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When Cora opened the door, Stiles had hoped to see Derek sitting on the spiral staircase or pacing in front of the windows.

Cora smirked. “And you’re looking for Derek, who once again isn’t here.” Cora dismissed him, turning and walking away as if Stiles should leave and close the door behind him. He followed her in instead, and got a dirty look over her shoulder for his trouble. Peter sat in the overstuffed chair, his legs stretched out in front of him, hands clasped on his lap.

“Where is he?” Stiles asked as he dropped his backpack on the floor next to the couch. Derek, who always seemed to feel the need to take on the entire world by himself, had managed to make himself scarce even in his own home since Erica’s death. Stiles, Isaac, Boyd and even Scott had gone a couple of times to talk to him, but he was never at the loft, the train cars or the shell of his family home. Stiles knew Derek was a brooder, and he couldn’t fault him for doing it now. But he hated to think he was off somewhere alone blaming himself.

Peter shrugged. “We’ve tried to tell him that Erica was not his fault.”

“He never listens.” Cora sat next to Stiles, her expression such a copy of Derek’s scowl it made Stiles smile. “What’s that look for?” she asked, somewhere between a grunt and a growl.

“You Hales. So much alike.” Stiles shook his head. “I wish Derek could focus on the positive for a change. Boyd made it out alive. He has a sister back he thought was dead all these years. That counts for a lot.”

Cora looked down at her knees, one corner of her mouth turning up in a smirk. Before Stiles could ask what was going through her mind, Peter sat up and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and looked at Cora with his head tilted.

“It would probably be a little easier for Derek if the long-lost sister he’d been reunited with acted the least bit happy that he was alive.” Peter’s tone held no judgment. He sounded more curious than anything.

“I didn’t--I don’t mean to . . . I’ll try to do better, okay?” Cora crossed her arms and glared at Peter.

“That’s all I ask,” he said.

Aren’t you happy about it?” Stiles asked, then wished he hadn’t when Cora’s head snapped in his direction.

“Of course, I am. It’s just all been a little overwhelming and unexpected. I thought . . . a lot of things that were wrong.”

“Like?”

“Like things that we don’t need to talk about right now.” She raised an eyebrow and gave the same conversation over glare to Stiles first and then Peter, who’d leaned forward in anticipation of finding out, too.

“So very much a Hale,” Stiles whispered. He pulled his laptop out of his bookbag, ignoring the look Cora gave him, and opened it on the coffee table. Peter moved to the arm of the couch on Stiles’ other side.

“This is a list of dates, times and incidents that I know of. Everything the alpha pack has said, done or threatened.” He looked at each of them briefly. “Let me stress the part where I said that I know of. So if you know something I don’t have here, let’s drop the famous Hale reticence long enough to fill in the gaps. There’s no point in doing this if I don’t have all the information.”

“It looks complete to me,” Peter said. “I’m actually impressed.”

Stiles grinned at Peter, then looked at Cora, waiting for her assessment. She shrugged and rolled her eyes as if to say yeah, it’s okay. He counted that as high praise from her, though, so Stiles felt pretty good about his plan to examine everything the alpha pack had done to try to predict their next move. At least it couldn’t hurt to try.

“They said some things, when we were in the bank vault.” Cora filled Stiles in on the pretty vague threats they’d made--mostly about how they were going to get Derek to kill his betas and join their pack--including their various moods, when they seemed nervous or confident, who came in at approximate times. They’d always been together in the vault, so she guessed that Boyd couldn’t tell them anything other than what she already knew.

By the time he’d added those things to the spreadsheet, Stiles felt like they had a pretty good roadmap for where the alpha pack had been. Now to analyze it to try to figure out where they were going.

***

Two hours and a few arguments later, the three had decided to start sweeping the town nightly, keeping tabs on the alphas’ movements if they spotted them at all. Or more accurately, Peter and Cora decided they would do this without Stiles, despite his arguments.

“You’re human. Weak. You’ll get yourself killed, and then who’ll update the fancy-schmancy spreadsheet?” Cora raised an eyebrow and went to get something to drink.

Stiles frowned at Peter. “So her picture’s in the dictionary under blunt, am I right?”

Peter laughed. “Under a few other words, too. I dare you to figure out what they are.”

“I can hear you.” Cora slammed a cabinet.

“She’s right, you know.” Peter, who’d taken back his chair across from the couch, held his hands out, palm up. “If you do run into one of the alphas, you don’t stand a chance. Especially since your data shows that it’s more likely you’ll run into at least two at once.”

“But--”

“Stiles, I know you’re clever. In your own way, you’re a force to be reckoned with.”

Cora snorted from the kitchen, drawing a hey! from Stiles.

“But it’s not likely you’ll be clever enough to escape a couple of alphas. They know you’re with us. Taking you and holding you over us would be a smart move.”

“So I’ve just helped come up with a plan you intend to lock me out of?”

Cora returned with a drink for each of them, and sat next to Stiles. “See how clever you are?”

Peter laughed, then shook his head at Stiles. “No, that’s not what I mean. But you can’t be alone. If you’re always with one of us, then at least you stand a chance.”

“I don’t like it,” Cora said.

Stiles took a drink, never tearing his gaze away from Cora’s. “Let me try to contain my surprise.”

Cora squinted at him, then turned her attention to Peter. “The two of us, and Derek if we ever see him to explain . . . we can keep an eye out for the alphas. Why does he have to be involved at all?”

Stiles waved his hand. “I’m sitting right here.”

Peter held his hands out. “Okay, okay. Good points all around. There’s really no need for Stiles--for you--to be with us. But if something does happen, having more than one person can be helpful. We can at least keep the alphas busy while Stiles gets help.”

Cora frowned for what felt to Stiles like a really long time. “Makes sense. They probably wouldn’t kill you outright anyway, if they caught you.”

“That’s . . . good to know.”

“And the aim is to look for them in public places, see if they’re getting bolder and making their presence known. It’s unlikely they’d, you know, gut you in a crowd of people.” Cora smiled sweetly at Stiles.

Stiles looked at Peter, who shrugged, a little smile on his face. They discussed the plan some more, Stiles dragging it out a bit longer than necessary in the hopes that Derek might come in before he left. Derek didn’t. Armed with a plan, even if it wasn’t the greatest plan ever known to man, Stiles felt better when he left.

“See you tomorrow, Stiles.” Peter stayed in the chair as Stiles left.

Cora followed him to the door. “Don’t get killed before then.” She smiled at Stiles and slammed the loft door shut, a little harder than necessary, Stiles thought.

***

When Derek came home, his first impressions were scent. Peter. Cora. Stiles. He almost left again. He didn’t think he was ready to deal with whatever Stiles had to say. But his scent was fainter than the rest. He’d probably gone hours ago.

“He has returned.” Peter stood and walked slowly down the spiral staircase. “I was beginning to wonder if you hadn’t bolted for parts unknown.”

Derek glared at Peter, who knew better than that and was just trying to get a reaction.

Peter didn’t give up. “Did you see any of them?”

“No.”

“Despite searching for them with murder on your mind?”

“Peter--”

“Derek, I know what you’re doing. You’re so enraged by what they’ve done that you’re not thinking clearly. You want to find them one by one and kill them, without considering what a reckless move like that could do to the rest of your pack.”

“The rest of my pack?” Derek leaned on the table and shook his head. “What pack?”

Peter slammed his hand down. “Boyd. Isaac. Have you forgotten about them? They’ve lost Erica, too. Cora’s first experience on returning to Beacon Hills was to be captured, meet Boyd and Erica, and then lose one of them.”

Derek stared down at the table.

“As much as Scott protests that he’s not part of your pack, he’s extremely concerned about your well-being. And then there’s me. I’m . . . here.” Peter opened his mouth to protest the frown on Derek’s face, then shook his head. “I’m concerned for you, too. Maybe I don’t express it every second, but you know that I am.”

Derek huffed and nodded.

“And then there’s Stiles.”

“What about him?”

Peter tilted his head, then smiled, showing most of his teeth. “Hmm, heartbeat uptick, shallower breathing, dilated pupils--quite a response. Humans might miss that, but I don’t, Derek. When it happens to you or him. So, I don’t really have to explain, do I? He’s come several times to check on you. He cares. And you obviously like that he cares, but you’re so damn wrapped up in your own misery, you forget that.”

Derek shook his head, but Peter grabbed his shoulder before he could protest.

“You don’t have to invite everyone over to weave flower crowns and sing Kumbaya. But you can’t just disappear and wallow. People care, Derek. And people need you.”

People need you. Why did they? Derek wondered. When he kept making mistakes, doing and saying the wrong things, letting a member of his pack die . . . he wished they didn’t need him. That would be easier.

Cora came into the room. Derek braced himself for biting words or dismissal, but instead she rubbed her hand between his shoulder blades and rested her cheek on his shoulder like she used to do, before. Peter touched the back of her head, then retreated to his bedroom. Cora pulled Derek by the hand to the couch, and sat next to him, her head on his shoulder while he stroked her hair. They didn't speak at all.

It made him sad to remember how they used to be. They’d sat like this for hours sometimes, while they watched TV or read. He missed those times and the family members that were gone. But it also felt right and natural after a few minutes to sit that way again, like maybe they were getting back a little something he thought had burned up with the rest.

***

Cora slid the loft door open and smiled at Stiles, who did his best not to act too pleased about it. Instead of dismissing him, she stepped aside and waited for him to come in before closing the door.

Peter sat on the couch and lifted his chin when he saw Stiles.

“Derek?” Stiles asked.

“Not here.”

Stiles sighed and felt his shoulders slump a little.

“He’s buying groceries, though.” Peter smiled. “I think he’s feeling a little better.”

“Are we gonna wait for him, or . . . .”

Peter and Cora exchanged a look. “Not yet,” Cora said. “Give him some time to get settled.”

“You haven’t even told him what we’re doing, have you?” Stiles laughed. “Totally keeping it on the down-low.”

“Only for now.” Peter patted the coffee table, so Stiles put his laptop there and sat, with Cora sitting on his other side. They mapped out where to spend the next few hours, what to look for, and how to contact each other if things went belly-up.

***

When Derek got back with groceries, he felt a little lighter. Handling an everyday, domestic chore had been enough to keep him distracted for a while. He slid the door open and dropped half of the two dozen bags he had hooked over his forearms and hands.

“I know I’m strong and capable, but I also know you heard me pull in. One of you could have come to help with . . . .”

Derek realized he was talking to himself at the same he realized he smelled Stiles. No one was here, the distraction of a chore had kept him from noticing on the way up, but they had been there recently. Stiles had been here recently. He felt a little bad that he’d missed him again. If Stiles was that concerned that he came every day to see him, the least he could do was try to put him at ease. Hopefully, Peter had explained that he was trying.

His chest felt tight at the thought that he didn’t want Stiles, of all people, to feel disappointed in him, even though Derek felt that he should. And as rotten as he felt about Stiles coming to see him and him not being there, he guessed that was better than seeing any disappointment on Stiles’ face.

He wondered where Cora and Peter had gone, and assumed they must be together. He texted Peter, and got the reply a few minutes later that they’d simply gone out to get some fresh air. Fair enough.

He put the groceries away and ate a sandwich. Then he followed Stiles’ scent to find the spot where it was the strongest--on the couch. He sat there and tried not to feel too guilty while he let himself bask in the familiar comfort of it.

***

Stiles went to the loft almost every evening. He showed up, they made a plan for searching Beacon Hills for signs of the alpha pack, and they went out. He usually went home straight from wherever they ended up. One night he stayed with Cora during the patrol, the next with Peter.

Before they started this, despite the risk, Stiles was sure he’d have felt better being on his own. Peter was . . . Peter. While he didn’t exactly feel threatened by him anymore, the man had done things that Stiles had a hard time forgiving. The torment he’d put Lydia through was just the most recent one.

But Peter, without prompting, had tried to explain himself to Stiles when they’d been alone. One moment they were listening to the tires on the wet pavement. The next, Peter sounded haunted and far away.

“I would never have killed my niece if I were in my right mind, Stiles.” Peter didn’t look at him but straight ahead at the road. “I’ve done terrible things, full disclosure, knowing exactly what I was doing at the time. But I would never have hurt La--”

His voice caught. Stiles stayed silent, because it seemed the right thing to do.

“I would never have hurt Laura intentionally.”

Stiles parked, trying to figure out whether he should speak or not. He didn’t, so Peter continued. “I remember, as I was burning, thinking thank god she and Derek weren’t in the house. At least they would survive.”

He turned his head and smiled at Stiles, tears shining in his eyes. “I don’t believe in any god, but that’s exactly what I thought.” Peter looked back at the road. “And yet I killed her. And there aren’t sorrys enough in all of eternity for it.”

Stiles had never seen Peter so distraught. He’d never even imagined Peter capable of tears the way he was now, or ever. But he’d seen the evidence, and instinct told him that all of this was real. It didn’t seem right not to acknowledge something this huge coming from Peter, so Stiles spoke softly.

“I’m sorry that everything happened, to all of you.”

Peter smiled at Stiles again. “We know. All of us.”

When Peter looked away, Stiles caught the movement of a hand wiping his tears away quickly. They didn’t speak for a few minutes. When they did, Peter was back to his usual self, as if the conversation hadn’t even taken place. But Stiles would never forget it.

Peter hadn’t said it wasn’t his fault or tried to totally excuse himself, but explained that he hadn’t always been in complete control of what he was doing. Stiles guessed watching your family burn alive and being put into a vegetative state for years, well, that could take a toll on a person.

He didn’t say he forgave Peter anything, and he didn’t decide that everything was totally okay, but he felt better being around him. Besides, if anyone deserved a break, it had to be any remaining member of the Hale family.

Cora was still mean, but Stiles learned to like it. After all, Stiles could mean sometimes, too. He understood the appeal of it. And he learned to tell when she was truly aggravated or when she was just yanking his chain, which she did a lot more as they spent more time together. She was a bit like Derek, who used to have absolutely no patience for Stiles, but over time had learned to tolerate him and even good-naturedly poke back now and then.

Stiles found himself content no matter which Hale he patrolled with for the night. But he wished that now and then it could be him and Derek. Derek, who still didn’t even know what they were doing, and who still never managed to be there when Stiles arrived. In fact, Peter called Stiles each evening to tell him it was a good time to come over, and Stiles suspected he waited until Derek was gone.

Peter always told Stiles how Derek was--he was better, which was great. And Stiles figured Derek had to know he’d been coming there, because werewolf noses. Boyd and Isaac had seen Derek and felt better. Scott had even caught him out at the store once, and seemed relieved to find him pretty much the same close-mouthed grump as always.

Stiles, however, only got second-hand accounts of his well-being, and assurances from Peter that he kept Derek informed that Stiles was asking after him. But, damn it, that just wasn’t enough.

He’d given Peter his dad’s schedule, and Peter inevitably called earlier on the nights his dad worked. Sometimes Stiles brought food with him, sometimes they ordered when he arrived. A couple of times, he’d cooked something simple like BLTs and omelets. And once, Peter had all the ingredients for baked macaroni and cheese--four cheeses, even, glory be to dairy farms everywhere--and the three of them had all done their part to make a pan of mac and cheese good enough to make a grown man cry.

It had been really nice, and the surprise had made it even more special. Who knew the Hales liked to cook, and that both Peter and Cora made sex moans at the first bite of melted Gruyère cheese? But he did wish Derek could have taken part. And he couldn’t help wondering what sounds Derek might have made.

The next Saturday night, Stiles didn’t wait for Peter’s message. He headed to the loft in the early afternoon, hours before he would have normally shown up. Stiles would say that he thought they should look at all the data again, reanalyze and adjust their plan if necessary, so he’d allowed for extra time.

When the loft door slid open, Stiles was greeted by Cora, whose eyebrows shot up. “Aren’t we an eager beaver.”

“I figured we’d, you know, look over--”

“Can it. I know exactly why you’re here.”

Stiles looked at Cora hopefully.

“He’s upstairs, sleeping.”

Stiles smiled. He intended to hang out there as long as they’d let him, so he’d still be there when Derek woke up.

“Peter’s not here, though.” Cora frowned at him and put her hands on her hips. “So for now, it’s just you and me.”

“Horrors.”

“My thoughts exactly.” Cora started to smile a little, but turned and walked toward the couch. “You know where everything is, and I think you’re here too often to be considered a guest, so help yourself.”

“Certainly, your ladyship.” Stiles went to get something to drink when he heard the ring of footsteps on metal stairs.

Derek stood at the bottom of the stairs in sweats and a stretched out T-shirt. His hair was mussed, his eyes a bit blinky with sleep, and he looked adorable. Stiles wondered at his sanity in thinking such a thing, but it was true. He wanted to knuckle-rub Derek’s head and whap him with a pillow.  

“Did you just call her your ladyship?” Derek turned his head toward Cora. “And did you just giggle about it? Am I still dreaming?”

Derek’s genuine confusion only made him more endearing. Stiles had to blink a few times just to make sure there weren’t actual hearts in his eyes. When had Derek gone from an intimidating brute to someone who needed support and a pat on the head (and other places) in his mind? How in the hell did that happen?

“My Stilinski magic has tapped into your sister’s softer side.”

“No,” Cora said, glaring up at Stiles. “No, it hasn’t.”

“You can’t be that surprised that inside your surly, scowly sister is a young girl just longing to giggle and dot her ‘i’s with little bubble hearts.”

“No,” she said. “There’s really not. Shut up.”

“What she said.” Derek pointed in her direction, then took a deep breath and looked down at his feet.

“It’s good to see you.” Stiles took a step in Derek’s direction. “Peter told me you’ve been feeling better, but it’s nice to see it for myself.”

“I’m fine.” Derek glanced at Stiles, then pushed past him for the fridge. He opened the door and glared in, though Stiles wasn’t sure if he was really seeing the food or just trying to hide his head in the refrigerator. “Thanks,” Derek grunted. Stiles was sure that he only said it because he thought he should.

“Anytime. Hey, do you want--”

“Stiles,” Derek said, turning to face him. “I don’t want to talk, I don’t need to discuss anything that’s happened, so just let it go. I appreciate your concern.” His expression softened as he said, “I really do. But I don’t want to dwell on it anymore. Okay?” Derek’s jaw muscles clenched, but the look in his eyes was more desperate than angry, Stiles thought.

“O-kay. But I was just asking if you wanted me to make eggs or something. I haven’t had lunch, and you just woke up . . . .”

“Oh.” Derek licked his lips. “Oh, I . . . .”

Cora giggled, causing both Stiles and Derek to turn and look at her. “What?” she said, then held her book up to hide her face.

Stiles guessed it was because she kept smiling and didn’t want Derek to see. “You’ve got the makings for eggs and bacon, or BLTs or something. I don’t mind.” Stiles took a chance and squeezed Derek’s shoulder as he passed him to get in the fridge.

“I guess . . . BLTs?” Derek asked softly.

“Sure thing, buddy.” Stiles pulled the bacon, tomatoes, lettuce and mayo out of the fridge and found the skillet.

Derek sat next to Cora on the couch. Stiles found himself wishing he hadn’t offered to cook, because he swore Derek’s eyes tracked him the whole time. Whether that was true or wishful thinking, it made him uncomfortable.

Watch today be the day I burn the bacon, set the grease on fire and chop off a finger slicing tomatoes.

Stiles flinched when the loft door slid open, but Derek and Cora didn’t even twitch. Of course, they’d heard him coming.

“Stiles. Ooh, BLTs?” Peter sniffed the air and looked approvingly at the stovetop. “Stiles cooks bacon perfectly for sandwiches. Just crispy enough without being burned.” He said the last part to Derek, who looked at Peter as if he’d just said something in another language.

“That so.” Derek didn’t make it a question. Stiles wondered if it hurt Derek’s head to get his eyebrows that low and that close together.

“It is,” Peter answered anyway and began slicing tomatoes. “So, Stiles. You’re here early.”

“Nothing to do, thought we’d--”

“Have lunch, and you could check up on Derek. Good plan.” Peter’s glare was amazing. It communicated. His face spoke whole sentences of don’t let Derek in on the plan yet without words. It actually might have been saying spill the beans to Derek and I’ll snap your neck with one swipe of my claws, but Stiles chose to interpret Peter’s glare generously, given their new working relationship-slash-friendship.

Derek seemed to examine them both through squinted eyes for a moment before he relaxed. Probably seconds before a mighty eyebrow implosion, Stiles thought.

Just as he finished the BLTs, Stiles’ phone rang. His dad ended up being free for the rest of the day. When he hung up, he looked at Derek and wondered if leaving now meant he wouldn’t see him again for several days or weeks. Maybe not. His dad, though, it was a given that he wouldn’t be able to spend an entire afternoon with him anytime soon with both their schedules. And Derek really did seem all right. More all right than Stiles had expected, at least.

He didn’t realize he was still staring at Derek until Peter cleared his throat. “I said, that was your father?”

“Oh. Oh, yeah. Wants to spend some quality time with his offspring, and since that means me . . . I guess we’ll all have to have lunch another time?” He caught Derek’s eye when he asked, hoping for a nod or some affirmation that he’d be welcome to come back again. Derek gave Stiles a very even, neutral glare as he took a bite, then stared while he chewed.

Jesus, not even an eyebrow twitch. Stiles sighed and looked for the jar he’d used once before to pour the grease out of the skillet.

“I’ll clean up later, Stiles. You go and spend time with your father.” Peter clapped him on the shoulder and went to sit and eat.

“Thanks. Yeah. So.” Stiles bounced on his toes for a minute, waiting for Derek to say something.

“I do get a naughty little charge out of the idea of a human cooking for werewolves,” Peter continued. “Serving them. Makes a sort of cosmic sense, no? Cleaning up now and then’s the least I can do for that little bit of satisfaction, not to mention the good food.” Peter smirked at Stiles as he took a huge bite--complete with partially extended werewolf teeth.

He and Peter were becoming friends, but the guy could still be an asshole sometimes.

Cora wiggled her fingers at Stiles. “See ya, Stilinski.” Was she smiling?

“See ya.” Stiles gathered his things quickly and gave Derek a last glance before walking out. Derek didn’t look up from his plate.

“Stiles.” Derek spoke just as Stiles was sliding the door closed. His voice was low and even, like he was making some dire pronouncement or warning Stiles to shut up or get out of the way as he’d done so many times before.

Stiles braced himself. “Yeah?”

“Good sandwich.”

After hesitating what was surely an ignorant amount of time, Stiles blurted, “You know it,” and closed the door.

“Oh my god. Smooth move, Stiles. God.” He shook his head and tried to shrug it off as he headed down to the Jeep.

For the first time in a few weeks, Stiles didn’t patrol with Peter and Cora. Peter texted him after a few hours and told him to wait until tomorrow. He knew Peter wanted to make sure he didn’t cut his time with his dad short, which actually moved Stiles. Who knew Peter Hale not only had real feelings, but maybe a bigger heart that he’d thought possible. And maybe the asshole routines were for Derek’s benefit. At least sometimes.

Stiles and his dad went to a late-afternoon action flick, complete with soda and snacks. He didn’t even frown when his dad ordered extra butter on the huge tub of popcorn they were going to share. No point in dampening the mood even a little bit, and it had been an age since his dad had gone to the movies. They had dinner after at the burger joint with the best bacon cheeseburgers, curly fries and milkshakes in town. Again, he didn’t flinch when the server brought two shakes and gave them a couple of minutes to decide on the rest.

“I’m on to you, Pops. Spend time with Stiles day is actually eat horrible and unhealthy food day when my son is least likely to scold me for it. You’re using me to indulge. I feel dirty.” Of course, Stiles said all this while deciding whether he wanted a bacon cheeseburger for himself, or whether he’d like the one with pepper jack cheese, guacamole, an onion ring under the bun and a fried egg on top of it all. Bacon cheese, he decided. Better not give his dad any ideas.

“Not true. This is totally about spending time with you. Your willingness to look the other way today is only a bonus.” John took a long drink of his triple-chocolate, banana milkshake. “I’m the father here, so don’t you be an old poop. There’s fruit in this. It’s healthy.”

Stiles was laughing when the server came and took their orders.

John tapped the table when she walked away. “I’ll compromise, though. I’ll drink light beer while we watch the game tonight.”

“Fair enough, Dad. Fair enough. I can handle the taste of light beer. I’ll make the sacrifice.”

“Your beer is going to be the lightest variety. Of the root kind.”

“Eh.”

“Nice try, though.”

His dad hadn’t known who was playing when he’d mentioned the game, but it didn’t matter. Just sitting and watching some sports with his dad, both of them in good moods, was the icing on the cake of the best day Stiles had enjoyed in a long time. It didn’t hurt that his dad had brought actual cake home from the restaurant, and they demolished it during the game.

“I swear I’ll eat celery for dessert for the next two weeks. It’s piña colada cake, Stiles. Piña colada.”

By the time the game was over, St. Louis having smashed Pittsburgh in an embarrassing 7-0 sweep, Stiles felt full, sleepy and content. He expected his dad to doze off before the 6th inning from a sugar crash if nothing else, but when he looked at his dad, he got a smile.

“So what would you be doing if you weren’t here with me?” John finished off the beer he’d been nursing for two hours and put the can on the coffee table.

“Selling crack, pimping. You know, the usual.”

John’s eyebrows went up. He would not be distracted, apparently.

“Running around with Scott or playing video games in my room. What else?” Stiles shrugged.

“Just Scott or video games? Because I don’t think that’s all you’d be doing.”

Stiles chewed his lip, then cringed. “If this is about that porn site, that was one time and--”

“No, it’s not--Jesus, Stiles.” John rubbed his forehead and leaned back in his chair. “It’s about you, sighted all over Beacon hills on a handful of occasions, at night, with a very attractive young lady and once, a . . . man. A man who is apparently very much older than you. Much older. I don’t think I know these friends of yours, by their descriptions.”

Who the hell could have spotted them and ratted him out to his dad? He was sure they were staying off the radar.

John pointed and twirled his finger a little. “I can see your mind working, Stiles. I know you too well. Before you ask, Deputy Parish, the new hire.”

“He saw me and decided to kiss up to you by chronicling my nighttime activities?”

“He saw you with the man and was concerned. Then he saw you with the girl, and was less concerned, but by then had me asking pointed questions. He’s not kissing up. He’s looking out for his boss’ kid.”

“Tomato, tomahto.”

“Who is he, Stiles?”

It would figure that his dad wanted to know Peter’s identity and not Cora’s. Peter sounded like the threat. Technically, he couldn’t really fault the deputy’s or his dad’s sixth sense regarding Peter, could he?

“Nobody, dad. The uncle of a classmate. He saw me out and made conversation, I gave him a ride. Truly no big deal.” When had he gotten so very good at lying right to his father’s face? “The girl is Cora Ha--Hastings, from school.”

Stiles’ neck tightened like a rope pulled taut. He’d almost slipped and said Hale, and wouldn’t that have been a hard one to explain. He hoped his dad didn’t remember Coraline Hastings and realize just how much she did not look like the description he’d probably been given by Deputy Suckup.

“So you’re dating and you didn’t tell me?”

“We’re not dating, Dad.” Stiles stood and grabbed their trash. “Just hanging out. We’re friends.”

“Parish said she’s pretty.” John followed Stiles into the kitchen.

“Very pretty.” He shrugged one shoulder and smiled. “If you like ‘em a little mean.”

John chuckled. “Mean?” He leaned against the counter next to Stiles.

“Yeah, she’s pretty fiery. It’s taken a while for us to be comfortable around each other, but now that we are, I think we’re really good friends. She would never admit that, or probably show it unless slamming a person against a wall or calling them an idiot is a sign of affection, but we are. We . . . have each other's backs.” He realized he was talking about Peter as much as Cora. And Derek. He was also talking about Derek.

John patted Stiles on the back. “It’s always better if you’re friends first.”

“Dad, it’s not like that with her, I swear.”

John held his hands up in surrender, then frowned. “She slammed you against a wall?”

Stiles almost said no, Derek did, but caught himself. “Metaphorically.” Stiles felt himself starting to sweat under his dad’s doubtful glare. “Aaaand physically, but only once. Or so.” Stiles cringed. “Didn’t hurt me or anything. Just . . . chest-puffing.” Derek’s chest.

“Ah. Playground crush rules. Pick on the one you like, hmm? You know, I pulled your mom’s ponytail once when we were kids, and she damn near destroyed my instep when she stomped my foot.” John smiled with the memory. “Not that I’m recommending you maim this girl or let her slam you around, just suggesting that you see things for what they are. If you’re just friends, fine. But maybe that’s because you’re not noticing the signs that it could be more.”

“Are you trying to find me a date or something? Get me paired off and out of the house?” Stiles laughed and crossed his arms. “Why don’t you do me a favor and go give this lecture to Lydia Martin.”

“Not trying to find you a date, just making sure your eyes are open. Lately it seems your attention problems have gone the opposite way, and you hyper-focus on little things to the neglect of everything else.” He squeezed Stiles’ shoulder and turned to go back into the living room.

He couldn’t fault his dad for speaking the truth. Before he could admit anything, though, his dad turned and put his hand around the back of Stiles’ neck, lowering his head to give Stiles one of his let me tell you something looks. “And if Lydia Martin hasn’t noticed what a fine young man you are by now . . . she doesn’t deserve you. Remember that.”

Stiles rubbed the corner of his eye with a knuckle and sniffed, nodding. Probably just some dust. Yeah.

John pulled Stiles in for a hug, then went back into the living room, grabbing a bag of potato chips Stiles didn’t even know they had out of the cabinet as he went.

***

After Stiles had gone home, Derek had finished his sandwich and made conversation with Cora and Peter, who only seemed to want to talk about Stiles. The fact that Peter had eaten the boy’s BLTs before and praised his bacon-making skills irritated the hell out of Derek. The familiar way he spoke about Stiles raised his hackles. It didn’t bother him so much when Cora talked about him, but that was somehow different. He still felt a bit left out that they seemed to know so much about Stiles when Derek had been the one who knew him the longest. They’d saved each other’s lives multiple times. How was it that Peter knew Stiles didn’t like black olives and that he sometimes still had a slight limp in cooler weather because he’d ripped all the tendons in his ankle as a kid.

When was all this Stiles time taking place? Surely not right here at the loft. It smelled of Stiles just about every day, but he didn’t spend that many hours here. It had gotten fainter with time, in fact, as if he were here for less and less time each visit.

After Derek washed and dressed, he decided to go find out what he could about this newfound friendship between Stiles and his family. And it wasn’t entirely out of any sense of misplaced jealousy, either. Peter was nothing if not deceptive. He’d be doing Stiles a favor by spying a little.

He watched the Stilinski house from a carefully chosen spot several manicured lawns away. Stiles and his father left, so Derek waited until it was dark enough he wasn’t likely to be spotted sneaking in, and let himself in through Stiles window.

It only a took a little snooping through Stiles’ laptop to find the spreadsheet and figure out just how and when Stiles was spending so much time with Cora and Peter. “Stupid,” he growed. “Reckless!” When was Stiles going to understand that he was human. Very, very mortal. It wasn’t an insult, just a fact. Werewolves could get away with so much, but Stiles couldn’t. He had to stop thinking that everything would always be all right when he could bleed to death from a wound that a werewolf would only huff at until it healed a few moments later.

At least now Derek knew and could better protect him.

Before he left, he couldn’t resist snooping a little more. He found a collection of pornography--gay porn, he noted--in a folder called, “Boring Ass Research on Bolshevik Russia,” and another set of images and videos, some straight and some threesomes, in a folder called, “Stats and Formulas.”

Derek wasn’t fantastic with computers, but Peter had shown him a few things. Derek amused himself for a couple of minutes, tinkering, and didn’t let himself feel guilty for doing it. They were keeping an entire dangerous and hairbrained plan from him, after all.

***

The next few weeks went by much like the last few--no Derek when Stiles showed up, nights spent with either Peter or Cora, and more often both of them. He wasn’t sure when the big plan to split up had been thrown out the window, but the threat had seemed mild lately so they stuck together. And Stiles kept his eye out for the observant young deputy trying to score points with his dad.

He’d thought his computer had some sort of a virus for a day or so when his background suddenly changed to an image of Dora the Explorer, but he’d virus-scanned and found nothing. He’d deleted the image, and had found no problems since. Still, he scanned it daily for a while, just to be sure.

One night when the three of them had dinner together out of town then spent an hour or so leisurely cruising around Beacon Hills, Stiles went back up to the loft after they were done.

Derek waited on the couch.

“Nephew! You’re home.” Peter took his usual spot in the chair, while Cora sat on the couch and Stiles stood behind Peter.

“Obviously.” Derek crossed his arms and somehow managed to convey his extreme displeasure with all of them at once with a single expression. He was like one of those paintings with eyes that follow you no matter where you go, only with a frown instead.

“Something wrong?” Peter actually wore a half-smile. Was the dude just hoping for Derek to break him half?

“Just waiting up for you two.” Derek looked up at Stiles. “And you're here, too. That's convenient. Ask Scott if he’ll come. Saturday. Scott, Boyd, Isaac . . . Allison Argent if she’ll come. Lydia, if she will.”

Everyone looked at Peter, who heaved a deep breath and sighed. “Lydia won’t if I’m here. I can stay upstairs if need be.”

Derek spoke, his eyes on Stiles again. “We need to talk about the alpha pack. Make a plan.”

Stiles pumped his fist before catching himself. “Yes! Yes. I mean, of course. Good idea.” Derek was stepping up, getting out of his funk. As long as the rest of them had some say in this plan of his, maybe by revealing the one they’d already been implementing, it might just turn out okay.

“Glad to hear it, Derek.” Peter crossed his ankles, laced his fingers together, and leaned his head back. “I hope Scott will come.”

“He will. I’ll make sure,” Stiles said. He had no doubt he would. Erica was still a raw wound for all of them. There was no way Scott would abandon the pack now, even if he claimed he wasn’t part of it, after Erica. He swallowed down the lump that always formed in his throat when he thought of her. Whether she was calling him Batman or knocking him out with a car part, Erica had been something. And she deserved to be here, alive and well and bitchy and tough and beautiful as ever. God, he missed her.

Before he could start dwelling on regrets, Stiles pushed down such thoughts and started planning how to bring the meeting up to Scott. He ended up texting Scott with Peter and Cora hovering on either side of him, pretending not to read what he was typing.

“Neither of you are subtle in the least.”

“No? Then you should probably . . . here.” Cora grabbed Stiles’ phone and erased some of his text, then typed in the same thing he’d said, worded differently. She held it up for them to read. Peter smiled and nodded.

Stiles smiled but shook his head. “He’s gonna know that’s not me. I haven’t threatened to bash in his face in like, oh, for never.” He snatched the phone back, recreated his text and hit send before Cora could grab it again. She nudged him a little, jostling him more when the phone buzzed with a return text. They ended up practically wrestling when Scott sounded hesitant and they disagreed how best to convince him, until Stiles shouted ow, ow, ow and Peter had to remind Cora not to hurt the human.

But when it was all over, Scott agreed to show up on Saturday. Success, even if Cora had practically snapped his little finger in two in the process.

***

When Stiles showed up at the loft the next day, late in the afternoon, Derek answered the door.

“Derek! Can I . . . uh, come in?”

“Meeting’s not until Saturday.”

“Yep, I know.”

Cora shouted from the couch. “Hey, loser!”

“She loves me,” Stiles said, a half-smile on his face.

Derek raised an eyebrow and stepped aside, watching Stiles head straight for the couch, where Cora scooted over to give him plenty of room next to her. He pulled his laptop out, balancing it on his thigh and Cora’s, and in a matter of seconds they were engrossed in whatever was on the screen.

Derek realized he’d stood there watching with the loft door open. He closed it, then went to the fridge for a drink of water.

Peter came down the stairs. “Stiles,” he said in greeting.

“Hey, Dead Man.” Stiles waved and returned his focus to the laptop.

Derek stared at Peter, wondering what madness had overtaken him that he not only didn’t threaten Stiles, but actually smiled a little at being called such a name.

“You let him call you that?”

Peter shrugged. “It’s ironic.”

“I . . . technically, I don’t think it is.”

“Hey, do you want to watch this?” Stiles shouted at Peter. “It’ll make you feel even better about yourself, seeing the state these zombies are in.”

“I already have a healthy sense of self-esteem, but thanks anyway.” Peter smirked at Stiles, but Derek could see the affection behind it. He turned to Derek. “Stiles has gotten Cora hooked on The Walking Dead. Not really my thing.” He grabbed a bottle of water and went to read in his usual spot when Stiles was here, the chair across from the couch.

Derek stayed in the kitchen, leaning on the counter, watching his family cozy up to Stiles. Despite Peter’s stated disinterest in the show, before too many minutes had passed, he was perched on the arm of the couch, watching and trading barbs with Stiles.

The next day, Stiles showed up again, greeting Peter with a, “Hey, Bad Lazarus,” that caused Cora to fling a throw pillow and catch Stiles right in the face. But she laughed, and it was clear Peter enjoyed it on some level. What the hell?

Every evening, Stiles showed up and spent time with both Cora and Peter (while often trying to draw Derek into whatever they were doing, he noticed). And from the context of the conversations, he’d had lunch with Cora at least once during the week, and spent time with Peter in a bookstore two towns over, looking for some obscure text on African mythology.

Friday night, Derek heard the Jeep coming. He sat on the couch, reading, when its slightly uneven growl reached his ears. Cora looked up when Derek did, and her scent changed from barely there to a slightly spicy, sweet tang.

Cora was happy Stiles was here. It was the same scent he caught from his uncle when Stiles called Peter any number of names lately, only stronger. They liked Stiles, and were pleased when he showed up. They were friends. Not that Derek wasn’t pleased when Stiles came around, but he was also conflicted about spending too much time with Stiles for his own personal reasons.

Cora hurried to the door. When she slid it open, she cocked her hip. “You better have brought the Chinese you promised, or I’m gonna hurl you down the stairwell.”

“Charming as always,” Stiles said, leaning close and giving Cora a comically exaggerated air kiss on each cheek, and a real one that Cora reached up to scrub away before shoving him. Stiles started pulling boxes out of the bags he carried and arranging them on the counter. “I got everything you wanted and then some. I know my way around a Chinese menu. Oh, hey, Derek.” Stiles smiled at him. “Hope you’re hungry. I got plenty.”

Derek started to reply, but Stiles looked toward the spiral staircase. “Is Deaders back yet?”

Derek exhaled sharply. “If you mean Peter, he said he’d be back by seven.” Deaders. Derek couldn’t help but wonder if he’d reacted differently the first time Stiles had called him Sourwolf, what the hell kind of names Stiles would have ended up calling him down the road. Probably a good thing he nipped that in the bud.

Peter showed up fashionably late, but didn’t seem to mind that they’d started without him. Stiles really had gone all out, so Derek ate his fill.

“How do you eat that much?” Cora asked Stiles at one point. “Hollow thighs, or what? Where do you put it?”

“You eat more than I do!”

“Werewolf metabolism.”

“Right. Well, I don’t know. Growing boy and all that.”

One eggroll remained. Cora and Stiles reached for it at the same time. “Wanna split it?” Stiles asked.

Cora’s look screamed nope. So Stiles quickly licked it from one end to the other in a single, long stripe, and said, “Okay, then.”

Peter laughed. Cora shoved Stiles while trying not to smile and failing. “You are such a teenage boy, god.” She grabbed the last steamed dumpling and smirked at Stiles.

Derek stared at Stiles mouth, now full of the eggroll he’d just licked tip to tip. He sighed and stood, grabbing empty boxes just to have the distraction.

After Stiles left, Derek, Cora and Peter sat in companionable silence. Derek nudged Cora’s knee with his own. “You could smell that Chinese food as easily as I could, long before he reached the door. Why threaten him if he didn’t bring it, when you knew he had it.”

Cora put a hand on Derek’s face. “Oh, my socially awkward big brother.”

“I’m not that awkward.”

“You really are,” Peter chimed in.

“I could smell it, but that doesn’t mean I had to act like it. It was just more . . . fun to act like a human might.”

“A human would threaten to throw him down the stairs?”

“If they knew Stiles well enough, almost certainly.” She chuckled. “But a human couldn’t have smelled the takeout minutes before he arrived. Pointing out that difference between us . . . there’s just no need to do that, not all the time. I can also smell how Stiles gets a little flustered when you’re around, but I don’t let on like I can.”

“Cora--”

“You’ve always been better with scent than I am, Derek. You have to know.”

“And we know,” Peter said, “how Stiles being around makes you smell. Yet we manage to not point it out at every opportunity.”

“Except right now,” Derek growled.

“Time and a place for everything.” Peter grinned.

Derek sighed heavily, then closed his eyes. “My pack . . . end up hurt, because of me. It’s always been that way. And Stiles is human, more fragile. Too much time around me, and he’ll end up hurt, too.”

Peter leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “If Stiles were any other human, one who didn’t know about us and thought you were just another guy like him . . . I’d be all for you staying away from him as much as you could. But Stiles isn’t just anybody. He knows almost as much about us as we do. And he knows you, Derek. You’ve never pretended to be something you’re not in front of him.”

“Which begs the question why he likes you.” Cora’s words would have hurt Derek, had she not shoved him, teasing.

“That’s actually a good point, jokes aside.” Peter scratched his neck, fingernails scritching over the stubble under his jaw. “You’ve never tried to make yourself seem nice or patient or particularly kind. If anything, you’ve been more aggressive, angry and impatient with him than anyone else. Yet he still lights up when he sees you. Ponder that a while, Nephew.” Peter left them alone on the couch.

Cora took Derek’s hand and put her head on his shoulder. “If Stiles gets hurt, Derek, it won’t be because of you. It’ll be despite you trying to prevent it, because I know you’ll do anything to protect those you care about. That doesn’t mean that bad things still don’t sometimes happen. I faced that fact when I was on my own . . . you need to face it, too.”

Cora kissed Derek’s forehead. Before she headed upstairs, she said, “We’re going out for ice cream tomorrow, Stiles and me. You come with us.”

Derek shook his head, but before he could take a breath to protest, Cora pointed at him. “You. Come. With. Us.” She started up the stairs. “It’ll be a nice, relaxing outing before the probably very tense meeting tomorrow night. You need it, Derek. Besides, the last time you bought me ice cream, I was just a kid. I’d say you owe me a cone or two.” She smiled a little sadly at him and disappeared up the stairs.

He’d bought Cora her favorite cone--vanilla and chocolate swirl--a few months before Kate happened. The whole time Cora was talking about some dog she’d taken a shine to, he’d been thinking lovesick thoughts about a girl at his school who played the cello and trying to act like he was paying attention. He rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hands and thought back to a time when she was a little younger and he'd bought her a cone dipped in chocolate. She’d gone to take a bite and pushed the entire top off onto the ground. He’d given her his, even though it was raspberry and, as she pointed out loudly more than twice, not nearly her favorite flavor.

Remembering just how sassy she was and how hard he’d laughed when her ice cream hit the ground, Derek stretched out on the couch and actually considered going. He’d enjoy watching Cora have fun and teasing her as much as he could get away with. The idea of watching Stiles lick an ice cream cone held a certain appeal, too.

***

Derek didn’t go. He made sure to be gone by the time Stiles was supposed to show up for Cora, which was no easy feat with Cora watching him like a hawk. He’d crept out while she was in the bathroom, and knew he’d probably regret it later.

He drove aimlessly around the Preserve for a while, thinking about Stiles’ nearly constant presence, and how differently Peter and Cora seemed now. They were the same, but a little lighter. Stiles played a part in that. Derek felt a little lighter when Stiles was around, too. A little more tense in some ways, physically much more tense, but mentally lighter. A little better overall. So why was he driving around alone, again, instead of feeling a little better and spending time with his sister?

With a heavy sigh, he turned out of the Preserve and headed for Baxterville’s town square ice cream shop, where Cora said they were going.

When he got there, Cora sat alone in a booth, while Stiles stood in line at the counter. Derek slid into the booth across from his sister, who smiled at him. “You ditched me, Derek. That was not nice.”

“But I’m here now, right?”

“Why is that?”

“I owe you a few cones.” He put his hand over hers on the table, then sat back with a sigh. “Why did you come all the way to Baxterville?”

“Stiles said his dad has a new deputy who watches him a little too closely. It’s the principle of the thing, I think.”

“Mmm.” Derek nodded, then looked up when Stiles approached holding two huge ice cream cones.

“Derek! I didn’t know you were coming.” Stiles handed Cora her ice cream. “Gonna get something?”

“No.” Derek dragged a fingertip over the side of Cora’s cone and licked it. “I’m fine.”

Cora laughed. “Hey, get your own.”

Stiles looked at Derek almost like he’d never seen him before.  “Do you like pistachio?”

“I really-”

“He likes pistachio.” Cora ate the curlicue on the top of her ice cream cone first, just like she’d always done as a kid.

“Good. Here.” Stiles shoved his cone at Derek, who took it to keep it from landing in his lap. Then Stiles headed back up to the counter.

“Stiles just gave you his food. That’s pretty serious,” Cora said, chuckling. She hooked her finger into the side of Derek’s ice cream and tasted it.

Stiles returned with a fresh cone for himself and stood awkwardly while Cora, sitting in the middle of her side, stared up at him and licked her ice cream, not offering to scoot over. Derek, on the other hand, had slid all the way over when he got in, so Stiles slid in next to him.

“Better start eating that before it melts,” he told Derek, then licked around the edge of his own to catch a couple of drips that had started. Derek watched his tongue, then scowled at Cora who was watching him with an amused look on her face.

The bell above the door dinged, and Derek smelled his uncle.

“Since you kids decided to do this so far out of town, I thought I’d join you. What is that?” He stuck a finger in Stiles’ ice cream to taste.

“Pistachio,” Stiles said, “and stop it. God knows where your fingers have been.”

Peter mmmmed and went up to get himself some ice cream. Stiles turned to Derek. “Who am I kidding--I’ve never seen anyone wash his hands as much as he does. You ever notice that?”

Derek had, so he nodded. He’d guessed it was from years in a medical facility, unable to do something so simple. Or maybe Peter was still trying to wash the blood off somehow. He hadn’t realized that Stiles had noticed, though.

“He probably made this safer to eat by sticking his finger in it, that’s how clean his hands are.” Stiles licked at his cone again, and Derek looked anywhere but at what his tongue was doing. He concentrated on eating his own ice cream, then smirked at Cora when she scooted over for Peter. She couldn’t have done that five minutes ago? Of course, sitting across from Stiles would make it harder not to watch his mouth every second, so maybe Cora had done him a favor.

Peter had opted for a sundae in a dish. Stiles swiped a pecan off the top, and Cora raked her finger through the hot fudge. Peter didn’t act like he minded.

Derek ate and enjoyed the banter between the three of them, joining in when someone directed something smart-assed his way. He and Stiles sat relaxed enough that their thighs pressed together without one or the other of them trying to shift so that they didn’t touch. It was unusual for Derek to feel this comfortable this close to someone, but he did. It was . . . nice.

“So, Derek,” Stiles started when he was mercifully almost done with his ice cream. “I may have an idea about the alpha pack. Might help, maybe.”

“Stiles has tracked them very carefully via spreadsheet, because he’s nerdy that way,” Cora added. “It’s a lot of data. Could be useful.” She shrugged, but smiled a little in Stiles’ direction.

“Doesn’t really look too useful,” Peter added, “but maybe you should have a look anyway.”

Cora and Stiles both glared, open-mouthed, at Peter, who shrugged and raised his eyebrows.

Derek almost laughed out loud. “Don’t be too offended, Stiles. He only said that because if he’d been too approving, I might get suspicious. I might, for example, think he’s already gone over all your data, and was using it to patrol Beacon Hills. Every night. And letting you go, like an idiot just asking to get hurt.” He took a long lick of his ice cream.  “I might think that, if he didn’t pretend to doubt how useful your spreadsheet is. Theoretically.”

Derek put one finger under Stiles’ chin and pressed up, closing his mouth. He felt the urge to swipe the fingertip over Stiles’ lip, but managed not to.

“How long have you known?” Stiles asked, sounding angry.

“Long enough to marvel at how incredibly stupid you’ve been to expose yourself that way, Stiles. And how wrong it was for you two,” he said, leveling his glare at Cora and Peter, “to let him go.”

“Yet you never said or word or tried to stop us,” Peter pointed out.

Derek shrugged. “I figured you’d just keep sneaking around. All three of you are wired that way." He gave Stiles a pointed look.

“So as dangerous as you say it has been for Stiles, you just let it go?”

“I made sure he was safe.”

Stiles squinted at Derek. “Oh my god, you’ve been following me. How often?”

“Every night,” Derek admitted softly.

“And starting tonight, after the meeting . . . you want me out, don’t you?” Stiles’ back straightened, and Derek knew he was getting ready to launch an argument.

With a sigh, Derek shook his head. “You’d just sneak around on your own, which would be more dangerous for you. From tonight onward, if you’re going to do this, you’ll be with me.”

“Hey, I--” Stiles face shifted from anger and indignance to mild shock. Whatever he’d started out to argue about hadn’t happened, and he looked a little lost. “I mean, oh. Okay. That works.”

Derek liked the blush that appeared on Stiles’ cheeks. He shoved the last bite of his cone into his mouth and chewed, watching the pink darken and spread to the tops of Stiles’ ears.

***

Stiles, predictably, was the first to arrive at the loft later that night. He gave Derek the news that Lydia would come as long as Peter didn’t speak to her directly or even look at her even if she looked at him, which Stiles felt certain she would. Lydia was going to look, with murder in her eyes. Maybe it would help her a little, even.

Peter agreed to not look at her. “Would a heartfelt apology--”

“No!” Stiles said, holding his hand up. “She is nowhere near ready for you to speak to her, even for that. Give it time.”

Scott, Allison and Isaac arrived together, with Scott and Stiles hugging immediately, making Derek wonder just how long it had been since they’d spent much time together in person. It had never been more than a day or two before--now, it seemed Stiles spent most of his free time with Peter and Cora. Derek knew Scott's job was nearly full-time now and kept him busy most days. Boyd showed up right before Lydia walked in, flipping her hair and looking extremely put out.

A nervous-looking kid brought the pizza after that--pizza that Stiles and Peter had claimed was an absolute necessity for a meeting like this one because it wasn’t just about strategy but building pack bonds. Bonding, Derek. Sticky, gluey bonding, Stiles had said. Derek paid and put out the paper plates, soda and cups.

Derek had put folding chairs around the table that Cora and Peter had insisted he purchase long ago, in addition to the chairs he had, so everyone could sit. Peter had strict instructions not to sit anywhere near Lydia, so when she sat at the corner, Allison next to her and Scott on Allison’s other side, Peter sat at the opposite end to avoid glancing up and looking right into her face.

A few pizzas were put in the center of the table, reaching almost from one end to the other. Then Stiles went to sit, and as he passed Lydia from behind, she said, “Watch my shoes, Stiles. They’re Gab--”

As Stiles passed the chair at that end and rounded the long side to sit on the opposite end, between Peter and Cora, Lydia gaped.

“What, Lydia?” Stiles asked, blinking. “Your shoes?” Cora handed him a paper plate, so his focus shifted from Lydia to pizza.

Derek watched this and tried not to smirk. Lydia had simply expected Stiles to take the open seat next to her. Stiles did have big feet, and she wore expensive designer shoes.

Lydia’s face when Stiles didn’t rush to sit next to her, though, was a marvel of disbelief.

“Nothing,” she said, finally. “I didn’t want you scuffing my shoes, but I can see that’s not a problem.” Lydia sounded stunned and pissed all at once. Even Scott and Allison looked at Stiles, in the place Derek was used to seeing him now, between Peter and Cora, as if they couldn’t believe it.

Sorry, Lydia. Maybe he’s tired of being treated like shit, Derek thought. Then he had a guilty moment of his own about how he’d often treated Stiles badly. He consoled himself with the fact that it was never because he thought he was better or far too good for Stiles, which was obviously Lydia’s attitude. He’d still been wrong to do it, but there was that.

Isaac sat on the end next to Lydia (Lydia hmphing as he sat), Boyd sat next to Cora, and Derek sat next to Boyd. “Stiles? Let everyone in on your data and your idea?” Derek asked. So Stiles launched into an explanation while everyone got their pizza and started eating.

Derek only half-listened, but watched carefully. As he talked, Stiles picked the black olives off his slice and put them on Peter’s plate, while Cora picked off a few of her pepperoni--she’d never liked too much on a slice--and gave them to Stiles. They did this without discussion, as if they’d done it many times. Because they had. 

Scott watched from where he sat across from Stiles, as did Allison and Lydia. Then Scott cleared his throat. “You like black olives, too?” he asked Peter.

“I do,” Peter said, looking between Stiles and Scott. Scott had obviously been the recipient of Stiles’ cast-off olives in the past.

“Huh.” Scott frowned and stared at Peter until Allison nudged him, prompting him to eat. Lydia glared in that direction more than she did anything, and Stiles seemed not to notice any of it.

Stiles continued explaining the data he’d gathered and his idea, with both Peter and Cora interjecting facts and opinions, the three of them almost in their own little discussion bubble at times. Then Stiles would look up to see Scott frowning and staring, or Lydia glaring, or Allison looking confused, and talk more at the others for a while.

Derek was almost proud when Cora noticed the furious glare Lydia was giving her, and glared right back. Cora had always taken after him. At least that hadn’t changed.

When it seemed that everyone understood where they were and where they wanted to go from there, Isaac cleared his throat and reached for another slice of pizza. “So when did you three get so chummy, anyway?” he asked, looking at Peter, Stiles and Cora.

All heads turned toward Isaac. He’d never had good sense about what to say out loud and what to keep to himself, Derek knew. His timing also sucked.

“We, uh, bonded over figuring out a way to handle the alpha pack,” Stiles offered, with Cora and Peter nodding. With Stiles’ next slice, Derek noticed he picked off the black olives and held them on his plate out to Scott this time, who grinned and took them.

When their meeting was breaking up, Lydia was the first to leave, giving Peter a death glare that he wisely didn’t see. Allison hurried out with her, leaving Scott to give Stiles another hug. “My next day off, you, me and CoD, all right?” Stiles promised they’d spend the day gorging on junk food and playing video games.

Boyd stayed mostly silent the whole time, but Derek knew he wanted revenge for Erica and little else. They patted each other on the back before Boyd left. Isaac did the same, then followed Scott. Stiles stayed to help clean up, which only took a few minutes with the four of them tossing pizza boxes and paper plates.

“That went surprisingly well,” Peter said.

“Lydia’s not happy with you, Stiles,” Cora added. “If looks could kill, there’d be one Hale left standing.” She pointed at Derek.

“Lydia will come around.” Stiles brushed his hands on his jeans. “It’s not like--I mean, she’s never cared what I did or who I did it with before. One day maybe Peter will be able to make amends, even a little, and it won't matter.”

Derek opened the freezer. “I don't think that's it. Before, you followed on her heels like a puppy dog and took whatever she gave you. You’re not doing that anymore. And she probably misses it.”

“She’ll get over it.”

Derek could tell Stiles really didn't believe it. He put a container of ice cream, one he'd bought earlier when shopping for the paper plates and cups, on the counter with four spoons. Stiles, Peter and Cora gathered around on the other side, grabbing theirs.

Stiles beamed. “So you really do like pistachio ice cream, huh?” All four started eating out of the carton, something Derek and his sisters used to do. It felt . . . homey. Familiar. 

“I forgot how much, until earlier today. You reminded me.” He leaned on his elbows and looked down at the ice cream before scooping out another spoonful. “You’ve reminded me of a lot of things lately.”

Stiles slid the spoon from his mouth slowly, then licked his lips. “Yeah? That’s good, I guess.”

“It is.” Derek looked up at him.

“I’m tired,” Peter said. “Come on.” He took Cora’s arm and pulled her with him, though she was trying to get one last spoonful of ice cream.

“Goodbye, Stiles,” Peter said.

“See you tomorrow,” Cora added.

Stiles waved in their direction, then looked back at Derek with something like a lump in his throat. “So . . . if I go looking for the alphas, I’m with you, then, right?”

Derek nodded. “For your own safety, of course.”

“Of course.”

Derek walked around the counter. “It was a foolish thing you did, going out and trying to keep it from me.” He raised his finger in the air when Stiles started to protest. “It was a foolish thing, but I understand why you did it.”

He grabbed two fistfuls of Stiles’ shirt and pushed his back against the counter, leaning close enough that he could feel Stiles’ surprised gasp on his face.

“But don’t do it again. I don’t want you getting hurt,” Derek said in almost a low growl.

“We’re back to you shoving me around, now?” Stiles said, but his voice wasn’t angry.

“Like I said, you reminded me of a lot of things lately. Things I used to like.” Derek thought Stiles was opening his mouth to smart off about something--that would have been the case weeks ago. Instead, Stiles lurched forward and pressed his lips against Derek’s, his hands fisting in Derek’s shirt.

Derek didn’t let go, but now he used his hands in Stiles’ shirt to pull him in rather than shove him away. Just when they’d both gotten over the surprise and had delved a little deeper, Stiles’ tongue slipped between Derek’s lips in a tentative way that Derek loved. He loved a lot of things about this, in fact. So many things. Too much, too quick. Derek sucked on Stiles bottom lip and pulled back. He took a deep breath.

“You should go,” he said, softer than he intended. “Your dad . . . .”

Stiles tilted his head. “How’d you know he’d be home soon?”

“Saw the schedule you gave Peter.” He let go of Stiles’ shirt and patted down the wrinkles he’d squeezed into it.

“Ah. Yeah, okay. Yeah, I should, I--”  Stiles lunged forward again and caught Derek in another kiss, his hands going around Derek’s waist.

Derek breathed in deeply through his nostrils and turned them, walking Stiles backward toward the door.

Stiles groaned. “But we just--”

“I know.” Derek pushed Stiles gently. “There’s plenty of time.”

“Yeah. You’re not going to be weird about this tomorrow?”

“No. Are you? Going to be weirder than normal?” Derek huffed, but he felt himself starting to smile.

“No, no,” Stiles said, smiling. “Just the regular level of weird, I guess.”

“Good. I like your usual level of weird.” Derek opened the door for Stiles, then stood there, waiting. He pulled Stiles to him with firm hands on his waist. Since Stiles was leaving in mere seconds, it couldn't hurt to kiss a little more, could it?

“Ugh, seriously!” Cora shouted from the stairs. “I just wanted some water, not a free show.”

Derek could hear Peter whispering for her to get water later. He closed his eyes and sighed.

Stiles laughed. “Some sister you’ve got there. She’s like a carbon copy of you except with long hair, and . . . girl parts. I’m glad she’s on our side. Peter, too. They’re . . . something.”

“Definitely,” Derek said. He hesitated for a moment, then pulled Stiles forward into a kiss. “Now get out.”

“That Hale charm,” Stiles said, laughing. “Be still my heart.”

“Don’t want you to get spoiled.”

“No danger of that, big guy.” Stiles walked out, then turned back when Derek cleared his throat.

“Come over early tomorrow afternoon. Maybe we’ll ditch those two,” Derek said, shaking his thumb toward the stairs, “and have dinner together.”

Stiles beamed. “Deal.”

Derek slid the door shut behind Stiles, and stood there listening until the Jeep rattled down the road and Stiles’ heartbeat faded completely. His scent remained, reminding Derek of how Stiles’ presence both set him on edge and calmed him at the same time, for different reasons. He ate a few more bites of ice cream, washed the spoons, then headed upstairs.

That was sweet,” Peter said, when Derek reached the top. Peter leaned against the wall with his arms crossed.

“Touching.” Cora kissed Derek’s cheek.

“Now I know why,” Peter added, “you want to keep him with you on any future patrols. Just please don’t get too distracted with each other in case you should, oh, I don’t know, actually run into anyone from the alpha pack.”

“I want to keep him with me to keep him safe. Stiles’ judgment isn’t always the greatest.” Derek cocked an eyebrow and gestured toward both of them. “For instance, look at his questionable taste in friends.”

Peter just smiled and headed for bed, while Cora gasped and slapped his arm. Before she went to her room, she grabbed Derek and said softly, “It’s nice to see you smile again. Just don’t try to ditch us too often, especially not when Stiles is cooking, and we’ll get along fine.” 

He smiled at the idea of Stiles cooking at the loft more often, or Derek cooking for him. Of Stiles just being there, where it was easiest to keep tabs on him. And get a hold of him. That was good, too.

***

Stiles stomach jumped and fluttered all the way home as he thought about what had just happened and what might happen in the future. As soon as he got home and found his dad hadn't gotten there yet, he flopped onto his bed and debated for a minute before texting Derek. He told him that he looked forward to the next time Derek felt like pushing him up against a wall. And that he could do that, anytime.

The answer came quickly from Derek, that he'd take that under advisement. And that when Stiles came tomorrow, not to forget to bring his spreadsheet and a map of Beacon Hills so they could check for activity in any places they might have missed.

Not exactly romantic, Stiles thought, but it was a start. He texted Cora, thanking her for being considerate and not shouting like a rude and ridiculous person about water and free shows and potentially ruining a moment.

Before Cora replied, another text came from Derek: Remember to bring the map. Bring the map, bring the map, bring the map.

Stiles frowned at the words for a long time, then he laughed when he realized who had been behind his Dora the Explorer wallpaper. “Well-played, Derek,” he mumbled to himself, totally not surprised that Derek had underhandedly gotten onto his computer. Another text from Derek told him to stop texting and study his Russian history. Stiles was glad he was alone, because his face felt on fire. "Oh my god." He looked at himself in the mirror and, yep, his face was redder than possibly it had ever been except that time he fell asleep on the beach.

He heard his dad pull into the driveway. He texted: Thanks for that dad's gonna wonder why I'm so red I look sunburned  How was he going to spend the evening with his dad without slipping into thoughts about what Derek had seen in his porn folder? He fanned his hand in front of his face and took deep breaths. 

Cora finally replied that she clearly hadn't ruined the moment, called him a loser, and said that if he happened to start spending nights at the loft he should be prepared to make a big country breakfast for them all now and then.

"Hales," he growled. Stiles slipped his phone into his pocket and smiled, feeling light, as he went downstairs to greet his dad.