at once like a stone swallowed by water, Derek followed him down.