Stiles glanced back over his shoulder as Derek trailed him into his room, looking uncertain. “Um, I do actually have studying to do. So…”
“So do it.”
“Right,” he responded, then nodded at himself. “Right.”
While Stiles opened his textbook and got settled in front of his computer, Derek scanned his bookshelf for something to read—something less academic than the last time. He slipped a novel called Mélusine off the shelf. The title was scrawled in a flourishing, elegant script, and the name suggested something foreign, although it didn’t translate into any language he knew: an enigma. After only a moment’s deliberation, he opted for the uncomfortable chair instead of stretching out on the bed. A serendipitous choice, as the trail of open folders and notebooks quickly spilled over from Stiles’s desk to cover the bed.
He kept, Derek couldn’t help but notice, moving. The talkative hands and spastic energy certainly hadn’t escaped him before, but he’d never had the time or opportunity to just watch Stiles existing without eminent danger or one of them nearly dead. He flipped through pages in a text, highlighting as he went, then stacked that book on another and spun away to type. As he was reading, he’d wheel back toward the bed to grab a folder, scrawling a note across it, then drop the whole thing and switch subjects, only to come back 10 minutes later.
And he always had something in his mouth—usually a pen, sometimes his nails—anything to keep his lips occupied. Derek felt a flutter in his chest, unbidden, and Stiles’s lips suddenly stopped their worrying. In a quick heat of panic, Derek flicked his gaze up, sure he’d been caught. But Stiles swiveled in his chair to type something, and Derek shifted his gaze away and tried to read.
At one point, Stiles looked up from the textbook in his lap and simply stared out the window perfectly still except for this blinking eyes. The utter lack of motion drew Derek’s attention from his book. Curious, Derek leaned forward to see if there was actually something out there to look at, but he couldn’t sense anything. He slowly eased back into the chair and absorbed the spectacle of Stiles being still.
He was still for a long time. Derek’s slight frown turned worried.
“Stiles?” he asked, his voice just a rumble.
Stiles flinched and turned toward him, tearing his eyes from the window. “Hm?”
Derek glanced him up and down, reading his heartbeat. “You okay?”
The question seemed to bring him into focus. “What? Yeah. Nothing.”
Derek lifted an eyebrow, but when Stiles turned away he decided not to press. They hadn’t talked much since he’d gotten back from Costa Rica. Derek had brought over the carved mask souvenir as he’d promised. He glanced over and saw it hanging on the wall near the head of the bed. They’d discussed the nightmares a little then, but if Stiles had had any new dreams, he hadn’t called or texted. The lie just now made him suspect that they hadn’t gone away. The Sheriff’s secret plea suddenly seemed less out of left field than it had earlier. He studied Stiles more closely for signs he might have missed and ran back through everything that’d happened since Stiles showed up at the apartment—his gestures, his sighs, the color of his skin.
Stiles spun around suddenly in his chair. “What?”
He flung his arms out in exasperation. “Do you wanna kill me or kiss me?”
Did he what? Confused, Derek tried to form a reply, but Stiles kept right on talking. “Because you’re staring at me, and I can feel you staring at me, so either make up your mind or—Oh my God!”
All the color had drained out of Stiles’s face as he saw the book in Derek’s hand. Stiles dove out of his chair and snatched the book away, making Derek lose his place.
“Hey!” Derek growled at him, but Stiles had gotten over being affected by that months ago.
“You do not—No.” His face flushed, and he turned away to put the book back where it came from.
Derek crossed his arms and glared. “I can’t read your books?”
“Not that book.”
“What’s wrong with that book?”
“I—” Stiles dropped himself back into his desk chair, and his face reddened further. “I don’t think you’d like it,” he finished quietly.
Since when did Stiles fancy himself an expert on that?
“And you didn’t answer my question.”
“Which was?” Derek asked.
“Why you keep staring at me.”
He averted his eyes. “I wasn’t.” Which made Stiles huff a laugh.
“Yeah, okay. And I’m fine, by the way.” Then he picked up his Physics text and began pointedly highlighting.
“Would you tell me if you weren’t?”
Stiles aggressively flipped a page.
Annoyed, Derek got up and paced to the window, scanning the darkness. He took a long, slow breath, scenting the air, on edge for a hint of lavender. He found only Stiles, coffee, and inked paper.
Doubt gripped in his chest. Maybe there was a reasonable explanation for everything he'd sensed. Maybe his imagination was making wild leaps. Maybe he should put less trust in the rhymes sung to little children.
It was too late to take it all back. Scott would've called everyone by now, and if it turned out to be nothing, second-guessing at this stage would be just one more brand marking him a fool.
Stiles started tapping his pencil against his notebook, and Derek stretched his senses outward to keep from focusing too much on the tap tap tap. He mapped the sounds of the house, Stiles's father downstairs, the episode of NCIS he was watching, the creaking of the pipes. Stretching further, he listened to the cars passing by outside, and the sound of the neighbors talking on the phone. Wind rustled the crisp, dying leaves.
That just made his gut twist more. Without a direction to face, everything felt exposed. Derek crossed his arms over his chest, an unconscious gesture to ward off vulnerability, meager shelter from the fear and helplessness. Behind it all, he felt the all too familiar sense that had he been better, he could have been spared.
The tapping stopped.
"Derek?" Stiles sounded cautious, and it made Derek open his eyes and seek out the younger man's reflection in the window pane. Stiles started to get up. "What's wrong, are they here?"
Derek shook his head. "No."
Stiles came to stand beside him anyway. "Would you know if they were?"
Derek sighed and looked at him. "I'm not even sure ifthey are."
"Yes you are." No hesitation.
Yes, he was. He tore his gaze away from the reflection and went back to looking out at the street.
"So?" Stiles asked.
"Would you know?"
"Maybe. I hope so."
Benoit’s only took reservations, and they only took cash. Not, in point of fact, because they were trying to dodge credit card fees, but because it kept demand down and the riff-raff out. Benoit’s had a dress code, a sommelier, and a strict cell phone policy. Lydia had given Aiden ample warning that this was where he was taking her for their 3 month anniversary, even though she wasn’t keeping track. She had already tried defining herself by the man she clung to and found it wanting. He could define himself by her, if he wanted. But she was not going to count the days and divide her life into passages of a man’s time.
She was, however, going to get taken to the most exclusive restaurant in town.
She was going to wear her hair up. And she was not going to care if anyone saw purple stains on pale skin. If Aiden got a few nasty looks? Well, he could be extra gentlemanly and extra kind, and it probably wouldn’t kill him.
“Mademoiselle,” the waiter inclined his head slightly toward Lydia.
She smiled up at him. “Monsieur.”
It made him dip his head approvingly. “Voulez-vous entendre les promos ?”
He made no attempt to speak slowly for her benefit, and Lydia gazed at him with interest, interlacing her slender fingers. “Oui,” she said like a kiss.
The waiter glanced at Aiden, whose face betrayed nothing. “Bonne.”
He described a set menu that included scallops with lemon caviar, lobster with white beans, porcini and honey, macaroni with black truffles and foie gras, chicken with autumn mushrooms, a cheese plate, and caramelized pear on a bed of meringue with chestnut cream.
Lydia ordered for them both and allowed the waiter to swap out the wine for sparkling water.
“Enjoying yourself?” Aiden asked, after the waiter had gone. He tried to hide a smile.
She leaned closer and parted her very red lips, pausing to make sure he glanced at them at least once. “Very much,” she said, and smiled in a way that promised that if he wasn’t, he soon would be.
Partway through the first course, Aiden shifted in his seat and ever so briefly looked down at his pocket. His phone, most likely. Lydia waited to see what he would do and smiled one of her actual smiles when he didn’t so much as reach for it. Wild things could be taught.
Two minutes later, it must have vibrated again. She could tell by the scowl that crossed his face. On the fourth attempt, Lydia set her glass down more forcefully than she intended.
“Just answer it,” she hissed, aware of the looks turning in their direction.
Aiden pulled his phone from his pocket and put it to his ear. At the scathing glare from their waiter, he slipped out of his chair and made his way to the front door.
“This had better be good,” he said as he passed into the cool night air, not even checking who the call was from.
“Aiden! Thank God,” Scott replied, his voice bursting with relief.
“Look, are you with Lydia? Because you need to stay with Lydia tonight.”
He craned to look back through the windows at her. “I was planning on it, if I live through this call.”
“Okay, listen. We think there’s something new in town, and they kill things like us.”
“Things like us.”
“And things like her,” Scott added. “So if you smell lavender or—”
A spike of cold shot down Aiden’s spine, and he turned away from Lydia. “Hekaloi?” The word slipped from him like a curse.
“I—you’ve heard of them.”
“Everyone’s—” He cut himself off, pinching the bridge of his nose, because no, everyone hadn’t—hadn’t hidden in the boiler room, pressing Ethan’s tears into their thin shoulder; Hadn’t run as far and fast through Nevada scrub as their small feet would carry them and begged their way into the bottom rung of the only wolf pack who’d have them.
“They’re here? You’re sure?” He could feel his pulse rising, heart thumping heavily in his chest.
“Positive? No. But I believe Derek, and I don’t think we should take any risks we don’t have to.”
Aiden glanced sideways at Lydia, who arched an eyebrow as she watched him. “No . . .” he said lowly. “Scott, they kill whole packs.”
“Well, not this one. Just . . . keep an eye on her. Don’t get killed.”
Aiden scowled and hung up. He tapped his phone against his hand in agitation and glanced up and down the street. Sweat started to form at the small of his back, and he took a breath to calm himself and steady his pounding heart before he went back inside. He mouthed apologies to the people sitting nearby and scooted his chair in closer to the table.
“So . . .was it worth interrupting an exquisite meal?” Lydia asked, her tone frosty.
Aiden sighed and looked her in the eye. “Actually, yes.”
His honesty seemed to catch her off guard, and the glass mask she’d been wearing since they’d arrived fell away. Her fingers reached unconsciously for her throat until she noticed the gesture and curled them away.
“What is it?” she asked. A bit of the fear she was trying not to show surfaced in her eyes. “Tell me.”
Aiden offered his hand, and she slid her palm onto his.
“Hekaloi,” he whispered, casting a glance over one shoulder as though the word alone could summon them. “They . . . collect ‘valuable’ things. Like us.”
“Collect. Like a zoo?”
He closed his eyes.
“Like . . . an apothecary.”
When he opened them again, Lydia’s own had grown wide. She sucked in a breath through parted lips and pulled away from him, stumbling to form a reply. A knot formed in Aiden’s stomach.
“Lydia. . .”
“The nemeton brought them,” she concluded, searching his face for confirmation.
“We brought them.”
He sighed. “Probably.”
She snapped her jaw shut and stared down at the chicken and black truffle macaroni on her plate. Aiden couldn’t decipher her silence—not quite angry, not as fearful it should have been. In the dim light, her eyes were like obsidian. She took a deep breath and then picked up her fork.
Aiden’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Lydia?”
She paused and regarded him from behind that cool, poised mask. “We’re paying for this meal either way.”
They finished the course in silence.
As the waiter came to remove their plates, Aiden let his senses unwind. The restaurant, hushed to human ears, bubbled into a kind of avant-garde symphony. He could hear the clink of silverware on plates, the wet sound of people chewing and swallowing, the clamor of pots in the kitchen. Hearts beat out a tribal dance. He took a moment to let his attention roam freely between each new addition. All at once it would have driven anyone mad, but they’d all learned how to shift their focus, singling out elements from the cacophony.
Smells, on the other hand, were much harder to ignore. Humans layered themselves in scents: shampoos, soaps, perfumes, all masking their own personal chemistry. Each one of those scents were themselves a blend of other scents—and so it spiraled. Opening that sense could be like walking into hurricane, allowing the world to make a physical assault. Aiden let it in, a headache instantly building behind his temples. One by one, he identified each of the other diners and staff around them and filtered out their scent, examining it, then forcing it into the background as his attention went elsewhere. If Lydia noticed him massaging his temples, she said nothing.
It was only when the waiter came to whisk away another set of empty plates that he smelled it: lavender and animal fat, and sickness and something that reminded of a morgue.
Aiden jolted upright. "Lydia, we have to go."
Her perfect eyebrows came together slightly and her lips parted to reply, then stopped, mouth hanging open. Her dark eyes focused on something just over Aiden's shoulder. He turned and found himself staring up at Peter Hale.
"Lydia," Peter said in that smooth, calm way of his. "You need to leave." A suggestion that was not a suggestion.
She snapped her jaw shut and lifted her chin. "I haven't had my dessert," she replied, each word crisp and hard.
Peter stepped closer, silencing some of the more snide diners with a look before softening his gaze toward Lydia. "I'm trying to help."
Aiden let a growl rumble in his throat, too low for humans to hear.
Lydia arched an eyebrow. "I don't believe you."
Peter's kind expression vanished. "Fine. You're valuable. You think he's worth something?" He gestured in Aiden's direction. "Alphas in this town are a dime a dozen. But you . . . you're one of a kind."
It almost sounded like a compliment.
"How did you—" Lydia started to ask, but both werewolves tensed and whipped their heads around at once.
Aiden hopped to his feet. "Lydia, get up." His tone barreled past her misgivings, and when he offered her his hand, she took it. They snatched up their things and hurried for the door. The waiter appeared in their way. "Monsieur. You have not paid the—"
Peter shoved a wad of money at him as he ushered the others out.
"Who is it? Can you see?" Lydia asked, her breath frosting in the cool air.
Aiden's head twitched a quick negative.
The bells were getting closer, the shrung shrung jangle faster, like running steps. "C'mon," Aiden tugged at her wrist. "Come on!"
They hurried down the block.
"I don't see anyone!"
Peter, close behind them, called, "You don't have to see—"
His voice cut off with a grunt, and Lydia spun to see him slam up against a brick building with the forearm of a woman in a yoga outfit jammed against his throat. His eyes flashed blue in the low light and he clawed at his attacker, but the gashes on her face healed almost as soon as they’d opened, leaving only a trace of dark liquid.
Lydia stared. "Oh my G—"
"Run!" Aiden growled and pulled her along toward the car.
"I'm. In. Heels!" She shouted back at him, running as quickly as she could.
Behind them, someone roared—Peter—and thudded against a solid object.
The woman seemed to flash into existence between Lydia and Aiden, grabbing Lydia by the throat—the sudden stop tearing their linked hands from one another.
“Banshee,” she smiled.
Aiden turned and drove his fist at the hekalus’s side. She jerked with the impact and looked at him as though he’d only just entered her awareness.
Despite the pressure on her throat, Lydia could feel the scream building. She fought to hold it back. Heat and power concentrated in her chest, seeking freedom.
Aiden brought both sets of claws down on the hekalus’s outstretched arm, slicing to the bone. Thick black blood dripped from the wounds, and the severed muscles released the grip on Lydia’s throat. Lydia stumbled back, then started to run. Aiden shoved the hekalus hard, hoping to knock it back and buy them time.
“Hey!” Peter shouted from down the sidewalk, a gun in his hand. The hekalus turned as it stumbled, and Peter fired.
The woman jerked from the impact and stared down at the hole in her chest. A second gunshot rang out and she jerked again, black blood blossoming across her stomach. Her expression twisted, and she started after Peter with renewed fury.
Aiden grabbed Lydia’s hand, jerked on her arm to bring her in close, and then swept her up into his arms and started to run. They'd parked a few blocks away. "Get your keys!" he said, fear keeping his fangs exposed even as he spoke.
Lydia stared back down the street in time to see Peter thrown onto a car, setting off the alarm—surely summoning any police the gunshots already hadn’t. He was sliding toward the ground when Aiden rounded the corner of the block, cutting off her view.
"But what about—"
She struggled to dig them from her purse while being carried, but eventually gripped them hard, holding them up where Aiden could see. He set her down at the passenger side door.
"It’s my car!" she said, incredulous.
"And my reflexes are faster. Please." He held out his hand for the keys and checked down the street, shifting anxiously with the desire to flee.
Shaking, she tossed them over, and they both quickly got into their seats. Lydia was still buckling her seatbelt when Aiden tore away from the curb.
Lydia turned to look out the rear windshield, panting. "So the woman in the—"
"Did she kill him?"
"Probably." Aiden swung the car out into traffic despite a red light.
Lydia sank into her seat, gasping for air. An odd expression crossed her face. Not sadness, but not the triumph she’d have expected either. She pressed a trembling hand over her mouth and fought to keep everything in.
"We need to go somewhere safe," Aiden said, weaving effortlessly between vehicles.
Lydia looked over and blinked at him, letting her hand fall from her face, then pulled out her phone.
Isaac sneezed for the umpteenth time and rolled his head in agony. “Promise me you’ll never buy one of those again,” he said, moaning.
Allison pouted, waiting for the stoplight to turn green. “You didn’t have to throw it out.”
“He so very much did,” Scott said from the backseat. “You have no idea.”
She glared at him in the rearview mirror. “Those votives are ten dollars.”
Scott fished for his wallet and waved a ten up toward the front seat. Allison rolled her eyes but snatched it anyway. The light changed, and she pulled out onto South Main.
There was a second of silence before Isaac’s whole body tensed for another sneeze. He huffed, trying to hold it back but failing spectacularly. The spasm left him doubled over, head pressed against the dash. Allison, looking guilty, touched his hair.
“At least you know what it smells like now?” she offered.
Isaac lifted his head and stared at her.
Isaac looked back at Scott, who shrugged apologetically then flopped back in his seat.
“Right . . .” he said eventually.
The longer he looked miserable, the more subdued Allison’s humor became. All in all, they hadn’t, been taking this new threat very seriously. One report from one person about being followed didn’t sound like all-out war, not compared to the last few months they’d had, but Deaton had been clear that in addition to their own personal scars, Beacon Hills had been changed for the worse.
The atmosphere in the car grew heavy with contemplation. Allison peered at Isaac and then back at Scott and cleared her throat.
“I think we should talk to my father.”
“About the hekaloi,” Scott said.
She nodded. “If they hunt, then maybe my family’s crossed their path before.”
Scott frowned as he thought about that. “Do you—do you think they’d work together?” He could still picture the barrel of Kate’s gun aiming down at him and had no doubt that she’d just as soon have taken money for what she’d wanted to do for free.
Allison’s shoulders lifted in a tight shrug. “I don’t know. But I think we should ask.”
Isaac got out first, testing the air around the apartment building before he waved to Allison and Scott to follow. Scott tossed him the pumpkin they’d acquired from the harvest festival, trying to lighten the mood, but Isaac just hugged it close to his chest and hurried toward the entryway.
“Dad?” Allison called from the front hall. She let Isaac close and lock the door as she tossed her jacket onto a hook.
“In here!” he called back from the kitchen. He met them in the living room, wiping his hands with a dishtowel.
“Mr. Argent,” Scott said.
“Scott, Isaac,” Chris nodded at them in turn and then looked at Allison. “How was the festival?”
“Fine,” Allison replied. “It was fine. Got a pumpkin!” Isaac held it up and forced a grin before setting it on the table.
Allison pulled off her hat and tucked a strand of hair back behind her ear. “Dad, we have to ask you something.”
He gave her an evaluating look and sat down on the closest armchair. Allison, Scott, and Isaac took seats in a semi-circle around him, exchanging unsure looks.
Allison nodded at Scott, and he sucked a breath. “Have you ever heard of something called a hekaloi?”
Chris’s eyes flashed, and his expression hardened. On instinct he sat up straighter. “Where’d you hear that name?”
“So you have.”
“Yes, but where did you hear it?”
Scott glanced at his friends. “Derek. He said he was being followed, and he thinks that’s who’s doing it.”
Chris sat back and wiped a hand over his face. A second ago he’d looked dangerous, deadly. Now he looked like someone cornered.
“Dad, you have to tell us,” Allison leaned forward, insistent.
Chris looked at her skeptically for a moment. His shoulders sank when he decided that he did, in fact, have to tell them.
“What do you already know?”
Scott made a small, humorless laughing sound. “Nothing. Lavender, bells, and . . . body parts. That’s it.”
Chris nodded to himself and drew a deep breath. He let the motion carry him to his feet and paced around to the back of the chair to give himself something to brace against. “Hekaloi are a kind of zbieracz. It means . . . collector. Harvester. Some zbieracz collect blood . . .”
“Vampires?” Scott cut in, sounding surprised.
“Like vampires, yes.” Chris nodded. “Some others collect magical power or souls. Hekaloi . . . hekaloi collect flesh. From things with power.”
“Why?” Isaac asked. He unwound his scarf and shoved it in his pocket.
Chris shifted his weight uneasily, his gaze settling on the coffee table. “Two reasons, mainly. One, they graft what they steal onto themselves, making themselves strong. And two . . .” Something like regret flashed across his face. “Two, they sell . . . products . . . made from what they take.”
“Products,” Scott repeated.
Chris met his questioning gaze. “Potions. Pills. Magic cures. Whatever a customer wants. Needs.”
Allison looked over at Scott, her eyes wide with horror. “They—” She turned back to her father. “They make them out of people?”
Chris nodded at her and looked away, something heavy and guilty in his silence. Allison checked with Scott again, and he was giving Chris an intense, thoughtful look . . . the same look she felt forming on her face.
“So if you wanted one of these potions, how would you get it?” Allison asked slowly, watching her father’s expression.
“Dad. Where would you get it?” At his silence, something stirred in her blood.
“The agora skotadi.” It sounded like a confession.
“You’ve been there,” Allison gasped, cold anger crystallizing in her chest.
“Once.” Chris looked up at her. His voice softened. “I was there once. A long time ago.”
“Because they know things, Allison. Things no one else knows.”
Scott broke in. “Where is it? Is it far?”
“It’s not permanent. The agora follows the hekaloi. It manifests at junctions of power and disappears when they leave.” He glanced at Allison. “Your grandfather spent the last couple of years trying to find one again. Travelled everywhere, sent out recon parties to track the supernatural and listen for mass disappearances.” Chris shook his head and looked away. “I didn’t know why until that night.”
“He wanted them to heal him,” she said, and her father only nodded. The cold fire blazed in Allison’s chest, forcing her to her feet. “Did you help him?”
Chris’s eyes flicked to hers, and then away.
She stamped her foot. “They profit from murder!”
“It’s not that simple! It’s the murder of murderers!”
They glared at one another. He broke first and took a step away. “Not every werewolf is like your friends. Most creatures . . . they just kill.”
“Scott doesn’t kill,” Allison countered. “Isaac doesn't. And Lydia. Dad, she’s a banshee. I mean, I don’t even know what that means, but apparently it makes her a target too!”
Chris reached out, holding onto Allison’s upper arms. “Honey, I understand—”
“Do you? Because what if everyone they’ve ever killed was just like them–like Lydia? Dad, she's never hurt anyone.”
She tore out of his grasp and turned away. No matter how much she thought she knew, it would always come back to this—always another surprise, another disappointment.
Chris looked at her shaking back helplessly, then glanced at Scott. "I never bought anything."
"It doesn't matter."
"No, I mean it doesn't matter what you did or didn't do. They're here, and we have to make them stop. I know you want to be retired, but—"
Chris waved the rest of whatever Scott was going to say away. "We protect those who can't protect themselves," he said instead, eyeing Allison with regret.
Allison's phone started playing Lydia's ringtone, and she dug it out of her pocket, turning to face the others. "Lydia?" she said. At Lydia's reply, Allison felt her stomach drop. Isaac and Scott both stood and moved closer, drawn in by her shock and fear. "They found you." Allison's voice came out small. She nodded into the phone and then hung up.
"Aiden and Lydia are coming over."
"What happened? Are they okay?" Scott tried to keep his distance but ended up touching Allison's elbow anyway, as though his hands couldn't find another place to be.
Allison chewed on her lower lip and shrugged. "I guess? I think so. She didn't really say. She just . . . said they were coming here. Scott—"
"We need a plan. But we need to know what they know, first."
They all looked at one another, grim, and found a place in the living room to wait.
They didn't have to wait especially long. After a round of hugs and once-overs for wounds, everyone arranged themselves in a circle sitting and standing around the Argents’ living room. Allison sat as far from her father as she could, pressing into Isaac’s side. Aiden hovered closest to the door.
“So you actually saw one?” Scott asked.
Lydia nodded and swallowed. Her fingers brushed lightly at her collarbone.
“Well, what’d it look like?”
She lifted one shoulder, fighting back the fear that was finally settling in. “Like . . . a person. A yoga instructor.” A slightly hysterical laugh burst forth and she paused to bite it down.
Isaac narrowed his eyes at Aiden. “How did you get away?”
“Peter came to warn us. To warn her,” Aiden said, nodding in Lydia’s direction. “When we ran, it attacked him first.”
“She threw him into a building and then into a car,” Lydia added. “After he shot her.”
“Is he dead?” Scott couldn’t be sure what answer he was hoping for, but all he got was a shrug. A moment of silence followed, and Scott took out his phone to call Stiles.
“Hey, Scott,” Stiles’s voice rang crisp through the phone, and Scott placed it on the coffee table.
“Is Derek there?”
“Good. Okay. So, the quick update is that a hekaloi—”
“Hekalus,” Lydia said absently.
They all turned to stare.
“What? Loi is plural, lus is singular.” She waved a dismissive hand at Scott. “Continue.”
He scoweld. “A hekalus found Lydia and Aiden. Peter, apparently, distracted it enough that they got away. And now everyone but you guys and Ethan are here.”
“Oh God, Lydia?” Stiles called, worry in his voice.
She smiled a small, tender smile down at the phone and only lied a little. “I’m fine.”
Stiles stared at the phone like the screen could give him answers. He’d heard the words, but she didn’t sound fine. She sounded wounded. He gazed over at Derek sitting next to him on the bed instead.
“So I guess we know they’re real.” Derek’s mouth twitched in response.
“Oh, they’re real.” Chris Argent’s voice. “And strong. Incredibly fast.”
“She appeared out of nowhere,” Lydia said. “And I mean, nowhere. The sidewalk was empty. I blinked, and she was slamming Peter against the wall. We ran, and the next thing I knew she was grabbing my throat. She was just . . . there!”
Scott sighed. “Is there a way we can talk with them?”
A jumble of voices crowded the phone: Allison declaring Scott crazy. Chris telling him that they’d never get close enough. Isaac pointing out that Scott’s weird methods had always worked in the past.
“Hey, guys?” Stiles said, picking up the phone and holding it closer to his mouth. “Guys?” Still ignored. “GUYS!”
The cacophony on the other end stopped.
“Maybe before we go hurling ourselves at these things we should find out more about them?” Stiles held his hands open in question, even though Derek was the only one who could see him. And Derek didn’t look impressed.
“We know enough,” Allison replied. Something cold and final weighed in her tone, and it made Stiles sit back a little.
Derek shook his head. “They came after us. We have to defend ourselves.” His voice carried a deep rumble.
“Then Stiles is right. If we’re going to fight them, we need to know more,” Scott said.
“No, Stiles isn’t right.” Aiden this time.
He hadn’t spoken yet. At the sound of his voice, Derek’s whole aura shifted. He brushed his fingers over one wrist absently as he crossed his arms. Stiles realized that Derek was hugging himself, holding himself in, keeping himself together. He edged away slightly from the phone, and his expression slack, eyes distant and shuttered.
“. . . and we can’t face them. We need to run,” Aiden was saying. “All of us.”
Derek folded in on himself. And Stiles just knew—could see the buried hurt, the sublimated guilt and anger. No month in any paradise could stitch a wound like that closed. No one, himself included, had even asked.
He burst into an anger like a ringing blade. “Really, Traitor Twin? Is that what we need to do? Because I don’t recall anyone asking you,” he spat.
“Did I stutter?”
Something slammed near the phone on the other end. “You don’t know anything about me!”
He was on his feet suddenly, spinning, nearly crushing the phone in his hand. “I know everything I need to!”
“Stiles!” Scott roared, his voice thrumming with power. “We'll do this later.”
“We’ll do this now!”
“We’ll do this. Later.” Scott couldn’t alpha him, but he didn’t have to.
Stiles’s anger could have cut stone. "You're damn right we will."
He fought against the urge to pitch his phone at the wall and settled for hurling it at the bed instead. He huffed a breath through flaring nostrils and avoided Derek’s eyes. The anger still coursed through his limbs, so he flailed and kicked at the air to burn it off, leaving himself panting and drained. As his anger receded, he looked over to see Derek staring, a raw and awed expression on his face. That was an improvement, at least. It lasted only a moment before Derek seemed to catch that’d he’d put too much out into the world and drew back behind a mask.
Stiles dropped onto the bed and picked up his phone again, which had been suspiciously silent.
“I’m not leaving my dad, Scott,” Stiles said eventually.
"No one's asking you to."
“Are you kidding me? Buddy, you wouldn’t last a day without me.”
“Guys!” Allison cut off their banter. “Run, or fight?” After a second she added, her tone tight, “Dad?”
Chris sighed. “Honestly? I don’t know if you can fight. I know how to kill werewolves, but hekaloi? I’ve never tried to kill one before. Never known anyone who did. I’m not even sure you can, much less how.”
“Then we’re going to need to find out,” Allison said. “We need to go to the agora.”
“I’ll go,” Scott said immediately, and Stiles flailed wordlessly in protest.
Chris replied first. “No, Scott. If a werewolf gets anywhere near it, they’ll be slaughtered. Allison and I will have to go.” He paused, and his voice grew quieter. “And if we’re going to do that, we’re going to need innocent blood.”
Somehow, Allison’s father saying ‘innocent blood’ didn’t leave her feeling like she’d been slapped. It didn't feel like compromised morals or the earth shifting center. It felt like the final tumbler of a lock slipping into awful place. The darkness inside patted the seat next to it and welcomed a new friend. This is who they were, who they had always been.
Isaac raised his hand tentatively. "What, exactly, are we suggesting here? I mean, I'm not really friends with the guy, but . . . we're not actually discussing murder, right?" The worried look on his face made Allison want to kiss him. Instead, she turned on her heel and looked at her father.
"No. The entry fee is innocent blood. Nothing says we have to kill to get it."
"How innocent?" Allison asked, ignoring the sorrow in her father's eyes.
"Innocent, Allison. Untouched by darkness.” More gently. “Never killed anyone." Her father glanced around the room, and their collection of impossible friends. "And it has to be human."
She sorted through them in her head. She and Stiles were human, but touched by darkness. Scott, Isaac, Aiden, Ethan, Derek, and Lydia weren't human at all. And her father . . . he'd killed before, lots of times. Her brows knit into a frown. "But . . . who does that leave?"
Scott made a small, discomfited sound, and Allison gave him a look that urged him to talk.
"Danny," he said quietly.
Stiles’s groan was audible even over the phone. "Oh my God, we are the worst friends ever."
Aiden spoke up. "My brother, did you talk to him?"
Scott nodded, looking miserable. "After I called you. He and Danny were at the library. I told him to stay there. Figured it was better than him leaving on his own. He said he hadn't sensed anything."
"So, what, we're gonna strap Danny down and shove a needle is his arm?" Stiles asked, his voice echoing. "Can we have one friend that we don't assault? Please?"
Scott looked skeptical. "We could ask him?"
Allison's eyes widened with a flash of inspiration. "We can't, but Ethan could."
"How? What's he going to say?"
Lydia cleared her throat, drawing everyone's attention. "It's how they screen for STDs."
Allison felt her cheeks color, and Scott tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling. "Oh my God, I'm going to hell."
"But haven't they already . . ." Isaac shied away from Chris Argent's mortified stare.
Lydia leaned toward Isaac and whispered loudly, "There are reasons one could need another test."
Isaac looked like he was going to question it further, but Allison hurried to fill the void before he could. "Scott, if he can convince Danny to go see your mom?"
Scott nodded miserably. "She can give us some. But she'll have to keep some to actually run the test. Danny will know something's wrong if no one calls him with results." He looked at his phone on the table. "Stiles, I gotta go. We have calls to make."
Allison’s dad uncrossed his arms and stepped forward. "I think," he checked himself, like he wasn't quite sure he wanted to say this. "I think you should all skip school tomorrow."
"Hey, that is a plan I am all for," Stiles sang happily.
"Stiles, you guys lay low and call me in the morning, okay?" Scott asked.
“Yeah. Stay safe.”
Scott then picked up his phone and ended the call. He scrolled for Ethan's number and looked up when Lydia appeared over him.
"Tell you what. You call and tell him he has to listen to me. I'll tell him what he should say."
Lydia arched an eyebrow, and Allison couldn't help but smirk at the way Scott, the “True Alpha,” surrendered.
They sat in silence.
This was stupid. He was stupid. A voice wasn't even a thing, not a dangerous thing. It was just air. And it shouldn't have affected him anyway—shouldn't have shot down his spine, frozen his stomach. He was stronger than that. He’d always tried so hard to be stronger than that.
"You didn't have to do that," Derek said eventually, needing to fill the quiet.
Stiles snorted softly. "Yeah, actually, I kinda did. It's not okay."
Derek turned his head to look at Stiles, unsure what to say.
"I shouldn’t have let it get to me."
He still felt guilty that Stiles had flown off the handle because of him, picked a fight with Scott on his behalf for something so trivial as a bad feeling.
And yet he still felt sick to his stomach, felt like he was as stranger in his own skin—unfit, unworthy.
Stiles shifted beside him and drew closer, moving his leg until their thighs met. The sudden touch made Derek's heart clench as if teetering on some sort of event horizon. He could feel himself on the edge of his control shattering apart, and then he would be grief. Falling, falling.
He shot up from the bed, away from the heat and connection. Stiles was making an offer, but it was a request, too. Trust me. Break open. "I can't," he said roughly.
Stiles swore at himself under his breath. "Wait, Derek, wait."
Halfway out the door, Derek stopped, waited without looking back. Cowards run.
Derek felt the simple truth of it, and it kept him there, in place. "I know. I just—" How could a body feel so hollow.
"When you're ready." Stiles let out an unsteady breath. "I just wanted you to know I think about it. How they're dead. Really dead."
Derek had too many theys, and all of them fit.
"So I don't think it's okay that Boyd's dead and the twins are screwing my friends."
Derek turned without speaking—just enough to look at Stiles over his shoulder.
"I think they hurt you, too. And you don't have to be okay with that."
Stop talking. Please, stop.
"I'm not." Control crumbled in his fingers, slipped away like sand. In the smallest voice he had, he said, "I can't do this, Stiles, please." Every muscle hurt, like he'd been beaten from the inside, and the sobs he struggled to choke down might rise up en masse.
Anger and sorrow rolled off Stiles, saying everything that his, "Okay," didn't cover.
A little bit of the terror receded as Derek backed away from the cliff. "Try to get some sleep," he offered, and shut the door behind him.
Stiles stared at the ceiling of his room. His eyes stung from exhaustion, but sleep felt impossibly far away.
Derek had gone down downstairs over an hour ago, so it was just him, in the darkness, concentrating on the sensation of weight on his chest, squeezing out all the air. No matter which way he turned, the pressure remained.
He'd misstepped, earlier. Not with Aiden, or with Scott. Aiden was an asshole, and Scott was being blind. Even over the phone, Scott should have been able to read the change in Derek’s silence, should have understood. But he hadn’t. They were all too focused on what lay ahead, as if nothing else mattered—like the past couldn't touch them.
It did. Always. The pressure that stole his breath in the middle of the night, that felt like sinking and suffocating, waking up in a cold sweat and having to wash his hands because they still looked like blood; that was the past. That was the weight of the things they had done.
“Derek, are you awake?” Stiles asked the still air. Moonlight shone in through the window, casting his room into something alien—familiar objects obscured by new shadows.
Thirty seconds later, the cell phone on his night stand buzzed.
"I'm sorry about before. For pushing."
Are you okay?
“You mean aside from being hunted by the boogeyman?” he spoke at the screen.
They aren’t hunting you.
Stiles snorted. “Oh, yeah, well that makes it okay then.”
Go to sleep.
He scowled at the screen flipped himself onto his side. “Would if I could.”
Stiles rubbed the spot on his breastbone that ached from the phantom pressure. “Nothing.”
“Can you not do that, please? Have I told you how creepy that is?”
“That is seriously the most sarcastic smiley face I have ever seen.”
He waited, staring at the tiny screen, wondering if he’d somehow miraculously prompted Derek into a conversation of entire sentences. Then,
It surprised Stiles into a laugh that became a giggle. And somehow the giggle just . . . multiplied. He turned his face into his pillow to muffle the sound and convulsed with the laughter of a mad man. Something about it eased the pressure, allowing him to fill his lungs at least a little again. Eventually, the giggle fit subsided and he let out a deep sigh.
And then he slept.