He’s been on the road long enough that for a moment Derek forgets which town this is as he approaches the only building that still has lights pouring out into the dirt street. The inn sits at the head of the town square, the only three story building in the town. The sign that swings in the evening breeze has a dragon sitting before a pile of gold.
The Dragon’s Hoard. Derek smiles. He’s in Chester’s Falls, an oddly named town because there are no nearby falls nor a resident named Chester in the history of the village. He knows the innkeepers here, a were coyote and her partner, a kitsune, that he helped three years ago with a gnome problem. Gnomes look cute from the outside, but their mouths hold rows and rows of spiked poisonous fangs that they tend to use with little provocation and great abandon.
Derek is a shikari, a long line of werewolf hunters who specialize in hunting supernatural creatures that attack others or turn vicious. He’s good at what he does - he loves what he does - and there are many people who owe him because of it. Anticipation of a warm meal and an actual bed fill him as he pushes open the door.
The room is filled with people and Derek’s smile fades. It’s not that he minds people, much, but this many together make his wolf restless and he’s much too tired to be bothered with humans today. Derek keeps his head down and walks quickly for the only open table he sees. Luckily, it’s tucked into the far corner, and he sits down with his back to the wall. From this table he can see the entire room and he relaxes.
There are a few people giving him assessing looks, other weres recognizing him for what he is, an Alpha wolf and an apex predator. He nods at them and they all go back to their drinks. In the corner nearest to him, a man is sitting on a stool playing a cittern, a ten stringed instrument. The man’s voice is what snags Derek’s attention first, it’s a rich tenor wielded with confidence. The song he’s playing is something whimsical and he’s smiling at the rowdy room. His long fingers pluck the strings like they’re dancing. He catches Derek looking and winks, never missing a beat.
Derek is so entranced he doesn’t notice when Malia steps up to the table. “Nice to see you again, Derek.”
Derek tears his gaze away from the distraction in the corner. “Malia, I’m glad to be here. Please tell me you have a spare bed and some warm food for me.”
The woman’s brown eyes flick over the room. “It was market day today. I’m sorry, but all I have to offer you is the group bunk room, but the only person staying there right now is Stiles, the man singing.”
Derek frowns and steels his disappointment at not having a quiet night alone. “I’m very tired of sleeping on the ground, so I’ll take the shared room and some dinner. Please.”
Malia lays a hand on his arm. “I know you’d rather be alone, but it’s all I have.”
Derek nods. “It’s fine.” There are few people Derek trusts, but Malia is one of them. He’s known her for a long time and he can always count on her to be straightforward.
“I’ll send Kira out with your supper.” Malia checks on other tables as she makes her way to the kitchen.
The jaunty song Stiles is singing ends and there is a smattering of applause. He plucks the strings of the instrument and starts a slower song. The melody is lyrical and haunting and Derek can feel the words as they weave around the room, around him. Derek narrows his eyes. There is something about the singer.
A black haired woman with her hair pulled back in a messy bun and a shy smile on her face puts down a bowl of stew, a hunk of rye bread, and a pint of dark brown ale in front of Derek. “Nice to see you again.”
Derek bestows a genuine smile on the woman. “Good evening, Kira. How are you doing?”
Kira sits in the chair opposite Derek. He mentally sighs, knowing that, while Malia could tell he wanted alone time, Kira loves to talk. “Great. It’s market day so business has been wonderful today. Malia and I have decided to adopt a set of twins from Elmgrove. Their parents were killed in an attack from a pack of bunyips.”
Derek straightens up. Bunyips are nasty tempered, aquatic animals that resemble something between an alligator and a bulldog. “It’s been a long time since bunyips were reported in the area. Do you know if there’s already a shikari hired to find them?”
Kira shakes her head. “I don’t think so. Some other hunters went after the pack, but were unable to track them.”
Derek takes a bite of the stew. It’s rich, filled with beef, carrots, and onions. “This is delicious.” Kira’s smile widens. “Thank you for the information. Looks like I’ll be heading to Elmgrove in the morning.”
Kira leaves him, and Derek applies himself to his meal, stealing glances at the man singing. Derek finishes eating about the same time Stiles finishes a set. There is more applause this time and he stands up and bows to the audience. He’s tall, as tall as Derek is, but where Derek’s shoulders are wide, this man is lean strength. Stiles rests his cittern against the corner, gives a jaunty wave to the room, and begins walking in Derek’s direction.
Derek stops looking and buries his face in his pint glass, willing the other man to go away.
Stiles hesitates near the empty chair. “Mind if I join you?”
“Yes,” Derek growls and wishes he could flash his red alpha eyes at this stranger to make him leave.
Looking from afar was one thing. Up close, Stiles’s eyes look like whiskey in firelight and he smells like citrus and woodsmoke. Derek’s wolf is going crazy inside him and he pushes down his reaction to this man. There’s something else, something other, but there are plenty of people who have residual magic of shifters in their family. It leaves a trace, but is often indistinct.
Stiles grins, pulls out the chair, and sits down. “Great.” He waves at Malia who is a few tables over.
“I don’t want company.” Derek tries again.
“Unfortunately for you, this is literally the only chair available in the house besides the one I was just sitting in and I need a break from everyone staring at me. Contrary to popular belief, not every performer likes to be the center of attention all the time.” Stiles stops talking and looks up at Malia.
“I see you’ve met Derek.” Malia’s eyes go back and forth between the two of them and he knows she can smell how annoyed he is, even in this crowded room, because her grin turns up a notch. “What can I get you, Stiles?”
“A pint of ale for me and another for my new friend. Thank you, Malia.”
Malia leaves them to go to other tables and Derek is left looking at whiskey eyes that feel like they can see through him.
“So Derek, what brings you to The Dragon’s Hoard?”
“It’s the only tavern in town and I was tired of sleeping on the ground.” Derek tries to frown at the man, a look that works well on Isaac and Boyd to shut them up. Erica is impervious to the impending violence of the look and so, apparently, is Stiles.
Stiles laughs, the sound warm in the filled room and Derek swears he can feel it bounce over his skin. “Very broody and with a sense of humor. This is going to be fun.” Stiles holds out his hand. “I’m Stiles Stilinksi, musician and occasional sword for hire. Actually, I’m more of a bo for hire. I tried swords once but almost chopped off my own hand so I decided those weren’t for me. A staff works better for me.”
Derek lets Stiles’s hand stay there between them for longer than is considered polite. Stiles’s easy smile starts to slip and Derek gives in the urge to touch the other man. He slides his palm against Stiles’s and shakes his hand. The contact licks up Derek’s arm and his hand tingles when he releases the handshake a bit faster than he should. If Stiles notices, he doesn’t give any indication.
Malia returns and gives them their drinks with barely a glance, her tray laden with drinks and food for other tables.
“So Derek Last Name Unknown, I’m going to take a guess that you also dabble in being a sword for hire.” Stiles points to the longsword strapped between Derek’s shoulder blades. “That sword looks like it means business and if your eyebrows are any indication, you’d like to use it on my throat about now.”
Derek has to stop the chuckle that starts coming out of his own mouth. Stiles catches the aborted sound and his smile kicks up. Derek groans internally.
An expression runs across Stile’s face but Derek can’t categorize it before the smile is back in place, a little more firmly than before. Stiles sips his ale then says, “So Derek Hale, Sword for Hire, just passing through or headed somewhere?”
“I’m headed to Elmgrove.” Those bunyips will continue to be a problem until they are dealt with and his purse is getting low.
“Nice town. Their tavern is a bit smaller than this so I usually play out in the square when I pass through there. I heard they have a problem at the moment. Is that why you’re going there next?”
Derek straightens up in his seat. “Why? Are you going to compete with me for the bounty?” Derek takes a breath and prepares himself for a fight.
Stiles laughs and all the air goes out of Derek’s lungs. Stiles is still grinning that annoyingly attractive smile when he says, “I’m a pacifist. I don’t like fighting.”
Derek’s shoulders relax. “I thought you said you were a sword for hire.”
Stiles shrugs. “I’m more like a musician who is good with a long stick in a pinch but I’d rather talk or sing myself out of problems for hire.”
“You definitely have the talking thing down,” Derek mutters and rolls his eyes.
Stiles leans across the table and Derek gets a nose full of Stiles’s scent. “I see my charm is already working on you.”
Derek sputters. “You’re the least charming person I’ve ever met.”
“Funny, I was going to say the same thing about you.” Stilse winks at Derek and drains the rest of his pint. “I have to play a few more songs or Malia will make me pay for the meal I ate earlier. Any requests?”
“Dat du min Leevsten büst.” Derek wants to take the request back. It’s been years since he’s heard that song and his heart is already bursting under the memory of it.
Stiles’s eyes open. “That’s not a normal request, but it’s one of my favorites. Why that one?”
Derek tells the truth and he doesn’t know why. “My mother used to sing it to my father after all of us children were in bed.”
“Used to?” Stiles prods, and Derek wishes he wouldn't because the other man pulls truth out of him like blood.
“My family is dead.” Derek’s voice is hard.
Everything in Stiles softens and he wraps his long fingers around Derek’s forearm. “Mine too. I’ll try to do it justice.”
Derek’s arm feels cold when Stiles pulls his hand back and walks back toward the corner where his instrument is waiting. Stiles plucks at the strings, tuning them, and looks up to give Derek a small smile before he starts singing.
Derek’s entire focus becomes the man singing a song he hasn’t heard since before the fire that killed his family, before his mistake cost his family their lives. His heart hurts so much as Stiles sings the words that Derek lays a hand over his chest to make sure there’s no blood seeping between his fingers. All his blood stays in his body but his emotions are everywhere. Derek doesn’t know if anyone else in the room is listening to Stiles sing. Stiles is looking at Derek as the words flow from his lips and his nimble fingers move over the strings.
When the song is over, Stiles says something to the room and starts a song with a faster tune. Derek gulps the rest of his ale, drops coins on the table and stands up to leave. Stiles’s voice is at his back when he walks up the stairs to the top floor of the tavern where the group room is housed in the rafters.
He throws his saddle bag on the bed farthest from the door and sinks onto the thin mattress. It had been folly to ask Stiles for that song and even more foolish to allow it to wrench open the carefully constructed wall Derek has placed around his emotions. It takes him about five minutes before he puts the memories of his family away, before he can open his eyes and see the room in front of him and not the burned shell of his childhood home and the smell of burning flesh fades from his nose.
Derek is still sitting there, clothed and scrabbling to find his peace, when Stiles opens the door an hour later.
The other man meets his gaze. When Stiles speaks, his voice is edged with fatigue from singing. “Guess it was pretty bad, huh?”
Derek shakes his head. “No, it was beautiful. A gift. It brought up a lot of memories.”
Stiles slides his cittern under a bed against the wall by the door, farthest away from Derek. Derek doesn’t know if he should be thankful for the space or irritated Stiles gives it to him. “You said earlier you were headed to Elmgrove. Bunyips hunt in packs. You could use someone to watch your back.” Stiles spreads his arms wide. “I know a guy, not too bad with a bo and good company on the road.”
“I don’t need company,” Derek says. Stiles’s face falls and Derek can smell the rejection Stiles is broadcasting. “I wouldn’t mind the backup though.” Derek can handle the bunyips on his own, but it would cost him and he isn’t ready to let this intriguing man go.
Stiles’s smile blooms and the room feels lighter than it did before. “Great. Great. Thanks. I’m not a fan of traveling alone and I do like having company. You seem like a man of few words but I can more than make up for your lack of verbosity if you want.” Stiles looks at Derek’s face. “Or not. I can try to be quiet too.”
Derek snorts. “Don’t strain yourself.”
Two hours into the journey and Stiles can tell his chatter is annoying Derek, but he can’t halt his mouth. It’s so fun to see the expressions the man makes with his eyebrows. Stiles can’t stop looking at the rest of him either. Derek’s eyes, even when they flick to him in annoyance or roll to the sky, are a shade of green and blue that Stiles has trouble describing. He has defined cheeks and jaw, even though the latter is covered by a closely cropped beard. Everything about him exudes power and strength.
Which is the crux of the problem.
Derek is a werewolf. Stiles could smell it on him the moment he came in the room last night. Stiles’s senses are even more sensitive than a shifter’s because not only does he have their heightened sense of smell, he can sense the magic in others. It’s his own magic looking for others like him. Unfortunately, there are so few of his kind left that he’s never once met another dragon.
Which brings up the second looming issue. Stiles had known what Derek was but until he said his name, he hadn’t know who he was. It was a testament to how idiotic Stiles is that he didn’t make an excuse and leave the moment he heard Derek Hale because the Hales are infamous shikari who are infamous for one thing. Killing dragons.
Derek has made a name for himself hunting down all kinds of supernatural problems, but Stiles knows what he is and knows Derek can never, ever find out what Stiles keeps hidden very, very deep inside him. His own magic allows him to cloak his scent, manipulate it so that the dragon part is not detectable. Generations of being hunted to near extinction have taught them many ways to hide.
Stiles realizes he’s been quiet, thinking, when Derek’s eyes move from the road to him, a question there.
“You look concerned,” Stiles says.
Derek’s mouth is flat but Stiles swears he sees the end tip up. “You were quiet for more than two minutes. I was making sure you were still breathing.”
Stiles laughs. “You’re funny when you’re not trying to murder me with your eyebrows.”
Derek turns in the saddle more to look at him and Stiles enjoys having Derek’s full attention much, much more than he should. “Murder eyebrows?”
Stiles points his fingers at the offending dark things on Derek’s brow. “Your eyebrows have their own language. I’ve known you less than a day, but I’m already becoming quite fluent. However, I’m becoming concerned because I think what they mostly convey is how much you’d like to get your hands around my neck to strangle me.”
“I would, except I think even in death, you’d continue to talk.” Derek directs his attention back to the road and Stiles can see the corner of his mouth tilt up, just the slightest bit again.
“I might cheat death simply for the pleasure of irritating you.” Stiles smiles and concentrates on where they're going. “Melissa, the woman who raised me, used to tell me that my voice was a gift, but she said I needed to learn when to keep my gifts silent.”
“I guess that wasn’t a lesson you learned?”
“You may be surprised to know, I do talk less than I used to.”
Derek snorts. “She must be the most patient woman in the world.”
Stiles sighs and breathes through the feeling of homesickness. “She is. She lives not too far from here on the edge of Beacon Township on a farm. She’s a healer and makes the best sweet rolls I’ve ever had. She took me in after my parents died. I was young, old enough to have some memories of them, but not many. She has a son my age and she and her husband raised us together.”
“You’re lucky that you had someone to take care of you. I just had my sister left but she died a few years back and I had an uncle but he went crazy. He murdered some people and was killed.”
Sorrow for this many losses washes over Stiles. He can smell the resigned grief, the old kind you carry for years, coming off the other man. “Oh my gods, Derek, that is awful. I’m sorry.”
“Why? You didn’t do any of those things.” Derek’s voice is hard.
Stiles very much wishes they were not on horseback because he has the overwhelming need to wrap Derek in a hug. “No, but that is a lot of grief to carry.”
“We all carry something.”
Stiles looks at Derek and allows silence to lay between them on the road. He joked about not knowing when to be silent, but he knows now is a time for it.
They reach Elmgrove by nightfall and find a room available in the inn there. It’s smaller than Malia and Kira’s place, but the rooms are tidy and the beds are clean. They eat a warm meal and fall into their respective beds. Stiles knows Derek takes a long time to fall asleep, follows his heartbeat and his breaths as long as he can, before he gives in first and goes to sleep.
When Stiles wakes, the narrow bed next to his is empty and neatly made. His chest tightens and he can hear his own heartbeat roaring in his ears before he sees Derek’s saddlebags still in the corner of the room. Stiles relaxes by degrees, sucking in air as evenly as he can until the feeling dissipates. The door slams open, cracking against the wall. Stiles’s heart is in his throat again and he scrambles in his bed, putting the wall at his back and coiling his strength for a fight.
Derek is standing there, wide eyes and growling. “What’s wrong? You were panicking.”
Stiles catches his breath and has to push down the rush of something that’s more than just embarrassment. Derek protective and attuned to him is a turn on Stiles didn’t know he had.
Stiles takes another breath, slower this time. “I’m fine. I just saw your bed and thought you’d used my ability to get awesome sleep anywhere to leave me behind.”
Derek jerks and looks incredulous. “You panicked because you thought I left you?”
Stiles can feel his face heating. His dragon has some opinions about Derek that Stiles would like to keep hidden for as long as possible, possibly forever. “How did you know anyway, that I panicked?”
Derek’s eyes drop down and he lies. “I was outside the door and heard your breathing.”
Stiles knows Derek is lying, can hear the way his heart betrays his words, but Derek doesn’t know that Stiles knows what he is. Stiles wants to let Derek have that secret for a bit longer. He has plenty of his own. He lets the lie go.
Derek holds out what he has in his hand. “Here. I brought you some food for breakfast.”
Stiles has the urge to hug this man again. “You brought me food?” The dragon inside Stiles raises its head and takes acute interest in the wolf gifting them with food.
“You would be upset if I left?” Derek presses.
Stiles’s dragon wants to answer, wants to tell Derek that they like his company and the way he smells when he is relaxed and sleeping or brooding and riding his horse. Stiles swallows all those replies and says, “Who would I talk to if I traveled by myself?”
Derek chuckles and shoves a wrapped bundle at Stiles. “I’m sure you’d find someone to subject to your unique brand of companionship.”
Stiles takes the bundle and opens it to find a pastry that smells of meat and cheese and an apple. He takes a bite of the flakey pastry and groans. “This is so good. I know you like me now. You fed me.” It’s as close to the truth as Stiles will ever reveal and it’s enough for his dragon to stop scrabbling at his consciousness.
“I don’t want to listen to you if you get cranky from hunger,” Derek says over his shoulder as he goes over to his bag and starts digging in it. Stiles can hear the smile even if he can’t see it and he grins while he eats, sitting in bed.
They spend the day going around the village, knocking on doors, and talking to people. Derek, for all his gruffness, knows just how to approach people to get them to talk to him when he wants information. When he needs to be, he is empathetic and kind, and Stiles has trouble keeping his mind focused on their task because of it. He does manage to contribute by asking about small details that Derek doesn’t catch. One of them leads them to a boggy area with a pond about two miles northwest of the village.
They stay upwind from the pond, unsure if the bunyip is there or if it has a developed sense of smell. Derek prowls around, eyes on the pond and Stiles looks around and finds a tall tree that will serve his purpose. He shimmies up the tree, only skinning his hands a bit, and perches as high as he’s able until the branches get too small.
“What are you doing up there?” Derek hisses.
“I can see better up here.”
Stiles would prefer to fly over the area. They could get a much better view of what they are dealing with but he doesn’t dare. It’s been weeks since he’s been in a place safe enough to change and he can feel the ache between his shoulders. He’s going to have to shift soon.
Derek is standing beneath the tree Stiles is in. “Can you see anything?”
Stiles scans the area and his eyes snag on a log on the far side of the pond. He looks again and can’t be sure. Stiles checks to see that Derek is directly below him so he won’t see what he’s about to do. Stiles lets his eyes change, a bright copper with gold irises, and looks at the log. Stiles can see the heat from the bunyip where it is laying concealed in the water. He flicks his eyes back to normal and looks down at Derek with his completely human brown eyes.
“There’s something that looks like a log on the far side of the pond. It’s our bunyip.”
Derek squints at the log. “Are you sure?”
Derek nods. “We shouldn’t attack it while it’s in the water, it’ll just escape into the pond. We can wait for it to leave at night to feed. Can you keep an eye on it from up there?”
“I can. What are going to do?”
Derek starts climbing the tree. “Join you. Unless you’d like me to go somewhere else.”
“No, come on up.”
That is how they end up whispering in the branches of the tree while they wait for the sun to go down. Derek is on a limb close to Stiles, close enough that their feet touch as Stiles swings his foot back and forth, back and forth.
“I used to climb trees all the time when I was little. I was a better climber than Scott, my adopted brother, but one day he fell out of the tree we were in and popped his shoulder out of its socket when he landed on it. I was so scared Melissa would skin me alive or toss me out on my ass. She popped Scott’s shoulder back in, she’s the local healer, did I tell you that? He had to wear a sling for a few days but that was hardly the last scrape we got into.” Stiles looks to see if Derek is still listening.
Derek’s mouth is curled up, just barely, and his eyes are set on the bunyip in the pond. The lowing sun is bathing Derek’s face in reds and oranges and Stiles can feel his chest tighten. He curls his hands into fists so he doesn’t reach out to touch him. The dragon inside of him is roaring for Stiles to move closer, to wrap his hands around Derek, and to breathe him in deep so Derek can take root in their soul. Stiles has to close his eyes.
When Stiles opens his eyes Derek is looking at him and he jerks at the weight of it enough that he loses his balance. Stiles windmills his arms but he lists sideways on the branch and braces himself to fall, but a strong grip grabs him and yanks him back upright.
Derek’s hand is tight enough on his arm to leave bruises - if he bruised as easily as a human - and Derek doesn’t let go. His hand stays on Stiles and his eyebrows are tilted down in a definite sign of annoyance.
“Are you trying to kill yourself?” Derek hisses.
Derek rolls his eyes and releases Stiles’s arm. He wants to grab his hand back, but he sits on the tree branch and accepts that he is on the edge of a Derek shaped cliff and he’s not sure how to back away from the edge.
Stiles keeps his peace and watches the bunyip and steals glances at Derek. As soon as the last tip of the sun dips beneath the tree line, there is movement on the far side of the pond. Stiles and Derek share a look, then quietly climb down the tree trunk. Once they are on the ground, they nod to each other and head in opposite directions around the pond. Stiles can hear the snick of Derek’s sword as he slides it free and he pulls out his bo. He’d prefer to use claws against something like a bunyip, but he can’t let Derek know what he truly is. Not ever.
An emotion that threatens to rip through him rises and Stiles ruthlessly pushes it down. This is not the time and he doesn’t plan on making time for it soon or ever. He focuses on the task at hand.
Stiles lets his eyes shift so he can see in the dark a bit better. He’ll have to switch back once he gets close enough for Derek to see the glow in the dark, but for now it’s helpful. He can see three bunyips on the bank of the pond. The other two must have been under the water or in a nearby puddle to sleep for the day. Stiles tightens his grip on his bo and gets ready to move on the one closest to where he is crouched in the tall bog grass.
The closer Stiles gets to the bunyips the stronger the smell of rotten meat and pungent, stagnant water gets until Stiles is almost choking on it. He opens his mouth to breathe as he slinks closer, though that’s not much better. He’s in Derek’s line of sight now so he switches his eyes back. He can still see better than a human in the dark but everything loses its precise edges.
On Derek’s signal, the call of a night owl, Stiles springs forward, bo out like a spear for the eye of the closest bunyip. He does his best to ignore the feeling of the bunyip’s eyeball as it pops and gives way and the way the hardened wood vibrates as it penetrates the bunyip’s brain and hits the back of its skull. He wasn’t lying when he told Derek he was a pacifist. Stiles doesn’t like fighting. It is, however, occasionally a necessity and Stiles has learned how to defend himself and others, in more ways than one.
Before Stiles can pull the bo free from the first monster, the third bunyip crashes into him. Once he is off his feet the bunyip pounces, claws out and slashing. Stiles barely manages to roll to one side to avoid the first swipe of two inch long claws. He does not manage to get his bo free from the eye socket of the first bunyip and Stiles curses and he continues his roll.
The bunyip chases him in a gait that should be too fast for the short bowed legs of the animal, but it’s teeth are way too close to Stiles’s face for his comfort. If Derek wasn’t here he could shift and tear through the monster in one bite from his jaws, but he can’t. He’s got to fight this thing with no weapon and no claws of his own. Stiles slams into a tree and starts scrambling to stand. He senses rather than sees Derek coming closer as Stiles narrowly misses being swiped by the claws again.
Stiles can hear the arc of the sword as it whistles through the air and then the last bunyip’s head rolls to his feet. A warm spray of blood covers Stiles’s face. The blood is pungent in the same way the animal itself is and Stiles tries very hard not to open his mouth and let in any of the blood.
Derek drops to his knees in front of Stiles, hand still clenched around the hilt of his sword. “Did it get you? Are you all right?”
Stiles can hear Derek’s heart racing through his chest and smell the fear coming off him, fear that Stiles had been hurt.
Stiles pulls a patch of cloth from his trouser pocket and wipes off his face before speaking. "I’m fine. Not too happy to be covered in bunyip blood, but I am happy to still be alive to complain about it.”
Derek laughs, a relieved sound that Stiles wants to bottle and keep so he can remember that Derek Hale does, in fact, laugh and care about him. Derek falls back on his ass and takes a deep breath. “I thought it got you when you started rolling and lost your bo.”
“I thought it was going to have me too. Thanks for the assist. I owe you one.”
Derek stands and offers a hand up to Stiles. “We don’t need to keep score.”
Stiles accepts the hand and stands. The movement puts him very close to Derek. He has to swallow down the rush of adrenaline that’s still pumping through his veins, joined by a surge of want and need. Stiles knows Derek will be able to smell it on him and steps back, giving them both some distance.
He looks at the dead bunyips. “We should burn the bodies to cut down on the smell. We can keep the heads to turn over to the town tomorrow.”
Derek walks over to one of the other bodies and lops off the head with on downward swing. “That way they’ll know we’re honest and will pay us.”
With two of them working, it doesn’t take very long to get the bodies burning. It would have taken less time if Stiles could have burned them with dragon fire, both to start and to burn, but that is not something he can do. Stiles’s dragon is annoyed at not being able to show off for Derek and huffs into a corner of Stiles’s subconscious.
It’s near midnight when the fire is almost down to embers and Derek and Stiles sit on some dry ground to admire their handiwork.
There’s some space between them, but Stiles can feel Derek next to him, a radiating awareness he doesn't want to shake. Stiles shifts to face Derek. “You were good today.”
Derek mirrors Stiles’s movements so that Stiles can see into Derek’s face. “With the bunyips? You already thanked me for that.”
Stiles chuckles. “No, with the people. You’re good at talking to people when you have a goal in mind. Me, I just talk without a destination which is why I tend to wander all over the place. I eventually get to where I’m going.”
“Not before you’ve irritated your companions,” Derek mutters loud enough for Stiles to hear.
“Oh ho, companions now are we?” Stiles kicks Derek’s foot with his own.
“Don’t push your luck,” Derek says, but Stiles sees his smile before he tries to hide it with an exaggerated frown.
They leave Elmgrove a day later, richer than they were before and having added to the stories of Derek’s prowess and Stiles’s ability to sing any tune yelled at him from a crowd. Derek sat in the corner of the square and watched as Stiles held court over the town, who had all turned out for the performance from the musician who also kills bunyips. Derek likes the way Stiles looks in the light of the bonfire in the square, but he will never tell Stiles that.
They travel for four days, stopping at night in small groves of trees and sit around a fire, talking. By the third night, Derek is really tired of sleeping on the ground and he has a restlessness he can’t shake. He wants to shift and run on all fours, but he can’t do that with Stiles near. He doesn’t think Stiles would see him as a monster that needed hunting, but he’s already paid too dearly for revealing his secret to the wrong person once. He lost everything once because of his carelessness. He won’t let that happen again.
They are setting up camp the fourth evening - Stiles is gathering wood and Derek is starting the fire. Stiles is chatting to himself or maybe to Derek, Derek isn’t sure which, so he is only half paying attention.
“The McCalls live another day’s travel east from here. We could make a detour and get a warm meal and beds with a roof over our heads. Melissa is a wonder in the kitchen. We might find work in the area.” There is the bittersweet smell of longing coming from Stiles.
Derek blows gently on the fire and looks up at Stiles. “How long has it been since you’ve been home?”
The smell gets stronger then dissipates. “Three months.”
The flames are small but lick around the kindling until they grow and Derek adds some larger sticks to the fire. “I think a detour is fine. I’m set to meet up with my… family in two weeks time. It’s a two day journey from Beacon Township so we could spend a week there or more. As long as I don’t miss my own rendezvous.”
Stiles drops the armful of logs he’s gathered by the fire, brushing off the bark and dirt on his sleeves. “So you have to go meet your Pack? I thought you said your family died.”
Derek’s stomach drops to his feet and he reacts on instinct. He grabs a fistful of Stiles’s shirt and pushes him back into the trunk of the nearest tree. “What do you mean by Pack?” His voice is just above a growl.
Stiles’s smell goes from easy to the acrid smell of fear. He pales and Derek watches Stiles’s Adam’s apple bob as he swallows. Derek’s gums itch as his fangs threaten to poke through and he has to blink to keep the red from his eyes. The fear and anger pumping through his veins do nothing to obscure the feel of Stiles’s lean strength pressed against him.
Derek leans his face into Stiles until their noses are almost touching. “What do you mean by Pack?”
“Shit, my mouth. Look, I mean, you’re a werewolf right? It just slipped out.” Stiles’s voice is even, resigned. He doesn’t sound as scared as he smells and he smells terrified.
“How do you know that?” Derek’s fist tightens on Stiles. He will not let anything happen to his Pack. He will protect them over everyone else, even if he is starting to admire Stiles. Derek will never place his own feelings above the Pack ever again. “How. Do. You. Know.”
Stiles presses his lips together and his shoulders drop. “I just know. I have some… magic of my own. I can usually spot magic in others. That’s it. I would never hurt you or your Pack. I don’t think werewolves are monsters. Well, some might be, but you clearly are not.”
Derek’s hand eases but he doesn’t release Stiles. “How long have you known?”
Stiles’s eyes drop and snag on Derek’s mouth. Stiles’s smell sweetens just a bit before all Stiles’s scents even out until Derek can’t smell anything but the smell of citrus and woodsmoke again.
“I knew the minute you walked into The Dragon’s Hoard.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Derek opens his hand but leaves it on Stiles’s chest, palm flat, and he doesn’t move back.
“I figured you’d tell me when you were ready. It’s obviously a secret you wanted to keep.” Stiles shrugs. “I didn’t mean to blurt it out like that.”
Derek smooths out Stiles’s shirt and takes a step back. The front of him that was close to Stiles feels colder with space between them. “I have a question for you then.” Derek still hasn’t worked out what Stiles is because he is clearly something, but he also doesn’t want to ask that. Like him, Stiles might be keeping it a secret for a reason and Derek can respect that.
Stiles pales a bit more and swallows, but he nods.
“Sometimes, I can smell your emotions and sometimes I can’t. Are you using magic to hide parts of your scent?”
Stiles’s cheeks redden and his tongue darts out and runs along the top of his lip before pulling his lip between his teeth. Derek’s eyes follow that pink dart as if it is the only thing holding him upright. Derek shakes himself and clamps down on whatever this is he’s feeling.
Stiles nods and says carefully, “Yes, my magic allows me to hide parts of my scent.”
Stiles is telling the truth and Derek relaxes. He puts his back to Stiles and throws more wood on the fire. Over his shoulder he says, “Relax, I’m not going to ask you what you are. I, of all people, know that’s sometimes a secret that needs to be kept. For now, I know you have my back in a fight and that’s enough.”
Derek looks up at Stiles, who is still standing against the tree where Derek left him. Stiles is still watching him warily with those warm whiskey eyes that Derek would happily drown in if he allowed himself the leisure to do so. He says it’s enough but Derek is starting to suspect that he wants more than a fighting partner from Stiles. It’s been a long time since Derek has been interested in someone and he doesn’t want to relive past mistakes. He can’t lose like that again. He wants to go into this with his head on straight and his eyes wide open.
They reach the McCall property by late afternoon the next day. Stiles is buzzing with energy the closer and closer they get to the farm where he grew up until he’s even starting to make Derek antsy. The moment they step onto a long drive, a woman with dark curly hair looks out from the door of a barn sitting off from a solid two story house with a large porch. Derek can hear her yelling for Scott and someone named Allison.
“I think we’ve been spotted.” Derek looks at Stiles and is momentarily blinded by the sheer joy the other man is radiating.
Stiles grabs Derek’s shoulder and slaps him on the back. “I hope you’re ready for this.”
Derek doesn’t know about the welcome he’ll likely receive but he does know that the heat of Stiles’s touch on his shoulder is lighting an awareness down to his toes.
A man starts down the drive, plainly dressed but in quality clothes, with a boyish grin and a mop of curly dark hair. Stiles kicks his horse forward, leaving Derek. When Stiles is close enough, he vaults from the saddle. The two men rush into each other’s arms and give each other a hug that is so tight it looks painful. By the time Derek catches up to them, the woman who had spotted them first reaches the pair. Derek swings out of his saddle and grabs the reins of both their horses.
“Stiles, we didn’t know to expect you.” The man releases Stiles and Stiles goes straight to the woman and hugs her with no less enthusiasm but less force.
“Melissa, it’s good to be home.” Stiles eases his embrace and waves in Derek’s direction. “I brought a friend. I hope that’s all right. Derek, this is Scott McCall and his mother Melissa. This is Derek Hale. We met in The Dragon’s Hoard in Plymouth and we’ve been traveling together for about a week.”
Scott makes a choked noise but recovers. “Nice to meet you, Derek. Please, make yourself at home and feel free to stay as long as you need to.”
Derek bows slightly. “Thank you for your generosity.”
“Stiles.” Another woman comes out of the house, pink mouth curved up in a smile and dark brown eyes snapping in pleasure.
“Allison, my love. Have you decided you’re tired of this man yet?” Stiles hugs Allison and Derek’s heart aches at the welcome, knows what it means to have people waiting for you.
Allison laughs and the sound is infectious. Derek can’t help the small smile that plays around his mouth at this reunion.
“I’m way too much woman for you, believe me.” Allison busses Stiles on the cheek. “Introduce me to your friend.”
Stiles makes introductions again and Derek can’t remember the last time he was welcomed like this. Usually in towns, people are glad to see him if there’s a unique problem he can solve but they stay apart, wary. You might welcome the wolf into your den when you need a hunter, but you don’t want it too near your family.
Melissa gives all of them the indulgent smile of a mother whose chicks are all in the roost. “Scott, you and Stiles take the horses to the barn. Allison and I will show Derek to one of the guest rooms and he can rest before dinner.”
Stiles gives Derek a jaunty smile, one Derek is coming to know well, and turns to follow Scott towards the barn. Derek watches Stiles walk away from him, deep green cape flowing behind him, and Derek’s heart stutters. This is where Stiles belongs, his home, and Derek will likely be leaving here alone. He doesn’t know why he didn’t think of this reality before and that his time with Stiles is quickly coming to a close. Derek closes his eyes and breathes through the pinching in his chest.
Melissa moves closer to Derek and lays a hand on his arm. “I can show you to your room now. You look tired.”
Derek opens his eyes and looks down at the short woman with kind brown eyes. “Yes, thank you.”
He follows her on wooden legs, still reeling, The house is nice, but not elegant. The McCalls are landowners, but not wealthy ones. This is a working farm. He follows Melissa up the stairs and to a room at the end of the hall. She opens the door and ushers him in. The room is decorated in greens and blues, with thick rugs on the floor and a window that faces a vegetable garden in the back of the house.
Melissa opens the curtains and the window. The rush of fresh air clears Derek’s head. “You’re right next door to Stiles so if you need anything, he can help you.” She turns around and looks at him. Whatever she sees makes her face go soft. “I’ll make you some tea and bring it up, along with some fresh water.” She lays her hand on his arm again before she leaves the room.
Derek drops his stuff and sits on the bed. It’s been a very long time since someone mothered him and it feels both familiar and foreign. It’s too much all at once and Derek rises on shaky legs to unpack some of his clothes from his saddlebags. The routine of it has him collected, feelings safely tucked away, by the time Melissa returns with tea, biscuits, and a pitcher of water.
Derek hears when Stiles comes up to his own room, can hear him touching everything in the room, can hear how Stiles’s heart ebbs and flows as he reacqaints himself with home. Stiles’s heart has its own rhythm that Derek has been hearing for weeks now and he lets the sound soothe him, though he knows it’s foolish to keep nurturing this connection he’s going to have to sever soon. Derek pushes aside everything. He has a Pack to protect and he won’t jeopardize them because he’s unable to get a heartbeat and whiskey eyes out of his mind.
Dinner is a loud and warm affair. Derek is introduced to two more men that Melissa has taken under her wing, Theo and Liam, who work as farm hands but are treated more like family. There’s a quiet woman with tightly curled hair in a wrap named Meredith who brings out the food with Allison, then sits in an empty chair at the table. It seems the line between servants and family is non-existent. Everyone here is family, but everyone has a job, a place that has meaning. Derek lets the comfort seep into his bones.
Stiles waves his arms and tells stories about how he met Derek, how Derek was incredibly rude to him, and how they killed the bunyip. Derek rolls his eyes at the exaggerations, but loves the way Stiles’s hands look as they articulate the stories so he doesn’t complain.
When dinner is over, Liam turns to Stiles and says, “It’s been a long time since you were home and we heard you play. Will you play for us tonight?”
Stiles’s smile is indulgent, even though Derek can see Stiles is tired. “Of course, I’ll play. I’ll even take requests.”
There’s a scramble to get everything cleaned up. Everyone but Allison and Meridith help. They’re excused since they cooked and Melissa refuses to let Derek assist with clearing the table. In less than twenty minutes, they’re in a sitting room with a roaring fire and everyone spread in a semi circle around Stiles. Derek sits slightly removed where he can see everyone and has a line of sight to Stiles.
Stiles tunes the cittern then bows before settling onto a stool that was in a corner. “Allison, you can have the first choice.”
Allison requests something Derek’s never heard of, not that he paid much attention to music before Stiles, but the melody is sweet, a man trying to get to his lost love after a war. Stiles sings in his sure tenor and Derek has trouble remembering he is in a room with other people. All he can hear and see is Stiles. He swallows down the need to go curl up at Stiles’s feet as a wolf and sleep there. Derek knows he is lost in a forest of trouble.
Scott suggests a jaunty tune after that, about a dragon that tricks a hunter. Scott and Stiles laugh about that one but it earns them a glare from Melissa. Stiles still sings the song. The night passes on like that until everyone has requested a song.
Everyone but Derek.
Stiles gives him a small grin. “Derek, would you like a song too? Last one of the night.”
Theo groans in protest and Stiles shakes a finger at him. “It’s the first night I’m back. I can sing more tomorrow. Don’t worry. I’m home now.”
It’s the last words Stiles says that punch Derek in the gut. He looks around the room and sees a home and family. Stiles’s home and family. Derek chokes back the whine that threatens to escape his throat. He has to control himself better. He barely knows Stiles. It doesn’t matter how attached his wolf is getting. Things are more complicated than his baser instincts understand.
“Derek?” Stiles is watching him, a line between his eyes, like he’s concerned and can tell Derek’s upset. “Do you want me to sing you a song to end the night?”
Derek nods and tries to think of what he should request but his mind is blank except for the openness in Stiles’s eyes as he waits. Derek finally rasps out, “Dealer’s choice.”
Stiles’s grin widens. “As the gentleman requests, how about this one?” Stiles picks at the strings then starts singing and Derek forgets to do anything else but listen, barely breathing as the words eave into his blood.
I will build my love a bower
By yon cool crystal fountain
And 'round it I will pile
All the wild flowers o' the mountain
Will ye go, lassie, go?
After the song, Derek flees the room, like the coward he knows himself to be, closes himself in the room he was shown and collapses on the bed, heart pounding and music in his heart.
It takes two days before Stiles feels safe enough to leave Derek at the house with Allison while he and Scott go into the woods far away from everything. Not because he’s scared for Derek, but he’s worried about what Allison sees and what she might say to Derek. Allison pays attention to people and Stiles does not want her thinking that there is anything going on between him and Derek. Nothing is happening because nothing can happen.
Stiles rambles about his adventures as he walks with Scott through the fields and then through the trees to a clearing three miles from the house. Scott catches Stiles up on the local gossip. It feels good to be home, in a place that remembers him and all his past mistakes and accepts him back with warmth regardless of past sins. He has missed Scott’s company more than he’s noticed.
There’s a hardness under Stiles’s breastbone that won’t let him be still, something that’s keeping him from taking the kind of comfort he needs from home. Home is missing something and Stiles is starting to have an idea about what has changed since he was home last. It’s an idea that leaves him feeling bruised and alarmed.
They reach the clearing when the sun is just reaching its peak. Stiles closes his eyes and lets his senses go, making sure there isn’t anyone to see what happens next. He grins broadly at Scott when all he senses is a family of opossums in a log about fifty feet away.
Stiles strips out of his clothes and releases the tight control he has over his other side. The change ripples through Stiles in less than a heartbeat and in his place is a red and grey dragon with black accents. Stiles has to choke back the urge to roar with relief. Something that loud would definitely carry through to the house, to Derek. Stiles stretches his wings and beats them without taking off the ground.
It feels glorious.
Scott waits, eyes shining, while Stiles stretches, then walks up to the red dragon. In this form, Stiles is twice the height of a tall man and he has to bend his head down to allow Scott to run a hand over his muzzle.
“Hey, buddy. It’s been a long time.”
Stiles blows air out on Scott, making the man laugh. Stiles chuffs in response and relaxes into this form. His dragon is too big to let out many places, and while he wants nothing more than to fly, he can’t expose himself to Derek or other hunters nearby. He has to stay safe and hidden, always hidden.
Thinking of Derek makes his dragon restless. It wants Derek, wants to be close to the other man, to show him this other form so Derek will know what a good fighting partner he would be, how the dragon could take care of them both. Stiles tenses up and closes his eyes and he tries to reign in his control. A keening whine fills the clearing.
Scott pats the strong muscles on Stiles’s leg. “Hey, what’s wrong? Are we in danger?”
Scott’s scent is colored with fear and anxiety and Stiles tries to force himself to calm down but all he can do is think about flying back to the house to Derek. Stiles wrestles his dragon under control and shakes as he comes out of the shift, afraid of what his dragon would do if he let it be completely in control.
He’s on all fours, shaking and barely able to breathe.
Scott throws Stiles’s discarded shirt over Stiles. “Is someone coming? Do we need to leave?” There’s urgent fear now in Scott’s voice. He’s never seen Stiles act like this and Stiles barely knows how to explain it to Scott.
Stiles shakes his head. “No. No one is coming.”
“What’s wrong then?”
Stiles shudders, still wrestling to keep himself under control. “It’s Derek. My dragon wants to go to Derek.”
Scott’s hand shakes as he hands Stiles his trousers. “You know what he is. Who he is.”
Stiles shoves his legs into his trousers. “Wouldn’t be much of a dragon if I didn’t know the name of the family who’s killed more dragons than any other, would I?” Stiles buttons up his fly and secures his belt. “Derek’s fine. I’m fine. He doesn’t know and he won’t ever know what I am.”
Scott’s eyes are still wide and worried. “What’s going on then? You never lose control in your dragon form.”
Stiles closes his eyes. He can’t look at Scott when he admits what the last five minutes have confirmed for him. “My dragon wants to choose Derek as it’s mate. It wants, I want Derek. I was hoping it hadn’t already gotten attached, but I think that’s a lost cause.”
“Stiles, dragons mate for life.” Scott’s hand comes down on Stiles’s shoulder.
Stiles flinches away, eyes squeezed shut. “You think I don’t fucking know that? Dammit, Scott. I can’t. I don’t want to talk about this.” Stiles opens his eyes and pleads. “He can never know.”
“But, Stiles,” Scott protests.
Stiles cuts him off. “No. No one else will ever know what I am. I won’t put anyone else in danger.” Stiles grabs his bo and straps it across his back. “Let’s go back to the house.”
If Scott notices that Stiles doesn’t say home, he doesn’t comment on it.
Stiles stays out in the fields for the rest of the day, repairing a fence that needed two of the posts replaced. He refuses help from Liam, Theo, and Scott. Stiles works until the sun goes down and the air gets chilly. When the fence is done, Stiles hangs over the fence and looks over the fields, placing his fingers over the threads of his life, trying to discern what he should do next. Hiding in a cave forever like his ancestors is starting to have some appeal.
He hears Derek’s heartbeat before he hears the footsteps of the other man. Stiles stays there on the fence, back to Derek’s approach.
Derek mirrors Stiles’s posture on the fence, careful to keep some distance between them. “Scott says you needed some space, but I decided one afternoon of pouting was enough so I came to find you.”
Stiles chuckles and he’s glad because he hopes it covers the way his heart gives everything away. “I needed some time to think.”
Derek nods. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I don’t always people well. I, of all people, understand needing time alone. I was wondering what the limits to your extroversion were, now I know.”
Stiles lets the silence dance around them for a long time. “This is the home I grew up in. It’s a place I’ve always been safe. For months, I wanted to get back here and now that I’m here…”
“You aren’t sure if this is your place,” Derek finishes, and Stiles feels naked in the wake of that truth.
Stiles turns his head to look at Derek in the fading light. His beard is dark on his face, a contrast to his skin, making an outline of harsh dark and light. “Scott and Allison are perfect for each other, but this is their house. I feel more like an unwanted wheel now than I ever have before. When I’m gone, their lives are seamless, they continue on.”
Derek angles to face Stiles. “My mother used to say that when you love someone there's always a hole there when they’re gone, even for a short time. You want there to be a Stiles shaped hole here.”
Stiles’s breath catches and he can barely breathe past the constriction in his throat. He nods until he trusts his voice. “I know they love me and miss me, but I don’t think this is home any longer and I’m not sure what to do about it.”
Derek’s body tenses up. Stiles feels the hesitation rolling off him, then Derek reaches out, slow like he’s afraid Stiles will dart out of reach, and wraps his fingers around Stiles’s wrist. With his other hand, Derek slides his fingers over the back of Stiles’s neck. It’s been a long day of emotions and the dragon is clawing to come to the surface, to lean into this touch, but Stiles can’t. Can’t. Ever.
And he breaks inside.
His scent must change just enough so that Derek can smell the sadness pouring out of him. Stiles is thankful that emotion can be explained away by the conversation and not by the fact that Derek was touching, scenting him. Stiles knows what it could mean that Derek would offer him this kind of touch comfort. He knows but it doesn’t matter because it can never be, never have the meaning Stiles longs for in that simple yet weighted touch.
Derek’s hands tighten. “You know what I am. I don’t touch people lightly, don’t leave my scent without intention.”
Stiles closes his eyes. “I know.”
“I don’t know what you’re looking for, but you have a place with me as a traveling companion if you’d like. Against all logic, I enjoy your company and I’ve found that I appreciate our relationship.” Derek does not move his hands.
“And what is that relationship exactly?” Stiles opens his eyes and looks directly into the unfathomable hazel of Derek’s eyes.
Derek’s eyebrows go up. “Friends, companions of some kind.”
Stiles’s shoulders drop. Of course, that is all it would be.
Derek’s hand tightens on his wrist. “Maybe something else.”
“Maybe.” Stiles lays his own hand over Derek’s but doesn’t dare move.
Stiles can live with that, knows it’s more than he ever thought he could have and he tries to tell himself it’s enough.
The next day, Stiles and Derek are helping break in some new horses when a messenger arrives from the neighboring Whitmore Farm. The messenger sees them in the far paddock and changes course to meet them. Stiles doesn’t need to have an advanced sense of smell to know this man is scared.
He pulls his horse to a stop on the side of the corral, the chests of both animal and rider heaving to catch their breath. “Is one of you the shikari, Derek Hale?”
Derek steps forward and Stiles hands the reigns of the horse he is working with to Scott. Stiles steps up beside Derek, giving the other man a small nod when Derek looks his way.
“I’m Derek Hale.”
The man, a boy really, fishes around in his doublet and pulls out a paper and hands it to Derek. Derek breaks the seal and scans the missive before handing it to Stiles.
Our only daughter was stolen last night by a hairy creature with a high-pitched cry. We have reason to believe that you have experience solving this kind of problem. If you can return our daughter to us alive, you will be handsomely rewarded. If you kill the creature in the process, your fee will double.
J & L Whitmore.
Derek waits until Stiles reads the letter. Stiles knows without being asked what Derek is waiting for and Stiles nods, his lips pressed into a line.
Derek looks up at the messenger. “Tell your master and mistress we’ll be along as soon as we can. We’ll gather our belongings and be right behind you.”
The messenger turns his horse, kicks it in the ribs and tears off back down the road.
Scott jogs over to them. “What was that all about?”
Stiles hands the paper back to Derek. “It looks like Jackson and Lydia’s daughter Heather has been taken by a creature. They’ve asked Derek for help and I’m going.”
Scott frowns. “Why do you need to go?”
Stiles sighs. “Derek, I’ll meet you at the house. I need a few minutes.”
Derek nods and walks quickly in the direction of the house, which is just over a small ridge. Scott waits until Derek is out of sight to speak.
“Why do you need to go with him? He took care of himself before you came along.”
Stiles grabs the fence between them. “It’s not about that. I’m not sure I belong here anymore.”
Scott’s voice brakes. “This is your home. You’re my brother. What do you mean you don’t belong here?”
Stiles leaps over the fence and grabs Scott in a tight hug. “You will always be my brother, but you don’t need me here and I think I am needed elsewhere. I’m not leaving forever. We’ll go to Lydia’s and come back here, then I’m going north with Derek, if he still wants me to go.”
Scott hugs Stiles. “He’s going to hurt you. You can’t have a relationship with someone and hide a secret as big as yours.”
“There's no relationship now.”
“But there might be.” Scott releases him enough to look into Stiles face.
Stiles nods. “There might be, but my life depends on my silence.”
“I don’t like this, Stiles.”
“I wasn’t asking for your permission, Scotty.”
Scott sighs and wraps an arm around Stiles’s neck as they walk back to the house. “You have to come back often or Mom and Allison will complain and I’ll start to think they like you more than me.”
“I have bad news. They do like me more than you.”
Scott groans and punches him, gently, in the ribs.
It only takes them three hours before they are sitting in the Whitmore’s parlor. Their house is considerably larger than the McCall’s and Jackson lets everyone know that the Whitmore estate is the oldest and largest in the area.
“Lydia, it’s nice to see you again. It’s been too long.” Stiles accepts the teacup that’s offered to him.
Jackson scowls. “That’s Mrs. Whitmore to you.”
Lydia flashes her eyes at her husband. “Jackson, I’ve known Stiles for most of my life and he’s here to help us. If you can’t be civil, you may leave while we talk business.”
Stiles knows better than to laugh. He does not, however, cover the grin on his face. Derek’s face is carefully neutral. Jackson isn’t the worst sort of person, but he does tend to cover up emotions by being an asshole. Fortunately, Stiles grew up as an acquaintance of Jackson’s so he’s more than familiar with this particular tactic.
Lydia turns back with an apologetic smile. “Now, Stiles and Derek. Thank you for coming on such short notice. We have nowhere else to turn and we’ve heard you are the best.”
Derek leans forward, hands on his knees. “What do you know about your daughter’s disappearance?”
Jackson and Lydia share a look and Jackson speaks. “The nanny put her to sleep in the nursery and was sewing in the nursery sitting room while the kids slept. Our eldest, Danny, was asleep in the same room and he’s the one who saw it happen.”
“May we speak to him?” Stiles asks.
Lydia rings a bell on the table next to her and the butler opens the door to the parlor. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Paul, please bring Danny to see us.”
The young butler bows and leaves. The four of them sit in silence until a lanky boy with a head of red hair like his mother’s saunters into the room. He stops in the doorway, straightens and walks with more dignity into the sitting room once he sees there are strangers there.
“Paul said you requested me.” Danny bows slightly in his mother’s direction.
Lydia waves a hand at her son. “You can relax a bit, Danny. Stiles is an old friend and Derek is here to help us find Heather.”
The boy pales and sits in a chair closest to Derek. “You’re the shikari that was at the McCall farm?”
Derek nods and angles himself towards Danny. “What can you tell us about what happened?”
Danny pours himself some tea and balances it on his knee as he talks. “I was asleep in our room when I heard the window open. I wasn’t quite awake, so I thought I was still dreaming. I thought father had come into the room. In the dark it looked human, until it crossed the moonlight and I saw it. It was about six feet tall, and covered in long, light colored hair. It went over to Heather’s bed. She woke up and it scooped her up in its arms.” Danny sips his tea and takes a steadying breath.
Derek meets the boy’s eyes and says, “You’re doing great. What happened next?”
“I realized it was taking her and I jumped out of bed and yelled at it to put her down. Then it let out this high pitched scream, Heather started crying, and it took her out the window.”
Derek leans back in his chair and meets Stiles’s eyes, then looks at Lydia whose hands are wrapped around Jackson’s. “We should be able to find and return your daughter to you. Whatever took her didn’t harm her right away, so we should be able to recover her alive.”
Jackson’s jaw twitches. “If you bring me it’s head, we’ll double the reward.”
Derek asks Danny one more question. “Do you know what direction it went?”
“I ran to the window and saw it run southwest into the trees.”
“Thank you. Mr. Whitmore, if you would show me to the nursery so that I can look around, and Mrs. Whitemore, if you would show Stiles which window is the nursery from the outside of the house, please.”
Stiles knows without being told what Derek wants him to look for because it’s exactly what he would do. Stiles follows Lydia outside and around the side of the house, keeping his eyes on the ground. Stiles is careful not to stand directly under the window and squats down to get a closer look at the ground. The grass is depressed under the window.
Stiles follows the prints, vague though they are, through the grass until they disappear into the trees. There is one good print in a patch of dirt right at the edge of the trees. Stiles puts his boot up next to it. Stiles’s feet are normal sized - he’s not a short man - but the footprint is a good two inches longer than his own foot. Stiles chews on his bottom lip and thinks.
“Did you find something useful?” Lydia is hovering behind him.
Stiles turns and pats Lydia on the shoulder. “I think so. Let’s go see what Derek found inside.”
The moment Stiles and Lydia walk into the nursery, Stiles can smell something that doesn’t belong there, something like earth and wet dog. Derek doesn’t know Stiles has a heightened sense of smell so he waits to see what Derek tells him. Stiles has his own ideas.
Derek is looking out the window when they walk in and he turns to look at Stiles. “What do you see?” Derek asks Stiles.
Stiles looks around the room. “No struggle. No blood. Whatever was here isn’t a magic user.”
Derek nods. “What did you find outside?
“Large bipedal footprints, about two inches longer than mine. They look human.” Stiles takes a few steps closer to Derek, aware that the Whitmores are watching them from the hallway. “Do you smell anything in here?”
“Wet dog and dirt.”
Stiles nods and drops his voice so only Derek can heart him. “It’s possible it’s a urayuli. I’ve never heard of one this far south, but stranger things have happened.”
Stiles expects Derek to dismiss the idea. Urayuli’s are usually seen on the tundra and scrub forests far to the north.
Derek’s face doesn’t change, but Stiles can see the difference, can see Derek’s brian working through the problem and coming up with the same solution.
Derek gives Stiles a curt nod. “It would explain the high pitched yell.”
“The question is what does it want with the girl? I didn’t think they bothered humans at all.” Stiles takes another step towards Derek. “Do you think you can track it?” Stiles is perfectly capable of tracking the things, but he’s not supposed to be.
“I think so.”
“We’ll be back soon.” Stiles tells Lydia and Jackson when he follows Derek out of the room.
Stiles follows Derek following the trail for an hour on foot, until they come to a small brook with a lean to next to it. Sitting under the roof of the rough shelter is a red haired girl and a light brown monster that resembles nothing more than a man covered in long, light brown hair.
The urayuli jerks it’s head up as Stiles and Derek attempt to sneak up on it. Derek’s sword is in his hand and Stiles draws his bo. They split to come at the monster from opposite sides. The monster leaps to its feet and pushes the little girl behind it.
“Heather, we’re here to help,” Stiles says, never taking his eyes off the monster, which has started to growl a deep and menacing sound. Stiles wishes he could change into a dragon and end this quickly, but that’s not an option.
The little girl has wide blue eyes and she screams and jumps up, pulling on the monster’s hair. The urayuli doesn’t move and Heather runs around it, holding out her hands to Stiles and Derek. “Stop. Don’t hurt Cleo.”
The urayuli grabs the little girl and pushes the girl behind itself again. Heather starts sobbing. “Don’t hurt her.”
Stiles runs through everything in his head and straightens up. “Derek, wait.” Derek’s eyes flick towards Stiles but he keeps moving forward. The growls from the monster get louder.
“Derek, stop,” Stiles says louder this time.
Derek tenses and really looks at Stiles.
Stiles looks at the sobbing girl and the monster protecting her. “I don’t think the urayuli kidnapped the girl. I think Heather went willingly. She never screamed or seemed scared in the story Danny told us. Look at them.”
Derek does look and Stiles can see the moment Derek puts all the pieces together because he relaxes and puts his sword away.
Stiles puts his own bo back in its harness. “Heather, is that your name?”
“Yes,” the girl hiccups.
“Who is your friend there?”
A smile breaks over the girl’s chubby face. “This is Cleo. She’s my best friend. She came to get me last night for an adventure.”
Stiles and Derek share a look. “Can you speak to Cleo, Heather?”
Heather nods. “We have our own secret hand language. Watch.”
Heather pulls on Cleo’s hair until the urayuli looks down at the girl. The girl’s hands move quickly and then, Stiles’s mouth drops open when the monster responds to the girl.
“Oh my gods.” Stiles has to force himself to close his mouth.
Heather nods to the urayuli and looks at Stiles. “Are you here to hurt me or Cleo?”
“We’re here because your parents are worried about you,” Derek tries taking a step closer to the girl, but the urayuli growls louder and shields the girl from Derek.
“Derek, it thinks we’re here to hurt the girl. I really don’t think it’s going to hurt her.” Stiles takes a step towards Derek.
Heather stomps out around the urayuli. “Of course she won’t hurt me.” Heather glares at Stiles. “She’s my friend. It’s not her fault she looks like this. She’s really just like one of those dessert puffs Cook makes for me.”
“Derek, she’s telling the truth. What do your senses tell you about the… about Cleo?” Stiles asks, taking another step towards Derek.
Derek tilts his head and takes a deep breath. “It’s scared of us and,” he breathes through his nose, “and scared for her. Determined. It’s protecting her.”
Stiles opens his hands and puts them in front of him, palms up. “Cleo, we aren’t here to hurt Heather or you. Her parents are worried about her. They care about her too. They are scared. We came to take her home.”
Cleo whines, high pitched and her smell shifts from fear to sadness. She is alone, far away from her kind and Stiles has to push aside the painful understanding that grips him, the knowledge that he is little better than this urayuli - alone and lost and clinging to the one thing that is making him feel less alone.
Stiles looks at Derek and knows that he is no better, he is just as lost, and Stiles doesn’t know if he’ll survive Derek leaving. He won’t be able to stay with Derek forever. All of this is temporary.
Heather grabs Cleo’s hand and looks up at the urayuli. “I’m not leaving without her. If I go home, she’s coming too.”
Stiles blinks away the moisture in his eyes and breathes through the painful beating of his heart. “She can come.”
Cleo picks up the girl and nuzzles her face. Stiles has to look away. “I’ll go ahead and explain things to Lydia and Jackson. Give me about a twenty minutes head start.” Stiles walks away without looking back at the monster who found home with a little girl and the man who will be leaving and taking Stiles’s soul with him.
Derek watches Stiles’s retreating back and feels lost. He watches Heather and Cleo as the girl chats to Cleo with a combination of verbal words and hand signals and can’t get the image of Stiles watching the pair with tears in his eyes. When the other man had walked away, Stiles had smelled like despair and it had taken everything in Derek to let him go. Something had happened, something Derek didn't understand, but he understood one thing.
Derek did not like Stiles being upset.
Derek wants nothing more than to chase after Stiles, to hunt him down and bury his face in Stiles’s neck and hold him until his scent changes from the bitter smell of despair to the warm smell of contentment of safety. Derek closes his eyes and physically holds himself in one place while he waits.
When he leads Cleo and Heather out of the trees - Cleo still carrying Heather - Lydia and Jackson are waiting for them in the back garden. Lydia takes a step forward, but Jackson stays her with a hand on her arm. When they’re about twenty feet away, Cleo puts Heather down and the girl grabs the urayuli’s hand and drags her the rest of the way. Cleo’s eyes are darting between the four adults, but they settle on Heather and her large brown eyes go soft.
“Mother, Father, this is my friend Cleo.” Heather moves closer to Cleo. “Cleo, these are my parents. I told you about them.” The girl stands up straight and looks her parents in the eye. “I promised Cleo she could live with us, inside. She’s kind and she loves me. She doesn’t have a family and she has nowhere else to go.”
Lydia and Jackson share and look and Lydia steps forward, her hand outstretched. “Cleo, you’re welcome to make this your home as long as you’d like.”
Cleo relaxes and steps closer to Lydia and the woman embraces the urayuli. Heather makes a squealing noise of joy and Jackson joins the group hug. Derek looks over at Stiles and the other man looks wrecked, broken open, and Derek’s breath hitches. Stiles hears it and his face is instantly blank and his smell all but disappears.
“I think our work here is done,” Stiles says, his voice as free of emotion as his face.
Jackson breaks from the huddle of his family. “Thank you both.” He pulls a clinking pouch from his doublet. “Here is the amount we agreed upon, plus some extra. Thank you.”
Stiles takes the pouch with a bow and tosses it to Derek. Derek catches it and follows Stiles to the stable. They fetch their horses and ride for home. Stiles is silent the entire way. Whatever magic Stiles is using is still at work because Derek can’t smell Stiles at all, even his normal scent of citrus. Derek used to think that Stiles talked too much, but now he follows the other man home wishing desperately for Stiles to say something, anything.
The oppressive silence presses into Derek. By the time they get to the McCall farm and are in the barn unsaddling their horses and pulling off their bags, Derek’s wolf is snarling with frustration. He clicks the lock on his horse’s stall and looks at Stiles. The other man’s heart rate is increasing and his breathing is getting more and more ragged.
Stiles is standing a few stalls down, saddlebag at his feet, and one hand on the door of the stall. He turns and looks at Derek, eyes wide and face pale, then collapses back against the wooden door, breathing turning shallow and heart jackrabbiting in his chest. Derek is beside him in three long strides and falls to his knees beside Stiles.
“Stiles, what’s wrong? What happened?”
Stiles’s eyes are wide and the color looks lightened, brighter, and his smell is back, which Derek should rejoice in but Stiles reeks of panic, despair, and another smell he can’t place, something deeper.
Derek puts his hand on Stiles’s shoulders and Stiles’s breathing hitches. “Panic… attack,” is all Stiles manages to say.
Derek’s hands tighten on Stiles. “I don’t know what to do.” Derek whines at the end because he can tell that Stiles isn’t breathing enough, knows that Stiles needs a deep breath soon.
Stiles grabs Derek’s hands and doesn’t look away from Derek, even as Stiles’s eyes fill with tears and spill over. The sight breaks everything in Derek and he needs to know what caused this and how to fix it. His wolf is itching for something to fight, but his human side knows there is something else here, something he doesn’t yet understand.
Derek moves his hands, cups Stiles’s face, and wipes the tears with his thumb. “Shhh, Stiles. It’s all right. You’re home. No one here is going to hurt you.”
Stiles shudders and closes his eyes. But his heart doesn’t slow and his breathing gets worse. Real panic seizes Derek and shakes him. He has to do something to break Stiles out of whatever cycle he’s in. Derek doesn’t think through the consequences, he just does the one thing he can think of.
He closes the distance between them and presses his lips to Stiles’s.
Everything pauses with the touch that is both the most simple and most complex act.
Stiles heart rate stutters then starts over, slower. His hands come up and lay over Derek’s where they are on Stiles’s face. Derek pulls away and keeps his hands on Stiles, eyes searching the other man’s face, looking for signs that he did the wrong thing.
“Why’d you do that?” Stiles’s voice is ragged and hoarse.
Derek keeps his eyes on Stiles. “I, uh, thought it might startle you into breathing again.”
“Thanks, that was really smart.” Stiles leans his forehead against Derek’s.
The contact pulls the truth from Derek. “If I was really smart I would have done that a few days ago instead of waiting until now.”
Stiles huffs out a laugh. “I’m not going to complain.”
They stay that way for a while, breathing in each other and finding a stillness. Derek breaks the silence.
Stiles still has a hold of Derek’s hands and they tighten on them until Derek can feel his bones grinding together. “Cleo, she’s far from where she belongs. She doesn’t have a family and she’s the only one of her kind here. She was alone until she found a little girl to care about her. We saved them so they can be together and I couldn’t stop thinking about her being alone and then having someone to care about her.”
Derek recalls the conversation by the fence. “You think you’re like the urayuli, alone.”
Stiles looks away and nods.
Derek redirects Stiles’s gace back to him. “Stiles, you’re not alone. You have people here who care about you: Scott, Allison, and Melissa love you.”
Stiles closes his eyes and a tear runs down his cheek. “I know and it makes me feel ungrateful, but you’re leaving, I mean you said I could go but you’re still leaving and it feels like that’s a gap being here can’t fill.”
Derek stills and takes a deep breath, flooding his senses with the loneliness and despair coming from Stiles. “You had a panic attack because you think I’m leaving?”
Stiles doesn’t open his eyes and nods, and Derek feels as broken as Stiles looks.
Derek leans forward slowly and places a soft kiss on Stiles’s lips again. He wants so desperately to show Stiles more, but he wants to talk about this first. Derek knows if he kisses Stiles the way he wants to, they won’t be talking for a long time.
“Where in the world would I go without you?” Derek asks.
Stiles opens his eyes, they are watered copper. “Back to your pack.”
“Stiles, I want you to come with me. I thought you understood that.”
“How would I have known?” Stiles replies in a whisper.
Derek sighs. “I’m sorry. I should have asked you before. Will you come with me? I can’t promise that my pack will behave, but I think they’d like you and I’d like you to meet them. Plus, I’ve gotten used to having you by my side in a fight.”
Stiles still feels shaky after the events in the barn, equally from the panic attack and from Derek kissing him, even if the kiss was more of a rescue than an actual kiss. It still counted and Derek wanted him to go with him when he left. More than that, Stiles is mostly sure Derek wants him. That thought alone sends Stiles’s heart and blood pounding.
Somehow, Stiles makes it through dinner by telling the story of the urayuli, leaving out his breakdown in the barn and its cause. Derek thinks he understands, but he only knows the surface. Stiles looked at that monster that was not a monster and saw himself: alone, isolated from everyone, and he didn’t want to end up that way. Stiles is the last surviving member of his family. There are so few dragons in the world he has never met another. He is alone.
Yet, here in this house are all the people he loves. Stiles’s eyes fall on Derek and he catches the other man looking at him. Stiles can hear Derek’s heart speed up at being caught and he winks at Derek, which makes the other man’s ears turn pink. Derek looks back down at his plate and keeps eating. Stiles cloaks his scent further, both to hide his feelings and the other scent Derek must never get enough of to identify.
He had almost been too panicked to cloak himself properly in the barn today.
What Stiles is contemplating is dangerous, but he knows with a bone deep certainty that he will go with Derek for as long as Derek allows it. He will go but it means always hiding, never being known, and always knowing that if he was known, he would be rejected. His story won’t end like the urayuli because he's in much deeper than befriending a child. Stiles’s hand shakes as he lifts his glass to his lips.
Dinner and the tea after dinner drags on forever once everyone knows Stiles and Derek are leaving in the morning. By the time Stiles stumbles up the stairs to his room, he is exhausted, but he has something else to accomplish tonight while there is a roof over their heads and a bed to sleep in.
Stiles takes his time getting ready for bed. Contemplates if this is the right choice. Derek’s behavior in the barn wasn’t necessarily an invitation for something more, but Stiles wants more. Stiles wants all of it and he wants to find out if that is something available to him. If Derek says no, Stiles will content himself with being near Derek. It would be a shadow of what he desires, but in the end all Stiles wants is Derek safe and happy and close, even if it’s not in a romantic capacity.
Stiles grabs the small vial of oil from his bedside table, slips it into his pocket, takes a steadying breath, and opens his door. Derek’s door is right across from his. The rest of the family is down on the far end of the hallway. Stiles could still close his door and go back to sleep in his bed, alone.
Stiles closes his own door and takes two steps to cross the hallway. He knocks quietly, knows that Derek likely heard him moving around and leaving his own room.
Derek opens the door, ears already pink, shirt untied at the top, and bare feet visible. Stiles wants to fall down and worship those feet and what seeing them does to his heart. How they make Derek appear both soft and vulnerable and Stiles wants nothing more than to protect and hold him.
Stiles clears his throat. “May I come in?”
Derek steps to the side with a sweep of his hand.
Stiles walks until he’s in the middle of the room. His plan only involved getting in Derek’s room and then being in bed with him. Stiles didn’t plan on the middle parts that he’s starting to expect are actually the most important.
“Stiles?” Derek says from right behind him.
Stiles jumps a little and turns. “What?”
Derek is standing very close. “Did you need something?”
Stiles opens and closes his mouth like a fish, shoes himself, and straightens his spine. “Yes, I do.”
Derek may be a predator but so is Stiles, and Stiles is the most dangerous thing in the room. Stiles smirks and lets some of the danger shine through his eyes. It’s not enough for the dragon, but it’s all it will ever get. Stiles swallows that thought and advances on Derek, who takes a step back. Stiles backs Derek up the four steps it takes for Derek’s back to be flat against the door.
Stiles reaches out and slides a hand into Derek’s hair and then cups the back of Derek’s neck. He puts his other hand on Derek’s waist. “Tell me to stop.”
Stiles freezes. “You mean no, Stiles go back to your room or…”
“I mean no, I won’t tell you to stop.” Derek smiles and it’s pure mischief.
Stiles crashes his mouth down on Derek and kisses him like he’s been dreaming about for weeks. It’s messy and Stiles can’t decide where he wants his hands to be so they end up everywhere. Derek’s hand is splayed across the small of Stiles’s back like a brand and his other hand is clenched in Stiles’s hair, pressing them together. Stiles can feel every hard inch of Derek pressing into him and his knees threaten to give way.
Derek starts to unbutton Stiles’s shirt, then growls and pulls the thing over his head instead. Stiles begins to protest the handling of his clothing until Derek’s mouth slots back over his own while Derek’s hands are tracing fire and need and want in a pattern over Stiles’s chest. He forgets everything. Stiles returns the favor, learning from Derek’s mistakes, and pulls off Derek’s shirt without bothering with ties.
The frictions of their chests together isn’t the friction Stiles is looking for and his hands go straight to the buttons on Derek’s trousers. Derek’s mouth is leaving nipping kisses along Stiles’s collar bone.
Stiles has to clear his throat and gather his thoughts twice before he can talk. “Can I take off your trousers?”
Derek bites down hard enough to leave a bruise and Stiles’s dick aches. “It’ll be hard to do what I’m hoping you have planned if you leave them on.”
Stiles groans into the soft place behind Derek’s ear and bites his earlobe. “I want you beneath me and begging.”
Derek’s breath catches and the hand in Stiles’s hair tightens. “On one condition.”
Stiles pulls back far enough so he can see Derek’s face. The other man’s pupils are already blown and his color is high in his cheeks. “Anything. I’ll give you anything you ask for.” Stiles says it in jest but the truth of the words rumble through him. His dragon would give anything for Derek, sacrifice whatever is asked, because the dragon wants one thing in the world and that is Derek Hale.
Derek cups Stiles’s face and lays the softest of kisses on Stiles’s lips before leaning back and smirking, the smile at complete odds with the gentle touch. “I get to return the favor.”
Stiles grins. “I should warn you. I’m bossy in bed no matter where I am.”
Derek laughs and it’s an easy sound that Stiles marvels at. “I’d expect nothing less,” Derek says.
They grin like idiots and shuck the rest of their clothes. They stand in the middle of the room, naked and gleaming in the firelight, until they both reach for each other at the same time. They crash onto the bed, a tangle of legs, arms, and aching need.
Stiles wants to rush forward, but there are so many places on Derek to touch, to explore and neither of them seem in a hurry now that they’re here. Stiles flips Derek over on his back, kissing his way down, pinching Derek’s nipple as he goes. The last one earns him a light smack on the shoulder. Stiles kisses down Derek’s side. When he’s right above Derek’s hip bone, the other man twitches and sucks in air. Stiles does it again and this time Derek can’t hold back a laugh.
Stiles looks up. “Someone has a ticklish spot.” Stiles runs his fingers lightly over the spot again.
Derek jerks away and swats at him. “You’re a tease.”
“Oh, I haven’t even started with you yet.” Stiles slides off the bed. “I almost forgot this.” He pulls the bottle of oil from his trousers and sets it on the table beside the bed.
Derek jerks his hips up and Stiles takes the hint, grabbing Derek bobbing cock in his hand and running his thumb over the wet tip.
“You’re gorgeous.” Stiles doesn’t mean to say it, can hear his own heart in the words, but he doesn’t regret them.
Derek’s hands clutch the sheets of the bed and Stiles smiles while he lowers his head and takes Derek into his mouth. Stiles loves the feel of Derek in his mouth, the hard length hitting the back of his throat long before he’s taken it all in. Stiles applies himself to a slow rhythm, moving up and down. Derek puts his hands in Stiles’s hair and his fists tighten and release in time with Stiles’s movements. If Stiles isn’t careful, this is going to be over for both of them before he gets anywhere near being inside of Derek.
Stiles pauses his ministrations, popping off Derek’s cock with an obscenely wet noise. Derek whines high in his throat and his eyes flash red. Stiles chuckles and grabs the bottle next to the bed, coating three of his fingers before bending back to his task.
“You’re greedy. Good thing, I know exactly what you need.” Stiles slides his wet fingers over Derek’s hole and slips one of his long fingers in slow, keeping an eye on the way Derek’s eyes roll back and his chest heaves.
Stiles takes his time opening up Derek, enjoys the way Derek’s body clenches around his fingers and the mewling sound Derek makes when Stiles adds a second finger to the first.
Derek pushes down on Stiles’s fingers. “Another. Do it now.”
“Well, since you asked so nice.” Stiles adds the last finger and watches as he goes in and out of Derek’s body. Derek is trembling beneath him and Stiles places his palm over Derek’s quivering stomach. “I’m going to take such good care of you.”
Stiles pulls his fingers out and grabs the oil, dripping it all over himself, making a bit of a mess, but he doesn’t care. Derek wraps his own hand around his cock as he watches Stiles spread the oil on himself.
“Ready?” Stiles asks.
“Please,” Derek’s voice is thready and breaks Stiles.
Stiles pushes into Derek, slow and steady aware that no matter the prep, this still stings. Derek gets impatient, wraps his legs around Stiles’s hips and pulls him down until Stiles bottoms out with a groan.
After that, there is no keeping either of them still. Stiles runs his left hand along the underside of Derek’s thigh and lifts Derek’s leg with a hand behind his knee. The angle is just right and Stiles knows when he hits Derek’s prostate because the other man’s body shakes beneath him. Stiles increases his pace, relentless as they both chase a shared pleasure. Stiles can feel the palm of his right hand heat up and has a moment of panic.
He curses. He should have expected this. His dragon has been so damn insistent where Derek is concerned. When a dragon takes a mate they mark them, brand them with the heat of the internal fire they carry. Each mark is different, resembling the shape of the dragon that gives it. It is meant to show relationship and love, but over the centuries had been used to identify the mates of dragons and kill them.
Stiles wishes with the core of everything he is that he could claim Derek and that Derek could see all of him, but he can’t. Derek would despise Stiles if he knew.
Stiles knows he’s close, and he takes Derek’s hand, careful to keep his palm from touching Derek, and wraps Derek’s fingers around his cock. Stiles clenches his fist and puts it beside Derek’s shoulder. Stiles looks down at them, they way they are moving together, then back up to Derek’s face, open and keening.
Stiles’s orgasm races through him a moment before Derek’s hand loses it’s rhythm and Derek’s come covers them both. Stiles rocks them through the aftershocks, leaning over Derek and kissing him gently. Stiles eases out of Derek, whose body chases Stiles, and Stiles lays on his side next to Derek, looking down at the other man and running his fingers down his arm.
“Thank you.” Stiles kisses Derek’s temple.
Derek turns his head and his hazel eyes look more blue than they ever have been. “No, thank you.”
Stiles gets out of bed and grabs a cloth from beside the ewer on a stand in the corner of the room. He looks at his right palm when his back is to Derek. It’s red, but nothing noticeable and Stiles sighs, wetting the cloth and going back to Derek. Stiles cleans them both up, their skin sensitive and aching in the best way.
Stiles takes the cloth back to the ewer stand and turns to look at Derek who’s pulled back the covers. Derek pats the side of the bed. “Stay with me.”
Stiles relaxes and the claw of fear he felt at Derek asking him to leave releases him. “I’d love to.”
Derek covers Stiles up and pulls Stiles’s back against his chest, burying his face in Stiles’s neck. “Goodnight, Stiles.”
Derek wakes Stiles up four hours after they go to sleep and returns the favor, as promised. For a moment, Stiles wishes he didn’t heal as fast as he does. He wants to feel the soreness of having Derek inside him.
In the morning, Stiles considers slinking out of the bed before Derek wakes up in case the werewolf wakes up with regrets. Stiles doesn’t think he can handle seeing regret in Derek’s face about the best night of sex Stiles has ever had. Derek is curled against Stiles’s side and Stiles knows he’s awake when Derek’s heart rate increases. Stiles feels Derek’s lips on his shoulder.
Stiles cards his fingers through Derek’s hair and waits to see what Derek will say.
Derek lifts his head and looks down at Stiles. “Good morning. I was hoping you wouldn’t sneak away before I woke up.”
Stiles bites his bottom lip. “I was hoping you wouldn’t wake up and kick me out of your bed.”
Derek’s hand tightens on Stiles’s hip. “Why would I do that?”
“Sometimes things look different in the light of day.” Stiles goes for blunt honesty.
Derek lifts himself onto his elbow and looks down on Stiles. “You look the same as you always do to me. Beautiful. I’m hoping this is not a one night thing, but something that continues. Regardless of your penchant to talk more than necessary, I enjoy your company, especially when you’re using your words to talk me into very dirty things.”
Stiles sighs. “It’s a gift, really. Still want to take me north with you?”
“Of course.” Derek closes the space between them and kisses Stiles.
Derek breaks the kiss too early for Stiles and he pouts. Derek laughs and Stiles can feel Derek’s body make the sound as it’s pressed against him. Hearing it was one thing, but this is something else entirely.
Derek slips a finger under the thick cord on his neck, fingering the pair of steel rings there. “What are these?”
No one has touched them since Stiles put them on when he was five years old. His mother, hands shaking and tears streaking her face, had flipped the rings onto the cord that she had spelled, and slipped it over his head. She had kissed him and told him to run. They are the most precious things in his hoard.
“They belonged to my parents.”
Derek lays the rings back on Stiles’s chest and covers them with his palm. “I’m sorry about your parents.”
Stiles covers Derek’s hand with his own. “I’m sorry about yours.” Stiles taps Derek’s hand with his finger. “We’re a sad pair.”
Derek lifts himself up to look directly into Stiles’s face. “Remembering the ones we loved is an important task. Grief is hard to carry, but it’s important to remember that we loved them and that they loved us.”
Stiles wants nothing more than to curl up with this man forever. “You’re quite the philosopher.”
Derek’s mouth moves up at the corners. “Don’t get used to it.”
Stiles kisses Derek, soft and slow, then pulls back and sighs. “I suppose I should get up and finish packing. I came over here before I’d gotten everything organized.”
Stiles crawls out of bed and Derek smacks him on the ass before he’s out of reach.
The entire family comes out to see them off after breakfast. Stiles hugs Scott for a long time. “I won’t be away forever,” Stiles says to him, though it’s a reminder for them both.
Scott nods and squeezes tighter. “I know, but this feels different. Be careful, Stiles, about everything.”
Stiles knows all the implications of those words and knows he’s already leapt over the jagged cliff that Scott is warning him about. “I will. I promise.”
Stiles makes the rounds, getting to Melissa last. She hugs him and kisses his cheek. “Be careful, kiddo. I love you. This will be your home whenever you need it to be.”
Stiles has to swallow all his feelings before he manages to say, “I love you too and thank you.”
Melissa looks at both Stiles and Derek. “Are you sure you both have what you need? Plenty of food? Water? Warm cloaks?”
Derek’s ears pink up and Stiles chuckles, knows how it feels to be mothered and that Derek’s enjoying the novelty of it after years of being without it. “We’ll be fine.”
“I know, but it’s my job to worry.” Melissa slides her hand down Stiles’s arm.
Derek hands Stiles the reins to his horse. “I’ll take good care of him, Mrs. McCall.”
Stiles elbows Derek. “We’ll take good care of each other.”
Melissa winks at them. “That’s the way.”
Stiles glances back once to see everyone waving, then looks at Derek, and finally the road ahead. There’s no telling where this is going to lead, but Stiles has a good feeling about it.
They travel for four days northwest, pushing themselves and the horses. At night, they fall into their bedrolls and each other. It’s an exhausting combination, traveling and staying up half the night, but it’s some of the best days Derek can remember. The terrain changes as they travel, from rolling fields and forests to rounded mountains and crags. The ground is covered with a low brush that Derek knows blooms purple in the late summer, which is still two months away.
On the fifth day, they are set to reach the rendezvous place that Boyd had sent Derek in a letter before leaving the McCall farm. His betas have been off scouting a larger problem and Derek wants to come together as a pack to decide if it’s something they can handle. They don’t take every job that comes their way. They don’t need the money, but they do want to help people when they’re able.
Stiles is riding on his left, singing idly to himself and making up lyrics about traveling. Derek steals a glance at him and can’t help the small smile he feels on his face. Stiles might talk nonsense half the time, but the other half is brilliant and there are not many people Derek would trust at his back in a fight. His betas and Stiles.
Stiles stops singing and turns in the saddle and catches Derek watching him. Stiles winks. “Nervous about introducing me to the family?”
“No.” He is. While his betas will accept Stiles if he asks them to, he wants them to like Stiles, to accept him as one of their own, as his own. Derek’s wolf was the first to be insistent that Stiles was theirs and Derek agrees.
“It’s okay to be nervous. I’m an awful lot to take in at once.” Stiles’s smirk is so full of sass Derek wants to smack him or kiss him or both.
He chuckles instead since, sadly, Stiles is out of reach. “That is an understatement, but they’ll like you fine.” Maybe too much. Derek already knows Erica is going to adore Stiles.
“Tell me again why we’re meeting them outside of the town instead of inside the town where we could have a warm bed and maybe a room alone.” Stiles sighs in the most exaggerated way. “A warm bed, Derek. Alone. I have some plans for you. I’ve been thinking about a nice soft bed for days.”
Derek rolls his eyes. “First of all, we aren’t going to let the town know we’re all there. Second, I told you the first night the pack is going to want to sleep together. We’ve been apart for too long and we’ll need the touch.”
Stiles is joking, but Derek is worried about this, about how tactile the pack is and how much in each other’s business they are and how much a human like Stiles will understand and accept it. Stiles is tactile and likes touch, but he’s still human and a Pack can be overwhelming for someone who wasn’t born into one.
By the afternoon, they are both a jumble of nerves and anticipation. They find the rendezvous place easily, a copse of towering trees next to a stream. The betas have been camped here for more than a week and it shows in the tidy camp they have made.
The moment Derek swings off his horse, Erica squeals and launches herself at Derek. Derek runs his hand over the back of her neck and rubs his cheek against hers. Erica’s hair is in a thick braid down her spine and Derek pulls on it to get her to release him.
“It’s good to see you too,” he says.
Isaac is next. Derek runs a hand through the other man’s dark blonde curls and gives him a kiss on his forehead, right above the wide blue eyes that are blinking rapidly to hide tears.
“I wasn’t gone that long.” Derek pulls Isaac into a hug, knows he craves touch more than any of his other betas.
“Felt like a long time,” Isaac mutters into Derek’s shoulder.
Boyd is hovering and Derek waves him over and wraps the man in a fierce hug. Boyd has been Derek’s second for a long time. He’s steadfast and thinks before he acts. Erica and Isaac tend to be more impulsive.
“Everyone is doing fine, Alpha,” Boyd says.
“Of course they are. I left you in charge.” Derek loosens his hug and runs a palm over Boyd’s neck as he does so.
Derek looks behind him. Stiles is clutching the reins of their horses and shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Derek gives him what he hopes is a reassuring smile.
“Boyd, Erica, Isaac, this is Stiles. We’ve been traveling together for some time now and I asked him to come with me to meet you.”
There is brief disappointment on Stiles’s face, Derek sees it, but Stiles transforms it into a wide smile. “I’ve heard a lot of stories about all of you but you can’t possibly be that amazing so I can only conclude that Derek has exaggerated.”
The betas already know how close Stiles and Derek are, would have been able to smell them all over each other, so there is no need to say it out loud. Stiles, being human, obviously doesn’t realize that Derek doesn’t need to tell his betas that Stiles is not simply his travel companion. Derek holds out his hand to Stiles and Stiles takes it and laces their hands together, his smile shifting to something less forced.
Stiles sniffs the air. “Something smells amazing. Derek’s been in such a hurry to get back to your three that I haven’t had a proper meal in days. I’m going to waste away.”
Derek rolls his eyes. “You were never in danger of starving to death.”
Derek ignores the last muttered comment. “Isaac, you and Stiles take care of the horses.”
Isaac nods and Derek keeps an ear open to the two of them as they walk off, Stiles chatting and Isaac tilting his head and listening to the prattling. Derek relaxes when he hears Isaac chuckle and focuses his attention on Boyd.
“Anything I need to know?”
“In general or about the ghouls?” Boyd lifts the lid off the pot over the fire and stirs it.
“In general. The discussion about the ghouls should wait until Stiles is back. His mouth moves more than it should but he has a way of putting things together. I want him to be here.”
Boyd nods. “Everything else is fine. We got a note from the estate and all is well there.”
Erica flips some flatbread on a flat griddle on the edge of the fire. “He’s cute.”
Derek stares at Erica.
Erica ignores the silent plea to shut her mouth as well as Stiles does, apparently, because she continues, “He’s not what I would have picked for you, but he’s nice looking and he can’t be an idiot or you wouldn’t tolerate him.”
Derek opens his mouth to say something, but Stiles appears out of nowhere at his side. Derek didn’t hear him at all.
“I’ll have you know, I’m a genius, except, I have bad judgement where one werewolf is concerned because I’ve followed him here to sleep on the ground when I could have had my way with him in a wonderfully soft bed in town.” Stiles sweeps his arm to indicate the camp.
Erica and Isaac both laugh and that is the first inkling Derek has that his betas are going to have no trouble accepting Stiles.
Over a dinner of flatbread and stew, Boyd fills Derek in on the issue at hand.
“The ghouls occupy a cemetery on the outskirts of town. It looks like a dark witch did a ritual there and unconsecrated part of the ground, causing four of the graves to turn. The ghouls didn’t cause any trouble for about a week, then small animals and livestock started disappearing from the town. That’s when they sent for us. We’ve been keeping an eye on things. They seem most active during the new moon.”
“The new moon is in two days,” Stiles said absently.
Boyd nods. “We don’t have a firm plan yet. We were waiting for you.”
“Ghouls can turn new corpses if the cemetery is still being used and their bites carry a poison that slows their prey so they can eat them.” Stiles continues to mumble facts, then he lifts his head and asks, “Do you know where they sleep during the day?”
“There’s a crumbling mausoleum on the edge of the cemetery with a series of tunnels underneath it,” Erica offers.
“Can they come out more than one at a time?” Stiles asks, leaning forward.
Boyd answers this question. “They come out in twos and they are fast.”
Stiles is quiet for a moment. “If I can keep them focused on me when they emerge, then the rest of you can pick them off.”
“No.” There is no chance that Derek is going to let Stiles be the bait for a pack of ghouls that can run faster than a human.
“It’s the best way, Derek. You four are better fighters than I am hand to hand. I’m good at causing a scene and running away. I can run fast.”
“They’re fast, Stiles. Faster than you.” Derek leans into Stiles’s space.
Stiles doesn’t give an inch. “You can’t order me around. This is the best way and you know it. You’ll get them before they even get close to me.”
“I won’t let you put yourself at risk like that.” Derek is starting to feel real panic because he knows Stiles is right and the last thing he wants to do is put Stiles in danger. It goes against every instinct screaming in his head.
Stiles pokes Derek hard in the sternum. “I’m not a beta you can order around, Derek. I’ve been watching your back for weeks. Don’t you trust me?”
Derek deflates. “I do, but I don’t like this.”
Stiles gives him a feral grin then. “You don’t have to like it, you just have to kill the ghouls before they eat me.”
Derek turns and sees all three of his betas watching them with rapt eyes.
Erica’s eyes are shining. “Oh, boss, I like him.” To Stiles she says, “Can we keep you?”
Stiles laughs, a relaxed sound that tells Derek there’s no hard feelings about the argument. “I’ll stay as long as Derek allows, but I’m glad to know I’m wanted.” He winks suggestively at Erica and she bursts into giggles. “I know some packs are polyamorous does that mean you want to keep me?” Stiles waggles his eyebrows and the two of them burst into laughter.
Derek has to swallow down his jealousy because he knows Stiles is joking. His wolf does not find the humor funny. Derek tries to respond with humor. “I take everything back. Leave now, before you corrupt all of them.” Derek goes back to finishing his stew.
“Too late,” Isaac says. “I like him too.”
Derek growls. “Boyd?”
Boyd shrugs. “Sorry, Alpha, my lady wants him to stay.”
“You’re a corrupting force,” Derek scowls at Stiles.
Stiles’s eyes are warm in the firelight. “You weren’t complaining last night when I reached around to…”
Derek puts his hand over Stiles’s mouth. ”That’s not a topic for discussion.”
“You seemed perfectly happy to discuss it with some key phrases last night.” Stiles enunciates enough for everyone to understand.
Boyd, Erica, and Isaac dissolve into laughter and Derek removes his hand from Stiles’s mouth. Stiles closes the distance and busses him on the mouth before turning to finish his food.
That night, they spread all their blankets together in the largest tent and lay together. Stiles is pressed up to his side and each of the betas has a hand on him. It’s warm and everything in Derek settles with his Pack and his mate close.
With a start, Derek goes back over the last line of thought, rolling it around and feeling it from all angles. His Pack and his mate. Derek doesn’t know when Stiles had filled that particular gap in his life, but apparently his subconscious has chosen now, when he is surrounded by the sleeping heartbeats of all the people he cherishes to make that particular fact known. Derek focuses on slowing his heart before it alerts one of the betas that something is wrong.
Not wrong. Complicated.
Things are good with Stiles. Great even, but as attached as Derek has become, he doesn’t know if Stiles sees their relationship that way. Derek could simply ask Stiles, but then there’s the possibility the answer will not be the one Derek wants. The best course of action would be to show Stiles what life can be like with Derek’s Pack, how well Stiles will fit with them, and how Derek can care for him.
Derek falls asleep with his senses full of Stiles and his heart tender with awareness.
In the morning, they plan out the details of the ghoul hunt, but after going over the details multiple times, Derek can tell everyone is restless.
“Do we need anything in town?” he asks Isaac, who is in charge of their supplies.
Isaac shakes his head. “Not really.”
“I want to go to town.” Erica sits up and looks intently at Derek.
“If we don’t need supplies, why would we go to town?” Derek asks.
Stiles shakes his head and gets to his feet. He brushes off his hands on the thigh of his trousers and offers it to Erica. “Madame, is there an establishment in town in which I might buy your beautiful personage a drink, preferably of the alcoholic variety?”
Erica giggles. “There is. Are you buying?”
“I would be a scoundrel to ask for your company and then not buy you a drink.” Stiles bows over his outstretched hand.
Erica takes the hand. “Of course there is and I’m not one to say no to someone else buying me a drink.”
Stiles pulls Erica up and dances her around the fire. Derek flops back on the ground and groans.
Boyd watches them with the slightest of smiles. “Is he always like this?”
“I wish I could say he was performing for the audience that is Erica, but sadly, yes, he is.” Derek heaves himself to his feet. “We’re going to town.”
“Great.” Isaac is beaming at the prospect.
Stiles tucks Erica’s arm in his. “Lead the way, my lady.”
Derek follows along behind with Boyd and Isaac. Stiles is telling Erica a bawdy joke and Erica fills in the punchline before Stiles gets to it. They both laugh as if they are the most hilarious two people in the world.
Boyd says to no one in particular. “I think we’re in real trouble, Alpha.”
“I think trouble might be an understatement.” Derek prepares himself for a long night.
The tavern isn’t terribly crowded when they show up and there’s an empty table in the back corner with a clear view of the door. Derek finds himself wedged between Stiles and Isaac. Erica stays glued to Stiles’s side, though her hand is always on Boyd. The hand that Stiles isn’t using to gesture with is sitting high up on Derek’s thigh under the table. The heat of it has Derek shifting in his seat.
They order drinks and Stiles looks around the room. Derek knows the moment before Stiles opens his mouth that whatever idea he has percolating is mischief.
“I think what this room needs is some entertainment.” Stiles looks at Derek.
Derek holds out his palms. “I’m not helping with this.”
Stiles eyes each of the betas. “Which one of you can sing?”
The table is quiet until Erica says, “Isaac can.”
Stiles leans around Derek and pins Isaac with a raised eyebrow. “Isaac, is this true? Did you let me sing all alone by the fire last night when you could have been joining me?”
Isaac blushes and Derek poises himself to rescue the beta when he smells the embarrassment shift to have undertones of pleasure. Isaac likes being singled out by Stiles and being appreciated. Derek presses himself into the back of the bench to give Stiles more access to Isaac.
“Isaac, will you come sing with me now?” Stiles flutters his eyelashes in the most ridiculous way. If they weren’t so long and Derek wasn’t so head over heels he wouldn’t find it nearly as endearing as he does.
“I don’t know that many songs,” Isaac mumbles.
Stiles thinks for a moment, then asks, “Do you know Do Virgins Taste Better? ”
Isaac laughs and nods.
“Great, I’ll be the dragon when we get to those parts.” Stiles shoves at Derek. “Excuse me, I have to go entertain the room.”
Stiles and Isaac grab their pints and Isaac follows Stiles as he sidles up to the tavern owner. Derek isn’t sure how he does it, but he finds a mandolin somewhere and in less than five minutes, Stiles is hopping onto the fireplace and starts strumming the instrument. The room quiets immediately.
“I think you’re in need of some amusement this fine night,” he says to the room. There is general clapping and agreement. “Wonderful. My name is Stiles and this handsome man to my left is Isaac and we’ll be your entertainment for the evening. We accept tips, but please keep drinking,” Stiles pauses and sweeps the room with his eyes, “we sound better if you’re drunk.”
The crowd laughs and Stiles bows, pulling Isaac with him. Stiles strums a few cords, winks at Derek, then starts singing. Stiles’s smooth tenor and Isaac’s more raspy tenor combine to make a beautiful sound that’s at odds with the silly song Stiles has chosen to open the evening. It’s a story about a town that feeds virgins to the local dragon to keep it from eating all of them. When they get to the chorus, most of the room joins in.
Do virgins taste better than those who are not?
Are they salty, or sweeter, more juicy or what?
Do you savor them slowly? Gulp them down on the spot?
Do virgins taste better than those who are not?
Derek can’t help the laughter that bubbles out of him as Stiles coaxes Isaac into performing for the crowd. When they get to the punchline, “We'll simply make sure there's no virgins at all!” Stiles and Isaac leer at the audience and the entire room erupts in applause and laughter. Stiles keeps strumming though and starts singing a verse that Derek has never heard. The dragon, in this version, is asked and answers, why he eats only virgins.
Now, the number of babies a woman can bare,
Has limits, and that's why my pruning's done there.
And an orphan's a sad sight, and so when I munch,
I'm careful to eat only virgins for lunch.
The room goes wild and Stiles and Isaac bow. Isaac is practically beaming and Derek feels full and happy, seeing his shyest of his betas open up. A handsome young man at a front table tosses a coin to Isaac and Isaac catches it with a flourish and a bow which earns the pair more coins. Stiles leads them into another song, a back and forth made hilarious by the innocent way Isaac sings and the exaggerated show Stiles is putting on. Derek leans back in his seat and his heart is aching it’s so overwhelmed by Stiles.
After a few more songs, Stiles and Isaac return to the table arm in arm, high off their success and laughing.
Isaac pulls that first tossed coin from the pocket of his trousers and presses it into Stiles’s palm. “Thank you. I never would have done that without you. You should have the first coin we earned together. I hope we can do it again some time.”
Stiles’s eyes brighten and he fists the coin before placing it in the pouch at his waist. “And what shall we do with the rest of our earnings?”
Isaac grins. “Buy the next round of drinks.”
When they get back to camp and pile into the tent together, Isaac wedges his way next to Stiles and falls asleep with his hand wrapped around Stiles’s arm.
Derek runs his hand through Stiles’s hair and kisses him. “Thank you.”
Stiles tucks his face into Derek and breathes deep. “Sleeping outside is fun and all, but am I ever going to get you alone again?”
They’re whispering even though the others can hear them fine if they are awake no matter what volume they use. The dark is giving them the illusion of privacy. “When we’re done with the ghouls we’ll go home to Hale House. Will you come home with us? With me?”
Stiles runs a hand down Derek’s face. He can see those large copper eyes looking him over in the dark and a prick of anxiety that Stiles will say no pierces Derek. Stiles could have seen his Pack and the way they are together and have decided that this was not what he wants, despite having enjoyed himself the past couple of days. The longer Stiles stays silent the less Derek can breathe.
Stiles starts to shake.
“Wait, are you laughing?” Derek goes from worried to annoyed.
“Did you really think I’d say no?”
Derek’s chest feels tight with too many things and he doesn’t know how to articulate any of them, so he presses his lips together.
“Oh my gods, you did.” Stiles puts both of his hands on Derek, one cupping his face and one flat against Derek’s chest. “Of course I’m going home with you. I think at this point in the journey you might be stuck with me forever. Plus, and I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but I find it very hard to tell you no about anything.”
Derek melts into Stiles. “You had no trouble arguing about the plan with the ghouls.”
“That was different.” Stiles’s voice loses some of its lightness.
“You were wrong and I, clearly, was correct.” Stiles kisses him, a gentle press of lips that’s just enough for Derek to feel the smile on Stiles’s face.”
“I take back my invitation. I momentarily forgot what a pain in my ass you are.”
“I thought you enjoyed me in your ass.”
“Go to sleep before you give me ideas.”
“Like sneaking off in the woods to see how much of a pain I can be ideas?” Stiles sounds hopeful and his hand starts to move south to Derek’s waist.
Stiles sighs dramatically and starts to say goodnight but he’s cut off by Erica. “Will you two shut up and go to sleep?”
An hour before sundown, they’re in place around the cemetery. Derek still doesn’t like Stiles being bait and his stomach churns with the thought of his mate being in that much danger. He can see the other man, sitting in front of the crumbling mausoleum, whistling to himself and reading a small book he pulled out of the pouch he wears on his waist. Derek can feel the pull of Pack and mate that connects him to Stiles. He doesn’t try to deny it, wouldn’t want to, but he’s still not ready to talk to Stiles about it. Saying it out loud would give Stiles the opportunity to say no and Derek needs more time to prove that Stiles should say yes.
Stiles tucks the book away and looks up to where Derek is hiding. Stiles tilts his head and shifts his eyes to the right. Derek pauses and he can hear it, the ghouls moving below ground. He’s surprised Stiles can hear them, but he’s much closer to the mausoleum than Derek. Stiles stands and takes the bo off his back, twirling it around, loosening his hands, arms, and shoulders. Derek’s gut clenches.
The sun dips below the trees and the cemetery is covered in deepening ink blue shadows. Stiles is shifting from foot to foot, still twirling the bo and whistling. Derek hears the ghouls a moment before he sees the first head come out of the collapsed arch of the mausoleum. The smell of rotting flesh permeates the area.
The face is humanoid, its skin grey and stretched across sunken cheeks. They may have looked like humans once, but now they move on all fours with bowed spines and rotting fangs. Stiles takes two steps back and whacks the bo on the ground a couple times when the fifth ghoul comes out of the ground.
“You guys are uglier than I thought you’d be, to be honest.” Stiles continues making small steps back. “I feel like I should be honest.” He has the attention of all five creatures now. “I’m only the bait. I’m sure I’m absolutely delicious so, if you could just follow me a bit and let my friends surround you, that would be great.”
The ghouls move faster towards Stiles and Stiles picks up his pace, leading the ghouls away from their tunnels underground. Erica steps behind the ghouls once they are clear of the mausoleum to cut off their escape. Isaac, Boyd, and Derek complete the circle. Stiles keeps the ghouls focused on him while the wolves move with them and close the circle. Stiles keeps talking and Derek keeps his focus divided between the ghouls and Stiles, ready for when the ghouls get tired of following and decide to pounce.
The first ghoul, the largest and oldest of the bunch, is the closest to Stiles and he starts a guttural broken growl that the others pick up. The first ghoul drops to the ground, then launches himself at Stiles. Derek feels a moment of fear that Stiles won’t be able to get his bo up, but Stiles is fast and he catches the ghoul across the head. Derek and the wolves leap into action.
Derek goes for the ghoul shaking his head from Stiles’s blow. He leaps onto the creature’s back, pressing it into the ground. Derek grabs the head and wrenches it to the side, ripping it from neck, and tosses it to the side. Derek twists around to check on everyone else and locate Stiles.
Isaac is backed against a stone wall by two of the ghouls. Stiles is behind the ghouls and runs at them, plunging his bo into the back of one of their heads. Derek sprints across the grass, trying to reach them in time, but he need not have bothered. Stiles yanks the bo from the first ghoul, takes the feet out from under it, puts his boot on the ghoul’s chest, and plunges the bo through the ghoul’s neck, pinning it to the ground. Isaac rips the head off the first ghoul.
Derek skids to a halt beside Stiles, whose eyes are sparking with fury as he yanks the bo from the ghoul. Derek leans over and rips the head from the ghoul’s body.
Stiles pushes him on the shoulder. “What the hell, Derek?”
“You’re welcome for the assist.” Derek wipes the black ghouls blood from his hands onto the grass.
Stiles takes a step into Derek’s space the moment Derek stands back up. “I was fine. I had that ghoul handled. You left Isaac alone to deal with two ghouls on his own.”
“I was trying to protect you.” Derek leans into Stiles, anger rising.
Stiles taps the side of his bo against Derek’s forehead. “I don’t need protection. I’ve lasted this long without you and you left your beta vulnerable.” Stiles’s voice is hard.
A rush of emotions fills Derek. Stiles is gloriously angry and, even though his anger is directed at Derek, Stiles is furious because Isaac was vulnerable. Stiles was protecting the beta in the same way Derek should have and the realization almost drops Derek to his knees. Stiles cares enough about the Pack to put his life in front of them.
Derek grabs Stiles by the shoulders. “I’m sorry.”
Stiles deflates. “I know, but apologize to Isaac too.”
Derek steps around Stiles and runs his hand over Isaac’s neck. “You all right?”
“Good.” Derek locates Boyd and Erica who are busy dragging the bodies into a pile. “You two all right?”
“As rain,” Boyd says.
Stiles is still staring Derek down, though with less heat. Derek takes Stiles’s hand in his own. “I let my feelings get in the way of the plan. I’m sorry. Next time, I’ll let the monster eat you.”
Stiles closes the space between them, grabs a handful of Derek’s hair, and crashes their lips together. When Stiles releases him, Stiles winks at him. “See that you do.”
The journey from their camp near Birchford back to the Hale estate takes almost a week. Stiles’s nerves jangle the entire way, both from how much he wants to drag Derek into the woods for some alone time and because Derek is taking him to his house. The house he built for his Pack, a Pack that Stiles desperately wants to be a part of. The longer Stiles spends with Derek and the betas, the more certain Stiles becomes that the place he most wants to be is with Derek.
Stiles can feel the barrier of the Hale territory when they cross into it. The wolves all relax almost completely and even Boyd smiles when they turn onto a wide, worn drive. Erica whoops and kicks her horse into a gallop. Isaac laughs and follows her. Stiles resists the urge to follow them. The first time he sees the Hale House, he wants Derek to be by his side.
The path is shaded by majestic trees and the history of the land whispers to Stiles. The path through the trees goes up a hill and the sun is pouring onto the lane from the open sky. Anticipation is a buzz under his skin as Stiles moves his horse closer to Derek’s. They get to the top of the hill and the sight steals his breath.
The lane meanders through open hils, between which a large three gabled house, deeper than it is long, made of local stone and wood, sits nestled like it sprung from the earth itself then grew into something larger than life. The house is surrounded by a stone wall on all sides, with a second lower wall closer to the house. An arched, elaborate iron fence is open in the second wall.
Stiles closes his mouth and turns to look at Derek, who is watching him intently. Stiles knows what it means that Derek, a werewolf, has brought him home, to his den. It means he cares for and trusts Stiles and now is waiting for him to say something about the house that belongs to his Pack.
“Some people might call this a castle.”
Derek snorts. “It’s a house.”
Stiles points in the direction of the mansion. “It has not one but two defensive walls.”
“I’d hardly call the garden wall defensive.” Derek’s mouth is turned up but his eyebrows are still pointed down.
Stiles makes a noncommittal noise and nudges his horse on.
Derek catches up to him. “Do you like it though?”
Stiles puts the poor man out of his misery. “It’s beautiful. Thank you for bringing me to your home.”
The smile Derek gives Stiles is blinding, and Stiles has to remind his lungs to work. If Derek smiled like that all the time, Stiles is convinced he’d go mad or blind or both. Stiles soaks it in, then urges his horse forward, eager to see the inside of the house.
By the time Derek and Stiles go through the gate in the lower wall, there are a handful of servants in the front of the house being hugged by Boyd, Isaac, and Erica. Derek swings off his horse and hugs the boy he hands the reins to. Stiles gets off his own horse and watches Derek as he greets each servant. Up close, Stiles can see that they all resemble each other. It makes sense that a Pack would have a dedicated family working for them. It’s easier to keep a secret that way.
Derek turns to Stiles. “This is Stiles Stilinski. He’ll be staying with us. He should be treated like Pack and can be trusted.”
Stiles doesn’t react to Derek’s declaration, which is both encouraging and discouraging at the same time. Treated like Pack and being Pack were different things. They come forward one at a time. An older couple, Joyce and Neville, and their four children of varying ages, two older boys, Jacob and Alex, a girl named Patrice, and the youngest, a boy named Felix.
Stiles bows to them. “Nice to meet all of you.”
Derek takes his hand. “Come, I want to show you around.”
Derek tugs on Stiles’s hand and Stiles follows him, of course he does. The entryway is filled with tapestries and is lit from light spilling in from the windowed rooms that open on either side. Stiles expects an actual tour, but Derek drags him straight up the large, winding staircase at the back of the entry. They go past the second landing and up to the third. The carpet under their feet is thick and they make no sound as Derek leads them down the hallways on the third floor.
Stiles feels like he’s being pulled by gravity, that the forward motion to Derek is inevitable. When they go through the door at the end of the hall, Derek slams the door behind Stiles, then he’s crowding Stiles against the door. Derek drops Stiles’s hand and lays his hands on either side of Stiles’s head before Derek closes the space between them for a searing kiss.
The kiss is possessive and Stiles reaches around to grab a fistful of Derek’s hair to angle his head to get deeper into the other man’s mouth. Stiles uses his other hand to wrap around Derek’s waist and press their bodies together. Stiles can feel Derek’s hard length and Stiles’s hips jerk, body aching.
Derek kisses and nips his way down Stiles’s neck. “I’ve wanted so badly to see you here, in my room. For weeks, I’ve imagined it.”
“I’m not usually the voice of reason here, but isn’t there a houseful of people who will know exactly what we’re doing up here?”
Derek bites down on the space between Stiles’s neck and shoulder and his legs threaten to give out as the slight pain and pressure go straight to his cock. “The room’s soundproofed.”
Stiles grabs a handful of Derek’s ass. “I’m fairly certain they won’t have to hear us to know why you dragged me up here.”
“I don’t care.”
Stiles is done being reasonable. He’s been waiting for this too. “Good enough for me.”
Derek knows he should have the patience to wait until nightfall, at least until after dinner when they could leave politely, but he’d seen Stiles’s face as Stiles saw the Hale House for the first time. He had smelled the pleasure Stiles felt at being here in this place that belonged to Derek’s Pack and that had tipped him over. He wanted Stiles. He wanted Stiles open and begging, spread across Derek’s bed like he belongs there, because Derek wants Stiles there always. Derek’s wolf needs Stiles and Derek isn’t about to say no. Not this time.
Derek drops to his knees in front of Stiles. He unbuckles Stiles’s belt, dropping it and the pouch it holds to the floor, unbuttons the front of Stiles’s pants, and pulls them down just far enough to free Stiles’s cock. Derek wraps his fingers around Stiles and licks the precome from the end. Stiles’s shivers and his head thunks back against the door while he threads his fingers through Derek’s hair.
Derek takes his time, licking, then sliding his mouth over Stiles. Stiles’s hands are scratching at Derek’s scalp, pain and pleasure sending electric currents from the crown of his head and melting through the rest of his body. Derek’s hands are wrapped around Stiles’s thighs and he can feel the muscles clenching beneath his palms. He brings Stiles to the edge then releases him and stands.
“Will you come to bed with me?”
Stiles’s eyes are glassy and his cheeks are flushed. “Are you going to finish what you started?”
Derek waggles his eyebrows at Stiles. “Take off your clothes and find out.”
It’s a race to see who can get out of their clothes first and they fall laughing onto the bed. Derek covers Stiles’s smiling mouth with his own and swallows down the mirth bubbling out of the other man. Stiles is warm and his hands are everywhere. When he wraps his long fingers around Derek’s cock, Derek’s hips jerk into them. Derek flips Stiles over on his back and covers Stiles with his body. Stiles’s hips jerk up and Derek smacks Stiles’s hip.
“So impatient.” Derek bites Stiles’s shoulder.
Stiles shudders. “Stop teasing me.”
Derek reaches into the drawer next to the bed and pulls out a vial of oil. He covers his fingers and eases the first one into Stiles. “Gods, I’ve missed the feel of you.”
Stiles pushes back into Derek’s finger. “Another. I need you.”
Derek is just as impatient and it isn’t long before Derek has three fingers in Stiles and Stiles is begging incoherently. Derek pulls out his fingers and Stiles whines.
“Shhh, I’ve got you.” Derek quickly rubs some oil on himself then bumps his leaking head on Stiles rim.
“You’re killing me.” Stiles turns, grabs Derek’s arms.
Stiles is stronger than Derek thinks possible as he flips Derek and maneuvers them until Derek is flat on his back and Stiles is kneeling over him with his back to Derek. Stiles grabs Derek’s slippery cock and with no other warning, impales himself on Derek’s length. Stiles hisses and all the air leaves Derek’s body.
Stiles moves, lifting up then driving down on Derek. His right hand is clenched in a fist, digging into his thigh. His left hand is on Derek to steady his movement. “Gods, I could do this all day. I love… the way you fill me up.”
Derek grabs Stiles’s hip with his left hand and lays his palm flat between Stiles’s shoulder blades. Stiles sets a relentless pace that’s going to take both of them to the edge quickly and Derek doesn’t care. He knows they can do this again tonight, tomorrow, and every day after that if they want to because he is never letting this beautiful man go.
Stiles cries out and Derek feels him clench down on him and Derek thrusts up, chasing his own orgasm that punches through him. Stiles rocks them slowly through the aftershocks, then eases himself off Derek. He turns to look at Derek and Derek’s breath catches.
Stiles’s eyes are wide and soft. He reaches a hand out and cups the side of Derek’s face. Stiles’s hand feels warm and Derek pushes into the touch.
“Thank you for bringing me to your home.”
Derek turns his head and places a kiss in the middle of Stiles’s palm. “I want this to be your home too.”
Stiles swallows and his eyes fill. The tears spill over, then Stiles blinks and he smiles. “I’d like that.”
Derek yanks Stiles down by his arm and kisses him thoroughly. They miss dinner and slink down to the kitchen after midnight, laughing and stealing kisses in the dark. Derek never wants this to end.
It has been three weeks since Stiles came to Hale House and everything is perfect. Stiles fits right into the rhythm of the Pack and he feels at home in a way he never has anywhere else. Every day he becomes more and more attached to the place and the people and every day he is more and more aware that he can’t keep his secret a secret forever. It’s not only because he wants badly to claim Derek, to mark him as his own, or that Stiles knows without a doubt that regardless of what happens, Derek is his mate and he’ll love him until he’s nothing but dust and bones. Stiles knows he can’t keep his secret forever because keeping it is starting to bleed him dry.
It’s a full moon and Stiles is staring at the painting that sits over the fireplace in the large sitting room where they often spend the evening reading and drinking after dinner. The picture is of a shikari in full armor fighting a black dragon, breathing fire with wings spread.
Derek comes up behind him, wrapping his arms around Stiles’s waist and resting his chin on Stiles’s shoulder. “The Pack is ready to run. Are you going to come outside?”
Stiles nods. “Isaac told me that’s your father in the picture. Did you ever hunt with him?”
“There were very few dragons left, even when I was young. I never hunted with my father, but he taught me everything he knew.” Derek’s voice is full of pride.
Stiles closes his eyes and pulls up extra magic to cover the emotions boiling in him. “Did you ever kill a dragon?”
“I killed the dragon that set fire to my house and burned my family.”
Stiles startles. “I thought you said it was the Argents.”
Derek huffs out a breath and Stiles can feel the warm air on his neck. “It was but they used a dragon to start the fire. I found out later that the Argents had stolen the dragon’s hoard and forced it to do it. It killed my family for money.” Derek’s voice is rough with grief and derision. Stiles can’t speak and Derek continues. “After I killed the dragon, I found the hoard the dragon was hiding. It was just a bunch of worthless junk.”
Stiles feels the weight of his own hoard, a necklace with two rings and a pouch full of trinkets and bits of nothing, and he knows what that dragon was fighting for. Memories. A connection to things lost and people loved. “A dragon’s hoard is very rarely gold or money. A hoard is a collection of wealth and a dragon values family and connections above all else. Their hoard usually consists of things that remind them of people they care about.”
Derek shifts to the side so he can look at Stiles. “How would you know that? I have rows of books in the library about dragons and none of them say that.”
Stiles shrugs. “My parents were experts on dragons. They told me.” Stiles lifts Derek’s hand to his lips. “I’ll be outside shortly.”
Stiles stays there, staring at the picture that encapsulates all the reasons why he will never be able to stay here forever, until he can hear the Pack outside, the family he wants but that he will have to let go. The realization rubs him raw.
Stiles goes out the back door of the house and through the garden. The gardens closest to the house are full of useful things like herbs, vegetables, and fruit. There’s an orchard to the east of the house. Derek showed it to him yesterday and they had ended up naked beneath an apple tree. Stiles passes the kitchen gardens and starts through the ones that are wild, full of bushes, flowers, and roses in a hodgepodge that should be chaotic, but is beautiful and wild.
There’s a table on the edge of the garden, next to a gate that’s nestled into the stone wall. Derek, Isaac, Boyd, and Erica are sitting at the table in the darkness, the area lit by a lantern. Spread over the table are cheeses, bread, slices of meat, and pints of strong brown ale. Derek’s eyes meet his and Stiles lets himself be pulled forward.
Derek kisses him on the cheek as he sits next to him. Stiles leans into Derek and rests his head on Derek’s shoulder. The wolves are going running and Stiles is going to sit outside and enjoy the night.
“I wish you could go with us,” Isaac says.
The pain between his shoulder blades is sharp and Stiles jerks with it, then rolls his shoulders to try to play off the movement. “Well, I’m not a wolf, so I’ll stay here and try not to drink all the ale before you get back.”
Stiles watches as they stand and strip out of their clothing, folding it into neat piles and laying them on the benches where they’d been sitting. Dragons can spell certain things to stretch and change with them, but it takes a lot of energy. The only thing Stiles ever bothers with is the necklace with his parent’s rings. Wolves don’t have magic the same way dragons do and they ruin clothes if they keep them on during the shift.
Boyd shifts into a deep red wolf with cream accents over his shoulders. Erica’s wolf is almost completely white with grey socks and face. Isaac is more traditionally colored, grey and white. Derek shifts, an impossibly large black wolf with shining red eyes. The black wolf rubs against Stiles’s legs. Stiles runs a trembling hand through the soft fur at Derek’s neck.
Stiles kneels down. “I’ll be waiting for you.” I love you. The words are roaring through his head.
Derek swipes his wolf tongue along Stiles’s cheek then darts through the gate. The betas follow Derek and the wolves melt into the trees. They howl into the night, calling to each other, barking, and telling the world, this land is ours and we are here, under the moon and stars.
Stiles’s entire body is shaking. His dragon is so close to the surface and all it can think is that his mate is out in the woods and he should be with him, flying over the trees and roaring in sync with wolf howls, telling all within hearing that this land is his too and this Pack belongs to him, to fight for with tooth and claw and fire. To roar and proclaim that his heart belongs to an Alpha wolf.
Stiles drops to his knees and digs his hands into the dirt. His fingers are elongating and his nails are claws, tearing up the earth. Fire and red scales lick up Stiles’s arms and he trembles, trying to breathe and fight back the shift. He can’t change. He can’t keep this secret forever, but he’s not ready to lose this Pack that is his, to leave his mate. He needs more time. The pain of the delayed shift under the light of the full moon is like fire raging through every nerve ending. His eyes water and it’s several minutes before he regains his control over the dragon, beating it back with sheer will and desperation.
By the time the wolves return, Stiles is sitting quietly, exhausted and sipping ale. They are exuberant and Stiles smiles at them, kisses Derek, and is thankful for what he has.
Derek has the wolves patrol the woods surrounding the house, they call their territory the Preserve, once a day. They switch off the job and Stiles is added to the rotation. Stiles likes the walks through the Preserve. The woods are old and their history is palpable in the green shadows the trees cast onto the forest floor. Stiles is walking through the forest with Isaac, jogging along the northern border when they find the camp.
The coals are still warm, though barely, and everything else has been cleaned up and moved. Whoever was here, left that morning. They follow the tracks leading south, towards the house, and then lose the trail after it crosses a stream. They search for another hour along both banks, trying to find the place where whoever had made the camp left the water, but they never find it. There’s a churning in Stiles’s gut. There’s something about this that pinches the back of his awareness and it’s more than just having strangers in his territory.
Stiles smiles to himself at being so possessive of the Preserve. “We need to go back and tell Derek what we found.”
Isaac nods and they head home.
Derek, Boyd, and Erica are out training in the back of the garden. Derek stops when Stiles and Isaac come through the gate. “What happened?”
“We found a camp. Looks like at least fifteen people camped along the northern border then came south. We lost their trail in a creek. It might be nothing.”
“You don’t think it’s nothing.”
Stiles shakes his head. “Something doesn’t feel right.”
Derek nods. “Let’s go inside, get some food and make some plans.”
Erica grabs one of the red flags they use for training and wraps it around Stiles’s neck. They usually tie them on their clothing and try to steal them off each other. Erica ties a jaunty knot in the flag and laughs.
“I wonder if Derek will enjoy chasing you to get this off you.” She busses him on the cheek.
Stiles laughs. “He doesn’t need encouragement to chase me.”
“Oh, I know.” Erica snickers and Stiles links arms with her as they go inside.
Even though the situation is serious, there isn’t anyone else he’d rather be with. This Pack is his family. Stiles can feel them in his bones. It makes it even harder to know that he’s keeping something from them and that if they knew, they’d no longer want him. Stiles quickly swallows the grief that threatens. If he never tells them, he can have this forever.
The night passes without incident. They patrol close to the house together, slowly going out in ever widening circles, but there’s no evidence of anyone in their territory. After three days of nothing, they start to relax.
Stiles is reading the small book from his pouch in the study one afternoon when Isaac flops down on the couch across from him. Boyd is reading in a low voice to Erica on the window bench across the room and Derek is working on the estate ledgers in the corner.
“What are you reading?” Isaac asks.
Stiles hesitates, but there’s no reason not to answer. “It’s a book that Melissa McCall, the woman who raised me, wrote for me. My parents knew a lot about dragons and Melissa wrote everything she could remember in this book along with things like that my mom’s favorite cookies were snickerdoodles.”
“You always keep it in that pouch.” Isaac points to the soft leather pouch at Stiles waist.
Stiles nods, tense. The pouch contains his hoard and it’s been a long time since anyone asked about it. “It’s where I keep things that are important to me.”
“Will you show me what’s in it?” Isaac’s eyes are guileless and honest.
It’s the closest Stiles will probably ever come to revealing himself. He bites his top lip and nods. Stiles reaches into the pouch and pulls out the things one by one. “This is a wooden wolf that Scott made for me when he was learning to carve. It’s feet aren’t even so it won’t stand up but I love it. This is an arrowhead that Allison gave me. She is the best archer I’ve ever met.” Stiles pulls out the red flag Erica gave him a few days ago.
“Erica gave that to you,” Isaac says.
Stiles nods and pulls out the coin Isaac gave him after they sang together. “This coin reminds me of you.”
Isaac sighs and wraps his hand around Stiles’s wrist. Stiles smiles at the beta and keeps pulling out things. A piece of black stone from Theo, a braided strip of leather from Liam, and then he reveals the last item, a button. It’s silver with a wolf in motion.
Derek is no longer scratching across the ledgers. He’s watching and listening to Stiles and Isaac. He stands when he sees the last item. “I’ve been missing that.”
Stiles wraps it in his fist, scared Derek is going to take it. It’s his now, the most precious thing he owns. “It fell off your cloak the second night after we met.”
Derek walks over to where Stiles is sitting and Stiles has to work to cloak the stench of fear he’s emitting at the thought of Derek taking the button from him or figuring out that this odd collection of items is a dragon’s hoard.
Derek places his hand on the nape of Stiles’s neck. “You look worried, like I’m about to steal it from you. It’s just a button. You can keep it. It obviously has meaning to you and I can live without it.”
Stiles relaxes. It’s so much more than a button. It’s a physical reminder that Derek is his and that Stiles’s soul belongs to a wolf. Stiles puts the items back into his pouch. When he finds his voice, he says, “I’m not always with the people I care about. These things help me remember them.”
That night, one by one, the betas sneak into Derek and Stiles’s bed and they sleep with their hands and bodies pressed close. The next day, everything falls apart.
They’re all out beyond the far wall, playing a game that Stiles taught to the wolves, freeze tag. They are laughing and yelling and Stiles thinks that’s the reason they don’t hear the hunters until they’re coming out of the trees. There’s a pop in the air as a cloaking spell falls and Stiles hears the bowstrings being pulled back. Arrows slice through the air and towards each of the wolves and Stiles yells but it’s too late.
None of the wolves are mortally wounded but Stiles can see black smoke coming from the wounds and he can smell it. Wolfsbane. The betas move to Derek’s side, but Stiles is cut off from the pack. There are ten hunters in between Stiles and Derek. Derek is half shifted, claws out, and red eyes on Stiles.
Stiles starts to run toward the Pack, ready to plow through the humans, but two sets of hands grab him. Stiles struggles.
“Stop struggling. We’re here to help you. You shouldn’t have to live with these animals.” A hard voice says over his shoulder.
Stiles struggles and a third hunter pushes him to his knees. Stiles has to swallow the bile in his throat. The circle of hunters is closing in on the weakened wolves. Derek and the betas might win, but they are grossly outnumbered and the cost of winning will be high.
Derek advances on the closest hunter and opens the man's throat with his claws. Another arrow thunks into his gut and the archer laughs. Stiles turns to look at the woman and her face is gleeful. His stomach flips. They aren’t going to simply kill the wolves, they’re going to torture them first, make their deaths as long and painful as possible.
Stiles stops struggling and meets Derek’s gaze around the hunters. Derek must know he means to do something. “Stiles, whatever you’re thinking, don’t do it. They’ll let you go.”
“That would be a mistake because I will hunt them down and burn them to ash. There will be nothing left to bury and the wind will carry them to their graves.” Stiles’s voice is fire and he can feel his eyes changing. He looks at Isaac, Boyd, and Erica. He wants to remember them before they won’t look at him at all. Stiles’s eyes rest on Derek. “I’m sorry I never told you I love you before this.”
“Stiles, what…” Derek never finishes whatever he’s going to say because Stiles lets everything go and the shift roars through him, filling the air with one very pissed off dragon.
Stiles snaps the heads off the three hunters holding him. Every hunter is now focused on the large red dragon and away from the wolves. Stiles doesn’t dare check on Derek. Stiles roars and incinerates five hunters with dragon fire, careful to keep the wolves out of the path of the flame. Stiles rips, shreds, and bites his way through the rest of the hunters that dared to hurt his Pack and his mate. There is blood dripping from his fangs when the last falls beneath him and he lifts his head and roars into the sky.
Stiles turns to Derek. The dragon is pleased at how well he’s defended his Pack and he wants to see his mate and what he thinks of this form. The dragon spreads his wings and leans his head down so that it can look at Derek.
Derek and the betas are pressed with their backs against the stone wall. Derek’s face is pale and his hazel eyes are wide with fear. Stiles sniffs the air and can smell the acrid terror coming from them, but there’s another smell, heavy and pungent. Disgust. The dragon recoils, not understanding and Stiles takes a breath and shifts back to his human form.
Derek doesn’t move. Stiles takes a step forward. “I can explain.”
Stiles lifts a hand to touch Derek’s arm and the other man shrinks away from Stiles, the scent of anger and disgust growing. “Don’t. Touch. Me.”
It feels like someone took an axe and split open his chest. “Please, Derek. I couldn’t tell you. Please. It’s still me.”
“I can’t believe - I took you to my bed. I brought you to my home. My wolf wanted you for its mate.”
“I can still be that,” Stiles’s voice is a whisper.
Derek shakes his head. “No, no you can’t be. Leave.”
“Derek,” Stiles tries to touch him again, desperation and despair ripping what is left of him to shreds.
“Leave, or I’ll hunt you down myself.”
Stiles can feel tears on his cheeks, but he’s not sure when he started crying. He takes a step backwards, his eyes never leaving Derek. This is the last time he’ll see Derek and the other man’s face is twisted with hate. It’s too much and Stiles lets the dragon back out. The shift hurts this time. Everything hurts.
Stiles wraps a claw around the small pouch that fell to the side with his ruined clothes after the first time he shifted. He turns around one more time, looks at the three betas and Derek, then launches himself into the air. He roars his despair into the clouds and flies away.
They don’t ask him why he shows up in the middle of the day, still in dragon form, and so exhausted he crashes into the eastern field. Stiles shifts back into his human form long enough to hug everyone and eat the food Melissa forces into him. He sleeps for three days.
When Stiles wakes up in the bed he grew up in, he can feel his connection to Derek like a knife. Stiles gets up, takes his pouch with him and walks out of the house. Scott sees him and runs toward him.
“Stiles, you’re up.”
“I’m going to the cave.” Stiles’s voice is rough with disuse.
“Let me grab a bag and I’ll come.” Scott starts to walk to the house.
Stiles shakes his head. “No, I’m going alone.”
“You shouldn’t be alone. We don’t even know how this will affect you.” Scott’s hand is on his arm.
“It doesn’t matter. Nothing does now.” Stiles shakes off Scott’s hand.
Scott grabs his arm again and squeezes it painfully. “This isn’t like you.” Scott’s brown eyes harden. “Fine, I’ll let you go mope, but I’m not letting you stay up there forever.”
“Do what you have to then.” Stiles walks away.
The cave is hidden in a hill. They’d discovered it when they were kids and because it was big enough to accommodate Stiles’s dragon, they’d spent many afternoons in it. He would shift and Scott would clamber all over him.
Stiles steps into the cool darkness, takes off his clothes with fingers that feel numb, and keeps playing his last conversation with Derek on a loop. His mate was disgusted by his dragon. Grief is a weight that presses down into Stiles as he shifts and curls up, nose tucked under his tail. He can sleep here and forget the mess he’s made of his life.
Derek helps the betas move the bodies of the hunters into a pile. He doesn’t miss Boyd’s inability to meet his gaze, the smell of grief that wafts from Isaac, or the hot glares of anger Erica spears him with as they work. Derek ignores it. He ignores everything except each small task. Lift a body. Carry it to the pile. Throw it on. Repeat. In this repetition, there’s no room for horror or grief. It takes hours to burn the bodies. Before the fire burns out, Derek throws the clothes Stiles left on the ground into the fire.
When Derek stumbles to the house, covered in soot and worn thin, he stops in the doorway of his room, the room he shared with Stiles. It still smells like them, tangled together and laughing in the sheets. Derek turns away and goes into an empty guestroom instead, collapsing on the bed without bothering to clean up first.
Derek sleeps until mid morning the next day, gets cleaned up, and goes into his room for a new set of clothes. Everything he pulls out of his drawer still smells like Stiles. Derek’s hands shake so bad he has to stop looking and fists his hands against his forehead.
He is hollow, scooped out and without meaning.
There is nothing left but the way Stiles looked when Derek sent him away.
Stiles lied to him for months, had acted like he cared for Derek and wanted to stay here, when all along he was lying about who and what he was. Derek slams his hands into the dresser and the wood cracks. Derek does it again untilt the top of the dresser splits. It feels good so Derek keeps doing it, until his hands leave bloody prints on the wood as he rips it apart.
Derek walks out of the room and locks the door behind him, opens a window in the hallway, and tosses the key out into the garden. He goes into Boyd and Erica’s room and takes a pair of trousers and a shirt from Boyd’s drawers. They are a little wide in the shoulders but they will have to do.
He finds the betas in the study, curled in front of the fireplace. Derek takes one step into the room, then is overcome by the smell of grief that hangs in the air. Isaac looks up at him expectantly, but Derek can’t walk any farther into the room. He shrinks out of the room and ends up in Isaac’s bed, curled up and miserable. At some point in the night, Boyd, Erica, and Isaac come up to the room and join him. Derek wakes up often in the night and panics when he can’t find Stiles, then he remembers and he can taste the anger and betrayal on his tongue.
The days progress, though Derek is hard pressed to recall anything he did when the day is over. He moves into Isaac’s room and, most nights, the entire pack sleeps with him there. Sometimes, when he walks into a room, a whispered conversation will cease. Once, he caught Erica and Boyd having an argument outside. He went out to see what it was about, but Erica took one look at him and walked into the woods leaving the scent of anger and grief in her wake.
Derek does not get used to the mourning that permeates the house and he feels more and more that one day he will wake up and be worn down to nothing, so thin that he will disappear. His wolf is almost unreachable, buried deep, and unable to understand why their mate has left them alone and fading.
The summer comes to a close and the leaves turn. One morning, Derek wakes up and there’s hoarfrost on the window.
Erica corners him in the library. “It’s been long enough. It’s time to go bring Stiles home.”
Derek jerks at that name he does not even allow himself to think, let alone say out loud. Mentioned or not, his heart still beats to the memory of his mate and what he’s lost.
He’s sitting in the bench window and Erica sits across from him. “You’ve pouted long enough. Go bring him home.”
“He lied to me.”
“He saved your life, you asshole. He saves all our lives.” Erica crosses her arms over her chest and raises an eyebrow at him. “You’re a coward.”
“He’s a dragon . Shikari kill dragons. We don’t welcome them into our beds. He’s a monster.”
“Who cares what he is. You love him and he loves you.”
Derek turns away from her. “I can’t.”
Erica stands up and, instead of being angry, her shoulders drop and she frowns. “The only monster here is you.”
Derek flashes his red eyes at her. “Get out.”
He doesn’t leave the library for two days.
Erica comes in again. This time she shakes out her claws and swipes them across Derek, leaving deep wounds in his chest.
Derek springs from the window bench, half shifted and growls. “What the hell?”
Erica swipes her claws at Derek again, but he ducks out of the way and grabs her wrist. He yanks on her arm, trying to unbalance her. She swipes his legs out from under him. Derek rolls to the side before Erica can claw him again. Her eyes are shining gold.
“You’ve moped about long enough. Bring Stiles home. Go grovel, apologize, or whatever you have to do, but bring your mate home.”
Erica pounces onto him and tries to get her claws around his throat, but Derek flips them and pins her to the ground. “No.”
Erica stops moving. “Please.” Her eyes stop glowing and then fill with tears. “Please.”
Derek lets her go and falls back on his ass. “I can’t.”
Derek draws in a shaking breath. “He’ll never forgive me now. I can’t. He’s probably fine, better without me.”
Erica sits up. “You know that’s not true.”
“Why does it matter to you?” Derek’s chest is healed where Erica clawed him, but his heart aches.
“He was our Pack member too. You weren’t the only one that loved him and you aren’t the only one that misses him.” Erica’s chin trembles.
Derek crawls over to her and gathers her in his arms. “I’m scared to go.” He whispers into her hair.
“I know, but you can’t keep living like this. We need our Alpha and we need Stiles back.”
Erica buries her face in his chest and Derek runs a hand down her spine. It’s been a long time since he consciously touched and comforted his betas. He’s been a terrible Alpha and an even worse mate.
“All right.” Derek closes his eyes.
Erica doesn’t say anything. They stay curled around each other in the study for another hour before Boyd and Isaac find them.
Derek leaves the next day. He wants to go alone, not wanting the betas to see what is left of him if he can’t get Stiles to forgive him. The betas won’t hear of being left. To Derek’s surprise, it’s Isaac that pushes the hardest and Derek can’t find it in the ruin of his heart to refuse.
They head south and Derek wishes he had hope, but he knows he hurt Stiles too much to be forgiven. He’s only going and trying because Erica will not give him a moment’s peace unless he does. The closer they get to the McCall’s farm, the more Derek feels like everything is closing in on him.
Scott sees them before they reach the house and walks out to greet them. “You’re not welcome here.”
Derek expected this reception. “I’m here to see Stiles.”
“He doesn’t want to see you.” Scott glares at Derek.
Allison comes up behind Scott and lays a hand on his arm. “Stiles should be the one to send him away. He deserves to know Derek was here, at least.” She looks up at Derek. “I’ll take you to him, but don’t expect much. He hasn’t spoken to us or moved in months.”
Months? “Where is he?” Derek can feel the anxiety clawing at his throat. What have I done?
Scott points to the betas. “You three have to stay here. I’ll take you to the house and feed you.”
Allison leads Derek north into the woods. Derek allows himself to open his awareness to Stiles, something he hasn’t allowed himself to do since Stiles flew off. The sound of the forlorn cry that ripped through the sky that day still rings in Derek's ears. He can’t feel anything past his own pain and isolation.
Allison stops next to a brook in a clearing. “There’s a cave a quarter of a mile up this hill. He’s in there.” Allison lays a hand on Derek’s arm. “You hurt him more than I’ve ever seen anyone hurt.” She pauses and presses her lips together before continuing. “You may not know this, but dragons mate for life. Regardless of what happens today, you’re it for him and I don’t know if he’ll survive you leaving again. He’s barely alive now. We weren’t exaggerating. He hasn’t moved in months.”
Derek’s heart twists in his chest and he walks up the hill wishing he could do anything except move forward, wishing he could erase the past and start over.
The mouth of the cave is easy to find and Derek would not have been able to miss it. He can smell Stiles before he sees the cave itself. That scent that has almost faded from his house is strong, citrus, woodsmoke, and an underlying scent that Derek had only caught rarely. He knows now that it was the dragon he smelled. Derek steps through the mouth of the cave and into darkness.
He blinks several times to let his eyes adjust. It looks like a shallow cave until he peers into the blackness and realizes the wall he thinks is the back wall of the cave is Stiles curled up. His breathing is slow, only two or three inhales per minute. The dragon doesn’t move as Derek approaches it. When he is standing next to the curved spine of the dragon, Derek places his palm on it and rests it there for a few heartbeats. He’s not sure what he expected when he found Stiles, but the reality of it is something else entirely.
Derek had a list of things to say to Stiles, had composed them on the journey south, but none of them are in his brain or on the tip of his tongue. All he can think as he feels the smooth scales beneath his fingertips is that up close, Stiles is beautiful. The red scales on his back almost glow with an internal fire and the black and grey areas radiate heat.
There is movement under his hand and Stiles’s head, which is the size of Derek’s body, lifts up and Stiles’s neck cranes as he bends to look at the intruder. The dragon blinks at him, then Derek can hear Stiles in his head, speaking.
“I know you aren’t real. I wish you’d leave me alone and let me die in peace.” Stiles’s voice, even in Derek’s head, is resigned and almost without inflection like it’s not worth putting effort into speaking.
“I’m real,” Derek says.
The body of the dragon heaves under Derek’s hand and slams itself against the back wall of the cave, shrinking away from Derek. The dragon hisses at Derek.
Derek holds his hands out, palm up. “I came to talk.”
The dragon’s eyes are large and glow like copper in the dark. It’s sides are moving rapidly as it breathes, and smoke starts coming out of its nostrils.
“How can I hear you?” Derek asks.
The dragon presses further into the cave wall, then slumps forward. “ You’re my life mate. I was always able to do this, but I can only do it in this form .”
Derek takes a tentative step forward. “I came to apologize for the way I reacted. I didn’t even give you a chance to explain. I reacted out of shock. I was angry that you’d lied to me and I don’t like being lied to. The last time someone I loved lied to me, they burned my family’s house down with my family inside.”
The dragon’s breathing slows and Stiles drops his head to look at Derek. Derek licks his lips and continues.
“I always knew there was something else about you, something different. I should have realized what that smell was that I could never get enough of a scent to identify it or that the pouch you kept with you was a dragon’s hoard and not just mementos from people you cared about.”
Derek takes another step forward and lays a hand on the side of the dragon’s face. The dragon trembles beneath his touch and leans into Derek’s palm. Stiles’s throat starts to vibrate and Derek chuckles.
“Are you purring?” Derek shakes his head. “I didn’t know dragons could purr.” He rubs his thumb over the black scales around Stiles’s mouth. “You’re gorgeous and fearsome in this form. I treated you badly. Please forgive me. I will come back every day for as long as it takes and I will apologize every day.”
The dragon stops purring and blinks at Derek, then Derek hears the dragon in his head again. “ Why would you do that? ”
“You’re my mate. I love you. I want to be wherever you are, even if you choose to stay in a cave. I don’t want to leave without you.”
“ You hurt me. You regretted loving me. ” The words get smaller at the end.
“I was hurt. I lashed out. I could never regret loving you. I regret not coming here to find you sooner.”
Stiles shakes and the dragon shrinks in size, then reforms as a man. The last thing to disappear are the colors of red and black scales from Stiles’s skin.
Stiles reaches out and cups Derek’s face. “Do you mean it?”
Derek nods. “I am yours and you are mine. I should never have doubted that and I will spend the rest of my life making it up to you, protecting you, and loving you. If you let me.”
Stiles throws himself into Derek’s arms and Derek tucks his face into Stiles’s neck. Derek is surrounded and overwhelmed by the feeling of Stiles holding him and his scent filling him. Stiles’s right hand is on his back and feels warm and getting warmer.
Stiles pulls back and looks at Derek. “I want to mark you, claim you. I’ve wanted to since the first night, but I never could. I would like to now, if you’re serious about this.”
Derek can’t agree fast enough. “Yes, anything. What do you have to do?”
Stiles raises his right hand in front of Derek’s face. There’s an outline of a dragon in flight on Stiles’s palm and it’s glowing. “I press this into your skin and it will mark you so that all others will know you belong to me.”
Derek’s wolf preens at this, at being chosen. “Where would you like to put it?”
“I can put it somewhere it will never be seen or a place that has meaning. I would like to place it on your chest, above your heart.” Stiles swallows and shifts his weight from one foot to the other.
Derek yanks his shirt over his head. “Yes, that’s perfect.”
Stiles doesn’t hesitate. He slams his hand down on Derek’s chest. Derek anticipates that it will hurt and braces himself. It doesn’t hurt at all, but it fills every nerve ending in Derek’s body pulsing with pleasure. Both of them drop to their knees and Stiles rests his forehead against Derek’s.
There’s a roaring in Derek’s ears and he can’t tell if it’s his own heart and blood or Stiles’s. “I want to mark you too. Can I?”
Stiles trembles against him. “Please.”
Derek’s gums hurt as his fangs drop and he sinks them into the place on Stiles’s neck where it meets his shoulder. He breaks skin and tastes Stiles’s blood, copper fire on his tongue. Derek releases Stiles and licks the wound clean even as he shakes with sensation. The only thing keeping them upright is where their bodies are touching - forehead to forehead, knees to knees, and hand to chest.
Stiles pulls back his hand eventually and they look at each other. The place on Derek’s chest where Stiles touched is black in the shape of a dragon with wings raised. There’s a reddish sheen to the mark and Derek wonders if it will look even more red in the sunlight. Stiles is beaming at him. There’s an outline of a bite, the color of blood on Stiles’s pale skin.
Derek reaches for Stiles and Stiles comes to him. Derek threads his fingers through Stiles’s hair. “Your hair is long.”
“I’ve been in here for a long time. I think.” Stiles tilts his head to the side. “What month is it?”
“It’s the month past harvest.”
Stiles jerks and his copper eyes get watery. “So long?”
Derek pulls Stiles closer and says, “I’m so very sorry, my love,” against Stiles’s lips.
Stiles pushes into him and Derek opens his mouth to Stiles when Stiles runs his tongue along the seam of Derek’s mouth. The kiss is gentle, as if they are relearning each other.
Stiles pulls back from the kiss and runs a thumb over Derek’s bottom lip. “Shh, no more apologies. Let’s start over. I’m Stiles. I’m a dragon and the last of my family. I love you and I’d like to come and live with you as long as I am breathing.”
“I’m an idiot Alpha wolf who was foolish enough to let his mate go and I’ve wasted months when we could have been happy together.”
Stiles chuckles and gives him a watery smile. “Let’s go home.”