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"He doesn't get it." John stares blankly out the window, where there's a whole world of unfathomably dangerous supernatural crap in place of the traditionally dangerous crap he's mostly gotten used to over the years. "He takes off whenever he wants to, comes back looking like a Walking Dead extra, and thinks it's totally fine, as long as he keeps his grades up."

"To be fair," Melissa says, an edge of envy in her voice, "his grades are kind of amazing."

John slumps against the back of his chair and sighs. "And he does keep coming back. But how long can I count on that? He's been on the wrong side of the odds for years, and I didn't even know about it. If he keeps throwing himself on every grenade he sees--"

"You're not giving the pack enough credit. They're doing a pretty good job of keeping him in one piece. They know Stiles isn't as fast or as strong as they are."

"Stiles knows they aren't as smart or as crazy as he is," John says grimly. "They can protect him as long as he wants them to, sure. But what happens when he doesn't?" He presses his palm flat against the table. "He thinks it's his life to risk, but it's like ... my arm's out there, running around without me, doing its best to get its fingers cut off. And he doesn't get it."

Melissa takes his hand in both of hers and squeezes. "I get it."

"So how do you deal with it?" He raises his eyes to hers. "How do you sleep at night, knowing what's going on out there?"

"I take a lot of Ambien." Melissa shrugs, and gives him a rueful half-smile. "And when I don't have to work, I drink a lot."

~

Saturdays, Stiles belongs to the pack. That's mostly fine. John eats all kinds of crap on Saturdays now, and if it takes some extra cleaning and a quick trip out to the dumpster behind the supermarket after, well, that's the price of indulgence in these dark times. If Stiles can run with werewolves and risk life and limb for reasons he's still only willing to ominously hint at, John can have a goddamn cheeseburger for lunch now and then without getting undue grief about it.

It's the other days -- or nights -- that have moved Melissa McCall's number to the top of his speed dial. Nights when he comes home late to find Stiles's room dark, his bed empty, and then wakes up in the morning to find the first aid kit rifled and a smear of blood drying around the drain in the bathroom sink. Or days when Stiles gets a text and that look comes over his face (half scared and half excited and all the way focused, focused like this kid has never been) and before John can even ask, Stiles has a Powerbar in one hand and a gym bag in the other and he's out the door with a wave and a pre-broken promise to tell John all about it later.

Times like that, odds are Mel will show up before John's even got his phone unlocked. She brings dessert she won't eat, and John pours wine he won't drink. He puts on a ball game (or a movie, or a sitcom) and she reads whatever it is she reads on her laptop. They don't talk much; John doesn't think he's very good company. He listens obsessively for the door and checks the ringer on his phone every five minutes and stares, with exponentially increasing lust, at his locked liquor cabinet. He doesn't drink much anymore; God only knows when Stiles is going to need him to be sober. He's not even sure where he keeps the cabinet key. But there's a reason he doesn't drink the wine he only buys for Melissa. If he starts, he's not entirely sure he'll be able to stop.

"That's why I don't eat your cheesecake," she tells him confidentially, her slippered feet kicked up on his coffee table, her head tilted comfortably against his shoulder. "Food can be an addiction, you know. I read that sugar lights up the same parts of the human brain that cocaine does."

"This is your brain on Oreos," John intones gravely, and Melissa laughs so hard she snorts, burying her face in the sleeve of his uniform.

"On that note, I need a refill." She stands up, picks up her glass and his decimated plate, and heads to the kitchen. "You want another hit, officer?"

"Bring it on. I'm not driving."

He tilts his head back against the cushions and closes his eyes, pushing off the need to check for a text message, just for another minute or so. His spine feels out of joint, the muscles between his shoulderblades tight and throbbing. One day soon he's going to stop in at the massage place over on Winston Boulevard and take advantage of the new customer walk-in special; for now he'll make do with rolling his shoulders and bitching about it, like his old man used to do.

The second slice of cheesecake is as good as the first, and Melissa's friendly warmth at his side makes the creeping hours a little more bearable. She reads to him when something online riles her up or makes her laugh, and he rewinds the TiVo when she misses an interesting play. It's companionable in a way John almost recognizes; it would be kind of nice, if not for the absence of his kid jangling endlessly and uselessly at his nerves.

At ten of one, a key rattles in the lock and the front door bangs open. Stiles pokes his head in through the doorway, blinking in surprise, and says, "Hey, Dad, I thought you'd be in bed. Oh, uh, hey, Ms. McCall."

Air floods back into the room and John takes a huge gulp of it, like he's been suffocating for hours. He stands up, takes a step toward the door, and then stops, his hands dangling loosely at his sides. Is this a hugging thing? It feels like a hugging thing. But Stiles isn't hurt, doesn't look scared or worried or -- actually, he looks a little annoyed.

He's looking at John's plate. "Dad!"

John hears Melissa stifling a slightly hysterical giggle behind him, and rolls his eyes toward the ceiling. He's halfway through a not-too-shabby excuse in his head when Melissa pipes up and says, "Don't worry, kiddo, it was mine."

She picks up the plate and starts toward the kitchen, but John stops her and liberates it. "In this house, a woman's place is on the sofa," he says. He picks up her wine glass, too, and retreats into the kitchen.

Standing over the sink, his arms braced on the counter, his head hanging between them, John takes another breath, and another, and another. On the other side of the wall, Melissa asks Stiles how things went, and where Scott is, and Stiles says something that John can't quite make out. But it makes Melissa laugh, and John's next breath comes that much easier. He washes his plate, washes the glass, washes his hands, and lets the sound of the water cover the rest of their conversation. It's enough to hear Stiles's voice, rising and falling, weird and dramatic. Whatever he's saying, truth or lies or something somewhere in the middle, it's not as important as the fact that he's come home safe to say it.

John takes in one more steadying breath and turns off the faucet. He passes the heels of his hands over his eyes, just in case, but he's mostly good there. And he's got one good thing over Melissa that he can be thankful for -- his son can't hear the crazy race of his heartbeat, or smell his fading worry. He heads back into the living room, where Melissa has packed up to go home to her own kid, and says goodnight.

When the door closes behind her, John wraps a steady hand around the back of Stiles's neck and squeezes, just once, just to make sure. Stiles is tall, getting more solid by the day, but he still feels insubstantial sometimes, like a stiff wind could knock him down. "Hey, kid. Everything's really okay?"

Stiles looks at him with Claudia's eyes, warm and sharp and knowing, and slings an arm around John's waist. "Yeah, Dad," he says gently. "Everything's good."

~

Because this is John's life now, something is killing the wildlife in the Beacon Hills Preserve, and he's pretty sure this time around it isn't a mountain lion. It's not werewolves, either, Stiles and Scott assure him. "Not one of ours, anyway," Stiles says. "Ours tend more toward Chinese takeout than raw squirrel on the hoof." The look on Scott's face -- repulsed and vaguely ill -- is more than convincing.

Stiles and the wolves work their side of it, and John works his. He sends his deputies out in pairs, no matter how understaffed they are. Never alone. Not since Tara. He talks to Alan, and actually believes him when he says he doesn't know what's happening out in the woods. He talks to Melissa, just to make sure the story she's getting from Scott matches the one he's getting from Stiles. And finally, on a Thursday night, just before the end of his shift, he follows a winding, landscaped road up into the hills, between increasingly large and elegant houses. At the end of it, he pulls into Chris Argent's driveway.

Argent answers his door with a blandly welcoming look, and steps back to let John in. "Sheriff," he says, his voice soft and well-mannered. "What can I do for you?"

Next to Argent's casual elegance, John feels like his clothes are all the wrong sizes, too worn and too wrinkled from a day spent driving a desk. He scratches at the back of his neck, trying to find the right way to begin. It's still all new, that's the thing. Even knowing everything he knows about Argent's family, about the Hale pack, about ... everything ... there's still a part of him that can't quite believe it. For any number of reasons, it's hard to just pop out with "Hey, are any of your people trying to terrorize the werewolves in town by killing off small woodland creatures in their territory?" But one of those reasons is a background certainty that he's going to sound certifiably crazy.

He settles on asking, "How's Allison doing?" even though he gets a fresh new Allison report every time Scott comes over for dinner.

"She could stand to pay more attention to her schoolwork, and less attention to Scott McCall," Argent says. "But she's seventeen. Try telling her that."

It surprises a laugh out of John. "Stiles always figured the best way to get Lydia's attention was to challenge her grade point average. I guess I got lucky on that one."

"I guess you did." He leads John into the living room and gestures at a plush sofa by the fireplace. "Please, sit down. Can I get you something to drink?"

"I'm afraid it's not a social visit, Mr. Argent."

"Chris. Please." He sits down across from John, leaning forward with his elbows propped on his knees. "We've been kidnapped together. I think that warrants a first-name basis, don't you?"

"Chris," John says. "Yeah, okay. Call me John."

"What brings you all the way up here, John? If you'd called, I would have met you at the station."

"It's not exactly a police visit, either," John says awkwardly. He mirrors Chris's posture, and passes a hand over his eyes. "Christ, I may actually be too old for this."

Chris laughs. His whole face changes, his body language, all of it, like he's slipping off a mask. "You'll get used to it," he says. "Faster than you think."

"Sure, you think so," John says. "You grew up with all this. To me it's like...the Brothers Grimm called, and they want their nightmares back."

"It's not always a nightmare." Chris holds up a hand. "I know, lately it hasn't exactly been a bedtime story. But Beacon Hills was... artificially destabilized, a long time ago. By my family. I know you've heard about my sister. And I'll never be able to make up for what my father did to Stiles--"

"Your father isn't you," John says. It's true, but it's the first time he's looked at it that way; the first time he's been able to really see Chris Argent instead of Girard. "I don't hold you accountable for that."

"I do." Chris looks away. "I've been part of a system that creates monsters in the name of killing them. In part, it was my blindness that allowed Kate to destroy the Hale family, allowed my father to come so close to destroying what's left of it."

John tilts his head and looks at Chris measuringly. "You sound pretty calm about it, if you don't mind me saying so. Not like a guy who's wallowing in guilt."

"You should have dropped by last summer," Chris says dryly. "I got most of my wallowing out of the way while I was mourning my wife."

John sucks in a breath, and sits up a little straighter. It hits a chord, and that chord vibrates between them, like recognizing like. John may not want to, but he feels for this guy, who threatened his kid, maybe roughed him up a little, let his father get away with doing a lot worse. He's spent a lot of time wanting to punch Chris Argent in the face; now he kind of wants to clap him on the shoulder, maybe buy him a beer. Suddenly, Stiles's ambivalence toward Derek Hale makes a lot more sense.

"Stiles tells me you've heard about the rash of dead bunnies we've been having lately," he says, dodging the entire issue with an utter lack of finesse modeled after his son. "You know anything about it?"

"I know all about the what, but none of the why, if that's what you're asking."

"Could it be one of your people?"

Chris laughs, a weird rasp without any actual humor in it. "I don't have people these days. Allison and I are no longer connected with the Hunters."

John raises an eyebrow. "Seriously?"

"We've uncovered some philosophical differences that made working together uncomfortable. We don't hunt wolves anymore."

"What do you hunt?"

"Threats to this town, to Allison, or to our allies," Chris says. "And Derek Hale has reluctantly agreed to stand as one of the latter. So while I don't currently know what may be killing his bunnies, as you put it, I'm obligated to offer my assistance. If you'll let me."

"It's not the bunnies I worry about so much," John says. "You get that, right? Something unpleasant is going on in the woods up there, and I don't want those kids getting caught up in it. They've been through enough lately."

"One of those kids is my kid." Chris smiles, and John's not sure an actual werewolf could look more dangerous. "I'm happy to help you keep them out of trouble."

~

On Saturdays John makes egg white omelettes with low fat cheese and tomato, with turkey bacon and whole wheat toast on the side. He doesn't even butter the toast. He sends Stiles on his way with a couple of sandwiches and a warning to be careful, because he doesn't grow teeth and claws or heal instantly from injury like the other kids do. Parenting a kid in a wolf pack is a slightly different flavor of parenting from what he's used to, but the basics are pretty much the same. As long as Stiles comes back whole and happy, John feels like he's done a decent job.

As soon as the hum of the Jeep's engine fades into the background noise of the neighborhood, John drives over to Della's and orders a giant grilled blueberry muffin with a side of bacon. John and Della have kind of a deal. He doesn't ticket her for parking a little too close to the hydrant out front (she's got a persistent limp, but doesn't want to take up a handicapped space) and she doesn't casually mention John's Saturday morning visits when Stiles drops by for coffee or a few scoops of ice cream.

But this morning, Stiles changes the script. While he's washing and putting away the dishes and John's making turkey sandwiches, he says, "Hey, so, you want to come hang out with us today?"

John's hand stays steady on the tomato and the knife, but he doesn't make another slice. "Out at the Hale house?"

Stiles finishes drying off the plate in his hands, not turning around. The line of his shoulders is straight and tense. "Yeah."

John looks down at his hands, and carefully makes another cut. "With you and the pack?"

"Yeah."

For the last couple of months, John has been more than happy to take things on faith. He's seen Isaac and Scott turn, and he's seen Derek's eyes go funny colors; those images are burned into his psyche for good. He's on the downslope of his forties and he's never been a fan of horror movies. He believes everything Stiles is willing to tell him these days, but he's not sure how much more of it he needs to see.

"It's okay if you have stuff to do, or work, or whatever." Stiles puts the clean plate back into the suds and scrubs at it with undue abandon. "I mean, it's basically a bunch of kids in fur suits running around for a couple of hours, I just thought -- I mean, Derek, he thought maybe you'd be interested, and Scott agreed, so I said I'd ask." He rinses the plate -- again -- and dries it. Again. Then he puts it away and turns around, his hands braced on the counter on either side. His eyes jitter up to meet John's. "So, yeah, do you want to?"

John says a wistful internal goodbye to his junk-food Saturday, and smiles at his son. "I think we're going to need more sandwiches," he says.

~

The last time John drove out this way, the long, winding road that served as a driveway was a muddy, overgrown mess. Even before the fire, the Hale family had never exactly encouraged visitors; dumping a new load of gravel every few years was their only effort toward accessibility. Now when he reaches the turnoff he finds a clean, wide blacktop, fresh enough to reek in the late morning sun.

Stiles, leg bouncing rapidly, hand tapping out a random sequence on his armrest, notices John noticing. He shrugs, like it's nothing, but the bouncing speeds up as he gazes out the window. "Things are a little different. Derek's been... he's different, since he got back."

"Where did he go? Did he ever say?"

Stiles barks out a short laugh. "Derek? Willingly part with information? He's not that different. He had some kind of epiphany, not electroshock therapy."

"And this epiphany," John says, gliding around a long curve. "It resulted in road work?"

Stiles grins, a distant look in his eyes. "Among other wonders."

Around one last bend, the car tops a long incline and the Hale property is laid out before them. The lawn -- there's a lawn now -- is wide and green, three rust-colored picnic tables and an assortment of kids scattered across it.

Stiles climbs out of the car, and John follows him. There's a path cutting up from the drive to the grass, and Stiles puts a hand on John's arm just before they reach it. "Quick primer?" he offers, and John nods gratefully.

"Erica and Boyd," Stiles says, pointing. "And the twins are Ethan and Aiden. The girl arguing with Isaac is Cora. You met her, remember?"

"She passed out on your bedroom floor, right before I got kidnapped by an evil druid," John says. "I'm not too likely to forget." He takes in the long, straight swing of her hair, the upsweep of her eyebrows, the flat, stern line of her mouth. "She's a Hale, all right."

"The twins are new. They were in the Alpha pack, but they helped us at the end. They're not our favorite people, but we can't have random omegas in town, and they don't really want to leave, so. Scott took them in, on a probationary basis."

Little Scott McCall. Alpha werewolf. John's brain hurts. He's been feeding that kid peanut butter and jelly sandwiches since he was nine. He definitely liked his life better before, when he could just know this stuff without having to really think about it.

"Derek's probably inside, working on the house."

"Looks like he's been doing a lot of that."

Stiles looks up at the roof line -- clean, whole, all signs of fire stripped away. There's pride in every line of his face. "We all have."

"So, it's not just a bunch of kids in fur suits running around the woods," John says, watching his son closely. "It's kind of a big deal. That's what you're telling me?"

Stiles turns, a wide smile breaking across his face. "Yeah, it kind of is. A big, big deal. A good, big deal. You're going to like them, Dad. I mean, I do, and you know I'm pretty discriminating about who I'll grace with my awesome presence. They're good people. We look after each other, so--"

"So I don't need to worry about you," John says, the lightbulb finally clicking on.

"Well." Stiles's eyebrows shoot up, the wild light of reassurance in his eyes dimming just a little. "Yeah?"

John shakes his head, and claps a hand over Stiles's shoulder. "Son, you've still got a lot to learn about parents."

~

The werewolves get excited about the sandwiches, and Allison and Lydia eat their fair share, too. "Stiles usually only brings enough for himself," Scott tells John with his mouth full, way too much half-chewed turkey sandwich on display. "This is awesome."

Derek has been busy, too. He brings out a pot of spaghetti that could be more accurately called a tub, and a minute later Stiles carts out a bucket of meat sauce. He swings his legs over the bench seat, slides right up against Derek, and starts piling noodles on plates. That seems to be some kind of silent signal; everyone else gathers round, pushing and shoving, occasionally growling (John's pretty sure that was Lydia), and arranging themselves around the tables to eat. Scott takes the seat directly across from Stiles, and nudges Isaac down the bench to make room for John.

That puts him face to face with Derek. It's the first time they've spoken since the end of the Alpha pack and the Darach. Derek leans across the table while Stiles is talking to Cora on his other side, and what he whispers to John on this momentous occasion is, "It's ground turkey. Stiles made me promise. I'm sorry."

~

Later, the promised fur suits make an appearance, but by that time John is cradled in the loving arms of a carbohydrate coma, far too content and comfortable for more than moderate alarm. Scott and Derek put the rest of the wolves through a series of drills, some involving Allison and a bottomless quiver of arrows and some involving Lydia and a lot of yelling. They form loose units -- Isaac and Scott stick close together, and Derek, Cora, and Boyd. Erica stays with the twins "So they don't feel left out," Stiles tells John, but John thinks it might also be to keep an eye on them. There's a moment when Ethan reaches for Aiden's shoulder -- or maybe vice versa, John's not sure yet -- and Erica pulls them apart, shooting a quick look toward the table where John and Stiles sit watching the exercises.

"It's okay," John tells Stiles, "Melissa told me about how they--"

"Hey, you might be ready for that," Stiles says, "But I'm not. Melting flesh is not something I need to be seeing on a regular basis, not without proper medication." He gives an elaborate shudder, violent enough to shake the bench they're sharing.

It looks like things are winding down when Derek, a few yards away, looks in their direction. "Stiles, get over here. We need a circle."

Stiles goes absolutely still. It's the strangest thing John's seen all day.

"I don't -- really? Yeah, I don't think that's necessary, do you? We could always do that next week, and." He looks at John, eyes wide. "It's getting pretty late, anyway. Don't you have to work?"

John frowns. "No, as a matter of fact, I don't."

Derek cocks his head at Stiles. "Come on. You have to show him sometime. What's wrong with today?"

"Everything," Stiles groans. He gets up and rifles around in his gym bag, coming out with a fat canvas sack tied with a leather string and a baseball bat. He smiles at John, the sad kind of smile John had gotten used to over the past year and had been glad to put behind them. "For the record, I was going to tell you about this later tonight." He turns to Derek, the smile dropping away. "Where do you want me?"

"You and me inside. Scott will try to break through."

"Can I just--"

Derek shakes his head. "The whole deal, Stiles. Like you would in combat."

Stiles spins the bat, grasping it in the middle so the grip runs down his forearm like a brace. He points the barrel at Derek's head. "We're having a talk later about ambushes, and all the bad things that happen to the perpetrators thereof." He swings the bat around to point it at John. "And you, don't panic. This is just me being a little more awesome than you thought I was."

The other wolves, plus Allison and Lydia, line up on the picnic table benches while Scott and Stiles face off, Derek standing behind Stiles and a little to the right. Sweat beads up on John's forehead and trickles down into his eyes; he wipes it away, not blinking, not wanting to miss a second of whatever's about to happen to his kid.

From the mouth of the canvas bag, Stiles draws a handful of black powder. He rubs it between his fingers, and it spreads across them like a thin film of ink. He looks up at John with a strange little smile, and in that moment he looks so much like his mother, John can barely breathe around his grief.

Stiles draws his hand back and flings the powder up over his head. It hovers there, a perfect dark sphere, until Stiles falls to one knee and slams his hand flat against the ground.

The powder descends, falling in a perfect ring around Stiles and Derek. Scott surges forward, his eyes a red blaze under a thick shelf of furred brow. His shirt shreds as his body shifts, falling in rags around him. His palms make contact with the the air in front of Stiles, and the air flashes into spears of light and and color.

Scott braces himself, and shoves harder. His face ripples, his mouth and nose elongating, his shoulders bulging with knots of muscle. Fur bristles out of his skin and he howls up at the bright blue sky, the warmth of the afternoon sun.

This is more than John's seen before. In his kitchen, one night after dinner, Scott had changed for him -- just to make sure he really understood. But that had been just his face, a little bit around his hands. He'd looked like a kid stuck in a fright mask that night. This is a wolf on his hind legs, a wolf the size of a fucking pony, snapping and growling and lunging at a bit of empty air to get at John's son.

John jumps up and takes a step toward the wolf. "Stiles!"

"Dad, stay back!"

Hands take hold of his shoulders and pull him back; he tears his eyes away from Stiles and sees it's Boyd who has him on one side, Cora on the other. Cora's eyes flash yellow at him, and her mouth is full of sharp teeth that don't fit. Boyd looks normal, but his grip is like iron; as long as he doesn't want John to move, John's not moving.

He stops fighting, and turns back to Stiles. Scott is pushing harder now, his hands -- claws -- piercing the barrier. Stiles drops the bat and drops to one knee again, one hand on the earth, one on the wall Scott is starting to break through.

"Okay," Stiles says, his voice pitched above Scotts ongoing growl. "Derek, now."

Derek's eyes glow a bright, electric blue. His hands come down on Stiles's shoulders. When they make contact, a light flashes between them, through them, alive under Stiles's skin until it bleeds out into the barrier. Stiles gives one last shove with his fingers splayed wide against the brilliant air.

Scott flies back, sailing fifteen feet across the grass before his back slams into an old growth tree and he slides with a yelp down its trunk. Isaac snarls and races toward him, his hands running over Scott's body frantically as it shifts back toward human form.

Inside the black powder circle, Stiles is still on one knee, his arm propped up on the knob of the baseball bat. Derek still has him by the shoulders, keeping him from falling over. The blue fades out of Derek's eyes while John watches... and out of Stiles's eyes, too.

John wrestles himself free of Boyd and Cora -- easy only because they don't seem to mind now -- and runs to Stiles. He breaks the ring of powder as he slides to his knees and wraps his hand around the back of Stiles's neck, tilting his head back and checking for any sign of injury, any hint of pain.

All he sees is exhaustion. Stiles's hand comes up and pats at John's shoulder limply, then falls away. "I'm okay, Dad," he says. His eyes slip shut, then blink open again, wide. "I'm okay."

John looks sharply at Derek. "What the fuck was that? What did you just do to him?"

He doesn't get any further than that before Scott -- entirely Scott again, bare to the waist but fully human -- barrels past him and grabs Stiles under the arms. He yanks Stiles up and crushes him to his chest and gives a spastic, excited leap that shakes Stiles's limbs like a rag doll.

"You did it!" Scott yells directly into Stiles's ear, "Dude! You totally did it!"

Stiles wraps his arms around Scott's shoulders and shouts, "I know! I totally did it! Oh my god, put me down before I hurl all over you, you moron!"

"Oh, crap!" Scott lowers Stiles gently, until his feet touch the ground. Derek takes over from there, easing Stiles down the rest of the way until he can sit, braced by Derek's legs behind him. "Sorry," Scott says, "Sorry, but oh, man, that was so freaking awesome! You threw me like a ninja!"

John holds up a hand and raises his voice. "Will one of you please tell me what the hell just happened here?"

Stiles looks up, and the tired grin on his face is the best reassurance John could have asked for. "Help me up," Stiles says, and holds up his hand.

John grabs it and pulls; Stiles does most of the work, but John can still feel his knees popping with the strain. He helps Stiles loop an arm around his neck and guides him carefully, staggering, over to the picnic table. Derek paces them, one hand stretched out to the small of Stiles's back, ready to catch him if he falls. When John settles Stiles on the bench, Derek sits down beside him and braces an arm behind his shoulders. Stiles leans back against Derek, closing his eyes, and the tension drains out of him like water.

"Stiles is our emissary," Derek says. "Like Morell was to the Alpha pack. Like Deaton was to the Hale pack, when my mother was alive."

"What exactly does that mean?"

"It means we need him," Scott says quietly.

"It means he can do things most people can't," Derek adds.

"It means I'm a freakin' badass!" Stiles says, and Derek, God bless him, rolls his eyes. John's blood pressure ticks down a notch, and his next breath comes a little easier.

"Deaton offered to teach Stiles a few useful tricks. For a while, that's all it was. Mountain ash can keep any normal werewolf at bay, and someone who can create a barrier is good to have around."

"But Stiles has never done things halfway," John says. The glare he directs at Stiles's closed eyes bounces off without leaving a dent. As usual. "Go on."

"Scott isn't any normal werewolf." Stiles opens his eyes. "He doesn't do anything halfway, either. He's some kind of super alpha. He's the only one we've ever heard of who can break through a mountain ash shield like that." Stiles grins. "Only now, he can't. Not through mine, anyway."

"Not if there's another wolf in there with you," Derek points out.

"Uh, yeah." Stiles gives Derek an odd look. "Sure, some other wolf."

"Some other wolf," John says, looking between the two of them. "Any other wolf?"

Stiles bites his lip, and Derek can't seem to meet John's eyes.

"So, this specific wolf." John tilts his head back and squints up at the bright blue sky. "Because Derek used to be an alpha?"

"No," Stiles says, just as Derek says, "Yes."

"Well, at least you've done me the courtesy of getting your stories straight," John says sourly, and gets to his feet.

"Wait, Dad. Just wait." Stiles stands up and looks around, and without a word said, the pack suddenly starts cleaning off tables and stuffing plates in trash bags. Everybody suddenly has somewhere else to be. Somewhere out of earshot, John guesses, because they drop the trash bags off on the front porch and just keep going.

Everybody but Derek.

"We're not lying," Stiles says quietly. "We just don't know, and in the absence of any certainty, we don't agree. Derek thinks it has something to do with him being an alpha once, but I think it's just -- I trust him. We've been through a lot together, he's gotten me out of some tight situations. He's an annoying little shit half the time, but he's always had my back when I needed him. It makes things easier."

"You don't trust the others?"

"Not in the same way." Stiles rakes a hand through his hair. "I can't tell them that. Obviously. And it's not like I don't count on them. Just..."

"Not in the same way," John repeats.

Stiles looks at Derek and smiles. "Yeah."

Derek hasn't taken his eyes off Stiles, and there's something in his face that tickles at John's memory. He can't quite get at it. "Derek, what do you think it is?"

"Before, for a while, I was the alpha. Stiles and Scott weren't fully in my pack, but they were allies. They protected the pack, and I -- my pack -- protected them. I think that kind of thing leaves a mark."

John nods slowly. He can see that. He can see it either way, really. And it's a relief, either way. It means Stiles isn't lying to him -- not this time. Not again. Not any more than any normal kid might, anyway. He sighs, and shakes his head.

"Okay," he says. "I'm still taking off, though. This is a lot to take in."

Derek nudges at Stiles's foot with his shoe, and Stiles makes a face. "There's probably more I should tell you about the emissary stuff," he says.

"Is any of it likely to get you killed before dinner time?"

Stiles blinks. "No?"

John waves a hand. "Then tell me later, okay? Let me get a couple of drinks in first."

~

A few weeks go by in relative peace. John slowly digests the emissary thing. It's not a bad thing, it's just weird. He's gotten used to worrying about Stiles being weaker and slower than the pack he runs with. Now it's starting to look like that doesn't matter, but it doesn't help as much as John thinks it should. He still can't turn off the fear.

"You can't turn off the fear because you can't turn off being a father," Chris says. "Here, try some of the mint chocolate chip. It's good." He passes a carton of ice cream across John's kitchen table.

"Oh, no. Me first." Melissa grabs the carton and the spoon. "Alpha mom's privilege."

Chris rolls his eyes, and John snatches the carton away as soon as she's done. There's maybe half a scoop left. He sighs, and drops it back onto the table next to the empty pint of Rocky Road. "I should just be glad he can protect himself," John says. "I am glad he can protect himself."

"Allison can protect herself." Chris waves his spoon for emphasis. "You think I don't go nuts every time she's out of my sight?"

"Hell," Melissa says, "Scott thinks he can protect everybody, and I still freak out. Your reactions are one hundred percent parent-normal, John."

"I keep waiting to get used to it. But I'm not going to get used to it, am I? He's out there playing Harry Potter in the woods with a bunch of puppies, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it." John stabs his spoon into his bowl viciously, and shoves almost a full scoop of ice cream into his mouth. "Jesus."

"Well, there is one thing you can do," Chris says.

"What's that?"

"You can never let him hear you call him Harry Potter, as long as you live."

Melissa leans back in her chair and cackles, tucking her knees up to her chest and taking a swig from her second beer. "I'll drink to that," she says.

~

The bunny thing escalates to deer, and from there to a woman named Jessica Latham whose house backs onto the Preserve. She's found just like everything else -- her throat cut cleanly, her body drained of blood, her eyes empty black sockets staring blankly at the sky. The human side of the investigation turns up nothing, but Stiles and his pack have better luck. Or worse.

John gets a call at 2pm on a school day, and it's Scott, out of breath, scared. "We're taking him to the clinic," Scott says, "you should come." John hits his lights and his siren, and pulls into Alan's parking lot before Derek's SUV rolls to a complete stop.

"Stiles," he says, yanking the back door open. John's voice is quiet as a whisper, and his hand shakes as he reaches out. "Jesus. What -- where is he hurt -- what happened?"

"Not my blood," Stiles says, but he hisses when John reaches for his shoulder. "Don't... don't touch me. I think I'm kind of electrified."

Derek seems to have some kind of exemption. He lifts Stiles out of the car like he weighs nothing. His face is pale, and his eyes are wide and bleak. Scott gets the door, and Derek carries Stiles straight in, past a young couple with a yapping Westie and a young woman with a cat yowling pathetically from its carrier. Alan comes out to meet them, swinging the gate wide to let Derek into the back. Behind them, the receptionist calmly says, "Prior appointment," to the room at large and goes back to reading her magazine.

Derek lays Stiles on the exam table, but he doesn't step back. His hands stay on Stiles's shoulders, and John can make out thin black lines snaking up Derek's arms, pulsing beneath the skin. "What are you doing?" John says. "What --- what is that?"

"Stiles is going to be fine," Scott says. He lays a hand on John's shoulder and squeezes. "Derek is taking the pain away."

Derek's arms have been black since he came out of the SUV. "How long has he been doing that?" John swallows around a hard lump of terror in his throat. "How much is there?"

Through clenched teeth, Derek grates out, "A lot."

Stiles says, "Dad --" but doesn't get any further. There's a commotion out front, a crash, and a scream that gets cut off before it has a chance to really get going. The door to the back opens and Peter Hale strides in, his hand around the throat of a short, squirrelly-looking guy in a blue felt hat.

The squirrelly-looking guy squirms and flails in Peter's grip. His face is turning as blue as his hat. Peter doesn't seem to notice. "Scott," he says pleasantly. "How would you like me to handle this?"

"He can break the spell," Scott says. "Or you can break his neck. I don't care which."

"Me neither," Stiles rasps from the table. He fumbles for John's hand and squeezes it like a vice. "He's the guy, Dad. He killed the -- everything. And that woman. It was him."

"He's a very bad man," Peter says. "Take it from one who knows."

John looks at Derek. "He's the one hurting my kid?"

Derek nods, and John turns to Peter. "Do whatever you have to, to make it stop."

Still wearing an odd, soft smile, Peter begins to tighten his grip. The man in the blue hat claws at Peter's hand, his struggles growing weaker and weaker. Sickened, John turns away.

"Let him go," Stiles says quietly. "Peter. Let him go."

Stiles struggles to sit up, swinging his legs over the side of the table. He looks down at the man gasping for breath on the floor at Peter's feet. "You get this one chance," Stiles says. "Just this one."

"Keliae ... keliae tressade ... keliae" the small man gasps, "Keliae serensi, keliara..."

The black lines on Derek's arms turn to charcoal, then pale grey. After a second they vanish, and Stiles sits up straighter. The pained squint of his eyes relaxes, and his breath comes slower, easier. John looks up at the ceiling, the sky, whatever might be beyond it, and says a quiet prayer of thanks.

"I still get to kill him, though, right?" Peter says. "It's not like any jail can keep him in, and we're in no position to keep him out."

"What is he?" John asks.

"He's a novice necromancer," Stiles says. He looks up at John. "And Peter's right. He can't go to jail, Dad. He uses death for power. Even if you put him in solitary for the rest of his life, all he needs is a... a cockroach, or a rat. And if we send him away, even if he doesn't come back here, he's just going to do the same thing somewhere else."

"Necromancers are addicts," Alan says quietly behind him. "It's not just a discipline. It becomes a hunger. He's lost to himself now. There's no going back."

"Christ," John says. He leans against the table, staring down at the ... the prisoner? The necromancer? His eyes are quick and black, darting from one face to another around the room. He scrabbles back from the implacable look on Stiles's face, and butts up against Peter's knees. John's hands tighten on the edge of the table, and he looks away. He's on foreign territory here, and this guy hurt his son.

Beside him, Stiles says to Peter, "Do it." And then, to Derek, "Get my dad out of here, okay?"

~

Derek puts a hand on John's shoulder and guides him out the back door. They almost make it outside before John hears the scream. It's cut short like before, a deep and final quiet taking its place. Derek's grip on his shoulder tightens, and John lets himself be led back to his car.

"Keys?"

John fumbles in his pocket and hands them over. Derek starts the car, throws one last glance over his shoulder at the clinic, then pulls out into traffic.

"Home or office?"

"Home," John says. "Please."

The rest of the drive passes in silence. There's a dead guy in Alan Deaton's clinic, and Stiles and his friends had made him that way. It's a lot to process. The dead guy killed a woman in John's town, the town John is sworn to protect, and John's not particularly sad to have him gone. But he could have done without hearing the finality in his son's voice as he passed sentence. He could have done without that for a long, long while.

They pull into the driveway, and Derek cuts the ignition. John makes a move to get out, but Derek stops him with a hand on his arm, and when John looks over, Derek's got that look on his face again. It's calm and hopeless at the same time, like Derek's reached the end of something important and made his peace with it.

"He's good," Derek says. "Stiles. He's ... he's good. For all of us. Things like this, you don't have to worry. He always gets it right. Scott's too soft, Peter's crazy, and I'm not ... I don't always make the best choices. The magic stuff, that's useful. But this ... this is what we need him for."

Looking into Derek's face, John tries to parse 'things like this' and 'always' without going out of his mind. There's no time for that. This kid, he doesn't need that. What he does need, John can't even guess at. But he's starting to think his son is a pretty big part of it.

"I hate this," John says. "I hate it, Derek. Do you get that?"

Derek nods sharply. "Yes, sir. But you can't take him from us."

"I could." John says it quietly, but with absolute certainty, and watches Derek's face as the message hits home.

"Then... don't." Derek's grip on John's arm tightens. "Please. Don't."

John lays his hand over Derek's. "I won't, Son," he says, and God help him, he means it. If this is what Stiles wants, if this is his place... "I won't."

~

Stiles spends a week in bed, recovering from the physical stress of the magical pain he'd been inflicted with. He sleeps through most of it, and when he's awake, he's usually on the phone with Scott. Every now and then, John hears a thump on the roof above the dining room, the determined tread of footsteps crossing over to Stiles's bedroom window. He considers it a courtesy, and tries not to wonder how many times he hasn't heard anything, before.

Saturday morning, he knocks on Stiles's door and pushes it open without waiting. Father's prerogative. Derek's there, in the chair beside Stiles's bed. He's got Stiles's hand in both of his. There aren't any black veins running up his forearms, but John can still see them when he closes his eyes. Stiles is sleeping. Derek has his head down, but he looks up when John says, "Good morning."

Derek doesn't say anything. John's not surprised. Not much of a talker, this kid. Stiles probably more than makes up for it. "Anything I need to worry about?" John asks, "other than this, I mean?" and Derek, red-faced, shakes his head.

John waits. When there's nothing else forthcoming, he says, "Breakfast is in fifteen minutes. I hope you like egg white omelettes."

"I do," Derek says. "Thanks."

John starts to back out of the room. But before he gets far, Derek says, "I like the grilled muffins at Della's a lot, too. You ever tried one those?"

Derek's face doesn't even change that much. A slight lift to the eyebrows, a twist at the corner of his mouth.

"Are you trying to blackmail me in my own house, Derek?" John asks, eyes narrowed.

"I am if it's working," Derek says solemnly, then ducks his head before a real grin can get away from him.

John pulls his son's door shut, and laughs.

~

Downstairs, John pulls out two bowls, a whisk, and the half-carton of eggs left over from last weekend. He thinks about what he and Stiles usually consider a substantial breakfast -- and then he thinks about the werewolf holding his son's hand upstairs. Derek probably requires more than a three-egg-white omelette to get him from one side of the morning to the other, and that's all the excuse John needs. He puts the eggs and the whisk away, and picks up the phone.

Ten minutes later, Stiles wanders downstairs with his hair standing straight up. His eyes are still bleary, but wide with alarm. Derek is right behind him, looking a little more put together, if no less worried. "So," Stiles says, "Derek. He, uh--"

"Put some clothes on," John says kindly. "The McCalls and the Argents are joining us for breakfast."

"Oh." Stiles scratches the back of his neck and peers around the kitchen, like he expects them to pop out of the pantry. "Okay..."

"At Della's," he says, meeting Derek's eyes over Stiles's shoulder. Derek's eyebrows climb, and John grins, with only a minor excess of satisfaction.

No way is John letting his kid's smartass werewolf boyfriend hold his muffins hostage. Not while he's still standing. And he's a hundred percent done with secrets in this family, anyway.

~