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Tore a Line in the Sun

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Some combination of the screen suddenly going violently orange and the ship's sensors screeching has Derek jerking out of his half-doze and cursing aloud. Feet thumping to the floor as they slip from being propped up on the console, he drags himself closer to examine the cause of his rude awakening, toying with the collar of his flight suit as he curses under his breath again, scooting to a second, smaller screen, and tries to make sense of the garbled data.

  It's some sort of signal, that much is clear, but Selene's database can't identify any sort of specific digital signature with which to match it. It's weak, too, and seems to be beaming straight up from a planet that the ship is telling Derek should be uninhabitable for most forms of intelligent life.

  A distress beacon, then. If Derek closes his eyes, he can almost feel his sister vibrating with glee at the very prospect of playing the knight in shining armour; it is – or had been, at least – one of her favourite pastimes.

  You've been alone too long, Laura's voice in his head tells him – it even has that sing-song quality she'd use when she was making fun of him. Derek shakes the thought out of his mind: Laura's been missing too long – the whole reason he's in this planet's vicinity is because he's been drifting aimlessly, having stormed out of a meeting that had just officially presumed her dead. She could be anywhere in the galaxy, a solemn-faced man had told him, and nobody has the resources to keep looking.

  Derek had left the meeting less than a minute after he'd walked in, unable to stand being around any of those falsely sympathetic people, unable to process the idea that Laura might never come home.

  Derek curses a third time for emphasis and slaps the dashboard, hauling himself back over to the controls and setting his course, frowning down at the vaguely green planet below him. He knows Laura would demand that they investigate. That's the only reason why he confirms his selected landing zone, a safe enough distance from the origin of the jumbled signal that escape should be relatively quick and painless.

  Despite being better at them, Derek almost misses Laura's heavy-handed landings, even if she did drop them both into hot water more often than not – both literal and metaphorical.

  He touches down on the planet's surface with no drama, and without feeling like his intestines have retreated into his chest cavity. Selene's computers aren’t supplying him with any handy, catchy planet name, just a string of letters and numbers which, in his brief-so-far history of touching down on unnamed planets, has never meant anything good.

  He consults the computer for atmospheric conditions and finds nothing out of the ordinary – Selene's equipment tells him he's landed some time in the late afternoon, locally, and that pressure, climate and breathability appear normal, which only increases his wariness: there has to be a reason why such a seemingly lush planet is uninhabited. Derek checks if he has all of the necessary equipment on him for a quick scouting excursion before he makes his way into the airlock.

  The air outside is what Laura would cheerfully deem muggy, which means Derek wants to strip off his suit as soon as he leaves Selene's relative safety while what feels like a wall of heat slams into him.

  Gritting his teeth and internally calling his sister every unflattering name he can think of, he consults the Palm Pad strapped to the inside of his wrist and sets off in the direction the beacon seems to be coming from.

  Although it doesn't take particularly long to locate the source, Derek receives a brief and rather horrifying education in what a man-sized carnivorous plant looks like, and has resolved to bring Laura here if—when—she comes home. He’s confident she'd get a kick out of being chased by sentient undergrowth.

  The craft he happens upon is more of a large shuttle than any sort of recognisable ship, half buried in a crater of dirt and greenery. Derek frowns at it for a few long minutes before hiking right up to it – the glass that takes up most of the curved front looks more like a mosaic than a window, and he avoids touching it lest it crack open entirely.

  Derek takes his time circling the shuttle – his Pad has identified that there's no sign of life on board, but he prefers to err on the side of caution (Paranoia, Laura's voice asserts firmly, cheerfully). He finds the door – more of a hatch, really – hanging ever so slightly ajar and reaches up to yank it open completely, skittering backwards on the off chance something comes tumbling out (which wouldn't be the first time) – just because there's no sign of life, doesn't mean there's nobody on board. Judging by the state of the craft, Derek's steeling himself for the discovery of a body.

  When nothing untoward tumbles out, Derek resigns himself to having to investigate.

  Inside, there's perhaps enough room for Derek to jump, and to lie down, not including the pilot's area, but not much more than that. Derek adjusts his gloves and inspects every inch of the craft – there's a layer of file boxes wedged together on what Derek presumes is the cot, but they're jammed so tightly together that not even the apparent crash had budged them, so he doesn't even attempt to pull one out (he knows Laura would – he knows Laura would haul them all down onto the planet and systematically rifle through them).

  They don't hold his attention for very long, though, because Derek can smell blood – faint but distinct and, according to Derek's nose, wholly human – but there doesn't seem to be any one source or visible puddle, so he follows it.

  He settles at the poor excuse for a cockpit and begins pressing whichever buttons look vaguely familiar – the person or creature who had created the shuttle hadn't seen any wisdom in labelling anything in any recognisable way.

  Finally, he must flip the correct switch because the craft rumbles and groans around him, and an image – a video recording – is projected up onto the cracked window.

  "If you're watching this, you're probably some kind of sentient life form responding to my distress call – well, it's not really an official distress call because, well, the hardware for that is kind of crushed, but I'm definitely in distress, so that should probably count for something."

  The young man on the screen sighs and rubs his face, jerking his hand away with a hiss. He's bleeding, Derek realises: there's a gash across his brow and the knuckles of both hands are bruised and bloody, and that's only what he can make out between the cracks in the glass and the frame of the camera.

  "Anyway," says the man, drawing Derek's attention back to his big, dark eyes. "I can't say for sure where I'll be by the time you get this. Who knows? I don't know much about this planet – it might not orbit around more than once every thousand years, by which point I'll probably be plant food, one way or another. I—I'm not sure what people usually ask for, or say, in these kind of things. Tell my dad I love him, I guess?"

  The young man pinches the bridge of his nose and Derek has to look away for a moment because the terror and pain on his face are almost too much. He looks back at the screen when he hears a soft sigh. "As far as I'm aware, this planet is uninhabited," he says, voice taut like he's striving for businesslike despite the audible waver. "And before I—before I got here, I couldn't find any trace of a waystation nearby, so I have to assume all of the food I have is all I'm going to get. I have enough for several Earth-weeks, but I can't carry that much, so I'll probably return here at some point. It seems that it's hot and humid enough for green to grow, but there has to be some reason why this place hasn't been colonised, so I'm going to have to find somewhere to camp out. I'm not sure if this shuttle's the safest place to be, really, but I have to find out if there are any resources I can use to try and survive, or escape.

  "If you're watching this, please wait for me," he says, and the desperation in voice has Derek's heart clenching. "I know it's not a fair request because this—everything you can see, is pretty much everything I own, so I probably can't pay you, and my Palm Pad got pretty smashed up in the fall, so I can't set a personal beacon—" There's a harsh, shrill beep. "Shit, and I've got to stop recording if I want this thing to retain enough power to hopefully be watched by someone, someday—I just, I—please."

  The audio crackles and the image winks out.

  Frowning, Derek stares at the cracked window. "How can I tell your father you love him if you don't tell me who you are?" he asks it, and then heaves a sigh, reaching down to rip open the panel where he hopes he'll find the hard drive. Thankfully, the original builder of the shuttle followed a fairly standard blueprint of where to store at least that much, because he locates it easily, prying it free and shoving it into one of the pockets of his suit.

  Derek pushes himself out of the chair and returns to the panel in the wall where he'd spotted the store of nutrient ration packets – there are very few left, he notes, and has to assume the young man from the video has been stranded for weeks. Derek sighs – he can't catch a fresh scent and has no way of knowing if the man's due to return, or even if he's still alive.

  Faced with no other real choice, Derek slips from the craft and scrambles down the side of the crater it's created, casting about himself for any sign of a wounded struggle through the undergrowth.

  His Palm Pad would pick up a personal beacon for miles, but searching for one measly probably-human without any significant electronic signature could take weeks. He frowns down at it and sighs: it's not as though he has anything else to do, and Laura's nagging in the back of his mind tells him that he has to at least try.

  Derek sets his Pad to scan for body heat or any other suggestion of vaguely human vital signs before setting off, spiralling outwards from the crash site – he returns to the shuttle every so often to make sure he hasn't missed anything, then sets out in a slightly different direction each time.

*

Darkness begins to encroach and Derek's not familiar enough with the planet to know if there's anything he needs to be wary of so he decides to head back to the shuttle and climb inside – it's lasted several weeks and hasn't got much more damage to it than what it seems the initial crash dealt it, so he figures it's the safest place, other than his own ship.

  Derek's eyes adjust easily to the gloom, but the darkness – he's sure it can probably be termed 'night' – falls quicker than expected and with it comes the rain.

  It's like acid where it touches his skin and Derek struggles to yank up his hood as he breaks into a run, keeping his face tilted down – he'll heal, probably, but that doesn't mean he's inclined to test the theory.

  He makes it to the shuttle and scrambles inside, staggering over to the pilot's seat and sinking down, hissing through his teeth at the tender spots on his face and head. He's abruptly glad he didn't give in to temptation and take off his flight suit – the material can absorb the shock and most of the damage from most types of projectile firing, and he's pleased to note that acid rain hasn't so much as scuffed it.

  Derek settles in the chair after warily watching the window to ensure it's not about to start leaking, then pulls out his Pad which is still faithfully scanning away. Opting to leave the scanner running in the background, he sets about attempting to identify what planet it is that he's found himself upon, and whether much of anything is actually known.

  His search yields nothing but frustration and Derek growls at the useless technology; it bleeps plaintively back at him to inform him it still hasn't found any non-plant-based lifeforms. Derek sighs heavily through his nose, deciding to fall back on his lessons from the Academy all those years ago, before he'd dropped out in a spectacular fashion and stowed away on his elder sister's ship. He sets a timer to record the length of darkness, estimating how long it's been since he noticed the light fading, and settles into wait, listening to the thrumming of deadly rain on the window.

*

  Light – morning, Derek decides – dawns just as abruptly as it had left and the rain goes with it. Derek jerks from where he'd been dozing, alerted both by the sudden silence of his surroundings and his Pad warning him of potentially toxic conditions. He scrambles to pull his hood back up – the rain-inflicted burns have healed – and yanks a patch from the thigh of his suit that doubles as a mask that'll cover his nose and mouth. Pulling it on, he heads to the door and drops out of the craft.

  There's a faint opalescent haze in the air and Derek instinctively presses against his mask to make sure it's secure, holding his Pad up to let it attempt to identify the conditions.

  It merrily informs him the haze is a bunch of chemicals which should burn up into harmlessness once the air reaches a certain temperature. It also tells him that the chemicals are toxic to humans, though they shouldn't prove more than a mild discomfort for Derek, and Derek wonders, not for the first time, if he spent most of the previous day searching for a dead man. The chemicals also explain why Derek was unable to find any trace of a scent outside of the shuttle.

  Frustrated, Derek returns to the craft to pilfer a ration pack – either the man's dead and therefore won't miss it, or he should return soon enough that Derek will be able to offer him food from his own ship. He then slips out of the shuttle to climb atop it, settling to wait.

  The fog dissipates slowly and Derek's Pad bleats at him to tell him when the last traces of it has lifted. By this point, he's positively ravenous and tears into the ration pack as soon as his mask is shoved down around his neck.

  He spends some time using his Pad to check on his own ship, finding it exactly where he left it, still secure. Just as he's contemplating sliding off the ship to return to its blissfully cool, shady interior, his Pad erupts to life, informing him of a non-plant-based life form appearing at the very edges of the Pad's scanner, approximately two miles south of his position, past the shuttle crash site.

  Derek ducks into the craft on his way past to snatch up the remaining ration packs and then sets off, wariness at war with relief in his chest as he skirts around an ankle-high plant which appears to have little, liquid-coated fangs.

  He covers ground quickly – much more quickly than the pulsing dot on his Pad, and finds himself at the edge of a small clearing. There's a slumped figure at the edge of a rocky pool, the liquid in it has the same iridescent quality as the morning's mist and he's darting over before he can really allow himself to think on it.

  "Hello?" he tries; the figure jumps and makes an attempt at scrambling away but fails, letting out a gasp and folding in on itself—himself, Derek realises: it's the man from the video.

  Derek's struck first by the depth of the wide brown eyes that stare up at him, but his attention is soon caught by the numerous nicks and gashes he can see, some fresh and some scabbed over, and Derek's assured there's more damage he can't see by the way the man is clutching at his side. His skin is bronzed and even burnt in some places, evidence of the acid rain on his arms and hands. Other than the eyes, it hardly seems like the same person.

  Derek's not entirely sure what to say, and his new companion doesn't appear to be any better off, only managing to stare up at him with his mouth hanging open, so Derek holds out a ration pack, tearing it open for him after reconsidering for a moment.

  "I wouldn't drink that stuff," Derek says, toeing at the edge of the pool dubiously; the man's eyes dart to it and then up again.

  "Wasn't," he croaks - lies, Derek notes, but doesn't comment. Slowly, as though wary Derek's going to bite him, he extends his arm to take the packet, clutching it to his chest as soon as Derek releases it.

  "My ship's only a couple of miles away," Derek says. "We should get you patched up and get off of this planet before nightfall. Do you need the things from your shuttle?"

  The man stares at him some more and for a while, Derek wonders if he's gone completely mad - maybe it's a side effect of the fumes the rain leaves behind in the mornings. "I—yeah, I need my stuff," he says, voice hoarse, each word sounding like an effort. "I'm not—I'm alive, right? I'm awake?"

  "I have too much backstory to be a figment of your imagination," Derek tells him. "And there's a very real ship not far away that can get you out of here. Can you walk?"

  "Yeah," says the man. "Yeah, uh..."

  Gingerly, he levers himself up onto his knees and then stumbles to his feet; Derek catches him when he over-balances, setting him upright and stepping back – for all he knows, this man could be contaminated or using his weakness as a ruse. Derek's nose – and his Pad, when he sneaks a glance at it - are telling him the young man is completely human, but he knows from personal experience that humans aren't as harmless as they'd have everyone believe.

  Despite this worry, Derek stays alert on their trek back for any sign of wavering or weakness.

  "I'm Stiles, by the way," says the man as they finally reach the shuttle. Stiles climbs up into it without any degree of hesitation, movement hindered only by the apparent pain in his side. Derek waits outside because it'll be a little too snug in there for two. Stiles sticks his head back out after a moment. "You human?"

  Derek regards him warily. "In every way that counts," he says, hand shifting to obscure the wolf motif on his belt – the Department always insisted on each species bearing some form of identifying insignia, and by now it's an old habit that just won't die. Stiles' eyes narrow and Derek must not have hidden the symbol quick enough because his face abruptly relaxes.

  "Lycan?" he asks. "Cool. You can help lug all of this – there's no way in hell I'm doing the heavy lifting if you've got super strength."

  Derek's left alone and bewildered as Stiles disappears again; it's rare he meets a human who doesn't immediately regard him with suspicion. Granted, it's rare he meets a human, period. He isn’t given much more time to contemplate it, because Stiles begins more or less throwing boxes – the ones from the cot – at him. Some of them he takes care to place on the ground, and some of them he tosses out of the shuttle without ceremony. Derek's not entirely sure how he knows; all of the boxes look precisely the same to him.

  By the time the shuttle's relieved of all of Stiles' possessions, Derek's appropriated the belting that had been used to secure the boxes to Stiles' cot and has managed to tie all of the more robust boxes together so that he can drag them, leaving Stiles to carry the more valuable ones.

  Stiles falls into limping step with him and by the time Derek consults his Pad to head back to his ship, the heat of the day is well and truly upon them and words are a waste of valuable energy. Derek takes a sip from his canteen and hands the rest off to Stiles – he knows he'll be able to make it to the ship without more water, but Stiles starts looking unhealthily clammy, his breath coming in wheezes.

  At around halfway, Derek puts his load down and turns to help Stiles up a small but steep incline, relieving him of his boxes and putting them down – Stiles gulps in the air and pats his arm gratefully, sinking down to sit on the dry dirt. His chest heaves with the effort and Derek glances in the direction he knows Selene's in.

  "I'll come back for all of this," Derek says, not giving Stiles a chance to ask what he's talking about before pulling him back up less than a second after his ass hit the ground. "I didn't spend an entire night horrified I was going to drown in an acid bath just to let you die here. Put your weight on me, but you have to tell me if it starts making it worse, all right?" He watches Stiles nod, his breath sounding painful, and hastily adds: "Even if you just start slapping my arm. I'll hear you even if you whisper."

  With that, he ducks slightly to pull Stiles' arm around his shoulders, winding his own around Stiles' waist, gripping him firmly so that his injured side is pressed securely against Derek's. Stiles whimpers at the shift but doesn't voice any protest.

  They reach the ship in half the time it had taken to get where they were and it responds automatically to Derek's presence and voice, opening the airlock. Derek places Stiles down and seals them in, letting Selene's automatic decontamination process fill the silence between them for a few minutes. He then pulls Stiles' arm over his shoulders again and makes his way to the glorified closet-turned-medical bay. He and Laura had been in enough scrapes that they'd soon picked up enough equipment that they could probably run a clinic out of it.

  He shrugs Stiles into a reclining chair and sets about peeling his dirty, bloody shirt from him, feeling a little green when he sees how Stiles is mottled with bruises and scabs. "I think you've probably cracked or fractured some ribs," Derek says. "I'm not a doctor – not even close, so you might have done something major and I'll have no idea how to fix it."

  "Your bedside manner is terrible," Stiles wheezes, a faint smile on his face. He looks content to just lie there and stare up at the light. "I'm—I'll be fine. I know enough that I figured I'd probably cracked several ribs, so I haven't done anything more strenuous than that walk. Go back for the stuff – I'll be fine."

  Derek nods. "I'm locking you in here," he says; Stiles rolls his eyes but agrees and Derek slips out of the room, securing the door from the outside and telling himself he's being sensible, not paranoid.

  He hikes back to Stiles' boxes and sets about dragging them all the way back to his ship, taking twice the time he normally would because despite the fact it's not his stuff, there has to be a reason Stiles was treating the loose boxes so carefully.

  By the time he's back on the ship with all of Stiles' things strapped down in the cargo bay, Derek just wants to lie down and sleep, but he forces himself back to the medical room - Stiles is precisely where Derek left him and he looks around when Derek enters - the relief that pours from him is palpable.

  "I was sure you weren't coming back," Stiles says, relaxing into the chair. "Rescued from acid rain just to die in a medical bay – would have been just my luck."

  Derek snorts, crossing the room to poke and prod at Stiles' side. It's badly bruised and tender-looking, but nothing looks too out of shape. "How do you feel?"

  "Like I've just spend six weeks on an unfamiliar planet where half the plants have illogically spiky leaves and it rains acid which then turns into poison mist," Stiles says. "So, dandy."

  "Does this hurt?"

  Stiles yelps. Derek takes that as a yes. Stiles makes a weak attempt at slapping his hand away from a particularly vicious looking bruise.

  "You're going to have to clean, well, everything," Derek says, crossing to the screen by the chair; the ship's been taking readings the whole time Stiles has been aboard, automatically registering a new body in range. "You'll need to be decontaminated again – the air supply in here is separate from the rest of the ship. We have no idea if one or both of us have anything on us, but you'll likely be more susceptible, both because you're human and because you've had prolonged exposure – the airlock will have gotten rid of most of the crap, but you're probably still crawling in alien bacteria."

  "Show me to the showers, Doctor," Stiles says, and then nods at the screen. "What's the damage?"

  Derek taps at the display; Selene has highlighted Stiles' ribs and one of his ankles as causes for attention, and has spat out multiple tubes of antiseptic cream and alcohol rub. "No internal damage," he says. It looks as though the dirt and grime on Stiles' body has formed something of a protective layer over residual poisons and toxins from the rain and he winces. "Decon is going to be disgusting, though - and probably painful. Lots of bruising and cuts we'll need to check are disinfected - the one on your forehead doesn't look pretty, so if that's any indication for the rest of them..."

  Stiles looks a little peaky but he nods grimly and slowly sits up; his breathing is normal and Derek can't hear anything off with his lungs, which he'd been worried about – he hasn't even the faintest idea as to how to deal with any kind of organ punctures. He wraps his arms around his body, frowning in the direction of the door Derek indicated that leads to the showers.

  "You should go first, probably," Stiles says, looking as though he's getting ready to lie back down and stay there. "If I'm as gross as we both think I am, you'll probably need to decontaminate the shower after I use it."

  Derek smirks, folding his arms. "I've been less exposed, and I'm less likely to carry anything," he says. "You're going in first. It's a cubicle, so I can wait outside and it's more efficient if you need any help."

  Stiles makes a pitiful sound and Derek responds with a saccharine grin.

  "Can you at least look away while I get naked, or something?" Stiles says, sliding off of the chair. The remains of his shirt fall from his shoulders easily, and his shoes have been kicked off, but his pants are still on, despite the fraying at the knees and ankles.

  "Make sure you empty your pockets - I'm probably just going to burn everything," Derek says. "Unless anything you're wearing holds particular sentimental value?"

  "Uh, no, but I'm kind of partial to wearing clothes, and my spare stuff is in those boxes," Stiles says, then frowns. "Though, it's probably all almost as bad as this."

  "My locker's through the door on the other side of the decon chamber," Derek says. "None of my flight suits will fit you, but help yourself to whatever else is there. Pockets, now."

  Stiles turns out the pockets of his pants, setting a few metal discs, a crumpled piece of paper and a string of beads on Derek's outstretched palm; his fingers linger over the beads but he sighs and lets them go.

  "Don't lose those."

  With that, he turns and heads for the next room, Derek trailing behind. Once the door's sealed behind them, Derek turns and presses on a panel so that he can flush out all of the air and pressure of the room they've just left, watching through the glass as Stiles' shirt and shoes are all but vaporised, presumably having been crawling with alien bacteria, despite Selene's initial decontamination.

  "I think your clothes were more alive than you are," Derek notes idly, and then gives Stiles' pants a pointed look. "You're gonna have to go through all of your stuff and decontaminate or destroy it."

  Stiles scowls but nods, walking past him to duck into the cubicle. He keeps his pants on as he hits the button to start the shower, making a hissing sound when the treated, clean water makes contact with his skin.

  Derek sinks down onto the bench outside of it to wait, listening to Stiles curse and whimper and try to stifle his pained noises.

  Eventually, Stiles' pants and underwear hit the tiled floor in a sopping pile and not long after that, the spray shuts off and Derek's tossing a towel over the cubicle wall. Stiles appears, skin scrubbed pink, bloody in some places, his hair plastered to his scalp.

  "That was the most disgusting thing I've ever been involved in," he says. "Remind me never to get stranded on an alien planet again."

  The bruises on his ribs look starker now that Stiles' skin isn't caked in dried blood and muck. Derek tears his eyes away to look at Stiles' face – the cut on his forehead is clean and oozing fresh, clean blood.

  "There are dressings in the medical room," Derek says. "If you need any help, I'll be done soon. Your pants and boxers should be safe, but I'm not sure you'll want to keep them. The things you had in your pocket have been decontaminated, too; they're over there."

  Stiles glances over at the shelf and gives him a grateful look, going to collect his belongings – he leaves his clothes on the floor – and then proceeding into the next room where Derek told him his locker is.

  Derek's finished his own shower in under five minutes – the only parts of him exposed had been from the neck up, so he strips off his suit and hangs it in its own chamber, ducking under the shower to scrub his hands over his face and through his hair perfunctorily.

  Stiles is dressed but still towelling his hair by the time Derek gets back to the med bay, dressed in jeans and a shirt now that he has no plans to be going anywhere that would require his flight suit. Stiles is in a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt that's not as loose around the shoulders as Derek might have expected it to be.

  "You headed anywhere in particular?" Derek asks as he locates the antiseptic wipes – Stiles has already cleaned and dressed the little wounds on his arms and, judging by the irregular bumps under his clothes, his torso and legs, but the one on his head hasn't been touched.

  "No," Stiles says. "I mean, I was leaving the Department headquarters - my best friend works there – but I guess I lost my way a little bit and by the time I'd righted my course, there was a crack in the window and I wasn't sure it was going to hold long enough for me to get back, so it was either suffocate and die in space or find the nearest planet with a breathable atmosphere and go from there."

  "So you've been missing six weeks?" Derek asks, half surprised that Stiles doesn't so much as flinch when he wraps his hand around the back of his skull to hold his head still, cleaning the cut on his forehead.

  "Yeah," Stiles sighs. "I should probably—do you have a Palm Pad I can use?"

  "You can use mine," Derek says, pressing an adhesive wound patch over the cut. It blends with Stiles' skin, only a slightly raised area betraying its position. "And then tell me where we're going."

  With that, he makes for the door so that they can get off of this horrific excuse for a planet; Stiles' footfalls echo his – though he's still moving carefully, the shower seems to have done wonders for him, eyes bright with curiosity when Derek glances back at him.

  Derek settles in his chair in the bridge – darkness has fallen and the light of a faint, distant moon is all that makes their surroundings visible. He doesn't make a move to lift off, however – simply reaches over and hands Stiles his Pad.

  "Who's Laura Hale?" Stiles asks, and Derek swipes the Pad back, closing the window with Laura's details on it - he'd forgotten he'd been staring forlornly at her 'MISSING' poster before he'd stumbled across Stiles' signal.

  "My sister," Derek says, and hands the Pad back, offering nothing further. He watches the rain slide down the windows around them. "We'll probably need to stop off somewhere to check for damage and restock before we go wherever you're headed, but I'll need to know which direction we're heading in so that I can figure out where's closest."

  Stiles looks sad when he glances over, but neither of them say anything else – when Derek gets up to go and find something to eat, Stiles is still silently scrolling through the notices for various missing people.

  "We should wait for morning," Derek says when he returns, leaning against the door frame and frowning out at the rain again; Stiles jumps in his seat and looks over at him. "I don't know what it'll do to my ship if I try to take off in this – I can't see much of anything. There's a spare sleeping quarter if you want it, or I can show you to the hold and you can go through your things."

  "I could sleep," Stiles says quietly; he waves the Pad and then sets it down on an empty patch of desk, standing. "I haven't gotten more than a few hours a night since I landed here – actual sleep on an actual bed sounds better than almost anything else I can think of."

  Derek nods and leads Stiles along a hall, stopping at a door. "My quarters are directly across from you," he says. "If you need anything, knock - if I'm not there, I'll be up front."

  Stiles nods and catches his arm just as he's turning to walk away. "Hey," he says. "Thanks."

  He's left standing there thinking about how open and earnest Stiles' face is when he's thanking him even after Stiles has turned and disappeared into the room.

  Derek returns to the bridge and picks up the Pad – on it, there's a picture of Stiles and the contact details for a Sheriff acting out of an Earth-like planet at least a week from their current location. Derek spends a while planning out the best courses before retiring to catch a couple hours' sleep.

*

Derek's senses tell him Stiles is still sound asleep when he rises, his body automatically responding to the setting moon. He allows himself the luxury of a real shower with actual soap and dresses leisurely, fixes himself breakfast and meanders back up to the bridge. Stiles doesn't so much as twitch, his vitals looking steady from the automatic scan the ship does of her occupants.

  Derek settles at the console and examines their surroundings; the air is hazy but visibility is good, and now that Derek knows where they're going, he selects the route that looks like it'll be least complicated by way of company - avoiding the major space stations is a priority, because Hunters tend to frequent them with the specific intent to start something. He's a fine pilot and he's used to Laura shoving him before the wheel when they'd needed to escape from one form of trouble or another, but it doesn't mean he's eager to do it again.

  He makes sure he's strapped in and the lid of his thermos—Laura's idea, but he's come to appreciate it as a useful object rather than ridiculous—is secure, beginning to prepare the ship for take-off.

  "Uh, dude?" Stiles' voice crackles over the intercom and Derek wonders if he woke up on his own or if it was the whirring of the engines coming to life. "Are we—uh, should I strap in?"

  Derek hits the button that'll allow him to respond to Stiles directly. "Just hold on to something," he says, not quite able to keep the amusement out of his voice. "We'll be up in a few minutes and then you can move around."

  He gives Stiles ten seconds to secure himself and then they're heading for the atmosphere; Derek feels himself relaxing the second the ship's artificial gravity kicks in, switching the control to autopilot just as Stiles appears in the doorway.

  A decent sleep and being rescued have done wonders for him and Derek's momentarily thrown by how Stiles looks with his heavy eyes and slightly curling mouth, wearing Derek's clothes. Now that the stink of the planet and the faint whiff of chemicals from decontamination have worn off, Derek's not sure if it's just because he hasn't been around people for any real amount of time lately, but Stiles' scent is abruptly overwhelming and he has to take a second or two to allow his brain to reboot.

  "Sleep well?" he asks, ignoring the way his voice cracks uncharacteristically.

  Stiles smiles, as though he doesn't look devastating enough already. "The best I've had in at least six weeks," he says. "Is there any chance of a shave around here?"

  Derek absently scratches at his own stubble - it's now probably long enough to call a beard, though he hasn't looked in a mirror in a good while. He concedes that shaving might be a good idea - turning up with a missing person looking like he's the kidnapper probably isn't the way to go. He makes a mental note to do it when they're closer to actual civilisation – several weeks of accumulated growth on Stiles have just ended up looking like unkempt fuzz, whereas Derek's pretty sure Laura would be teasing him about braiding his by now if she was around, and it's only been three weeks since he trimmed it last.

  "There's a bathroom down the hall," he says. "There's, uh, spare stuff in the locker. We—I always buy in bulk. Go crazy."

  Stiles nods and flits away, though he reappears under a minute later, eyes huge. "Dude, can I take a real shower?" he asks. "And, I mean, I saw earlier that you have real food here--oh my God, I've changed my mind – don't take me back to Beacon: I refuse to leave. I'm officially squatting."

  "I think the place has to be unoccupied for you to do that," Derek says distantly, then blinks at him. "Take a shower, help yourself to food – just, bear in mind that we're in the middle of space and the stuff that's there has to last longer than a few hours."

*

Stiles drops into the seat beside him a while later, munching on an apple and looking even more relaxed than ever despite the slight grimace on his face when he jars his ribs doing so; the line of his jaw is stark now that all of peach fuzz has gone and Derek's a little fascinated with the constellation of moles on his face.

  "So, I still don't know your name," Stiles says. He smells like Derek's soap and Derek must take a second too long to respond because Stiles turns his head to quirk an eyebrow at him. "I mean, you said Laura Hale's your sister, so I surmise your surname is Hale--well, unless one or both of you is married, or changed your name - or maybe you have different parents, so really that takes me back to square one, but I really have to stop calling you Hot Caveman in my head, so...?"

  "Derek," Derek says, blinking. Laura would be laughing her ass off if she were here. There's a reason she was always the one who dealt with people. "Derek Hale."

  Stiles beams and sticks his hand out – an odd, human tradition of greeting that Derek's only really peripherally aware of because human movies are cheap and easy to find, and Laura has quite the collection. He shakes it, bemused. "Stiles Stilinski," Stiles says, and Derek bites back the automatic response that he already knew that.

  Derek clears his throat. "So, is there a reason the contact details on your Missing poster are for a Sheriff?"

  "My dad," Stiles says easily, waving his half eaten apple in the air. "Typically speaking, Wanted ads are more likely to get a response than Missing, but if he ran me as Wanted, I'd probably be brought back to him in pieces. He knows me: if there was a price on my head and I caught wind of someone trying to kidnap me, I know just enough to make it difficult."

  "I could have easily kidnapped you," Derek says, eyebrows lifting. "You were about as threatening as a newborn when I found you."

  "Oh, I'd've let myself be picked up," Stiles says, like he's spent some real time considering this. "Let them nurse me back to health, build up my strength, slowly pilfer food and other supplies and steal away in a shuttle or an escape pod as soon as I could."

  Derek shoots him a wry glance. "Am I going to have to start keeping an inventory and making sure the shuttles are locked?"

  "No, dude, I've told you - I'm not going anywhere," Stiles says, crossing his legs at the ankles and stretching out - Derek has to force himself not to trace the lines of his body with his eyes. "For some bizarre reason, you've taken it upon yourself to get me home without promise of reward of any kind – I'm not in any position to protest."

  "It's what Laura would do," Derek says quietly, feeling the warmth of the moment bleed away; he looks down at the console unseeingly. "She'd insist. We never really—we'd pick up jobs that paid, sure, but money's not why we did it."

  Stiles tips his head and sits up properly. "So why did you?"

  "Adventure, Laura always said," he says with a shrug. "The more inconvenient, the better. Sometimes, I'm sure she just picked whatever would irritate me most."

  "You miss her," Stiles says, and it's not a question but it feels like one, somehow, and Derek bristles, abruptly aware Stiles is an almost complete stranger.

  "She's the only family I had—have—left," Derek says, and stands up. He's not sure where he's going, but he's certain he doesn't want to be having this conversation anymore. "We'll be landing tomorrow – a Lycan planet – to take stock and check that the rain didn't do anything to my ship. If there's anything you need, let me know and I'll get it when I'm on-world."

  He doesn't mention that the very idea of stopping on Aco turns his stomach. Stiles perks up. "I could come with you," he offers.

  "Do you have money? Or travel papers for any of the Lycan planets?" Derek asks; Stiles deflates. "Stay on the ship – no one will board without my permission because it's my territory, but an unclaimed human will be fair game the second your toes touch the soil."

  "Unclaimed?"

  Derek runs a hand through his hair. "You're not family, my partner, or my servant," he says. "Those are the only three things that would keep you safe without travel papers—and no, we can't just pretend: they'd know you were unclaimed the same way I do. It's instinctive, more than just a piece of paper or a scent. It's Pack politics and it's not particularly easy to understand even when you're one of us."

  Stiles opens his mouth, presumably to question or protest but Derek cuts over him: "Look, just—if you step off of this ship, I can't protect you and I promise, you won't be able to protect yourself, either. This isn't a pride thing, or whatever you might be thinking. There's a reason Lycans have a bad rep: it might just be a small number, but that small number are responsible for most of the human disappearances that happen in this part of the galaxy," Derek says. "They're good at what they do. When I said I could have kidnapped you back on that planet? I could have done it blindfolded and one-handed. The people in the place we're visiting could do that to me, so think about what they'd do to you."

  "You know a lot about it," Stiles says, managing to look both curious and wary.

  "We were hired to get a woman's daughter back," Derek says grimly, and then meets Stiles' eyes and shakes his head sharply; the faint blue glow of the console makes Stiles look paler than ever. "Don't make me have to have that conversation with another worried parent."

  "What happened to her?"

  Derek doesn't like thinking about it, hates remembering the feeling of a terrified seventeen-year-old girl dying in his arms. "She died," he says, and refuses to say more. "Do you want to go and sort through your belongings? I can show you to the cargo bay."

  Stiles looks at him like he wants to ask more questions, but he acquiesces and stands, letting Derek lead him down to the hold in silence.

*

Stiles stays in the cargo bay until Derek guilts himself into fetching him for dinner. They eat together and don't say much, which is just fine with Derek – he's pretty sure he's reached his conversation quota for the day, if not week, but the way Stiles scarfs down his food like a starved man makes Derek feel vaguely guilty. Should he have offered sooner?Are humans supposed to eat more frequently?

  A bubble of frustration wells up. He can't do this. He's not good at this.

  Derek retreats to the bridge as soon as he's finished, head swimming: Laura was better at this. Laura would know how to act like a normal person. Derek's not even entirely certain what normal is.

  Stiles drifts in after a while, inviting himself to sit in the co-pilot's seat again. "I washed up," he offers. "And I have a bunch of stuff to destroy – I left it all in boxes in the hold; the stuff that didn't ever leave the shuttle, I moved to my—uh, the quarters you gave me."

  "You should have said something," Derek says, too brashly. He forces his voice to soften: "You're still healing – I could have carried it up."

  "It's fine, dude – I took it easy; nothing strenuous – you looked like you needed your space and I didn't want to bug you. I mean, I'm kind of freeloading here, so it's the least I could do."

  The thing is—the thing that's bugging Derek, that's been bugging Derek since they met, is that he's not wholly sure he'd have been upset by Stiles asking for his help. He pushes the thought out of his head – he's just not used to being around people, he tells himself; instinct is kicking in and making him want to care for an injured human under his care.

  Maybe.

  Stars, Laura would be howling with laughter at him if she knew.

  "You should call your dad," Derek says, the idea occurring to him even as he says the words. "Let him know you're on your way home. If we stay on course and nothing comes up, you'll be there in about a week."

  Stiles accepts the Pad Derek pushes into his hands. He taps at the blank screen idly. "You use hours and days," he says, more of an observation than a question.

  "Habit," Derek says with a shrug and a nod at the console where there's a digital time display. "This ship was built by humans back when 24-hour days were relevant – it's not the most reliable way of identifying the date itself anymore, but sometimes it's the only way to know that time is actually passing; it's a good frame of reference, and one most people seem to understand."

  Stiles' mouth falls open. "This was built on Earth?"

  "One of the last," Derek says, patting the console. "She mostly runs on blood, sweat and tears these days, but she's a tough bird and she'll fly as long as there's breath left in me. She was my father's, and then Laura's."

  "What's her name?"

  "Selene," Derek says, listening to the distant whirr of her machinery. Stiles smirks at him and seems to debate saying something for a moment before just waving the Pad.

  "I'm gonna—do you need this?"

  Derek waves him off and Stiles leaves, taking the Pad with him; Derek leans back in his chair and closes his eyes, letting fond memories of his father teaching Derek the basics of flying wash over him.

  He and Laura lost a lot - they lost almost every material thing they'd ever owned along with their family, all at once, but there's not an hour that goes by that Derek's not grateful Selene wasn't among them.

*

They land on Aco not long after breakfast the following day and by the time they do, Derek's had to send Stiles out of the bridge on three separate occasions for stinking the place up with the anxiety pouring off of him.

  "Is it safe for you to go?" Stiles asks, appearing at Derek's shoulder as soon as they're down. Derek stands up, brushing past to pull his pack over his shoulders; he's already in his flight suit as a precautionary measure.

  "Safer than you," Derek says, because he's not sure Aco's an entirely safe place for anyone to be for any length of time. "Is there anything you need while I'm out?"

  "Not really - I'm already eating your food and using your resources, dude. I'm not going to ask you for anything," Stiles says, a faint frown on his face. "Safer doesn't mean 'safe'."

  "I'm as safe as it's possible to be on a planet like Aco," Derek tells him. "Money isn't an issue - what do you need? Clothes? The boxes of stuff you're destroying have a lot in them. Any food in particular? Do you need a new Palm Pad?"

  "Whoa, so not necessary," Stiles says. "I'll just borrow yours if I need to use it and I'll buy a new one when I get home. Seriously, dude, don't worry about me - there's nothing I need."

  Derek rolls his eyes and doesn't argue – but he doesn't agree, either. "Remember what I said," he says. "Do not leave this ship, okay? Even if I'm bleeding on the ground next to the door, don't even think about it. I shouldn't be more than a few hours, but don't panic if I'm longer - don't try to look for me, don't ask anyone for help; I'll take my Pad with me and you can contact me via the bridge if you really need me, but there are dead zones all over the place so I might not be able to answer."

  Stiles' expression is only growing more worried. "You're not instilling confidence, here," he says. "What happens if you don't come back? How the hell am I supposed to know?"

  "The ship will know," Derek says quietly. "Even if there's a freak accident, nobody will claim this ship – you can take it and go home. The first thing I'll be doing is checking for damage and organising any necessary repairs. There are enough ration packs to get you to Beacon."

  "Stop it," Stiles says, and Derek refuses to acknowledge how much he likes the stubborn set of his jaw, the brightness of his eyes. "I did not get rescued just for my rescuer to die. Come back."

  Derek shoots him a grin, which has an interesting effect on Stiles' heart rate and his scent, and shrugs. "I'll come back," he says. "Stay on the ship, don't screw anything up."

  Stiles doesn't look happy, tucking his arms around himself and following Derek all the way to the door, frowning all the way; Derek gives him an amused look and steps out into the airlock, sealing the door behind him; Stiles continues to glare through the little window until he's out of sight.

*

  As he said he would, Derek checks over the ship first, taking his time inspecting her – the ship's own diagnostics came back clean, but he likes to be sure. Fortunately, there doesn't seem to be any damage and he smooths his fingers over his Pack emblem splashed across the cargo door, mentally promising the ship he'll touch up her paint job just as soon as Stiles is home safe.

  Aco's markets are lively no matter what the time or season and Derek locates the bits and pieces he'd been looking for, stocking up on a little extra food. Stiles might deny it, but Derek's almost certain he's hungry all the time. He also stops by to pick up a secondhand Palm Pad - it's an older model than Derek's, and it's a little dented, but it's cheap and he figures Stiles won't get too mad because he's not spending much on it at all.

  He spends some time just browsing the stalls—Laura loved sifting through piles of what Derek would call junk if he was being polite about it—and without thinking about it, he picks up a couple of trinkets he thinks she might like.

  Deciding he's tortured Stiles long enough, Derek transfers the appropriate credits, tucking his purchases into his bag, and turns to start making his way back to the landing site, opting for the quicker route around the back of the market stalls rather than attempt to wade through crowds and hawkers.

  "You smell like human," purrs a voice, jerking Derek out of his own thoughts; he spins and find himself face to face with one of his mother's old acquaintances. "The last of the Hales, finally caving in to instinct and claiming himself a little human? What would your mother say?"

  Derek doesn't dignify her with a response – he stings more from the assumption he's the last of his family than the idea of taking a human as a mate or a slave. He turns away and finds his path blocked by a pair of twins he remembers from attending Pack meets with his mother, though they were much younger back then, and their eyes were yellow, not red.

  "What's the matter, Hale? Nothing to say to an old friend?"

  Derek grits his teeth and forces himself to breathe, turning slightly to put his back to the wall. "I don't know if 'friend' was ever an appropriate label for how my mother thought of you," he says with a tight smile. "What can I do for you, Kali?"

  She gives him a grin that's all venom and fangs. Dimly, Derek remembers how his mother used to tut over the poor control displayed by Lycans like Kali who walked around half-shifted all the time. "We heard about how the last two Hales were running all over the galaxy playing at being good little Lycans," she says. Derek forces himself to remember Laura and Cora giggling about how gross the claws on her feet were, and it keeps him calm. "We just thought we'd offer our condolences that it's finally gotten one of you killed."

  It's only Laura's voice in the back of Derek's head telling him not to rise to the bait that keeps him from launching at her. Still, he bares his teeth, fangs slipping out. "What makes you think Laura's dead?" he asks with more conviction than he feels. "Unless you know anything about her disappearance that you'd like to share?"

  Kali sneers – the twins mirror her, too, in Derek's peripheral vision. "It's not good for a 'wolf to be on their own for long," she says in a voice like silk. "You know as well as I do that an omega alpha goes feral in a matter of weeks; your dear sister's Missing notice has been plastered all over the place for months, omega."

  Derek feels the moniker like a blow to the chest, but refuses to let it show. "Even if she is feral, she's still alive and still my alpha," he says, flashing his eyes at her to show they're his usual icy blue and not alpha red. "I'm no omega."

  Not yet.

  "When she gets herself killed, the alpha powers will pass to you," Kali says. "And you'll go the same way, Hale, unless you have help."

  "Help?" Derek spits. "From you? I'll risk going feral, thanks, but I appreciate the concern."

  He turns to leave and finds himself slammed face-first against the wall, Kali's claws sinking through his suit and into his shoulder – he's unsurprised to taste blood, though he's a little dazed and can't tell if it's from biting through his lip or if his nose is bleeding.

  "You'd do better to show a little respect to your superiors," Kali hisses just before he drives an elbow into her gut, sending her stumbling back several steps though she keeps her feet.

  "And you'd do better not to assault a Hale," Derek says, shooting a warning look at the twins when they start forward with matching snarls. "Even if I am the last of them, my name holds more weight than all of yours combined. Who do you think will come out on top if I bring that weight down on you, a pathetic excuse for an alpha who murdered her own pack?"

  Kali sneers and Derek lifts his eyebrows, tilting his head to one side, though he keeps his chin down. It's only practice that keeps his pulse steady and his terror in check – he's under no illusion that Kali could rip him to pieces and he'd be powerless to do anything about it. She stays where she is and Derek turns on his heel and marches away, trying his damnedest not to look like a retreating dog with its tail between its legs.

*

Stiles is hovering by the airlock when Derek returns; the place reeks of his anxiety and Derek doesn't think Stiles left the hallway the whole time he was out.

  "Have you eaten?" he asks in lieu of a greeting once the door's closed behind him. All he wants to do is put his back against it and slide to the floor, but he forces himself to keep walking.

  "No—is that blood on your face? Are you bleeding? Dude, there are holes in your super suit. Stars, there's blood on your suit—"

  "It's a flight suit," Derek tells him, having to stop in his tracks when Stiles immediately darts in front of him. "It's designed to absorb shock or stop bullets, but it isn't really set-up for direct contact with pointy objects. Yes, it's blood; no, I'm not bleeding anymore."

  "What the hell happened?"

  Derek sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose, regretting it immediately - his shoulder has healed from Kali's claws, but the muscle's still tender. "Lycans happened," he says. "It's fine – I'm fine. You should eat something and I need to change."

  He manages to push past Stiles' shoulder, ignoring the barrage of questions that follow. They reach Derek's quarters and he sighs, turning abruptly – Stiles only avoids walking into him because Derek holds a hand out to stop him, momentarily thrown by the sight and feel of his own hand splayed over Stiles' chest – it takes up less space than he thought it would.

  "Here," he says, thrusting his bag into Stiles' arms. "Go and make something to eat. I'll be out in a minute."

  Stiles automatically wraps his arms around the bag, looking like he has half a mind to continue nagging, but he doesn't try to follow Derek into his room when Derek backs through the doorway and watches it slide closed between them. He listens to Stiles' footsteps slowly making their way up to the mess and only once he's there does Derek let himself sink down against the door until he's sitting.

  He lets out a ragged breath, dragging both of his hands through his hair.

  "Where are you, Laura?"

  The walls don't provide him an answer; the silence only serves as a reminder that he hasn't heard her voice outside of his own head in months.

  After allowing himself a few minutes of self-pity, Derek forces himself to stand up and cleans the blood from his face, stripping out of his suit and casting it off to one side before slipping into normal clothes. Absently, Derek expands his hearing until he can hear Stiles mumbling faintly to himself, clattering around the mess, and it provides a soothing enough backing track that Derek can begin to relax.

  He putters around his room for a little while longer, moving things around only to return them to their original place – a hazard of being fastidiously tidy.

  Derek must spend longer than he thinks pacing because the next thing he knows, there’s a tentative knock at his door and a heartbeat a lot closer than he remembers catches him entirely off guard.

  "Uh, Derek? There's food—I made food, if you want some. I mean, I made enough for both of us. If you're hungry. I guess you might be sleeping, in which case I'm literally just talking to a wall right now."

  Derek presses the panel to open the door and finds himself almost nose to nose with Stiles; Stiles starts and pinwheels wildly before Derek reaches out to steady him. "I'm awake," he says, rather needlessly, but Stiles doesn't call him out on it. "I could eat."

  "Great," Stiles says, and Derek doesn't think the wave of relief that comes from him has anything to do with food – a suspicion confirmed with Stiles' next breath. "Because I'd really like to get off of this planet."

  That makes Derek pause, turning his head to give Stiles an imploring look.

  Stiles flails a little. "You were attacked," he says like it's personally offended him. "And even though you said I'd be safe on the ship, you were attacked and I might be a little worried about waking up with my throat slit or something."

  "You wouldn't wake up if someone slit your throat," Derek points out, stepping past Stiles in order to hide his smile and make his way up to the mess room with Stiles traipsing after him.

  "It's a turn of phrase, asshole, and that's not the point. You said you were safe out there when you clearly weren't, and what if that means that there are Lycans who won't hesitate to come on board, your territory or not?"

  Derek doesn't particularly feel like explaining the fact that he's more or less Lycan nobility, if not quite royalty, that his pack was one of the most powerful in the galaxy before they were blown out of the sky. "They won't," he says. "And who says I was attacked? I told you I'm fine."

  "Someone got close enough to rip through material that can withstand literal acid rain," Stiles says, ushering him into a chair – Derek doesn't bother protesting. His fussing kind of reminds him of Laura when they'd just escaped a particularly bad scrape. "That's not fine."

  "You don't know I didn't start the fight," Derek says when Stiles doesn't move away from his shoulder. "Stop hovering."

  Stiles sits obediently, only reaching for his cutlery when Derek gives him a long look. "So you admit there was a fight."

  "Not really," Derek sighs. "She grabbed me – spouting some stupid alpha supremacy bullshit, and I hit her back, end of story."

  Stiles' eyes narrow with suspicion but Derek gives him a hapless shrug and focuses on his food, so Stiles drops the subject, though Derek can't quite escape the feeling that it's only a temporary cessation.

  "We'll leave once I'm finished eating," Derek says, and the voice in the back of his head that's definitely Laura nags at him to be a more gracious host. "Want to come up and I'll show you how to fly this thing?"

  If Derek's heart trips over itself at the way Stiles brightens, well, it's not as though there's anyone around capable of witnessing it.

  They finish the meal in silence, but Stiles' scent has lost most of its anxious edge, swaying more towards excitement. Despite this, he insists on washing up before they head for the bridge and for reasons unknown – or at least, consciously ignored – to even himself, Derek stays to help.

  "I've never piloted anything bigger than the shuttle," Stiles says, belting himself into the co-pilot's seat and spinning it to watch Derek, eyes bright. "I never went to the Academy – never really been off-world, so there's never really been any need, but I always dreamed of having my own ship, you know? A little bit of the galaxy just for me."

  "Why didn't you go?"

  Stiles grimaces and his scent sours. "My mom," he says. "She didn't want me to fight - it was the only thing she asked of me before she died. Back then, I guess, the Academy were a little more militarily inclined? I mean, when I turned sixteen my dad asked me if I wanted to go, said if my mom saw how much good the kids who came out of the Academy were doing, with whole parts of it dedicated to teaching its students to help instead of just fight, then she'd have wanted me to go, but... I guess it was my way of telling myself she'd be proud of me. By the time I was angry enough to think about going against her wishes, I was eighteen and had a couple of marks against my name – there was no way they'd let me in."

  "Ever regret it?"

  Stiles picks at the fraying edge of his sleeve. "Sometimes," he says. "My best friend went and it changed his life in just about every possible way, you know? He'd always write me about how cool everything was and all the neat stuff he was learning. He'd bring piles of it home for me, too, so that I could learn. He graduated and got a sweet job with the Department pretty much straight away, whereas I'm just picking up odd jobs wherever I can; my dad still pays for a lot of my stuff."

  "The Department's not all it's cracked up to be," Derek says. "Neither is the Academy."

  Stiles looks like he wants to ask more questions, but Derek nods at the console and begins showing him what to do - it's all fairly standard, and Derek's sure the shuttle Stiles had been in had probably run on at least a derivation of the same set up, but Stiles doesn't protest, and it's a tidy distraction from further conversation.

*

They're eating breakfast the following morning when Derek remembers the Pad - his bag is almost untouched on the floor by the counter where Stiles must have dropped it. He shoves a piece of toast—Stiles had been delighted to find Derek had located fresh bread—into his mouth and reaches for the bag, rifling through to find the Pad. Once located, he looks up to find Stiles already watching him, head tipped.

  "It's secondhand, before you give me grief for it," Derek says. "And it's at least two generations below mine so I got it cheap."

  He draws the Pad out and slides it over, watching Stiles' expression cycle through indignance, gratitude, confusion before settling on something akin to amazement. "Dude," he says. "This is better than the one I had."

  Derek dumps his bag under the table and returns to his food, smothering the smile that threatens when Stiles begins making excited little noises, powering the device up.

  "I can't take this, man," Stiles says, his scent spiking with guilt all of a sudden.

  Derek lifts one eyebrow, draining his glass before folding his arms on the table top. "You want to go back to Aco to return it?" Stiles' face pales. "Exactly. I got it because it was cheap and I came across it when I was looking for other things - accept it as a gift, if it'll make you feel any better."

  "A gift? I haven't done anything – dude, you're the one ferrying me across the galaxy right now; I should be buying you stuff."

  "When's your birthday?"

  Stiles blinks, visibly startled at the question. "Not for a while," he says eventually. "I'll have to check when I get back to Beacon, but if I've only missed a couple of months, then it's still several months away."

  "There are thousands, if not millions, of different species, races and cultures in space - one of them is bound to be celebrating some form of gift-giving today. It's a gift for whatever occasion it is."

  Stiles frowns down at the Pad, prodding at the screen without appearing to really see it; he glances up at Derek through his eyelashes and gives him a tiny grin full of gratitude and something Derek's definitely not thinking too much about because of the way it catches and races with his pulse. "Thank you."

  Derek stands. "I'm going to—" he gestures wordlessly, hoping he looks a lot less adrift than he feels. "I'll wash up later."

  With that, he turns and marches with as much purpose as he can muster, making his way up to the bridge by default – if he goes to his room, it’ll look like he's hiding, and although he's pretty sure that's exactly what he's doing, he's not willing to admit that. The bridge is safe. The bridge is always a viable excuse for escape.

  Of course, that plan backfires when Stiles sinks into the co-pilot's seat less than ten minutes later; he doesn't say anything, just tucks his feet up under himself and settles in, entirely enamoured by his new Pad, so Derek doesn't have any viable reason at all why Stiles' presence should be affecting him.

  He reminds himself that he's taking Stiles home; that Stiles is an almost complete stranger to him – a pretty-eyed, too-curious stranger, with constellations on his skin more compelling to Derek than the furthest galaxies, but a stranger nonetheless. He has to put him out of his mind – the quicker they get to Beacon, the quicker Stiles will be out of his hair and Derek can go back to arguing with bureaucrats and hoping Laura will come home.

  They sit like that for hours; Stiles occasionally makes a little noise in response to whatever's on his Palm Pad screen, but he doesn't try to loop Derek in, and Derek passes the time alternately staring out at the blackness around them, and checking the course he's set for Beacon.

  The clock on the dash says it's late, says Derek should probably get up and go to bed, but Stiles is curled up in the chair beside him, not asleep but near to it. It's peaceful, and it's less lonely than retreating to his bunk alone.

  He heaves a frustrated sigh and pushes his own Pad away from him, dragging his fingers through his hair and staring sightlessly out into the abyss.

  "Laura?" Stiles asks and Derek glances over to find his eyes half open and fixed on him; his face is thrown into sharp contrast by the partial darkness and the soft blue light of the console. His dark eyes still seem like the brightest things in the room. Derek nods. "How long has she been missing?"

  "Around six months," Derek says, swinging his gaze back to the window. Stiles sucks in a breath through his teeth and Derek knows why – Stiles was lucky to be found alive after six weeks.

  "What makes you—I mean, you seem so sure that she's alive," Stiles says, and Derek can hear the wince in his voice at how indelicate he sounds.

  In answer, Derek taps his chest. "I'd feel it," he says. "No matter where in the universe she is, I'll feel it if and when she dies. I'd inherit her power, too, unless she's killed by another Lycan, or something else capable of absorbing the spark."

  "Have you kept track of where you've looked?" Stiles asks; Derek senses more than sees him straightening in his seat, pulling himself closer to the console, and by extension, Derek. "I could help, if you'll let me."

  Derek holds back a derisive snort, because what other options does he have? He doesn't know what to do now, and the Department have pulled their support entirely. He settles for an expression he hopes conveys polite scepticism, finding Stiles' expression open and eager, illuminated fully by the console now that he's nearer.

  "Knock yourself out," he says at last, barely repressing a sigh: Laura would give the benefit of the doubt to anyone as long as they seemed genuine enough, and that's the reason he waves at his Pad and nods; Stiles all but lunges for it, picking up Derek's in one hand and his own in the other.

  At the very least, it should give Stiles something to occupy himself with until they get to Beacon. Derek fiddles with the console to give his hands something to do, an uncomfortable itch starting under his skin at the idea of letting someone paw through all of the information he's collected about Laura's disappearance.

  "Can you tell if she's hurt?" Stiles asks suddenly, looking up. "Like, you can tell she's alive, but do you know how she's feeling, or how she's doing physically?"

  "I could sense her distress if we were near enough," Derek says. "But that's more to do with my actual senses - pheromones, chemo signals, that sort of thing - rather than Pack."

  Stiles hums thoughtfully, fingers a steady rhythm against his Pad. "And there's no reason she'd go somewhere alone, without you?"

  "Not for this long," Derek says. "She had her Pad with her, to begin with, and even when that was found, she should still be able to call me or contact me somehow. We always checked in if we went off alone. The only conclusion I can put together is she's trapped or being held. Laura's an alpha - she's smart and she's tough."

  "And nigh impossible to kill," Stiles mutters, frowning at his screen. His heartbeat stutters when he realises what he said, head shooting up.

  "How would you know that?" Derek asks, racking his brain for any recollection of mentioning alphas or Lycans in any more than passing detail. He swivels his chair to face Stiles directly; Stiles jerks backwards, eyes wide.

  "I—my best friend," he says quickly. "He's a Lycan."

  "There's no Lycan settlement on Beacon," Derek says. Not anymore, not after they were chased out.

  "He wasn't born," Stiles says, clutching both Pads to his chest and eyeing Derek warily. "One of his first missions was to find and subdue a rogue alpha – his team were mostly ripped to shreds but Scott and three others survived: two became Lycans, or near as to it as humans can be made, I guess – I don't really understand the biology behind it all. They have their own little team, now."

  Derek's mouth feels dry. During his brief stint at the Department, he'd always been treated as something of a lesser citizen – feared, sure, but forced to work in rooms lined with mountain ash, able to overhear every disparaging comment his colleagues chose to make. People would say he had an unfair advantage if he aced the physical assessments, or complain that he thought he was too good for them if he didn't.

  Upon dropping out of the Academy, Derek had stowed away on his father's ship, then piloted by Laura, rather than go home and face his parents. Though she never confirmed it, Derek's certain she knew the moment he was on board; he's not entirely convinced it was complete coincidence she just decided to drop by and visit at the same time Derek had been plotting his escape.

  When their family had died, Laura had used her connections to get him a job at the Department and he'd managed - despite the constant criticism - for a few years before Laura had turned up to ask for the Department's help and they'd refused.

  Derek had resigned on the spot and never looked back.

  The idea that there are a group of Lycans in the Department with their own task force is bizarre and somewhat sickening – if he'd stayed, could he have been part of it? Could he have helped if he hadn't been weak and just given up? If he'd stayed, would Laura still be around, sticking close instead of venturing into the far reaches of the galaxy?

  Stiles seems to have relaxed while Derek got lost in his thoughts, gazing speculatively down at the Pad in his lap – Derek's is set to one side, the screen dark.

  "I'm gonna ask Scott if your sister's case ever crossed his desk, if that's okay," Stiles says, managing to sound both cautious and confident. "He'll get hold of it if it didn't, and he'll share it with me so that we can have access to everything the Department knows. A healthy dose of suspicion never went amiss when dealing with the government."

  Derek blinks, giving Stiles a startled look; Stiles grins and shrugs.

  "They tried to fire Scott and the rest of his team once they discovered that the Lycan gene–well, they called it a 'virus', but that's stupid—had somehow merged with their DNA," he explains. "So Scott and I have kind of been working together and pooling resources ever since. I can go places he can't – I might be restricted, for the most part, to Beacon and its neighbours, but there are some places that recognise a Department employee on sight, whereas I can slip under the radar. In return for any intelligence I pass on, Scott keeps me apprised of a lot of goings-on. I even get paid for it, occasionally."

  "You're both going to get yourselves killed."

  Stiles shrugs, remarkably unruffled. "Either they already know and they don't see us as enough of a threat to take out, yet, or they have no idea what we're doing," he says. "We're not naive enough to believe we'll get away with it forever, but we're also not going to waste any valuable time worrying."

  "The shuttle you were on when you crashed," Derek says. "Where did you get it?"

  Stiles straightens slowly, face going deliberately blank for a moment before he gives Derek a lopsided, if not entirely genuine, smile. "It's a good thing you found me, then, huh?" At Derek's frown, he says: "It was an old shuttle from my dad's ship, but it was left in a Department hangar while I visited Scott. My dad left it there for me because he got called away – it was probably tampered with; I'm not going to argue with you."

  "If they know about you and tried to kill you, they know about your friend," Derek says. "What happens to your little underground cult when your king pin is pulled?"

  "That's the beauty of it, man - we don't have a kingpin," Stiles tells him, looking remarkably cheerful for someone who's just realised his government tried to quietly do away with him. "I die, the movement lives on; Scott dies, the movement lives on. It's not a hierarchical system: it's a pool. It might have started as just Scott and I, but it's grown. Scott isn't the only insider. No one person knows every individual contributor, none of us wear any identifying sigil – everyone involved has a stake in its continued success. We don't even have a catchy name, man: we don't exist."

  "You can't just trust anyone," Derek says, and he's not even sure why he's trying to argue about this – he's not even involved. Or is he? Now that Stiles has told him about it, is he involved? Derek can feel a headache coming on.

  Stiles tips his head. "Don't need to," he says. "Say, for the sake of argument, they captured me instead of attempting to kill me – I could tell them where to find the files, tell them to pay Scott a visit, tell them anything and everything I knew and they still wouldn't have even half of it - the files shift; some have different passwords depending on what the person who accesses it wants it to say. Case in point, dude: I'm telling you all of this - it's not a case of me trusting you not to tell anyone; it's the knowledge that if you did, you wouldn't actually be able to tell them much of anything at all. That, and you don't seem to be the Department's biggest fan."

  Derek definitely has a headache. Stiles, perhaps sensing no further questions, turns back to his Pad, hands flicking over it quicker than Derek can even begin to process.

  He quells the faint stirrings of hope in his chest for good measure: Laura's been gone, her trail cold, for the better part of six months and despite his differences with the Department, he's not sure he's ready to believe they'd willingly turn a blind eye to a lone alpha going missing. Aside from being an asinine thing to do, it's dangerous.

  After another hour or so of staring, quite literally, into space, Derek retires to bed, his mind a maelstrom of unhelpful thoughts and feelings.

*

Derek doesn't see much of Stiles the following day. Through the walls and the ventilation system, he can faintly make out the timbre of his voice, can sense the movement of him about the ship, but the only time they interact is when Stiles pops his head around the door of the bridge to ask if it's all right to commandeer a chair from the mess (Derek agrees without questioning him – he isn't sure he wants to know).

  Stiles is an enigma – Derek can't figure him out. Although human, Stiles survived almost seven weeks on his own on an unfamiliar planet in extreme conditions – a feat that even Derek might have struggled with, particularly given the odds of anyone actually picking up a distress signal.

  For someone having narrowly avoided a dismal fate, Stiles is quick to grin and he already seems to be comfortable in Derek's presence. He reacted to the knowledge of what Derek is with little more than a shrug, didn't even have the good sense to question his motives or flinch away from him which, in Derek's experience, is the standard reaction for a human, even one accustomed to dealing with Lycans.

  There's also the small matter of how enticing he smells: he leaks his emotions all over the place and rather than it being annoying, Derek's finding himself increasingly comforted by the steady thrum of his heart and the way he's seemed to make himself quite at home. Stiles feels right; Derek can't shake the fact Stiles feels like he fits in amongst Selene's other features, like a piece he'd never known was missing.

  It's something more than physical, Derek thinks – sure, Stiles has eyes as captivating as any moon; has the star system itself embedded into his skin; has limbs that go on for lightyears, but it's more than that. It's more than his scent, more than his inherent rightness. Stiles is perceptive and sharp witted; he's a survivor, like Derek, and he seems to be comfortable in his own skin. Derek finds himself wanting to get close enough to just climb right inside of him.

  And then he has to spend several moments shaking the thought and all of its possible permutations out of his head.

  Derek wants in a way he hasn't wanted anything - or indeed anyone - in a very long time.

  He's only just coming to terms with this realisation when Stiles flops down into the co-pilot's chair beside him, placing a sandwich cut into neat little triangles before him.

  "Have you moved at all today?" Stiles asks, his own sandwich in his hand as he fishes out the Pad he'd jammed under his armpit. Derek's too caught off guard to answer and Stiles snorts. "I didn't think so. Anyway, I have some stuff I want you to look at, if you're up to it. It's not what I'd consider good news, but it's also not entirely hopeless, either."

  Derek picks up the sandwich and waits.

  "So, I think—I mean, the Department have some pretty extensive notes on this stuff, so it's not total extrapolation because there has to be a reason these notes were with Laura's file, right? Anyway, I—well, I should say we, because I've been working with Scott through all of this, which is why I kind of exiled myself to my room rather than get on your nerves with all the muttering and pacing, and—"

  "—Stiles."

  "Right, yeah, so anyway – we think Laura's been abducted, for want of a better word," Stiles says. "Which, granted, is a conclusion you'd arrived at on your own, so kudos for that. The file the Department have on her disappearance has some interesting avenues – and I can tell you right now that whatever they've told you? It's not a cold case, like, at all. Scott says it was like a heist to get all of this information - there's a whole team dedicated to it. Whatever it is, whatever Laura's caught up in, it's not just some run-of-the-mill abduction; there's something bigger going on. Something that has the Department at least a little concerned."

  The news sits like wolfsbane in Derek's stomach. Rationally, he knows it's a good thing that Laura's case is still open, but the reality that Laura's in real danger is a thought that has bile threatening the back of his throat. He has to put his barely touched sandwich down.

  Stiles is watching him with a concerned frown but at an impatient, if weak, gesture from Derek, he consults his Pad and continues: "The Department seem to think she's nearby," he says. "We're working on establishing why they think so, because as far as we can gather, there haven't been any surveillance photos or ransom calls, or anything like you'd normally have in a case like this. They seem to think Laura's being contained, somehow, and they have whole lists of specifications and materials needed to restrain an alpha undetected. As far as anything in the file suggests, it seems like there are paramilitary groups dedicated to the eradication, or at least control, of Lycan-kind. Well, there are other species involved, but given who and what your sister is, the emphasis is on Lycans."

  "Hunters," Derek says softly. "That's the name we used for them. They're human, supremacists in the extreme. Their credo is that they protect innocents and hunt those who do harm, but it's not—they don't usually stick around for one of us to do any harm. They murder children."

  Stiles pales, lowering his Pad. "You've—you know these people?"

  "We're raised with the knowledge of them." Derek sighs. "When we're young, we're brought up with them as the monster in the closet – if a young Lycan does something bad, the Hunters might take them away. It's only when we start getting older, usually when puberty hits, that the elders in our packs start sharing the true knowledge of the atrocities committed in the name of the Hunters keeping the peace."

  "But you're—I mean, forgive me for sounding indelicate, but you guys are Lycans – you could tear one of these guys apart as an afterthought."

  "To a Lycan, our pack is like - it's like our limbs. Losing a member of it is more than just the normal grief and loss a human experiences; a pack member being murdered is like a limb suddenly being ripped off, and then having a phantom ache all the time. To Hunters, the life they claim to hold so dear is nothing but an excuse for furthering their agenda. Lycan packs can function with human members – humans are born to Lycan parents all the time, but do you know what a Hunter will do if a Lycan is born to them? They'll kill it. In the name of prevention of future accidents, from preventing their child from ever becoming a monster, they'll kill it."

  Stiles' eyes are wide, stricken, and Derek's suddenly certain that all of the information the Department has on Hunter sects is skewed to make them sound much more heroic.

  Derek shifts in his chair and shrugs. "We're physically more intimidating than a Hunter – a human – because we have sharp teeth and claws, superior senses and strength – we're the ultimate, natural born hunter, and that makes us a threat. Humans get away with hunting us down because keeping the population of deadly predators to a bare minimum can only be a good thing, right? Whereas if we do what we're capable of – if we try to fight back the way that our instincts urge us to, then we risk turning more than just the humans against us. It would be all-out war on Lycans and would only lead to our total eradication. We're the threat because we don't look helpless."

  There's an angry glint in Stiles' eyes, and it's strange because Derek doesn't believe it's directed at him. "So we don't destroy them as Lycans, then," he says eventually, turning to his Pad. "We take them down as humans."

  "You—you can't," Derek says, frustrated. "They're huge: they're a thousand times bigger than your little organisation of anarchy – how do you think they've gotten away with it for so long? They've pushed Lycans onto their own planets; we're under guard anywhere we go with a human population. Casualties of a secret war going on for generations have been used to create propaganda against Lycans. These people aren't—they're not the Department; they have no compunction. If you're a Lycan sympathiser, that's just as bad as being one of us yourself and they won't hesitate to shoot first and ask later – your death will only end up being used to highlight how dangerous we are, seducing their poor, human youth into helping us."

  "There has to be a way," Stiles says. "There's always a way."

  "You don't understand: you've never been hunted. You've never had your family blown out of the sky just because they exist. You—you can't fight them. They're David and Goliath."

  Stiles' mouth falls open, his expression caught between outrage and realisation, frozen in stasis. Eventually, looking ill, he croaks: "Your family?"

  "If you have Laura's file, my family will be mentioned in there somewhere," Derek says, weary. "If the Hunters have her, it's only a matter of time before she turns up dead somewhere; it'll be reported that she went after them single-handedly to get some kind of retribution for the deaths of her family. Maybe they're waiting to finish the job—maybe they're waiting for me to find her, find them, and they'll eradicate our line completely."

  Stiles sits forward so suddenly he almost loses balance and falls right out of his chair; his Pad clatters to the floor in his haste to grab Derek's hands, squeezing them. "That's not going to happen," he says. "You're—I can't speak for your whole race, but you're good. You're worth saving – and if your sister's anything like you, if it's the knowledge of what she would have done that led to you rescuing me, then she's worth saving, too. I won't let anything happen. To either of you."

  The atmosphere goes tense in a way that's not entirely uncomfortable; Stiles is leaning into his personal space and it's—it's intimate, almost, or would be if Derek let himself consider it. Derek lets out a breath that's as shaky as he feels, keeping his eyes locked somewhere over Stiles' shoulder.

  "You shouldn't make promises for things you can't control," he says quietly, feeling a little lightheaded from the effort it takes to resist the urge to reach out and just touch. He tugs his hands out of Stiles' grip and scoots his chair back in order to grab the Pad from the floor, pressing it back into Stiles' clutches. Derek sighs and stands. "Just leave me the details of where you can best figure she's being kept. I'll take you back to Beacon like I said I would."

  "I want to help," Stiles says, standing too, arms folded around the Pad; it looks tiny against his chest. "Please, let me help - I got this information after only a day. I can help."

  "You have until we get to Beacon to help," Derek tells him, turning away because if he meets those fathomless eyes, he's not sure he'll be able to look away ever again. "You're not going to become a casualty of a war that isn't yours on my account."

  "It's not on your account! It'll be on mine – I want to help and if something happens to me, it's my own damn fault, all right? I didn't say I was doing this for you. My best friend is a Lycan – if he has an enemy, then so do I; I want to know what we're up against."

  Derek stares at him for a few seconds, struggling against the impulse to accept, to give Stiles a reason to stick around; he wants to curl around this infuriatingly complex young man, make him Pack, keep him close.

  He shakes himself. "I just want to find my sister," he says. "I'm not looking to cause any fights – I want Laura home, safe, and then you and your friends can do whatever the hell you want on your way to getting yourselves killed."

  That said, he turns on his heel and leaves before Stiles can try to draw him into further discussion.

*

Derek steers clear of any interaction with Stiles the following day: they're back on ration packs for breakfast because the fresh eggs Derek appropriated had been smashed in his altercation with Kali, and there's no bread left, and his mood reflects it. He knows that if Stiles tries to wheedle him into getting involved with the fight between Lycans and Hunters, he'll probably say something hurtful and he's man enough to admit that he likes the way Stiles smiles at him too much to risk hurting him.

  He busies himself with general upkeep of Selene. The one time Stiles appears in his vicinity, Derek's using one of the struts in the cargo bay as a pull-up bar and Stiles immediately backs away – there's a faint whiff of alarm and panic by the time Derek drops down to go and investigate.

  Shrugging off the unease at Stiles being suddenly, inexplicably afraid of him, Derek returns to his work out. The sooner they get to Beacon, the better.

  Stiles doesn't join him for dinner and Derek tells himself it's a good thing. When Stiles doesn't invite himself onto the bridge to keep Derek company for a few hours, he ignores the hollow feeling in his chest and shares a nod with his reflection. It's better this way.

  If he lies awake most of the night thinking about Stiles' wide, dark eyes, his clever fingers and his smirking mouth, then at least there's no one around to witness it. Derek's no stranger to guilt.

*

It feels like Derek's only just gotten to sleep when Selene's proximity alarms scream him back into consciousness. Blearily, muttering that this had better not be becoming a fun, new habit of hers, he fumbles his way into his flight suit – it's second nature to him: he wouldn't have been surprised to wake up and find it already on.

  He's up front in a matter of seconds rather than minutes, slinging himself into his chair. There's a ship Selene has been monitoring for the last few hours and it's gaining on them, following their exact course. They're close. Derek's heart in his throat because Selene's not built to fight, and Laura was the one to handle all of their diplomatic dealings.

  Stiles is sinking into the seat beside him suddenly, belting himself in. "What's going on?"

  "We're being followed," Derek says. "I don't know who they are – there's nothing identifying on the ship itself. It looks human-built, but there's no way to be sure, these days."

  "It's not Department," Stiles says, rubbing one eye as he squints up at the screen displaying all of the data Selene's gathered on the ship with the other. "There aren't many ships who fly unmarked. Even Selene has your pack symbol."

  Derek racks his brain, trying to come up with any reason at all that an unmarked ship would be pursuing them. "They're either mercenaries or pirates," he says. "Either way, they're probably not here to talk, and we don't have anything valuable on board."

  "So they're here to kill one or both of us," Stiles says while Derek takes manual control of the ship, diverting Selene's extra power to shields and priming her cloaking.

  "If we're hit, get to a pod or a shuttle," Derek says. "I'm more likely to survive. There are suits in the hold, if you can get to one, but the escape pods are closest."

  "Dude, Lycan or not, you're not going to survive a vacuum," Stiles protests.

  "Don't argue with me. In my sister's absence, I'm captain of this ship and if I tell you to get out, you do it," Derek says. "You can be as angry with me as you like afterwards, but I will not hesitate to knock you out and put you in a pod myself. Do you understand?"

  Stiles agrees, albeit with a mulish look on his face.

  "All right, Selene. It's time to disappear," he murmurs, tugging at his belt to ensure it's secure; he glances over at Stiles. "Hold on."

  He waits for the other ship to put on a burst of speed – the crew will know they've been spotted, now: there's no use trying to be sneaky; waits for Selene's display to light up red with warning before he kills everything but their life support and he lets her fall out from her trajectory - though there's no real direction in space, Derek knows enough to send her into a controlled spin, diving for what best appears to be the blind spot of the approaching ship.

  Dimly, he can hear Stiles yelping but he's focused, now: Derek's list of skills isn't in danger of bubbling over, but this? He's good at this.

  He waits a few precious seconds as the pursuing ship tries to locate her prey and then slams on the power again, this time pushing the spare power to Selene's cloaking technology and leaving a bare minimum with the shields. That done, Derek says a quick, internal prayer and turns Selene as quickly as he dares, catapulting them directly underneath their would-be killers or captors: it's a large vessel, easily five or six times the size of Selene, and all the slower for it – by the time they turn to pursue, there'll be no way of telling where Derek's gone.

  Derek finds himself smiling, slowly letting out a breath. Beside him, Stiles is spitting out what seems to be every curse word he knows, clinging to the arms of his chair like he's not secured to it already.

  "Hey, space racer, a little warning next time?" he says, chest heaving. Derek rolls his eyes.

  "It's not the Department's style to hire pirates," Derek says rather than responding because he's spotted a long, red stripe along one side of the ship, identifying it as a pirate vessel. "Even if they don't want things to come back for them, they'll usually use one of their allies – pirates are too contrary and like to change the rules of their agreements. I think this was probably Kali."

  "Who?"

  "The Lycan I had a disagreement with on Aco."

  "Space pirate Lycans? That's a thing?" Stiles asks, and it's the most concerned Derek's seen him look. "As if pirates weren't a terrifying prospect all on their own."

  "They're mostly brutes," Derek says, staring hard at the data scrolling across the screen. The other ship's scanning for them and Derek has to bring Selene out of range – her cloaks are good, but he's not prepared to take any chances. "As long as we keep hidden, we're safe - they'll only hunt us as long as it's easy or worthwhile. Kali isn't capable of paying them enough to pursue us all over the galaxy."

  He guides Selene away as fast as he dares, keeping her operating on as little power as possible while he looks for a suitable hiding place - that's the problem with space, he thinks: there's so much of it.

  "So our entire plan is to play hide and seek with vicious pirates? I don't see that as a viable long term solution."

  "Long term solution? That would be to kill Kali and whoever else she's working with," Derek snaps. Stiles gives him a reproving look but he can't quite keep the scathing out of his tone. "But seeing as she's an alpha and on a planet inhabited purely by Lycan packs, I'm not all that eager to go with that plan – but by all means, you go on ahead."

  "Isn't there anywhere we can land? Blend in?" Stiles asks, and his scent is growing sour with panic, voice beginning to sound frantic and a little whiny. That alone is enough to take the edge off of Derek's irritation.

  "We're in space, in all senses of the word," Derek says with as much patience as he can muster. "The nearest inhabited planet is still a while away, yet, and if I make directly for it, we'll be noticed, pursued and fed our own intestines before I can so much as get Selene in spitting distance. She wasn't built for fighting or prolonged pursuit."

  "What if we drew them off?" Stiles asks. "Can you pilot the shuttles from here? What if we make them think we're escaping via a shuttle? Make it so that it's just visible enough for them to notice, but not too easy. Make it seem like we think perhaps the shuttle would be too small for their scanners to pick up? They'd be more likely to follow it than continue looking for the Selene, right?"

  "Just Selene," Derek corrects automatically, and then sighs. "In theory, it's possible, but all they'd have to do would be to do a thermal scan of the shuttle to know we're not on it. They're a little dim, but they're not likely to be that dense."

  "Well, that's easy," Stiles says, straightening in his seat. "We have a heat source and you have spare space suits, right?"

  "There are three suits," Derek says. "If we use two, then there's only one left in the event this doesn't work. In addition, we'll be sacrificing a perfectly good shuttle in the hopes they don't just immediately blow it up."

  "If they do, they'll turn tail and go home, though, right? Mission accomplished: we'll both be presumed dead and your friend Kali can live out her days thinking she killed you. Better if it's a shuttle than Selene being blown to smithereens, dude. Particularly when we're both on Selene."

  Derek heaves another sigh. The notion of any of his ship being blown up sets him on edge. "Fine. Do what you need to do," he says. "I'll stay hidden as long as I can. Don't use Shuttle One."

  Stiles tries to scramble to his feet without first unbuckling and Derek can't quite stifle the snort; Stiles scowls and socks him in the arm as he finally manages to get free, already tapping away on his Pad as he goes.

  It's only then that Derek notices Stiles is dressed in what he must have been sleeping in, and that his sleepwear of choice is the t-shirt and sweats he'd borrowed from Derek's locker on his first day aboard. He tells himself there's nothing to read into – half of Stiles' clothes were destroyed after being irreparably damaged by the conditions he'd had to endure, and it's not as though Derek made sleepwear a priority when he'd been on Aco.

  Out of nowhere, the image of his sweats clinging to Stiles' ass and thighs springs to the forefront of Derek's mind.

  He shakes his head violently, well aware Laura would be laughing her ass off.

  Forcing his mind to turn to a more pressing predicament – such as pirates likely looking to kill him – Derek settles in to play a little cat and mouse with the pirate ship's sensors.

*

Stiles bounces back into the bridge a short while later looking inordinately pleased with himself. He sits down and straps in, waving his Pad.

  "I had a little help, but we're good to go," he says. "Shuttle Two has two warm body shaped objects on board. I recommend we stop for supplies at earliest convenience, though, because I used all of our potatoes."

  It takes a beat for Derek to process what Stiles just said, and he has to sharply correct Selene's path from near collision when he does.

  "Our—what? All of them?"

  "They'll retain enough heat for long enough to give us time to get away," Stiles says. "I needed a lot of potatoes, man – berate later, we should go."

  "Fine," Derek says. "I've re-routed control of the shuttle so that I can pilot it from here, but you'll need to take these controls. I've mapped a route to a populated planet some distance away so the ship will do most of the work – you just have to keep an eye on everything and follow the map until we're in the clear. Watch out for debris. Normally, Selene could do it herself, but I'm splitting her attention and she's also trying to stay sufficiently hidden."

  Stiles gapes at him. "I only learned how to fly this thing a little while ago!"

  "No you didn't. You learned how to change direction – you didn't really learn to pilot." At Stiles' mutinous look, Derek adds, "You'll be fine; I'm right here. Now, I have to make them believe we're on the shuttle so I need to make it a good chase. When I tell you, go."

  Without waiting for Stiles to protest, Derek launches the shuttle. His gut twists at the knowledge it's likely to be destroyed, but it's necessary. By the time Stiles has stopped cursing his fate, Derek's taken the shuttle well out of Selene's path and has circled around the pirate's ship.

  It seems that the shuttle is, indeed, too small for the pirates to immediately notice so he takes to swinging just a hair too close in order to try and make it look like he's heading back towards the path they'd been on before Selene had alerted him to the pirates.

  Derek makes a hasty effort to correct course, knowing he'll have been noticed. It does the trick and the gargantuan hunk of metal turns to follow. Derek lets the shuttle's cloak flicker just a tiny bit and then fall completely – if he was on the shuttle, he'd've noticed the veritable beast of a ship in pursuit and given up entirely on the notion of stealth, opting to fire the shuttle's shields to full.

  "Why not just stay here? We can wait for the pirates to leave," Stiles says, hands tense around the controls.

  "In the event they realise we're not aboard the shuttle, we want to get away while we can. You'll be fine – there's nothing to crash into for several thousand miles; just follow Selene. Bera is hours away – by the time we have to land, I should be able to take over."

  "Why not autopilot?"

  "I had to override it to let me pilot the shuttle from here," Derek says. "And I had to orphan her from Selene's overall control, but retain enough power to cloak, shield and control from a distance. If we make it to Bera in one piece, I'll fix it, but for now, stop panicking and focus."

  "If?"

  "There are pirates intent on our demise," Derek grits out. "And I'm trusting my father's ship to someone with an hour's worth of basic flight training so yeah, if."

  Stiles goes silent after that and Derek can only hope it's because he's pulling himself together because his shuttle has well and truly captured the pirate's attention. As it swings around to pursue him when he scoots in an entirely new direction, Derek hisses: "Go!"

  Derek lets the sound of Stiles giving himself a pep talk wash over him – he can feel Selene beginning to move and he has to trust that Stiles is going to do his best to get them out. He rolls the shuttle to avoid what he presumes must have counted for warning shots, rotating the paltry little guns in order to return fire.

  "Why are you shooting at them? They're bigger! That's just gonna make them mad! They're going to destroy us!"

  "We're not actually on the shuttle, Stiles," Derek says, only resisting the urge to roll his eyes because he can't afford to lose concentration. "If Kali's told them anything, they'll know I'm a good pilot – they need to believe we're on it, so I need to make them mad enough that their attention stays where I want it. Keep your eyes on the map."

  Stiles settles, his jaw clenched when Derek chances a glance over at him. For all he flails and talks a lot, Derek notes, he's fairly sure Stiles is a force to be reckoned with when he puts his mind to it.

  "What are you watching me for? You've got a shuttle to fake pilot!" Stiles says when Derek lets his eyes linger just a fraction of a moment too long.

  "I'm not faking – I am actually piloting it."

  Stiles makes a dismissive, disbelieving noise but their silence after that is more comfortable, and Stiles' mouth – not that Derek's looking – is set in an amused slant.

  Derek re-focuses on his shuttle just as the dashboard notifies him he managed to hit something of low to moderate importance on the pirate ship. A little thrill, a damnable bolt of hope that he might get his shuttle back, shoots through him for all of half a second before the console alarms him that the pirate ship has locked onto it, presumably preparing to fire.

  Apparently, Derek's pissed someone off enough that they're not even considering capture now.

  Derek releases the controls and pushes up and away from the console, feeling sick. The shuttle continues to cruise away in a lazy spiral, firing automatically.

  "Just—just let me know when it's done."

  The warm, comfortable atmosphere disappears like the plug's been pulled and Derek ducks out of the bridge without Stiles so much as squawking in token protest.

  He sinks down the wall to sit just outside the door, closing his eyes and listening to the hum of Selene around him. Selene's what's important, he tells himself - he had to sacrifice the shuttle. It's what Laura would have done.

  No, a traitorous part of him murmurs: if Laura had been around, they wouldn't have been in the situation in the first place; if Laura was here, they'd have been halfway across the galaxy on some other kind of absurd mission.

  If Laura was here, Stiles wouldn't be. Stiles would probably be dead or dying, undiscovered on an unknown planet.

  Derek's gut twists, not sure how he feels. Part of him wants to say that he wouldn't have known anything about Stiles if Laura was around, that a complete stranger's life wouldn't have even been a blip on the radar for him. But there's another, more restless and instinct-driven piece of him that wants to feel pleased at having met Stiles, regardless of the circumstances that led to it.

  He shakes the thought from his head, sickened and opens his eyes to glare at the opposite wall just as Stiles peers around the doorway looking uncharacteristically solemn.

  "Pirates have scarpered," he says instead of telling him about the loss of his shuttle. "Watched them leave, too – didn't even pause to scan, uh, anything. Careless, really, but what can you expect? I guess in the absence of Selene, there was nothing worth plundering--which, granted, begs the question why they didn't bother to search."

  "Stiles," Derek says, suddenly tired; Stiles falls silent, stepping into the corridor to offer a hand – Derek figures it's more symbolic than anything, because he's still favouring his less tender side and it's not as though Derek's incapable of getting up on his own. "I'm going to go and fix the system now, and set our course to autopilot; we should land on Bera in the morning. I plan to lay low for a few days, so we'll be delayed in getting to Beacon. Is that all right?"

  "More time with my favourite grouchy Lycan? Bring it on," Stiles says, a wan attempt at levity; Derek gives him a small, mirthless but appreciative, smile. "Hey, uh, I can stay up. I'm not that tired – I'll sit up front, just to make sure everything's fine for a while; you should get some rest."

  Derek claps his shoulder and if his hand lingers, if his fingers graze the full length of Stiles' arm before he steps away, then he's blaming it entirely on the fatigue. Stiles doesn't say anything, following him onto the bridge and taking his usual seat again, tucking his knees up to his chest, turning his gaze to the window.

Derek gets to work setting Selene's controls back to rights – Stiles has gotten rid of all of the displays that would normally be telling him that the shuttle has been wiped out and he's touched, for a moment, before he shakes off the feeling.

  Stiles' eyes seem to reflect the galaxy when he says goodnight, and when his hand shoots out to squeeze Derek's, just for a split second, Derek pretends his hand doesn't feel oddly warm all the way to his quarters.

*

Bera doesn't have much in the way of a permanent population; its inhabitants tend to be more fluid, most of them merchants and traders of various kinds, settling down for Bera's long days during the warm season, which means no matter where one lands, if there's a town nearby, its streets are bursting with life in all senses – lush plant life does its best to escape the confines of such banal restraints as buildings and roads. Despite the locals' attempts at controlling it, it winds its way around the temporary stalls, some parts of the market entirely under a living canopy of green.

  Having landed Selene in a remote and decently sheltered location, Derek and Stiles take one of the remaining shuttles to the nearest town where Derek purchases new clothing for them both and sets about trading the bits and pieces he'd picked up on Aco.

  Stiles' eyes are wide with wonder as he tags along, questions spilling out of him almost as fast as he seems able to think of them. To begin with, Derek answers them to the best of his ability, but after the fifth stall tender eyeballs them a little too hard, Derek drags him to one side.

  "Stop," he says quietly. "You can ask as many questions as you like when we're alone, but right now you're making us stand out. You're behaving too much like a tourist—and yes, I know you technically are a tourist and that this is all very exciting for you, having never really been out alone, but please, please, stop talking."

  Stiles blinks owlishly at him and in that moment, Derek notices how close they're standing, how they're of a height, how Stiles' eyes scan down his face before snapping back up to meet his gaze.

  "Fine," he says, with just a trace of a reluctant pout. "But when we get home? Question time, mister, and you don't get to murder me or growl at me for it."

  That word—home—said so casually in reference to Selene strikes a particular chord in Derek's chest and it's all he can do to back away and fix Stiles' non-existent lapel, clearing his throat.

  "If there's anything you want, let me know," he says and heads back into the milling marketplace; Stiles' hand curls around the strap of Derek's backpack to keep them from being separated.

  "So you're, like, my sugar daddy now? You're not even getting any sugar."

  "If your information leads to my sister, consider us square," Derek says, hoping his voice doesn't come out as strangled as he feels as all of the possible permutations of what Stiles just said spin through his head. "I don't need any sugar, and definitely not if it's out of any misplaced sense of obligation."

  Stiles makes an odd, choking sound, but Derek's focused on a familiar merchant – he recognises her from deals she's made with Laura in the past, and she must recognise him if the warmth in her expression is anything to go by.

  "You appear to have a barnacle," she says before pressing her palm to his in the way of her people, tossing her long, dark hair back.

  "Barnacle, this is Marin," Derek says, cupping her neck and touching foreheads the Lycan way. "Marin, this is Stiles – he's a friend."

  "A friend?" She arches a fine eyebrow. "Or pack?"

  Derek feels his face warm from her implication, her dark eyes darting between them, glimmering with mirth under Bera's sister suns. Derek supposes that to anyone who knows him, the fact he allows Stiles so far into his personal space that he's practically tucked under Derek's arm might invite speculation.

  "Friend," Derek says. He doesn't miss Stiles' inquiring eyes and is overwhelmingly grateful he holds his tongue. "Kind of a pet, really."

  He shoulder checks Stiles playfully before he can catch himself – Stiles digs a pointy elbow into his ribs, scowling. "I'll make a coat out of your pelt," he snipes without any real heat, a tiny smirk curling at his lips.

  "Try it."

  Stiles' grin is bright and fierce and Derek realises they've drifted close again - he could probably count Stiles' eyelashes. Clearing his throat, Derek turns back to a thoughtful looking Marin.

  "Pet indeed," she says, and then gestures for them to follow as she ducks out of her stall and into the building behind it. She crosses the room to a whistling kettle and Derek nudges Stiles into a seat at the table near the door. Marin pours three cups of her steaming concoction and joins them, outright smirking when she notices Derek standing at Stiles' shoulder rather than taking a seat of his own.

  They regard one another for a long moment.

  Stiles sneezes.

  "Tell me your troubles, dear son of Talia," she says, tension broken, picking up her cup. Derek places his hand over the one Stiles reaches for and to his relief, Stiles doesn't try to challenge him on it, placing his hands face-down on the table either side of the cup instead, like that had been his intention all along.

  "Laura's been taken," he says. "I stopped on Aco and it seems at least a small group of alphas are already aware – though they expected me to be an alpha when they came for me. Kali sent pirates after us and we need somewhere to lie low for a day or so in case anyone tries to follow up. Will you help us?"

  "I regret that I cannot give you more than shelter," Marin says, sipping her tea. She doesn't look particularly regretful. But then, Derek supposes, he'd probably be more worried if she did. "My shadowy contacts have been unusually quiet - I share your suspicion that something is amiss with the alpha Lycans. I'll reach out to my brother on Beacon and find out if he or the Sheriff there have heard any chatter. In the meantime, I will grant your request for sanctuary and ask nothing in return but a moment or two of Laura's time, should she be returned to you unscathed."

  Derek nods and lets his shoulders slump, though he doesn't remove his hand from Stiles' mug. Stiles perked up at the mention of Beacon and the Sheriff, but Derek watches him physically keep himself from asking anything out of the corner of his eye. "The same place as last time?"

  "As far as I am able to know, it is available," she says slowly. "The building is cloaked for those outwith my shadow."

  "Are there any who would do us harm under that shadow of yours?"

  Marin's smile is sharp, catlike in the dimness. "I couldn't possibly say," she says. "But given the nature of those I usually hide, I advise you to exercise utmost caution, wherever you go. Keep an eye on your human, Talia's son – even if there aren't any around who know of any plots against you, there are always slave ships in the atmosphere these days."

  Derek grits his teeth and nods, nudging Stiles' shoulder. He's run into slavers on more occasions than he's comfortable with, and although there are few who are crazy enough to attempt to capture a Lycan, he's not keen to repeat the experience. Stiles rises without question, practically vibrating with questions but, in a rare flash of better judgement, opting to keep silent.

  With a hand on Stiles' back, Derek leads them out of Marin's house through a hidden doorway, shaking his head when Stiles turns, opening his mouth as if to ask a question - or, knowing Stiles, several dozen.

  "Not yet," he murmurs. "Wait until I tell you we're safe."

  "How do I know you're not just gonna keep saying that all the way to—uh—until I'm home?"

  Derek smirks and shakes his head, steering Stiles along an empty street; Stiles huffs at him but doesn't question or fight the arm Derek slings over his shoulders - Derek's not sure if it's some kind of masochistic wishful thinking, but Stiles seems to sink into his side a little.

*

After a good ten minutes of walking, Stiles seems to register they're heading in a conscious direction all of a sudden.

  "That doesn't look like a safe place," Stiles says, squinting at the sign proclaiming the building they're making for 'The Baying Wolf'. "That's a—dude, is this a bar or a brothel?"

  He asks it as they push through the door, immediately enveloped in welcoming warmth. Derek eyes Erica and Boyd wrapped around one another behind the bar. "Bit of both, occasionally," he says. "But we're only here for a room."

  "Derek!" Erica spots him, detaching from Boyd and flying across the space between them; he catches her instinctively, pushing Stiles away as gently as he can manage lest he get hit by flying limbs. "You fucker! We didn't know you were gonna be around! What happened to checking in every few days?"

  "I've had a lot going on," Derek says, kissing her cheek and dropping her so that he can clasp Boyd's neck and bump their foreheads together. "I need to lay low – can we use a room?"

  Erica makes a rude noise. "Hi, Erica, you're looking radiant as ever, how are you? Oh, I'm just darling, Derek, thank you ever so much for asking," she says, placing her hands on her hips. "I suppose you'll be wanting fed, too? Typical. Who's the twig?"

  "Stiles," Derek says; Stiles offers a tiny, uncertain grin and a flimsy wave, eyes wide. "He's with me."

  Erica eyeballs Stiles and then harrumphs and struts away without another word.

  Boyd watches her go with a faintly fond expression before he's guiding Derek and Stiles over to a table by the hearth. "She's pleased to see you. I'll get you some drinks," he says as he and Derek listen to Erica smashing things in the kitchen. "We'll all go downstairs later and you can catch us up then."

  Derek nods and Boyd heads after Erica. "They're Lycan, too?" Stiles asks softly.

  "Omegas," Derek says. "They're the only kind allowed to settle on Bera – the fact they have no pack ties is the only reason they're allowed to stay. They're good people."

  "Didn't we just make a deal for shelter with another?"

  "And I sent a messenger to another of Laura's contacts to arrange safe haven with them," Derek says. "I made sure we were seen meeting with Marin. I made sure no one saw us come here."

  Stiles stares at him, mouth ajar. "You have a shrewd streak I wasn't aware of."

  "I didn't survive this long by rolling over and begging prettily," Derek points out with a raised eyebrow.

  Stiles swallows convulsively and he looks away, something complicated happening with his scent - he can't question it, however, because Erica rematerialises with two plates piled with food, Boyd at her heels.

*

The Wolf has plenty of guest rooms upstairs in addition to Boyd and Erica's own apartment. By all appearances, going down the stairs from the kitchen only leads to an extensive alcohol cellar and pantry – right up until Erica pulls a heavy looking floor-to-ceiling wine rack out of the way, revealing a door. Stiles murmurs appreciatively, childlike enthusiasm in his eyes as he mutters something about secret passageways.

  The bunker opens out into an open plan area similar to the mess room on Selene, though there are ratty couches skirting the edges of the room, and shelves piled with books and miscellaneous gadgets. A dozen or so doors branch off into sleeping quarters, each with its own en suite. Derek remembers being reminded of his old dormitory halls at the Academy the first time he and Laura used the bunker.

  He makes a beeline for the same quarters he and Laura had used the last time, dumping his stuff on one of the four cots; Stiles trails after him, mouth hanging open; Boyd and Erica busy themselves with making sure there's a stock of water, snacks and fresh bedding.

  Stiles is thrilled to discover the en suite has a bathtub as well as a shower and makes all sorts of odd, happy noises when Boyd's bemused nod grants him permission to take advantage of all the hot water he wants.

  While he's doing so, Derek gives Erica and Boyd a rundown of what's been going on; he tells them everything from Laura's disappearance to finding Stiles, to Stiles' friend at the Department to his run-in with Kali on Aco.

  They both look faintly troubled by the time he finishes up and they extend an open offer of aid if Derek comes up with anything they can help with.

  When they stand to drift toward the door, Derek lets them wrap themselves around him, pressing in and scenting him. They're not Pack, but they're familiar enough that their scent is a comfort, particularly in the absence of Laura's.

  Although he hasn't been entirely alone since Stiles boarded Selene, Stiles is human – it would take more than a few days of being forced to live with Derek for him to understand what it means to be Pack. Derek's in no position to be asking Stiles to fill a role he won't understand. Even if Stiles got it, Derek's going to be leaving him behind soon, anyway. Laura being gone has Derek already all wrong-footed, so allowing Stiles to comfort him and then leaving him might throw him off balance entirely.

  In a way, Derek doesn't blame Kali for assuming him to be alone back on Aco: as Pack, Laura and he had exchanged dozens of unconscious, casual touches on a daily basis – Laura cuffing him around the head; Derek grasping her shoulder when he sat beside her at the console; a hip-check here or a shoulder-bump there. The way Erica and Boyd squish themselves under his arms makes his knees feel weak, like a weight he hadn't been aware of being eased from his shoulders.

  They duck away when Stiles shuffles out of the bathroom; Derek feels loose limbed and content in a way that he doesn't remember being in a long time. Erica ducks in to bury her face in the crook of Derek's neck once more before ducking out of the room. Derek sinks down onto his bed, swinging his legs up so that he can lie down properly, feeling lighter than air.

  Stiles sinks onto the cot across from him, dressed in his appropriated sweats and a t-shirt, towel still around his neck. "So," he says, and Derek's gut tenses at the idea of being interrogated over what Stiles just witnessed. "I was wondering, how come the pirates weren't interested in looking for Selene? They blew up the shuttle and then just moseyed on home."

  "We'll ask them next time we see them," Derek suggests. Stiles throws a dirty sock at him. "Best guess? Considering the size of space? It would have taken them plenty of time and resources just to find us the first time. They're pirates – they take the pragmatic approach to most problems: they destroyed a shuttle with two warm bodies on it, problem solved. Dormant ships can stay cloaked for years if they're relatively out of the way, so finding Selene would have taken more energy than they'd have been willing to expend. Kali would have paid them well anyway."

  "Who, or what, was Marin?" Stiles asks. "And why did you stop me from drinking her tea?"

  "As best as Laura or I could figure, she's some sort of witch," Derek says, letting his head roll to the side so that he can watch Stiles drink in the information. "She's not human, in the strictest sense of the word, and that's about all we really know – she doesn't seem to age. Accepting food or drink when she hasn't explicitly said it's free means you owe her something in kind. Laura and I get the occasional freebie because our Pack saved her people a long time ago. I don't even want to think about what she'd have tried to get from you."

  "What if I didn't have anything she wanted?"

  "As I understand it, she'd locate you when you did," Derek says. "Or she'd keep you as a pet until she felt your debt had been repaid. Last time I was here, she'd turned one of the market vendors into a mule to help her cart her wares around. I don't believe she has any sort of exchange rate – she'd just make you useful until you weren't."

  Stiles' eyebrows bounce up. "Well, that's not terrifying at all," he says.

  "General rule of thumb here: only take something if you've paid for it, or if the offerer explicitly states it's free," Derek says, then pauses, smirking. "Or steal it."

  "Stealing's encouraged here? What kind of planet is this?"

  Derek snorts. "If you take something, and no one sees you do it, did you really take it at all?" he says. "The dubiously moral population of Bera tend to collectively agree that if you weren't watching it, you didn't deserve to have it. It's a relatively unique system. Oddly, it keeps things fair. Bad thieves don't last long, here; good ones do, and when you're at the top, you open your own shop, right on the market street. Marin is a very, very good thief."

  Stiles takes a few moments to absorb this. "What does she want with Laura?"

  "That's for Laura to worry about," Derek says. "If Marin's mentioning Laura to help pay off a deal, then she has faith that Laura will survive long enough to complete it, which is all I need to know. Marin has a knack for being unintentionally omniscient."

  "Huh," Stiles says, and shuffles so that his back's against the wall and his legs are splayed, hanging over the edge of his cot. "So, how long are we hanging out here?"

  "It took two or three days for us to get here," Derek says, turning his gaze to the ceiling – the languid stretch of Stiles' limbs is too much. "I want to be sure nobody's going to come looking for us – the pirates will have reported to Kali that we've been destroyed, but I wouldn't be surprised if she sent out a second crew just to make sure. Four days, I think."

  Stiles makes a thoughtful noise in his throat. "Do we have to stay down here the whole time? I've never been adventuring."

  "Adventuring," Derek repeats, as flat as he can; Stiles snorts.

  "Gallivanting across the universe? Boldly going where no one's been before? Doing the planetary hop?"

  Derek covers his eyes with one hand. "If I promise to take you out, will you promise not to make a spectacle out of yourself?" he says. "No gawping at the locals or asking questions that'll make you stand out?"

  "Cross my heart," Stiles says, and a wave of contentedness wafts across the gap between their cots. "I'm gonna send my dad and Scott a message. I can still do that, right? Or should I not be using the Pad at all?"

  "As long as you're sure your transmissions aren't being followed, knock yourself out."

  He hears Stiles haul himself off of his bed and hesitate. Just before Derek can lift his hand and open his eyes, Stiles' fingers curl around his wrist in a cursory swipe – his touch disappears almost immediately and he flits from the room without saying a word, but Derek props himself up on his elbows, staring after him.

  Stiles scented him. Consciously.

  Stiles understands what Erica and Boyd had been doing.

  Derek very carefully lies back down.

*

For all of Stiles' excitement about exploring Bera, he sticks close to Derek and manages to keep his hands to himself as they wander the extensive, winding streets; he clutches his Pad to his chest and takes his time inspecting everything that catches his interest with his eyes alone. He smiles and shakes his head every time Derek offers to buy him something, despite the curiosity burning in his eyes when they stop by a store filled to the brim with new tech or the occasional grumble of his stomach when they pass a bakery or a restaurant.

  By the dozenth time in the space of ten minutes Stiles' belly has made a noise, Derek's at his wit's end. He gives Stiles a narrow-eyed look. "You're starving," he says; Stiles jerks, mouth opening to protest before he catches sight of Derek's glower and thinks better of it.

  "I could eat," he says. "Do you want to head back to Boyd and Erica's?"

  In answer, Derek points at a cafe he remembers eating at when he'd been here with Laura.

  Stiles takes an unconscious step backwards. "There's a perfectly good kitchen back where we're staying," he says, though his eyes flicker towards the cafe, longing. He manages to wipe the expression off of his face, sighing. "Dude, I'm already going to be paying you back for stuff for the rest of my natural life - let's just go back to the bar."

  Derek rolls his eyes and begins striding towards the little restaurant, confident Stiles will follow. He does, sputtering half-hearted excuses, and Derek waits until they're seated at a table with menus in their hands before addressing him.

  "I've told you money isn't a problem, and you don't owe me anything," Derek says quietly. "If whoever has my sister demanded all of the money I have, I wouldn't even hesitate – I'd give them anything."

  Stiles picks at the corner of his menu. "You don't know for sure that I can get her back," he says. "Hell, I don't know that I can – we're operating on a lot of theoreticals at the moment."

  "You're trying," Derek murmurs. "That's more than I could have hoped for. Without you, I wouldn't even know where to start – you've already given me ideas; you've already proved that you're worth me feeding you and taking you halfway across the 'System to get you home. Accept it, or I'll just start buying everything. Don't even think about asking for the cheapest thing you can see on the menu – order what you want."

  Heaving a sigh, Stiles hunches over the menu. They're silent until their waitress appears to take their order, and then Stiles slouches back in his chair, watching him. "I still feel like I'm taking advantage of you, man," he says.

  Derek only just manages to hold back a growl of frustration. "Would it help if I drew up a contract?" he asks. He and Laura have blank agreements back on Selene that they use on some jobs. "If I hire you and your merry band of misfits to find Laura in exchange for protection, food and transport, would that make you feel better? If I put it in writing?"

  "Maybe," Stiles hedges. "Though you'd just be hiring me, technically – Scott and his team can't really be officially involved."

  "Fine," Derek says. "I'll get the paperwork together; you'll have it by the morning. Meanwhile, as a human under my protection, I'm offering you food and shelter until the contract starts, free of charge. Think of it as a bonus."

  Stiles snickers but there's real warmth in his eyes; his foot shifts, just a few inches under the table, so that their shoes touch. Neither of them acknowledge it or move away, even though Derek's common sense is screaming at him to retreat.

*

Things escalate after that. Stiles merrily meanders into him when they're walking, grabs Derek's arm to lead him to a stall or a storefront. Derek hadn't thought Stiles had had any issue with invading his personal space beforehand but he's swiftly proven wrong, because suddenly Stiles is everywhere.

  When they'd arrived on Bera, Stiles' scent had been around him purely by virtue of cohabiting the same space for a period of time, but by the time Derek and Stiles return to The Baying Wolf on the evening of their third day, Erica's shooting him sly little grins from behind the bar. Derek doesn't need to check to know that Stiles' scent isn't just on his clothes, anymore – it's coating his skin: he can still feel the warmth of Stiles' long fingers on the back of his neck, directing him to look at something; the brush of their arms together as Stiles gesticulated wildly.

  Perhaps the worst part about it is how simple it feels. There's no awkwardness – Derek's metaphorical hackles don't rise when Stiles draws near, and Stiles never tries to treat him with kid gloves, doesn't ever hesitate to come closer. The idea of hesitation doesn't even appear to pop into his head.

  No, Derek realises: the worst part is that he wants. Derek wants Stiles' hands to linger, wants Stiles to press in close and keep going until there's no space at all between them. He wants those pretty eyes on him, he wants Stiles' smart mouth. It's not just objective appreciation anymore – it's bordering on full-blown fantasy.

  Derek's so, so screwed.

  "Derek, this is Ground Control. Ground Control to Derek, come in, Derek," Stiles says, appearing immediately in front of him; Derek doesn't flail, but it's a near thing. "There you are! Where'd you go?"

  "Some place warm where we're not being escorted out of restaurants," Derek says; Stiles' eyes crinkle at the edges.

  "It's still not my fault they took an apology as precursor to a fight," Stiles says, more jovially than he probably should, considering he nearly had his teeth knocked out not an hour ago. "I'm gonna go get a beer – I deserve it. Want one?"

  "I'm going to shower," Derek says. While appealing, the idea of a slightly drunk Stiles half illuminated by the light of the hearth might prove far too much for Derek's self-restraint to cope with. "And then probably bed. I'm going to hike out to Selene early tomorrow to make sure everything's okay, so don't freak out if I'm not around when you wake up."

  "Historically, you wandering off and leaving me behind hasn't been your brightest idea," Stiles says, apparently going for amused but there's a faint dip between his eyebrows that betrays his concern. Derek resists the urge to smooth a thumb over the wrinkle.

  "That was once, and on a planet full of hostile Lycans," Derek says. "I'll take my Pad with me – you can call and harass me to make sure I'm still in one piece to your heart's content."

  "If you're not back by lunch and you don't answer me, I'm coming to get you," Stiles says. "And if I then fall down a ravine, break my neck and get eaten by the local wildlife, I'm going to haunt you for the rest of your life. You'll never get rid of me."

  It says something about how Stiles has crawled under his skin that Derek doesn't find that idea altogether unappealing. Not the death part, obviously, but the never leaving – that doesn't sound as horrible as Stiles seems to think it does. He shakes the feeling off. "I'll take that under advisement," he says. Erica's openly grinning at him from her perch behind the bar, now, and Derek can't flip her off because Stiles is watching him. "I'll see you tomorrow."

  With that, he slinks towards the basement, navigating his way to the bunker with ease, not bothering to turn on any of the lights as he slips into the bathroom adjoined to their claimed room.

  He spends too long in the shower thinking about Stiles and the way he smelled warm and content even when Derek had grabbed his elbow to steer him from the restaurant. Stiles had swayed into him as they walked, had batted Derek's stomach with the back of his hand in protest to something Derek had pointed out; he touched Derek so freely and casually that Derek's thoughts are still a muddled mess as he scrubs his fingers through his hair.

  Feeling vaguely guilty for thinking about Stiles under the hot shower spray, Derek turns the dial to cold and drowns any ulterior signals his body might have been receiving.

  He's shivering by the time he fumbles his way into a pair of sweats, eyeing the clumsily folded bundle on Stiles' bed. With a furtive glance around, he rummages in his bag for a t-shirt similar to the one on Stiles' bed, taking care to shake it out and then re-fold it haphazardly, taking back the one Stiles has been wearing and shoving it into the bottom of his pack.

  Derek hasn't quite managed to work up the courage to touch Stiles back – though he desperately wants to, his mind is at war with his impulses and he can't quite push past the doubt and fear of Stiles rejecting or, worse, not understanding him. Even though Stiles initiates the contact, the paranoid corner of Derek's mind that usually keeps him safe reminds him that Stiles hasn't ever voiced any desire for the contact to be returned.

  This is a good compromise, he tells himself. It's subtle enough that Stiles might not even notice – if he does and he understands that this is Derek's way of reaching back, then mission accomplished; if he notices but doesn't get it, Derek can talk his way around it, say the shirt was beginning to smell, or something. And if he doesn't notice at all, which is a possibility Derek tells himself he's fine with, then no harm done.

  Feeling equal parts apprehensive and nauseous, Derek crawls under his covers and goes to sleep.

  --Only to be awoken an indeterminate amount of time later to a shriek coming from the bathroom. He's at the door before he even registers leaping out of bed.

  "Stiles?" He asks, hoping his sudden terror doesn't come through in his voice; it's all he can do not to ram the door in. "What's wrong?"

  "Cold!" Stiles yelps and Derek relaxes, leaning against the door as Stiles goes on to berate him for having had a cold shower.

  "Who just jumps in without checking the temperature?" Derek asks, cutting over his diatribe. "It's as much your fault as it is mine, if it's even kind of my fault at all."

  Stiles makes an unflattering noise in response. "Go back to sleep, asshole," he says. "Let me plot my revenge in peace."

  "You can't exact revenge on me for something that wasn't my fault," Derek protests, but he's crawling back into bed and isn't sure Stiles can still hear him. He smothers a fond grin with his pillow and goes back to sleep.

*

After hiking up to Selene at the crack of dawn, Derek spends most of his morning running system diagnostics and working out. Selene's in perfect working order and the solar power she's stored has been sufficient to keep her cloaking running while they've been grounded.

  Not long before mid-afternoon, a soft pinging from Selene's console alerts him to something - or someone - approaching. Derek's heart leaps up into his throat—was he followed? Does Kali know they survived? How is he going to warn Stiles?—for all of ten seconds before Selene recognises Stiles' biometrics. Derek makes his way to the cargo bay door, watching Stiles pause at the edge of the clearing, squinting.

  "How am I supposed to tell if it's there or not? Just keep walking until I hit a big, invisible spaceship and hope I don't walk into something pointy?" Stiles asks himself, placing his hands on his hips – though one looks more like it's holding his ribs. "This would be easier if I had enhanced senses."

  Derek snorts and steps forward, out of the shelter of Selene's cloaking technology. "Actually, it wouldn't," he says, making Stiles jump and spin to face him, consciously not acknowledging the happy glow in his chest when Stiles' expression goes slack with relief and warmth upon spotting him. "The technology sends out a frequency that would interfere with sensitive hearing just enough that it's not noticeable."

  Stiles ambles over to him, glancing up and around, presumably for any sight or sound of Selene. "How do you know where she is, then?"

  "She knows me," Derek shrugs, reaching back to pat the side of the ship, turning to watch Stiles step into the cloak and then back out, his expression turning delighted when the ship seems to materialise and de-materialise around him. "What are you doing out here, anyway? I thought you were worried about getting eaten."

  "Turns out your friend Erica is scarier than the prospect of being turned into a light lunch by alien wildlife," Stiles says. "She's really intense. Boyd took pity on me and made us food."

  He hefts the bag he has slung over one shoulder and Derek gestures to the ship. They settle at the top of the cargo ramp, Stiles spreading out the array of sandwiches and treats on a folded blanket between them. It might be Boyd's cooking, but Derek recognised Erica's hand in all of this.

  "You should have brought the shuttle," Derek points out and Stiles pauses, his expression revealing he hadn't even thought of it. Derek suppresses an amused smile as Stiles shake his head, presumably at himself. Stiles wriggles a little to get comfortable and Derek watches the way he moves to check for discomfort – he's been fairly mobile for the past few days and his ribs seem to have settled; the cut on Stiles' forehead is now merely a faint pink line.

  "So, I've been meaning to ask—and you totally don't have to answer if I'm out of line," Stiles says. "But you haven't protested so far, or anything, so I assumed—well, I mean, I guess I shouldn't take your silence as acceptance. That's kind of shitty, in retrospect—"

  "Stiles."

  "Right," Stiles says, pinching a piece of bread between his fingers. "Is it okay for me to touch you? I didn't think about it before I walked in on you, Erica and Boyd the other day, but when I thought about it, Scott's pretty tactile - his whole team is - and I thought maybe it's a Lycan thing? You've only had me for company since your sister was taken, and you haven't mentioned hanging out with anyone before me—I thought, maybe you need some contact? I mean, it's gotta be awkward to ask for if you're used to getting it. And if it's not crossing any lines, I can offer you that."

  Derek's caught so off guard that all he can do for several moments is stare blankly. Stiles' scent goes from nervous to something like regret, like humiliation, and that's what stirs Derek into action.

  "I don't mind," he says, determined to retain eye contact no matter how awkward he feels. "I want—I mean, you shouldn't feel obligated – if it feels weird, I don't want you to feel like you should. I—I've been alone a long time; I'm not going to go feral or anything – if that was in danger of happening, I'd leave you somewhere nearby with enough money to get you home and then get as far away from you as possible."

  Stiles blinks. "I'm not worried about me," he says. "And I wasn't worried about you going feral – who do you think did the research for Scott and his team when they were bitten? I want—we're, like, friends, right? I'm pretty sure we're at least approaching the stage where we can braid each other's hair and gossip about the boys we like."

  "I don't think you could braid my hair," Derek says, feeling warm and off-kilter. He doesn't respond to the 'boys' comment, purely because he's not sure how to. Some caveman-descended part of his brain doesn't want to listen to Stiles talk about other men.

  Stiles snorts. "Seriously, man – are we good?"

  A small, rational part of Derek's mind wants to say no, wants to tell Stiles that they'll never see one another again once they arrive on Beacon, wants to save himself the emotional agony of leaving someone behind when he leaves.

  "Yeah," Derek says, because he wants to be selfish for once, because it's going to hurt anyway, so why can't he at least let himself have this until then? He manages to scrounge up a small smile. "More than."

  Stiles says, "Good," and smiles down at his now completely flattened bread. "I want you to be okay, you know? I want to help you be okay, if I can. I'd—I know this might just feel like some kind of weird babysitting excursion to you, but I'd like to stay in touch somehow. Even if you're busy gallivanting across the 'System saving helpless orphans from evil Lycans or something, I'd really like it if we could still talk. Maybe I could keep you apprised of how dull my life on Beacon is and you could let me live vicariously through you?"

  There's something soft and nervous – vulnerable – in the way he continues to squish the food between his fingers, like he's trying to prepare himself for rejection.

  "If I get to Laura and live through it, sure," Derek says, biting back a grin when Stiles' head shoots up. "I don't see why not, and Laura will want to meet you anyway. Maybe we'll stop on Beacon if we're nearby."

  Stiles' mouth curls slightly and he smells pleased. Derek tamps down on the urge to shove their impromptu little picnic out of the way and shuffle closer. Now that permission has been given, Derek's mind is suddenly filled with dozens of flimsy reasons for Stiles to come nearer.

  "We can leave today," Derek says instead, clearing his throat and turning his gaze towards the treeline. "I'm pretty confident there's nobody coming for us."

  "How can you be sure? I mean, if they can't pick up Selene because of her cloaking, what's to say they're not hovering on the edge of the atmosphere, also cloaked and waiting for us?"

  "Nothing, necessarily, but we did fly well out of our way to get here," Derek says with a shrug. "The way we were heading before we met the pirates could have led us to any one of at least a dozen planets, some of which would have been a far smarter hiding place, and Bera's in a completely different direction. If someone is searching for us, it's likely they're on the wrong planet."

  Stiles stares at him, mouth slightly open. He catches himself after a moment, jaw shutting with a click just as a knowing light blooms in his eyes. "You're the brain," he says. "Man, all of this time, I had you pegged as the surly, brawny one and figured Laura must be the tactician, but it's the complete opposite, right? Laura's the ass-kicker and you're the thinker. Everything suddenly makes so much more sense—I don't know why I didn't see it before: you actively avoid getting into fights. You're like, the antithesis of everything Lycan I've ever been told."

  Derek arches an eyebrow, opting to say nothing lest he incriminate himself.

  "Oh my—you're the least tough Lycan I've ever heard of," Stiles says. "And I'm totally including Scott in that statement, man: you're a marshmallow."

  "I'm not sure marshmallows have the ability to rip out the throats of unsuspecting humans," Derek says, idly letting his fingernails lengthen to claws and spearing a small, round fruit.

  "I'm not afraid of you, dude – you're not even a little threatening now I know your secret," he says, smug. "You came across an abandoned shuttle in the middle of the wilderness and decided to wait to see if its owner would turn up, without knowing whether I was dead or not. You then carried me all the way back to your spaceship so I wouldn't injure myself further and nursed me back to health. You could have dropped me at the nearest space station and let me figure out my own way home but you didn't. You didn't hurt me when I was at my weakest, so you're not going to let anything hurt me now."

  Derek reaches over to shove Stiles' shoulder, smirking when Stiles over-balances and almost falls off the side of the cargo ramp.

  "I don't need to do you any damage – you're capable enough when you're left to your own devices," he says, drawing an offended look from Stiles.

  "Are we going back to say goodbye to Erica and Boyd before we go?" Stiles asks. "Erica said to tell you she'd punch you in the throat if you even thought about leaving without saying anything."

  "We have to go and get the shuttle anyway," Derek says, opting not to mention that, had Stiles turned up with the shuttle, he hadn't planned on returning. Derek hates goodbyes. "And I'm not missing out on the opportunity to let Boyd force more food on us."

  "Right? Man, as soon as I get to Beacon, I'm gonna commandeer a ship and come right back here," Stiles says. "Do you think they'd adopt me?"

  Derek lifts an eyebrow. "You're probably the same age as them," he says, because he's never actually asked – he's old enough to be too old for the Academy, and his friend is old enough to have his own team at the Department, so Derek feels somewhat safe making the assumption.

  For some reason, that makes Stiles grin. "In some species, twenty-two is still practically a toddler."

  "Some species, sure – are you Menistin?" Derek asks, watching Stiles roll up the remains of their lunch and shove it back into his bag. He settles immediately next to Derek, bag in his lap.

  "I could be."

  "You don't have gills," Derek says. "Or suckers, as far as I've seen."

  Stiles sways closer, smirking. "Maybe they're in places you haven't seen," he says, their shoulders brushing. Stiles' eyelashes are long, distractingly so.

  Derek leans nearer still, privately enjoying the way Stiles' pulse trips over itself; he pauses for long enough for Stiles' heart to start beating triple time and inhales. "You don't smell like one."

  Stiles exhales roughly, swallows audibly. Derek wonders what it'd be like to follow the direction of that sound with his mouth, wonders if Stiles would let him. Derek stays where he is, nose scant inches from the side of Stiles' face, waiting for Stiles to respond in some way, whether it's to move nearer or pull away.

  Despite how Stiles' breathing hitches momentarily, Derek can't sense anything but anticipation from him; there's no fear or disgust, nothing to suggest that he'd be unwelcome if he were to close the gap between them. Indeed, while Derek's watching, Stiles turns his head just slightly, eyes flickering from Derek's eyes to his mouth.

  Derek's acutely aware that he's more physically imposing, more of an immediate danger than Stiles is with his soft, human skin. He has to be sure that Stiles wants, too, has to be certain Stiles isn't going along with whatever Derek seems to want just because he's Lycan and therefore a threat. So he waits, feeling curiously achy, letting the silence stretch in the inches between them, watching Stiles through heavily lidded eyes.

  The tension doesn't snap so much as fizzle away; Stiles' Pad bleats from somewhere on his other side and when he turns his head to find it, the moment's gone. By the time Stiles, frowning slightly, turns back toward him, Derek's swallowing down his disappointment a few feet away.

  Mercifully, Stiles seems so distracted by whatever's on his Pad that he doesn't notice anything amiss, and by the time he looks up properly, Derek's schooled his expression back into something resembling indifference. It's for the best, he tells himself, and perks a single eyebrow to prompt Stiles to share.

  "Scott just sent me some stuff," he says. "Do you – I said bye to Boyd and Erica earlier; do you want to take this stuff back with you, if you're going to get the shuttle anyway? It'll give me time to try and make sense of this."

  Derek shrugs and begins packing the last of the empty containers back into the bag Stiles had arrived with – Stiles starts to help, but he's so distracted that Derek ends up gently shoving him out of the way and telling him to go aboard.

  Stiles' sheepish little grin makes Derek want to immediately rescind and reverse his order, but he manages to reign in the impulse and by the time he's slinging the bag over his shoulder, Stiles is out of sight.

*

Derek manages to sneak into The Wolf's kitchen while Erica and Boyd are busy out front and has almost finished emptying the bag out when Erica marches through.

  "You got my message, then?" she asks, folding her arms and cocking her hip.

  "I'm not sure how you were going to punch me in the throat if I was on the other side of the galaxy before you noticed I was really gone," Derek says. "But I thought it best not to test you."

  She grins and shuffles over to him, ducking under his free arm and plastering herself against his side. She hums thoughtfully and reaches up to tug at his beard. "I think we need to do something about this," she says. "It's not attractive. A little beard's good – hot, even – but this isn't."

  "I'm not trying to be attractive," Derek says, frowning but not resisting as she begins steering him upstairs to the apartment she and Boyd have.

  "I'm not even dignifying that with an answer," Erica says in a sing-song. "But I can safely tell you that a certain human might not be able to function properly once we're rid of it."

  "Surely that's a bad thing," Derek says weakly as she shoves various trimming and shaving products into his hands and points at the bathroom.

  "I'll expect a thank you card," she says. "Now, I'm going to stand right here until I'm satisfied you've lost at least ninety percent of the dead animal hanging from your face. If you haven't, I'll do it for you, and it'll be much less pleasant for you."

  Derek gives her his best attempt at a mutinous look but she only raises an eyebrow, unimpressed.

  He closes the bathroom door between them and tips his armful of products onto the counter by the sink. Then, steeling himself, he turns and meets his own eyes in the mirror.

  It takes him a moment to really recognise himself – he's caught his reflection in store windows and on Selene's screen, but none of those compare with the wary gaze staring out of the flawless, smooth surface of the mirror.

  For several minutes, Derek doesn't move, unable to reconcile this pathetic creature with how he'd once thought of himself – reserved and possibly even surly, sure, but strong and controlled, healthy and alive. His reflection doesn't seem to be any of those latter things: there are faint shadows under his eyes and his cheekbones seem sharper than he remembers; his hair is a mess and the beard—well, it's wonder Stiles didn't run off screaming, earlier.

  Derek had once taken a small measure of pride in his appearance, even after the loss of his family – working out, physical if not emotional self-care had given him something to pour his mind into, and that's exactly what he'd done. It had only been some time after quitting the Department and escaping into the galaxy with Laura that he'd begun to try to take care of more than just his body. In Laura's absence, however, even the things he used to enjoy seem to have become less important.

  Derek picks up the scissors and begins shearing away at whatever hair he can reach and slowly, slowly, Derek begins to see himself again. He recognises the slight downward curve of his own mouth by the time he's trimming instead of hacking; the curve of his cheeks is still more stark than he'd like, but his jaw looks like his again, covered in a faint dusting of stubble.

  He lets the trimmer drop with a soft clatter and smooths an unscented moisturiser – for all she's pushy and far more intimidating than anyone has any right to be, Erica is a blessing – over his jaw. His skin might be quick to heal any irritation, but being able to save himself the trouble is a rare treat.

  The hair on his head is more a more manageable length, too, and despite the fact it means conceding that Erica's idea was a good one, he feels better already.

  Erica's expression when he leaves the bathroom is worth admitting defeat for – her eyes go soft and a little dewy before she's throwing herself at him. Derek's suddenly glad he left all of the supplies on the counter because he can wrap himself around her properly this way.

  "Much better," she says, her voice a little thick. "Now at least Laura won't kick my ass for letting her brother walk around looking like a feral caveman when you get her back."

  Derek only squeezes her in response. It's only hair, he knows, but it feels like so much more. His one-man battle with the mirror feels like triumph, feels like acknowledgement.

  "Stiles is going to freak out," she says, looking far too pleased with herself when they finally part. She shuffles around him to begin packing the shaving things into the bag Derek had brought back from the ship. "I'll burn the dead thing in the sink later. Come on, let's go and see Boyd."

  Boyd's slow grin only adds to the general feeling of contentment Derek can feel settling around him.

  "Good to see you again," he says, draping an arm around Derek's shoulders. Derek permits himself to be squashed between them. They're the closest thing to a pack he's felt in a long time and he's abruptly grateful for them, grateful for the job he and Laura had taken to track and either capture or destroy a feral alpha that had started gnawing on the human population of a small planet not far from Beacon.

  Sometimes, when she's not paying attention, Derek can still see the terrified, bloody young woman Erica had been when they'd found her and he has to take a moment to appreciate how far she's come.

  He presses back against them for a few more moments before shuffling out of their grasp, letting Erica hang the bag from his shoulder as he does so – it has the rest of their belongings, and extra food, in it too and he can only assume she slipped away while he was shaving.

  "Derek," Boyd says, making him pause just before he reaches the door. "She's important to us, too. If you need us, we'll be there: you only need to call."

  Derek can't think of a way to respond to that, so he offers a half smile and a nod of his head before ducking out of the building, hastening over to the shuttle he'd spent hours the previous morning showing Stiles how to pilot – without crashing it onto a planet full of carnivorous plants.

*

Stiles is cross-legged in the co-pilot's seat when Derek gets back aboard Selene.

  "Anything useful?" Derek asks, dropping into his own chair; Stiles jerks, as though he hadn't heard the racket Derek had made docking the shuttle, but doesn't look up, poking at his Pad.

  "Maybe," Stiles says after a moment or two more of squinting down at the screen. "Scott's not sure it's the Hunters that have Laura – or if it is, he doesn't think they're working alone. Some of the tracks are covered just a little too neatly, even by their standards. He's been doing a lot of background work – looking at old cases the Hunters have had a suspected involvement in to see if he can find a pattern, or link Laura's disappearance with at least one Family. With what you told me, we were able to begin piecing together little family trees, if you will. Somewhat ironically, these Families – that's what we've started calling them, though I'm not sure they deserve the moniker – seem to organise themselves very similarly to Lycan Packs."

  Derek nods, because he'd suspected as much.

  "I mean, some of these people are totally off the deep end. There are transcripts of interviews and I didn't think it was even possible to be so fanatical about hating something. I had to stop reading because they were making me want to start running into walls just to make it stop," Stiles says, and Derek smiles, letting Stiles' chatter wash over him as he begins preparing for take-off.

  Stiles' stream-of-consciousness way of puzzling things out, out loud, lasts until well after they're out of Bera's orbit, and Derek's just arranged for Selene to take over the job of piloting when Stiles' spiel finally peters out.

  Mostly because he's finally looked up from his Pad. And he's staring.

  "I murdered people in a past life," Stiles says, voice faint. "For fun. I'm sure of it. It's the only possible explanation."

  Derek runs a hand over his jaw self-consciously. "Is it bad?"

  "Yes—I mean, damn it, no. Gods around us, no, it's not bad, I just—I remembered I have a thing. I need to—in my room—you know what? I'm exhausted, too, so I'm just gonna—I'm—goodnight!"

  Bewildered, Derek watches him all but sprint from the bridge before he can think to point out that they had lunch less than an hour ago.

*

Stiles doesn't reappear that evening, but he slinks into the mess while Derek's eating breakfast the next morning, fresh from a shower but wearing clothing that smells like sleep. Derek doesn't question him, merely nods at the integrated machine that passes for a coffee pot and continues shovelling omelette made from powdered egg into his mouth.

  "You know, you should let me come with you to find Laura," Stiles says, sliding down into the chair opposite Derek with a mug cradled in his hands.

  Derek doesn't dignify him with a response, merely lifts an eyebrow.

  "I mean, charging in all on your own is gonna be playing right into the hands of whoever has her, right?" Stiles says. "Like, they captured and have contained a healthy adult alpha Lycan – you're small potatoes, man. I've looked at the specs for things someone would need to contain someone like Laura, and it's got to be like a fortress of walls and doors specifically designed to foil your entire race – maybe you'll get in, maybe you'll even find your sister, but you'll never get back out. I mean, I guess, anyway."

  Something in Stiles' manner makes Derek lower his fork and look at him; Stiles swallows and his gaze darts away. "You know where she is," Derek says hoarsely. "Where?"

  "It's a guess," Stiles says, looking ready to bolt. "I mean, it's a good guess, but that's--I mean, there'll be no way of knowing for sure until we're inside – and like I said, there's no way of planning how we'll get in, much less how we'll get out."

  "You keep saying 'we'," Derek says past the lump in his throat. "You're not going – I'm taking you back to Beacon, back to your father, like I promised. In exchange for that, you'll tell me where you think Laura is, and the rest is for me to figure out."

  "Technically, no promises were exchanged – you didn't promise to take me anywhere."

  "I didn't promise to lock you in your quarters until we reached Beacon, but I'm considering it."

  Stiles' eyes are like embers and Derek half wonders if they'll consume him, though he daren't look away lest Stiles take it as a sign of his resolve weakening. "Listen, I've talked about it with my dad, and he's—he's not okay with it, but he gets it, and he gets that I'm volunteering – I'm not being coerced into chasing your sister across the 'System. Point is, my dad's cool with it." He winces. "Let's pretend that didn't make me sound like such a kid."

  Derek shakes his head and pushes up from the table. "You're going home," he says, heading for the hallway that leads to his quarters. "That was our agreement. That's the contract you made me draw up. This? Trying to convince me to renege on our deal? It's not going to work, so save yourself the effort. Give me whatever you have on Laura and I'll do the rest. I'm not just some blockheaded, overzealous Lycan who prefers to solve problems with my claws."

  "I didn't say—that's not what I meant and you know it," Stiles snaps, standing up. "You don't have Laura right now – you need backup. You need another pair of eyes. You need me. You're not alone, damn it."

  "Of course I'm alone," Derek snarls, whirling around, and though he tries to hide it, Stiles flinches. There's at least ten feet of space between them – there's no reason Stiles would recoil unless he believed Derek was truly a threat. Derek's surge of anger floods out of him all at once. "The idea of losing Laura is bad enough. Don't ask me to drag anyone else I care for into the line of fire." Throat tight, Derek turns away again. "You're going back to Beacon, Stiles. I need you to."

  As he hastens down the hallway, he can't stop replaying Stiles' flinch in his mind and by the time he collapses onto his cot after instructing Selene not to let Stiles into the room, he feels every bit the monster Stiles was afraid of in that moment.

*

Derek avoids Stiles. He uses Selene's computers to track Stiles' whereabouts and deliberately takes circuitous routes to steer clear of him, taking his meals at odd times and only traipsing up to the bridge when he knows Stiles to be asleep or otherwise occupied.

  Feeling foolish for displaying—and worse: admitting to—anything akin to emotional attachment so openly, Derek manages to eke out the silence until they're only a dozen or so hours from Beacon.

  He blames exhaustion for the fact he doesn't hear Stiles approaching until he's gingerly lowering himself into the co-pilot's seat, fingers hooked around his Palm Pad.

  "We're almost there?" he asks, and Derek makes the conscious decision not to look at him.

  Derek nods, says: "Almost." And they're silent for a while.

  "You'll write to me?"

  The unspoken 'if you survive' is clear. Derek nods again.

  Stiles' Pad enters his immediate field of vision. "This is everything," he says softly, and waits for Derek to take it before he stands again, making to leave.

  "This is yours," Derek says, voice cracking because of disuse – or that's the excuse he's using, anyway. He turns his head to the side so that he can just see Stiles in his peripheral sight, but doesn't look directly at him – feels like it might have a similar effect to looking straight at a supernova.

  He hears Stiles' quiet snort. "I'm taking yours," he says, and then leaves. Derek looks down at the Pad in his hands and can't bring himself to protest. Over the past few days, he's come to realise that Stiles could ask almost anything of him and Derek would shift the galaxy itself in order to accommodate him.

*

Derek guides Selene to a landing dock at the Sheriff's station Stiles' father directed him to when they entered orbit, and once they're landed and Derek makes his way down to the airlock, Stiles appears at his shoulder juggling his file boxes. Wordlessly, Derek takes all but two and they step out onto Beacon together.

  There's a middle aged human standing in the doorway to the building ahead, hands folded around his belt as he watches them approach with an unreadable look on his face.

  When they reach him, Stiles drops the boxes in his arms and flings himself at the man, all limbs and clinging hands. The man folds around him as though Stiles were a child.

  Derek stands awkwardly while they exchange relieved, enthusiastic greetings and hug one another again; Stiles' father seems to notice him after a moment or two and eyes the stacks of boxes he's carrying before shooting Stiles a reproving look.

  "He took them – didn't have a say in the matter," Stiles says, folding his arms around himself for a moment before stooping to pick up the boxes he'd dropped.

  "Sheriff John Stilinski," Stiles' father says. "You must be Derek. Come on in – you can put those down in my office and I'll get them transported home later."

  Derek nods and follows John, aware of Stiles' eyes on him the same way he'd be aware of a missile heading for him. He keeps his eyes squarely between John's shoulder blades and ignores the other, unfamiliar eyes locking onto him as they walk through what Derek surmises is the bullpen to get to the Sheriff's office.

  "Can I offer you anything?" John asks as Derek piles all of Stiles' belongings on the floor beside the desk. "We don't have much in the way of being able to reward you, but I'm sure there's something I can do, to compensate you for spending so much time in Stiles' company, if nothing else."

  "I'm a delight," Stiles says haughtily from the doorway. The back of Derek's neck prickles.

  "I'm fine, thank you," Derek says. "Stiles has already given me the payment we agreed upon."

  It must show on his face that he feels penned in by Stiles in the middle of his only escape, because John frowns faintly and gestures. Stiles slips across the room to begin pretending to fuss with the boxes. "Son, if there's anything you need..."

  Your son, Derek doesn't say. "There's nothing – really. I just have to get going. Humans aren't comfortable in my kind's presence for any extended period of time, so the sooner I leave, the more at ease your staff are going to be."

  "You won't stay the night, at least? Have a real meal? You must be exhausted."

  Derek can see Stiles watching him intently in the corner of his eye and he shakes his head, backing towards the door. "Better if I don't, Sir, but thanks."

  To his dismay, John follows him all the way back through the station, stopping beside the front desk to grasp his hand firmly. Derek blinks and belatedly recognises the human gesture of gratitude and farewell, forgetting to participate in the handshake until it's almost over.

  "I appreciate you bringing him home," John says quietly. "He's a handful at the best of times, and nigh unreasonable when he has his mind set on something – or someone."

  The Sheriff places a strange stress on the final word, there, but Derek ignores it and shrugs. "He wasn't all that much trouble. Helped me out when I wasn't sure there was anything left to do - he's a, uh, good kid."

  The Sheriff smirks a little. "He's a good man, Mr. Hale," he says. "You feel free to come back here any time – you'll always be welcome on Beacon."

  Derek's stomach does a funny thing, then, but he opts to ignore that too and turns to make his way back to Selene alone.

  Just as the shadow of his ship falls over him and he's beginning to let out a sigh of mingled relief and disappointment, there's the sudden pounding of feet across concrete, a gait he recognises as well as he knows his own.

  "Derek!"

  Responding instinctively, involuntarily, to Stiles' voice, Derek turns just in time to receive an armful of its owner. Stiles blinks at him, hands gripping the loosened collar of his flight suit. There's a moment that seems to last a lifetime and suddenly, Stiles is closer than he's ever been, pressing up against him from chest to thigh as their mouths meet.

  It takes a couple of seconds for Derek to catch up but when he does, it's frantic and desperate and heated and it's Stiles and it's everything Derek had hoped kissing him would be. It's perfect and he's helpless to do anything other than return the sentiment as best he can, fisting his hands in the back of Stiles' shirts - one of which is Derek's, he's sure.

  A soft little sound slips from Stiles' throat and one of his arms slides from between their chests to roam through his hair and around the shell of his ear, fingertips dragging through the stubble along Derek's jaw before curling into the hair at the base of his skull.

  "Come back, okay?" Stiles whispers, cheeks flushed and eyes brighter than ever as they part. "You have to come back."

  Derek wonders, distantly, if his own mouth is as pink as Stiles', if it even looks half as appealing. "I'll try my best," he whispers back, half afraid that speaking any louder might break this moment. He's not sure he's quite ready to release his grip on Stiles' waist just yet - and in fairness, Stiles is still holding onto him just as securely.

  "Gods and stars, man, we could have been doing this for at least a few days," Stiles complains, and Derek surprises them both by barking out a laugh. Once he's recovered, Stiles continues, looking endearingly serious. "Like, at least since Bera, dude. This is a travesty. I mean, I considered mauling you when you first rescued me, so really we have a whole week and some change to catch up on – but by then you'll have to make up for however long you're going to be off saving your sister and stuff. So let's be reasonable and conservative: a month. When you come back, you have to stay—with me—for a month. At least."

  "Done."

  Derek doesn't mention that Stiles could demand he stay forever and he'd give it some real consideration. He's somewhat fascinated by the way the soft skin around Stiles' mouth and chin have gone slightly pink in the wake of Derek's facial hair.

  Stiles doesn't quite smile - he's not happy about being left behind and Derek isn't tactless enough to mention it - but his eyes crease at the corners and it's enough.

  Derek lifts one hand to cup Stiles' jaw and resists the urge to attempt to turn it the same gentle pink as his mouth, smoothing his thumb along his cheek, gaze still focused on Stiles' mouth.

  "Damn it," Stiles says, voice considerably more breathy. "If I'd known this would be all it took to get you agreeable..."

  Derek lifts his head at that to meet Stiles' eyes. "Would you have used it against me?"

  Stiles blinks a few times, his eyes unfocused before his expression goes thoughtful. "No, not for that," he says. "But I would definitely have used it to convince you to let me do things to you in that damned chair of yours."

  "Maybe after all of this, we can get right on that," Derek says, and Stiles lights up.

  "I'm holding you to that," he says. Derek smiles and slowly lets his hands drop. Stiles' fingers tighten for a moment before he lets go too.

  "Stay out of trouble."

  "Hey, man, I can't promise anything - I've been getting into trouble since before I could walk." Stiles shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans and cocks his head to one side. "Promise you'll keep me up to date," he says. "I'll go crazy if I have to wait in the dark."

  Derek takes a tiny step back. "I'll write," he says. "When I can."

  Stiles' eyebrows draw together in a frown. "I need you to come back, okay?

  Derek allows himself a moment longer of taking in Stiles' wide, dark eyes; the hard but delicate cut of his jaw; his full, lightly bruised mouth, before reaching back to open Selene's door. With a hiss, the door swings open and just as Derek turns to climb aboard, Stiles' hand wraps around his elbow and he's brought into another kiss.

  It tastes sour, like anxiety and worry, but there's something sweet under that and Derek chases it, hands cupping Stiles' jaw.

  Stiles' eyes are hooded and a little vague when they part again, and Derek can't hear his heart over the pounding of his own. He sweeps his thumbs along the crest of Stiles' cheekbones and brushes the gentlest kiss over his mouth.

  He isn't confident that he'll be able to return enough to say 'when', but he doesn't want to see the worry in Stiles' eyes if he says 'if', so after a moment, Derek simply says: "A month might not be possible, but I'll stay for as long as I'll be tolerated."

  "That's a dangerous thing to say," Stiles says, smoothing a hand absently over the material of Derek's flight suit. "There are certain perks of being the son of the guy who enforces order around here, you know. You'll be able to stay for as long as dad will vouch for you – and considering you hauled his troublemaking, fragile human of a son across the 'System in one piece, I'm pretty sure that vouch comes with a lifetime guarantee."

  Derek merely smirks and doesn't say a word, and warmth blooms in Stiles' expression and scent when he realises Derek isn't about to renege on his statement. Stiles' bright grin is something Derek wants to remember forever.

  "I guess, if you'd like, you could come off-world with Laura and I some time, too."

  With an uncharacteristically bashful smile, Stiles sucks his own lower lip into his mouth and bites on it for a moment. "I'd like that. I mean, providing your alpha approves of me."

  Derek opts not to point out that Laura will probably be beside herself with glee that Derek's showing more than a glancing interest in anyone – she'll probably be even more excited at the prospect of Derek getting laid than Derek himself.

  If he survives long enough for his relationship with Stiles to progress that far.

  Sobering, Derek lets his hands slide down to rest on Stiles' hips before dropping away completely once more. "The sooner I go, the sooner I'll be back."

  Stiles isn't fooled, but he smiles anyway. "Well, what are you still standing here for? Get going."

  He says it a split second before he flings his arms around Derek's shoulders, though, so the effect he was going for is voided; Derek decides against mentioning it and instead presses his face into Stiles' neck to breathe him in; he can feel Stiles' hands sweeping up his back, sliding around his neck and pressing into his hair and simply allows himself to be scented.

  It's several minutes before Stiles peels himself free again and takes a few steps backwards out of Derek's arms. No words spring to mind for Derek and it seems Stiles is – for once – having the same difficulty, so they say nothing as Derek steps into Selene's airlock and lets the door close between them.

  He watches Stiles through the tiny window for a moment or two longer before he turns away and heads up to the bridge, alone.

*

Derek spends a full day drifting while he reviews all of the information Stiles and his friends gathered for him. The notes Stiles left are extensive and often overly rambly and Derek's mind can't help but read them in Stiles' voice.

  If, by the time Derek's body tells him it's time for dinner, he has gravitated towards Stiles' quarters, then at least there's no one around to witness it when he ducks into the room, a ration pack in one hand and the Pad in the other; at least there's no one to see him slowly sink into the appropriated mess hall chair – the bed feels too intimate, and the chair suffices anyway: the whole room is saturated in Stiles' scent.

  Stiles, with the Department's unwitting help, has narrowed Laura's potential location down to a narrow – relatively speaking – strip of space, with the most likely planet being one on the very edge of Lycan territory.

  Stiles seems to think the Department's main reason for inaction is that there are too many unknown variables. Though they seem to have come to the same approximation of Laura's location that Stiles has, nobody knows who's behind her disappearance and well, frankly, as Stiles' notes put it: if the Department know there's an alpha Lycan locked up and is no danger to anyone, why would they want to risk that containment?

  Derek inputs the coordinates of the planet – Rasc – into Selene's mapping system and she informs him that the planet used to be a safe haven for escaped human slaves before it became a Hunter base. At some point soon afterwards, the Department were forced to clear them out because even they were unable to turn a blind eye to the Hunter-organised raids on Lycan planets and ships.

  Apparently, Rasc has been unoccupied ever since, which makes it the ideal place to hide an irate alpha – even if she were to escape the confines of wherever she's being held, there would be nowhere to run.

  The planet is around three days' direct travel, but Derek opts for a more roundabout route on the off chance that he's being pursued – it wouldn't be the first time a supposedly grateful client had sent someone after them.

  It's not that he distrusts the Sheriff, but considering the Department have been lying to him, he's not feeling too charitable towards any law enforcement bodies.

  Derek stops at a merchant space station to eavesdrop on gossip, which was--is--one of Laura's favourite pastimes; he exchanges vague messages with Marin, wherein she goes a curiously circuitous route to telling him she still hasn't heard anything about Laura, and Derek doesn't tell her that he might have a lead. He drops a reassuring line to Erica and Boyd and assures them again that he knows they're there if he needs them. For all intents and purposes, he appears to be taking some well-deserved downtime, which is exactly what he's going for.

  Eventually, after a few days of pretending to do nothing, Derek approaches the tiny planet – he'd have gone straight past it had it not been for Selene's navigational system. From a distance, Rasc looks more like a moon whose planet has disappeared than a planet in its own right.

  After some internal debate, Derek takes the same approach as he did when they'd been escaping the pirates: he switches off everything but the life support systems and diverts all of the freed-up power to cloaks and shields.

  The information Stiles was able to give him is relatively mum on any kind of planetary security, but Derek's inherent paranoia serves him well: Selene informs him there are automated drones patrolling the atmosphere and her cloaking allows her to slip through the cracks with ease.

  Nobody, particularly Hunters, ever expects a Lycan to rely on anything other than brute force and bloody-minded prey drive. Derek's relatively comfortable assuming anyone planning for him to come for his alpha would expect him to blast his way in.

  Using the maps Stiles and his friends had dug out and compiled, as well as what Selene's systems can tell him by the time they're nearing ground level, Derek lands Selene in the shadow of a secluded cliff-face. He assembles his gear, packing extra nutrient packs and water and making a mental note to stash them before he enters the compound he spotted on the map as he searched for a place to land. He can't feel Laura yet, but he doesn't really expect to – the information he has tells him her captors know how to hide her, and hide her well, so he doesn't let it rattle him.

  Derek sits in the pilot's chair for a while trying to centre himself, his mind going over and over his plan—which really only consists of getting in, getting Laura, and getting out—and trying not to think about how high the odds are that he won't walk away from this.

  On a sudden, somewhat pessimistic, impulse, Derek finds himself transferring Selene's ownership into Stiles' name in the event that he nor Laura find their way back. If Selene's sensors lose track of Derek, she'll stay in something like standby mode for approximately two weeks before sending a distress call straight to Stiles' Pad – or Derek's old one, as the case may be.

  Having run out of things with which to distract himself, Derek makes his way down onto the planet's surface, fingers tracing Selene's walls as he leaves, Stiles' Pad strapped to his wrist with the map of the terrain displayed, constantly scanning for signs of life.

  For all it had looked barren and rocky from above, Rasc seems to have plenty of strange, grey trees, so he makes for them – they're in the general direction of the compound, and they'll make for good coverage. As he walks, Selene's cloaks kick in and she fades from his map completely, leaving him entirely alone; a sole, slowly pulsing blue dot in an apparent ocean of dreary grey.

*

It's hours before Derek comes across any signs of habitation – there are what appear to be small game traps and snares set up in a dense knot of woodland Derek has found his way to because it's getting dark and he needs to find somewhere to hole up in relative safety for a few hours to rest and eat – he's going to need as much of his strength as he can save for the ordeal ahead.

  Derek scales a sturdy looking tree with sparse branches but dense foliage and tucks himself against the trunk, wriggling a little to make sure it'll bear his weight. The vantage point also affords him a view of one of the snares: there's a fat, bird-like creature in its clutches and Derek figures the trapper will be returning sooner rather than later. Derek turns his Pad off to prevent it from giving away his position on the off chance there's someone with the technology which would allow them to find him. He settles in to wait, focusing on minimising his heartrate and his breathing.

  Derek's pulled from his trance-like state a short while later when he begins to register soft, careful footfalls on the edges of his hearing. He watches a dark-haired human-looking man pick his way through the undergrowth towards the trap with the bird in it, which is Derek's first alarm bell – it would have been impossible to tell which snare held prey from the direction the man had emerged from.

  He almost falls off of his perch entirely when the logical conclusion presents itself: the hunter – or Hunter, Derek thinks, feeling nauseous – is Lycan. With that thought in his mind, it seems obvious: the man has the unconscious grace of a predator on two legs, and for all he'd made his way straight for the bird and although Derek can't make out his features, he knows he's scanning his surroundings at any given moment.

  Heart in his throat, Derek dares not even breathe as he watches the man gently extricates the bird from his trap; the fact it's already dead doesn't seem to occur to him – he's younger than Derek first assumed: although his body seems lean and tall, the silhouette of his face when he turns his head doesn't seem to have quite lost its youthful roundness.

  "Oh," the man says, ostensibly to the bird. "We have company. Derek?"

  Derek's muscles tighten and he doesn't move, warily eyeing the back of the young man's head. It's only a lifetime of practice that keeps his immediate emotions – shock, panic, worry – from exploding into the air.

  The man sighs audibly and turns in a slow circle, nose in the air. His eyes, Derek notes in a distant, oddly detached part of his brain, are burning alpha red. It doesn't take long at all for their gazes to lock and when they do, Derek knows his have flickered to blue instinctively.

  To his surprise, the alpha grins at him – doesn't smirk, doesn't even smile: he grins, like he's greeting a friend.

  "Hey," he says, the bird swinging from his hand as he lifts it as though to wave before thinking better of it. Derek suddenly recognises the flight suit he's wearing – the navy blue of the Department. "I'm Scott. We've been waiting for you. Come on down – we have a camp set up."

  Derek stares at him, still frozen. On one hand, Scott and his team are trusted friends of Stiles', and they're most of the reason Derek's made it to Rasc at all. On quite the other, however, they're an unknown quantity – Derek knows nothing of their loyalties or individual complexities. He takes a moment to curse himself and wish he'd shown more of an interest in Stiles' friends.

  Scott raises his eyebrows and shrugs. "Your loss, buddy. Stiles told me to say if you die out here, he'll resurrect you and make what happened on Aco look like a papercut."

  That's what finally convinces Derek's tense muscles to unknot – it sounds so, achingly like Stiles that he can't help himself. Slowly, Derek slides from his branch and hits the forest floor almost soundlessly, drawing an admiring look from Scott before he turns and heads away, in a completely different direction to the one he'd emerged from.

  "How long have you been here?"

  "Only a day or so – I was sure we'd missed you until—uh, until Lydia sensed you. Well, she sensed someone new nearby and we kind of just hoped it was you, honestly. Lydia would have you believe she's omniscient, but she's just super smart. And a banshee. I don't pretend to understand it."

  Derek wonders for a moment if there's ever a quiet moment between Scott and Stiles. He lets Scott's chatter wash over him as the foliage around them seems to grow more and more dense until it isn't and they're stepping into a small clearing.

  Scott leads him over to where there's a couple of crudely pitched tents; a redhead in a Department flight suit glances up from where she'd been poking at a Palm Pad.

  "Well," she says after a moment of silence between them. "I can't fault his taste."

  Derek's nose tingles at the faint scent of some form of magic coming from her, but he doesn't mention it, opts only to lift an eyebrow while Scott makes introductions. "Guys? Guys, hey, come and meet Derek," he says. "Derek, this is Lydia. That's Isaac and Kira."

  "I didn't know they allowed kitsune under two hundred to join the Department," Derek says; Scott and Kira look faintly alarmed and Lydia looks intrigued – Kira's wearing a jacket over her flight suit, obscuring any obvious means of identification. Isaac's examining the bird Scott brought and doesn't seem interested in the conversation.

  "I, uh, well—we didn't exactly know what I was until a couple of years ago," Kira says. "How did you figure it out so quickly?"

  "My family used to live near a leash – the younger ones always had difficulty concealing their foxes. Sometimes we would go and watch them training."

  Kira's expression lights up. "Could you teach me? Or try to? There are so few kitsune around, and none of them want to be saddled with what they see as a toddler."

  "If I survive getting my sister home, I'll try to relay what I can remember, but it's probably not going to be much. We never actually took part or anything. Foxes and wolves never quite cohabited."

  "We're literally just working on whatever we can find in books right now," Kira says. "No kitsune in the Department will train me because I might give all of their secrets to my alpha. Lydia's the same. Nobody seems to care that Scott's not a typical Lycan - um, no offense."

  Derek merely shrugs. He's still somewhat perplexed that all of these people co-exist. Scott claps his shoulder and goes to join the rest of his team – his pack, Derek supposes, watching Isaac methodically plucking the bird and settling beside Lydia on the fallen log she's using as a perch.

*

Later, Derek situates himself at the base of a tree facing the camp, thanking Scott for the portion of meat he's handed but otherwise making no real effort to associate with the others – his skin feels tight at the feeling of being in the space of another pack without his own alpha.

  The night passes slowly and Derek only gets any sleep when Lydia fixes him with a flat look and tells him she's on watch. Derek doesn't question how she can tell he's awake from several dozen feet away with only glowing embers for light, but he does close his eyes and manages a couple of hours.

  As dawn breaks, Derek snaps awake as Scott exits the tent he, Isaac and Kira spent the night in. He watches Scott rub his hand over Lydia's shoulder, cupping her neck, before walking in a slow circle around the camp, touching trees and leaves and plants. Remembering Stiles mentioning Scott had been bitten rather than born, Derek wonders if Scott even knows what he's doing or if it's pure instinct driving him.

  "You were welcome in the tent, you know," Scott says, reaching him – he doesn't try to scent Derek or the tree he's leaning against, for which Derek is grateful.

  "I know," he says and can't quite bring himself to explain how disloyal he'd feel being scented by another pack while his alpha's locked up having who-knows-who doing who-knows-what to her.

  Scott pockets his hands and watches him carefully for a moment. "You know, Stiles is probably considered part of my pack."

  Derek stifles the whine that wants to escape him at the idea of Scott – Stiles' alpha's – potential disapproval. He doesn't imagine even Scott could stop Stiles doing anything he didn't really want to, but pack hierarchy is in Derek's biology, so ingrained that it's a part of him: he would never be able to wholly shake the nagging feeling of an alpha's disapproval, no matter how deeply he felt for Stiles. "I know."

  Scott's expression goes confused and then thoughtful. "He's kind of gone on you," he says. "I had hourly requests from him asking if we've found you, and if you're okay. He, I mean, what I'm trying to—Stiles falls hard, okay? Like, once he decides he likes somebody, all rational thought leaves him. He'll need you to be honest about how you feel towards him, good or bad. He won't give up unless you ask him to—or you make it clear that you're not interested. I mean, this isn't—he isn't—he won't push, you know? He might not even offer, really, but he's already talked to his dad about you, and that means something. His dad likes you."

  Derek quashes the giddy feeling in his belly because Scott still hasn't voiced his own opinion. He looks at his hands, wondering how to tell Scott that Stiles, technically, already made a move. "He's—we've—I'd like him to meet Laura."

  He looks up in time to see Scott grinning. "Man, you're crazy into him too!" Derek straightens in alarm at the exclamation, though he doesn't protest. He's not sure if Scott's trying to tease him or intimidate him anymore. Scott must catch the anxiety in his scent because he sobers. "Hey, that's great. Means I don't have to try to warn you off or anything. He made me promise not to go all alpha on you, but I had to know where you stood. If you want to introduce him to your alpha, I'm pretty sure that tells me everything I need to know."

  Derek blinks up at him. "So, you're okay with it? With me and Stiles?"

  "Of course I'm—what, dude? Stiles isn't my property or anything. I'm not his father or—oh, this is a Lycan thing, right?"

  Derek shrugs and nods. "I guess," he says, even though the excitement in his gut has him ready to hug Scott. "An alpha's approval can be more important than a parent's. In a traditional pack, the alpha has the final say on anything that might have an impact on the welfare or overall strength of the pack."

  Scott takes a moment to process this and then gives Derek a lopsided grin. "Well, I think you'd be a great asset to us, if the romance-novel-worthy things Stiles has to say about you are anything to go by."

  Derek doesn't flush, but it's a close call. An alpha's approval is a heady thing, no matter the alpha it comes from, and Derek can't help but smile down at his hands.

  Soon afterwards, Kira crawls from the tent, shrugging an oversized sweater on over her flight suit; she sends Scott and Derek and muzzy, heavy-eyed smile and disappears into the forest without a word.

  She returns almost an hour later while Isaac's handing out ration packs for breakfast. Derek's drifted closer to the group by this time and Kira stops beside him, massaging her hands and rolling her neck, smelling strongly of ozone – electricity.

  "You're a thunder kitsune," Derek says before he can help himself – these people are already rubbing off on him.

  Kira blinks at him, letting Lydia smooth her hair back into a braid instead of the way it seems to be floating around her head – the remaining static, Derek muses. "I mean, I can absorb electricity," she says, eyes like saucers. "We found out by accident."

  Somehow, Derek can't find it in himself to be surprised by that.

  "We've been messing with the power since we got here," Lydia says, gathering her own hair up into a ponytail, tying it off with a flourish.  "In the vague hope that when we do break in, nobody will really think anything of the electricity screwing up."

  "It's a slim hope, but we don't have much else to work with, so we figured we'd try," Scott explains. "Any little advantage we can get – there's a lot of unknown in that building. We know it's not a modern construction - I mean, it's nothing that any human slaves made, as far as we can tell; there's no record or blueprint of it like there is of the other structures we found elsewhere on the planet. Speaking of, Kira, did you hear from Malia?"

  "She'll meet us where we agreed," Kira says, picking at a corner of her ration pack. "If she's not there, she'll find her way back."

  "I won't leave her," Lydia says, turning to Scott, who holds his hands up, palms towards her.

  "I know, and she has to know that none of us will," he says. "We're not leaving here without Laura or Malia, I promise, but right now, our objective is Laura – we don't know what condition she'll be in when we find her, so we have to prepare for the worst and that might take all of us. If she's feral—well, hopefully Derek will be enough to bring her back."

  "She isn't feral," Derek says, and four pairs of eyes fix upon him. "I'd feel it – the connection – I can't feel her, but I know I'm not omega; my alpha is still there. If she was feral, I'd know."

  Scott nods, though Derek's not sure it's in agreement, exactly – acknowledgement, maybe. "Still, we don't know what they've done to her or what effect that might have had – prepare for the worst, expect for the best. We're bringing Laura home, no matter what, all right? And we trust Malia to know how to do her job."

  "Who's Malia?" Derek asks – now that he's spoken, he can't seem to stop.

  "Bounty hunter on the Department's payroll," Isaac says.

  Scott grins. "She always got lumped with us because she kept pissing her superiors off, and now she refuses to work with anyone else," he says. "Her methods are usually unconventional, and frequently frighteningly amoral, but she fits us. She's part of this team, whether she'll admit to it or not. Anyway, we sent her in when we first got here – she's been mapping the place out from the inside."

  "Stupid risk," Lydia says, eyebrows high, hands on her hips.

  "Necessary risk," Scott counters gently. "She volunteered – she knows what she's doing."

  "No, she doesn't – none of us do," Lydia snaps. "We're out here on an unsanctioned mission to retrieve an alpha we know nothing about, from a veritable labyrinth. We know nothing about any of the variables. For all we know, Laura's orchestrating the whole thing—it's not like it'd be the first time a Lycan let their power go to their head."

  Derek can't hold back the snarl that bubbles out of him at that; Scott instantly straightens, flinging a hand out towards him to keep him where he is.

  "I trust Stiles," Scott says. "And Stiles trusts Derek, implicitly. You saw the information the Department were trying to keep quiet – you saw the documents about other alphas going missing and the trails apparently going cold. Laura wasn't the first to go missing, but she's our case. I know you're worried about Malia – we all are – but antagonising the alpha-less Lycan in our midst isn't going to solve anything."

  Derek's abruptly aware he's half shifted and staggers back a step, turning away. He hasn't lost control like that in years. He feels jittery on edge and heads back to the tree he'd spent the night against, digging his claws into the strange, smooth bark.

  Nobody tries to approach him for a long time – by the time anyone does, it's Scott, and Derek's hunched in on himself at the base of the tree again. Scott crouches in front of him.

  "You good?"

  Derek nods, unable to meet Scott's gaze, unable to see the disappointment there – does this make him weak in Scott's eyes? Has he proved himself an unsuitable match for Stiles? Dread wells in him and he just wants Laura; he just wants the comfort and safety of his alpha.

  "You had me worried for a minute there," Scott says, pitching his voice low. "I don't think I could have stopped you, man – you're born; you have so much more control than I do, so if you're losing it, I need to know, okay? These people are my team – my pack – and I'll do anything to keep them safe. I need to know that you can handle this, because it's the best shot we have of getting your sister."

  Derek digs his (blunt, human) nails into his thighs through his flight suit and nods. "I can handle it," he says. "But I'm going to defend my alpha against anyone who tries to disparage her. Your pack wouldn't stand by and let me talk about you the way she spoke about Laura. Especially if they'd been without your reassurance for several months."

  "I know. I know, and Lydia was out of line – I've spoken to her, and she knows she shouldn't have said it. She was letting her fear for Malia get the best of her and projecting. She's the smartest person any of us know, but she has a tendency to speak without tact, sometimes – not that she'll ever admit to that, or thank anyone for saying it."

  Scott hesitates and then reaches for Derek's arm, wrapping his hand around it when Derek doesn't protest.

  "Hey, listen, the plan was to go in two groups of three, but we've decided that Isaac and Kira should stay on this side of the barrier, which just leaves you, Lydia and I, and Malia. Odds are, we'll have to split, but only into pairs – you with Malia and I'll go with Lydia. If you get split from Malia, you make your way back here and trust us to get Laura out."

  "I'm not leaving without her," Derek says quietly. "I don't care what happens to me – I'm not leaving my sister here. If I trust you to get her out, I trust you to find me with her because I couldn't do it."

  Their eyes meet and understanding dawns on Scott's face. "You're both leaving here alive," he says, and it's the most authoritative he's sounded. Derek's beginning to see why and how his pack, unconventional as they may be, follow him. "Your alpha needs you to survive; Stiles needs you to survive, okay? Laura's probably going to be in bad shape when we get her; she's going to need her pack to help her hold on, even if her pack is just you."

*

Despite the reassurance, and the olive branch Lydia offers him by asking him about life on Lycan-only planets, Derek keeps a wary distance from Scott's pack for the rest of the day, up until they start packing things away, including the tents.

  "Okay, we still don't quite know what to expect in there, so we're radio silent unless there's an emergency," Scott says. "Malia still hadn't located Laura at her check-in this morning, but that only ruled out the upper floors. She hasn't come across any intelligent security, either, but it doesn't hurt to be careful. Usual rules apply – you're hit, you get out and we try again later. Kira's going to continue screwing with the power periodically, so if you need out, you focus on her scent and follow it. Remember, we're not going in here to start a bloodbath – we're going in, getting Laura, and getting out. Deadly force as a last resort only."

  Derek watches them mill around one another, touching, checking. Scott's the first – other than Derek – to look ready to leave. He stands a short distance away and watches his pack with a faint smile.

  Kira escorts them to the boundary – an electric fence, and not a particularly old one at that. Derek notices the young woman crouched on the other side first – he doesn't spot her until she chooses to let him, but he can smell her and hear her as Kira shakes out her limbs and reaches for the fencing. Considering everyone but he and Scott jumps when she pounces out of the overgrowth, Derek doesn't feel so bad about not having seen her.

  "There's someone who smells like him in there," she says to Scott, nodding towards Derek. "I just can't pin it down."

  Kira curls her fingers into the wire, letting out a long, slow breath as electricity crackles. Scott scrambles over and Derek follows his lead; Lydia lands with a soft thump beside him.

  Behind them, Kira lets go of the fence and she and Isaac fade into the forest.

  "They might be moving Laura," Lydia says thoughtfully, allowing Malia to dust her off as they duck into the overgrowth she emerged from. "It would keep her disorientated – would be harder for her to rest and plan her way out if her environment keeps changing."

  Derek feels sick at the thought of his sister being dragged around every day for several months. Scott's shoulder brushes his – it's deliberate, but he shows no outward sign of acknowledgement so Derek forces himself to take a breath, pulling himself together.

  "All right. Once we're inside, Lydia, you're with me – Malia, take Derek," Scott says. "You two take the east side, we'll take the west. If you find Laura, make for camp. Kira's going to surge the electricity three times if we find her – that's your cue to get out."

  Malia nods and turns away to begin leading them towards the looming building; she takes a circuitous route and finally pauses in the shadow of a small copse of trees.

  "From here, it's a straight shot to the tunnel I found. Seems to be a service – or servant's – entrance to the kitchen area. I haven't come across anyone yet, but be on guard. Step silently."

  With that, she turns and begins sprinting away, noiseless even over hard ground. Derek's actually kind of surprised that Scott and Lydia manage to keep up.

  When Malia inches open the door they find just enough for them to slip through. Derek finds himself on his knees with no real recollection of getting there – the sensation of his knees crashing into stone is nothing compared to the echoes of agony of his alpha.

  The hallway dances around him for several long minutes and he's paralysed by the ghost of Laura's pain. When he comes back to himself, Scott's hand is firmly over his mouth, chest against Derek's back, whispering for him to breathe, to come back, that Laura's going to be okay.

  "You can feel her?"

  "Not strongly - probably nothing like how you can, but I know she's here," Scott says. "Can you stand?"

  Derek accepts the help of Malia who hooks her hand under his armpit and hauls him unceremoniously upright, allowing him to lean on her while he catches his breath.

  "Can you find her?" Lydia asks after they've all stood staring at one another for a moment or two longer. "If your reaction to her scent is that strong, do we still have to search the whole building or do you think you could narrow it down?"

  Derek closes his eyes and tries to focus, tries to ignore the scent of pain and fear, the knowledge that it's Laura's bouncing around inside his skull. "It's confusing, but I can probably find her faster than any of you, maybe because she's my alpha."

  "Then we'll follow you," Scott says. "Malia, try to guide him as best you can – you know these halls best of all of us by now."

  Malia nods and turns to fall into line with Derek as he begins taking faltering steps down an unlit hallway.

*

Derek's fairly sure they've been walking in ever-expanding downward circles for hours by the time Lydia makes a shuddering, gasping noise.

  "Death," she croaks. "So much death."

  Malia drops back to curl her arms around her while Scott cups Lydia's face. "Follow the scream," he says; he looks faintly concerned but not worried. "Past, present or future?"

  "Past," Lydia says, shuddering so violently that Malia shakes with it. "Future."

  "Focus on the future," Scott says and her forehead creases. "You're safe, Lydia. We're here. What do you see? Do you know who it is?"

  She frowns again, eyes closed, rolling behind their lids. "Derek," she breathes, and then gives a minute shake of her head. "He won't go."

  Scott's shoulders go tense and Derek's gut twists. "What do you mean?"

  "He should be—something's wrong—he won't leave. There's another – a woman – she's dying, but she's not stopping him. She's pulling him but he won't go. It's—I don't know. Something's wrong. I don't understand. Scott? Malia?"

  Her face is shiny with sweat even in the gloom, her voice small and afraid. "Scott," Malia says as Lydia begins twisting in her hold. "Bring her back."

  Scott pushes stray tendrils of Lydia's hair back from her face and cups her jaw in both hands again. "Lydia," he says; there's a faint red glow falling on Lydia's face that tells Derek he's commanding her as her alpha. "Look at me – come back to us."

  At once, Lydia stops whispering gibberish and her eyes snap open – shortly before rolling to the back of her head. Malia gathers her up, pulling Lydia up into her arms like she weighs nothing.

  "You shouldn't worry," Scott says, though he doesn't sound entirely confident as he turns to address Derek. "Predictions don't always come true."

  "She sounded pretty sure a woman was going to die."

  Scott's expression softens with sympathy. "We don't know that she saw Laura. Maybe we can avoid the prediction entirely if you went back to the camp."

  Derek's shaking his head before Scott even finishes the sentence. "If I'm—if something's going to happen, I want to be with her. I want to be there."

  Scott nods, looking sad. "Malia, you should take Lydia back. I'll—we'll meet you later."

  Malia looks torn, but is saved from responding by Lydia abruptly writhing and almost falling out of Malia's grip.

  "Stiles!"

  The cry echoes and everyone freezes.

  "What was that?" Scott asks.

  At the same time as Derek demands, "What about Stiles?"

  Lydia sways as Malia sets her on her feet. "I don't know," she says. "I don't remember. What happened?"

  Derek's pulse is pounding in his ears in a way that it wasn't when Lydia suggested that it might be him dying and the only thing that keeps him from demanding a better answer is Scott pre-empting him and getting between them in a way that he manages to make look entirely incidental.

  "Stiles isn't here," Scott says slowly. "I need you to try, Lydia. I know you don't like it – none of us do, but—"

  "—For Stiles, I don't care if it hurts," Lydia says, a muscle in her jaw jumping. "But I can't sense him – I don't know why. I know Derek's in danger – mortal danger – and you're going to get hurt, but nothing about Stiles."

  Scott pushes a hand through his hair and it's the closest to panic Derek's seen him. "The woman," he says, looking from Scott to Lydia. "The woman you saw – the one you said was gone. What did she look like?"

  "Pretty," Lydia says. "Dark hair, light eyes – great cheekbones."

  Derek's world threatens to collapse around him then and there, because that sounds like his sister. Fleetingly, the morbid part of his brain reminds him Lydia has foreseen his potential death, so at least he won't have to live without Laura – and possibly Stiles – for long.

  "Did you see anything surrounding it? What happened?" Scott seems to be back with them, though he's looking a little wild around the eyes. "Anything that might help us stop it?"

  Lydia looks small and afraid as she hugs her arms around herself. "Nothing," she says. "She's not—it hasn't happened yet. She's—she's afraid. I'm sorry."

  Derek turns away.

  Nobody says anything for several minutes as they resume their walk.

  Derek doesn't know what to think, how to feel. In the past hour, he's had a banshee predict not only his death, but that of the two people he cares most about in the whole universe. He wonders, for a moment, if he's the common denominator. He wonders if they'd be safer if he left, because he would - if he knew for certain that him leaving would ensure Laura and Stiles' survival, he'd leave. It would tear him apart to do it, but he'd rather make himself miserable than make his sister and his--well, Stiles, dead.

  He comes to a halt outside a large, wooden door and frowns at it, uncomprehending. They haven't encountered anything but empty passageway so far. Before he can do anything about it, Malia's none too gently bumping him aside and crouching at the keyhole.

  "One-sided," Malia says. "We'll need to wedge it open so that we don't get trapped."

  "There has to be an opening mechanism from inside," Lydia says, sounding like herself again. "If Laura's scent leads through that door, whoever took her there had to get back out, surely."

  "There's something wrong," Derek says, looking around to find Scott with his eyes closed, head tilted.

  "Laura's in there, but she's not the only one - not the only alpha," Scott says. "I can feel maybe half a dozen at least."

  Malia pauses, slim tools poised above the lock. "Are we going in there? We don't know what to expect."

  Scott gestures vaguely. "They all feel strange," he says. "Not quite like they're sleeping, but I can't figure another way to describe it."

  Derek's thoughts are an incoherent maelstrom – they rush by like wind in his ears and he feels like he might choke on the anxiety about what they're going to find on the other side of the door. Before he can begin to imagine anything specific, Malia's bouncing up from her crouch as the door clicks and swings open. There's no ominous squeak of hinges, no growling of too many alphas in too confined a space. There's no sound at all, except for heartbeats.

  Malia enters first and nobody else moves until she reappears, noticeably pale. She opens and closes her mouth a couple of times before Derek lets the terror and adrenaline propel him past her, Scott's almost silent footsteps follow him.

  Derek doesn't really register what he's seeing until he's somewhere near the centre of the cavernous room on his knees beside a familiar form.

  He gently rolls her onto her back and his stomach flips unpleasantly – she doesn't look hurt, physically, but that's probably because of her healing. She's breathing shallowly, filthy with sweat and blood and who knows what else; her lank hair clings in stringy sections to unhealthily waxy skin. She stirs, but doesn't wake, when Derek shuffles nearer, lifting her head into his lap and combing his fingers through her hair, heedless of the greasiness.

  He's dimly aware of the others checking on the other scattered bodies on the floor but his eyes are drawn to the focal point of the room – there's a tree bursting through what Derek would guess to be the exact middle of the floor, so massive that its topmost branches are brushing the ceiling. It looks too lush, too green to be as far underground as Derek's sure they are – there are no windows for it to get sunlight, he notes in a detached sort of way.

  He cradles Laura to him, knowing he needs to stand, needs to pick himself and his sister up and get out, but he's not quite able to gather the energy or will to do so

  Lydia drifts towards the tree with a blank expression and Derek feels more than sees Scott sink down onto the floor somewhere nearby.

  He watches Lydia reach for the trunk of the tree and wants to call out and warn her, wants to tell her not to touch it. Derek doesn't know why the thought occurs to him, but his instincts are screaming at him to speak, to do something.

  Derek doesn't know if Lydia actually makes contact with the bark before she's flying backwards – the action jars Scott out of odd fogginess that's come over them long enough for him to cry her name in alarm – his voice echoes long after Lydia's pained whimper and the sickening crunch of her hitting the floor. She's a sprawl of red curls in the corner of Derek's vision, but he thinks he sees her move.

  The door behind them opens with a hollow boom and footsteps that feel like thunder approach, bringing with them a sickly-sweet smell like rotting leaves and burnt sugar.

  "A new alpha," says a woman's voice that seems to match her scent. Derek doesn't remember slumping over, but all he can see of her is the hem of a black robe or dress brushing the floor as she circles Scott on the floor. "And this one wandered in willingly. How novel. What else do we have? A member of the Fae – you must have been the one to try to take our power. Such a shame – I'll make it quick for you, sweetheart: the Fae are a reasonable folk. Your dogs, however...nothing so merciful. Oh, and we have a beta, too. A beta won't last long at all, my dear."

  The scent draws nearer Derek and a cool hand tucks under his chin to guide him to sit up; he's still hunched protectively over Laura as much as possible, but he's otherwise helpless.

  He meets the bright eyes of a pale, pretty woman and can't seem to convince his body to obey the urge to get her away from him. His skin crawls with thousands of tiny insects, his mind rebels against the thought of her hands on him. She smells like magic, but it's wrong – twisted, somehow. Tainted.

  "Come to save your alpha? You poor, pretty thing," she says; she looks amused and Derek doesn't understand why, his mind cloudy with sudden tiredness. "You could have been useful in keeping her in line. She caused me a lot of trouble in the beginning, you know. All of this would have been over much, much sooner if I'd broken her quicker. Something tells me she'd have done anything we wanted if I'd had you to take her insolence out on."

  Despite the fear and the inexplicable lethargy churning in his gut, Derek feels a fierce stab of pride.

  "Luckily, now that you're here, she may just be convinced to give me what I want. I have to thank you for making this so easy for me. Of course, it'll be a while until she's able to wake on her own, by which point, you may be useless as leverage. Oh well."

  Abruptly, Derek's energy leaves him in a flood and he clings to consciousness purely by virtue of Hale stubbornness, dragging Laura underneath him as he feels the floor begin to shake – or maybe it's the walls or even the ceiling, he's not sure. Whatever it is, the woman moves away from Derek and strides out of view, her footsteps quick.

  He manages to crack his eyes open and finds himself meeting the electric blue gaze of Malia, who's crouched several dozen feet away, well outside of the tree's perimeter. He doesn't understand why she's there, why she hasn't run away – she hasn't been affected the same way he, Lydia and Scott have, because he watches her leap from shadow to shadow, careful to remain beyond the farthest reaches of the tree's branches.

  Derek wonders, somewhere in the midst of the molasses of his mind, if Malia's in on whatever this is. He watches her bare her teeth in a silent snarl as she seems to try to be puzzling out a path to Lydia and thinks, maybe not.

  "No!" It's the woman, Derek thinks, just as there's a loud pop from somewhere overhead - or perhaps it's underneath.

  Leaves and branches crash around him and Malia's a blur, darting out of Derek's field of vision towards the direction of the woman's shrieking with a roar of her own.

  Derek realises he can move moments before he's being ripped away from Laura. He gags as all of the air seems to get stolen right out of his lungs there's a hand on his chest, so cold it feels like it's burning him even through his flight suit.

  Managing to open his eyes again, he stares up at the woman, who looks somewhat more dishevelled than he remembers. Her hair is half obscuring her face and what he can see of her features is screwed up in a snarl. Malia's on the floor a few feet away looking dazed.

  There's another, smaller popping sound and as suddenly as she'd seized him, she's gone, torn away from him, and Derek tumbles to the floor again, unable to break his own fall.

  The room dims around the edges of his vision and he wishes his sister was with him when he realises he's probably fulfilling Lydia's prophecy; he wishes he could curl up under his mother's arm again; wishes he could see a grin brightening Stiles' face one last time.

  "No!" His chest is warm. There's a hand on his chest again but it's warm. "Derek! Derek, come back – don't go. Derek Hale, wake up or so help me..."

  "It's okay," Derek says, using what feels like more strength than he's ever had in his life to lift his own hand and cover the one on his chest. Long, slender fingers curl into his and he thinks of Stiles.

  "You're not going with her. Damn it, Derek, stay with me – you promised you'd come back."

  It's awfully nice for his subconscious, dying brain to conjure up Stiles so realistically for him. He wants to lift their hands to his face, wants to breathe Stiles in, feel him close, but he can't find the energy.

  "Derek, come on—Laura's here. Laura's alive, Derek, so you've gotta wake up, okay? Because she needs you. I need you. I know you can hear me, you obstinate ass."

  It really does sound like Stiles. Maybe they spent too much time together.

  "Son."

  That's a different voice. Derek can't think of anyone else he wanted to be in this dying fantasy of his – it certainly doesn't sound like his own father, but who else would be calling him son?

  "I'm not leaving him," Stiles says, and that's better. Derek doesn't want him to leave. "He's not—he's not dead, okay? He's still in there, I know he is."

  Derek allows Stiles' imagined warmth to seep into his bones. If this is death, he thinks, it's not so bad.

  He thinks he hears Stiles yell but he's out of strength to resist the feeling of being pulled under.

  Cold begins to trickle in and he's abruptly aware of the fact he can no longer feel his own body. He's weightless, cold and alone and he struggles, or wants to struggle, against the oppressive sensation that seems to be pressing in all around his consciousness. Fingers like ice seem to seize his very mind, pulling at it--pulling at him.

  Although he's certain his eyes aren't seeing anything, he's suddenly surrounded by golden light, cut off from the swallowing darkness. It thaws the ice in him, rooting it out, worrying at it until it leaves him. The light, familiar and alien at the same time, tells him to breathe, to stay, and so he does.

  It's like being given permission, like being reminded of something he'd forgotten he knew how to do because he's suddenly desperate for air, lungs burning, coming back to his body like he's being thrown into it.

  He gasps and rolls onto his side with the momentum the convulsion of his body lends him, retching and shaking, clawing at the floor to find purchase, to ground him. Hands – warm hands, welcome hands, light hands – are running through his hair with a kind of urgency, passing over his shoulder, rubbing his back and rather than feeling crowded, something about the touch is comforting.

  Slowly, his surroundings become less like vague impressions and he manages to sit up, feeling worse than he had when he'd stolen and drunk a whole bottle of his father's Lycan-made alcohol when he was thirteen.

  "Derek?"

  He registers Stiles' scent, his heartbeat, and almost doesn't want to look around in case he's still imagining things. He pushes down his trepidation and ignores his own abruptly racing pulse in order to turn his head.

  Stiles blinks back at him, pale and wide-eyed; his hair's standing on end and the shirt he's wearing is streaked with dirt and small flecks of what Derek's nose tells him is blood.

  "You're here," Derek says – wheezes, really.

  "You almost weren't," Stiles says and Derek thinks he tries to look mad but he's still too afraid, his scent still thick with anxiety and adrenaline.

  Derek doesn't waste time with an apology, curling a clumsy fist in Stiles' shirt and pulling him close just to breathe him in, just to hunt for the familiar scent under the sweat and fear and grime. Stiles doesn't resist – indeed, his arms drape around Derek's shoulders and he's clinging just as tightly.

  "She tried to take you with her," Stiles says. "She tried to drain you and use your energy – life force, whatever it is – to come back. She wouldn't—she wasn't going to let you go."

  Derek's still using one hand planted on the floor to keep himself upright, but he's assured enough by Stiles holding onto him that he can use his other hand to cup the back of Stiles' neck, squeezing gently.

  "I'm here now. I'm not going anywhere – I don't know what happened, but – you were there. I didn't see you or hear you or anything, but it felt like you. You pulled me back. You—you anchored me."

  Stiles can't seem to think of any suitable verbal response because he just makes a soft, distressed sound in his throat and burrows into him, practically sitting in Derek's lap.

  It's then that Derek looks up, feeling stronger by the minute, and notices the dozen or so men and women wearing the uniforms of the Beacon Sheriff's division milling around. The Sheriff himself is watching them from a short distance away, looking equal parts exhausted, resigned and fond.

  "Your sister is alive and our doctor thinks she's going to make a full recovery – physically, anyway – when we manage to figure out how to give her her strength back," he says, doing a stellar job of acting like seeing his only son in the arms of a Lycan is an everyday occurrence and isn't anything to bat an eyelash about. Derek frowns. "Laura doesn't have her own personal Stiles to disconnect her from the magic and pull her back."

  Derek can feel Stiles smiling against his neck and jostles him gently before craning his head to examine his surroundings. There's dust everywhere, great chunks of stone and wood from the tree strewn about the floor. He spots Lydia standing by the trunk with a dark-skinned male; her arm is in a sling and her hair is scraped back in a knot that still manages to look elegant despite the dirt and leaves in it; they're both bent over some kind of tablet. Derek's suddenly aware that he must have been out of it for quite some time - wonders, but can't bring himself to ask, how long Stiles was bent over him begging him not to die.

  "Deaton thinks it's a nemeton," Stiles says, shuffling back just enough that he can follow Derek's line of vision, "Some kind of natural space worshipped and tended to by an old race of magic users – in this case, it's a tree and they apparently built a freaking castle around it. We think she was trying to amass power – we don't know exactly why, or how she even knew how to drain Lycans, but she's the only magic user of such power we could detect within a few thousand light years, so she must have been working alone."

  Derek's not sure if Stiles continues talking because there's a body being moved that's familiar in a way that has his skin prickling and his hair standing on end.

  Without thinking, he slips out from under Stiles and goes over to the row of bodies – the magic woman is covered with a sheet that smells like the Sheriff's station, but Derek can smell her underneath it, along with a lot of blood – the same that's spattered on Stiles' clothing, which is a fact he doesn't want to examine too closely for the moment.

  "You know any of them?" Stiles' father asks as Stiles himself materialises on his other side, slipping his hand into Derek's, apparently unperturbed about being dumped out of his lap.

  "Some," Derek says, looking down at the handful of alphas he knows on sight. "These four were a pack – Ennis, Kali—"

  "—Kali? The same Kali who tried to make you her personal pin cushion?"

  Derek nods. Stiles gapes.

  "—Deucalion, Aiden," Derek says, and feels his stomach roll. "And that's... that's Peter. Peter Hale."

  "Hale?" Stiles echoes faintly. "Like Derek Hale?"

  Stiles' jaw practically unhinges at Derek's nod this time. "He's—he was my uncle."

  "Did you know he was, uh, you know, alive?"

  "I thought Laura and I were the only ones," Derek says, shaking his head. He takes a breath to steady himself before he meets Stiles' eyes. "He was a beta, too, not an alpha."

  Stiles' expression goes from shock to confusion to terrible realisation. "Any chance he was here to try and rescue Laura, too?"

  There's a lump in Derek's throat and he shakes his head. "He always wanted to be an alpha. He respected and loved my mother – his sister – too much to challenge her, but..."

  "His own niece, though?"

  "He may not have even recognised her by the time they took her – not if he was feral, or his bond to our pack was broken, which is likely because if it wasn't, Laura would have known he was alive."

  "There's an old ritual," says the man who'd been standing with Lydia - Deaton - as he approaches. "Now that I've had time to examine the nemeton and its druid, I agree with your earlier hypothesis, Stiles: the druid didn't come up with this all on her own – she had to have had Lycan assistance in order to access the ritual. Only a Lycan could have shown her how to tap into and use – or drain – a Lycan's power. Given what Miss Martin and I were able to discern from the tree and my resources, and what Mr. Hale has just revealed, I believe Peter Hale made the acquaintance of one of the last of the druids and somehow convinced her to aid him in becoming an alpha.

  "An old ritual called for the manual movement of an alpha's power, or mantle as it was called then, to a specific beta, back when human emissaries were integral to the survival of a Lycan pack. Rather than waiting for the death of an alpha, the alpha used to select a successor and an emissary would have had the job of overseeing the power transfer. I believe this was the objective, here, but it didn't work. It's possible that the ritual called for an alpha who was willing to give up their mantle."

  "Kali was alive up until recently," Derek says. "I met her, and Aiden, on Aco the day after I met Stiles. I'm not sure they're the type to give up just because they're asked to."

  "I'm under the impression that these four were a pack, of some description," Deaton says. "Break the alpha, break the pack - and the opposite is true: break the pack, break the alpha. It's possible the druid used each of the alphas to cause distress within their packmates, to weaken them."

  Filing that under a part of his mind titled 'questions he wishes he'd never alluded to', Derek frowns down at the motionless forms. "Wait, Aiden has a twin – has anyone seen Ethan?"

  "I think he was just about alive – if he isn't here, then Scott probably took him up to the surface when they moved Laura," Stiles says, looking around the room. "Why?"

  "He needs to be guarded – he just lost his whole pack plus his twin brother. If he doesn't go feral, I'll be surprised. He needs to be contained when he wakes up, or there'll be casualties."

  Stiles opens his mouth with a question written on his face before he seems to think better of it, closing his mouth and darting a look at their company. "Let's go - we can go tell Scott. Dad, do you need us?"

  The Sheriff waves them off and Stiles tugs Derek along by his hand. There's a gaping hole in the wall and Stiles doesn't comment on it as he steps through it. At least now Derek knows the source of all the destruction.

  "How did you get here so quickly?" Derek asks.

  "I figured out why the Department were dragging their heels a few days after you left. I wasn't keen to talk about it even on the encrypted channels, and by the time I presented my case to my dad and he was able to mobilise, you weren't checking your messages - which I am going to murder you for as soon as I stop being so relieved you're not dead, by the way. I hoped I'd catch you before you went in, because my dad's ship is faster than Selene, but no dice. I finally reached Kira and Isaac just before we got here, but they said you'd already gone. Kira blew the whole power structure – it was awesome – and then it was just a case of finding you guys, which was pretty quick since Isaac was able to follow your scent. Granted, we took a couple of shortcuts."

  He says this as he climbs onto a ladder that goes up through the ceiling, through a hole that wasn't there earlier. Derek notices for the first time that Stiles is wearing at least two firearms and one of his pockets is full of what smells like mistletoe.

  "What did you figure out – about the Department, I mean?" Derek asks instead of clarifying if the bloody remains of the druid woman are Stiles' efforts, instead of asking if she's dead because she was trying to kill Derek, specifically.

  "The Department had a lot of missing alphas reported," Stiles says once they get to the top of the ladder and he pauses to catch his breath. "They just didn't link them up the way they should have, which struck me as a little bit hinky."

  "Hinky."

  "Hinky," Stiles affirms, shooting him a grin that has Derek's pulse tripping over itself. "Anyway, I dug into them and reached out to a couple of strategically placed contacts who were able to access the stuff I couldn't. Turns out, the Department had actually worked out a lot of what we thought we discovered, already – they'd also put together that this wasn't anything to do with humans versus Lycans, or whatever, but that it was all pretty much in-house. They were a hop away from calling it all Pack politics and closing the file entirely."

  The news is like a stone in Derek's stomach. The Department – the authority that all species are supposed to be able to turn to for aid – turned their back on him and his sister. He'd known they were a load of wealthy old bureaucrats, but he hadn't ever thought they'd outright obfuscate relevant information.

  "Hey, Derek?"

  Derek shakes himself out of his thoughts and looks at Stiles, who's stopped walking and turned to face him, taking both of his hands.

  "I know we talked about it before you left, kind of, but I don't want you to think I only mentioned it because I want to drag you to my bed and keep you there for as long as I possibly can, or because I was high on adrenaline and excitement from kissing you," Stiles says. "Which I was, but that's not why--I mean--and I know that things are kind of screwed up right at this moment, what with almost dying, and sometimes people say things they don't mean in the immediate aftermath of almost-tragedy, but I want you to hear me right now, okay? Listen to my heartbeat, all right? Are you listening? Okay. Okay, so, I want you to come back to Beacon with me – I want you to bring your sister and your ship and come and stay with us for a while, until things calm down and Laura's better."

  Derek stares at him, detecting nothing but sincerity and a pinch of anxiety. It hits him all at once, then, how close he came to no longer existing; he tries to imagine how he'd have felt arriving too late at a scene to nothing but Stiles' lifeless body and finds his brain can't even compute, finds his own mind rebels at the very notion: he'd been terrified enough by seeing Laura on the floor unmoving, but he'd at least been able to hear her heartbeat and breathing across the room.

  He grasps the front of Stiles' shirt and pulls him into a full body hug, turning to press a kiss to the side of Stiles' head. Stiles clings back, his heart pounding so hard Derek's sure he can feel it against his own.

  "So you'll stay?"

  On Beacon? With Stiles? The answer to both is yes, for as long as Stiles will have him. He can't find the words to articulate just that, however, so he settles for nodding into the crook of Stiles' neck and holding him tighter.

  Stiles squeezes him. "Hey, you made it," he says, voice only slightly winded. "We did it. Let's go get cleaned up and I'll take you to your sister, all right?"

*

Laura wakes up and tries to tear through the walls of the makeshift room the Sheriff's division have set up around her. The only thing that stops her from eviscerating the deputy guarding her is Derek throwing himself into her path and all but smothering her. She's quick to stop struggling, huffing in great lungfuls of air from where she's squashed against his chest.

  "Derek?" she asks in a small, muffled voice, her body trembling.

  "I'm here; it's me – I've got you."

  The effect is instant: she goes limp against him and her shoulders begin to shake in earnest. Derek simply holds onto her, pushing his fingers through her lank hair, tipping his chin up to let her trembling hands circle his collar. He makes eye contact with the deputy frozen by the doorway, hand still paused above her tranquiliser gun; she nods and slips out of the tent, presumably to find the Sheriff.

  When he'd finally managed to let go of Stiles and allowed himself to be led out into the open air, he'd taken a trip back to Selene to retrieve some of his own clothes for Laura, so she's already surrounded by his scent and her racing pulse begins to settle, her clawed fingertips slowly becoming blunt again.

  "I'm sorry," Laura murmurs, still clinging to his neck as though she can push months of contact into his skin by force of will alone. "Derek, I'm sorry."

  "There's nothing to apologise for. I'm pretty sure you didn't intend to get yourself kidnapped."

  Laura gives a watery laugh. "I failed to protect you, as your alpha. I—I found Peter and I should have told you, but you'd been through so much and I didn't want to get your hopes up in case he was feral."

  "Was he?"

  She's silent for a moment, head bowed even as she loosens her grip on Derek and stands up straight. "I don't know. I don't think so, but the things he was saying – the things he did – it wasn't him. I couldn't feel him. I tried."

  "It's okay," Derek says, because maybe he'll be annoyed or distressed or a thousand other things, later, but for now, everything is overshadowed by his relief at having his alpha, his sister, back.

  "Hey, Derek, my dad's guys have put—oh." Stiles freezes in the doorway, eyes darting between Derek and Laura. "Hi, uh, sorry—I'll just—"

  "Stiles," Derek says, squeezing Laura's shoulder when she tenses as if to move between Derek and the door. It hurts a little that she's so quick to assume anyone and everyone is a potential threat, hurts because it's not Laura: Laura was always about throwing herself headlong into danger on the off chance she could help. ""This is my sister. Laura, this is my—uh, this is Stiles."

  Laura's expression goes speculative as she inhales and before Derek has enough time to so much as grimace, she tips her head to one side. "He smells like you, Derek."

  Stiles' eyes widen and Derek resists the urge to hide his face in his hands – at the same time, he has to fight the desperate desire to agree and parade Stiles in front of her for her to approve of. Before either of them can say anything, Laura grins, delighted - and that's an expression Derek is horrifically used to seeing on her face. "You reek of him, Der. That's what the new smell is!" She pauses, turning to look at him with one eyebrow lifted. "A human, Derek?"

  "He's good for me," Derek says defensively, watching a slow smile slide across Stiles' face in his periphery. He's sure he'd be wearing a similar expression if he wasn't so close to begging Laura to like him. "Stiles helped me find you."

  "He smells like another alpha," Laura says. Stiles begins to look a little unsure of all the covert sniffing going on. "Which pack?"

  "McCall," Derek says, because he'd done his research. "Scott's bitten."

  Laura's other eyebrow rises. "A bitten alpha? That hasn't happened in a long time. I'd like to meet him – after I've showered. And eaten. I could eat the population of a small planet."

  "I brought Selene," Derek says. "Let a medic look at you and then I'll take you to her. The Sheriff's probably going to want to talk to you, too, when you're done. You're... well, you're the only survivor, other than Ethan."

  "Ethan? One of the twins? What about—oh." Laura looks sad before she pushes her own shoulders back and visibly wipes the expression off of her face. "All right. Go and find a medic – I want off of this planet as soon as possible. I can't wait to fly again."

  Derek catches Stiles shifting from foot to foot in the doorway, trying not to be noticed despite his ever-present need to fidget.

  "The plan is to go to Beacon," Derek says. "We've been invited to stay a while – until you get your strength back, at least."

  Laura cocks her head and Derek lets his eyes dart in Stiles' direction, trying to communicate with her to not overrule him on this. Thankfully, she smirks.

  "Fine," she says. "We'll still be flying Selene to get there, though, right? It must be at least a few days' travel. Will Stiles be coming with us or staying with his own pack?"

  "We haven't talked about it," Derek says, glancing at Stiles properly this time. Stiles' eyes light up. "I'll let you know. I'll go and find you a doctor now."

  "Derek," Laura says, cupping his face. "I'm glad you're here. Thank you."

  Derek smiles and gently butts their foreheads together. He turns to leave, collecting Stiles with an arm around his waist as he goes.

  "You don't have to come if you don't want to," Stiles says, leaning into Derek as they walk. Derek marvels at how easily he does it, how content he is to just sink into a Lycan's side and let himself be more or less carried along - he's not sure it's something he'll ever be able to fully comprehend.

  "I want to," Derek says, squeezing his hip and then slowing to a stop to pull Stiles around to face him. He curls his hand under Stiles' chin and takes a moment to just look at him, re-counting the moles on his face, taking in the sharp intelligence in his eyes, memorising the faint curve of his mouth. "I really want to."

  Stiles' eyes crease at the sides but he still looks unsure as he steps closer, so that they're chest to chest. "I really want you to, too," he says, pink tongue darting out to wet his lips. "I also really want—"

  Derek ducks in to kiss him. Stiles hums and drapes his arms around Derek's shoulders, contentment and relief rolling off of him; Derek all buts wraps himself around him, losing himself to Stiles' mouth, his roaming hands.

  "I need to get a doctor," Derek says, breathless.

  Stiles' eyes are half-lidded and he grins somewhat dazedly, already swaying back in. "Scott will have heard us talking about it, if he didn't hear Laura wake up – he'll bring Deaton."

  Stiles kisses with his whole body, Derek learns, as he sets all of Derek's nerve endings aflame, his knees knocking against Derek's as he presses closer, slotting their thighs together. His hands clutch at Derek's waist for a moment or two, or ten, before he realises Derek's still in his flight suit and there's no hem to fuss with. Derek can feel the expansion and contraction of their ribs together; he can feel Stiles' fingers loosening his collar and the breath of laughter he releases when Derek gently digs his fingertips into Stiles' sides. Stiles squirms away from him but it's a token gesture and he allows himself to be reeled back in.

  "Later," Derek murmurs, lips brushing Stiles' as he says it, moving just enough to rest their foreheads together.

  "I'm holding you to that," Stiles says, fiddling with the fastening of Derek's collar but no longer trying to unfasten it. His cheeks are flushed and his eyelashes look absurdly long and dark against his skin.

  "You coming with us on Selene?" Derek asks, running his thumbs over Stiles' hip bones. He's gotten rid of his weaponry and he looks relatively harmless again, though Derek knows better now – not that he ever really underestimated Stiles to begin with. Surviving on the planet where they met was all the assurance Derek ever needed that Stiles is tougher and smarter than most people he's ever known.

  "If your sister doesn't mind," Stiles says, smirking and letting Derek tug him nearer still by his belt loops. "I'd like to."

  "Your room's still how you left it," Derek says. "If you want to use it."

  "If I want to?"

  "Well, there's my room," Derek says, mock thoughtful. "But if you wanted your own room..."

  "Nope – your room it is. No take-backs."

  "You two are nauseating," Laura says, appearing in the doorway of her glorified tent. "Please leave. I'll find my own doctor, and I'll be able to find the Sheriff and Selene on my own, I'm sure."

  Stiles jumps and Derek parts from him guiltily. Despite sounding haughty, Laura's eyes are warm and Derek can't help but feel a burst of optimism.

  "I'll go and get Deaton," Stiles says, turning away. "I really thought Scott was close enough to hear."

  "I was," Scott says, making Stiles yelp and flail back into Derek, who uses the movement as an excuse to wrap his arms around Stiles' waist from behind. Stiles doesn't protest and Scott grins at them, seeming genuinely pleased. Derek shoves his face into the curve of Stiles' neck to keep from preening. "I didn't want to interrupt. Deaton's coming – we had to sedate Ethan. Derek, glad you're not dead – sorry I didn't stick around: you seemed in capable hands and I needed to make sure my team were okay."

  "Dead?" Laura repeats. Derek winces into Stiles' shoulder. "Derek?"

  Derek forces himself to lift his head and move away from Stiles so that he can look at her properly. "Stiles pulled me back. I'm fine – druid tried to take me with her. I'm okay."

  "Theory behind that, by the way, is she saw you as the easiest target," Scott supplies, and Derek wonders how much grovelling he'd have to do if he threw something at Stiles' alpha to shut him up. "You as a beta have less overall power than an alpha, but more than a human – even a magic one. She'd have seen you as the one least likely to offer much resistance to being drained - most likely to follow orders, kind of."

  "Drained," Laura says flatly.

  "She was draining alphas," Scott says, oblivious to Derek's glare. "Trying to use your collective power to turn Peter into an alpha. We figure either the power went to her head, or it was too much to handle, and in addition to draining several alphas, she or the power destroyed Peter, too."

  Despite knowing Peter was behind all or most of the ordeal Laura's been through, Derek feels a pang of mourning for his uncle. Stiles' hand catches his, fingers lacing together.

  "Ah, Alpha Hale." Deaton rounds the side of the tent before Scott can dig Derek into a bigger hole. "An honour to meet you. I'm glad you've awoken. How do you feel?"

  "Like I've been hit by a spaceship," Laura says, kinking an eyebrow. "Repeatedly."

  Deaton's expression doesn't change from one of polite interest. "If you don't mind, we'll go inside and I'll run a few tests, just to make sure everything's as normal as can be expected," he says, and then glances around. "Derek can come too, if you like."

  Laura looks at him over Deaton's shoulder and smiles slightly. "No, that's all right," she says. "This is going to be embarrassing enough without my pack witnessing it. Alpha McCall, I'd like to talk to you when I'm a little more presentable. Stiles, I'm glad to meet you, and you're welcome aboard Selene. Derek, I'll see you later?"

  Scott blinks at the formal title, and Derek had to fight back a smile – Scott's still streaked in dirt, the top half of his flight suit peeled down and tied around his waist, and his t-shirt is partially shredded, presumably because of having to wrestle Ethan. "Right," he says. "I should probably do that, too, huh? I mean, I'd be honoured – I'll be over—uh, there, somewhere."

  He totters off and Derek gets a waft of pure amusement from Laura. "He's adorable," she says.

  "They're a great pack," Derek says, and Stiles squeezes his hand. "Kind of unconventional in every possible way, but they work."

  "You're not just saying that because the alpha's second is hanging off your arm."

  Derek blinks and looks at Stiles, who shrugs and widens his eyes innocently. "I really should have let you go to town on Aco," he says. "Just to see how much damage you could have done."

  "Oh, no way, I'd've gotten eaten alive," Stiles says. "I can do what needs to be done, but I have fantastic self-preservation instincts. The idea of going anywhere near Aco -or any of the Lycan planets - makes me want to run, screaming and crying. Dibs on never having to set foot anywhere near that place – you can continue to be my big scary Lycan protector."

  "I'm leaving before you two get cute," Laura says. "I have some things to do so I'll find a shower down here and meet you guys on Selene later. Derek, don't bone where I can smell it."

  With that, she about-turns and follows Deaton back into her tent. Derek gapes after her.

  "I like your sister," Stiles says and Derek turns his incredulous look upon him. Stiles cracks a grin. "Come on, let's go. I don't know about you, but all I can think about is a real shower and then sleeping for a week, and maybe convincing you to do both with me."

  "Separate showers," Derek says without thinking about it, drawing an exaggerated pout from Stiles. "Selene's showers are very confined and aren't conducive to anything more exotic than doing what they were built for. Separate showers."

  Stiles' expression brightens as they begin walking. "So you admit you've considered it," he says.

  "Considered what? Showering? All the time," Derek says, deliberately obtuse.

  "Shut up. Showering with me. You've thought about me all wet and naked and..."

  "Soapy?" Derek suggests. "Slippery? Even more clumsy and awkward than usual, with less between us to protect me from your pointy elbows?"

  Stiles shoulder-checks him, laughing, not realising until the last moment that their hands are still entwined and when Derek humours him by staggering sideways a few steps, Stiles is right along for the ride.

  "You're lucky you're pretty," Stiles says. "Because you're sure as fate not funny."

  "That certainly explains why you're hilarious," Derek deadpans. It takes a moment before that sinks in and Stiles is punching him in the arm with his free hand.

  "I don't know why I like you."

  Derek walks right through Selene's cloak and registers Stiles' momentary surprise at the suddenly appearing spaceship, feeling a thrill when Stiles' scent flutters happily at the sight of her. Derek turns and leans in to peck Stiles' mouth, releasing his hand. "I'm glad you do."

  He leaves Stiles standing looking dazed as he climbs aboard Selene via her open cargo bay, foregoing the airlock. He makes it a couple of steps before Stiles' brain reboots and catches up.

  "Hey, you can't turn me being an asshole into a moment! That's not fair! I wasn't prepared!"

*

Stiles is sitting, shower damp, on Derek's bed wearing Derek's clothes and Derek can't bring himself to cross the room, can't quite believe that he can have this, that it's not an overly lucid, cruel dream. It feels jarringly right to have Stiles in the middle of everything he owns, and Derek's kind of terrified he's going to wake up any minute. After they'd showered and dressed, Derek had led Stiles by the hand back to his room where Stiles had spent at least ten minutes cataloguing the contents of Derek's room before perching on the edge of Derek's cot and clutching his own knees, silence falling between them for all of twenty seconds.

  "So, this is weird," Stiles says. "I mean, not—it's not bad, don't look like that. It's just weird, you know? Before, we were working together to get your sister back, and now we have her, we've gotta figure out if we're still, like, cool, or whatever. I mean, apparently, bonds forged in times of crisis don't last – something to do with people associating one another with so much excitement, and when they realise they're actually really dull and normal, the magic sort of dies, or something, I don't know – point is, we were kind of a crisis thing, right? I mean, first of all, you rescued me from Planet Cannibal Plants—which doesn't make any sense, when you think about it: does it just wait for wayward humans to stray onto its surface? That can't be particularly conducive to a healthy diet, you know? Anyway, and then there was plotting against the Department and—"

  Derek crosses the room while the scent of Stiles' anxiety ramps up – he's rambling, he's nervous. Derek's not sure he's ever made anyone nervous – in a good way – before. Stiles is so deep in his monologue that he doesn't even notice their proximity until Derek's tipping his chin up to kiss him.

  "Oh," Stiles says vaguely, when Derek pulls away. Surprising Stiles into speechlessness by kissing him might be Derek's new favourite pastime – well, kissing Stiles for any reason might be his favourite pastime, truth be told, but something about Stiles' slack, stunned expression is particularly irresistible. Stiles clears his throat. "Well, we're good at that. That's... good. We should practice, though."

  "Practice?" Derek asks, brushing their mouths together.

  "Mm," Stiles agrees; Derek kisses him again. "Just to, you know." Kiss. "Make sure." Kiss. "Gotta keep our skills sharp."

  "We didn't bond through crisis, you know," Derek says, watching Stiles frown when he realises there's no kiss, watching the way his eyes flutter open in confusion as he tries to focus on what Derek's saying. "There wasn't a crisis happening when we met, particularly, and there haven't been too many disasters since. Nothing on Bera was scary or terrible."

  Stiles gazes at him for a long moment before his mouth falls open, the last of the fog in his eyes clearing up. "You were courting me!"

  "Was not." Pause. "When?"

  "On Bera! You took me shopping, took me out to eat, nearly got into a fight for me—you were so awkward and attentive and—oh, gods and stars, that's so cute."

  "You can't retrospectively think something was cute," Derek says. "If it wasn't cute at the time, it's not cute now."

  "It is, though! I had a big lummox of an uncommunicative Lycan hovering over me the whole time and didn't even see it til now, man--the shirt! I noticed the shirt at the time but figured it was just because of the scent thing, you know? And I was right, in a sense, but it was more than that – you didn't just want to make sure I smelled like you, you wanted my scent, too! This all makes sense."

  "It doesn't make sense," Derek says, bewildered and wondering how he'd lost control of this whole conversation so quickly. "I wasn't courting you. Stiles. Stiles."

  "Whatever you say. But, I mean, I don't mind," Stiles says, grinning fit to burst. "I had fun on Bera. We should go back, this time with both of us aware of what's going on."

  Derek rolls his eyes and sinks down onto the bed beside Stiles, groaning. He can think of at least half a dozen more orderly planets he'd rather take Stiles to, but he gets the feeling Stiles has grown somewhat attached to Bera.

  "You know, I stole like three of your shirts and a pair of sweatpants," Stiles says, picking up one of Derek's hands and flipping it over, fingertips tracing Derek's palm and fingers idly.

  "I did notice that," Derek says, shifting to allow Stiles to lean into him, pressing his nose into Stiles' hair. "It's pretty easy to tell when things go missing on a spacecraft – particularly things like clean laundry. I knew before you'd even set foot on Beacon."

  "And you didn't say anything? Sap."

  "Says the laundry-stealer."

  "You smell good – don't blame me for that," Stiles says. "Even your clean clothes smell like you. That's how I could tell the shirt you swapped out was different, you know – you might not put much stock in puny human noses, but I could still tell it smelled more like you than me."

  Derek lifts his hand out of Stiles' grip to run the backs of his fingers along Stiles' jaw, turning his face so their eyes can meet, because he's beginning to smell nervous again.

  "Hey," he says.

  Stiles blinks at him, his big, dark eyes somehow seeming luminous. "Hi."

  "Let's sleep?"

  It's the right thing to say because all at once, Stiles' scent lifts with relief, though there's some disappointment and distant embarrassment to go with the faint flush on his cheeks.

  "I think there's been plenty of excitement over the past few weeks to keep us going a little while, if you're really worried about the magic dying," Derek says, awkwardly shuffling backwards so that he can lift his legs onto the cot and lie down, leaving plenty of space so that Stiles can pick whether he wants to get close or not. "So we don't need to rush anything or figure too much out right away. I'm not worried, you know - I like this."

  "Sap," Stiles says, slowly lowering himself so that he can fit his body along Derek's side, wedging himself in properly when he senses Derek isn't about to push him away. He closes his eyes, resting his head on the ball of Derek's shoulder. His fingers find Derek's again and squeeze. "Me too."